Shit Outta Luck

The city’s planned deprivation of public toilets is the original hostile architecture.

In the burgeoning genre of writing about public toilet access, most essays begin with an anecdote establishing the writer’s authority on the subject, usually linked to a medical condition like Crohn’s disease or irritable bowel syndrome or—less seriously—some traumatic near-miss that almost involved the business getting done in the writer’s pants. Mine begins with a routine piss that landed me in jail. In the summer of 2018, I was walking home after a long night of drinking when I felt the sudden, though in no way surprising, urge to empty my bladder. This was in the lower stretches of Crown Heights, down by Atlantic Avenue—not a part of the city blessed with an abundance of toilet-bearing late-night commerce.

Had I always been a public urinator? No. The spectacle of men whipping it out in broad daylight, nozzle to traffic, and hosing the gutter with jets of steaming discharge is fairly common in New York, but it’s not a performance in which I’ve historically considered myself part of the cast. That night, though, with the pressure in my bladder approaching levels not seen since the Challenger disaster, I was more than happy to take advantage of my biological gifts—namely, the fact of having a penis and feeling no compunction, under conditions of extreme vesical duress, about uncorking it in public. I found a spot on Bergen Street, under the tracks of the Franklin Avenue shuttle, by a construction site for a medium-rise condo. A quick look around: the road was totally empty. Under the streetlights, the piss sparked off the rocks and rubble of the building site like a welder’s flame. I stood there admiring the show, then smiled up at the heavens in thanks as the torrent gushed on. Ahhhhhhh, male privilege. Then suddenly: the boop of a cop car behind me. The single, definitive boop that says: you’re busted. Thinking I’d get away with a ticket and the not unreasonable admonition to keep it in my pants, I handed over my ID. The officer came back a few minutes later and announced, “There’s a warrant out for your arrest. We have to take you in.” As encounters with the cops in this city go, it could have been much worse.

Cuffed in the back of the car and instantly no longer drunk at all, I recalled a night in 2013 when a plainclothes officer with no identification handed me a ticket for drinking from an open container. It was in the middle of a thunderstorm, and the ticket spent the night in the pocket of my rain-soaked jeans; by the time I opened it the next morning to take a proper look, it was completely illegible, a cloud of bled red ink. There was no follow-up correspondence from the NYPD. The fine went unpaid. Five years later I found myself in handcuffs, liberty deprived for the simple crime of—not once, but twice—opening my container in public. The NYPD remains fanatically committed to the cause of liquid control: though overall citations have dropped considerably since city law was changed in 2017 to allow the police to issue civil rather than criminal summonses for low-level quality of life offenses, the overwhelming majority of tickets today are issued for unlawful drinking and public urination. Perhaps a maritime city that turns its back on the sea is forever destined to nurture a suspicion of liquid, whatever its provenance.

The word can is slang for both jail and toilet—a dual usage that’s especially appropriate in New York, where imprisonment and the denial of urinary relief often go hand in hand, revealing the city’s design as a space of bodily control. By the time I was moved to central booking, around six hours after my arrest, I was ready to lie down and sleep off my emerging hangover. But my cellmates wanted to talk. One had been arrested for throwing a trash can through a bar window. Another for driving drunk. There were several young men—kids, really—who seemed to know each other from previous arrests, and who were mostly there for jumping turnstiles. The jail officers passed our cell and tossed some small packets of cereal through the bars—our only food for the next twelve hours. Our requests for water were repeatedly met with silence.

In the corner of the cell there was a steel toilet, low to the ground and entirely exposed: one of the bleak ironies of New York’s carceral system is that public urination is considered an offense in free society but mandatory in detention. The bowl was clogged with cardboard, toilet paper, cereal, and shit, the turds barnacled with Rice Krispies. Whenever an inmate relieved himself into the bowl, the piss hit the pulpy muck with a baritone thwack. Eventually someone asked me what I was inside for. I explained that I’d been arrested for urinating in public after failing to find a bathroom—embellishing the story to make myself seem more virtuous. “Well, man,” said one of my cellmates, gesturing toward the pestilential corner pot. “You’ve come to the right place.” On my release, I headed straight to the nearest café to use the toilet. I locked myself inside the stall and then: then nothing. Courtesy, professionalism, respect, constipation. In New York, incarceration and the absence of public toilets spring from the same basic impulse. The indignity is the point.

