THE WOMEN'S ROOM
When women say, "I'm going to powder my nose," men understand that this means they'll be going to the restroom. Perhaps men assume this is a quaint euphemism for a woman's bodily functions. In fact, it's a euphemism for a great many things, not all of which involve a toilet. Women go to the bathroom out of biological necessity, but they also interpret the term "rest rooms" more literally - using the facilities as a kind of retreat, a place to regroup and plan the next move. This is why women so often go to the bathroom in groups. It's a strategic maneuver. If men were smart, they'd use this time wisely as well, but they're too busy being afraid of each other.
Women use the bathroom to check their appearances, to grasp desperately at the chance for a moment alone or, sometimes, to cry. Women's bathrooms should be designed with these purposes in mind. Women need space. A lobby area is preferable, but unfortunately is rarely practical - in our survey, Filene's is the only place that provides one. Roomy stalls that lock and can accommodate all body shapes and sizes are ideal. Adequate space in front of sinks and mirrors is vital.
Because of their unique elimination needs, women also require trash receptacles in the stalls, and hooks or shelves for the many items they must carry. Sometimes, in an emergency, a woman may need to purchase a product from a machine. Ideally, the machine is operational and well stocked.
The bathrooms we surveyed were adequate for these purposes, though not ideal, especially with regard to "sanitary" product availability. My advice to women: Don't leave home without 'em.
THE MEN'S ROOM
Men's rooms are usually nothing to write home about. Any guy who has seen a women's restroom knows the great inequality between them. Women's rooms are often larger and cleaner and have more or nicer accessories. Could it be because women sometimes go to the restroom in multiples? What I know from the movies and from my investigative partner Cathy, conversation is going on in there. Men, on the other hand, know it's taboo to strike up a dialogue with strangers in the restroom - especially those using the urinals.
In his autobiography Beneath the Underdog, the late jazz genius Charlie Mingus discusses the discrimination of urinals. He complains that "white"-designed urinals did not take into consideration that some people have long doinks. Apparently Mr. Mingus had a long doink and had to hold it up every time he visited a "white"-designed urinal.
I'm not sure which ethnic background is behind urinals, but I too have a complaint with them. Some urinals are installed too high, and I am 6'3''. Instead of projecting directly into porcelain in front of me and suffering from splashback, I prefer - as I imagine others do - to project down. Remember Newton's law, urinal installers: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction!
You're walking down Church Street and Nature calls. Where do you go to, well, go? Don't look for a sign - you won't find arrows pointing to public restrooms; Burlington's pedestrian marketplace doesn't have any. But visitors can find plenty of potties in times of need - with a little help.
Last week Seven Days dispatched two reporters - one man and one woman - to assess the state of the Queen City's bathrooms. We surveyed 10 downtown facilities on or near Church Street. Some are city-owned, some are in private businesses - but we did not include bars and restaurants, where theoretically only patrons can use the loo. The common denominator among our choices: The restroom is accessible not just to paying customers but to any desperate shopper, stroller, tourist or vagabond.
We assigned ratings from 1 to 5 - 5 being the best - in six categories: access, ambiance, toilet paper, stalls, handwashing and overall cleanliness. Check the accompanying chart for our findings.
Restrooms are more than a necessity - they're also a cultural statement. Consider southern lavatories once segregated by race, or the outhouses stocked with Sears-Roebuck catalogs when the U.S. was still largely a rural nation. You can learn a lot about a place by visiting its "john."
So what do local bathrooms say about us?
-We care about the environment - to a point. Burlington City Hall boasts a brand-new, environmentally friendly bathroom - definitely downtown's leader in state-of-the-art facilities. Architect Bob Duncan brought the aging bathrooms up to date with energy-efficient lighting and water-saver sinks and toilets that are both functional and classy. Of course, even recycled TP comes from trees.
-We've come a long way, baby: Men change diapers, too. Both City Hall and Filene's have changing stations in the men's rooms.
-We live in an increasingly germ-phobic society. If the current trend continues, sanitary toilet-seat covers, the automatic flush and anti-bacterial soap will be standard issue in a few years. What next, an automatic wiper?
-We don't like to clean up after ourselves. Every bathroom in town has a litter problem. Apparently as soon as toilet paper, paper towels or feminine product wrappers touch the floor, they become someone else's responsibility.
