"People," said Stephen Snell, "don't like talking about finding a place to move their bowels or urinate."
Stephen, on the other hand, has no such qualms. We had a long conversation on just that subject. In it, I learned that just as a pilot will always keep in mind where the nearest runway is -- in case circumstances force an emergency landing -- so Stephen is always thinking about where the closest bathroom is when he ventures from his Alexandria condo.
"I always have restroom availability somewhere in the back of my mind when I'm going somewhere," said the 63-year-old association executive. "I always try to go before I leave. When I leave, I'm always aware: 'Okay, let's plan this out. If you're going to need a restroom, where are you going to go?' "
Where Stephen often goes is on the Metro. Well, he doesn't go on the Metro; he goes via the Metro. And knowing that Metro stations have restrooms, it seems perfectly reasonable to him that he might use those restrooms when nature calls.
For years, everyone assumed Metro didn't have bathrooms, at least not for the public. In October 2003, however, Metro announced that the public could use them, but only when the public really, really needed to go. Then, in what could be considered a rabbit punch to the kidneys from al Qaeda, Metro altered its potty policy: Station restrooms would be closed whenever the terror alert level was raised to orange.
But we've been at Code Yellow for a while now, and so Stephen Snell set out to scientifically test just how available Metro's toilets really are. He posed as a tourist, and over three days in August he visited 29 Metro stations and asked the same question: "Do you have a restroom?"
Said Stephen: "I was told 'no' far more times than I thought I would be." At 14 of the 29 stations, he was told there was no restroom. In one case, he was told there was no restroom even when he could see a sign on the station kiosk about the customer restroom. In another, a station attendant said no, relented, then escorted Stephen to a corridor and pointed him toward a door marked "customer restroom."
Stephen typed up the detailed results of his study and sent them to T. Dana Kauffman, chair of Metro's board of directors. He also copied dozens of other people and organizations, from D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams to the ACLU, from "John Kelly's Washington" to "The Diane Rehm Show."
The plea that he made on behalf of the weak-bladdered and weak-boweled: Metro needs to make sure its station attendants understand the policy.
I tried to see things from Metro's point of view. Did anyone ask if he really, really needed to go?
"I am not in the second grade," he said. "I do not need to be questioned. That is an insult and an invasion of my privacy. In a public space, I'm not going to stand there and justify my need to use a bathroom."
Well, what about the security issue? Could a ne'er-do-well do mischief in the loo?
"Those are the most secure bathrooms in the D.C. area. You have to go to the kiosk and get an attendant who leads you to the restroom. There's no other facility in Washington, D.C., where you have to do that. Not at National Airport, not at Union Station, not at the bus station."
Maybe we're just squeamish about the very words "subway restroom," which call to mind nearly indescribable horrors, a grotesque circle from Dante's inferno. Not so, said Stephen, who, remember, visited 15 of the 29 restrooms.
"They were well-stocked and very clean," he said. "They're basic restrooms, not like at the Ritz-Carlton. But it is a restroom. I don't care how basic a restroom is when I've got to use one."
Of course, I said, you didn't really have to go to the bathroom. You were just posing as a person who had to go to the bathroom.
"They didn't know that," said Stephen.
Beside, he blames Metro for an accident he had two years ago. After boarding a train at Huntington, Stephen realized he had to go. He got off at King Street, went downstairs and asked if he could use the restroom.
"The attendant rudely said no, even after I explained my desperate predicament," Stephen recounted in his letter to Dana Kauffman. "He said I'd have to use the hotel across the street."
Stephen didn't make it and had to go back home to change. "Needless to say," Stephen wrote, "I was very late getting to my office and was angry the whole day. None of this was necessary and when this kind of thing happens it creates some very hard feelings towards Metro."
On the very day that we talked, Stephen received a response from Richard White, Metro's general manager and chief executive. Stephen called the letter a "bureaucratic brushoff."
I'm not so sure. Dick White promised Metro would check all the kiosks for signs, reissue the standard operating procedure to station managers and investigate those incidents involving "less than courteous" staff.
That's what Metro said it would do. I have a feeling Stephen Snell -- aka the Restroom Ranger -- will hit the rails in a few weeks to check.
And by the way, Stephen had a great experience at Benning Road. When he asked the kiosk attendant if they had a restroom, she said, "Yes, we most certainly do." She was, said Stephen, "warm and friendly . . . as well as very professional."
Her name? Ms. Pleasant.
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