It could hardly be more fundamental: Going out in the city requires a way to subsist in public. More than other needs, even food, this means having access to toilets. In lieu of plentiful and properly maintained bathrooms, Starbucks has become the public restroom of America. Along with serving up a cappuccino, its management carries the burden of toilet provision, maintenance and, controversially, deciding who gets in and by what criteria.
The history of American racism and deprivation is at Starbucks’s door. And we are a country of people who are homeless, who are untreated drug users, who are disconnected through mental illness. Starbucks is where it all comes to roost. And after Philadelphia, it is getting all the pent-up attention of what is really a national scandal: nowhere to go for a bodily necessary function.
Before industrialization and cities, people relieved themselves in the woods and fields. If factory workers went home for lunch (as they routinely did), that gave them a chance to work in a trip to the loo. As fallback, men have always had nearby walls for urination; defecation was less easy. And women had it harder either way, something that continues. Working women, in almost any kind of occupation, have had to face a lack of a ladies room. It was not until 2011, we should recall, that U.S. congresswomen gained access to a restroom without having to pick their way through hallways and lobbies of tourist onlookers.
While the “sanitation movement” of the 19th century got pipes laid across the urban world, it was an uneven accomplishment. In India (and other impoverished regions), for example, about half the population still defecates in the open. And in the affluent countries, there has been massive closure of public facilities. British restrooms, once praised as “splendid in their public ways,” have largely disappeared.
New York and other U.S. cities were, in general, laggards when it came to public facilities, but conditions have gone further downhill. At one point, virtually every significant subway station in New York had its own pair of restrooms. You can still see the words “Men” and “Women” on platform tilework throughout the system. Those spaces long ago were given over to utility closets, magazine stands or just disappeared with remodeling. Anxieties over vandalism and public sex led to their demise, along with resentment at having to pay routine janitorial costs. In effect, because of fear of what some people might do, everyone is made to suffer.
With plentiful provision of restaurants and food stores, urban America has closed down operations for the other end of the digestive system (surely an urbanistic contradiction!). Only on the outlying interstates are there reliable, clearly demarcated and reasonably clean public toilets (and free, too).
Some cities struggle for reform. Valiant Portland, Ore., now has several dozen stand-alone sanitation cubicles. San Francisco has about 25. But compared to other places around the world, our whole country is a disgrace; cities such as Tokyo, Singapore and some in rising China have public bathrooms at everyone’s convenience, and they are clean, even sparkling. American city officials, responding to demands for remediation, so often declare in helpless intonation that “it would take hundreds of millions” to do it right. But far more was involved in laying utility lines, trucking routes and industrial infrastructures. What’s wrong with recognizing bodies?
Meanwhile, it falls to Americans to buy something, or depend on the kindness of businesses whose personnel and policies may not even acknowledge there to be a toilet on the premises. Here we have a wide berth for discretion: Yes, you can go here; no, you cannot. What an arena for race — conscious or otherwise — to enter in. This is a setting teeming with potential for degrading humiliation. History has been brutal: Jim Crow rigidly segregated restrooms; even water fountains were either “colored” or “white.” Access to the white commode, even for people working as domestics in private homes, was granted only to clean it. They had their own toilets, usually in the basement or out back. Deprivation of access has long been a weapon — and one surrounded by a taboo that makes it hard for the injustice to even speak its name.
Of course, U.S. businesses face real problems in maintaining public restrooms, including misuse, vandalism and anxiety over drug use and sexual encounters. But the remedy to all of this — and here is a real trouble — is that our toilets are being asked to do a job that they cannot, on their own, fulfill. People need them, indeed, to administer drugs (legal and illegal). People may go in to have sex, autonomously or with another person. Some who go in perform acts of vandalism. Others have mental illness and enter for reasons that we don’t know and that they do not know, either. And there are homeless people who need to wash up and, yes, urinate and defecate. These are collective problems for which there are collective solutions.
Our route around such social problems heavily relies on out of sight and out of mind, forcing them into the stalls. Just as we don’t invest in the hardware of toilets, we don’t invest in the software of social services and institutional kindness. We leave Starbucks to handle it.
Ironically, Starbucks has probably been more attentive to public needs for clean and accessible restrooms than any other national business. That there is so often no way to satisfy a necessary bodily function is symptom of the larger callousness — of ignoring basic human needs. The trouble is a dearth of civic responsibility. We don’t need just a better restroom. We need a better country.