I am currently writing to you from a toilet, while I stare at a framed image of an 18th-century gilded bronze clock. It features Cupid holding a sacrificial dove to a burning fire while a priestess’s arm stretches out above. It is an artistic rendition of the altar of Venus — opulent, rich and aristocratic. The frame is lit with fluorescent lights, and it hangs on a sterile, white-tiled wall.
The only problem here — if you’ll forgive me — is that it smells like poop in this room.
I am in the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s second-floor bathroom, one of my favorite bathrooms on campus, which apparently is a popular bathroom. While I’ve been in here, two people have tried to open the door. (I’m sorry, I’m leaving.)
It is a crude, but universal, truth that we all have to poop and pee. Below this truth lies a funny sentiment — yes, “haha pee pee poo poo” — but few things in this world are as concrete as bodily waste. And while bodily functions may be predictable, the places and circumstances in which we perform those functions are often less reliable.
Currently, it’s my fourth week as a student at the University of Michigan. I’ve found it to be a pleasant change of pace from my previous institution, Albion College. The people have been welcoming, the food and coffee are good and the campus is pretty — that’s just about all I can ask for. However, there has been one glaring, uncomfortable void in my Michigan experience: a nice, special bathroom.
Bathrooms are an inherently intimate space for inherently intimate behavior. Stall doors see people in their most vulnerable positions, and I’m not just talking about nakedness. Need a reprieve? A deep breath? A moment to cry? Want to learn more about 18th-century French clock fixtures? The public bathroom, ironically, is your space for those private moments.
At Albion, a school that is more than 20 times smaller than the University, my designated favorite bathroom was tucked away in the corner of the fourth floor of a random building. Nobody was ever there. It was my own satellite office of solitude, and as silly as it sounds, it was a really important place to me. That bathroom saw me pace nervously before tough exams and rest my head in my palms during late nights of news production.
Since I arrived at the University, I’ve been without that important place. So, I set myself the task of seeing as many bathrooms as possible in a search to find my favorite public bathroom on campus. In the last four weeks, I have used a wide variety of bathrooms, and I’ve visited even more for the purpose of this article. I wandered around campus, often getting lost. I pulled on all the doors I could find, taking notes along the way.
Some bathrooms are very obviously the same as they were in the ’70s, with monochromatic tile patterns and ugly lighting. Others, like the brand new bathroom on the third floor of the Shapiro Undergraduate Library, are pristine — noticeably shiny and clean. But I am not necessarily wooed by this. I don’t need a hypermodern bathroom with fluorescent lighting and chrome fixtures that look like the Krusty Krab from the future. I think the older bathrooms have more character, and as long as they are private, well-lit, clean and reasonably close to campus, I will be partial to them.
For the sake of this piece, I visited more than 75 bathrooms, which is far from exhaustive. It’s important to note that I primarily used the men’s room and occasionally used a gender-inclusive restroom. I evaluated them based on my cis-gendered, able-bodied identity. A critical gaze from those who identify differently is also necessary for exhaustively ranking the public bathrooms here. Do what you will with my perspective — I’ve seen a lot, but I haven’t seen it all.
Mason Hall bathrooms violate just about every bathroom standard I have. They stink. They’re too busy. They are ugly, blue, fecal-scented labyrinths. If you must use the bathroom in Mason Hall, avoid the third floor. Please. The stall doors on the third floor are so low that when I stand up, my entire head and chest rise above them. From the outside, anyone taller than 5 1/2 feet tall can easily look in and sneak a peek at me on the toilet.
There are holes in the wall’s tile that are stuffed with chewing gum (which, frankly, is a little endearing — it’s just so college — but it’s objectively gross), and the paper towel dispensers are awkwardly placed and difficult to use.
Worse than Mason, however, would be the Hatcher Graduate Library. There are eight floors and a basement, with restrooms on every floor. Here are the notes I took regarding the bathroom in Hatcher’s basement:
The first floor:
Stinky. Cramped. Toilet bowl stained.
Stinky. Cramped. Toilet bowl also stained.
Stinky. Cramped. Toilet bowl also stained.
I stopped taking notes after the third floor, as the bathrooms were identical. They’re dank, poorly lit, tightly-quartered and almost every single toilet sports a brown stain at the bottom of the bowl. I think — rather, hope — that these stains are simply there because the toilets are old and not for reasons related to pooping. But who’s to say?
