When Steven Soifer was 11 years old, bullies tried to break into the bathroom stall he was using. The University of Maryland associate professor has been avidly interested in public facilities ever since: their construction, privacy and accessiblity - in short, their role in civilized life.
Soifer, who teaches community organizing at the School of Social Work downtown, is a co-founder of the Baltimore-based American Restroom Association, an advocacy group that demands more and better communal bathrooms. He is a man at ease discussing the phenomenon of toilet-seat hovering (for those fearful of direct contact), the sewage issues surrounding the Beijing Olympics and the British pronunciation of the word "urinal." He does not hesitate to charge into businesses of all descriptions and, just for the heck of it, say:
"I need to use the restroom, please."
He tried this line one day last week at the McDonald's at Paca and Baltimore streets; slowly, the woman behind the counter looked up. Oh, I've seen fire and I've seen rain, James Taylor crooned in the background, but this worker had clearly never seen the likes of Soifer, in his khaki jacket and tan fedora. He stands 6 feet 2 1/2 inches tall, which means, as he had noted earlier, that "if I go into a stall, most times my head is above the top - and that's a little bit embarrassing for me, frankly."
Soifer stared down at the woman expectantly.
"Calvin!" she yelled.
A young man with a mop materialized to lead Soifer to the closed bathroom at the back of the restaurant. Soifer stepped in and then immediately out. "Just had to wash my hands!" he called to the bewildered Calvin.
So it was throughout a brief tour of bathrooms in businesses on and around Baltimore Street. Sometimes, when Soifer felt that his request had particularly inconvenienced employees, he closed the men's room door and gave the toilet a ceremonial flush, just to make it seem worth their while.
The purpose of this particular survey was to illustrate for an observer the sad state of restroom availability in this city, but in private life Soifer makes a habit of using store facilities every few weeks, because the American Restroom Association views this as a citizen's right, and because the reactions Soifer gets remind him of how much work remains. Not every day can be World Toilet Day (although today actually is). ARA officials must be vigilant all year round.
The nonprofit group was founded three years ago by Soifer and Robert Brubaker, a network engineer from Virginia involved with pedestrian-rights issues, including access to subway bathrooms. The organization is incorporated in Maryland, and news releases are issued with a Baltimore dateline, although the only place resembling an official headquarters is Brubaker's house in Alexandria. The board members scattered across the country include a General Motors engineer, a pharmaceutical worker and an academic with an interest in gender-balanced restroom provisions - an issue also known "potty parity."
But the ARA agitates for an even more diverse group: pregnant women, the elderly, bashful-bladder sufferers and pretty much anyone who's ever had to use a communal restroom. Topping the ARA's list are general improvements, like better hygiene, partitions between urinals and more government-furnished toilets; at some point it hopes to publish a Zagat-like guide of accommodations across America and to distribute an annual Loo of the Year award, as the British Toilet Association does.
The U.S. group also sends delegates to the World Toilet Organization's annual conference, which is usually held in Asia, and features such novelties as the musical toilets favored by demure Japanese women.
"In Thailand, they even like to have an attendant who will massage your shoulders," Soifer said.
Alas, back home in Baltimore, the situation is somewhat less deluxe. Soifer says patrons have to fight to use the bathroom in drugstores and barbershops and banks, even though the Maryland plumbing code states that any customers or potential customers may use the employee facilities in any store. At least, that's the way the ARA reads the law.
"I'm not really sure what it says," said Jack Lesho, director of the State Board of Plumbing. "Nobody's ever asked me this before."
Diane Kastner, executive director of the Maryland Plumbing, Heating and Cooling Contractors, said that she's not too familiar with the law either, but is reluctant to let customers use the facilities in the organization's office, and would be loath to allow strangers off the street to do so.
"I mean, can you imagine the derelicts?" she asked.
As the tour of the west side's toilets continued, Soifer was rarely received with open arms. Clerks called managers; managers called security. One check-cashing firm told him that if he wanted to use the bathroom they would need to "disarm the building." Daljeet Kumar, who works at 7-Eleven, relented only when Soifer produced the copy of the plumbing code that he had stuffed down the front of his jacket. After eyeing it for a moment, Kumar led Soifer to the back of the store, past a bin full of discarded pizza slices.
The professor was not always triumphant. Several establishments claimed not to have employee restrooms, although an obliging worker at Barry's Discount Mart escorted Soifer to a stinking stall in a neighboring parking garage. And when Soifer requested to use the bathroom at Subway, the cashier said "OK" in a very quiet voice, and then proceeded to screech "Danielle! Danielle!" at the closed door.
"Oh, no, that's all right," Soifer said hastily when he realized Danielle must be engaged within.
The state of a nation's restrooms reflect the nature of the society, Soifer has long maintained. An appendix of his co-authored book about psychologically based urinary difficulties, Shy Bladder Syndrome, is dedicated to the evolution of public toilets; glorious Rome pioneered the first urinals, the contents of which were collected, by order of the Emperor Vespasian, to make a valuable dye.
Likewise, when great cultures crumble, the bathrooms do, too. "When the USSR fell apart, do you know what happened?" Soifer asked. "People started [urinating] on things, particularly in Moscow." This action was perhaps symptomatic of a larger loss of control.
Afternoon quickly faded into evening; groups of tough-looking youths gathered on the corners, and it was almost time to head back to the School of Social Work a few blocks away. But not before Soifer barged into a pawn shop on North Howard Street.
"I was wondering if I could use your restroom," he said.
The man guarding the glass cases of gold chains and used iPods glared from beneath bushy eyebrows.
"This is a pawn shop," he explained in an accent British enough to leave no doubts about how he would pronounce the word "urinal." (Ur-EYE-nal, in case you're curious).
"Well, the plumbing code says I can," Soifer replied.
Overhearing this, one of the store's owners advanced on him.
"You want to use the restroom?" Ricky Brockman said with a glittering grin. "You want to use the restroom? Do you think we're going to let people use the restroom when we have hundreds of thousands of dollars of merchandise back here?"
"No thanks," Brockman scoffed. "I'd rather not get shot. I'd rather live to see my kids grow up."
Soon after leaving the hock shop, Soifer seemed agitated and fidgety, shifting from one foot to the other. Had the pawnbroker's perspective shaken his faith?
Absolutely not. "I actually have to use the restroom now," he said.
For more information, americanrestroom.org