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Monday, February 20, 2012

Adventures in grassroot activism

I have a problem with American toilets.

In Israel, privacy is a non-issue. When you walk into a store there is always a security guard who rummages through your purse or backpack looking for a bomb; people are not too shy to ask 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. But when you are in the toilet, no one knows what you’re up to.

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

Let me explain: The communal toilets in my workplace don’t have real walls between them. They have plastic planks that neither reach the ceiling nor touch the floor, and the gaps surrounding the doors are wide enough to allow innocent bystanders to get a glimpse of what is happening inside. I have seen this abomination countless times around the country, restaurants, airports, movie theaters, schools and the list goes on and on

I once wondered why privacy does not exist in American public bathrooms and found out that the goal was to prevent sexual activity in the toilet stalls. But as the famous case of the disgraced Senator Larry Craig has shown, it was precisely the space in the stall partitions that allowed for unmentionable shenanigans to occur.

So I was still at a loss. But since there was nothing I could do to change this architectural atrocity, I had learned to live with it. But there is a limit to the indignities I can endure and remain silent.

One day, while I was using the toilets at work, I noticed that the toilet paper dispensers had been replaced and the new dispensers sported a loose metal flap that covered the paper roll. I didn’t give it much thought until the moment I actually had to use toilet paper and realized that it entailed a struggle. The metal flap kept falling on my hand, stopping me from pulling on the roll. The next time I went to the bathroom, I again found myself fighting that metal flap, trying to outsmart it for an extra square of paper.

Now, had I encountered this ungodly dispenser in a movie theater or restaurant, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. We women suffer many indignities and this would be just another gift to reminds us of our place in society. But it was happening at my workplace, where I spend most of my waking hours… So I decided to take action.

First, I made some inquiries, and this is what I found out:

1. The new dispensers, which also included a different type of paper roll, were installed by the company who made them. They did not cost my employer a penny.
2. The new dispensers were installed to save time for the janitors. They were built for larger rolls so the janitors would not have to replace them as often. I beg to differ on this point since more than once I was stranded there without anything resembling toilet paper, but that’s beside the point. And yes, I accept your sympathy.
3. There were already a few complaints regarding these new dispensers. Apparently, people had to touch them to get the paper, and touching anything in a communal bathroom is icky.
4. I could email someone and express my concern and this someone could forward my email to someone else who may or may 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 document everything and be ready to provide proof upon request – and then hope for the best.

This way of doing things may sound acceptable and may even be efficient if you were born into a system that respects rules and etiquette and you happened to internalize it. But not if deep inside you are still a raging Israeli. I was not going to fall into the email trap. One email here and there would get me nowhere in this bureaucratic labyrinth. I had to approach this problem with ingenuity.

I decided to circulate 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. You may be aware that “problem” is a dirty word in American English. Here we only have “challenges” and “concerns.”

The response to my petition was overwhelmingly positive. Only two women didn’t sign it. One said she never signed petitions, and the other had no problem with the new contraption, bless her agreeable soul. All the other women were more than happy to sign and share their toilet paper horror stories. One woman described how the metal flap had torn her pants. Another not only confirmed that the new rolls were narrower than the old ones, but pointed out that they were also of a poorer quality. She then described an ingenious way in which one unidentified bathroom visitor rearranged the toilet paper in such a way that fighting to get it out would be less harrowing.

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

That night I was sleepless with anxiety. Will I get fired for organizing a workplace toilet paper mutiny? Did I go too far with my demands? Would I be better off if I had kept my mouth shut? Was I creating new enemies?

At work the next morning, a stranger came into my office, asking for 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 wanted to duck under my desk. My knees were shaking.

I confessed that I was the person who sent the petition and begged for mercy. I was prepared to apologize, beg for forgiveness. Just don’t fire me. I’m a single mom, an immigrant. I’m saving for retirement. Please.

To my utter surprise, the man told me he was the building operations manager and that he had decided to bring back the old toilet paper dispensers. He said that the offending contraption had created unpleasantness and complaints throughout the building. He then promised me that the problem would be resolved in no time.

“So I am not in trouble for organizing a toilet paper mutiny?” I asked, feebly.
 “It’s a free country,” he shrugged. “You can say whatever you want.”
I wanted to give him a big hug, but instead I just said, “That’s why I love America.”


  1. Hahahaha! Perfectly and accurately stated. big acts are sometimes needed to bring about small changes