Cover of They're Only Words by Mark Levy

Automatic Men's Rooms

An essay by Mark Levy from They're Only Words.


Have you experienced those automatic toilets in men's rooms and I suppose, now that I think of it, in women's rooms? They're the ones that know when you're finished doing your business and they flush without your having to touch the lever. They're installed on urinals, too.


It's the most amazing invention since indoor plumbing, if you ask me. Sometimes, though, you stand up to stretch and they flush before you actually finish. And once, the automatic toilet didn't flush for me even though I stood up, so I sat down again and stood up.


Nothing happened.


Then I waved my hand in front of the sensor.


No luck.


As far as I could see, there was no emergency override button to push for just such situations. So I sat down again with all of my clothes on, feeling foolish, and I got to my feet again.


Finally it flushed.


I believe it was trying to embarrass me, but the joke was on the toilet. After all, I was the only one in the stall, so no one else knew about my silly shenanigans – until just now, that is.


When you exit your stall, you find the sink, of course. Some sinks now have their own sensor. Water comes on and shuts itself off when you move your hands in and out of the sink. You can't adjust the temperature, but that's such a small price to pay for advanced technology.


A soap dispenser can also be automatic. Same story. But if you're as impatient as I've been known to be, you might pull your hand away just before that last drop of soap is dispensed, wasting that drop at the edge of the sink and making you hope the dispenser doesn't report back to that big soap reservoir in the sky.


The real problem arises when the faucet is automatic but the soap dispenser isn't. Then you have to push down on the soap dispenser physically and pump it to get it to work. What's with that? Either the bathroom is automated or it's not, right?



Believe me, I enjoy futilely waving my hand in front of a soap dispenser while other people are standing in line behind me as much as anyone. But there comes a time when choreography becomes a pointless exercise. You don't know if the thing is out of soap – in which case you can shift to the adjacent sink – or if you're inadvertently dealing with a manual pumping dispenser à la the 18th century.


I recently entered a men's room that had a big circular contraption, about four feet wide, between the door and the toilet stalls. At first, I thought I might have to use what could be a communal urinal, but it quickly dawned on me that the contraption was just a large sink. Whew, so far, so good.


I wonder how many guys are fooled into unzipping in front of what looked like a satellite antenna urinal.


But as I approached the contraption to rinse my hands, nothing happened.


I started to wave my hand, both hands, in fact.


Still nothing.


Luckily, a gentleman was nearby, fussing with an automatic paper towel dispenser.



What an idiot, I could imagine him thinking. He had that pitying look that my grandmother reserved for certain inept underlings. She even had a Hungarian word for it: sagan. It means poor thing.


What he said was, "Buddy, just step on the bar under the sink and the water will flow."


I guess more embarrassing things can happen in the men's room than requesting help at a sink, but most humiliating events seem to happen to me in public, unfamiliar restrooms.


When you finally figure out the weird, oversized faucet and sink and you rinse your hands, you approach the paper towel dispenser. Here we go again. Some of them are automatic and begin to eject a sheet of paper when your wet hand approaches them. But some extend part of a roll of paper. Am I the only one who resents having to grasp the sheet with my wet hands from the otherwise automatic paper dispenser? If it's smart enough to sense your hand and eject paper, shouldn't it be smart enough to cut the paper, so you don't have to rip it from the machine?


Of course, one sheet of paper is rarely enough. Your hand can still be damp and you don't want to exit the restroom like that.


What if you bump into someone outside, like your stockbroker, and he offers you his hand to shake? You can see his expression when he meets you, just out of the men's room, and shakes your damp hand. You're forced to apologize, explaining, "No, it's not what you think; it's just water."


Here's the situation: you haven't seen the fellow in four months, your stock portfolio is taking a dive, he never returns your desperate calls, and all you can talk about is the source of your wet hand. He doesn't really believe you, anyway.


Okay, so you will need a second sheet of paper, either to finish the hand-drying job or to stockpile some paper for the trip home. You wave your hand in front of the damn automatic paper dispenser a second time. But the machine knows the first sheet should be enough, especially if you have small hands and you already shook them vigorously over the sink, or you rinsed only one of them, or it's thinking maybe you'll give up after the first sheet if it waits long enough to dispense another one. Sometimes you have to wait 8 or 10 seconds before it will give you a second sheet. Who has time for that, when your stockbroker, sagan, is outside waiting to shake your hand?

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"Automatic Men's Rooms" from They're Only Words by Mark Levy.