Over the course of the 2010s, each of us used dozens, if not hundreds, of bathrooms — at home, at work, on the road, at a friend’s, at a bar, at another bar, at some more bars, and many, many more. Not all of these bathroom experiences taught us anything; in fact, the vast majority of them didn’t. But some of them did, imparting lessons that have stuck with us to this day. These are the bathrooms that stood out. These are the bathrooms of the decade.
2018: Islamabad, Pakistan, a guesthouse
Films and books about foreign correspondents are a dime a dozen, eulogies with tales of their bravery and intrepid journeys to the front line. Thus, their lives are well known to the public: the thrills, the loneliness, the broken personal lives. But one crucial aspect of foreign correspondence has been long overlooked: the poops.
Adventure, especially in far-flung parts of the world, has always been stalked by diarrhea. It is the untold story accompanying every award-winning piece of frontline journalism, the unspoken understanding shared by the international reporting community, an unholy bond made stronger with every interview cut short for a sprint to the toilet.
I’ve travelled for work for going on five years. My gut flora, as my nutritionist informed me, has been ravaged by repeated bouts of dysentery, the result of back to back travel with little respite for my weak and dilapidated intestines. Diarrhea is an event I have grown to expect and anticipate like one might anticipate a big family fight over Thanksgiving dinner: it’s inevitable. I’ve had diarrhea in shopping malls, in people’s homes, on the side of dirt roads, in refugee camps, on beaches, on planes and trains. I’ve learned to recognize its contours, what stomach cramps might indicate just a fart versus a full-blown emergency, when to just unbutton my pants or when to stop everything and shit.
You might say, “Why not avoid the very foods that make your life hell?” It’s true, there have been countless times I can envision my future upset stomach with even a quick glance at a stale chicken salad sandwich. But one aspect of foreign reporting, especially in cultures where hospitality is tantamount to building trust, is that you can’t control what you ingest. When someone making $1 a week offers you an unidentifiable purple beverage they prepared especially for your visit, you must drink it.
I found myself in one such scenario in the spring of 2018. I had just begun reporting for The New York Times in Pakistan and was spending more and more time on the road. This time, I was reporting a tragic story about economic migration: a boat filled with migrants off the coast of Libya had capsized, and nearly half of the dead hailed from one tiny village in rural Pakistan. I made my way to a home that had just seen their children and nephews off a few weeks ago, as they took what little savings they had in the hopes of starting a better life in Europe, only to die in their pursuit.
Grief-stricken mothers and grandmothers took turns wailing in the home’s courtyard, while stunned fathers and brothers explained how they learned of their family members’ deaths. I took notes, while a photographer took their portraits. Then the family offered us food. By now, I knew the drill. In this situation especially, I had no means to refuse whatever they put in front of me, and silently prayed it would be a simple offering of tea and cookies.
Reader, it was not. It was something I couldn’t fathom even after years of ingesting foods that lead to my demise. Served to us tepid and trailed by a swarm of flies, my stomach lurched as soon as I laid eyes on the jiggling bowl of “jello salad.” If they could, my intestines would’ve whimpered. As I was handed a small bowl, I could tell the cream had been left in the heat and glanced at the donkeys and water buffalos shitting by the home’s water pump outside. I attempted to make as if I were eating by pushing some of the jello and grapes from one side of the bowl to the other, but my hosts quickly took notice. “What’s wrong?” they asked, and the tone of their concern made it clear to me what must be done. I ate the bowl, leaving about a third of the salad despite their protestations for seconds.
The ride home was rough. I spent it lightly clutching my belly while contemplating if or when I should beg the driver to pull over. Mercifully, I made it to my guest house, where I spent the next several hours paying for my sins. I could gesture to some lessons I learned sitting there on the dust-pink toilet, staring blankly at the tiled walls covered in pastel flowers — how lucky I was to even have a toilet, how so many die from diarrhea when I have the privilege of buying off-brand Gatorade and tucking myself to bed, how my pain paled in comparison to the suffering that family would have to endure. I wish I did.
Instead, I quietly resented the lack of poop stories in the many oeuvres of foreign correspondents before me. Had they not omitted their dumps from history, perhaps I would have never picked this profession. But I did, and have pooped because of my work many times after this story, and will continue to.
Award-winning photojournalist Lindsey Addario wrote a book about her life reporting from the frontlines in places far more dangerous than the one I’m describing. It’s called It’s What I Do. For me, gut health is a small price to pay for the opportunities this work affords me. But pooping? It’s what I do.
