Over the last two decades, though I’ve undergone dozens of invasive procedures and tests, taken a panoply of pills and had various parts of my digestive system removed or surgically rebuilt, my symptoms have only gotten more intense and more — how to put this delicately? — expansive. Swallowing food is now an arduous enough task that I have to get much of my nutrition through liquid: As Kanye once rapped, “I drink a Boost for breakfast, an Ensure for dessert.” But it’s no longer just eating that’s a pain; it’s what happens after, too. From the nave to the chops, my swallowing problem has spawned a gross-out comedy’s worth of G.I. complications.
The ugly upshot is this: At least once every day and sometimes many times, I have to run to the restroom on a moment’s notice, and what happens to me there is best experienced alone, in blissful, unembarrassed solitude.
I tell you all this, in order to establish my bona fides: I know public bathrooms. In my travels, over the years, I have assembled in my head a veritable Michelin Guide of private, peaceful places to go. So trust me when I tell you that in the last few years, better public bathrooms have started to pop up everywhere. Again and again, in big cities and small, in red states and blue, in airports, hotels, shopping malls, theaters, stadiums, offices and a range of other public venues, I’ve been saved by a bounty of better loos.
More restrooms are now explicitly inclusive and accessible, designed for people who are physically disabled; are gender nonconforming; are traveling with children; or are otherwise in need of special accommodation. (For instance, paruresis and parcopresis, phobias that inhibit people from urinating or defecating in public restrooms, are real, debilitating conditions that affect tens of millions of people.)
One innovation that has been of particular use to me is the lockable, single-occupancy, all-gender restroom. A decade ago, in most public places, it was nigh impossible to find a private place to do your business. Today, these one-person stalls are a rising trend across the country, especially at airports and other large public facilities. In some places they’re labeled “all gender” restrooms; in others, they’re called “family” bathrooms; in yet others, signs welcome everyone with broad language, like, “All persons may use this restroom.” Whatever you call them, they’re a haven in a world marked by chaos and disorder. Over the last few years, when nature called suddenly and panic set in, I’ve had the fortune of finding a clean, private place at, among other locations, the Guggenheim in New York; the Getty Center in Los Angeles; the Mall of America; a dozen airports, at least; and so, so many Starbucks.
Of course, things still aren’t not perfect. I am a member of a racial minority, but I’m a cisgender person of means and social privilege. It’s likely that a lot of people still find it hard to find clean, private restrooms in much of the land. Still, the restroom situation in America is much better than it used to be and, I’ve noticed, so much better than in many other parts of the world.