JAWAHARLAL NEHRU, India’s first prime minister, once said that “a country in which every citizen has access to a clean toilet has reached the pinnacle of progress.” On that measure, New York does not even approach progress’s foothills. The city’s public toilet void represents an inconvenience for relatively healthy and solvent people like me, but a scandal for the homeless, the poor, the incontinent, those with chronic digestive conditions, anyone with a disability, anyone who deviates too far from the standard appearance of a customer, or anyone who menstruates. Unless you have the means to buy your way into a retail toilet—in a café or store—or the confidence and presentability to bluff your way into one—in a hotel or office lobby, say, or by barreling through the front of a bar, avoiding eye contact with the staff, transmitting dead certainty about your right to be on the premises—the options for lawful public relief are insultingly scant. You can try parks (limited bathroom hours, appalling sanitary conditions), subway stations (where very few of the toilets are unlocked), the big transit hubs (fine if you find yourself in Midtown, but why would you ever do that to yourself?), or libraries (the best of a bad bunch). If it’s after sundown and you’re away from the busy bits of Manhattan, you’re shit outta luck. There’s always the street, but for reasons that should by now be obvious I can’t recommend it, except as a last resort. Even as coverage of this problem, deemed “perpetual” by New York magazine, becomes more urgent and editorialists push city officials to “close the toilet gap,” the headlines have turned desperate. In just two years New York’s toilet discourse has graduated from guardedly optimistic (“Will New York City finally get more public bathrooms?” asked Bloomberg in July 2022) to embittered (“If New York is so great, why isn’t there anywhere to pee?” asked the New York Times in January of this year), wistful (“Where did our public toilets go?”: the Nation, in August), and wearily resigned (“Why are public restrooms still so rare?”: the Times again, in March).

Before there were “bum-proof” benches, before ropes, spikes, stanchions, and clamps kept the city’s walls and alcoves free from the horror of bodily contact, New York pioneered a special category of hostile architecture, one characterized more by absence than construction.

The basic mystery of the matter—that the biggest city in the world’s richest, most powerful country has so few public toilets—is usually waved away with a catalog of bog-standard explanations: bureaucracy, cost, the difficulty of connecting new structures to the city’s antique water supply, the overlap of jurisdictions between the city, the MTA, and the parks authority, and so on. It’s sometimes hard not to feel, reading these pieces, that there’s almost a pride in the intractability of New York’s toilet deficit—that the city’s antipathy toward the human body in need of relief is simply one of those hard realities, like the rats, the sidewalk trash, the impossibility of finding a one-bedroom apartment that isn’t life-threatening for under $2,000 a month, the constant risk of vehicular assassination when crossing with the walk signal, and the inevitability of a troupe of breakdancers entering your subway car at the exact moment you’re finally playing the five-minute voice memo from that friend you keep avoiding on WhatsApp, that make New York New York. But it’s still, plainly, a mystery that there can be such a powerful consensus on the need to do something about the city’s sanitary desertification yet so little done in response.

That’s not for superficial want of trying. New York’s public toilet policy has in recent decades taken the form of a reverse shart: substantial in ambition but vaporous in execution. “The dearth of public lavatories—like incivility and high rents—has long been one of the unpleasant axioms of New York City life,” wrote the Times in 1990, reporting on a lawsuit filed by homeless people against the city over the lack of public amenities. That class-action suit provided the catalyst for a string of aborted plans to give the people of New York the safe, clean, ubiquitous toilets they deserve: from David Dinkins to Rudy Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg, and Bill de Blasio, each successive mayor has tried, with varying degrees of commitment, to address the problem and come up short. The Bloomberg administration famously commissioned twenty automated toilets in 2006 as part of a multi-billion-dollar upgrade to the city’s main public amenities, including newsstands and bus shelters. These toilets were never going to be the future. The whole model of automated toilets, imported from Europe and inspired by the street designs of French company JCDecaux, depends on advertising revenue to fund installation and maintenance, which favors rich neighborhoods over poor ones—a fundamentally anti-democratic premise on which to build a nominally universal public good. In this case, the toilets also proved to be exceptionally fussy customers, requiring for their approval a level of luck and coordination among agencies of the state not seen in this country since the D-Day landing. Eventually only five of the toilets were installed; as virtually every story on the subject dutifully notes, the remaining fifteen now “languish in a Queens warehouse.” To this day, the Department of Transportation’s list of requirements that need to be met in order for installation of a single toilet to go ahead (the facility may be “on large traffic islands or public places bounded on all sides by mapped streets under the jurisdiction of DOT” or “on or adjacent to parks or playgrounds, subject to the approval of Parks,” etc.) remains comically complex.

