No restroom for the weary

KEVIN COWHERD

August 30, 1991|By Kevin Cowherd

IF YOU ARE anywhere near as vigilant as I am -- and, frankly, that's probably not possible -- you've noticed an alarming trend in public restrooms.

In the old days, it was easy to figure out which restroom you were supposed to use.

A man would use the restrooms identified by a sign saying "Men" or "Gentlemen." A woman would use the restrooms identified as being for "Women" or "Ladies."

Life was good. The system worked beautifully. And, as befitting our status as the greatest nation on Earth, there was never a reason for any citizen to pause outside a restroom and scratch his or her head thoughtfully and say: "Gee, I . . . I wonder which door would best suit my personal hygiene needs?"

Then, I don't know, something happened. Me, I blame it on the '70s. All I know is, in addition to giving us disco, lime-green leisure suits and long sideburns, the '70s ushered in the era of the cute, gimmicky restroom sign.

Pretty soon restrooms had signs that said "Guys" and "Dolls." Or the supremely irritating "Stags" and "Does."

Oh, it was enough to make you sick. Not to mention confused. Bars and restaurants were the worst offenders, especially "theme" bars and restaurants.

Country and western bars had restrooms for "Buckaroos" and "Buckarettes." Seafood joints marked their restrooms with (perhaps the all-time worst) "Buoys" and "Gulls."

If ever there was a time to leave the country, this was it. And they wondered why I kept my passport up-to-date.

(True story: I once ate in a famous New York restaurant designed like the inside of a train. The seats looked like they were pulled from Amtrak club cars, the menus read like train schedules, the ** waiters were dressed as conductors, etc. You get the picture. A slice of hell on Earth.

(Anyway, fearing the worst, I excused myself at one point and asked the maitre d': "Where's the little engineer's room?"

("Sir," he replied stiffly, "do you mean the men's room?"

L (Naturally, I was mortified. But only for about two seconds.

("It's back in the caboose," he said.)

Which brings us to the disturbing new trend in the marking of restroom doors: Stick figures.

I first noticed this nightmarish development when I visited the office building where a friend worked.

The place was one of those cold, imposing, steel-and-glass corporate centers devoted solely to the making of money, which meant I felt right at home. In fact, I had to check the urge to fill out a resume right then and there.

Anyway, during a fun discussion about mergers, acquisitions and the best way to foreclose on an elderly widow's house, I had to use the restroom. One of the office androids with the requisite pinstriped suit and vacant personality pointed me in the right direction.

But when I got to the restrooms, I was faced with this dilemma: Which door to enter? Neither door had a sign saying "Men" nor "Women." Instead, each had a tiny stick figure affixed to it.

Now here is the thing about stick figures: By and large, they are pretty sexually ambiguous. Call me dense, but I usually can't tell a boy stick figure from a girl stick figure.

Then I noticed one stick figure had a lower torso in the shape of an inverted V. Was that a woman stick figure in a skirt? Or a man stick figure wearing a raincoat?

Anyway, you can only dwell on this kind of stuff for so long when nature calls. So finally I just picked a door and walked in. Then I spotted the urinals, so I was OK.

Since then, I have noticed stick figures identifying restrooms in shopping malls, airports, stadiums and arenas, you name it.

And the reaction of the people who use these restrooms is always the same. They have to pause for a moment to make sure they're going in the right door.

You should not have to pause and think on your way to the restroom, especially in an airport. Airports are nerve-wracking places to begin with. People hurry about wrapped up in their own thoughts, which usually center around their plane slamming into the side of a cliff or setting down for an emergency landing in some desolate Iowa cornfield.

The last thing a person in an airport needs is the added stress that comes with having to decipher stick figures on a restroom door.

OC Although I suppose anything is better than "Buoys" and "Gulls."

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