Technology leaves some longing for roadside weeds

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By LISA SMITH MOLINARI\meatandpotatoes.com

With gas prices at an 11-year low, people are packing up and heading out for a busy summer travel season. But the highways, bus stations and airports aren’t the only places that will see a lot of action this summer. With all those travelers on the go, and needing to go, public restrooms will be at maximum capacity.

Recently, I took a trip to Florida, requiring my 49-year-old bladder and I to frequent several airport bathrooms. It occurred to me that travel pottying has changed significantly over the years.

Growing up in the ‘70s, our station wagon simply pulled over to the side of the road for pit stops during long trips. And my husband’s family kept a mayonnaise container known as the “tinkle jar” in the back window of their vehicle. If we did manage to find a gas station with a bathroom, my mother would spread half a roll of toilet paper on the seat before I was allowed to sit down.

But those improvised methods of yesteryear are no longer considered apropos—or sanitary for that matter—so today, the transportation authorities have provided travelers with state-of-the-art public toilet facilities.

The problem is, the newly automated restrooms are so high-tech, they sometimes leave one longing for the simple practicality of a roadside patch of weeds.

During my recent visit to an airport restroom, I selected one of the many stalls, latched the door, straddled my humongous carry-on bag,
and grabbed for the paper seat cover dispenser. The first three ripped in half, the fourth fell into the toilet while I was trying to position it, and the fifth one disappeared when the toilet unexpectedly flushed.

Known as “phantom flushes,” the sensor-triggered water swoosh in public restrooms not only suck down the paper seat covers, they can scare the you-know-what out of you, which by the way, would defeat the entire purpose of being in the toilet in the first place.

With a seat cover finally in place, I took my position.

Strangely, the otherwise noisy bathroom fell dead silent. I could see the feet of the occupants next to me, but could hear a pin drop. I prayed that someone would turn on the sink, while my bladder refused to release the 64 ounces of coffee I’d consumed that morning.

I had experienced “stage fright” on other occasions, most notably in college, when perpetually clogged bar toilets caused long lines in the bathrooms. The one working toilet usually had no toilet paper, a broken door lock, and gaps in the stall that allowed everyone in line to stare through the cracks. Once it was my turn, I was paralyzed by stage fright.

Waiting in the airport stall for someone to make noise, I fidgeted, and—WHOOSH!—set off my own phantom flusher again. It scared the bejeezus out of me, but provided the break I needed. Relief!

The toilet paper was affixed to some type of conservation dispenser that stopped the roll at each half turn. The flimsy tissue ripped with the slightest resistance, forcing me to make several attempts—roll, stop, rip, roll, stop, rip, roll, stop, rip—until I had enough scraps to do the job.

Finally, I stood up to trigger the flusher, which up until now seemed able to react to a falling eyelash from three stalls down. However, nothing happened. I stood there, wondering if the sensor had a tiny camera inside that transmitted to a flushing control room. Had the person on duty gone to lunch? I swiveled my hips, bobbed my head, and waved my hands to no avail.

With only minutes to boarding, I gave up on flushing and left the stall. Halfway to the sinks I heard it—WHOOSH! I imagined the flushing controller giggling over his ham and cheese.

The bank of sinks had no knobs, controls or buttons. “Here we go again,” I thought, waving my hands in search of automated soap and water. I had a choice of hand dryers: a high speed “air blade” that nearly blows your skin off, or the old fashioned kind that emits a warm breeze that requires you to give up and wipe your hands on your pants.

Frustrated with newfangled automation, I chose the latter.

“Coffee?” the flight attendant asked after we took off.

“Sure,” I said, “but do you happen to have an empty mayonnaise jar?” n