November 19th marks World Toilet Day – a day designated to raise global awareness of the struggle that 2.6 billion people face every day without access to proper, clean sanitation. While strolling through Baltimore a few days ago in search of a toilet, I had a “shitpiphany” and was reminded that toilet struggles are not struggles confined to the developing world.
It happened like this: my friend and I intended to meander through the streets of Mt. Vernon and slowly make our way to the Baltimore Farmers Market under I-83. About half-way through our stroll emergency struck – the bathroom variety. No big deal I thought. We’re in the middle of a city with tons of shops, restaurants, and bars, so we’re bound to stumble across a public restroom. Wrong. Within fifteen minutes we had stopped in at three restaurants, two convenience stores and one record store – all of which refused us the use of their facilities. I noticed the tension in my friend’s face as she concentrated on containing the emergency. My “oh okay” reaction quickly transitioned into “oh shit.”
We ass-squeeze shuffled our way to the market, where I was sure we would find a public facility in the form of a Johnny-on-the-Spot, a Port-a-Pot, or some other box on the go. I sighed relief when we arrived at the market and were greeted with six sea-foam green toilets in boxes all bearing the sign “Happy Can.” This turned out to be ironic signage, as all six portable toilets were chained together like Fort Knox. It was 1:00 PM. The market had closed and so too had the “Happy Cans.”
It turns out that, for all its inefficiencies, Baltimore is extremely efficient at locking portable toilets promptly at closing time. They had that shit on lock down – much to my friends disappointment as hers was about to let loose. The good news is that, after looking for more than 45 minutes and checking at 10 different “public establishments” we found an understanding waitress who allowed my friend the use of their porcelain throne.
Somewhat enraged and in solidarity with my friend who is still slightly green from the experience, I’ve had several conversations across town about the public restroom situation. I wanted to know if others had had similar issues with finding a toilet in Baltimore, or if our inability to find a restroom was as much an anomaly as crop circles in the Midwest. It turns out that everyone I spoke to had at least one story of being in the non-ideal situation of having nature call when out on the town and not being able to find a public loo.
Yes, even in developed Baltimore (laugh if you will, but it is still developed when compared to much of the world), finding a public restroom is a challenge. Shops and restaurants, not wanting to invite junkies into their establishments, often close restrooms for anyone except paying customers. It raises the issue of a larger societal injustice – the criminalization of drug users has seeped its way into everyday life – people are denied the ability to perform basic bodily functions because they fear someone will shoot up, or overdose in the bathroom stall. I understand protecting one’s business, but let’s get real, the “I’ve got-to-go emergency” is a serious emergency. Being denied entry when on the verge of defecating yourself is humiliating at best. It begs the question: what sort of society are we if we don’t allow someone the dignity to go when the urge strikes? Having a toilet nearby and available for use is not only a sanitation issue, it’s a health issue. Holding it in is unhealthy and dehumanizing. If society stopped criminalizing drug users and viewed drug addiction as a disease would toilets once again be opened for public use?
Mt. Vernon and Midtown appear to be toilet deserts. Where are the others and how can we address the lack of public facilities? I’m not an app developer, but in honor of next month’s world toilet day, I propose that Baltimoreans come together to develop a toilet tracker. Public toilets can be mapped and ranked, shops and restaurants that don’t want to share their porcelain seats with non-patrons can be noted so that folks in those areas can have money in their pockets for any “bathroom emergencies.” Building on George Costanza’s iToilet that earned him millions in the Seinfeld reunion episode only to be flushed away by Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, let’s map Baltimore’s toilets. Plotting the public restroom domain is serious business – and it will address a serious need. Any takers?