When New York City’s open-armed embrace of tourists finally extends beyond the boundaries of Earth to creatures from outer space, these visitors will find themselves right at home in Madison Square Park’s sleek, shiny new public toilet.
Indeed, the toilet calls to mind not a port-o-let, but rather the sort of room one imagines adjoined the personal quarters of Capt. James T. Kirk on the Starship Enterprise. It is a 25-cent journey to the future — and, almost secondarily, a not unpleasant restroom.
The restroom was unveiled on Thursday, the first of 20 planned for the city after more than 30 years of false starts and frustrations. It faces Madison Avenue just north of 23rd Street, and at first glance looks like a bus stop shelter.
There are two architectural flourishes, both on the roof: a small pyramid of glass, like a little model of the Louvre, and an anachronistic metal stovepipe, reminiscent of a cozy shanty or an old outhouse with a crescent moon carved into the door.
But no one goes to a bathroom to look at it. When the green light marked “vacant” is lit, 25 cents — coins only, no bills — starts the visit.
What follows is possibly the longest and most awkward 20 to 30 seconds of a person’s day. The door slips open like an elevator, but then it stays open, to accommodate those who need extra time getting in. Meanwhile, men and women in suits walk past. It is very difficult to look inconspicuous in a bathroom on a sidewalk in New York with the door open. There is just nothing to do but stand there. And the delay will not please those who are in distress.
Finally, the door closes, and the first surprise is the quiet. The walls are padded to dampen street noise, leaving just the hum of a little fan overhead.
Six little lights and the skylight in the pyramid cast a neutral glow over the user’s home for the next 15 minutes, the maximum time limit.
This toilet, which cost more than $100,000, is very spacious, large enough to accommodate a wheelchair. One cannot touch the side walls with arms outstretched.
The floor is rubber and, more strikingly, very wet, but not in a bus-station-men’s-room way. There is an antiseptic, fresh smell to the place.
Sadly, these little surprises are forgotten with the first look at the toilet itself, an imposing, metal, cold-looking receptacle in the corner. There is no little stall around it, and so it looks exposed, like the facilities available in many prisons. It, too, is quite damp, for perfectly good reasons explained later, but the image first evokes a dungeon or a scene from one of the “Saw” pictures.
There is no seat to raise or lower, just the wide rim of the bowl, with covers made of tissue available in a dispenser to the side. Sitting down is a leap of faith, like falling backwards into a stranger’s arms at a corporate team-building retreat.
Turns out, it is cold. But once settled, the visitor finds the seat the perfect place to take in the room’s other amenities.
There seem to be as many buttons as on Captain Kirk’s bridge. Red buttons, blue buttons, yellow buttons, black and green buttons. The red ones near the door and toilet call the company for help in an emergency. The yellow calls for “assistance,” presumably something less dire than an emergency, but nonetheless, a situation. Blue flushes.
Black dispenses toilet paper. One will quickly familiarize oneself with that button, because the designers have deigned a little 16-inch strip the standard helping of paper. A word to the wise: There is a maximum of just three helpings. Another tip: Do not tarry. A grim yellow light turns on when there are just three minutes remaining, and after that, the door will open.
The sink is across the room. The big shocker here is the soap dispenser, which actually emits not a little squirt of soap, but a jet of warm water, with the soap already mixed in. Everything is motion-activated. No knobs anywhere. The warm-air hand dryer seems somewhat slow and weak, especially with that yellow light blinking by the door.
Assuming one finishes before the 15 minutes are up, the big green button opens the door. The horns and sirens and chatter of the city return, jarringly.
When the visitor steps out, the door shuts again, but the “occupied” light stays lit. Strange hisses and spraying sounds come from within — did someone slip past? No, actually, the room is cleaning itself. A robotic arm swings out over the toilet bowl and hits it with disinfectant, while similar jets spray across the sink and the floor. Then, dryers fan hot air over everything, but like the hand dryer, they seem to need more juice.
This is all taken at the designer’s word, for it is impossible to see. The cleanup cannot happen with someone in the room, with sensors below the floor to detect any weight.
After 90 seconds of cleaning, the green light outside comes back on.
Credit: New York Times;