Thursday, February 7, 2013

Of public space and peeing

No, the pissing season is never over, not even in the winter. The message was tellingly scrawled on the women's room door in an Ann Arbor park - I imagine because it's pretty easy to open a fly at a distance, but taking off one's pants on the banks of the Huron River is another matter. If you're a woman (or a particularly scrupulous man), you're not in possession of a car, and you don't live nearby as I do, how long do you have to walk from that defunct latrine to find a suitable place to pee?

OPTION 1: Fake a terrible illness. Go to hospital. While they are filling out paperwork, slip into the bathroom, then run.
distance:  0.5 miles    
walking time: 11 minutes    
embarrassment factor: high if you get caught, run into an acquaintance, or accidentally infect people with weak immune systems

OPTION 2: Hold it as hard as you can. Start the arduous and uphill journey to the public library. Run inside, avoiding the skeptical glances of the security guards.
distance: 1.5 miles
walking time: 28 minutes   
embarrassment factor: moderate, unless you don't make it

OPTION 3: Pretend you're taking a cross-country rail trip. Buy a suitcase at the thrift store on the way. Once at the train station, duck into the restroom and leave discreetly.
distance : 0.9 miles
walking time: 17 minutes (minus suitcase stop)    
embarrassment factor: low, unless you mistakenly board the train and wind up in Chicago

For most people, there are certain times - when you're locked out of the house all afternoon, when you take the train to a new city and wait for your host to get off work, when you' just can't hold it any longer  - when public space becomes a very in-your-face concern.

The best answer, of course, is the library. Many have posited that this revered institution will soon decline into oblivion, replace by ubiquitous personal eReaders. Now, I can't predict the future of books, but I believe libraries will have to stay in one form or another - because we need an indoor public space. A place to sit down, do quiet activity, and be a normal person. Part of that normalcy is access to a lavatory.

In a university town like mine, campus buildings can serve this purpose. That, however, is an area in which I have a leg up. I look like a relatively well-off and harmless college student (but I'm not! Really! I'm a real person now!). People assume that I belong when I'm flossing my teeth in the women's room of the League. I imagine not everyone can get away with that, at least not without some odd looks.

 In San Francisco, certain kinds of private developments are required to include public spaces, many of which also include potties for public use (see the article at Streetsblog). What if we did something similar? What if we required or incentivized public restrooms in private spaces in Ann Arbor?  Don't you think it would be more profitable than harmful for businesses? ("Ahh, that's better - oh, that turkey sandwich looks amazing!")

In the meantime, I'll be perfecting my fake cough and heading towards the hospital.

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