Travel Ethics: Of Restroom Horror, Furious Apes and Dying Canaries


Perhaps with the sole exception of running into Larry Craig, my biggest fear in airport restrooms is encountering a bathroom stall that appears to have been last used by one of the baboons of the Kalahari. Why, in the name of humanity, would there ever be a reason for someone to leave a toilet seat dripping in urine, or the floor in front of the toilet covered and piled high with soaked and soiled toilet paper, or the toilet bowl filled with something that looks like it was deposited by an incontinent yak? Who among my civilized-appearing fellow travelers is secretly engaging in the manners of an Australopithecus? What ‘s the matter with these people?

I just don’t understand it. Was ever an application of the Golden Rule so obvious, so necessary? “Thou shalt not leave a public toilet and environs in a state that would cause you to vomit and go on a seek-and-destroy mission if a guest left your own bathroom in a similar mess!” How hard is that? Yet easily two out of every five times that I am forced to use an airport rest room, I open the door, take a look, retch, slam it shut and announce to everyone else within ear-shot, “Do NOT go in there!”

Is this how furious travelers anonymously express their frustrations with the increasingly unreliable and user-hostile air travel system…by behaving like angry zoo-confined primates who throw their feces at visitors? Maybe. It’s no excuse. The frequency with which air travelers show contempt for the most minimal of common courtesies—cleaning up after themselves at least as effectively as local ordinances require them to clean up after their spaniels and French bulldogs—seems to me to be one more canary dying in the mine of our culture, as Americans increasingly show no consideration for anyone but themselves and perhaps their immediate families.

Or maybe I’m deluded, and they act this way at home too.

That, perhaps, is even more disturbing.

19 thoughts on “Travel Ethics: Of Restroom Horror, Furious Apes and Dying Canaries

  1. Jack, people would do the same when I worked in a fast food restaurant. I just assumed that the IQ of a person sunk 20 points once they assumed the mantle of customer. I’d heard similar stories from friends and family who worked in retail. Then I went to work in an office building. A nice corporate environment in a sinking industry that began downsizing on a regular basis.

    For the last year the business was solvent, management had to repeatedly deal with restrooms of the type you described. Someone was smearing the walls and toilets of a public ladies’ room with what was probably their own waste. As if it wasn’t hard enough to deal with a struggling workplace, we couldn’t even use a sanitary restroom. I can’t imagine what it was like for the poor janitorial crew.

    A disgruntled employee venting frustration? Manners out of a bad Viking romance novel? I wish I had an answer. Like you, I’m not sure I want to know.

    • Perhaps it’s sexist of me to imagine that a women’s restroom wouldn’t have poofitti. Perhaps it’s a custodial hazing process? “To become a custodial supervisor, and accept your higher pay… you must clean this swastika drawn in diseased feces!”

      • As a woman, I wouldn’t have called you sexist, Chase. In the past, women’s rooms have been kinder, gentler places. Although, I probably could’ve been called sexist because I would have believed it of a men’s room and not a women’s room.

        Whatever their point was in defiling the bathroom, it wasn’t made. Management only worked to try to find out who the culprit was…and never did. It was her fellow co-workers and, as I mentioned above, the poor custodial staff, which had nothing to do with the company’s struggles, that suffered.

        In my mind, a retaliatory strike (if indeed that’s what it was) is pointless if it doesn’t directly affect the object of one’s scorn. The Golden Rule should’ve been applied there, as it should’ve been in Jack’s airport bathroom.

  2. Timeless maxim: whatever you do and wherever you are, when you are finished and leave the place, leave the place as it was when you arrived.

    I was always taught that, and one morning in an army communal rest room, I observed a higher ranking officer at the sink next to me. The sinks were naturally spotted with water drops and occasional hairs. He went about his business of shaving and brushing his teeth. Then he meticulously took one or two paper towels to clean ALL the hairs and water (even previously left ones) from the sink and dry it thoroughly. He ensured any spots on the mirror were removed. This routine took him 1 extra minute of personal hygiene time.

    He looked at me and said “Hey, West, remember to always leave a place better than you received it”. (He took the philosophy one step further)

    He didn’t do that as a standalone lesson to a young LT. I noticed one day (from a stall) that he still did the routine even when he thought no one was watching.

    • This is very impressive.

      They could theoretically have a squad of enlistees to clean the latrine after every use (practical considerations aside)

  3. From personal observation, sorry to say, this happens all the time in elementary, middle and high school. And, sometimes, but not as often, it happens in the teachers’ restrooms as well.

    • My younger brothers, in middle school, tell me it is an everyday occurrence to find that some Neanderthal has written on the walls in feces. Poor janitor. Thankfully, they appear to have their heads on right and view it as disgusting rather than amusing.

  4. I will always be eternally grateful to whomever it was who conceived the idea of packaged antiseptic wipes which have made my lifelong habit of cleaning public washrooms much easier.

  5. As a stay-at-home-mom with a husband and two sons: welcome to my nightmare. Although, sadly, my daughter is worse than the three of the afore mentioned.

  6. Jack, when you and I both worked at a funny little white brick building in Georgetown off of M Street, I would frequently find the women’s restroom seats wet. It drove me crazy. One day, I wrote a note and taped it to the wall of the stall: “If you sprinkle when you tinkle, please be neat and wipe the seat.” (I know, really tacky, but I like the rhyme scheme!) Later that day, I heard several of our female co-workers exclaiming indignantly “Who would leave such a note in the restroom?!” — that they’d never heard of anything like that, blah, blah, blah. The seat was still wet on later days. I gave up and started trying restrooms on other floors.

    • Your sign was not tacky at all. Go girl. It is a most unpleasant surprise to sit and realize a squatter, not a sitter, was there just before you. Absolutely disgusting. Common courtesy ladies. If you are a squatter, lift the toilet seat and put the damn thing back down when finished. Sorry, but this is a major pet peeve.

  7. My cousin’s kid never flushed. Even when he was a guest in his aunt’s house. Seemed to think actually flushing a toilet was beneath a guy’s dignity. Bizarre. And awful.

  8. I will say that one of the best excuses for this type of behavior I have ever heard came from a Wal-Mart employee. He told me that this is the fault of the automatic laser-range-finder flushers. Not sure of his logic and I didn’t have the heart to question him on it (or the time).

  9. It is not just airport bathrooms that are a problem. Many people using public toilets seem to have a disdain for their fellow humans.

    What baffles me are those who only are in there to do a “#1” who insist on using a stall instead of the urinals.

    If you are going to pee in the stall and cannot guarantee 100% accuracy, please sit down.

  10. I did a half hour internet search to find out what motivates persons to leave behind a dirty toilet. I found nada. No books, no psychological studies. What I found was: office etiquette about leaving a clean toilet after using the restroom, many people being angry at unknown perpetrators who leave the loo in a terrible state, many photos of dirty, dirty loos made by shocked tourists around the world and books about different types of toilets around the world.

    But nothing about the question that everybody (ok, almost everybody) wants an answer to. And the stuff I’ve seen in my university days still makes me shudder. I mean, what do they do at home?!

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