Before my quest, I was told that Lorch Hall’s first floor features an uninviting bathroom, and that tip was confirmed when I visited. I don’t know about you, but I don’t find it very pleasant to sweat while using the bathroom. Lorch’s bathroom was so fiercely hot that if I had stuck around, I would have begun perspiring through my shirt.
Thankfully, I will likely be able to avoid Lorch Hall for the rest of my life. On the other hand, I have found the Modern Languages Building bathrooms to be absolutely unavoidable. The problem with the MLB’s dingy little bathrooms is that they are right outside massive lecture halls and auditoriums. If you are in the MLB at an inopportune time, you will be waiting in line breathing urine-scented air, praying that people get a move on.
My other qualm with the MLB is that they only offer two urinals in the men’s room, which is a clear violation of the unwritten urinal laws. These urinal laws state that if you need to use a urinal, opt for one that is far from the other user. With two urinals, it is mathematically impossible to even attempt to adhere to the unwritten rules, and if you find yourself in the bathroom following the dismissal of a 250-student lecture room, good luck.
The politics of the urinals are finicky, and if there is one bathroom that navigates urinal law perfectly, it would be, of course, the Law Library. With Brutalist flair, the Law Library basement men’s room offers a seemingly endless amount of options for private pottying. The urinals are contained by concrete dividers. They are as aesthetically pleasing as they are practical. The stalls are many and private. It is not the best, but it earns two thumbs up.
One of the most important factors for me, while deciding which bathrooms to laud publicly, was natural lighting. I’m a sucker for opaque windows and sunlight in the bathroom. I would argue that pooping in natural light is better for the soul. It stands to reason that such natural processes — pooping, peeing, crying, writing — should be lit naturally. Plus, as is true with many things in life: If something makes me feel better, what good is science anyway?
West Hall bathrooms certainly make me feel better. They put on a masterclass of natural lighting in just about every public bathroom they provide. Each floor has a men’s and women’s room, as well as a private, gender-inclusive space, and I found almost every bathroom I visited to be tidy and well-lit, thanks to the generous windows guiding in sunlight. Many of the bathrooms feature a soft, pink tile job that contributes to a vintage motif, while others take on a more modern approach, providing something for all different types of bathroom-goers.
Another pro of West Hall is that it is relatively low in traffic, which is important for establishing a personal, sacred place for bowel movements. West Hall is simple. Spectacular, but still not the best. It offers an abundance of private options without too many frills. To me, there is a spectrum to bathroom quality, and if West Hall resides on the understated side of the spectrum, then Rackham Hall’s first-floor bathrooms chart on the opposite end of bathroom extremes.
Like Cupid holding a dove to flame, Rackham bathrooms are massive, grandiose offerings to the bathroom Gods. In materials alone, these bathrooms are probably worth my tuition. They are spacious, framed in marble and creatively lit. The aesthetic of the entire building makes me feel like I’m not quite supposed to be there, but I am reminded that these are public bathrooms, and I will treat them as such.
The main floor bathrooms have lobbies of their own, and they provide more than enough amenities necessary for a productive bathroom visit. Not only can you have a moment of ritzy privacy, but you can then go to the bathroom lobby and use a landline telephone! I couldn’t believe it. There was a phone in the bathroom!
I was so excited about this feature that I tried to use the phone to call my mother. The call didn’t go through because the phone was restricted from making calls outside of the University, but I didn’t really care. It was then — leaning against the wall in a luxurious bathroom lobby waiting for my mom to pick up the phone — that I realized this bathroom was special. As a novelty bathroom, I love Rackham, but it is a little too gaudy to be my everyday happy place.
Rest assured, though, I eventually found my perfect bathroom. It lies behind an unmarked door, in an out-of-the-way hall. I found it by pure chance while looking for a different restroom. I saw a curious-looking door and just walked in. Fate, if you will.
I was immediately struck by everything I could have asked for. The air is as fresh as bathroom air can get. It’s secluded. Safe. There’s a plant, for God’s sake, and it is lit by the loving light of the sun.
I stood there for a moment to take it all in. Immediately, I knew I had found my place. I shut the door and had a seat (there’s a chair in there, too!) having a mindful moment of reprieve. I was certain that I had laid my last brick — I had finally set the foundation for my career here at the University. I left that bathroom a little lighter, and I didn’t even use it. And you know what? I’m not going to tell you where my bathroom is. I am not the ultimate bathroom authority, and this is not the definitive guide to where you should go pee. My new bathroom is my own place of solitude — my space for my fleeting moments of vulnerability and deep breaths. I encourage you to have a big meal and go find yours.
Statement Correspondent Liam Rappleye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.