Going backstage – thoughts on searching for a small room

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This is one of those essay ideas that springs to mind and meets an immediate voice of caution. No one else does it, so neither should you. No one writes essays about the expeditionary practices of navigating your way ‘backstage’ in a search for a cafe or pub’s toilets. But I’m afraid the temptation to venture into this barren zone was too great to bear. So, here it is. A reflective journey on half-remembered searches for the sanctuary spaces buried deep in someone else’s private territory. It is also about why these islands of public convenience exist and why it feels odd to venture in search of them. Rest assured that, in what follows I don’t dwell on the toilet. The piece is largely about the liminal space encountered in the search. The journey is the interesting bit, not the arrival.

‘I may be some time’

For me the best part of a trip out to a pub, cafe or restaurant is the opportunity to sneak off to the toilet. No, this is not a confession of cottaging or drug dependency, rather a celebration of the opportunity to pass beyond the public face of a commercial establishment that searching the bowels of a building for its loos presents.

Often the journey starts with a 360 degree survey of the scene, trying not to be too obvious or to intrude into the private jollity of other parties in the room. Then, hopefully, a sign or a pattern will emerge in the way that occasionally people walk off stage into areas that are not the entrance/exit. If lucky there will be someone else in your party who has already made the trek. Ask them in a whisper if they will point you onward. But before asking them, or the staff here, first perhaps a conscious pause for thought about which of the many words you carry around for ‘the bog’ is suitable for this establishment.

Then, with a route set, you are off and walking increasingly purposefully across the room, gliding between others’ tables, trying to make it all seem perfectly natural (which it is). But – still – on the way there and on the way back you can’t help but feel that everyone is watching. Everyone knows what you are up to.

After an eternity of room-gaze crossing you are there, at a turn, a doorway, some other change of scene that announces that you are at the threshold, at the brink of ‘backstage’. The transition is signalled by a narrowing of passage, a sudden chaotic density of space-use: watch out for the buckets, the stores, the equipment occupying this narrow indoor lane. And in contrast to the room you were just in – the commercial space – the here you are now in is empty of people. Sounds echo out from the kitchen, a clatter of pots, the hum of an extractor fan, tinny fragments of voices or music from a rusty radio drift towards you – but no-one ever comes out into the passage. And for that you are glad, because you don’t feel entirely sure that you have the right to be here. This anxiety spurs another rapid visual survey, a reflex anticipated by the more considerate establishments, who will have posted some ‘onward’ instructional signage. Although often this may have more of a feel of telling you which turns not to take: the ‘private – staff only’ commands on every door you are not meant to stray through.

The best loo-hunting journeys require a tour of long winding corridors, with bends and puzzling junctions, then stairs – an up or a down – some more winding walking and eventually (at the moment you are about to doubt either your own navigation or the sincerity of the signage that you have been putting your faith in) the destination is upon you.

Soon the realisation hits you, that you have strayed deep into the backstage area. Visits to Berlin from the West must have felt this way (sort of). Here you are, in a public enclave deep in foreign private territory. Perhaps you are no longer even in the same building. Did those stairs and winding passages take you out of the pub? Have you, Alice-like, been lured into some parallel universe, one like an earnest early 1970s sci-fi film where all the humans have disappeared and you will spend you remaining days solely in the company of the rusty radio, catering sized tins of baked beans and dull polished metal surfaces?

Within the loo cubicle there is some womb-like comfort born of universal functionality (all loo china-wear looks the same even if there is marked diversity in states of cleanliness). But there will also be varieties and ages of hand dryer, paper towel dispenser and ventilation ducts. How many decades have these things been this way? Time moves more slowly out the back. Surfaces are more approximate. This a world of ‘make do’, in contrast to the annual upgrade and daily wipe clean of the commercial space that you have now strayed from.

Looking at these devices you may try to date their designs. You may linger over the manufacturer plate riveted onto the dryer as it blows water from your hands. ‘World Dryer Corp’, and their HQ in a mid-west  industrial US city that you’ve never heard of, where they seem to  breed dryers at a world dominating rate. A whole city devoted to producing a clone dryer army. Maybe.

Then perhaps the window catches your eye, slightly ajar. Is that because of the thick layers of paint on the metal frame now prevent it from closing, or is this an attempt at ventilation? If sufficiently open, there may be a chance to peek though it and glimpse a yard area beyond. A private little, tumble down world that is not designed to be viewed by patrons, and yet if glimpsed tells you so much about the manner of this place.

