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MICHAEL DE ADDER CARTOON: FEB. 27, 2020
Urinals were not the first things on my mind Tuesday morning.
But the night before I had read a New Yorker magazine article in which the great John McPhee conceded that, at age nine or 10, while growing up in Princeton, N.J., where his father was the physician at Princeton University’s athletic department, he knew were every urinal was on the university campus.
“They are among my earliest memories,” wrote the non-fiction giant. “There were so many of them that they also represent the greatest sources of instant gratification that I have ever known.”
Recently, as well, I listened to Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill Podcast. In Episode 1 we meet a private eye named Igor Ostrovskly, who spills a few tricks of his shadowy trade like how to tail people, and how to find a clean bathroom in New York, a necessity while performing the first task for extended periods of time.
Ostrovskly learned that the best place to find a decent latrine in NYC is a high-priced restaurant or hotel.
“You walk up to the bar and you ask the bartender where can I wash my hands, and what are you drink specials,” he said.
The bartender goes to get the drink specials. He puts the menu down in front of you, and points the way to the washroom.
“You use the bathroom,” counsels Ostrovskly, sounding like an eastern European Sam Spade, “then you just leave.”
This is news every Haligonian can use, but no one more than men of a certain age — and never more than at this time of year when the temperature plummets in our northern climate.
When that happens, you see, the human body produces more urine, thereby increasing the frequency with which we must relieve, what a high school basketball teammate referred to as “inward tensions.”
This is a sorry fact of life for someone like me who likes to get around this city on two legs.
A public problem
The trouble, according to fellow Chronicle Herald columnist Lezlie Lowe, is that there just aren’t many public washrooms in Halifax once the ones on the North Common, at the skating pavilion and the ferry terminal close for the day.
“The ones we do have aren’t winterized,” says the author of No Place to Go: How Public Toilets Fail our Private Needs.
So we foot travellers are often left to our own devices returning from a work meeting, or just a brewski with a friend.
At those moments we become dependent upon what Lowe calls “publicly available” bathrooms in libraries, parks and other public spaces, along with the kinds of cafes, restaurants and hotels where, in New York, Ostrovskly, can be glimpsed slinking out the back door.
Some ingenuity surely helps.
During my running days, when nature called and I was far from home, I took refuge in the outhouses of Point Pleasant Park, at the Saint Mary’s University hockey rink, and the Robie Street Irving station, inside Dalhousie’s Killam Memorial library, the dank Halifax Forum and the military cleanliness of the Halifax Citadel National Historic site.
Places where you must ask someone behind the counter for the washroom key are to be avoided, since embarrassing questions could follow.
On the other hand, it has been my experience that it is easy for someone in street clothes to blend in at spots with loads of foot traffic, like grocery stores (the bustling Quinpool Road Atlantic Superstore being a frequent, personal target).
And that when there is lots of construction on the go, roadside porta-potties, which are rarely locked, can come in handy.
I’m lucky in this regard.
For some people, Lowe explained, the prospect of being somewhere without a place to go is so paralyzing that they simply stay home, avoiding those situations altogether.
And woe are those who look like they could be homeless, precluding what Lowe calls “bathroom privilege” in places with private loos.
She sympathizes with business owners: washrooms, after all, are where people take drugs and have sex. But she also thinks that municipalities like Halifax, who talk a lot about improving residents’ quality of life, have dropped the ball on the public washroom issue.
“The livability of a city is compromised when you don’t have the ability to walk all of the places you want to walk,” Lowe said Wednesday. I nodded at her words, because I couldn’t agree more.
More from Lezlie Lowe