MY poor neighbour Mary had a “desperate” trip to town last week. Her real name isn’t Mary, but I’m keen to protect her identity for reasons that will become clear.
Regrettably, on Wednesday last, Mary found herself ‘bursting’ on a tip to Cork city. She made a beeline for the nearest hotel, which is something of her trusted ‘public’ toilet, only to find a new code on the door.
Mary is a dignified woman and, not wanting to create a fuss, she made her way to Paul Street Shopping Street, where she was accustomed to relieving herself back in the ’90s.
Poor Mary was as purple as her homemade plum pudding by the time she arrived there, only to discover she needed money at the door. She tells me there “was a sweat gathering” as she fumbled about in her purse, when “glory be to god” a kind stranger exited the loo and held the door for her. “Good thing she did,’ Mary eyed me with severity, “I wouldn’t have lasted much longer.”
I’m not entirely convinced Mary ‘lasted’ at all. Fully, I mean. She is in her mid-sixties and more able-bodied than many her age. But there was something in her earnest account that betrayed a certain trauma. She was also beyond eager to get some toilet advice from me for her next dreaded trip out shopping.
Mary gets the bus to town, you see. Understandably, she doesn’t really fancy going for coffee on her own. She just wants to shop. But in Cork City ‘just shopping’ is an impossible task if and when you want to pee.
Unhelpfully, my mind drew a blank. What could I tell her?
Last time I caught myself short, I went into a hotel for a coffee as an excuse.
This is the case throughout the city. The big department stores such as Brown Thomas and Dunnes, do have toilets, but nowhere near the door, in fact, it seems, they are placed as far away from the door as possible!
And unsurprisingly, they come with a café, and the implied stigma for a customer of having to walk through it without buying anything.
For kids, the elderly, the disabled, shopping trips may not end well...
It seems that we should see accessible public toilets as quite the treat these days, something you must actively seek out, and pay for, either with money or your pride. Poor ‘Mary’ certainly parted with her dignity that day.
Since her ordeal, I’ve paid more attention to the toilets I visit in the city. One café I visited was genuinely disgusting, covered in wet tissue and smeared with stains. And I had to get a code for it. And queue for it for so long my coffee went cold.
What’s to be done?
The council haven’t re-opened the toilets on the Grand Parade, which were notorious for recent discoveries of drug paraphernalia. The City insists that there is a lack of demand and funding.
Demand? There is most certainly demand, if only from myself and Mary, but perhaps not the ‘demand’ for that particularly nasty kind of toilet.
What do other cities do? I decided to investigate for every ‘Mary’ out there in Cork.
The best public toilet design is reportedly in Portland in the U.S; locals fondly refer to it as ‘the Loo’. Interestingly, this toilet is designed with the worst possible human conduct in mind. The walls are graffiti proof, there’s no running water inside and no mirror to smash or convert to weaponry.
But the toilet is so successful that there are now dozens of them in operation. Unfortunately, we seem to be a little tight on cash here, so it’s possible that this is not an option for us Leesiders.
Before we lose hope, and before our ‘Mary’ loses face again, we need to cast our eyes across the water to our fellow Europeans, the Germans.
As always, we must consult Germans for anything efficiency-related. And I genuinely believe they have found the answer.
The German state now offers businesses money on a monthly basis to open their staff toilets to the public. They simply display a sticker in the window to let shoppers know that they can use the facilities without shame or discomfort.
If the toilet isn’t kept to a high standard, customers simply report them to the local council, and they lose their privileges.
Imagine it! You’re in the opticians or the bank and the need takes you. You just go and do your business. Then you resume your business.
And, not to be too political about it, this is, quite literally, a pressing feminist issue. Women need to use the toilet up to three times more often than men. Women still shop more than men.
It’s time we stopped these sexist designs and supported the people who are financially supporting our city.
Maybe, one day soon, older women will hop off the bus and navigate the city at their leisure.
Maybe one day, I won’t have to curse myself for not carrying change any more. Maybe one day a parent will find toilet paper and a changing mat when they need it.
Maybe, then, we can put the ‘pee’ back in ‘spree’. For everyone. But especially for our lovely ‘Mary’.