Lezlie Lowe Investigates the Universal Need For a Decent Public Washroom
Her book confidently guides us through the mundane, disgusting, funny and ultimately fascinating world of public washrooms and their messy politics
No Place to Go: How public toilets fail our private needs
Coach House Books
Stand anywhere in a city and you are surrounded by washrooms. But accessing them? Well, that’s another story.
For the most part nobody, well almost nobody, wants to talk about public toilets. And as Lezlie Lowe shows in No Place to Go, that silence has serious consequences—particularly for women.
Lowe starts with the personal, describing her experience as a young mother trying to change a diaper in one of the underground bathrooms at the Pavilion on the Halifax Common. The task is neither easy nor pleasant. And it offers an entry point into the many ways the location of public washrooms, their provisions and the experience of using them (if you can find one) intersect with gender politics, the stigmatization of poverty, urban planning, class, aging, disability and the not-always-clear boundaries between public and private.
The scope of the book is broad. Lowe give us a history of ancient Roman bathing habits, traces the development of our expectation of peeing privacy, describes the sheer vileness of London’s Great Stink of 1858 and how it led to municipal sewage systems, and looks at how a lack of washrooms constrained the movement of Victorian women. Moving to the present, she examines the failure of North American and European cities to provide enough places to go, and the social costs that come with that. And because governments balk at the cost of maintaining public washrooms, we wind up with absurdities like the New York City Automatic Public Toilet project, which installed a total of five toilets over 28 years.
I’ve tried talking about No Place to Go in casual conversation. Most people seem baffled. Why would you write a book about that? It turns out, there is an awful lot to say.
Lowe has spent a decade thinking and writing about public toilets—and it shows. I found revelations in every chapter, as she covered implications of public-toilet access and politics I had never thought of: the underlying assumptions behind the old pay toilets at Mic Mac Mall; truckers, cabbies and Uber drivers forced to pee in bottles in their cars; the effects of restricted washroom access on the emancipation of Victorian women; the number of elderly people and people with disabilities who stay home rather than risk embarrassment; and the differences between the ways men and women use public bathrooms. In one striking quote, trans woman Laura Shepherd says, “I use the women’s room, but I use it like a guy. I walk in, I don’t interact with anybody. I use it, I flush, I wash my hands, I get the fuck out.”
Perhaps because of the confidence Lowe has in her material, her research never bogs down the chapters. We’re talking about pissing, shitting and bleeding. It can get uncomfortable and embarrassing. But it can also be funny as hell, and Lowe embraces that. Rachel Erickson tells Lowe she became the Loo Lady (giving toilet tours in London) “by accident.” It’s a line echoed by many of those she interviews—from an Ottawa activist outraged at the lack of facilities on a light-rail line, to the people running the international Loo of the Year contest.
No Place to Go is a case study in how to start with a question that affects nearly everyone (“Why are public toilets so crappy?”) and follow all the implications that stem from that, while maintaining a readable and often funny tone.
A few years ago I was visiting the Royal Ontario Museum and a guide asked me if I was interested in rocks and minerals. I said no. “That’s what everyone says,” she replied. “You don’t think you’re interested, but you will be.” Then she took me on a tour of the display. And she was right. She made it interesting. Lowe manages a similar feat with No Place to Go. “Why would I want to read 200 pages about public toilets?” you might think.
With the right guide, you will.