When the Private Bathroom Goes Public

Like many New York City residents, my fiancé and I have a rather unique living situation. I won’t go into the details, but essentially they all boil down to one very important fact: in theory, we share a bathroom with another person. In practice, however, it sometimes seems like we might be sharing a bathroom with a small (and very messy) army.

Green Persephone life icon.We live in a hallway that’s separated from a second hallway by a communicating door. There’s one bathroom on our side of the hallway, and three or four shared bathrooms on the other side. Strangely, this hasn’t stopped the people who live on the other side of the hallway from using our bathroom. They shower in it in the morning. They also (inexplicably) shower in it at night. It’s gotten to the point where we’ve had to postpone our own showers because we can’t get into our bathroom. And since that’s also where we happen to keep our toiletries, we can’t really just go over to the other hallway and take one of their bathrooms as a sort of revenge for their co-opting ours.

The situation has made me realize that at this point in my life, all of the bathrooms I use on a regular basis are, to some extent, public. There are the obvious ones: bathrooms at Starbucks or the movie theater, or some other public location–the ones you use out of absolute necessity. Then there are the semi-public ones, like the restroom at work. And, while a few months ago, I might have put our bathroom at home into the “private” category, more and more I find myself coming to terms with the fact that it, too, is essentially only semi-private and thus basically falls into the same category as the work restroom. I find this unsettling.

It’s those liminal spaces that are always the most problematic, isn’t it?

The fact is that even under the best circumstances (as in cases where, for example, you’re not responsible for cleaning up after anyone but yourself) having to share a bathroom can expose you to some of the less attractive sides of human behavior. I mean, by the time you are old enough to begin working in an office, or to occupy an apartment, it seems reasonable to assume that you’re also old enough to understand what is and what isn’t acceptable in an area that you have to share with others, especially when it’s an area that can be as intimate and personal as a bathroom. But experience has taught me that this isn’t the case. In our bathroom at home, people spit in the sink without rinsing it down the drain; after they shower, the floor looks like it has been flooded; there are errant clumps of hair all over the place; rolls of toilet paper will be used up but not replaced; and I won’t even mention what sort of bodily fluids I’ve occasionally noticed on the floor. Things aren’t significantly better at work: toilets aren’t flushed completely; hygienic products aren’t disposed of properly; paper towels and toilet paper are strewn all over the floor; toilet seat covers are left dangling off the seat after being used (this one truly boggles the mind.  If you are skittish enough about germs that you use a toilet seat cover, what makes you think that the next person who comes along wants to dispose of it for you?).

I can’t help but wonder: when these people use their own bathrooms at home (or whatever the most private bathroom they can access is), do they leave them in the same condition? Or are people more likely to put more effort into maintaining a space that is truly private? Is it the false idea of anonymity that makes people feel like they have free reign, and can get away with giving into their primal urge to trash a place? To me, logic would dictate that people would care a little bit more about these hybrid spaces that are neither entirely public nor entirely private. But the more time I spend sharing a bathroom, the more I realize that there is no logic to be found in the way people approach this.

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Runner, yogini, knitter, Manhattanite in spite of myself. Also blogging at http://www.icametorun.com.

13 thoughts on “When the Private Bathroom Goes Public”

  1. Are these people pet owners? Not to cast aspersions on animal lovers, but I’ve found that people who have cats or dogs don’t really understand why non-pet people are grossed out by foreign puddles of piss on a shared floor. I wouldn’t even classify it as treating their “home” bathroom like a bar bathroom (which are always gross). They’re treating the bathroom they use several times a day in accordance with the rest of their living space.

    1. I’m a dog owner (one of whom has kidney problems and needs to go out a million times a day), and, while I can deal with animal messes OK, the very thought of puddles of piss (or other human waste) being anywhere but in the toilet makes me want to vomit. Animal people aren’t gross by nature. With animals (much like with small children), accidents happen, but the vast majority of us clean it up thoroughly and aggressively.

  2. When I went to university, there were 2 bathrooms between 8 of us, divided by a door. The girls on my side of the door only went to the bathroom on our side, considering it ours. But the people on the other side would use either, and worse, their friends and overnight guests would, too. So it was sometimes like 10 people sharing the bathroom instead of 4, and they weren’t great at cleaning it up.

    I haven’t worked out if some people are just disgusting/have different standards to me – maybe I’m disgusting to some – or if there’s something about not having your own space that leads you to devalue the space you use. I’m starting to suspect the latter…

    1. I think you’re really on to something there with the idea of people devaluing space that they don’t consider to be ‘theirs’. What sucks most is that if you’re using it, it’s your space, even if it might be others’ space too. Some day I will live in a giant house with all the bathrooms I could ever wish for, and I won’t have to share them with anyone!

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