A recent Inquirer story about the line for the bathroom at Hamilton got me thinking about a very different kind of outing. As a child, I dreaded road trips. It’s a long ride from my family’s home in the Washington, DC suburbs to destinations like Yellowstone National Park or Florida’s gulf coast, and no doubt my family saw that ride as part of the adventure. I saw it as whole days where I couldn’t use a bathroom without annoying everyone else in the car, and I prepared diligently by refusing liquids for up to two days in advance of the drive.
It was a frustrating way to live, but I accepted it and endured others’ teasing and annoyance about my “small bladder.” By living in a near-perpetual state of secret, desperate thirst, I could go to school, socialize, and travel with some sense of normalcy.
I ignored the frequent pain in my pelvis until my last year of high school. I remember the first morning that the stabbing sensation in my lower abdomen doubled me over, gasping, as I tried to brush my teeth.
An answer at last
All the urologists I saw over the next few years had their own instruments of torture, and they all said the same thing: “Interstitial cystitis.”
Interstitial cystitis, or IC, is an idiopathic syndrome, meaning it’s a variable constellation of symptoms and nobody quite knows why the hell it happens. It also usually occurs alongside a host of other painful syndromes. (And don’t confuse it with cystitis, which is a bladder infection.) IC patients have a faulty bladder lining. I have a particularly fun version, with bleeding ulcers in my bladder wall.
You can’t cure IC, but you can treat it. I quickly learned a lot—like reducing my symptoms by avoiding food and drinks that trigger a flare. Curious about why I’m skipping the coffee bar? Keep it to yourself, because I am rarely in the mood to explain my illness. For people who really do want to understand living with IC, I say imagine feeling like you have a urinary tract infection every damn day of your life.
Which brings me to my new heroes: Tanya Heath, and Inquirer writer Ellie Silverman. Silverman wrote an excellent story spotlighting Heath, the Forrest’s head usher, whose Herculean efforts help all the ladies with tickets to Hamilton actually get into the theater’s bathroom at intermission.
When I saw Hamilton on opening night, Heath wasn’t marshaling the ladies’ line yet, but I wish she had been. Silverman notes that the Forrest expects about 200 women to avail themselves of 16 stalls in 20 minutes. For people who really want to understand what it’s like living as a theatergoing woman, imagine that every time you have to pee, you must fight your way through the South Philly Acme’s checkout line right before a blizzard.
The whole story
In 2012, I wrote a BSR piece about the deplorable bathrooms at many Philly venues, and I know it resonated—not just from the comments section, but because I overheard ladies talking about my article while we were all in the bathroom line at intermission.
Back then, I wasn’t ready to publicly explain why I’ve always paid so much attention to bathrooms, but now I realize my openness could be part of a bigger conversation about accessibility.
We’d rather not talk about it most of the time, but the bathrooms (or lack thereof) at any given event have everything to do with who can get tickets. Venues with inadequate restrooms are like the car rides of my childhood—no big deal for some people, but a major source of discomfort, anxiety, or embarrassment for others.
And it’s not enough to have a bathroom that only ambulatory folks can use. If a venue’s toilet can’t accommodate a wheelchair user, that venue isn’t accessible, even if the person using the wheelchair is able to get in the building. Bathrooms billed as wheelchair-accessible that aren’t large enough to accommodate all wheelchairs, or lack grab-bars, or whose doors are mounted to swing inward instead of outward, are still inaccessible.
Some Philly venues are doing well on this, and I’m also pleased to see an increasing number of places with gender-neutral restrooms (not just because I take a certain joy in seeing people of all genders experiencing the same line, rather than people of one gender waiting and worrying, hoping they can take care of a basic bodily need without missing the experience they’ve paid for). Gender-neutral restrooms are one thing we now note alongside our reviews at BSR, in addition to other vital accessibility info, from wheelchair seating to ASL interpretation.
But we still need to take a broader view of bathrooms and accessibility. For many like me, our need for a handy bathroom is just as intense as our embarrassment about admitting it. It’s not only interstitial cystitis. A range of other illnesses, such as Crohn’s disease, may be invisible from the outside, but have a major impact on daily life—especially if everyone expects you to function without a bathroom nearby, or enough time to use the available bathroom at intermission. Pregnant people, children, and elderly folks are apt to need bathrooms more often than others. Are they easy to find and access?
Twenty-one stalls short
The Pennsylvania code for restrooms requires buildings to provide at least one toilet stall for every 25 people of “each sex.” If about half the patrons at the Forrest (with its 1,851 seats) are women, that means the theater should have at least 37 stalls in the ladies’ room, not 16.
Historic venues like the Forrest can’t upgrade bathrooms overnight—and may never be able to upgrade them. That’s a lot of people who are completely excluded at worst, and uncomfortable at best. Let’s at least get used to talking about the many reasons bathrooms are a core part of who’s welcome to enjoy cultural experiences, and who’s not.