You see that picture? It’s called a pissoir. Because the word is French, it sounds fancy, but it’s not. It’s basically just a private space with a drain, where people can go to pee. (Of course, it’s easier for men to take advantage of, because patriarchy. We’ll talk about that in another article.) I’ve seen things like this in a lot of the European cities that I have visited, but I have never seen one in the US. Believe me when I tell you, these things would come in so handy in NYC. I learned from experience that free toilets in New York are very few and extremely far between. The reason this is important is that during my walk today, I felt nature’s call and went to relieve myself at this particular pissoir, only to find that it was no longer there. This in itself wasn’t a problem. There was a pay toilet around the corner, so I made my way there. Then I realized that I had given all my change to a couple of homeless people I had encountered during my walk. This left me with one option: Get to the train ASAP and hope that I made it home in time to answer nature’s call.
In September of 2001, Urinetown premiered on Broadway. As a show, it was quite unlike any of the other musicals that were running at the time. It was a very blunt, darkly comedic, and self-aware piece. And yes, it was about exactly what you think it was about. The opening scene includes a conversation about how a bad title or uncomfortable subject matter can kill a show. In that same spirit of bluntness and self-awareness, I’ll take this moment to warn you: This one is not suitable for work, nor is this for the squeamish. As the title suggests, this piece is about the most basic of human bodily functions, and I am pulling no punches, so be prepared. That said, please know that there’s a reason I chose to talk about this particular topic, and there is also a larger societal issue connected to it, so please bear with me on this one. Also know that I will use euphemisms whenever possible, just for the sake of readability.
Now that we got that out of the way, let’s get back to Urinetown. The show takes place in a world where water is in short supply, and people no longer have bathrooms in their homes. Instead, they pay to use public bathrooms. There are strict laws against public urination, and if you break them, you get carted off to Urinetown. Nobody knows what Urinetown is, but the mere threat of going is enough to keep most people lining up for the public facilities. The show starts outside one of the lower-end facilities that services the poorer citizens who have to scrape their coins together in order to afford to relieve themselves. When one character asks if he can go for free, just this once, the proprietress sings a song called “It’s a Privilege to Pee”. The show’s premise is intentionally exaggerated for the sake of comedy, but at its core, it does make a very valid point: In our society, it really is a privilege to pee.
Anyone who has ever experienced NYC in summer knows that the entire city smells like hot piss. And yes, it’s for the reason you think. Ironically, this was something I learned back in 2002, on the same trip that I saw Urinetown. My ex and I were somewhere near Port Authority, and we saw a stream of water going down the sidewalk. We were both confused until we saw the woman squatting in the middle of said sidewalk with her pants around her ankles. Later that day, we were in Times Square, when a man in a wheelchair in front of us suddenly dumped a cup full of piss on the sidewalk. Needless to say, we were taken aback. After all, this is not the kind of thing that’s mentioned in the tourist guides.
When I lived in New York, one of my survival jobs was working overnight at a dog daycare. One night at about 3am, I got a frantic phone call from a coworker. She had just left a bar, nothing was open, and she was in desperate need of a toilet. I let her in, she went to the bathroom, and afterwards, we had a laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation before she went on her way.
When you think about it, it is ridiculous. Sending a desperate phone call just to do the most basic of human functions? Who does that? Actually, in New York, it might be more common than you think. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of bathrooms, especially in Manhattan, but the majority of them are in restaurants and bars, and virtually all of them require that you buy something before you can use their facilities. Being the resourceful people they are, New Yorkers find all sorts of ways to deal with their potty problems. A friend once told me that she kept a mental map of free toilets in Manhattan. At the time, I thought that was a bit extreme. Then I got a taste of reality.
Before we proceed, I have to tell you that in my youth, I was very particular about bathrooms. In fact, I would NEVER do number 2 anywhere other than at home. Believe me, that week at Boy Scout camp was HELL. I like to refer to this as #choices. Of course, every choice in life comes at a cost. When I turned 40, my body informed me of the cost of a lifetime of persnickety bathroom habits. From that point on, whenever nature called, it was 911.