-The written word don't get no respect. Book theft is rampant at Fletcher Free Library and Borders, and their bathrooms apparently provide the bases of operations. Burlington needs some vigilante bibliophiles to keep the bathrooms in these temples of literacy safe and clean.
BEST: CITY HALL
The new City Hall bathroom gets my vote for best of the survey, hands down. This restroom was immaculate. I liked it the second I walked in - agreeable aroma, pleasant ambience with two-tone yellow-and-salmon tiles lining the walls. There's an outlet for a hair dyer or electric razor, a baby-changing station and sparkling clean stalls. Its accessibility, quality and full toilet-paper dispensers ensure that citizens will keep coming back to relieve themselves. This honor may not, however, come as a relief to the employees of City Hall.
WORST: BURLINGTON TOWN CENTER (MID-MALL)
The owners of Burlington Town Center recently spent a lot of money to revitalize the downtown mall. Clearly some of this cash trickled down to the bathrooms. Both mall restrooms have stalls that lock and hooks for your backpack or purse. The mostly grout-free tiles don't exactly gleam, but at least none are cracked or missing. The sinks and faucets look new, and the motion-sensor dryers work just fine.
Even so, the bean counters obviously cut a few corners. The faucets only run for nine seconds, not nearly enough time to warm the water for handwashing, at least in the mid-mall women's room. There are no sanitary seat covers, a real necessity in this location given the amount of pee I saw on the seats. There are no sanitary product dispensers. Worst of all, the toilet paper is the cheapest in town. It rips off the roll one square at a time.
The worst thing about this lowest-ranked restroom is that the people who use it trash it. It is the mall, after all, and these are the closest thing Burlington has to truly public restrooms. On a busy weekday afternoon, they looked the part. When I returned Saturday morning, the toilet had been plunged, the graffiti erased and the trash emptied. But I got the sense that the cleaning staff is fighting a losing battle. My advice is to walk the few extra steps to Filene's. Their bathrooms are cleaner, more spacious and much more inviting.
ACCESS 5 AMBIENCE 5 TOILET PAPER 5 STALLS 5 SINKS 5 CLEANLINESS 5
Her: The brand-new facilities lack the character of the previous marble- and wood-stalls, but earn props for cleanliness, color scheme, lighting, quality TP and sanitary seat covers. Great, easy-to-find location on the first floor. Too bad it's only open M-F, 9-5.
His: I think Martha Stewart was doing some freelance work to pay her lawyer fees and found a gig in Burlington. This restroom will have you wanting to hang out a little longer than you might need to (bring your own reading material.) A veritable tour de flush.
ACCESS 1 AMBIENCE 4 TOILET PAPER 4 STALLS 5 SINKS 4 CLEANLINESS 4
Try it if you're looking for a little adventure. The view from the window in the handicap stall is worth the pass through the metal detector. But don't expect a private attorney-client chat (see His).
The walls are thin; I could hear Cathy breathing in the women's room. Though the tiles are gray and lifeless, a great big window in the corner stall gives the user a decent view of downtown. I'd advise keeping grunting to a minimum.
Shell Station (Main & S. Winooski)
ACCESS 5 AMBIENCE 2 TOILET PAPER 3 STALLS n/a SINKS 5 CLEANLINESS 2
The allure of a new automatic flush urinal and fancy soap squirter/deodorizer is undermined by toilet-bowl cleaner at eye-level on top of the paper-towel dispenser. A toilet brush leaning against the wall and brown-stained TP under the plunger majorly grossed me out.
Though the floors are dirty, there are plenty of cleaning products lying around for anyone who wants to help out. The urinal has an automatic flushing device that makes a crow "calk" sound when it goes off. Weird.
Fletcher Free Library
ACCESS 4 AMBIENCE 1 TOILET PAPER 2 STALLS 2 SINKS 3 CLEANLINESS 1
This bathroom has gone downhill over the past year during City Hall bathroom renovations. Threatening signs and a video camera at the entrance foreshadow the view inside: grout creeping up the tiles under the sink and a plethora of graffiti. Memo to City Hall: FFL needs help!
The stench was horrid. Toilet paper and water were on the dirty floor, there are no stall doors, and only one out of three stalls had TP. A janitor's closet was probably supposed to be locked but was open - perhaps another hint for customers to get in on the cleaning action.
