April 30, 2007
Coming out of the bathroom in the toiletry section (appropriately enough) of Whole foods, I was informed today that I had violated sanctified “Team Member” space. Customers apparently must walk the football field length of the store to use the bathroom at the other end. Of course, there were no signs indicating this was not a restroom for customers and, on a previous occasion, I’d been pointed toward this bathroom by a kindly “Team Member.” Moreover, what’s the use of informing me on my way out? Needless to say, the person policing me was not your classic über-friendly Whole Foods “Team Member.”
Tacitly, of course, I was not being told that this restroom isn’t for customers, but rather that a restroom frequented by customers is not good enough for “Team Members.” Indeed, there is a striking difference in cleanliness between the two.
What’s noteworthy about this banal incident, though, is its place in the larger class struggle for toilet access. It is probably not the most well known subsection of Das Kapital, however the struggle of the proletariat to use the bathroom and the clever efforts of the bourgeoisie to keep the bathroom all to itself constitute a significant dimension of the general battle that subtends and defines the entire socio-economic fabric. Nowhere is this more evident than in New York.
New York is a city where literally millions of people walk the narrow sidewalks everyday, often packed shoulder to shoulder. And yet, I can honestly say that in five years of living here I have never seen a public restroom. Not a single one. No doubt they exist, somewhere. I even believe someone published a guide book to their locations. But come on, if you need a guide (of one sort or another), it means the existing bathrooms are not plentiful enough to be useful.
This paucity of public places, for the tired masses to relieve the pressures of daily life, means that when one does find oneself out in the big city, far from home, feeling the need, one must engage in the usually awkward and often abasing effort to find a sympathetic bathroom patron, who will allow you to traverse his or her private restaurant or bookstore and use the precious facilities sequestered therein. (Or you can just go in, use it, and risk being policed by something like the Whole Foods surveillance apparatus.) From a social perspective, the message is clear. Bathrooms are for people who have money. If you can’t afford to enter a paying place of business (or wouldn’t be admitted to one), then why did you become a biological organism in the first place?
The correlation of money to bathroom access reveals itself most clearly in the corridors of New York’s polished and towering office structures. Whereas, on the street the everyman or woman struggles to find a usually ill-cleaned restroom in a semi-public business that will admit him or her, once one is permitted past the security of an office building lobby, shining porcelain cathedrals abound. Expansive, empty, and more or less spotless restrooms veritably litter New York’s skyline. Of course, the nicer the building and the higher the security, the better the dens of urinary repose.
So while people duke it out to pee at Starbucks, the ethnically cleansed corridors of Corporate Headquarters U.S.A. have more toilets than they know what to do with. I have never been in a bathroom on any floor of a large office building in New York and had it be anywhere close to fully used. Which leads me to the conclusion that (effectively) the corporate rich are hoarding the toilets.
One frequently adopted solution to the lack of public restrooms (at least by men) is to pee in the street. You see it a lot. In broad daylight. Street pee-ers seem to fall into two or three categories. The very same self-entitled fraternity of corporate crusaders, who have already hoarded all the nicest toilets for themselves at their places of work. Homeless people (understandably). Drunks (more often than not members of the first group). And members of the tired and downtrodden masses who lack much of an option. There also seems to be a significant subset of people who simply enjoy peeing in the street or think that it’s perfectly normal. And a friend of mine instructs me that I should include people with small bladders (who also lack much of an option). Lastly perhaps there are a one or two people who just want to try it.
One particular member of one of these groups occasionally takes it upon himself to pee on my bicycle chain lock (when I’m not using my bike, it lives 24/7 on the street, locked to a lamppost). Since it could not be easier to aim a few inches in any other direction, I can only assume this urination crime is perpetrated on purpose, for reasons that are difficult to fathom. Does my chipped and rusting bike represent something that someone hates? Or is this just another instance of that pervasive American narcissism where, in this instance, someone can’t even be bothered to consider that this bicycle lock probably belongs to another person and is not just part of nature?
Whatever the case, I do believe that the general desultory state of the street-peeing masses (young elite pee-ers notwithstanding) is a result of how the wealthy top ten percent will take anything from the rest of us and keep it all to themselves, even the right to urinate with dignity.
And so, at long last, I find myself making the call to revolution. It is time for people to rise up, overthrow the Wall Street and Midtown overlords, in their skyscraper fortresses, and assert the inalienable right of all people to relieve their bladders in a manner befitting a great democracy.
I call upon you, my reader, to ask yourself: if you do not act, are you free?