The Irritations of Modern Life: 38. Lavatory attendants

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The Independent Culture
BUNNY GIRLS at Hugh Hefner's Playboy mansion notoriously visited the bathroom in pairs. For me, at school, lavatory cubicles were places to hide out with mates, the fashion being to squeeze in as many as possible, like students in a Mini.

Into womanhood, a trip to the loo was still so much more fun if it was shared. Like the back stage of a theatre, the ladies' was a place to regroup, touch up make-up and swap notes. For the chucked, spurned or hopelessly pissed, it was somewhere to weep and wail in relative private, with friends on hand to dab your eyes with lavatory paper before you headed back to the fray.

But then came the advent of the lavatory attendant - and the atmosphere of camaraderie that once hung thick in the ladies' began to evaporate like old air-freshener.

At first, it was only the larger night-clubs that bothered with attendants to keep an eye on drunken loo-goers. To soften their presence they offered a selection of toiletries and, initially, it was fun to freshen your scent or rent a hairbrush mid-evening. But it has become increasingly difficult to have a pee in peace in even the most average city-centre pub.

In cramped conveniences across Britain, surly attendants now sit at the sinks, barring your way until a stall is free. Flanked by bottles of hairspray, they thrust a paper napkin into your palm as you exit the cubicle, leaving you feeling like a five-year old who has been chided for not remembering to wash his hands. After taking the tissue, it is a brave visitor who can turn tail without leaving 50 pence on the silver tip dish. Nothing less will do (all small change is removed at once, discouraging others from daring to be cheap). It's hard to be mean about someone who spends their working life stuck in a lavatory. But the attendants are so often the female equivalent of belligerent bouncers, barking and even grabbing at punters who step out of line. Lingering is not allowed and sharing cubicles is banned; the last time I tried I was actually pulled away by the arm.

Marilyn Monroe knew what the little girls' room was really for. In one film, she excused herself to pay a visit, darting back seconds later to collect her forgotten powder-puff.

"What else would a girl do in a powder room but powder her nose?" she asked her male companion with wide-eyed innocence. But these days, powdering one's nose is often less innocent. Proprietors who want to hang on to their licences are using attendants to try to stop drug-taking on the premises.

As well as policing the lavatories, some of the smartest bars have even installed cisterns without lids to leave customers nowhere to chop up lines. Problem is, it leaves the rest of us girls nowhere to balance our Archer's and lemonade, never mind the powder-puff.