Searching for Bathrooms on the Open Road

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Route 66 through Arizona.

I do a lot of driving. I live in Los Angeles but as a freelance art teacher my beat stretches from San Diego to Santa Barbara, a 200-mile span. Spending this much time on the road, I’ve become dependent on three things: gas stations, healthy food options and clean bathrooms. The latter is by far the most challenging to find.

I’ve developed a strategy when searching for bathrooms. Gas station restrooms should be avoided. These putrid pits are so disgusting even truckers pass them by. The walls are covered with graffiti, the toilets splashed with urine and no one ever flushes. To top it off, toilet paper and clean paper towels are often missing.

Coffee shop bathrooms are equally heinous. Spots like Denny’s and Coco’s specialize in high-carb meals with little in the way of produce or roughage. This attracts people with digestive systems that stopped working years ago. To enter a toilet stall in one of these slop-houses is to be transported to a latrine during the black plague. The stains are inhuman and the smells can only be described as demonic.

Retail behemoths like Walmart and Target have bathrooms that smell like compost bins. These superstores attract large people with larger intestines. The toilets are scenes of horrible crimes. The only thing worse are bathrooms found in government buildings. Library restrooms are bathhouses for the homeless while public park toilets are magnets for drug dealers and perverts. DMV offices cater to those who eat mystery meat from sidewalk food vendors. Police station facilities attract criminals yearning to relieve themselves after a long night in jail.

The exception to the gas station bathroom rule is found at the Buc-ee’s convenience store fuel stop in New Braunfels, Texas. Their outdoor marquis reads, “We’re number in one in number two.” Buc-ee’s has 83 clean toilets and they won the 2012 Best Restroom in America award assigned by Cintas Corporation, a restroom supply business.

What is the key to finding a clean public bathroom? Your best option is a high-end hotel. Chains like Marriott and Hilton have beautiful bathrooms. The tile floors glisten, the porcelain shines and toilet paper is available in ample supply. Multiple stalls allow you to choose your commode and have a semblance of privacy.

In the pre-COVID days, expensive restaurants were also great. The toilets are pristine, though typically “for customers only” so you might have to come up with a story like you’re there for a meeting or planning a bachelor party for your friend. You’ll also have to be dressed appropriately.

My favorite public bathrooms are those found on new car lots. The more expensive the car brand, the better. Pooping in a BMW showroom toilet is like lounging in a luxury spa. Classical music plays over unseen speakers and aromatherapy candles line the countertop. The experience is so relaxing the only risk is falling asleep on the toilet. Used car lots, on the other hand, have abominable bathrooms intended to undermine your confidence and will.

A year ago, my search for a clean bathroom led to a misadventure. I was driving through Ventura County during a winter of terrible floods in Montecito. Santa Barbara and Ojai Residents had evacuated south and the hotels were overcrowded. Evacuees were camped in hotel lobbies and the restrooms were overtaxed. I sauntered into a Sheraton hotel bathroom only to find muddy footprints, leaky toilets and a sulfurous odor. I returned to my car and sought another location. The car lots were closed due to the rainstorms and it was too early in the morning for expensive restaurants.

I opted for a Marie Callender’s. This was a notch above the typical coffee shop though far below a fine eatery. Entering the restaurant I noticed a hulking man standing in the waiting area. He wore thick orthotic boots and I could tell by his posture that he probably had cerebral palsy. (I work with special needs individuals so I’ve come to recognize the signs.) I smiled at the man and proceeded to the men’s room.

Like most coffee shop bathrooms, there were only two stalls. One was standard while the other was a much larger handicapped option. I made a fateful decision, choosing the handicapped stall. As I settled in, I heard a shuffling gait as someone entered the restroom. I peered beneath the stall and recognized the heavy boots of the man from the waiting area. I panicked. I was using his toilet.

The man stopped outside the stall and jiggled the lock. Finding it occupied, he groaned. He tried the adjacent stall but it was too small as evidenced by his “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” He moved toward the sink and leaned against the wall, waiting to see who was using the handicapped toilet.

I finished my business but didn’t dare move, figuring I’d wait him out. After a minute it was clear he wasn’t going anywhere. I strategized my next move. Once he saw I wasn’t handicapped, he’d be irate. At best, he’d lecture me. He might even hit me. He was a big man and he was angry.

Instinct took over. I exited the stall and walked with a severe limp, dragging my left leg behind me. I inverted my left hand into a claw as if I’d had a stroke. The man stared at me, dubious. I made it to the sink and washed my hands, making sure to splash water on my shirt. I hoped this little detail would add authenticity.

The man knew I was faking. I wanted to apologize, but once I began my performance I had to see it through. I turned off the faucet and reached unsuccessfully for a paper towel with my left hand. This was the detail that betrayed me. If I did have an incapacitated hand, I’d never use it to retrieve a towel. I quickly exited the bathroom. The man did not say a word.

Back in my car, I was filled with remorse. Here I was on my way to teach an art class to special needs teens and I’d just betrayed a special needs adult. My obsessive search for clean bathrooms had caused me to regress to Freud’s anal retentive stage of development. I gave myself a quick pep talk. “Get your mind out of the toilet and move on with your life.” I started to the car and drove to my next class.

Written by

Loren is a writer and woodcut artist based in Los Angeles. He teaches printmaking and creative writing to kids and adults.

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