Monday, May 28, 2007

The Price of Privy Privacy

I walked into the bathroom and there she was: an older Asian woman in black pants, dark patterned vest, crisp white shirt. I never met her before but I recognized her instantly: The Bathroom Attendant. It had been a while since I'd seen one. This is probably more of a commentary on the caliber of establishments that I frequent then on how many attendants there might be in the city. A typical haunt for me can be lovingly described as a hole in the wall, where the services of an attendant are very unnecessary, unless said attendant is also a plumber or janitor.

Bathroom Attendants appear mostly in the facilities of upscale restaurants, nightclubs and bars. They are supposed to bespeak an atmosphere of luxury and personal service offering users soap, towels, lotion, deodorant, gum, condoms. It might be time to get off the merry go round if The Bathroom Attendant is an integral and prominent part of your safe sex, birth control plans.

The Bathroom Attendant is as outdated as The Elevator Operator. The latter hails from a time when elevators qualified as heavy machinery. You couldn't have the general public opening and closing their own elevator doors and pushing their own buttons, could you? That would be madness. I imagine the job of The Bathroom Attendant was similarly created to guide people through those heady days when indoor plumbing was new. "How do I flush this thing? Where do I wash my hands? What can I dry them with? Somebody help me!" Bathroom Attendant to the rescue.

But now we push our own buttons and flush our own toilets. The Bathroom Attendant has not only become unnecessary, but an intrusion. It feels particularly invasive when the bathroom is not crowded; when it's just me and her. I feel judged.

When I'm safely locked behind my stall door, I wonder what she's doing. Is she listening? How can she not? For giggles, does she carry a stop watch in her pocket to time how long visitors urinate? If so, how do I rate? Suddenly I'm in competition with past pee-ers.

And what if I'm engaged in more... er ... personal work? Oh god, is she listening then too? How could she not? Given my druthers, I'd prefer a little privacy, keeping whatever gastrointestinal difficulties I may or may not be having to myself. I'd rather not be identified as the chick with the cranky colon in stall three.

And then there's the matter of the tip. Do you or don’t you? There are three reasons to tip, the first is for services rendered. I'm all up for living in the lap of luxury, truly I am. But I can pump out my own soap and reach for my own paper towel. Anything else the attendant can offer, I've already got in my mammoth hand bag: lotion, nail file, perfume, safety pins. Everything except condoms. Yes, I'm from the "No Glove, No Love" generation but I'm also a sexist. Carrying condoms is his job. It's the least he can do. If I can remember to take a pill everyday, he can keep a condom handy. And yes, I check the receipt for freshness.

The second reason to tip is guilt. Most bathroom attendants are working for tips. Employers don’t pay them anything, pushing the cost off to the customers. But why should I pay for a service I neither need or want? Nonetheless I do feel bad not giving The Bathroom Attendant something. But it's the kind of guilt I can usually live with.

And then there's the apology tip. When I'm in there by myself behind my locked door, and she's on the other side with her stop watch, I give her the "I'm sorry you had to hear that tip." How can I not? I put a dollar in her cup and wish I could have tipped her not to be there in the first place. Privacy, that’s real luxury worth paying for.

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