WARNING: Column contains references to bodily functions,. Content may offend some readers. Whatever you call it, lavatory, loo, dunny or restroom, the public toilet is essential to public health and private convenience ... Which is not to say that all toilets are convenient.
And in New York? Well, the city that never sleeps never has to empty its bladder either, judging by how few public toilets are available in this city with 8 million residents and 50 million annual visitors. I frequented the ubiquitous Starbucks cafes there, not for their coffee but for their toilets. The company recently protested about its de facto role as the major provider of public toilets in New York.
Men of course are better equipped anatomically to forgo the niceties of civic plumbing. For women it’s a more complicated matter unless one happens to carry a “ShePee” or a "Go Girl" at all times. This is an ingenious device, but a trifle too bulky for the average handbag and cannot be deployed without some socially unacceptable hoisting of skirts.
I won’t go into too much detail about the female bladder (too late, I hear you mutter) but suffice it to say that it becomes more demanding and unpredictable as the years go by. Once upon a time it was a compliant organ which which one could defer emptying almost indefinitely - certainly long enough to drop a child at kindergarten, do the shopping and get the car a warrant of fitness. But with age it becomes a tyrant whose every twitch must be obeyed immediately or else.
Fortunately, one man’s bursting bladder (or woman’s – see above) is another man’s opportunity and inspiration. The short film entitled “Urine Nation!” for example documents the search for a toilet in New York. Ray Tempus’ “40-Point Guide to Peeing in New York” explains how to do it in the road by using cars, letterboxes, raincoats, and conversations with imaginary friends to disguise the fact. The mobile phone app Diaroogle has been developed “for the discerning, on-the-go defaecator” in Manhattan who is “brave enough to use a public bathroom, but still demands a hygienic and private bathroom experience”.
Then there is SitorSquat.com which can find you the nearest toilet anywhere in the world. Volunteer contributors supply location details and brief reviews of toilets wherever they find them. Without their diligence, one might never know that atop the Toy & Action Figure Museum in St Pauls, Oklahoma, there is a “clean, bright, and spacious” toilet.
In 2011, the Southland District Council spent $780,000 on a new public toilet in Te Anau. In defending the cost, CEO David Adamson claimed that a good toilet is important because “communities are judged by [their] public toilets”. The truth of the claim is borne out by the happy result of a much cheaper, volunteer-driven refit of a public toilet in Northland. According to David Engwicht, the urban designer who helped with the project, the toilets, once “dark and smelly”, “dangerous and scary”, now “feel like home” and are a “monument to civic pride”.
There must be something inspirational in the Northland air because it is also home to New Zealand’s most famous toilet. The Gaudi-esque toilet, designed by Frederick Hundertwasser, won a “Creative Places Award” from Creative New Zealand and is one of the Automobile Association’s “101 Must-Do’s for Kiwis”. Travellers are advised to “hold on” long enough to use this “king of all public conveniences” in Kawakawa.
How do Nelson’s toilets compare to these examples of creative civic pride and convenience? Should we be flushed with pride, or are our public facilities just bog standard? Well, we do bog standard pretty well - concrete block, steel mirrors, and high-gloss waterproof toilet paper. Our Super Loo (yes, it appears on SitorSquat.com) offers paying customers a few more mod cons including showers, towels, lockers and laundry but is hardly luxurious. For my penny, Nelson’s most aesthetically pleasing toilets are to be found in some of the city’s cafes. There are delicate hand-painted flowers on the walls of Red café’s toilet. Yaza’s toilet walls are papered floor to ceiling with pages torn from old fashion magazines. Deville’s toilet is handsome with retro mirrors and mosaic floors.
The worst loo in town must surely be the women’s toilet in the State Cinema. It’s small and poorly lit. At the best of times it smells like a damp mop and at the worst? I leave that to your imagination.
My thanks to the local supermarket which thoughtfully provides a toilet for its customers. It was out of order the other day, but the sign taped to the door said “Sorry for the inconvenience”.