As Biden pushes for an infrastructure package, let’s fix our scandalous lack of public restrooms.
PORTLAND, Ore. — Here’s a populist slogan for President Biden’s infrastructure plan: Pee for Free!
Sure, we need investments to rebuild bridges, highways and, yes, electrical grids, but perhaps America’s most disgraceful infrastructure failing is its lack of public toilets.
Greeks and Romans had public toilets more than 2,000 years ago, with people sitting on benches with holes to do their business. There were no partitions, and Romans wiped with sponges on sticks that were dipped in water and shared by all users.
I’m not endorsing that arrangement, but at least the ancient Romans operated large numbers of public latrines, which is more than can be said of the United States today.
The humorist Art Buchwald once recounted an increasingly desperate search for a toilet in Manhattan. He was turned down at an office building, a bookstore and a hotel, so he finally rushed into a bar and asked for a drink.
“What kind of drink?” the bartender replied.
“Who cares?” Buchwald answered. “Where’s the men’s room?”
America should be better than that. Japan manages what may be the world’s most civilized public toilets — ubiquitous, clean and reliably equipped with paper — and almost every industrialized country is more bladder-friendly than America. Even poorer countries like China and India manage networks of public latrines. But the United States is simply not made for people who pee.
“I go between cars or in bushes,” Max McEntire, 58, who has been homeless about 10 years, told me as he stood outside the tent where he lives here. “Sometimes at my age, if your body says pee, you’ve got to pee. If your body says poop, you can’t wait.”
Most stores and businesses are of little help, he said, because they often insist on a purchase to use the restroom — and that’s even before a pandemic closed many shops.
“At night you’ll see men and women pulling their pants down and peeing and pooping in the gutter,” McEntire said. “People lose their dignity, they lose their pride.”
Cities also lose their livability, and open defecation becomes a threat to public health. Americans have painstakingly built new norms about dog owners picking up after their pets, but we’ve gone backward with human waste.
Meanwhile, it’s not just the homeless who suffer. Taxi drivers, delivery people, tourists and others are out and about all day, navigating a landscape that seems oblivious to the most basic of needs. The same is true of parents out with kids.
In Ferguson, Mo., Walter and Ritania Rice took their children to a city park. Their 2-year-old son needed to pee, there was no toilet around, so Walter Rice took his son behind a bush, where the Rices’ 4-year-old urinated as well. A police officer arrested Rice for child neglect, and he was held in jail for nine hours and later found guilty by a judge.
And in Piedmont, Okla., a police officer gave a 3-year-old boy a $2,500 ticket for public urination, even though the incident occurred on private property. After an outcry, the officer was fired; instead, I suggest he should have been given a couple of extra-large coffees and ordered to spend his shift monitoring a playground with no toilet.
What’s a parent supposed to do when a toddler needs to wee? And what about people with medical conditions that require more frequent urination or defecation? Why do we make life so difficult and humiliating? How is it that we can afford aircraft carriers but not toilets?
For men, it’s more convenient to disappear behind a trash can, but men also face greater risk of being arrested — and the consequences can be dire. At last count, 13 states sometimes classify people arrested for public urination as sex offenders.
In Florida, a welder named Juan Matamoros was fined and ordered to move away from his home, which was near a park, because 19 years earlier he had been arrested for public urination; as a result, he was considered a lifelong sex offender and not allowed to live near a park.
Women seem less likely to be arrested but more likely to be humiliated.
“It’s a big hit to your dignity the first time you have to squat down in a field or by the side of the road,” said Raven Drake, 37, who until recently was homeless and now works with Street Roots, a Portland group supporting the homeless. “Slowly you take these hits to your dignity, and one day you don’t even think you’re a person anymore.”
Drake told me that she had lived in a homeless encampment in Portland that was two miles from the nearest restroom she could use, and she flinched as she recounted the shame of having to relieve herself where she could, trying to avoid people leering. Toilets, she said, are an infrastructure issue, but also far more than that: “Bathrooms are a humanitarian issue.”
In the 19th century, the United States did set up public toilets in many cities. They were often called public urinals, abbreviated as P.U. (this may be part of the origin of “P.U.” to mean something that stinks, although there are competing theories). In the early 20th century, these were supplemented by “comfort stations” for men and women alike, but most closed in waves of cost-cutting over the years.
That’s partly because this is a class issue. Power brokers who decide on infrastructure priorities can find a restaurant to duck into, while that is less true of a Black teenage boy and utterly untrue of an unwashed homeless person with a shopping cart.
Granted, operating toilets is tough. American cities have experimented with various approaches to providing public restrooms and found that they are costly to maintain and sometimes attract drug use and prostitution. Still, no one would build a home today without a bathroom, even though it adds to the expense. So why economize and accept cities without lavatories?
Americans have had tumultuous debates about transgender use of restrooms, but we haven’t adequately acknowledged a more fundamental failing in Democratic-run and Republican-run cities alike: the outrageous shortage of public restrooms generally.
The White House can work with cities to experiment with various approaches to expand restroom access. We can work with corporate sponsors. We can use advertising to help underwrite the expense. We can give tax breaks to businesses that make restrooms open to all. There are models all over the world, such as India turning old buses into clean public toilets.
If the Romans could figure this out two millenniums ago, surely we can, even if we’ll want to skip those shared sponges.