While my knowledge of New York’s public restroom infrastructure will never top George Costanza’s, the consultant lifestyle of itinerant meeting-taking, co-working and WiFi-sponging has given me a workable map of favorites. In particular are the nicer, semi-public facilities attached to hotels, clubs, bars, restaurants, offices and other establishments whose identity I will not reveal here.
However, my increased reliance on these places for relief has led me to notice a disturbing trend: Men who casually — or even boldly — decline to wash their hands after concluding their "business."
What I’m seeing lately is not happening in a derelict holes-out-back of a state-route gas stations, where every surface may subtly pulse and writhe with infection. No, these are posh joints — clean, bright, well-appointed, even pleasantly-scented at times. And these hygienic delinquents are young and old, hip and unfashionable, coolly professional or just cool.
Something is deeply wrong with them all.
What I’m seeing lately is not happening in a derelict holes-out-back of a state-route gas stations, where every surface may subtly pulse and writhe with infection.
Let’s accept as a given that different cultures and places have different standards and practices for personal hygiene. But perhaps the most common excuse for not washing after restrooming is some variation of I know what I’ve touched, I know what my junk has touched, I don’t know about any of these other guys or all the stuff in here. While I admire this view’s epistemological absolutism, it falls apart under (reluctant) scrutiny.
Science uniformly recommends washing your hands in the bathroom, though it is true that bad things can live on the knobs, taps, dryers and soap dispensers of the most luxurious public restroom. But that’s not an excuse not to wash.
Get the think newsletter.
“One recommendation is to use a paper towel to wipe off surfaces before washing hands," said Dr. Melissa Hawkins, director of the Public Health Scholar Program at American University. "It’s also a good idea to use a towel or your shirt sleeve to open the bathroom door when leaving the restroom."
But, she added, there is one key thing to remember. "Don’t sacrifice good hygiene practices — just be aware of ways to identify bacteria.”
The residential bathroom is its own story and what happens between a man and his home stadium is his own affair (and that of his probably unfortunate cohabitants).
Jolie Kerr, a cleaning expert and host of the podcast Ask a Clean Person, responded to the oft-cited my-junk-is-cleaner-than-the-faucet excuse: “Even if you're a person who thinks you don't need to because you're only touching yourself, consider that your hands have come in contact with the surfaces that every other dude who doesn't wash his hands after he pees has touched."
"Plus," she added, "one of the best ways to avoid getting sick is frequent hand washing, so why not take the opportunity to wash your hands as a prophylactic measure against whatever cold is currently going around your office?”
The theory of transitively touching all the unwashed junk of other non-handwashers might be more compelling than the public health angle, though.
Understand that I am not naive: I am a man of the world and a father of a son, so I am familiar with filth and the masculine will to ignore it. After all, the residential bathroom is its own story and what happens between a man and his home stadium is his own affair (and that of his probably unfortunate cohabitants).
However you behave at home, and however people wash or don’t wash somewhere else, I live in New York City, where a fine web of mutually-understood social contracts is what keeps us all from murdering each other wholesale every day.
If you feel empowered to veto the social contract of handwashing, why bother using the public restroom at all? Why not just relieve yourself in a corner, or the street?
We are packed in very close quarters, it's true, but our intimate parts are packed in even closer quarters inside our clothing. It’s warm, humid and sweaty down there and, in a restroom, you manipulate those parts complementary to their very natural and normal function of waste elimination. All of that — and all the product and evidence of that — should remain within the confines of the little room constructed for that purpose. When you emerge, and we get close and shake hands or slap backs or do anything else of a manual nature, other citizens reasonably expect to remain free of the most base of your corporeal influence.
Think of it this way: If you feel empowered to veto the social contract of handwashing, why bother using the public restroom at all? Why not just relieve yourself in a corner, or the street? Are you really merely — grudgingly — willing to use the dedicated and lawful facility to take care of your biological urges, and take no responsibility for what you do in there or what you bring out of it?
And don't think that other men don't notice you doing it. When I’m at the sink washing up in a public restroom, and I see another man depart the stall or urinal and lope around behind me, straight to the door, you can bet that I am watching with narrowed, disapproving eyes.
When I’m at the sink washing up in a public restroom, and I see another man depart the stall or urinal and lope around behind me, straight to the door, you can bet that I am watching with narrowed, disapproving eyes.
And I know they know it! That’s why they don’t glance over or nod a greeting, because deep in their hairy, manly hearts, they feel the shame of their transgression. What’s more, because they are bypassing a handwasher even as they refuse to do the same, they’re implying they’re wiser than me, better than me. Or worse, that I am in fact the one who’s unclean for washing up in this contagiously soiled environment.
When it happens, all I can do is deliberately fuzz my vision or look away, so I won’t recognize the non-washer in the outside world.
But I made the mistake recently of noticing one such person’s unique haircut as he left without washing, a handsomely-done high stack of dark black with light gel and a particular leftward shelf. Minutes later in the restaurant outside, I realized that same haircut was seated in an adjoining booth, talking with friends. I couldn’t see his face, but I was mesmerized as he reached into a shared breadbasket and delicately broke apart and ate a crusty dinner roll with his quite nicely manicured (and secretly disgusting, pee-splashed) hands.
Chris Mohney is a writer and editor in New York who has worked all over. Currently he writes and edits for Overture, a forthcoming magazine on science, tech, and innovation in the humanitarian space.