For me the best images glimpsed from these window slits are of delivered piles of stores: bulk and boxed legion of ingredients. A catering supply delivery, a surfeit of stuff, more than a life-time’s horde of ketchup sachets. That abundance, stripped of any presentational flair, is naked commerce. What you are glimpsing is the reception point where everything is tipped into this building, this business, and will eventually appear heated, portioned and presented in the eating zone. Things are instigated here and from this point forward value is ‘added’.

But hey, you can’t stay here all day. So thoughts turn to the return, and its uncertainty. Why do these places often have less directional signage on the return journey?  Is one stumbling trek really sufficient to have done away with the need for return-ward pointers? In the worst cases there will be doors, identical in colour. One will be the way back into the living, commercial realm, the others will lead who knows where (the kitchen probably). In moments like that you may wish for an Ariadne’s thread. Or maybe you could have sprinkled bread crumbs. But either would be very hard to explain if you did encounter some backstage staff.

The origins of these reluctant spaces

The experience of delving into an alien territory – of going backstage – doesn’t arise with purpose built venues. There are no winding corridors, no intriguing staircases, no over-painted window frames. In short, there is no journey. The toilet zones of multiplex cinemas (for example) are close to hand, designed into the building from the start. They are not an afterthought that requires an expedition.

No, it is older buildings and their provision of their sanitary conveniences in areas other than the core commercial zone that have these enticing effects of taking you ‘backstage’. In these places these toilets were once private, this area was never designed or intended for public gaze. And yet a requirement came along and had to be accommodated. Backstage had to be opened up because loos had to be provided for the patrons. Access was therefore reluctantly inserted into the static layout of the building, and the public permitted to pass into the backstage solely for the purpose of  reaching them.

And the origin of those requirements? Well, there is a widely held view that cafes and bars must provide WCs for their patrons. Digging in, to try to find the root of this requirement, I find earnest parliamentary debate about public toilet provision, I find legislation and I find British Standards. The best picture I can glean is that the (splendidly titled) Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 empowers local councils to take action against owners of establishments at which food and drink is served if they fail to provide sanitary conveniences. But the 1976 Act does not compel this, local authorities do not have to crusade in favour of such provision, and therefore (according to the British Toilet Association [yes there really is one]) local enforcement practice varies wildly between different local authority areas. Some care strongly about enforcing this, others don’t. Public toilets in such places therefore exist either in vague rumour based anticipation of possible council requirements or as a result of actual intervention.

Whatever the specifics of the origins of this optional legislative control, it is (for me at least) instructive to think that the oddness felt when venturing backstage in search of the toilet is actually a liminal experience for all concerned. For the environmental health officer ‘it depends’ on local practices and policies, for the owner he’s left unsure, for the patron he feels uneasy as he steps backstage.

A trip into backstage areas in search of the loo is thus an opportunity to savour the materialities of these public/private, voluntary/mandatory, welcoming/reluctant, old/new  ambiguities in regulators’, owners’ and users’ engagements with place.

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About lukebennett13
Senior Lecturer & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: http://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

19 Responses to Going backstage – thoughts on searching for a small room

  1. I love this because I’m similar to you in a way- I do enjoy doing it as well!
    I laughed a lot reading this and this line it’s my favorite: “Visits to Berlin from the West must have felt this way (sort of).” Haha love it!

  2. Julianna says:

    It’s a lot like getting past the “small talk” and into the real core of a person’s mind and heart. Spot on with the beauty of it…

  3. Excellent! The best topics are the ones that seem so prosaic that no one else is writing about them. There, truly, lies the universal that everyone can relate to – so common there is no need to mention it. Your descriptions are spot-on – I’ve been in that very place!
    I like asking to use the facilities in establishments that advertise “no public restroom,” like used-book stores and plant nurseries. These are some of the best “small rooms.”
    Once when I was in Uganda, the rattle-trap bus in which we were riding stopped to let us use the loo. It turned out to be a hole in the ground behind a concrete block wall. Some of the ladies declined, but I was up for the adventure and did not fall in. Now *that* would really have been a liminal space!
    Thanks for sharing, thanks to WordPress for Freshly Pressing this – great fun! Congratulations!

  4. Karl Drobnic says:

    I share your interest in what that particular journey of self-interested discovery can bring. Sometimes along the corridors and passages there hints to earlier uses of the building, giving the commercial venue to the front a footing in history. In trying discern where the facility is located, I try to spot the plumbing. A water station at the front has to have a drain, which probably ties into the older drain system. A faucet at the front has to tie into the water supply system. In older buildings, pipes are often exposed or barely concealed, and they can lead you to your goal. Plumbing is always expensive, and it will take the most convenient route through the maze.

