Road restroom reviews – an analysis

Chris JonesAt one point several years ago, my bandmate Ned Luberecki and I were going to start writing road restaurant reviews. It was never going to include any upscale places, because that would have required actually eating in an upscale restaurant. Instead we were going to concentrate on the places that road musicians and other experienced road travellers tend to frequent, ranging from moderately priced “sit-down” places, to lousy or just semi-lousy (our specialty) fast food joints of various kinds.

I lost enthusiasm the very first week after I found myself typing the word “chipotle” more than 10 times.

I’m turning instead to something that everyone needs on the road, regardless of the kind of eating they do out on the four-lane highways. That, of course, is road restroom reviews. Well, when I say “everyone,” what I really mean is every man, because for obvious reasons, I would only be able to review men’s rooms. It’s my hope, though, that women would find some value in these reviews too; if nothing else, they would be an opportunity for them to pity us, or laugh at us (in a pitying kind of way).

Men’s rooms on the road are, in fact, pitiful, and I think that’s being kind to them. Women only have an approximate idea of just how pitiful they are, because the only time they get a glimpse into this hygienic nightmare of a world is when they’re forced to use a unisex bathroom somewhere.

The different reactions of men and women coming out of one these coed facilities is pretty telling: a man comes out thinking (for he rarely discusses bathroom conditions openly) that he has just come out of the most nicely maintained bathrooms he’s seen on the road since Reno and Smiley were still together. A woman, meanwhile, will openly say, “that is the most disgusting bathroom I have ever seen! How do you guys live like that?”

In comparing women’s and men’s facilities, I’d have to quote Red Allen (or Hank Williams): “We live in two different worlds, dear.”

Once, in a complete night-driving brain fog, I accidentally wandered into the women’s restroom of an Iowa truck stop. Even though there was no one else in it, I hurried out immediately because it took me all of a second to recognize my mistake. I had entered a tastefully decorated, immaculately clean, nicely tiled room that smelled as fresh as a May morning (this was aided by the recently-cut tulips sitting in a vase by the gleaming sink). There was soft music playing, and I could swear it was coming from a live string quartet that was set up in the corner (I might have imagined that part). If the rent had been reasonable, and I didn’t feel quite so out of place, I would have considered signing a six month lease and just moving in.

I was struck speechless. I had just entered a world I had clearly never been meant to see. I began to understand the sociological phenomenon that men find baffling in women: the ritual of going to a public restroom in pairs. It now made perfect sense: they’re just going to a place that happens to be a very pleasant environment for spending some time with your friends. When they come back out, the crowded, noisy restaurant has to seem like a real letdown.

The male public bathroom experience is something entirely different. Our expectations are very low, to begin with. If the sinks and toilets are actually functioning and the overpowering disinfectant smell (because this is the very best smell you can hope for) doesn’t completely close off your throat, we’re pretty happy.

More often than not, though, it’s much worse than that. If you have the misfortune to have to go into one of the stalls (“stalls” being the perfect name for them) you’ll often not only have to clean everything you’re about to come into contact with, you may have to do some minor repairs to the toilet, so a little plumbing expertise is handy, as is a set of tools. To wipe off surfaces, you’ll have to use the toilet paper, which is conveniently sitting on the damp floor.

Once you’re in there, try not to read the graffiti on the stall walls, though I realize it’s a little like driving by an accident scene or seeing a really awful band performing. If you do end up reading this unsettling literary work, you’ll come to the conclusion that the typical user of this bathroom is a racist, gay, homophobic, political extremist, devil-worshiping Christian, all rolled into one person, who was also never taught how to spell or what to do with that strange handle-like thing on the toilet. It’s sad and disturbing.

You just try to get out of there as quickly as you can, hoping the sink works (and that you’re not the first person to ever use it), and that there might even be some hand-drying medium available besides your own shirt. Even a non-germaphobe winces a little before grabbing the door handle, but soon you’re back out into a cleaner world, anxious to forget the last few minutes of your life.

As awful as most men’s rooms are, there is still a range to be found, in the same way there is in restaurants, it’s just there’s a limit to how good they’re ever going to get. Still, having a little advance warning about ones to avoid, or ones to seek out, would be some pretty useful information. So with that in mind, next week I’ll provide a few short reviews of some of the men’s rooms I’ve encountered recently while touring.

The one positive in the whole men’s room experience—and this is really a stretch—is that it does tend to make the rest of the world seem a lot cleaner, and more beautiful by comparison. Women probably have the opposite impression of the world outside their perfectly maintained washroom environment. It has to seem just a little bit dirty and disappointing.

Perhaps we should be pitying them.