— Meher Ahmad is a journalist in San Francisco.
2018: Paris, France, a bridge near the Champs Elysees
I lead a highly regimented life. I have two planners, both of which are color-coded. I have a weekly budget, a monthly budget, and an annual savings goal. I am very boring, because the alternative is complete chaos. If I don’t plan, I get lazy and disorganized and occasionally blow off my responsibilities and blow up my life.
In mid-2018, my life blew up on its own. Instead of listening to my instincts — strategize, figure out how to move past this as quickly as possible, etc. — I booked a one-way flight to Paris, because that is the cliche kind of thing you do when your entire life goes to shit, and also because it was somehow the cheapest city I could get to from New York that wasn’t like, Boston. This is what the trip was supposed to be: Paris to Frankfurt to Athens to a tiny Greek island.
I budgeted it down to the cent, and then that all went to shit, too. I inadvertently booked an impossibly narrow window to make a connection in Athens before flying to the island, so I had to rearrange my entire trip to fix it. That meant skipping out on Frankfurt altogether, staying in Paris for a few extra days and flying directly to Athens from there. It also meant spending several hundred dollars, which was a lot of money since I had no job and had spent all my money on an irresponsible vacation I didn’t deserve and couldn’t afford.
I spent my last few days in Paris alone in a shitty hostel. The thing about Paris, though, is that it’s just as nice as everyone tells you it will be, even if you are in a shitty hostel. Contrary to popular belief, French people are actually very nice, as long as you make the tiniest effort to speak French, which I did (poorly), and as long as you happen to be there the week France wins the World Cup, which I was (accidentally).
I watched the match from my depressing hostel, where I drank too much beer and did my best to ignore the man sitting next to me, who thought we had “chemistry” because I made him give me his cigarettes and explain what “offsides” meant. I left as soon as the match ended and got onto the metro even though I had no idea where it was going. The train car was full of loud, drunk, happy French people, one of whom asked me why I was so quiet and where I was going and whether I wanted to join him and his friends, which I did because the alternative was very sad. One of his friends handed me a cup, another friend filled it halfway with Coke from a two-liter, and a third friend topped it off with rum. I figured there was no way they were about to drug me, kill me, and dump my body in the Seine because they were drinking out of the same bottles.
We got off the metro and walked down the Champs Elysees, following thousands of people who were doing the same thing. I had no idea where we were going, but everyone was chanting and dancing and laughing, so I followed along. The more we walked the more I had to pee, but there was no time to stop. Eventually we made it to a bridge, though I couldn’t tell you which one. It was made of sand-colored stone and straddled the river and looked old and historic, just like everything else in the city, but it may have just been a regular bridge. By this point our group had gotten bigger. I was no longer the only woman, nor was I the only person who had to pee.
There were no bathrooms on the bridge, but one of my new friends, a lovely French woman whose name I don’t remember, had an idea. She ordered the rest of the group to form a protective circle around us, we pulled off our shorts, squatted, and peed on the bridge. There was nothing to wipe with, so we didn’t, and once we were done I delighted everyone with stories about how expensive health care and college are in America.
I was still broke and unemployed and, as my new French friends reminded me, trying to avoid the day-to-day indignities of my life by literally running away from my problems for a few weeks and following a group of strangers around a strange city. But everything was okay, and maybe even good, and definitely better than it would’ve been if i I had just stuck to my plan.
— Gaby Del Valle is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. She has written for The Baffler, The Outline, The Nation, and other places.
2015 (?): New York, New York, an upscale Midtown bar
A friend of mine worked at a fancy restaurant in New York. It was a nice place, the kind where finance guys would congregate and talk about deals, where you might order three or four beers and suddenly find yourself staring at a bill for $65 plus tip.
A few years ago, I went there for the first time. After ordering, I went into the bathroom. I locked the door, turned around and realized that the sink looked stopped-up. I took a closer look, and I realized that it was piss. A puddle of piss in the sink. It wasn’t even that late.
I summoned the staff, who promptly and thoroughly addressed the situation. A culprit was quickly identified (a very drunk man who had left a few minutes prior), and I was apologized to several times, profusely, by the staff. I don’t know the health code rules for such a situation, but another bathroom was made available. My friend was apologetic; he gave me a free drink. The night went on.
