Restless in the Restroom

We asked women how they feel about those places where they “freshen up.” They did not paint a pretty picture.

Illustration by Jean Tuttle

Can we talk? Seriously, can we sit down (or maybe stand up) and mention the unmentionable? We all love eating in restaurants…but that inevitable trip to the restroom? Maybe not so much, especially not for the ladies.

To gauge the situation, I sent a message to my 1,429 Facebook friends and asked a friend in another part of the state to do the same with her cadre of 662. Addressing ourselves to the ladies, we asked for their peeves and commendations, if any.

Whoa! We struck a nerve.

The gusher of complaints ran the gamut, from stalls (doors that don’t close, dividers that don’t reach from floor to ceiling) to ambiguous signs (one woman bemoaned “needing a decoder ring to figure out which is ladies; and which is men’s”).

Just one male weighed in. Responding to a plaintive, “There IS no line to the men’s room! Why is that?” he took a technocratic tone, declaiming, “Men have a shorter mean service time.”

The rise of unisex, single-toilet restrooms in recent years seems to have heightened an age-old gripe. As one woman put it, “Many men are pigs in the bathroom. Sorry, guys, but true.” Another agreed, adding, “Especially in pubs…where people watch sports on big TVs. That means they’ve been drinking and can’t aim.”

But unisex has its proponents. I spoke with Joanne Ricci, co-owner of Montclair’s hugely popular Raymond’s, which has had two all-gender, single-occupancy restrooms since it opened in 2004.

“It didn’t make sense to make one male and one female,” she told me. “Why am I going to make women stand in line? Men and women share bathrooms at home. It just seemed natural to not have them sexed.”

What no one seems to like is automation: autoflush toilets that erupt before you’re ready (like a “creepy bidet service”) or not at all, and auto-on faucets that make you search for the right spot to hold your hands and lack hot/cold temperature controls.

And, oh, those gale-force hand dryers! There may be as many ways to condemn them as there are Eskimo words for snow, like “piercing to my ears and screaming at about 80 decibels.” Moreover, as Amie Rukenstein of Hopewell Township complained, “it never really dries your hands. You gotta go out and shake somebody’s hand? It’s not aesthetic.”

Attention, restaurateurs: The solutions are low-tech. Provide a hook on which to hang a purse, a stall wide enough to change the diaper of a cranky toddler, and a shelf or holder for the phone. (But, ladies, talking on the thing risks reprisal. “I like to flush if someone is chatting on the phone!” wrote one respondent.) Make sure there’s plenty of toilet paper, and paper towels.

It all comes down to cleanliness—“trying to not touch anything yucky,” as one poster put it. Women really, really want that purse hook because they absolutely do not want to put anything on the—yecch—floor.

One friend of mine, who has a PhD. and is a frequent guest on news shows, uses paper towels as a shield between her hand and latches and doorknobs. When there are no paper towels, she wonders, “Do restaurants not understand that germophobes will just use gobs of toilet paper?” To dispose of it, “I’ve actually taken to moving trash cans near the door. Okay,” she admits. “I’m a little obsessive.”

For some women, unrest begins before they even enter the restroom. “Why, why, do I always have to walk past the men’s room to get to the women’s room?” wrote one.

“It’s less convenient, less safe.” To which another responded, “I think that’s to keep the men away from the women’s room. Minimizes lurking.”

The walk down the corridor can be more unsettling if there’s an exit door at the end, just past the women’s room. Abduction becomes a concern. I, personally, dislike restrooms in basements, especially when the corridor is dim and narrow and there are unmarked doors around.

But the most interesting thing our survey exposed was a dividing line between women. Men, pay attention: The following doesn’t get you off the hook, but does suggest a rebuttal, if you want to get explicit.

Though it isn’t much discussed, women know the divide: those who will actually sit on a public toilet seat (sometimes covering it with toilet paper) versus those who refuse to make contact and instead hover over it.

The sitters are vehement that the squatters, as they call them, splatter. Clearly, this accusation can be made with certainty only in women’s rooms.

“[You] need to grab some extra toilet paper and wipe the flippin’ seat,” one disgusted Pennington sitter wrote. “Some of us don’t have the upper thigh strength to balance our midlife booties over a toilet for more than 3 seconds! And can ya flush? Damn!”

“For the love of all that’s holy,” added a Union resident, “have they no shame!?”

Of course, many of these complaints apply to restrooms in other public places. The infamous line outside a women’s room is usually worse at concerts or sporting events, where there are intermissions and big crowds. But realizing that we share restaurant restrooms with the people who prepare and serve our food can make even the hardened queasy. A 1997 study cited by the Centers for Disease Control says that as many as 38 percent of restaurant food poisoning outbreaks may be attributed to “poor personal hygiene.” A CDC fact sheet also warns that hepatitis A can be spread by inadequate handwashing after using the toilet.

With such concerns in mind, one Facebooker noted that, when there’s no hot water, “and I spot the ‘Employees Must Wash Hands’ sign, I’m no longer interested in the menu.”

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  1. Lina Alvarez

    Yes, men may pee all over the place but women who squat are just as bad.. I don’t sit but I definitely clean the toilet after if I’ve made a mess.. Work place is just as bad!! The women in the building where I work are just disgusting.. Toilet paper all over the floor, not flushing, dirty seats.. You really have to wonder what their homes look like.. Absolutely Terrible!

  2. Kathi Thonet

    Sorry, but women are the pigs because they do hover and then make the toilet so disgusting that nobody can sit down. If you’ve showered or bathed in the near past, then it seems that you can rest your CLEAN thighs on a CLEAN toilet seat and not get anything dirty and not soil yourself. Or me, if I come in after you.

    • hooger158

      In college there was a bar that had three bathrooms. Women’s, Men’s and Anyone’s. Even with drunk college guys, the Anyone’s was always the worst with splatter everywhere. So it’s not the guys that make the mess.