The most glamorous of the Bloombergian shitters is in Madison Square Park, discreetly sited on a corner facing the stump of the never completed Metropolitan Life North building, another of the city’s great monuments to failure. The stall is finished in a brushed stainless steel that has all the charm of a hospital meal tray—the unfortunate default aesthetic for almost all government-sponsored design throughout the city. Users pay a quarter for entry; visits are capped at fifteen minutes; and once the deed is done, the whole machine flushes itself clean to prepare for the next occupant. On a recent visit, it took me five tries for the machine to accept my quarter. Once I was inside, the immediate impression the structure conveyed was of extreme and potentially malevolent moisture. The rubber floor, slick with water, bubbled and squelched underfoot, while a dribbly symphony of invisible trickles and leaks emerged from the walls. The toilet itself was fairly clean, but the button to release the toilet paper produced no paper; the seat cover compartment (Germanically labeled “COVERSEAT”) contained no covers; there was no soap in the soap dispenser; and the hand dryer did no drying. What the toilet did have was water, and plenty of it: it emerged like a drill from the sensor-operated tap, and I exited a few seconds later with my shorts and T-shirt completely soaked from the spray. Mike Bloomberg’s dream of public comfort was nothing if not wet.

THE YEARS SINCE THE DEMISE of this scheme for sanitary automation have not been long on progress. There are currently around 1,100 public toilets to serve the city’s 8.5 million people. New Yorkers with a range of chronic medical conditions are now eligible for the Crohn’s and colitis card, granting them access to employee and restricted bathrooms in retail businesses. This is certainly better than the alternative (leaving sufferers to battle for the same toilets the rest of us do), but it represents yet another method for the city to hold the private sector responsible for a service that should be provided by the state. A bill was recently introduced in the city council to force the government to devise a plan for a viable public bathroom network; in the bill’s grandest projection, this would involve requiring the city to provide one public toilet for every 2,000 residents, up from 1 per 7,700 New Yorkers today. That sounds like a lot, but a roughly fourfold increase on virtually nothing is still not very much at all.

Mayor Eric Adams, tellingly, has yet to indicate whether he’ll support the bill. In fact, his only public intervention on the issue of toilets has been to approvingly quote a tweet from the parks agency earlier this year announcing that the term “comfort station” will now officially be phased out in favor of “public restroom,” owing to the former’s association with the comfort women of World War II. “There is no action too small for us to take to build a city of which every New Yorker can be proud,” Adams posted in response. But there is, apparently, some action that’s simply too big. If the mayor has remained silent on the massive issue of toilet access, it’s because it suits his agenda to keep things exactly as they are. The main theme of the Adams administration to date, beyond its pronounced public bias in favor of “eye candy,” is an extreme antagonism toward the unhoused. The razing of homeless camps and involuntary removal of street dwellers to shelters and hospitals, presented under the hypocritical guise of a humane effort to reverse the pernicious effects of a half century of deinstitutionalization, has become a familiar citywide spectacle under Adams’s mayoralty.

Pee not piss, sh*t rather than shit: a society too prim to acknowledge the scuzzy realities of human waste might never have the maturity and self-confidence to provide access to public venues for its disposal.

Given the city’s history, it’s no coincidence the homeless-hater mayor has also been silent on public toilet access. Adams was born in 1960 and lived through the city’s fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s, an era when public spaces came to be seen as a political problem: in 1973 the city’s parks commissioner described Bryant Park as a haven for “gamblers, junkies, brownbaggers sucking at wine and liquor bottles, derelicts, panhandlers and menacing ripoff specialists.” Throughout the 1980s, when Adams was beginning his career with the NYPD, public amenities became a flashpoint in city hall’s campaign to clean up the streets and get New York back on its feet. Once abundant throughout parks, subway stations, and municipal buildings, public toilets came to be seen as a magnet for homelessness and crime, and the city, assisted by officers like the young Eric Adams, began to shut them down. Since homeless bodies were bad for urban development, the toilets they relied on for basic sanitation were tarred with the same brush. Most toilets in the subway system—a reliable source of bathroom access throughout many of the world’s big cities—have remained under lock and key ever since. The transformation of the state, the march of profit, the vacated commons: the full extent of the Reagan era’s happy hellscape could be measured one padlocked toilet at a time.

