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.