The first time I visited America, at age 18, I visited my great aunt and her husband in Bakersfield, California.
The evening I arrived, we went out to dinner at an Elk Lodge and after we had finished our meal, my great aunt asked me if I wanted to join her in the restroom. I replied that I wasn’t really tired, but she insisted.
I followed her across the restaurant, fully expecting a room with lots of couches and chairs occupied by elderly ladies resting. Huffing, puffing and burping daintily behind their hands, perhaps, from consuming their Fred Flintstone-size steaks and their wine with ice cubes.
The restroom turned out to be the toilets.
Other euphemisms for going to the toilet are “going to powder my nose,” “going to the powder room,” “going to wash my hands,” “going to use the facilities,” and “visiting the little girls’ room,” which is especially odd when announced by an elderly lady.
The most common term for the toilet is the “bathroom.” That’s the one I’ve adopted, but in the beginning it felt weird, because to us simple-minded Dutch people, the bathroom is the room with the bath.
The many euphemisms reflect America’s prudishness. And yet no one seems to mind the huge gaps in the toilet stalls, which enable others to practically look straight between your legs, or at least observe you sitting there, wiping yourself and rearranging your clothes.
Well, that’s not true. Everyone does seem uneasy about it. It’s just that no one complains. Maybe because addressing the problem is so tricky when you can’t discuss toilet-related issues directly:
“Dear sir, I have a suggestion for your facilities. When I’m resting, I prefer other little girls not seeing me powder my nose while I’m washing my hands.”
Most public bathrooms, in restaurants and stores, have toilet stalls made from the cheapest possible laminated board. The panels are connected with metal . . . well, connectors. The panels don’t actually touch or overlap anywhere. And the same goes for the doors that are connected to the front panels. The gaps on both sides of the door are standard at least one centimeter wide and sometimes as wide as an inch.
When you’re in a smallish rest-powder-bathroom, waiting for a toilet stall to become vacant, the only place to wait is in front of the toilet doors, and then it’s hard to decide where to look. Not in the direction of the doors, obviously, because you don’t want anyone to think you’re peeping. But looking the other way, in the mirror, isn’t much better. I usually spend the waiting time inspecting the scuffs on my shoes and admiring the light fixtures.
So choosing a toilet stall should not to be taken lightly. A stall close to the entrance of the bathroom is awkward if someone has to wait and she’s waiting right in front of your stall. But a stall further on might be slap-bang in front of the mirror.
Personally, I like the toilet stalls in the movies best, as far as gap stalls go, because there are so many of them that there’s never a line, and no one bothers to go all the way to the back, so no one passes my stall there.
If being visible for all to see is unavoidable, you just kind of lean forward on the toilet seat, so you can’t see through the gaps yourself. It’s the ostrich principle: if I can’t see them, they can’t see me.
When I have my biggest shoulder bag with me, I can at least block the view on one side. Sometimes women block the view by stuffing a piece of toilet paper into the top of the gap, with the rest hanging down in front of it.
So are there no normal toilet doors in America? Do they not know how to make them? Sure there are, and sure they do. But it’s the free market principle at work: the builder uses as little material as he can get away with.
Whenever I do have a stall with a real door, I take full advantage of the complete relaxation that offers. I don’t do anything different, but it feels soooo much better! A valuable moment of toilet zen.
Click here for a great post on European public toilets by Sat Nav and Cider.