Column: Rest stop


When Joni Mitchell sang, “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?” she was probably thinking of the environment.

But she could just as well been singing of the relief provided by a few minutes in a porta-potty.

During summer in the United States, the porta-potty is ubiquitous and indispensable. It goes by many names; porta-san, porta-potty, Johnny on the spot, Portaloo and kybo (more about that later.)

Although I know it isn’t ladylike to say, I am a fan of the portable toilet. For decades I lived in a house with one bathroom, inviting overnight guests to share our home and hearth, and secretly hoping they would consider the bushes for their other needs. Many were the weekends when I could have used a porta-potty in the back yard.

Last week, over 10,000 people biked and ate their way across Iowa, camping and drinking beer for seven days and six nights. An annual event since 1973, the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) is a rolling State Fair complete with mud, pork chops, mosquitoes, scorching heat and downpours enlivened by the occasional funnel cloud. I can testify from personal experience that without the porta-potty, or kybo as they’re called in Iowa, there would be no RAGBRAI.

Each day the route averages 65 miles past pancake breakfasts at the local VFW, bake sales at the Lutheran Church and, a few miles before day’s end, a pop-up beer garden for the refreshment of flagging riders. And lots of kybos. The chorus of Iowa writer, R Bruhn’s ode to the kybo captures the mystique of the device:

“Kybo! Kybo! Blue and white, RAGBRAI riders’ favorite sight.

What industry of mold and die, could so entice the urgent eye?…

Kybos! Kybos! Grey and white, line the city streets at night.

Swell my pride that there should be such Yankee ingenuity!”

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported last week that organizers of the upcoming papal visit to that city, ordered over 3,000 porta-potties to ensure the comfort of the one million visitors expected on September 26 and 27. The headline was: “Go in Peace.”

Shelter Island has a limited number of public restrooms. Largely shielded from the blight of national chains such as Starbucks, Mobil, McDonalds or Holiday Inn, we make do without the public restrooms that come with these establishments.

What Shelter Island lacks in numbers of facilities, we make up for in the diversity of our elimination options.

During the summer, two of our beaches have public restrooms. A few local institutions such as the library, the North Ferry office and Project FIT have a bathroom for patrons with an agreeably loose definition of patronage.
(These highly coveted, public bathrooms with plumbing are often referred to by outdoors enthusiasts as “porcelain.”)

The Mashomack Preserve Visitors Center features two composting toilets, twin wonders of science that have a prominent spot on my day tour for weekend guests; right after Miss Annie’s Creek viewed from the Red Trail and before a visit to the Tuck Shop.

Flush toilets weren’t invented until the mid-19th century, and no tour of the house and grounds of pre-Revolutionary War-era Sylvester Manor is complete without a moment to reflect on the advance of history while standing in the elegant 19th century outhouse, located in the Manor’s formal garden. It is a roomy 3-seater (one portal is child-sized), in an excellent state of preservation.

For two of the three and a half centuries of Shelter Island homeowners, a squarish box, located outdoors. was a state-of-the-art facility. In a nod to our history, it is fitting that the porta-potty is the modern-day partner to a Shelter Island summer.

During the June weekend that the Shelter Island 10K took place, the number of public toilets on Shelter Island quadrupled as race organizers deployed a phalanx of 20 porta-potties at Fiske Field and other strategic locations.

For three days, only dogs and deer could pee in the woods without apology.

My husband, after he ran the New York City Marathon, informed me that some athletes liked to spend time in a porta-potty before the big race in order to “get warm.” Although he didn’t admit to doing this himself, his enthusiasm for porta-potties over the years has been such that our sons still call them, “Dad’s Dream House” whenever we encounter one.

I’ve read that runners participating in extreme events will sometimes sleep in a porta-potty. “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” wrote Robert Frost, obviously referring to the role of the portable toilet as a home-away-from-home.

Marketing innovations abound in the world of the modern porta-potty. “Callahead,” a large New York-based portable toilet purveyor, offers a “VIP line” of loos, including the “Tele-Toilette,” a luxury restroom that looks like a British telephone booth. For an outdoor wedding, no bride would blush to provide “La Femme Toilette” in pink, with a lace design, or for the gents, a solar-powered “Ship’s Head 16” complete with a stainless steel deck-mounted soap dispenser.

In May, the Shelter Island Chamber of Commerce proposed to the Town Board that a permanent public restroom be built in Volunteer Park on Bridge Street, which means “porcelain” could replace the summertime porta-potty that now occupies a corner of the nearby parking lot. If it comes to pass, I’m sure it will get heavy use. Until then we’ll have to get by with Portaloos, porta-sans and kybos.

Fine with me.