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Let’s welcome the Free Pees, into our fold!

  • At night you’ll see men and women pulling their pants down and peeing and pooping in the gutter. People lose their dignity, they lose their pride.
  • Cities also lose their liveability, and open defecation becomes a threat to public health. Americans have painstakingly built new norms about dog owners picking up after their pets, but we’ve gone backward with human waste.

By Nazarul Islam

America’s famous satirist Art Buchwald once recounted an increasingly desperate search for a toilet in Manhattan, NY. He was turned down at an office building, a bookstore and then a hotel. He felt sure he would have his ‘accident’ on the walkways of this great city.

So, he finally rushed into a bar and asked for a drink.

“What kind of drink?” the bartender asked

“Who cares?” Buchwald retorted, grabbing what he could below his belt. “Where’s the men’s room?” he asked desperately….

For all of us who fancy America, do realize that the country should be better than that. Culturally different Japan in the Far East, manages what may be the world’s most civilized public toilets — ubiquitous, clean and reliably equipped with paper — and almost every industrialized country is more bladder-friendly than America. Even poorer countries like China or Bangladesh manage networks of public latrines. But the United States is simply not made for people who pee…as you like!

Sure, we need investments to rebuild bridges, highways and, yes, electrical grids, but perhaps America’s most disgraceful infrastructure failing is its lack of public toilets.

“I go between cars or in bushes,” Max McEntire, 58, who has been homeless about 10 years, shared with a newspaper reporter—as he stood outside the tent where he lives in Long Island. “Sometimes at my age, if your body says pee, you’ve got to pee. If your body says poop, it’s really an emergency—you just can’t wait.”

Most stores and businesses are of little help, he said, because they often insist on a purchase to use the restroom — and that’s even before the pandemic closed many shops. Mother Nature finds a painful excuse, when you are walking in a strange precinct and everything gets, so overbearing!

“At night you’ll see men and women pulling their pants down and peeing and pooping in the gutter,” McEntire said. “People lose their dignity, they lose their pride.” Does it really matter, for some people?

Cities also lose their liveability, and open defecation becomes a threat to public health. Americans have painstakingly built new norms about dog owners picking up after their pets, but we’ve gone backward with human waste.

Meanwhile, it’s not just homeless who suffer. Taxi drivers, delivery people, tourists and others are out and about all day, navigating a landscape that seems oblivious to the most basic of needs. The same is true of parents out with kids.

What’s a parent supposed to do when a toddler needs to wee? Remember when we were children visiting International Exhibitions, fairs, circus or visits to New Market. While the stomach rumbled, our parents carried us desperately to the nearest hole, with or without adequate privacy!

And then……what about people with medical conditions that require more frequent urination or defecation? Why do we make life so difficult and humiliating? Isn’t this a paradox that that we can afford aircraft carriers, but not toilets in busy streets?

For men, it’s more convenient to disappear behind a trash can, but men also face greater risk of being arrested — and the consequences can be dire. At last count, 13 states sometimes classify people arrested for public urination as sex offenders.

In Florida, a welder named Juan Matamoros was fined and ordered to move away from his home, which was near a park, because 19 years earlier he had been arrested for public urination; as a result, he was considered a lifelong sex offender and not allowed to live near a park.

Women seem less likely to be arrested but more likely to be humiliated.

“It’s a big hit to your dignity the first time you have to squat down in a field or by the side of the road,” groaned Raven Drake, 37, who until recently was homeless and now works with Street Roots, a Portland group supporting the homeless. “Slowly you take these hits to your dignity, and one day you don’t even think you’re a person anymore.”

Drake told reporters that she had lived in a homeless encampment in Portland that was two miles from the nearest restroom she could use, and she flinched as she recounted the shame of having to relieve herself where she could, trying to avoid people leering. Toilets, she said, are an infrastructure issue, but also far more than that: “Bathrooms are a humanitarian issue.”

In the 19th century, the United States did set up public toilets in many cities. They were often called public urinals, abbreviated as P.U. (this may be part of the origin of “P.U.” to mean something that stinks, although there are competing theories). In the early 20th century, these were supplemented by “comfort stations” for men and women alike, but most closed in waves of cost-cutting over the years.

That’s partly because this is a class issue. Powerbrokers who decide on infrastructure priorities can find a restaurant to duck into, while that is less true of a Black teenage boy and utterly untrue of an unwashed homeless person with a shopping cart.

The White House can work with cities to experiment with various approaches to expand restroom access. We can work with corporate sponsors. We can use advertising to help underwrite the expense. We can give tax breaks to businesses that make restrooms open to all. There are models all over the world, such as India turning old buses into clean public toilets.

So come on, President Biden! Let’s see an infrastructure plan that addresses not only bridges and electrical grids, but also bladders and bowels. And it is time someone suggested a populist slogan for President Biden (and his infrastructure plan): Pee for Free!

Let’s welcome the Free Pees, into our fold!

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About the Author

Nazarul IslamThe Bengal-born writer is a senior educationist based in USA. He writes for Sindh Courier and the newspapers of Bangladesh, India and America.