bathrooms of the great midwest

I have a small bladder. Perhaps it’s more proper to say that I am a small woman and then let you infer the rest, but I’ve never pretended to be proper, so let’s just be frontal about it and move on. I have to pee often enough that I’m a bad person to bring on your road trip but not so often that I should be taking medicines advertised with commercials showing women doing yoga to “I Can See Clearly Now.”

Regrettably, I’m also prissy as hell and don’t do well in situations where I have to expose my bare skin to grime. (Really, even being in sock feet in public gives me the creeps. I walk through the airport security line on my heels. All those years of ballet training were good for something, right?) Until college, this meant that I wouldn’t use a public restroom if my life depended on it. I could handle the bathroom at Macy’s, maybe, but not the bathroom in the food court; as a child, I’m not sure I ever used the bathroom on an airplane.

As I turn ever faster into my mother with each passing year, though, my shrinking bladder has forced me to accept the indignity of the unclean restroom. On top of that, I live in New York, where clean bathrooms are as rare as the G train at 3 AM on a Saturday. (One plans one’s days here around where one is going to use the bathroom. Wing it and you’ll be sure to find yourself full to bursting on a black-hole block with nothing but apartments, bodegas, and discount wig stores. I mean, I can’t even flush my own toilet without jiggling the handle for several seconds to get it to stop running.) By necessity, I’m brave now. I can pee in airplane bathrooms, even if it means confronting whatever’s left over after the screaming toddler and its parent emerge after a pitched battle that started fifteen minutes earlier when they entered with a diaper and, probably, dreams. I can pee in bathrooms that I assume would be caked in heroin if it were still the eighties. I can even pee in gas station bathrooms, a category I once thought I’d reserve for “not until I’ve already peed in whatever glass container is available in the vehicle.” But the satisfaction of bravery doesn’t mean I wouldn’t trade it all for, if not plush towels and Malin + Goetz bath products, a working electric hand dryer. Also, maybe peeing in a gas station doesn’t count as bravery, but you don’t need to kill my vibe here.

I traveled to Japan recently. Bear with me, I promise this is relevant, though I realize I’m like one sunset photo away from becoming fodder for /r/blogsnark. This post is actually about bathrooms, not about how dragging my overstuffed suitcase up and down fourteen staircases in Shinjuku Station during rush hour made me a better person. (It didn’t. It just made me sweaty, and anyway as soon as we realized that the stereotype about Japanese commuters folding themselves into crowded train cars during rush hour is actually just how people who live in Tokyo get to work, we bailed and took a cab. I’m weak.)

A lot of things about Japan are astonishing. I mean, this is a country where you can buy corn soup in a can from a vending machine. It’s a country with neither trash cans nor littering. (I still can’t figure out where all the trash goes. Do people just carry their empty corn soup cans in their gigantic backpacks until they get home?) But the most astonishing thing to me was not the variety of things you can put in a can, nor the fact that people don’t just throw their trash into the subway tracks for the rats to scrap over, but…

…wait for it…

…the bathrooms.

People keep asking me what my favorite place in Japan was and I keep throwing out random shrines that I may or may not have actually seen so I seem cultured, but actually it was the women’s bathroom at Yodoyobashi Station on the Midosuji Line in Osaka, which had powder counters for women to reapply their makeup that were nicer than most of the dressing rooms I used over the course of twelve years dancing ballet. I mean, in New York, I’m told there are bathrooms in the subway if you ask, but I would rather squat in a corner because there’s no way I’m going to willingly lock myself in a room that probably contains rat corpses or heroin syringes (at a minimum, a lot of used gum). Instead, I spend fifty cents on a banana at Starbucks so I can drip-dry in a bathroom that I suspect may never have been stocked with toilet paper in the first place. At more than one shrine, I ran out of the bathroom and told my boyfriend that he had to go check it out. I was approximately, but maybe not quite, this excited about the shrines themselves.

I still can’t believe not only how clean everything was but how clean everything stayed in spite of how densely populated all of the cities I visited were (and how overrun by tourists!). I guess the broader moral lesson to extrapolate from this one is how Japan is so orderly, and we rowdy Americans with our propensity for throwing trash on train tracks and national monuments should take a lesson away from them, but I’m not really interested in the practice of writing paeans to the moral lessons I extrapolate from travel. I’m mostly traveling just to figure out where the best of anything in the world is. Australia has the best coffee, Finland has the best side-eye, London has the best United Club, Japan has the best bathrooms.

According to the travel blogs I browse through when I’m trying to figure out where to drink in the countries I visit, I’m doing it wrong. I’m supposed to be learning how to slow down and live mindfully and do headstands on the beach and get lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood so I can serendipitously discover a coffee shop that also sells monocles and doubles as a portal to Narnia. Not use pocket wifi to find a coffee shop that’s well-rated on Foursquare, then use Google Maps to navigate to it. But I can’t handle the ambiguity that’s a prerequisite for serendipity, nor can I do headstands. I don’t find that planning inhibits the way I enjoy the world, either. In my travels, I guess I’ve tripped over a few life lessons (not least of which is that in an election year you should book a trip to a non-English-speaking country for the first Wednesday after November 1st in the event that your country should elect a candidate who owns a restaurant where they serve martinis with ice cubes).

But mostly I just come across what I, an American from a family without a strong non-American cultural identity, experience as curiosities. It’s curious to me that the nation of Japan can keep its bathrooms so clean, just as it’s curious to me that neither money nor love can buy you a giant cup of coffee that isn’t from Starbucks in London. It’s curious in a way that the New York City subway was curious to me a few years ago, as something unfamiliar that you’d take for granted if you grew up with it. I try hard to travel without classifying what I experience as good or bad or, God forbid, exotic. The world, I’m finding, is just a collection of things that you can or can’t ship from one side to the other. You can ship someone a box of New York bagels, but you can’t ship them the experience of ordering a bagel from someone who berates you for asking for it toasted.** And you could install a Japanese toilet for the use of the American public, theoretically, but I bet you we’d still shit on the ceiling.

* I have not yet actually read Kitchens of the Great Midwest. Forgive me.

** Apparently Murray’s will now toast your bagels. At sixteen, learning that one does not ask for a toasted bagel was a formative experience. I regret that this valuable lesson won’t be passed on to future sullen teenagers who need a good smack in the face with their cream cheese, which is, of course, all teenagers.

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