A few days or weeks later, I don’t remember exactly, I returned to the scene of the crime for the second and last time. As I entered the bathroom, I considered whether it was really such a good idea to wash my hands in that sink. After all, it had been pissed in. But then, I thought, there’s probably been piss in many sinks I’ve used — I just didn’t know they’d been pissed in. Who can ever know the full, sordid history of all the places where they’ve done their business? Reassured, I used the bathroom and washed my hands. But I made sure to open the door with my elbow, this time around.
— Noah Kulwin is Future Editor at The Outline.
2014: Amsterdam, Netherlands, a public square
America is not a country that respects the need to pee. This I learned from my urologist, an octogenarian who felt my balls with the tenderness of a shopper checking for ripe avocados, and after confirming my well-being blessed me with a lecture about the necessity of the urinary process. American law sees public urination as a nuisance, he said, but it’s really a health crisis. Hold it in too long, and you risk damage to your bladder, or worse — like, really, really worse, go ahead and Google if you want to squirm in your seat — your kidneys. That’s why he’d written dozens of letters to get his clients out of public urination tickets: because they truly, actually did have to go and couldn’t just hold it, contrary to the dogma of elementary school teachers and Disney honchos.
Though I’d never explicitly pieced it together, in my heart I already knew. A few years before, I’d gone to Amsterdam to spend Thanksgiving with my uncle, who’d moved there when he was about the age I am now. It was my first time traveling alone as an adult, which allowed me to approach my trip as a flaneur, as I could stroll about anywhere without regard for accommodating a partner who desperately required to visit some Fodors-approved destination spot at the Fodors-approved time. When I finished having dinner, I’d take a few drags from the Snickers-sized joint I’d bought for a few euros, and pick a direction in which to walk. Though I’d sometimes stay out past midnight, rarely did I find myself in an unoccupied patch, even when I wandered miles away from where I was staying. I chased crowds into unfamiliar bars; I peeked into curious boutiques; I glommed up novelty street foods even though I was full. In my THC-boosted mood, and boosted by my gendered privilege of being able to walk around unbothered, it felt as though the city was revealing itself for me.
Again, I was stoned, but my feeling was rewarded when, at a public square and burdened with the sudden need to urinate, I came across what’s sometimes referred to as the iron curl. The iron curl is one variety of Amsterdam public bathroom: a low-tech freestanding enclosure where, if one is a man or a person extraordinarily confident in their aim, they can step into and piss freely into a grate on the ground. The top of what in a typical configuration would’ve been the stall was instead a dotted screen, so that as I did my business I could look out into the square, taking in the scene as I streamed forth, the rhythms of urban life in tune around me. Barely perceptible conversations, bicycles in motion, the moonlight reflecting off the canals — my eye wandered over all of it, in the seconds it took to empty my bladder.
At first I felt self-conscious — what did all these strangers think, as they glimpsed my occluded face through the screen? — but instantly and intuitively recognized that it did not matter, that I was in a place that understood the necessity of the urinary process, as my urologist would one day impart to me. I was just performing my biology, unencumbered by the law and aided by thoughtful urban planning, a part of the world as a part of my body relieved itself. Freedom! Healthy kidneys! America could learn a lot from the rest of the world, and this is just one of them.
— Jeremy Gordon is deputy editor at The Outline.
2018: Chicago, Illinois, the Bucktown bar Remedy
Kirsten, Jackie, at least two Katies: all are girls I’ve met in the bathrooms of bars, notably drunk, shoes sticking to cocktail-splashed floors, voices yelling over formulaic turbo pop. The usually black-and-white-tiled floors are usually strewn with pieces of toilet paper and maybe a lone pink lip gloss, rolling around aimlessly between stalls. Graffitied doors range in message, from the downright vulgar (Suck my pussy, bitch) to the cliched confidence-boosting (YOU are smart and important!).
We go to the bathroom to go to the bathroom, of course, but also to fix our flyaways, touch up lipstick smears, ask someone for a tampon, strategically place our vodka sodas on the floor for a selfie, and, perhaps subconsciously, feel a commonality of understanding. In the bathroom we can take our time away from the Theater of Sex that is the bar, where most — if not all of us — experience varying degrees of male advancement. In the bathroom we can gossip about which advances are wanted or unwanted and bark intimate details over high-powered hand dryers.
On one lightly rainy Saturday night in a passively art deco-styled after hours bar, I had to go to the bathroom. This is where late night Chicagoans are always searching, and this is where I meet Kelly.
