Oh, Crap: In COVID-Era Boston, Free Bathrooms Are Hard to Find

It's not as easy to just pop into a coffee shop for quick relief. So what's there to do when you need the loo?

Photo via Getty

There’s something we need to talk about. Something that’s been lost in the shuffle, in the rancor, in the daily firestorm of stress-inducing headlines that has assaulted us over the last year.

It’s really hard to find a bathroom lately.

I discovered this early on in the pandemic, when my fiancé and I would regularly hop in the car for long drives and weekend day-trips—to see roadside oddities and attractions, check out famous local movie locations, or explore forested hikes in the mountains or ‘burbs. This was one of the few fun-time activities you could still enjoy in the initial shutdown era, those springtime months when Boston felt fully closed. At the time, though, if you had the urge to go while on the go, you couldn’t simply count on finding an open Dunkin’ location or a gas station that didn’t have its bathroom locked. And so, on more than one occasion after chugging a thermos of water during a vigorous fresh-air constitutional (it’s important to hydrate!), I found myself becoming intimately acquainted with the chain-link fence on the tree-lined perimeter of a large supermarket parking lot. What can I say, I’ve met a lot of dumpsters.

Things are different now. Compared to last April or May, more businesses—those that have survived this long, anyway—are operating on closer-to-normal schedules and continue to possess indoor plumbing. Popping in to use a bathroom, though, still isn’t easy. Many restaurants have gone takeout-only, and bars remain closed, so you can’t simply slip in to the din of a loud and crowded hotspot and make a bee-line for the bathroom unnoticed. Plus, every business has different potty policies. Many times I’ve guiltily bought an unwanted cup of coffee at a little cafe, only to find their bathroom, the real reason for my visit, has been bolted to “stop the spread.” It’s all, um, a crapshoot. Even Barnes & Nobles, typically a beacon of hope for clean bathrooms with extensive reading material (just kidding, that’s gross), can’t be counted on nowadays. When I sought the Prudential Center store’s bathroom while Christmas shopping, it was indefinitely closed. Closed! A Barnes & Noble bathroom! What nice things will we lose next?

If easily accessible bathrooms are scarce, what difference does it make? It makes a big one for your bladder, of course.

In all seriousness, though, there are more urgent consequences. For instance, while most of us are lucky to have a home bathroom to hold out for when the need strikes, unhoused folks are struggling to find sanitary places—and in a pandemic, that’s a public health problem to boot. The city’s website has a map of public bathrooms, but even assuming it’s up to date, you’d better hope you’re near a city library or police station if you want to avail yourself of the limited suggestions. (If you filter by “handicap accessible stall,” the number of options is even more bleak.)

And then there are the essential workers on the road, like food delivery drivers, whose bathroom habits really depend on the kindness of strangers. Evidently there’s a new app—named, with refreshing frankness, Whizzz—that attempts to solve the toilet shortage by directing drivers to restaurants with available bathrooms, including partner businesses that offer special discounts to enjoy while you’re there. Unfortunately, Whizzz is only working in Los Angeles so far.

But even for the rest of us, the loss of the quick-and-easy bathroom trip is a small robbery in the context of city life. No longer do we have easy refuge, a quick retreat, a place of total, social contract-protected privacy in a world where we’re otherwise always “on,” tethered, and overwhelmed. Be honest: Sometimes you need to pee, but sometimes you just need five minutes away from the family you’ve been cooped up with constantly; a place to gather your thoughts about the latest tragedy on your Twitter feed; or an opportunity to take a deep breath (not too deep, depending on the bathroom) during these crazy days when we’re all #alonetogether and yet, somehow, still never have a second alone with ourselves.

Regular bathroom breaks as self-care? Yes, I said it. How else can you privately solve the problems of the world—or at least, the day—if not by inventing an excuse to powder your nose?

Plus, it’s always fun to ferret out funky bathrooms—spaces that, more than most, either preserve the urban grit of Old Boston (who doesn’t love squinting to read colorfully vulgar graffiti on a battered stall wall?) or give New Boston’s chichi interior designers a place to get playful. Why, just look at this list of the coolest restaurant bathrooms in Boston. It doesn’t even include a certain Kendall Square sandwich shop I’ve discovered whose lavatory is a top-to-bottom shrine to Dolly Parton (complete with overhead soundtrack).

I’d tell you where, but we all need our secrets.

I know that right now we have far greater concerns than figuring out how to most conveniently answer nature’s call. But even with all the dramatic upheavals of the last 11 months, sometimes it’s the small things that stand out the most. So if you happen to catch my car idling on the backside of a closed suburban Wal-Mart, I have just one request: Privacy, please?