For decades, a cruel logic has governed the design and administration of New York’s homeless shelters: they should provide only the bare minimum of worldly comfort, since as former mayor Ed Koch once observed, “The more service you provide, the more people see it as an attraction.” Through the Koch and Dinkins years, as the habitat of New York’s homeless expanded well beyond the original skid row district on the Bowery, that logic was gradually extended to the whole city. “Maybe if you turn down the comfort level in public spaces,” one city official speculated in 1991, the homeless “will come inside” and embrace the shelter system. From the 1980s, public spaces were designed to be inhospitable—and there was no surer way of turning down the comfort level than turning off the toilets. This strategy of deliberate neglect did nothing to end homelessness—there are now more homeless people in New York than at any point since the Great Depression, a policy failure that Adams’s “sweeps” have done nothing to reverse—but it did entrench a culture of institutional indifference to public amenities that endures to this day. Before there were “bum-proof” benches, before ropes, spikes, stanchions, and clamps kept the city’s walls and alcoves free from the horror of bodily contact, New York pioneered a special category of hostile architecture, one characterized more by absence than construction. Starving the city of usable public toilets was the original hostility of post-1970s urban policy—and the only one that remains truly universal, since it still affects us all today. When it comes to toilets—and probably anything else—Eric Adams is clearly not the man to unflush the course of civic history.

INSTITUTIONAL NEGLECT of the public toilet has not made New York any cleaner. The streets are as stinky and messy as ever, and the city’s administration remains a confusing jumble of rupophobia and mysophilia—reflecting, perhaps, America’s long history of cultural oscillation between prudishness and profanity. The city’s official policy language—which encodes a preference for the daintier, perfumier “restroom” or “bathroom” over “toilet”—suggests a shame about the biological necessity of evacuation at the highest levels. But each human spends an average of three years of their lives in the toilet: we all burp, we all fart, we all piss, we all shit. In this city, it’s increasingly left to private interests to serve the substantial chunk of those three years that unfolds outside the home. Several architecture and design firms, including Sage & Coombe, Dattner, and Garrison Architects, pride themselves on the work they’ve done to study and prototype public toilets. This engagement has produced encouraging results but isolated projects won’t provide the solution to a problem that is, at its core, one of scale and distribution. The toilet blocks that Sage & Coombe have designed for the city’s parks department are functional capsules of tile and steel—the meal tray aesthetic strikes again!—but the one I’m most familiar with, in Bushwick’s Ten Eyck playground, is hardly ever unlocked.

Activism and discussion about the city’s lack of amenities is now a cottage industry in its own right, spawning a wave of influencers, professional toilet columnists and amateur toilet reviewers, vesical geographers, apps, interactive maps, hashtag campaigns (#FreeToPee), and lobby groups (the American Restroom Association), all dedicated to preventing close encounters of the turd kind. (An episode of the latest season of How To with John Wilson is also devoted to the issue of bathroom access, though I’ve yet to watch it.) It’s been calculated—by me, just now—that at any given moment, the number of people offering hacks on how to find a public toilet in New York exceeds the number of people actually looking for a public toilet in New York.

These initiatives are well intentioned but mostly miss the mark. Many of the geovesical services, including the NYC toilet map attached to the Instagram account @got2gonyc and the mobile apps NY Flush and NY Restroom, make the city legible and almost livable as a place devoid of public toilets, unwittingly letting the government off the hook for its failure to provide this most elemental utility. They help entrench a culture of consumer privacy, in which ad hoc, “community”-based solutions emerge in response to a failure of governance. The practice of sharing maps and bathroom codes bears some superficial resemblance to mutual aid. But individual actions are never an adequate remedy to systemic problems—a point that The Long Crisis, Benjamin Holtzman’s recent history of the role that block associations and grassroots organizations played in facilitating New York’s post-1970s embrace of neoliberalism, makes in compelling detail. (A useful contrast is with Australia, where the federal department of health runs a breezily bug-free national public toilet map app that provides information on the 23,000 public facilities serving the country’s 25 million people; it’s no accident that Australia also has a universal health care system.) Instagram’s @got2gonyc, run by self-styled “bathroom influencer” Teddy Siegel, features reviews of toilets—including in luxury retail stores like the Tiffany’s flagship on Fifth Avenue—that make the privatization of this public service seem fun and enticing. It’s useful information, of course, to know where the city’s best and cleanest toilets are, but I’d much prefer a record of the city’s scummiest public facilities over one that glorifies the slick munificence of the city’s retailers. If our objective is public luxury—or even public sufficiency—we won’t get there by drooling over the shitters of the rich.

