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Monday, February 20, 2012

Adventures in grassroot activism

I have a problem with American toilets.

In Israel where privacy is a non-issue – where people know pretty much everything about you; when you walk into a store there is always someone who rummages through the contents of your purse, and people are not too shy to ask you how much money you make or why you got divorced, and they even feel they have the right to look over your shoulder when you withdraw money from the ATM – when you are in the toilet no one knows what it is you’re up to.

Meanwhile in America, where people can kill or die to defend their privacy, you can’t find privacy even when you are in the toilet.

Case in point: The communal toilets in my workplace don’t have real walls between them (all 30+ stalls I have counted so far). They have plastic planks that neither reach the ceiling nor touch the floor, and the space surrounding the doors is wide enough to allow an innocent bystander to get a glimpse of what the woman behind these walls is doing.

I once wondered why the privilege of privacy does not exist in American communal bathrooms and found out that the goal was to ensure that no sexual activity occurs behind the doors. But the famous case of the now defunct senator Larry Craig has proven to unenlightened me that it was the space between these walls that allowed for sex encounters in communal bathrooms to occur (I am not using the word “public” here because at my workplace, only those who work in the building can use the bathrooms).

So I am still at a loss.

However, since I can do nothing to change that architectural abomination, I never tried to challenge it.

But there is a limit to my silence.

Last week, upon one of my visits to the communal toilets at my workplace I noticed that the toilet paper dispensers were replaced by new dispensers that included a loose metal-flap that covered the toilet paper roll (image above). I didn’t give it much thought until the moment I had to use the dispenser and realized that it entailed a struggle. The metal flap kept falling on my hand, slapping me to stop pulling on the roll.

On my next visit to the bathroom, again I found myself fighting that metal flap, trying to outsmart it for an extra square of tissue paper.

Now, if this ungodly dispenser was placed in a movie theater or a restaurant I don't frequent, I wouldn’t have given this undignified struggle a second thought. We, women, suffer many undignified moments in life and this one was just another inconvenience. But now it was happening at my workplace, where I spend most of my waking hours…

So I decided to take action. But first I needed to get down to the bottom of this problem.

I called someone I thought might know something about the issue and asked him a few questions. This is what I found out:

1. The new dispensers, which also include a different type of toilet paper rolls, were installed by the company who makes them. They did not cost a penny to my employer.
2. The new dispensers were installed to save time for the janitors. They are built for larger rolls so the janitors do not have to replace them as often (I beg to differ on this point but that’s a minor issue.)
3. There were already a few complaints regarding these new unsanitary dispensers. Apparently people have to touch them to get the paper and touching anything in a communal bathroom is not advisable.
4. I can email someone (name withheld) and express my concern and this someone can forward my email to someone else who might or might not do something about it.

Ah, the good old American way. Send an email up the chain, express concern – preferably without curse words, and remember to keep documenting the problem and be ready to provide a proof upon request – and then hope for the best.

This way of doing things may sound acceptable and maybe efficient if you were born into a system that respects rules and etiquette and you happened to internalized it on top of it. But not if deep inside, you are still a raging Israeli. I was not going to fall into that email trap. One email here and there would get me nowhere in this bureaucratic labyrinth. I had to approach this problem with some ingenuity. I wanted results, and I wanted them fast.

I decided to pass a petition among my female colleagues. It started with “We want our old toilet paper dispensers back,” and ended with a short list of “challenges” these dispensers posed for us. (As you may know by now, “problem” is a dirty word in American English. Here we only have “challenges.”)

The response to my petition was overwhelmingly positive. Only two women chose not sign it. One lady said she never signed petitions, and another had no problem with the new contraption (bless her agreeable soul). All the other women were more than happy to sign the petition and share their toilet paper horror stories. One lady described to me how the metal flap tore her pants, and another, not only brought to my attention that the new toilet paper rolls were narrower than the old toilet paper rolls as well as of a poorer quality, she also described an ingenious way in which one unidentified bathroom visitor addressed the problem by rearranging the toilet paper in the dispenser in such a way that fighting to get it out would be less harrowing for other users.

After I collected enough signatures to fill a page (14 including mine), I scanned my petition and emailed it along with some chosen anecdotes, encapsulated by positive thoughts and female righteousness, up the chain.

That night I was besieged by doubts. Will I get fired for organizing a toilet paper mutiny at the workplace? Did I go too far in my demands? Would I be better off if I kept my mouth shut? Am I creating new enemies?

In the morning, shortly after I arrived at my office, a stranger came in, asking to talk to Galia. He was holding my petition. I didn’t know who he was and I was not sure how to respond. He was standing at the door looking at me. I was doomed.

I confessed that I was the person who sent the petition and begged for mercy. I was prepared to apologize. To my utter surprise the man told me he was the manager of building operations and that he had decided to bring back the old toilet paper dispensers. He then recounted the story of how the new dispensers came to be (donated and installed by the supplier) and the entire drama that surrounded the new dispensers from all corners of the building. He then promised me that the problem would be resolved in a very short time.

I asked him: So I am not in trouble for organizing a toilet paper mutiny?

He said: This is a free country. You can say whatever you want.

WOW. Don’t you love America?
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Moral of the story: Activism from the bottom up. It works!