Though I’ve lived in Paris for close to a decade, I’ve never had the nerve to try the public toilets. I’m talking about those round kiosks on the street called sanisettes, those automatic wonders that do everything but wipe your bottom and zip up your pants. Not only do they flush once you are done, but they automatically disinfect themselves once you’ve left. How they do this is unclear, but I’m under the impression a small door opens and some sort of high-powered spray erupts from the wall, dousing the entire cubicle with Mr. Clean. Or maybe Mr. Clean himself (or one of his minions) erupts from the wall and scurries about before the next needy soul pushes the button. In any case, the whole procedure is rather sinister to the uninitiated: when these somber booths first started appearing on the city streets, there were stories of small children being trapped inside and shpritzed within an inch of their lives. Having a mild case of claustrophobia, the idea of being confined in a window-less, automated contraption while relieving myself was none too appealing. But then the day arrived when I had already spent quite a bit of money on drinks at cafés just so that I could use the facilities, and I needed to go again. It was getting late, it was time to go home, and I wasn’t the slightest bit thirsty. I was counting up my change when I saw a sanisette beckoning to me right next to the metro station. I gritted my teeth, took a deep breath, and pushed the button.
According to the Paris municipal website, (where you can enjoy a video and slide show on the subject), there are some 400 of these beauties throughout the city. First installed in the early 1981, the sanisettes replaced the old vespasiennes, the public urinals that had adorned the city’s streets since the early 19th century. I remember seeing them in the 1970s and not quite understanding what they were. I saw men go in, but there didn’t seem to be a phone in there, so what the heck were they doing? They couldn’t possibly be…but yes, they were. They were peeing on the street. OK, you couldn’t really see, but you could see the bottom of their legs and their heads tilted down, and well, it was really gross. Not to mention that the people in charge seemed to think only men needed to pee at inopportune times. And so, at least to my teenaged mind, the advent of sanisettes was a great step forward in terms of both sanitation and human rights.
The door opened majestically and automatically, and I entered a roomy space with a sink, mirror, and toilet. I had the good fortune to be in one of the new, improved sanisettes, which are both wheelchair accessible and ecologically correct. They also speak to you, just to make sure you feel at home. This is a little daunting, since it starts speaking as soon as you hit the button on the outside, so that everyone in earshot turns around and sees you going in. As the door closed behind me, I could have cared less what the recorded voice was saying, I just wanted it all to be over as quickly as possible. While the place was relatively clean, I was surprised to see that the toilet had not been flushed. Perhaps all that talking distracted Mr. Clean and he forgot. Or perhaps…it wasn’t as automatic as I had thought. In fact, I was urged to push the button after I did my business, so that once I left the premises, the automatic miracle would occur. That was a little disappointing. What with all those automatic flushing toilets at airports around the world, one would think…well, never mind. After all, this was a free pee. As of 2006, all Parisian sanisettes are free of charge. Just don’t get any ideas about staying for any length of time: after 20 minutes, the doors open wide and you are requested to leave. Even Mr. Clean has his limits.