Monday, February 20, 2017

The Public Restroom: A Technological Challenge

I’m sure you’ve seen them, the women praying in public restrooms. It’s an interesting rite: they wave their arms about, bow down, do incantations over the sinks. It would be curious … if you didn’t realize you’re one of them.

We are not praying. We’re simply trying to figure out how to turn the water on, get the soap out of the dispenser, and receive a paper towel.

We may be engineers, technological wizards, Nobel scientists; but the technology of public restrooms is getting out of hand. With electronic sensors and infrareds, hands-free means your hands wave around instead of touching. Sometimes the sensor is under the faucet and designed to turn on when your hands go underneath. But underneath up or underneath down? You wave around. Speed matters. You have to move at just the right speed in just the right direction at just the right angle to get water.

Or you notice some extra knob sitting on the side of the sink or on the wall with those curious inserts as dark as Darth Vader’s helmet. You wave in front of that. The water turns on. You race to put your hands under the faucet. The water turns off. You do it again, faster. Finally, you hold one had in front of the sensor while the other gets wet.
Then you look for soap. We used to know that we pressed something in or up or down, and liquid soap came out. Now we just stick our hands under something and soap comes out. Or doesn’t. I recently walked into a restroom in an office building (not on a spaceship) and faced this:

Now, you tell me. That thing on the left, that looks like the soap dispenser, right? I put my hands under the big central thing and it gave me water (as expected), but I waved and waved in front of the little thing on the left and nothing happened. I looked all around. I waved again under the faucet, and a green light lit up. I raced to put my hands under it, but I was too late: the soap had been expelled and was dribbling down the side of the sink. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get the green light to turn on again. I actually returned days later to photograph it so I could paint it. I waved and waved, got a photo of the green light but was never able to get soap into my hands.

Now that we’re wet and perhaps soapy, we look for the means to dry. Gone are the ancient rotating drums of dingy white towels (thank goodness), and gone are most hand-crank paper towels, too.

I’d gotten used to holding my hands in front of the red light on towel dispensers and having towels come out. There must be a setting because some places give you four inches and some give you two feet.

But on some, the red light has been replaced by a little hand directing us down, to another waving location. It’s under there somewhere, but I have yet to find it. (sigh…) That must be why there’s a roll of regular old paper towels balanced on top.
I used to press a big silver button and hot air would come out and dry my hands. But now touching is a no-no so I stick my hands into big, industrial-looking hand driers that blow my skin around. Sometimes they arbitrarily turn off in a couple of seconds so I’m back to waving up and down, in and out.
I actually walked into one restroom once with a hole in the wall. You held your hands out and water came out. You kept your hands there and soap came out. After you scrubbed, more water came out. Then the whole hole in the wall blasted hot air onto your hands.

But I was just trying to fill a water bottle.


  1. Great last line! Nicely done. Still laughing.

  2. Made me LOL repeatedly!! Thanks!

  3. Call me retro, but I was pleasantly surprised last week to be able to properly dry my hands on one of those endless REAL CLOTH towel rolls that when you pull down on a fresh part of the towel the dirty old section goes back up inside. That was in the British Library. The previous week I was in the British Archives and they had one of those jet engine dryers with a mysterious extra tube on the side to dry something other than one's hands. I would guess that the properly maintained cloth roll is more earth-friendly than paper or electric. And don't get me started on soap "dispensers"!

    1. Amazing: the last time I saw the cloth roller towel was in Sophie's dorm at Oxford. But, as usual, the roller had reached the dirty end without being replaced....


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