Pipe Dreams: Or, How the NYC Bathroom Is the Last Great Barrier to Full-Fledged Adulthood

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My friend Sarah has the perfect bathroom. Decently sized and situated off a short hallway, it’s neither too far from the bedroom nor directly adjacent to the living room or kitchen. There’s a working fan. The toilet neither clogs nor runs. I’ve never tried the shower, but given the robust water pressure and reliable temperature controls of the faucet on the sink, I’m sure it, too, is perfect. The sink is a pristine pedestal model, set solidly into the floor; the white subway tiles directly reflect the effort she puts into cleaning them, and—wonder of wonders—there’s a window. It’s in the shower, but a window still.

Perhaps it is strange to possess such an intimate command of the details of another individual’s most personal space, but so be it. I’m strangely obsessed. One of the first things I notice when visiting a stranger’s apartment is the state of the bathroom. This isn’t garden-variety medicine cabinet snooping I’m talking about, or even an ordinary level of fastidiousness; I could not care less about who has a Valtrex prescription and don’t mind if it’s been a while since someone scrubbed the toilet. I care about dampness and mold and flaking paint, about visible rust and the sluggishness of the drain, about recent renovations and how well they were done and, most of all, whether there’s a window. 

I’ve lived in my apartment for six years now, and I would gladly live in it six more but for one reason: I hate the bathroom so much. Only after repeated threats to call the Department of Buildings did my landlord install a fan, which has no discernible effect except collecting a greasy film of dust. As a result nothing, not even a toothbrush, can be kept there without immediately sprouting mildew, so my roommates and I—all grown women in our thirties—schlep our towels and toiletries to and fro like backpackers in a low-rent hostel. In the mid-90s (judging by the IKEA vintage) it was subjected to a renovation that was exceptionally lazy and shoddy even by NYC landlord standards. The door is made of a kind of particleboard that seems to amplify noise rather than muffle it, and perhaps ten years ago someone repaired a hole in it created by the doorstop spring (the spring itself has since disappeared) with a piece of blue electrical tape. Where tiles aren’t missing, they’re gradually disintegrating into the floor, leaving a gritty gray dust impervious to any broom or vacuum cleaner. The vanity-sink hybrid is following the building’s slow fate of settling unevenly into the ground. Consequently, the vanity door no longer closes completely, instead lingering two or three inches open at all times. The side panel periodically falls off, though it can be pounded back into place with a fist. And finally, on the ceiling just above the reach of a ladder is a dingy fluorescent fixture, perpetually half-lit and crusted with dead bugs. The light it casts is somehow both dim and harsh, extremely unflattering and certainly the cause of some serious damage to my self-esteem.

On the plus side, although the toilet runs, the flushing mechanism is vigorous enough to power a small vehicle, and you can throw anything in there with the complete confidence you will never see it again.

Obviously my bathroom does not have a window.

For someone who is not a carpenter or a contractor, I spend a lot of time thinking about windows. Living in New York requires sacrifices both large and small, but one of the most trying on a daily basis is performing the activities that would most benefit from exposure to fresh air and sunshine in a room completely devoid of both. I thought this obsession was a weird quirk, a deformed response to my own sub-par circumstances, but when I mentioned the subject of this article to a few friends—professional adults who live in very standard New York City apartments—their responses were immediate and passionate:

“I hate a lot of things, but ugh, the mildew that grows between the tiles in my shower. Just ugh.”

“It’s basically exactly like the bathroom in an airplane except it’s bright pink and in the kitchen.”

“It’s so small that you can’t actually take off your clothes IN the bathroom because there’s no room to lift your elbows, so you have to get undressed outside before you shower.”

“It makes me rethink my life choice to live in New York.”

It’s something to keep in mind at parties anyway: No matter how accomplished or confident or put together another New Yorker may seem, at the end of the day, most of us end up in the same tiny, dank rooms, spitting toothpaste into the same stained and slowly-draining sinks and hating every second of it. Our dreams are of white tile and thunderous water pressure, professional sound-proofing, and doors that both close and lock.

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When I visit the dentist, I flip through Dwell and fantasize about a gigantic soaking tub so heavy it would fall through the floor without additional structural support and those basin sinks with eternity edges. I look at shining stainless steel fixtures and floor-to-ceiling windows and piles of fluffy, dry towels within easy reach of the shower. At the end of my exam, my dentist chastises me for not flossing enough.

“What’s stopping you?” he asks.

I don’t floss enough because I can’t stand spending a minute longer than necessary in my bathroom, but that’s way too embarrassing and bizarre to admit out loud, so I smile and promise to do better next time.

Waiting for the elevator, the following crosses my mind: I think I understand why some people floss on the subway.

The thought is so immediately horrifying that I spend the rest of the afternoon watching DIY videos on YouTube. I recently replaced the faucet and installed one of those hotel-style shower curtain rods. I probably won’t get my security deposit back, but it’s worth it.

Photo by Jane Bruce

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