  5. daisy says:

    What a fun post. This line was great, “trying to make it all seem perfectly natural (which it is).” It speaks to the whole tenor of your post — both the introspection and the greater sense of community involvement in searching out these “islands of public convenience.”

  6. nateokonkwo says:

    Reblogged this on OnlineMarketing.

  7. cannopener says:

    Genuinely novel (so rare these days!) and extremely relatable. I grinned at the parallel universe idea. Love it. And my experience of these journeys will be even more enjoyable in future with this essay in mind.

    I recently needed the ‘facilities’ twice during a trip to the hairdresser and accidentally discovered they had two separate, equally but differently grotty, loos. That was surreal.

  8. bzirk says:

    Loved it. And share the experience, often. I live in the Midwest but I don’t think we make warm air dryers anymore. Shame.

  9. Michelle says:

    Your writing is fantastic. While I rarely have the chance to explore the “backstage” of older buildings, I can relate to much of what you wrote. Even in smaller restaurants, I attempt to make the most of my bathroom journey. I experience the feeling that “everyone is watching” and the pang in not knowing if I “have the right to be” wherever I wandered to. It’s comforting to know that other people actually feel the same way I do! Taking time to explore these places and to observe all the details isn’t a way of stalling; it’s thoughtful reflection of our surroundings. In this way, a simple action becomes an experience.

  10. Totally relate to it. I once ended up in the kitchen of the restaurant during one of my hunts :/

  11. Your writing is fantastic. While I rarely have the chance to explore the “backstage” of older buildings, I can relate to much of what you wrote. Even in smaller restaurants, I attempt to make the most of my bathroom journey. I experience the feeling that “everyone is watching” and the pang in not knowing if I “have the right to be” wherever I wandered to. It’s comforting to know that other people actually feel the same way I do! Taking time to explore these places and to observe all the details isn’t a way of stalling; it’s thoughtful reflection of our surroundings. In this way, a simple action becomes an experience.

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  12. There is a whole other post to write on the — ugh-ness, for lack of a better word — of using a squat toilet, often found (cubicle sized) in older Paris bars. Try this in the winter, as a woman wearing tights, trousers, leggings…beyond gross, smelly, slippery and uncomfortable.

    Caffe Reggio, circa 1927, in NYC may have the smallest toilet area I have ever seen anywhere. I grappled with it this week and it’s almost impossible to emerge unbruised.

    A wise bar or restaurant owner realizes how essential a clean, safe, nicely designed bathroom is. And, being NYC, there was even a recent NYT article about the graffiti wars in a loo near Columbia University.

    http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/17/an-effort-to-maintain-civil-discourse-on-the-walls-of-a-bathroom/

  13. Excellent topic! I remember several eating/drinking establishments, not by the menu, the wine, or the meal, but the trip to the loo!! I love the exploration and the almost giddy feeling when I realize, once I cross the first backstage threshold, that there is an exploration to be had. Blessed stairs! Blessed twisting tunnel! An ancient pub in the Cornwall region had me cross a timeless courtyard to another building. (sigh…bliss!)

  14. vandysnape says:

    Loved it ! :)
    The feeling as if everyone in the room knows what you are upto is absolutely true and it is the longest walk. Usually, I feel quite apprehensive about going ‘backstage’ because I feel I am in a a place where I shouldn’t be and the dark gloomy setting scares me. Now, I think I will feel differently. You made it sound so thrilling.
    Great essay !

  15. What an original piece. From now on, i intend to preface any trip to the toilet of a pub or cafe with the phrase, ‘i’m just going backstage’. I have my own memories of this hinterland as a trip to the bog of an old country pub led me to a dusty, cobwebbed function room, with a battered stage. A full brass band of instruments was sitting gathering dust as if the band had simply stopped playing, put their trombones and trumpets down, and left the room…never to return. I just about managed to resist a blast on a french horn (i was concerned about what creepy crawlies might now be living in it).

  16. atempleton says:

    Great post. Brings to mind slightly scary trips to the basement of restaurants, etc. I will also add that when making these journeys in a foreign country, you have to take everything you said to 10 to the 27th.

  17. Thanks all for your comments, I’m heartened that I’m not the only one who sees this as exciting everyday adventuring!

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