ACCESS 4 AMBIENCE 3 TOILET PAPER 4 STALLS 3 SINKS 4 CLEANLINESS 3
There's no women's restroom outside of the locker rooms - men's and unisex options only. Nice soft TP makes up for sweaty, musty locker-room motif. Unisex W.C. is roomy and private, in more ways than one - a sign says "restrooms are for members and staff." Door locks at 6 p.m.
It was warm at the YMCA. I had to peel off my sweater to keep from sweating on my notebook. A guy walked in heading towards the urinal. He took a glance at me scribbling and sweating and locked himself in the toilet stall instead. The urinal is an excellent antique, deep-dish low one, with no chance of splashback. No need to use the gym - I lost five pounds in water weight by the time I left.
ACCESS 3 AMBIENCE 4 TOILET PAPER 4 STALLS n/a SINKS 4 CLEANLINESS 4
Most grocery stores keep the bathroom in back, but City Market's unisex one is up front, by the customer-service desk. It's orderly and unpretentious, and the black tiles still shine. Cleaning products are placed within sight but under a shelf. I've never been in a Shaw's bathroom this clean. Bonus: Free popcorn from the deli when you leave!
Nice black tile and a deep toilet bowl. The restroom has plenty of reminders: a large sign on the mirror telling employees to wash their hands, a sign on the door reminding customers to return the key, which has a chain on it the size of a ship anchor.
ACCESS 4 AMBIENCE 4 TOILET PAPER 3 STALLS n/a SINKS 3 CLEANLINESS 4
A sign on the door says the bathroom is "clean and working, quality checked by employees regularly." That's mostly true, though the hand dryer is broken. A chair and reading material make this, um, handy spot quirky and surprisingly charming.
Here the men's room had romantic dim lighting, a great smell of cheap perfume, a coat hanger and a chair. Behind the sliding glass mirror of the cabinet I found some peroxide and the empty plastic tub of Country Crock spread. Hmmm.
ACCESS 5 AMBIENCE 1 TOILET PAPER 2 STALLS 2 SINKS 4 CLEANLINESS 2
This is the bathroom of choice for anarchists who want to make multinational corporations pay to flush their shit. Cheerful red- and yellow-tiles are at odds with the clogged toilet and empty, broken TP dispenser. The stalls don't lock, they just get stuck. One faucet never warmed up. Not quite gross, but close.
A vexing ambience: brick red and aluminum line the walls, the floors were dirty, and the two urinals were very high. Beware of splashback.
Burlington Town Center
ACCESS 4 AMBIENCE 1 TOILET PAPER 1 STALLS 2 SINKS 2 CLEANLINESS 2
The middle-mall restroom the day I was there was messy and depressing: clogged toilet, pee on the seat, cheap TP, faucets that shut off in nine seconds but don't warm up, lewd graffiti. A separate unisex handicapped-accessible room was locked - perhaps for cleaning?
I actually had to pee by the time I got to this one. You need a partner to wash your hands, because the timed faucets only stay on for a few seconds before you have to push them again.
ACCESS 4 AMBIENCE 4 TOILET PAPER 3 STALLS 4 SINKS 5 CLEANLINESS 5
At first glance this is a porcelain palace - nine stalls, a lobby with four chairs and a full-length mirror - but many stalls don't lock or have hooks for bags. The sanitary supplies dispenser was out of order and the faucets only run when you press a button. But silver R2D2-like trash cans and fake flowers are a nice touch.
Speakers above the aisle that leads to the restroom were playing smooth jazz, perhaps to relax you before you get there. Almost a whole ball team could go at once here - there are five toilets, three urinals and five sinks.
ACCESS 2 AMBIENCE 2 TOILET PAPER 3 STALLS 3 SINKS 4 CLEANLINESS 2
This would have rated highest two years ago, but heavy traffic, vandalism and shoplifting have taken a toll. All three stalls lock and have hooks, but also have some graffiti. I saw pee on the seats even though sanitary seat covers were available. There was trash on the floor and the receptacle was overflowing. The token system - you have to ask a salesclerk for one - is a major annoyance.
It's hardly worth waiting for the token here, because, like the library, this place smelled. There were shoe prints on the walls, the floors were dirty and the lighting was annoyingly dim. Graffiti adorned the walls in one stall, but it was illegible because someone had made a half-hearted attempt to erase it. The handicap stall was big enough to fit a queen-sized bed, though.