Can I Use Your Bathroom, Please?
It’s rained steadily here for most of the last two weeks. Some of my county was flooded enough that I got an e-mail from a friend in New York City checking to see if we were all right. Four years ago, I e-mailed him to make sure that they weren’t anywhere near the World Trade Center. Other than being wet, our one direct flood problem is a section of fence near the creek that marks the end of our backyard fell after the posts failed. We also happen to have dogs, so now we have to keep them in the garage or keep a close eye on them as they venture near that end of the yard. Border collies got their name for a reason. Ours love to inspect and test the integrity of any boundaries both physical and between owner and pet. The fall of the “wall” may be a great moment in Border Collie history for our dogs though this one only leads to the neighbor’s otherwise enclosed backyard. Two nights in a row, I’ve had to retrieve our dog from the neighbor’s living room because they have one of those pet doors. Fortunately, they’ve been very good natured about it, the neighbors that is. The escaped border collie does this civil disobedience thing when I find her. As I try to walk her home, she turns over on her back and forces me to carry her back to the garage. She probably has a name in their language equivalent to “butterfly” or “spirit catcher” and blogs on the animal internet about freeing our voluntary cat with the implanted chip.
As I drove to work this morning, hundreds of acres of winery were underwater with vines and their frames poking up just above the surface. My normal back roads routes also got shut down and the approach roads had sprouted potholes. On the main highway to San Francisco, a forty foot section on top of a hill crumbled like a graham cracker and pushed down six to ten inches below the surface. The traffic backed up for about two miles. You know those two thousand year old Roman roads? They’ve got to be among the most extraordinary engineering achievements of any civilization.
Okay, speaking of civilization and rain, America is headed backwards on a few fronts. Before 1960, the shame was that places in the United States forced blacks and whites to use separate water fountains and bathrooms. In the 1970’s, unixex bathrooms appeared in any number of places. In the twenty first century, public facilities disappear completely. It’s happened already with payphones. Since most people now have cell phones, it’s harder for the phone company to make money off phone booths. Possibly more serious, it’s getting very difficult to find public bathrooms in any place where you don’t have to buy something first and with Jack Abramoff gone… In our family, we routinely bring water bottles in the car on trips, because we can’t expect to find working water fountains in most places. This shame is deeper. We are building around the needs and comfort of money rather than actual people.
As much as some people want to believe in the “ownership” society, there still has to be a thing called “public space” in towns and cities. One should not have to pay for the privilege of walking, sitting, seeking shelter from the rain or cold, going to the bathroom, or to have access to clean drinking water. I also think there should be sufficient phone service at a nominal cost in case of personal emergency. For whatever reason, our commitment to provide those items has faded. It’s easy to have some very anxious moments in places where thousands of people walk and shop because it’s virtually impossible to find a bathroom. We now take it for granted that finding a public bathroom after hours is essentially impossible. Yes, there remain any number of restaurants and other businesses that maintain public restrooms. Still, I’m noticing more public gathering places that simply don’t have them unless you happen to be a customer. Generally, they’ll give you the key if you have an emergency and tell them so. It isn’t a simple matter of a lack of public spirit on the part of private business owners. In many cases, they turn careful about their bathrooms because the general public abuses the privilege.
A lot gets said about public health care and transportation. There’s currently a fair amount about cyber rights, universal access to the internet, etc. Almost nothing is being said about the disappearance of public facilities that provide for our day to day bodily needs. It was De Tocqueville that said you can measure a civilization by looking at its prisons. Perhaps the clearest measure of our decline is the loss of public facilities. The old porcelain water fountain, clean, working, and always on was one of the symbols of our cultural generosity of spirit. Payphones once sent the message that technology was available to anyone. Reasonably clean well lit public bathrooms once used to be a reasonable if not a universal expectation. One of my saddest memories was visiting a Washington D.C. public high school and discovering that their toilets didn’t flush and hadn’t for some time. It probably was no accident that the school was entirely African-American. Again, we once had the confidence to leave bathrooms unlocked. Other disappearing amenities seem to be places to sit and places to deposit trash.
My local mall has had gang problems in recent years, so I think they’ve reasoned that if there are no benches or seats to tag or fight over then there are fewer arguments. I suspect the stores tend to be happier when people pay for the privilege of sitting down rather than hanging out in non-retail spaces.
Instead of talking constantly about the “ownership society” and the “evils of entitlement”, I’m wondering when some political leader will start talking again about the necessary elements of our “shared society” and the level of pride, duty, responsibility we share to keep public facilities available and useable. I can imagine anthropologists at some point in the future coming into our cities and concluding that Americans must have physically evolved in some way. They didn’t have to drink water, didn’t have to go to the bathroom, and never had to sit down. Either that or we took self-sufficiency so seriously that we simply never traveled without our own phones, water, lavatories, etc.
When I was a kid, we worried about the dangers of socialism. I suspect observers from some more civilized planet would simply call our emerging physical culture “anti-social” in the most literal sense. In the meantime, the rain keeps falling outside and I keep thinking about the movie Bladerunner and its vision of the LA of the future as a place better suited to androids than humans.