August 09, 2017 at 8:20 AM


August 09, 2017 at 8:20 AM

At the first intermission of the opera, I run, leaping down the stairs as fast as I can in my fancy shoes. There are already fifteen people ahead of me in the washroom lineup.

            I reach the head of the line, dart into a cubicle, do a quick assessment. Wow, there’s a hook for my purse. This time I won’t have to try to balance it on the toilet-paper dispenser or clutch it between my teeth. Be grateful for small mercies, I tell myself, settling in.

            Above the assorted variations on the theme of running water, I hear a conversation I’ve heard many times before.

            “Who’d you think designs these places, anyway?” calls an exasperated voice.

            “A man!” the crowd responds.

            Laughter, groans.

            They’re right, of course. Only a man—a man, that is, who’s totally ignorant of the basic needs of women—could come up with the appalling design of these washrooms.

            Emerging from the cubicle, I head across the divide between toilets and  sinks. I line up again for one of the four basins. Poke my hands under the tap. Look around for a towel dispenser. Where is the damn thing? Oh yeah, over there. I cross the divide again to the cubicle side of the room. “Sorry,” I mutter, sprinkling water on a woman still in the lineup.

The buzzer sounds. Last call. Up the narrow staircase I run, squeezing past desperate women still waiting. I see a pal and want to ask her what she thinks of the soprano, but there’s no time. I rush into the lobby where my husband stands with a cup of lukewarm coffee for me. “Hurry up,” he says. A couple of sips, then I set the cup down. After all, if I gulp all that liquid now, I’ll have to repeat the whole washroom fiasco at the next break.

             The special-needs toilet is sometimes an option. We work it out, the way women do. We take a quick look down the lineup. If there’s someone with a cane, we point to the cubicle and ask, “Want to go in here?” If the answer is “no,” we dart in and out. That extra spot can help move the lineup along faster.

            But the last time I was in the lineup, there was an usher who had posted herself in front of the wheelchair facility. She—let’s call her the Potty Policewoman-- was making the decisions. Hardly anyone was allowed in. Even frail old women with canes who once could use the special washroom were now in the regular lineup with the rest of us.

            It’s a fact of life that men do not line up. According to my husband, who never wastes more than three minutes in a public toilet, there are lots of urinals, cubicles, and sinks on the men’s side. He has plenty of time at intermission to order a glass of wine and schmooze with friends.

            Friends point out that women make up at least 60 percent of the audience at any symphony, opera, or play. So why hasn’t that male designer allowed for the fundamental differences between male and female anatomies? What would happen if we women withdrew our patronage of the arts? Picketed outside concert halls and theatres? Marched on the offices of management and made a scene?

            But we don’t. We wait. And wait. Perhaps we’re influenced by the insidious message conveyed by the sign “Ladies”. Or the logo on the door showing a silhouette in a short, A-line skirt, circa 1960. Would things change if the sign said “Women” with a logo of a figure in shirt and pants brandishing an . . . axe?

            If only we had someone like Nellie McClung to rally us. In 1916 she said, “Women are going to form a chain, a greater sisterhood than the world has even known.” Could she have been referring to washroom queues? And the potential we have within us to change things?

            Sisters in the lineup, unite.


- Ann Birch, author of The Secret Life of Roberta Greaves




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