of bathrooms and “third spaces”

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The other day, I was listening to the Slate Culture Gabfest: : The “Slimeball” Edition. (You can go to the Stitcher app, iTunes, or wherever you usually go to listen to podcasts. You can also go to the Slate Culture Gabfest website and listen to the full thing there. The portion that I’m about to talk about begins at minute 39, give or take a few seconds.)

I had heard about the incident at a Starbucks in Center City Philadelphia (where I’m from, incidentally) but it wasn’t until I listened to them talking about it on the podcast that I connected it to what I’ve been talking about within this site. If you haven’t heard, the very quick rundown is this: Two black men walked into a Starbucks in Center City Philadelphia. They were there for a business meeting and were waiting for one more man to arrive. In the interim (having not yet purchased anything yet) they requested to use the bathroom and were told no. In addition to being told they couldn’t use the bathroom, they were also told that they had to leave the premises and when they refused, the manager of the store called the police and the two men were arrested.

Again, I’m diverging a bit from “urban, European spaces” but I think this incident highlights one of the major issues that I am speaking about here and this “unconscious bias” (or conscious bias, as the case may be – racism) that is present in all urban spaces, including those in Europe. In the podcast, they made mention of these “third spaces” and new roles that places like coffee shops are filling. They are a place where people converge, meet, hang out, do business, etc.  I think this is worth mentioning here because cafés are a HUGE part of the flâneur world.

There’s so much to say about this, but I’m going to focus on the bathroom situation – it may sound silly, but bathrooms are, in my view, a way to exert control over spaces and heterotopias such as cafés – “Restrooms are for customers only.” Bathrooms are a form of gatekeeping, if you will, for these third spaces. Some places will enforce this pretty solidly across the board but in general, this is a “rule” meant to keep out particular types of people and create a particular kind of space for the people who are granted access. I am white. My husband is white. My son is white. Maybe a little TMI but I use bathrooms A LOT. (I drink a ton of water and coffee throughout the day and seem to have a bladder the size of a peanut. Here in Seattle, there are places we go regularly so even if we are NOT buying something there at that time, I feel justified – maybe even entitled – to utilize them for the bathroom only. Otherwise, when my son or I need a bathroom, I think nothing of running in somewhere to either sneak past the cash registers to get to the bathroom or even outright asking employees for the key or code.

I have never been turned down. The code or key has almost always been given with a smile. If my 8 year old son is with me, I may even get that facial expression that conveys, “Of course, kids! I feel you, by all means use the bathroom.”

Practically speaking, think about the flâneur – a person who is out wandering and strolling all day will, inevitably, need a bathroom at some point. It’s a fact of life. Even this very basic, biological need is controlled within urban spaces. (Can we make the leap to say it’s a modern form of segregation?)

I’ve written another post in which I quote a passage in Laura Elkins book where she mentions the flâneuse “sipping coffee at café tables in Paris” and I talked about the fact that certain people are granted access to participate in this activity. This controlling of bathrooms is a somewhat underhanded way of doling out permissions to spaces. You are *supposed* to buy something to use the bathroom or *supposed* to buy something to sit for awhile – several cafés and restaurants have vague rules about how you can only park yourself at a table for anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour with each purchase.

(Interestingly, in Berlin I came across many cafés that did not offer free wi-fi because they wanted people to “talk to each other” and not stare at their phones. Or so they said. Obviously, people who sit for two hours with their laptop are making it impossible for others to come in and use that table. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for places of business to not want someone to pay $4 for a latte and then just sit for two hours, especially places that get busy and have lines of people waiting their turn. But that’s a separate scenario from the one I’m talking about now.)

There is an infamous café in Redmond, Washington that is well known for the owner’s hardline on not allowing people to open up a laptop or any other device while seated. (This has changed a little bit – they now allow you to sit with your laptop during certain hours.) Aside from this place, though, I don’t know many places that enforce their time limit rule. Let’s be honest, the time limit rule is there to act upon it when “needed” – that is, when the manager or other employees, or even other patrons, have decided that someone doesn’t “belong” in their space. When someone who is homeless, someone who makes the white tech kids or the suburban coffee moms uncomfortable, a black man, someone who looks “a little too muslim”, or anyone else who otherwise seems “out of place.” If I proceed to sit in a coffee shop after getting a large latte and sucking down several glasses of the complimentary water and nothing else, it’s highly unlikely that anyone will bat an eyelash. (To the contrary, I’ve done this and the staff has struck up conversations with me.)

In addition, in the podcast they mentioned another incident where a (black) man was showing something to his (white) wife in a café and was kicked out because the employees thought he was trying to sell something to her. (Absurd, I know, but there it is – you can read more about it here or, again, google his name to read more – W. Kamau Bell.)


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