Cutting Waste in Britain and New York

One of the things that impressed me when I first visited Britain was that they had public toilets. Not just along the highways, where I’d learned to expect them, but in towns and villages and cities. I mean, do I resonate with the romance of the place or what? Forget your castles, your prehistoric monuments, your green and pleasant land. Will you look at those toilets? An entire nation had noticed that humans have this recurring, messy, polluting need and had responded logically.

Well—as the kids on my block used to say—holy shit.

I grew up in New York, where if you’re out on the street and need to pee ( or anything else along those lines) you’re—oh, I can’t help myself: shit out of luck, because New York doesn’t do public toilets. You need one? Sorry, that sounds like a personal problem. You can’t expect the city to solve it for you.

Deeply Irrelevant Photo: Fountains Abbey

Deeply Irrelevant Photo: Fountains Abbey

If you have money, the problem’s manageable. Money has that effect on a lot of problems. You duck into the lobby of a hotel and head for the toilet (which, this being the U.S. and all, is called the bathroom), and if you’re dressed well enough and act like you belong there, you won’t be challenged. Or you stop someplace to buy a cup of coffee and you use the toilet there. That’s a solution that carries its own problem, since you’ll need another cup later on to get rid of the first one, but still, it’s doable.

If you don’t have money—well, that’s one reason so much of the subway smells of urine. I remember seeing a woman at a bus stop simply straddle the curb and let a stream loose from under her skirt. I was torn between shock and very reluctant admiration.

On my first visit to Britain, when I was so impressed with those public toilets, I didn’t find it easy to say “toilet” instead of “bathroom.” I’m American, and was even more so back then. Americans don’t say “toilet” if we can help it. In fact, I was in a café and asked someone who worked there where the bathroom was. She must’ve thought I was going to tear my clothes off and jump in a tub of hot water, because she did a visible double take. I made myself say, “Toilet,” but it didn’t quite repair the damage. She was in no shape to put words together, but she did manage to point.

In Britain, a bathroom has a bathtub. If it has a shower instead, it’s a shower room. If it has neither, it’s a toilet. Even after eight years, though, I feel crass when I say “toilet.” Much more so than when I say “shit.”

The human brain is a wondrous and baffling thing.

These days the U.K. has a government dedicated to cutting the deficit by cutting waste, and—okay, you see the pun coming, don’t you? I can’t help myself. It’s true. The talk’s all about reducing waste, but the reality is about public services crumbling: the health service underfunded, libraries and various kinds of community centers closing, all sorts of infrastructure not being maintained, and yes, toilets closing. Food shelves—which weren’t needed when I first moved here—are springing up and much in demand. A lot of the cuts are being pushed down to the local levels of government, which depend on the central government for a lot of their funding. Since that’s been cut, they have all the fun of deciding what to cut, and they get blamed for cutting it, since they look like the bad guys.

In our village, we initially heard that the county would be closing the toilets by the beach. The parish council entered into endless negotiations over how to keep them open and who’d bear the cost and who’d own them and who’d committed to a long-term cleaning contract that either would or wouldn’t have to be carried over by whoever either did or didn’t own the damned things.

And so on.

It went on for a long time, and in the end the village managed to keep them open. Not only does the cleanliness of the beach depend on them, but so do two local cafes. But not every village or town has managed to find the money, and many toilets have closed.

Maybe it will teach us all to rise above their physical urges.

Let’s hear it for cutting waste, folks.

33 thoughts on “Cutting Waste in Britain and New York

  1. Very, very funny post. I think way back in history, there were pay toilets in the US–I remember an ancient uncle of mine mentioning 10¢ toilets on the streets of NY. He also drank a lot of 5¢ Dr. Peppers and ran his car on 30¢ a gallon gas.

    I assume these British toilets are not money making ventures? Because I could see a business opportunity there for someone . . .

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    • I do remember pay toilets from when I was a kid, so they were probably in New York, but all I can call up is the coins and the slots. And the worry about not having the right change. And I didn’t remember even that much until you mentioned them.

      Some toilets here are free, others charge. Most, according to my small and unscientific survey, are free. In our village, the parish council is trying to get people who use them to donate toward their upkeep. In many parking lots here (this is related; stay with me) you have to buy a ticket and leave it in your car. That’s called Pay and Display. So there was some discussion of having a sign by the toilets saying, as they do in parking lots, “Have you paid and displayed?”

