I wrote most of the following piece a couple years ago at the urging of an editor for Travel + Leisure magazine; perhaps not surprisingly, it was a bit too abject for their tastes. Luckily I had a chance to revisit this material for my new mini Object Lesson up the Atlantic, "Consider the Lavatory."
*Have you ever found yourself in the airplane lavatory, inspecting your visage in the hazy mirror, staged in the dim light, wondering how long you’ve been standing there, how much longer you can get away with it before another passenger or a flight attendant knocks on the door? It’s a little pentagon of privacy in the otherwise public oval of the airplane. But you can't stay for long.
From the Middle English lavatorie and the Medieval Latin lavatorium, both from the Latin lavare (to wash)—how do our modern airplane bathrooms cling to this ancient appellation? There is something weirdly timeless about this space: once you go in and shut the stiff yet flimsy plastic door, everything else in the airplane vanishes, muffled in some near distance. It is a place full of mystery and suspense.
There's the small sink with faucet of uncertain water pressure—is it going to shoot out with surprising force, or just dribble onto your fingers? There are the myriad signs, minimalist icons implying warnings and instructing things like DO NOT OPEN and DEPOSIT WASTE HERE. Red stripes of caution slash through simple humanoid forms. It is a tight space, over-brimming with communications. In the lavatory when the captain makes an announcement, for once it may sound like the captain is speaking to you alone. Occasionally you'll be in there when the plane starts shaking and a calm icon illuminates with a ding, a placid command: return to your seat.
Then there is the small molded toilet with its sketchy seat, the hinged and bouncing metal flap at the bottom of the bowl (sometimes laden with soggy toilet paper or worse), and the vortex of “blue juice” sucking into the void. Do you sit or try to stay propped up, awkwardly hovering over the bowl? How clean is this place, anyway? In fact, airlines are usually pretty good at cleaning lavatories regularly and thoroughly (I know—I used to have this job). As germ-filled and claustrophobic as the lavatory may feel when you are in it, it’s also likely that it is one of the cleanest public bathrooms you’ll ever use.
Once I entered a lavatory and was surprised to see the tiny sink filled with what at first looked like trash. When I looked closer, it was actually a rather careful arrangement of sanitizing napkins—the sink was inoperable, so a clever flight attendant had placed a bouquet of packaged hand wipes in the sink, and taped a note to the mirror instructing the passengers to use these instead of washing their hands. The lavatory became a place for creative problem solving. Such initiative, such industry!
Down the aisle, passengers sit and stare at the red cartoon that denotes OCCUPIED. Who is in there, and why are they taking so long? But these two experiences of time are so different, inside and outside the lav. Outside, in a cramped seat, time drags on and it can be hard to focus on things. But in the lavatory time stands still, and everything is in focus. It’s a small, usually windowless room where everything pops into distinction, and yet where everything becomes strange, too. Where exactly are you, here? “Lavatory”—the very name bespeaks some sort of untimely place, some space out of joint. What rhymes with lavatory? A priori.
So why do we retain this odd sounding word? Does it supply a bit more decorum on that most abject space visited during the already uncomfortable experience of flight? Perhaps the name makes the place sound more regal than its austere reality. If so, the lavatory may function as a metonymy for the whole experience of commercial flight: it’s made to sound better, or at least different, than it really is.