February 26, 2024

Where’s a Public Bathroom in New York?

How To with John Wilson—HBO’s most obscure series, which sees a New York man exploring how to complete random tasks while veering off into unexplored corners of the city— is back in action for its third and final season. To kick things off, creator and star John Wilson attempts to answer the question many of us have asked, often in a panicked state, desperate to find relief from the pains that burden us inside: How does one find a public restroom in New York City?

This is an episode I’ve been looking forward to since How To executive producer Nathan Fielder (The Rehearsal) teased his contribution on Wilson’s show in a 2022 Vulture profile. In that piece, the writers’ room was mulling over an episode about the anxieties surrounding making noise in a bathroom with other people; now, the episode has taken a different form. Instead of exploring whether one should separate their cheeks to avoid loud fart noises (an idea suggested by Fielder), the story follows Wilson as he attempts to find a public place where he is even allowed to go to the loo.

So, to quote Fielder in that piece: “Is there anything new on the public bathroom front?”

Yes. There absolutely is.

Wilson’s own bathroom is in disarray, which sparks the idea to find somewhere else to go numbers one and two. He learns there are a total of five self-cleaning restrooms scattered across four boroughs of NYC (sorry, Staten Island). Potty breaks in one of those cost a quarter, and if you opt to use one of these robotic toilets, you’ll get 15 minutes to stink up the joint. Wilson, ever the curious filmmaker, lingers in the bathroom long enough to watch it self-clean. It turns out that these are handy—too bad the city has held over a dozen of these in storage for 15 years, unwilling to set them up in the public.

There are quite a few public restroom outposts set up in popular areas of the city—like, for example, parks. But—as anyone who has ever been to the dirt-smeared (hopefully it’s dirt), stall door-less, grimy bathrooms at Tompkins Square Park knows—to go to the bathroom in a public park is to surrender oneself to the elements. New York, unfortunately, has not gotten into the habit of cleaning its non-self-cleaning potties.

With the most obvious options for using a public restroom out of the picture, Wilson embarks down one of his signature rabbit holes. His first: What if, instead of worrying about having to pee, humans simply prevented themselves from having to go at all? Enter a penis surgeon, who has become famous for operating on New Yorkers who travel to Montauk in the summer and don’t want to have to get out of their car to pee on the long drive. I would’ve guessed that Wilson might duck into every store in New York to find a bathroom rather than figuring out a way to alter his body to not pee as much.

The quest to find a place to pee, rather than eliminate the need to pee, returns after this bit. Wilson relocates to the Hudson Yards shopping complex, where, eventually, he’s greeted by some security guards who demand he stops filming. He’s outside at this point, shooting a clip of the infamous beehive-shaped Vessel—which, if you’ll remember, once had a policy that all videos, photos, or other images of its likeness were held under copyright law.

Then, Wilson’s episode spins into a more meaningful discussion of public versus private space. Is there anywhere—especially in a densely populated, expensive city like New York—that humans are allowed to exist in a public space? Or is every plot of land, every building, every square of grass, every molecule of air owned by someone who pays for it? This conundrum is a fascinating topic to unpack, a puzzle fit perfectly for Wilson’s mind-boggling series.

And we’re only halfway through the episode. Wilson stops by museums, hops on a party bus to an Odesza concert with fans who are seeing the electronic duo for the seventh time, pops in at the local Masonic Temple, and, ultimately, ends up at Burning Man. Men will do anything when in pursuit of a public restroom.

It’s at Burning Man that Wilson understands just how deep the chasm between public and private spaces has become. Even Burning Man, an event that is meant to foster creativity and allow artists to thrive in a communal space, has limits on what is in the public domain. The creators of HBO’s The Vow also happened to be at Burning Man filming a documentary. Because they were offered exclusive access to the festival’s “global ecosystem,” Wilson is prohibited from sharing any of his footage. So much for art and free self-expression.

But because Wilson is constantly thinking outside the self-cleaning box, his conclusion is not as predictable as one might expect. Even when copyrighted, hidden, or restricted, art is possible in the hands of a graceful, clever creative. Stacking bottles of urine on top of each other, Wilson recreates his own Vessel. He may not be allowed to shoot the real one, but we should all be able to agree that his recreation is better anyways.

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