I was waiting in line for one of the two bathroom stalls; three girls were holding up the large one. I quickly checked the effectiveness of my eye liner in the mirror, just as a girl in a short, blue dress with black leopard print and a ‘60s half up hairstyle sent some bathroom stall graffiti-esque empowerment my way: “Girl, you look amazing, don’t even worry!”
This is Kelly. I could feel Kelly’s compassion; now I could trust Kelly. After giving her some confidence-boosting back (“I love your dress, it’s cute”) I immediately and intimately delved into my current situation with some guy at the bar. I sort of felt something, and he’s somewhat cute, but if we’re really being honest, I don’t feel a spark and I just can’t rest with that, you know? But I don’t want to hurt his feelings, you know? I mean, I don’t even know what to say. What I’m saying is that I don’t want to be mean or anything.
“Say no more,” said Kelly, “I know exactly what you have to do.”
Kelly grabbed my hand. Her silver charm bracelet swung as she pulled me into the first stall, dispensing dating advice between sips of a vodka cranberry. About two or three pairs of black and brown booties could be seen under the stall next to us, shifting and lightly clomping around. Voices shouted in various velocities of I mean are you serious and No, listen — you NEED to — and You’re a fucking boss don’t ever let someone — and then fuck we’re out of toilet paper. Kelly swiftly offered our neighbors toilet paper. Now it was my turn to go to the bathroom, and it’s admittedly kind of uncomfortable lifting up my black velvet mini dress in front of some stranger but, of course, now — we’re friends.
Away from the male gaze and flavorless small talk with another hot yet dead-eyed basic, the bathroom becomes a safe space. The bathroom is where I can reapply drugstore lipstick and tell Kelly I love her dress. Perhaps Kelly’s dress isn’t exactly my style, but in this welcomed escape, here’s where we bond.
I’m not just telling Kelly I love her significantly small clutch purse that’s definitely in style right now. I’m also assessing her problematic lover’s text messages from last night and explaining how I listened to this podcast about setting healthy boundaries and she should totally tell him what her limitations are — right now. And she’s telling me how I need to say to this guy straight up — however hard it is — that I simply don’t feel a connection. And I reassure her I really do love the ‘60s hairstyle she’s sporting (honestly, I really do) and that it looks fine — no, actually, it looks really really good. We follow each other on Instagram and I already message her before we leave: “It’s me!!!”. And one normal Wednesday a few months later I remember that I thought Kelly was actually cool and I liked her a lot, and I never see her or talk to her again.
— Cynthia Cook is a writer and filmmaker currently based in Chicago.
2019: Somewhere near the Italian-Switzerland border, the gas station IES
I had not planned, when my partner and I pulled into an Italiana Energia e Servizi (IES) petrol station (FYI, “petrol” is European for “gas”) after driving from Switzerland to Italy through the St. Bernard Pass, on forcing myself to hover in the air, my pitifully weak quad muscles trembling as I attempted to take a “number two” (FYI, “number two” is European for “poop”) on a toilet without a seat. I thought this was a fluke, an unfortunate byproduct of thousands of drivers coming down from St. Bernard Pass-induced altitude poisoning and taking their rage out on an entire bathroom’s worth of toilet seats. One gas station later — whose outside was a dirty, greasy red, and whose inside, I swear to the Roman Catholic God, sold pistols, including a pink one labeled “lady” — I discovered that my optimism was misplaced. After a few days in Italy, it began to feel like everywhere I lowered my bare bottom, there was no seat to greet it.
Imagine that every brand of cell phone used a slightly different charger. We would all have dead phones, right? That’s what I’m pretty sure the toilet-and-seat situation is over in Italy, where there is no nationally accepted standard size for a toilet. Some toilets there are exactly like the toilet that you are probably sitting on while reading this. Others are just holes in the floor with some bumpy plastic things next to them to help you maintain a foothold while you squat down and do your business. Most toilets, though, look more or less the same, but they seem to be these bespoke items, lovingly crafted by Italian toiletsmiths adhering to the ancient Roman traditions, each one unique, special, and slightly different from the rest. Of course, a lack of toilet size standard means that Italy also lacks a toilet seat size standard, which would be quirky and funny and silly except for when the seat breaks off.
Ergo, the vast majority of toilets in Italian public bathrooms I used did not have seats. In the rare instances that they did, they were looser than a middle-schooler’s molars and had the coloration of an undershirt that’s been tie-dyed in sweat. As I gingerly covered them in toilet paper, deluding myself into thinking that this feeble layer of paper might save me from some European butt-disease, I realized that I honestly would have preferred no toilet seat at all.
