When you gotta go, sometimes, you just gotta go


Once a bathroom; now a newsstand. (Photo by flickr user theratrace)

A few weeks ago, I was heading back to Park Slope from Manhattan and found myself on a D train. To get home, I had to switch at Atlantic/Pacific to a train that makes local stops, and I thought I’d use the time I had to duck into the bathroom. It was during the middle of the afternoon rush, and I assumed that bathrooms on the mezzanine between the Fourth Ave. stop at Pacific St. and the IRT platforms at Altantic Ave. would be open. Luckily for my olfactory sense, the bathroom was locked even though the sign said it would be closed only from midnight to 5 a.m., and I simply waited until I arrived home a few minutes later.

Around the subway system, the MTA’s bathrooms pop up like hidden gems – or trash heaps – amidst an unfriendly system. New York isn’t known for its public restrooms, and the subways are no exception. The johns at Times Square near the 8th Ave. line are useable; the ones at W. 4th St. are generally locked; and I don’t know anyone who dares enter the restrooms on the F platform at Delancey St. You never know what you’re going to find.

For a few years, I’ve toyed on and off with a subway bathroom feature. I’d take my camera and document the toilets underground. Somehow, though, I haven’t been able to stomach the idea. Do we really want to see what’s inside the subway’s myriad unloved bathrooms? Today, Heather Haddon did just that sans a camera. She explored all 129 restrooms in 77 subway stations and found what you would expect. Most are dirty; most reek of human waste; and nearly half of them were closed when they should have been open. “They’re pretty disgusting. People are always cleaning themselves in there and doing other stuff,” Kelvin Pau said at 168th St.

Haddon continues:

Of the open bathrooms, a third were frightening caverns of garbage, urine, standing water or unseemly smells. Odors from the Astoria-Ditmars Blvd. station on the N nearly caused an amNewYork reporter to feel faint during a recent visit…

Don’t expect to find toilet paper or soap, as few of the bathrooms had either. And while graffiti has largely been eliminated from subway stations, it lives on in the bathrooms, as many of the walls and stalls were covered in tags.

Keeping the bathrooms tidy and open is a challenge because they are constantly being vandalized or attract “criminal activity,” Seaton said. “They may be locked at any given time due to vandalism and ongoing repairs,” he said.

Haddon and her co-reporter Nicholas Klopsis close with a list of the best and worst bathrooms in the system. Stay away from Hunts Point where the men’s room stalls have no walls or 57th St. and Broadway with its “potpourri of not-so-pleasing smells.” And if you really have to go, just head above ground and find the nearest coffee house. It can’t be worse than the restrooms that mar the subways.

26 Responses to “When you gotta go, sometimes, you just gotta go”

  1. Marc Shepherd says:

    It’s hard to believe there are 77 stations with bathrooms. I am not sure there are any I would use.

  2. Think twice says:

    Likewise with public library restrooms.

    I actually got into to the Atlantic/Pacific bathroom soon after the complex’s renovation. Everything inside was relatively new; new tiles, new fixtures, etc. But it had already acquired the funk of forty thousand years. The aroma was a given, but the oppressive dampness and humidity was new. From the only stall, I could hear some troll snoring like Jabba the Hutt (or maybe it was the all-powerful Sarlacc waiting to ambush it’s next victim). I did my biz at the urinal and skedaddled. Washing my hands at there would have sooo defeated the purpose.

    Either get self-cleaning restrooms installed or contract it’s operations out to Charmin or Lysol in exchange for free advertising and product placement.

    • ferryboi says:

      The bathroom at the Transit Museum in the old Court St IND station is probably the only “clean” station in the whole system. I put “clean” in quotes because I wouldn’t dare use that one either. Hold it in, or just pee on the platform like your fellow NYers do!

  3. SG says:

    One time, I got a vicious case of food poisoning from some bad beef, and got off the 4/5/6 at Brooklyn Bridge in a panic because my body was flipping out. It was midnight on a weekday and I ran around the station begging all of the MTA employees to lead me to a bathroom. When they wouldn’t help me when I said I was sick, I tried telling them I was pregnant instead. Still didn’t help. Mind you, I was a thoroughly sober nerdy 18 year old girl, not a crackhead or anything like that.

    Because of how they didn’t help me whatsoever, I ended up getting sick all over the station. In both ways. Yeah. And then I ended up getting sick all over the financial district’s sidewalks until I made it to a Dunkin Donuts bathroom. Eventually, I ended up at NYU medical center, where I spent the night hooked up to fluids.

    It wouldn’t have been so bad if the MTA employees had given a shit. Instead, I gave them a shit to clean up. That’s what they get. Fucking assholes.

    • ferryboi says:

      Man, that sounds horrible! Sometimes I wonder if it’s in MTA workers’ contracts to be nasty and unhelpful. They actually take pride in being nasty, in an almost gleeful way. Shit on them, I say!

    • Nesta says:

      So you want an employee to BREAK a written company rule for you? When they get fired no questions asked are you going to take care of there families? No you are not going to care, people like you only think about themselves. These people have jobs to do and a HUGE amount of rules to follow that don’t allow them to let you use an employee restroom or to use a closed rest room.

      • SG says:

        I don’t think that leading someone with IBS and food poisoning to a restroom is really that unreasonable. After all, the signs in the trains say that if you’re feeling sick, you should talk to an employee, and that they will help you. They did not help me. That is a real reason to fire someone.

