29 May Finding a Toilet When You’re on The Road

Since accidentally blowing up the water tank in my camper van the first day I was on the road, I have been without running water. Which means I’ve been without my toilet.┬áThe toilet was a big deal when I was first customizing the van because it seemed an impossible addition in so small a space, but I promised Jill I’d try to put one in. She said she wasn’t going to drive great distances in the vehicle without a toilet. If you’ve ever sought out a toilet — sometimes in depseration — when you’re on the road, you’d probrably agree.

Being without a toilet (even on my 66-city book tour) is no big deal on the freeway — just stop at a gas station. Virtually all freeway gas stations are now super marts. It’s not like you’re obliged to buy gas. I prefer gas station toilets to rest stop toilets because rest stop bathrooms are usually too big, overused, and crowded. If you want something better, and a little more private, you can pull into one of those big box stores, like Home Depot or Walmart.

The real travel dilemma is when you’re in a city and need a toilet. Many city gas stations have no toilet. Even public buildings, like libraries, are hit and miss. Big city library bathrooms are pit-stops for the homeless, which raise some sanitation issues. Once, when driving through Philadelphia, Jill and I could not find a bathroom, so we pulled over in an industrial area, opened both doors on the passenger side and, there, Jill relieved herself.

Usually, you end up going into a restaurant and buying something just so you can use the bathroom. At times like that, you realize what a luxury it is to have a toilet in your van. Here’s my hit list for the best urban toilets:

  • Whole Foods: you get your own, well-appointed, single-user bathroom.
  • Trader Joe’s: the same
  • Marshalls — here, too, you usually get a bathroom to yourself.
    Warning: most TJ Maxx stores don’t have them, even though they’re owned by the same company
  • Barnes & Noble book stores: easy to see from the road and offers
    easy parking
  • Walmart: a desperation stop but again easy to spot, and the bathrooms are right there inside the doors and you could spend all day in one and nobody would know the difference.

Once, in desperation, I dashed into a nice restaurant to use their bathroom (without buying something), but was stopped short by a hostess, an older woman who reminded me of a strict math teacher I’d once suffered in middle school. She asked me if she could help me. I peered behind her, scouting for the bathroom, then told her I was looking for my brother — he was supposed to meet me here, I said, hoping that she’d release me and let me look for him. But she stood her ground. Then she glanced behind herself skeptically and asked, “Do you see him?” At last, in growing agony, I said, “I must have the wrong place.” It was more than awkward, especially since I was about to pee my pants. I could have begged for mercy and asked her permission to use the bathroom, but she looked far from sympathetic.

There was a time when many stores put their bathrooms in out-of-the-way places, like the far back corner of the building. And that’s still the case in stores like Macy’s and virtually anything you’d find in a shopping mall — they don’t make it easy. In fact, shopping malls are the worst, because there’s only one big bathroom in the middle of the mall, usually near the foodcourt, usually a long walk away, and usually poorly maintained.

If you’re of a certain age, you may remember the pay toilet and wonder whatever became of it. They are common in Europe. But so are public urinals — like the pissoirs of Paris, originally a circular iron partitions with grates in the sidewalk for men to pee in. As it turned out, In America the pay toilet became a target of controversy in th 1970s when women protested that pay toilets were discriminatory, since women — unlike men — had no options when it came to peeing. Public urinals in bus stations and elsewhere wre common, but not the toilet. The free toilet, when available, was often unfit for sitting. Not surprisingly, manufacturers of toilets lobbied hard to make public bathrooms more common. And so there are nowadays but, still, not common enough.

Bathrooms should be havens — safe, clean, and quiet. My grandfather used to hide out in the outhouse on his farm in order to get away from his irritating grandchildren. We’d knock on the outhouse door and say, “Grandpa, what are you doing?” He’d say, “Go away, I’m busy.” Actually, he was busy drinking schnapps in there.

Here’s a place you might never have thought of stopping at for relief: automobile dealers. They have great toilets. No, you don’t have to pretend you want to buy a car. All you have to do is say, “Parts?”Then you’re free to use the bathroom on your way to the parts department, which is always separate from sales and farther back in the building. I did this once at a Mercedes dealership and, man, did they have a good toilet.