Decades of internal corruption and external scorn from its European neighbors has put Italy through the ringer, ultimately yielding to austerity measures that have made a bad economy even worse. And if the dominant national powers around you are saying that you as a nation need to save money, on every level, then the toilet seats are evidently the first thing to go. You don’t really need a toilet seat. It’s nice to have, sure, but humans have lived longer without them than with them, and it’s inarguably more sanitary to have a porcelain bowl that nobody actually touches than a plastic seat that sees dozens of butts a day. So when they break off, why bother with buying a new one, especially when you’re considering all the other factors (size differentials, germs) at play?
There is a lesson to be had here. Maybe it’s that less is more, or maybe that Americans are spoiled babies. But I’m pretty sure the lesson is just this: a toilet seat can be a metaphor, even when there is no toilet seat at all.
— Drew Millard is features editor at The Outline.
2010: Louisville, Kentucky, the 21c Museum Hotel
Power, pleasure, and revulsion are emotions usually saved for, say, high art or finds a new home when making water in the lobby restrooms of Louisville, Kentucky’s 21c. While some bathroom experiences provide singular incomparable gnarliness (the public facilities at Coney Island) or impeccable sterility (most Cheesecake Factory bathrooms), the 21c conceived of a urinal that asks a trenchant, character-defining question: How does it feel to straight up hose your bladder out on passersby?
At the beginning of the decade, after the 2008 recession swallowed my ad job in Chicago, I found myself in Louisville, a town in which everyone told you that you had to eat at Proof on Main at 21c. One autumn night in 2010, I said OK, ordering a dish that was more cute than satisfying — three adorable scallops, replete with squid ink (fun!) — that separated me from $32. Excusing myself before venturing out to find the nearest Taco Bell, I made my way through the lobby and opened the door to the facility that will forever redefine for me the term “public restroom.”
The men's room urinal at 21c is an exposed open trough, half the length of the room, your streams trickling down from the top and disappearing into the floor, like a corporate office’s waiting room water feature. A piss wall, basically. Fashioned behind that cascade of aseptic toilet water is a floor-to-ceiling one-way mirror, revealing a clear view of bustling guests and patrons only a few inches away, divided by an inches-thick opaque window. Whether you wanted to or not, you were now experiencing the sensation of peeing on people.
Above the sinks was In The Absence of Voyeurism, a permanent installation of seven recessed LCD monitors within the mirrors, screening B-roll of moving eyeballs, scanning the entire view, intently watching you. There it was, this wild ass toilet. Standing there, I audibly laughed looking at it. I had not expected to get trolled doing business, but I began ruminating on the possibilities. I considered the Panopticon, philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s architectural concept for a pre-technology surveillance state — a structure in which one can see others without them knowing, an example of which I would see in real life just seven years later at the WWI-era jail in Lancaster Castle where Joseph Pilates created pilates.
Perhaps there’s no better metaphor for the world at the end of the 2010s, in which billionaire owners of tech companies surveill a willing population tethered to the Panopticon by their phones, than this big toilet in which piss-polluted resources trickle down from the top.
Certainly 21c has received awards and press for their novel way of taking the piss. But has anyone asked what the experience reveals about oneself? Hilarity ensues for most, at first, presumably. What else? What do you learn about yourself from the simulated sensation of discharging on human beings, encumbered by an imagined bullseye, without them knowing? Needless to say, I completely forgot about my ho-hum dinner. Widening the scope beyond personal revulsion or enjoyment, perhaps there’s no better metaphor for the world at the end of the 2010s, in which billionaire owners of tech companies surveill a willing population tethered to the Panopticon by their phones, than this big toilet in which piss-polluted resources trickle down from the top. That’s art.
The experience is, at the very least, never dull. I’ve visited this facility over two dozen times in the past decade, usually hosting out-of-towners and springing this surprise on them, similar to how a native Chicagoan might pass you a shot of Malört. It’s never not jolting, and it’s never without comment from others, a mesh of novelty and slight discomfort. “Unique is an understatement,” captions this YouTube video. “I'll admit to pretending to view the art to use the cool bathroom,” writes a Yelper.
If that’s not a memorable bathroom, nothing is. But alas, it’s now only a memory. Renovations to the bathroom started this year, and both bartenders I spoke with at the nearby cocktail bar don’t believe the panopticon will be returning for the new decade.
— Michael Powell is a writer in Louisville.