Most people mark their age on their birthdays. Me, I keep track by how often I need a bathroom.
When I’m home, this is no problem – except for the multiple times I have to get up in the night. But away from home, it’s a different story. Finding a public washroom has become akin to solving a Where’s Waldo? puzzle.
It seems these facilities have largely been privatized, forcing those of us in need to duck surreptitiously, and somewhat shamefully, into service stations and fast-food joints, where we have no intention of buying anything and where we dread having to ask for the key. It’s one of the reasons I’m thankful for public buildings like libraries and universities, because anyone can use their washrooms guilt-free.
I can’t be the only one who sees this as a problem, but it clearly isn’t high on the municipal policy agenda. Even if some of those responsible for budgets and bylaws may be in the same boat.
If this is an annoyance for men who have other options — if you know what I mean — it’s even more of a problem for women. And that’s excluding the question of line-ups when they do find a convenience.
Speaking of line-ups, I’ll never forget covering the rowing and paddling events at the ’84 Olympics at a reservoir outside of Los Angeles – for reasons other than the competition. The facilities comprised a long line of portable toilets, hidden behind a tall barrier. The men, both of us, lined up to the right, and the women, close to twenty of them, lined up to the left. When it was my turn, I realized that we were all using the same individual toilets.
As annoying as all this can be, I have become somewhat expert at mapping out various oases of relief, whether they be halfway points on drives to Ottawa or Montreal or on shopping excursions to Hawkesbury. I’ve also had to develop contingency plans for rides on public transit, long flights, and walkabouts in unfamiliar cities and towns.
These plans aren’t always successful. On my one and only visit to Cairo, when I was just getting comfortable warding off aggressive hawkers with a firm la, shukran, crossing very busy streets with no traffic lights and no apparent rules of the road, and dodging the Tahrir Square protesters with the very intimidating Egyptian riot police lurking close by, something I ate kept me confined within a short distance of my hotel. It ruined any chance of exploring the vibrant downtown core, visiting a shisha cafe, or, finally, eating in a restaurant that didn’t belong to the hotel.
I have learned, the hard way of course, to be prudent about what I consume before embarking on any kind of bathroom-free excursions. On a long stopover in Miami for a family vacation in Ecuador, we decided to take a bus from the airport to South Beach. After a stroll and a couple of drinks in a beach-side bar, we caught the bus back. It was rush hour, with traffic slowed to a crawl. I had to go, increasingly desperately. Just as we were in sight of the airport terminal, and I was ready to leap off the bus, we were stopped at a railway crossing, for what seemed like the slowest-moving train I’d ever seen. Long, agonizing story short, I doubt whether Usain Bolt could have kept up with me when the bus finally arrived at the terminal.
One of the first things I do when I visit a new place is locate the washrooms. And when traveling internationally, I equip myself with the name for the facilities: baño, banheiro, toilette.
This need of mine to be prepared is something of a curse, I concede, but it allows me to relax – and maybe order a beer or two. But it isn’t always easy.
On a recent trip home from Maine, Dianne and I stopped at a general store to stock up on road snacks and something to drink. I had to go – again! – and thought if I asked the cashier where I could find a public restroom, maybe the store would have one. “I think there’s one at the gas station back about three miles down the road.” As nature’s call was somewhat urgent, I simply called on nature.
If I’m frequently stumped when people ask what I want for my birthday or Christmas, maybe it’s time to swallow any pride I have left after this public confession and ask for a package of Depends.