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Ethos Water: Why Americans Pay to Pee

11 mins read

To lambast America’s grossly inadequate public infrastructure has become so commonplace that the refrain is an all but trivial cliche in online political discourse. I do not have any expert analysis, insight, or nuance to add to this righteous indignation. However, in this brief article, I hope to concretize the issue by focusing on an instance of such substandard infrastructure that occurs on a smaller, more human scale. 

The word “infrastructure” evokes grandiose imagery of gargantuan bridges, endless freight rails, sprawling electrical grids, broadband networks, and the like. It goes without saying that these massive systems are critical to the functioning of this country, and that their current state of disrepair is cause for a national emergency. The example I will focus on may seem insignificant when compared to the aforementioned large scale infrastructure, and I do not in any way seek to unduly elevate its importance. Rather, I choose to focus on such a small-scale example because I believe it better encapsulates the experience of living in an environment where critical infrastructure is neglected, and illuminates the insidious underlying ideologies that have led to this current state of disrepair.

Think about going into Philadelphia on a Saturday morning with your group of friends — a perennial aspiration among Swatties, seldom achieved due to the herculean struggle which is aligning everyone’s schedules. Well, this time you’ve finally done it. You wrangle your friends, and you all have collectively reached the escape velocity necessary to break out of Swarthmore’s orbit. You take the Media/Wawa line to Jefferson Station (for some reason the only station Swatties go to), eat scrumptious soup dumplings (better than Bamboo, Tom’s, and Mania put together), and drink a large oolong milk tea with boba, no ice, and half sugar (and you didn’t even have to go to Media for that). You walk down Market street, for the first time in weeks seeing faces that you don’t recognize. You revel in the anonymity, in the hustle and bustle of the city. You are fulfilled, satisfied by all the delightful food and drink you’ve had.

But you now suddenly really need to use the bathroom. Market street, which just a moment ago was a vast welcoming haven, is now a claustrophobic purgatory. Where do you go? You tell your friends you need to find a restroom, diverting the group from the primary objective to a new side quest, which soon becomes all-consuming. You pop your head into a store: “no bathroom here.” Another one: “for employees only.” Another one: “customers only.” Another one: “out of service.” With every subsequent rejection, every successive failure, your frantic mania builds linearly with the pressure on your bladder and rectum. You are dragging your friends on a wild goose chase for a golden egg, all this time painfully aware that you have drawn your entire friend group’s attention to the most intimate details of your bowels. After an eternity spent wandering around you finally arrive at Franklin Square, just North-East of Chinatown.

There you find it — the fountain of youth, the philosopher’s stone, the lost ark: a public bathroom. The relief that washes over you is so calming that you almost forget about the dire state that your intestinal tract is in. “Well done, good and faithful servant!” You hear the Lord’s words bellow. “Come and share your master’s happiness!” Triumphant, you stride towards the fabled shrine. Your trials and tribulations are over, you are at the pearly gates. Your fingers extend, jealously wrapping around the door handle. Like a child opening gifts under a Christmas tree, ecstatically tearing through wrapping paper with wanton disregard, you pull the door towards yourself with all your might. The heavy thud of the locked door reverberates deafeningly through your cochlear nerve. Several eons pass until news of this horrific twist ending reaches your conscious awareness. This beautiful oasis in the middle of the desert was nothing but a mirage. You dream of a place where the nearest bathroom is just always thirty seconds away, where you would never be caught in a nightmarish scenario like this, where there is always an accessible bathroom that is meticulously maintained by a team of incredibly hardworking EVS workers. There is such a place of course — you live there, you were just there this morning. In fact, maybe if you run you can catch the 3:45 train back to campus and be in the AP 1st bathroom by 4:19. 

Sure, this may all read like a frivolous example, a silly complaint, a first-world problem. And of course, in a way it is, compared to the deadly consequences of America’s aforementioned large-scale crumbling infrastructure. But here, we can see in the clearest most literal terms — the environment in which we live is simply inadequately constructed to accommodate human needs. What other purpose could a human environment possibly have but to serve human needs? Is it not the job of the government, the central body tasked with structuring and implementing our physical spaces, to ensure that such spaces are hospitable rather than hostile? Some, such as former mayor of New York City Michael R. Bloomberg, would say not. In an infamous 2002 interaction near the start of his tenure, Mayor Bloomberg was questioned about how he would increase the number of public toilets available in the city. His plan? “There’s enough Starbucks that’ll let you use the bathroom,” he said. Clearly, we cannot rely on a private corporation (and a particularly nasty one at that) to provide a service as important as this. They of course have their own business agenda, which is not aligned with the interests of the public. 

Why then are there so few public restrooms? Why do we rely on Starbucks? Much ink could be spilled about this topic, much research could be, and has been, conducted. But in short: because Americans hate homeless people. In fact, Americans hate homeless people so much that we would rather walk around with bursting bladders or buy a $3 bottle of Ethos at Starbucks for a bathroom code than allow a homeless person the privilege of using a restroom in privacy.

Why then does the public access bathroom model work at Swarthmore? Because we are a community that treats each other with mutual trust and respect. But would we let a homeless person use the men’s room on Parrish 1st? Not likely — this “mutual trust and respect” only extends to people in the in-group. It is based in exclusion, a feeling of communal safety that arises from the reassurance that certain “other” people are kept out, that those in the in-group can thrive in this safe haven without fear of the other. 

The lack of accessible restrooms in public spaces, then, arises precisely because on such a large public scale it is difficult to exclude swaths of the population, difficult to enforce an ingroup-outgroup divide in order to make the ingroup feel “safe.” Forcefully excluding fellow people from public amenities creates an illusion of “sanitation” and “safety” for those whom the amenities are “meant” for, the reassurance that undesirables are kept away. These efforts to exclude homeless people from public amenities are thankfully ultimately fruitless — they will find a way to exercise their right to exist in public. The solution, then, is to take away these amenities from everyone. 

Among our inherently selfish electorate it is doubtful that there will emerge a movement for homeless rights among voters who have homes. My hope then is that the basic desire to have more publicly accessible bathrooms offers a purely selfish pathway towards creating more public infrastructure that will, in an unintendedly positive way, benefit the homeless as well. As sad as it is to say, in a world where the homeless are systematically disenfranchised and ignored, among electoral strategies this kind of selfish motivation seems to be one of the more salient strategies. 

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