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When You Have To Go, Here's Hoping You Aren't In Boston

Janna Malamud Smith: I politely asked the security guard if I could use their women’s room. No, he was sorry but I couldn’t. (Dean Hochman/ flickr)
Janna Malamud Smith: I politely asked the security guard if I could use their women’s room. No, he was sorry but I couldn’t. (Dean Hochman/ flickr)
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I know it’s not Boston prim. But might we possibly talk about publicly accessible toilets, and their absence in the city? And I do mean absence. I imagined I was exaggerating until I checked online. An article devoted to the question (!) lists six across the whole downtown -- ones which you can use, sometimes, if you are able and willing to walk way out of your way.

But, really, what is wrong with our city?

Recently, I was out and about early on a weekend morning — the only time you can find a meter downtown and enjoy a low-cost walk. (I figure, why live near a big city if you never explore it like the places you travel to visit?) It was chilly and pretty. Rambling through the Public Garden, I watched the rays of the late-rising winter sun make a willow glow neon yellow; and smiled because someone had sweetly wrapped a scarf around the neck of the little bronze boy in the empty fountain. Then I headed up Commonwealth Ave. to contemplate the statues of William Lloyd Garrison, Abigail Adams and other luminaries, and around to Boylston to check out the cityscapes.

I know it’s not Boston prim. But might we possibly talk about publicly accessible toilets, and their absence in the city?

But we all know about early morning post-coffee outings. Or at least some of us do. And, without going too far down the path of TMI, let’s just say, small woman, small bladder.

I looked around. Nope, no friendly signs saying “Come on in, we have a clean bathroom for you to use.” So I crossed to Hynes Convention Center, ran my fingers through my hair, and politely asked the security guard if I could use their women’s room.

No, he was sorry but I couldn’t. It was not possible. I tried to look plaintive. Nothing doing.

I didn’t want to make his day worse, so I nodded and left. But really, what was the risk he was taking (or that his bosses, who no doubt made the policy, were taking) for which he sacrificed such a basic courtesy?

Boston’s always been uptight. You know — Scarlet As, banned books, bulldozing it’s red light district. Unlike people in the rest of the world — for example, any small town or city in Europe — Bostonians are apparently without bodily functions and thus don’t need public facilities. However, if, like me, you’re flawed, either you pretend you are staying at an upscale hotel (a falsehood not lost on long-suffering doormen) and purposefully walk into one of theirs. Or, you buy a cup of coffee in exchange for borrowing a restroom key. Of course, if you drink the coffee ... Never mind.

Curious about those who, unlike me, can’t eventually drive home, I asked someone who works downtown what homeless folks do. He answered, “Alleys.” I suspect that’s half true, and probably what many of us would be tempted to do late at night; I also suspect that there’s street knowledge about where to turn when you’re desperate; but I can barely imagine how unpleasant this daily search must be.

I’m wondering, since our era is all about favoring private over public, if maybe it’s time to 'privatize' civility...

Nor do I understand why any of us go along with such craziness. When John Winthrop et. al. set out in 1630 to create a “city on a hill,” dysentery almost wiped them out the first summer. They quickly learned that their populace needed privies. But have we made no progress since?

And forget those hi-tech stalls that occasionally — to much fanfare — open here and there, but quickly malfunction. It’s long past time for a better solution.

Indeed, I’m wondering, since our era is all about favoring private over public, if maybe it’s time to “privatize” civility: What if we pass a law saying that if you want to build or lease or buy any big building in the city, in return, you need to offer ground floor toilets accessible to anyone who asks. One set to a block — maintained collectively by every entity that resides there. Banks, retail, restaurants, global corporations, office buildings and luxury condos.

Let’s rethink that whole “No” or “Patrons only” thing, too. Let’s turn it around, innovate, surprise each other with our generosity of spirit — so that next time someone comes by, a guy sitting at the Hynes security desk has permission to say, “Of course. Up the stairs and to your right.”

Related:

Janna Malamud Smith Cognoscenti contributor
Janna Malamud Smith is a psychotherapist and writer.

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