January 1999
s m u g
by Gentry Lane


The Last Time I Saw Paris...
In Memory of the Public Urinal and Critical Discourse on the Mechanical Toilet

Of course everybody has their private itineraries when traveling to Paris. While Le Tour Eiffle and Le Louvre are all old standards, some travelers are compelled to discover obscure cathedrals and peruse rare bookshops. Others are fascinated to walk among the dead in the catacombs or notorious cemeteries. In my case it was les toilets de Paris that piqued my curiosity.

During my first trip to Paris, I made a pilgrimage to the intersections of Rue Abbe de l'Epee & Rue St. Jacques to visit Henry Miller's oft written about favorite public urinal. Why he favored this urinal, we're not sure. It's perverse location directly next to a school for the deaf and mute might provide some clue. Miller confessed a great attraction to these smallish, convenient bowers. While nothing more than a basin and a sheet of trellised- metal to provide relative privacy, Miller credited the French for having the good taste to build them in the most advantageous spots.

A year later during my next visit, I was much dismayed by the apparent removal of The Henry Miller Preferred Public Urinal. In a discussion with French friends I learned that all public urinals were removed or in the process of being removed. It seemed that there was no need for the out-of-date urinals since public mechanical toilets proliferated.

"But it's tradition!" I insisted. When pressed further, their explanation was this: Curiously, it seemed baguettes had been appearing in the urinal basins. Left perhaps by some really inept Parisian on his way home from the boulangerie, a public urinal isn't the most sanitary place to leave your loaf. For several months the mysterious spontaneous baguette appearances about town remained a ruse. However, a secret police investigation revealed that the basin bread did not appear by accident or coincidence. It seems perverts were purposely leaving baguettes specifically to be urinated upon, so that they could return later to pick up their pre-moistened snack which could then be eaten immediately with kinky delight.

When word leaked (pun intended) to the press, Parisians were outraged. And in typical French reaction, it was announced thatall public urinals would be removed. Who says the French don't have high moral and hygienic standards?

In Paris, it's unacceptable to just run in and use a restaurant or cafe's toilet, if you haven't eaten there. Although the situation doesn't usually pose much of a problem since it's true that mechanical toilets are conveniently everywhere in Paris proper. They're clean, efficient and only cost 2F (about 50 cents).

One drops in their coinage on the outside of the vestibule in order to get the door to slide open. Once seated, you have 15 minutes in which to do your duty. You're provided with plenty of soft, high-quality toilet paper and total security, as there are no door handles on the outside. It's a little unnerving to be so close to traffic noises, since most mechanical toilets are located right next to the street. I often worry that a car could come careening of the road and into my toilet, but the likelihood is probably pretty slim.

When finished, there is a small basin located behind the toilet that functions as both a sink and hand dryer. Stick your hands in it once, and a small stream of tepid water pours out for as long as you keep your hands under the sensor. Remove them, then replace a moment later, and an electric hand dryer will blow just enough warm air to do the drying job. After you exit the chamber, it flushes for you and goes into self-cleaning mode before the next person is permitted to enter.

There has been some debate as to whether these mechanical toilets waste water. In order to maintain high sanitary standards of which their makers boast, it's necessary for a complete top-to-bottom rinsing between customers. No spritz of perfume and swish of blue in the bowl, these mechanical really go to town on themselves, supposedly with water jets that blast, fill and clean every square inch.

About a year ago tragedy and scandal ensued when a Gypsy toddler slipped into a public toilet that had just been vacated, only to meet her death by drowning when the toilet went into self-cleaning mode. Leave it to the damn Gypsies to taint a good thing. Granted a child's life is quite a sacrifice, I rest easier at night, and I am happy to report to you dear readers, that they do fill entirely to the top with water.



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