Which leads us to #consequences. When I lived in the Bronx, my commute to work was about an hour each way. On one particular trip home, I was suddenly hit with a moment of realization. I don’t know if it was a psychosomatic reaction to the hundreds of IBS ads that the Facebook algorithm decided to send my way, a bad reaction to something I ate, or a handy reminder from the Almighty that I was in fact just a mere mortal, but about halfway through my train ride, I was suddenly hit with the fact that I was facing a dire emergency. Nature was calling on the emergency line, and it wasn’t Line 1. In case you didn’t pick up on my euphemisms, I had to take a shit. SOON. When we pulled into a station, I saw a sign for a bathroom. I quickly exited the train and made a beeline for the facilities, only to find the door padlocked and chained. We’ll get back to that later. Meanwhile, I was in crisis, and I had to wait the five minutes for the next subway to arrive. Just as the train pulled into the station, I lost the battle that I had been so heroically waging. My only option was to get on the train and face the ensuing ride of shame. I will never forget the look of disgust on the face of the lady across from me. I endured her glare for the remainder of my commute. After that experience, I took my friend’s advice to heart and made my own mental map of free toilets in Manhattan. In spite of that effort, I can easily think of at least three equally (or more) embarrassing bathroom moments that I experienced during my nine years in New York, the worst of which involved squatting on a Lower East Side sidewalk at 5am, because literally nowhere was open.
The reason that I am both embarrassing myself and grossing you out is this: As a society, we have monetized even the most basic of human needs, and it’s a problem. In addition to that, public urination is a crime in all 50 states. Remember how I mentioned the bathroom in the subway station was locked? Almost all of the bathrooms in subway stations are locked. It’s part of an effort to keep the homeless out of them. I spoke of the times that I wasn’t able to get to a bathroom, but for each one of those, there are at least a dozen more where I went into a bar or restaurant and ordered something, JUST so I could use the toilet. I could do that because I had (at least a little) money. What options do people without money have?
I didn’t even understand how weaponized the issue of bathrooms was in the US until I moved to Europe. Here in Berlin, not only are their pissoirs, but nobody cares if you walk into the bushes and take care of business. I found out about that at my first Berlin Gay Pride Parade. I had to go, and I asked my then-boyfriend where the bathroom was. He gestured to the woods nearby. I thought he was messing with me until I saw several people come out of the woods, looking relieved.
This vilification of the less fortunate goes even beyond bathrooms. Several states have declared a war on homelessness, but based on their battle plans, I can’t help but think that they are focused on the wrong enemy. For example, a lot of places have invested in hostile architecture. For those of you who don’t know, this is a form of design that is purposefully built to cause discomfort in an effort to drive out homeless people. If you see spikes on the ground, public benches with armrests between every seat, or water sprinklers that don’t actually water grass, these are all forms of hostile architecture, and they’re far too common.
But some people have found ways around all of this. When I moved to the West Village, I started going to the Planet Fitness on East 14th. My favorite time to visit the gym was 3am, because of the absence of muscleheads hogging the equipment. What I noticed instead was the large number of people sleeping in the gym’s signature massage chairs. This didn’t bother me. In fact, I applauded their ingenuity. For $10 a month, not only did these people find access to toilets, showers, and shelter, but they also got the ability to get in shape. In addition to that, they also got an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet once a month. I say kudos to them.
While I applaud this level of creativity, this is only an answer for some. Therefore the disappearance of my local pissoir troubles me. After more than two years of pandemic life, there are more unhoused people here in Berlin than I have seen during my time here. It’s not difficult to imagine that this is true everywhere. In the face of rising homelessness, we are actively making things more difficult for the homeless, even on the most basic level. Is this what society is? If so, I would daresay that it is not civilized at all.