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  2. I’m smiling because to my American ear, toilet sounds crass too. On my first visit to Taiwan, my host, who speaks broken -but understandable- English, announced after lunch, “Come. We go toilet.” Ummm, okay….. (They taught a more British version of English in her schooldays.)

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  3. My granny always used to say she needed to “spend a penny” because many of the public loos in South Africa were opened by sticking a penny in the slot. That ensured that only the moneyed classes got to use them; if you didn’t have a penny, you had to head for the nearest bush. Which causes me to ask, can you simply request directions to the Loo, thus avoiding the dreaded T word? Loo doesn’t work in America, but I refuse to say “bathroom” when all I want to do is pee (or whatever), and I dislike “toilet” because it sounds so prune-faced, so I ask for the “restroom”. But I do rather wish one could simply say shithouse and be done with it!

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    • Thanks for making me laugh out loud. That was perfectly paced.

      In the U.K., people of a certain age–actually, I think it’s women of a certain age, and I’m not sure what the age is–say “spend a penny.” So the loos must’ve cost the same amount here. I never heard the word loo in the U.S., so I doubt it would be understood there. Restroom would be, but it’s such a I-don’t-want-to-say-“toilet” word that I don’t think I’ve never used it. Bush has all the wrong associations. Maybe we should ask for the shrubbery.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. So … okay. Talk of “shrubbery” got me thinking about Brave Sir Robin…

    And this is the wrong clip – the shrubbery part comes after this, I believe – but I’m sending it for the ad at the beginning. Watch, learn and enjoy!

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  5. Big chuckles! Yep. Pretend we don’t need stuff then shut it down. Standard UK response from the latest government. They love it. Always short sighted. Then when the tourists who enjoy great amenities elsewhere don’t come…
    In The Netherlands there are water taps on the beach for washing your feet and other great facilities yet it’s far further North than cornwall and cooler. Our tourist industry is booming.

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  6. My line got taken a few comments back! Ellen, it’s a funny post with underlying seriousness. All I can come up with is…if all fails finding a toilet, restroom, loo, bathroom, “head” (pun here), head for the woods and squat on a rock or pee on a tree. I have nothing else. Head was original though! I just can’t get serious about this cutting waste/toilet topic! I squatted over a hole in Japan, and way back sat in an outhouse, or pulled a pot from under the bed to pee in!

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    • Hmmm. I think bathroom‘s pretty common, even out in public, although restroom is as well. But that’s the problem with living over here–once I start questioning my memory, it calls the structure of the language as I grew up using it into question and I’m no longer sure of anything.

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    • We can all, always, use a good laugh. Glad I could send you one.

      If we’re talking about political priorities, what drives me completely crazy is that everything people rely on is being cut, but the big corporations–the Amazons and so forth–are doing some bookkeeping tricks that let them pay next to nothing in taxes while the government stands by like the choir, singing “We’re all in it together.”

      Sorry–I’m too pissed off about that to be funny.

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  7. It’s strange that public toilets are not more common in New York. Hmm… we have plenty of them here LOL. A foreigner made waves in Singapore when she peed openly at a MRT (train) station, and it was quite a popular piece of news in Singapore when the incident occured. Coincidentally, when I was preparing to sleep the other day, I stumbled upon a post on the Daily Mirror which highlights the horrendous sewage crisis in Britain. I’m not sure why exactly would a sewage crisis occur in such a sophisticated place like England (whether it’s inconsiderate people, or the government’s lack of proper planning and implementation of proper structures), but I guess it’s safe to say that a lot more can be done in this aspect. It’s ironic that there are so many ads recently about helping people get toilets in third world countries and provide decent sanitation, but damn the problem is actually pretty serious in the first world countries as well.

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    • I haven’t seen the piece in the Mirror, but my own reading of the situation is that it’s serious but not yet a crisis. Sanitation, though, is clearly something that needs attention. Off the top of my head, I’d say the problem comes from under-investment in infrastructure (the endless budget cutting that’s going on), so that it hasn’t kept up with a growing population. On top of that, with climate change, we’ve had a series of very wet winters (I hope this won’t be another one), bringing serious flooding to parts of the country–and since the storm drains haven’t been separated from the sewers, when the storm drains are overwhelmed, they carry sewage in the flood waters, making a bad situation worse.

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  8. Pingback: Classes, Couches, and Rest Rooms: Word Choice in Britain and the U.S. | Notes from the U.K.

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