Going to the bathroom should be the most unremarkable, untraumatic experience on earth, as straightforward as breathing—not a performance, or a research challenge requiring apps and hacks, or the constant, wallet-draining brush with corporeal calamity it’s become in New York.

Whether a form of sewer socialism is in fact “our” objective remains open to debate. Politicians have been quick to capitalize on the rising social media fizz around the issue of toilet access: Manhattan borough president Mark Levine, for instance, has a video of his interview with Siegel pinned to the top of his Instagram feed. But it often seems like the real aim of everyone involved in this cross-generational traffic of influence and likes is to advance their own personal brand rather than improve conditions on the ground. Influencer-policymaker encounters never include any recognition of the way in which the city’s deprivation of public toilet access and the dehumanization of the homeless have historically gone hand in hand. The activism of the influencers and their establishment endorsers is an activism without politics. This denial of the basic messiness of the issue—as both a policy area and a biological act involving the production of metabolic refuse—makes sense when you consider the squeamishness of those involved. In her reviews, Siegel invites followers to “come pee with me,” and the stalls she depicts rarely reflect the true hideousness of most public toilets. An August review of the toilet in Trump Tower asked viewers to “come take a shit with me,” but the word shit was censored to sh*t. Pee not piss, sh*t rather than shit: a society too prim to acknowledge the scuzzy realities of human waste might never have the maturity and self-confidence to provide access to public venues for its disposal. If Norbert Elias’s classic account of “the civilizing process” traced an expanding circle of embarrassment around the performance of bodily functions, the rehumanization of the city might travel in the other direction, toward a collective embrace, in language and deed, of the filth within.

Even in the best and most critically acclaimed of the city’s public (or semi-public) toilets, it’s hard not to emerge after each use feeling a sullying sense of gratitude: thank you, oh generous corporate tower, for opening the doors of your pristine powder room to the riff raff! In the new covered plaza adjoining the refurbished AT&T Building, at 550 Madison Avenue (open to the public from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.), it’s possible to sit for hours enjoying the somnolent fog of Midtown Manhattan’s traffic. There’s also a toilet that’s open to the public, though its location—next to the Black Fox Coffee kiosk, which also serves to conceal it—and signage—the word restroom is faintly inked on the glass wall of its entrance—mean most people probably fail to notice it. The spotless all-gender toilet includes a long wash basin in the form of an arc; if you squint, you can almost picture it completing the broken pediment of its parent building’s facade, closing Philip Johnson’s unfinished circle with a crown of Dyson Airblades. Stalls in this country are notoriously drafty, a design legacy of the Reagan-era war on drugs, when toilets were deliberately built to have large gaps around and beneath the doors so cops could monitor each can for criminal activity. These stalls, by contrast, feel faintly luxurious: strong locks, doors that fit flush with their frames. But throughout the whole experience, an attendant—employed as a kind of bathroom bouncer—remains by the toilet’s entrance and listens to everything you’re giving up to the bowl. No matter how comfortable the seating arrangements, I can never feel real pleasure in going to the toilet when a public audience is involved (though there’s no shame, of course, if this happens to be your kink).