        • Al D says:

          It seems to me that a person in this dire a circumstance should at least warrant an MTA employee to call for a Police Officer, and sans a radio, went to the Token Booth and asked the clerk to call.

          • nycpat says:

            SG didn’t ask for a Police Officer. Wanted to use a locked bathroom. The system is full of drug addicts and terminally ill homeless people, if the bathrooms aren’t open for them they shouldn’t be open for SG. Fair is fair.

            • r.a.b. says:

              they didn’t need to completely disregard her request merely because of the phrasing of her question if she was obviously ill. you’re going to lecture someone about the complicated bureaucratic language of a government employee contract just as she’s about to blow chunks? yeah, good luck with that.

              if your job prohibits you from personally helping someone, you direct them to the person who can. basic customer service skills, which both you and these MTA employees clearly don’t have. in this case, at the very least, that would probably include getting a police officer to help her out. why is it so rude to expect workers dealing with the public to have a little common sense and human decency?

    • nycpat says:

      Go to hell.

      • SG says:

        For having been a kid who got food poisoning and had to deal with the worst humiliation of my life?

        Oh, you must work for the MTA.

        • nycpat says:

          Not as humiliating as explaining to your children you were fired for letting an unauthorized person passout or die or befoul a secure place on TA property. They would have called you an ambulance, they’re not there to wipe your ass. If that was the worst humiliation of your life you are very fortunate.

          • Alon Levy says:

            Did any of those employees say, “We’re not allowed to let you into the bathroom, but we’ll call an ambulance for you”? Or did they just shrug SG off knowing that they wouldn’t get fired for poor customer service, only for bureaucratic rule violations?

  4. Nesta says:

    SG if you said to the employees “I’m sick can you please call me an ambulance”, I gaurantee they would have gotten an ambulance for you.

  5. Tacony Palmyra says:

    I’m also amazed that there are so many open bathrooms. I’d assumed there were only a couple at the major stations that were ever actually open to the public. The one at my local station always looks to be locked shut. Is there a directory of working restrooms somewhere?

  6. Abraham Moussako says:

    I’m going to be honest, this is pretty much all I got out of the AM New York story:
    Bathrooms in subways tend to be filthy! come back tomorrow, when we’ll figure out another reason to read out mediocre excuse for a newspaper….

    In case you didn’t get my sarcasm, my point is that the story’s main idea isn’t all that surprising. maybe if the story had instead talked about why the subway doesn’t have more bathrooms, or why it chose to keep the bathrooms where they ate today, I would have respected it more…

  7. Woody says:

    Every toilet in every station in every European subway that I have visited has had an attendant. Therefore they were relatively clean, always at least usable, and safe.

    In this country we seem to think that being an attendant is a humiliating position, so we don’t have any. Instead, it is the would-be toilet users who are too often humiliated.

  8. Niccolo Machiavelli says:

    Great piece Ben,

    No Woody, “we” don’t think this a humiliating position, “we” think it is a position we don’t want to pay for. In Europe, these jobs are usually taken by little old ladies, I don’t know how they would stand up against the small group of desprerados that make public restrooms in New York problematic.

    • Woody says:

      In Brazil they had muscular men watching over the men’s rooms, and on call if any trouble started in the next room. Here we could arm the old ladies with cell phones (when if ever we get cell service in stations) and alarms to call the police.

      Yours is the first comment to mention desperados. I was robbed at knifepoint in a subway toilet maybe 30-40 years ago. It cost me $20. Today, as a diabetic of a certain age, with issues around my prostate, there are times when I would gladly pay $20 to use a clean toilet. Or at a certain level of pain and urgency I’d risk another stick-up in a free toilet if I could locate one.

      Hey, remember when we had pay toilets? Repealing the law against them to bring back this service might drastically reduce the more commonly cited filth and odor . Why not charge admission and let user fees pay for attendants?

  9. Rhywun says:

    I too was completely unaware there was any functioning public toilet aside from the one that opened in Times Square a couple years ago with some fanfare (with attendants!). I’ve certainly never, ever spotted one.

    The obvious solution has been kicking around for a few years already: paid toilets. There’s what – one? Somewhere around Times Square? When are they going to roll them out “citywide” (i.e. Manhattan-wide) already.

  10. Al D says:

    I would think that 1 of the last places in NYC any NYer would want to end up in is a MTA NYCT bathroom. I, a longtime NYer, would NEVER go in. I even hesitate at Grand Central (not so much any more), Penn and Port Authority Bus Terminal.

    A much better option is to find a Starbucks, Dunkin’, McDs, Barnes & Noble, Borders. Places that serve food and have a certain number of seats (the actual # escapes me) are required by law to have a bathroom.

  11. aestrivex says:

    i had to use the bathroom recently at 179 st on the F in queens. somehow i remembered that station had an open bathroom from a very long time ago. it was rather grotesque, but i survived. i would do it again, if i needed to.

  12. Someone says:

    Who cares? All of them stink and they should demolish every one of them ASAP


  1. […] some photographs and writing up a witty overview of what I would find. Eventually, amNew York beat me to it, and I’m glad they did. I’ve used a subway restroom only once in my life (8th Ave./42nd […]

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