This article was published in Esperanto on 6/9/2011
Melbourne is famous for its unique architecture, heritage-listed buildings and public transport system. The combination of aesthetic grandeur and efficient functionality in design is one of the attributes that makes this city so liveable. However, there is one component of the city’s fabric that rarely gets the acclaim it deserves.
Many give little thought to public toilets; others consciously avoid them altogether. For some, the idea of taking a seat that has housed myriad strangers’ bottoms is repulsive in the extreme. And yet, our digestive system pays little heed to such conceits. If one must go, one must go, and the ease of having usable amenities within close range of anywhere is a comforting thought. It’s a privilege that we should never take for granted.
There’s also a pleasing degree of diversity in Melbourne’s lavatories. There are the ones on the street in which the doors open after ten minutes whether you’ve finished or not; the ones up in Transit Bar where you can look out onto Swanston Street; the ones in the Flinders Street Station equipped with perpetually urine-soaked floors. There are hand-dryers that work for two seconds; green paper towels; poorly-written graffiti; tiny soap bars; stainless steel ‘mirrors’; Kubrick-esque palaces. I could go on forever — in short, every public toilet is unique, bringing with it its own adventures and surprises.
On the other hand, when I hear of European counterparts requiring coins for entry, I recoil in horror. It seems a major deprivation of liberty to have to pay for one’s bowel movements. Along with breathing, walking and looking at trees, it’s just one of those things that should never be commodified. Anyhow, what if you don’t have any money on you? No. Such a system is inhuman.
I have always had respect for these wonderful facilities. Apart from the odd cases of sticky shoes or unwanted gifts, I had never had a truly terrible public toilet experience until recently. It had been a long day at work, and I found myself at Melbourne Central on the way home. Needing to kill time, I went hunting for a public toilet. I must have been tired, dizzy, or simply daydreaming; otherwise, it’s difficult to explain what happened.
Gratefully, I took the first door I saw. I registered with contentment that the restroom seemed remarkably clean, as well as pleasantly empty. It only struck me as a little odd, as I put my bag down and closed the cubicle door, that there were no urinals.
Slowly, surely, the true gravity of my situation began to dawn on me. Voices of a pair of talkative ladies from outside drew nearer; until, with a sinking feeling, I heard them enter the room. Perhaps they’d walked into the wrong toilet by mistake, I thought, unconvincingly. No, you fool, my rationality replied — you have.
This had never happened to me before, and I was unsure of what to do. Would anyone care if I just walked out and acted like nothing had happened? Was I committing a criminal offence? Would I face court on indecency charges? Shuddering, I imagined being publically manhandled by security guards, forever marked as the pervert who hides in women’s bathrooms. There was only one solution: to wait until everyone had gone.
In reality, I was in a fortunate position. Locked in a stall, my privacy was assured. I had, however, 2% battery on my phone and no prospect of rescue. I was Bond in space; I was Mata Hari in France; I was 25 metres into enemy territory with no immediate prospect of escape. And yet, I was safe in my little cubicle. As long as these women abided by social norms and avoided looking over the walls, I was well protected.
I also had a unique chance to do some research. It’s a well-worn cliché, for example, that men don’t talk in public toilets. From my experience, most gentlemen’s rooms witness fewer verbal exchanges than a Buddhist meditation retreat. Until now, I — like many males — had wondered whether the opposite stereotype was true. Based on this particular experience alone, the answer seems to be affirmative. Even alternating entries of the women into the neighbouring cubicle failed to prompt a pause in their conversation. Rather than being humbled by the hollow porcelain echo, these gentlewomen talked more loudly and incessantly than extroverts at a speed-dating event. I listened desperately for the sounds of taps and dryers, but they insisted upon taking their time.
It struck me then, cornered in that cubicle, that there was something terribly unfair about this whole situation. Why must it be such a transgressive act to use the opposite gender’s bathroom? I could certainly understand if women at nightspots, for example, fed up with queuing the length of Elizabeth Street to use a cubicle, were to switch allegiances for a few minutes and save time. Why must men and women remain so segregated? None of the obvious answers seem overly convincing. Is it about privacy? As a habitual urinal-avoider, I can’t help but point out that there are already lockable doors in place to prevent the visual broadcast of purgative activities. Is it about chastity? Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I struggle to picture the public lavatory as destination number one for men trying to chat up women. Most likely, it’s little more than another manifestation of good old-fashioned sexism.
We live in an age of near-total gender equality. Women can do the same jobs as men, enter into the same establishments as men and hold the same positions of power as men. The concept of separate lavatories is, surely, a throwback to the mentality of male-only voting, single-sex schools and The Melbourne Club. Why should we not, as a society, throw open these boundaries and learn how to defecate as one?
All these thoughts ran through my mind as I waited patiently on my unwanted throne. After what must have been 20 minutes, festivities were brought to an end and the footsteps receded into the distance. Having checked comprehensively under the door, I fled, thanking several deities that it was 6:00 on a Sunday evening and not, say, lunchtime on a weekday. If it had been the latter, unsighted escape would have been near impossible; as it was, I emerged undetected.
Walking back into the empty shopping centre, I allowed myself a moment of satisfied self-reflection. Albeit through an act of senseless stupidity, I had achieved what few of my gender would dare: crossing over into the heart of the dark side and escaping unscathed. Christopher Columbus, Captain Cook and Scott of the Antarctic had merely set foot in unexplored territory; I had been in the women’s and lived to tell the tale.
It left me hoping that, in a few decades, my experience might be seen as a relic of an unenlightened time. No more should people with two legs be sent to the left; people with pointy skirts to the right. Perhaps it will be the acute awareness that we share the same digestive processes that will deal the final blow to gender discrimination. It’s time, surely, for women and men to get off Venus and Mars respectively and explore the cosmos together; and, just possibly, it’s the public toilet that will set the gender agenda for the remainder of the 21st century.