In the bathrooms at Bryant Park, which almost always have a line to get in, the occupants’ gurgles emerge to a soundtrack of classical music: when I visited, the allegro assai from Mozart’s Serenade no. 4 in D Major played briskly over the top of a man unleashing hell in the stall. Once you’re inside, the attendants maintain a rolling bark to ensure you complete your affairs as efficiently as possible. “No spitting!” shouted the attendant on my visit, for no apparent reason. High-profile toilets like these are “a vibe”—just not the vibe I seek when performing basic bodily functions. Going to the bathroom should be the most unremarkable, untraumatic experience on earth, as straightforward as breathing—not a performance, or a research challenge requiring apps and hacks, or the constant, wallet-draining brush with corporeal calamity it’s become in New York. Even in the supposedly bladder-friendly café sector the trend is moving away from better toilet access rather than toward it. In recent years new branches of the chain Blank Street Coffee have sprouted seemingly everywhere throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, but many of them are deliberately small, designed to take advantage of a city law exempting cafés with fewer than twenty seats from providing a toilet. Paradoxically it’s now in the city’s growing multitude of food halls that you’ll often find the best free facilities. These developments are big and anonymous enough to make it possible to use the bathroom without needing to spend anything. But they’re unevenly dispersed throughout the city and usually patrolled by security: only the right types of bladders are allowed inside. The provision of usable toilets throughout New York should not come at the cost of our collective suffocation under a plague of grain bowls.

TO GET A SENSE for how good we could—and should—have it, it’s better to bypass toilets altogether and head further down the effluvial chain. The banks of Newtown Creek on Greenpoint’s northern fringe host the city’s biggest wastewater treatment plant. At the center of the plant sit the digester eggs, eight 140-foot-tall stainless-steel bulbs that help transform the accumulated sludge of the surrounding area’s two million human orifices into fertilizer, biogas, and non-toxic water. The digester eggs are commonly referred to as the “shit tits,” a sobriquet that’s not only crudely misogynistic but also strikes me as inaccurate: the resemblance I see in the structures is not to breasts or even onion domes, another popular analogy, but testicles. Effulgent under the sun and coolly molten at night, the plant’s eight scat sacs—a quartet of monumental scrotums rimmed in glazed azure ceramic, the biggest and bluest of this city’s many blue balls—seem somehow mythic, religious. A fusion of the profane (human waste) and the sacred (the miraculous conversion, via thickening, digestion, aeration, and disinfection, of that waste into clean water), the Newtown Creek treatment tanks are among the most delightful structures in New York, and a reminder that the public management of human effluent need not be inimical to beauty.

Public toilets won’t necessarily rise to the scat sacs’ level of aesthetic excellence: all they really need to do is exist, at a reasonable level of functionality, cleanliness, and accessibility, and be fairly distributed throughout the five boroughs. Two or three times a week I walk from my apartment on the Ridgewood-Bushwick border, skirt the bony shoulder of Mount Judah cemetery, then dodge the cars bulleting off the Jackie Robinson Parkway to gain access to Highland Park. My aim is to run laps around Ridgewood Reservoir, along the perimeter loop that places visitors, thanks to the reforestation of the reservoir’s two outer basins, directly among the treetops. I usually give up running halfway through the first lap and walk the rest of the way. I make sure to hydrate amply before setting off from my apartment, which mandates several stops along the long route home. The park’s toilets, a fudge of turdly brick plopped over the peaceful greens, are usually closed or out of commission; on the rare occasions the doors are open, the interiors seem too scungy to set foot in, lakes of stagnant, pearly water and lunking flocks of flies fat on shit and piss barring entry to the murk. To compensate for the lack of usable facilities, I relieve myself against a tree (vigilantly, of course), then gird my bladder for the walk ahead: around the belly of the Evergreens cemetery, over the dome of Bushwick Avenue, then up through lower Bushwick’s thickets of siding and mismatched brick.

By the time I reach Irving Square Park, I’m usually ready to go again. The final flood is released into the toilet bowl of the café on the square’s southeastern corner. Five dollars—six with tip—seems steep for a coffee, especially one I don’t really want, but public amenities in New York are a seller’s market. In the five years I’ve been completing this circuit, I’ve spent more than a thousand dollars on coffees bought solely for the purpose of taking a legal tinkle. But relief—of all varieties—may be on the way. In August the city’s parks department announced it would be trialing five Portland Loos, the relatively cheap, prefabricated kiosk toilets that have become a figure of grasping cultural devotion in the Pacific Northwest. Among the proposed sites for the trial run is Irving Square Park. Hardened into cynicism by the city’s long history of failure on toilet access, I fully expect this initiative to go nowhere, buried under the habitual mountain of coding restrictions or interagency rivalry, or to produce only bivouac-grade abominations harmful to the human ass. But in the background, there’s always that tantalizing possibility: What if it works? In New York, hope and the bladder are in a lifelong competition to see which will give out first.

Aaron Timms always washes his hands.