Last week, Wayne Parks unveiled a long-cherished business idea—a chain of members-only Manhattan rest stops where folks paying $6 to $8 a day can stow their gear, charge their phones, shower and relax. To his surprise, the resulting buzz focused on just one aspect of the service: the commodes. "The luxury bathrooms are only a small part of the plan," he says. "Why the fascination with the toilet?"
He's being a bit disingenuous. The Fairfield, Conn., construction executive makes frequent trips to the city, and he's all too familiar with the frustrations of attempting to find a clean restroom. It's part of what inspired him to start Posh Stow and Go, launching this June in Midtown. "I just can't stand dirty bathrooms," he says.
Having researched pay-toilet history, he's also an expert on foiled efforts. Until the 1970s, diners and gas stations around the city offered dime-operated stalls. Genius idea, right? Then along came an evil outfit known as the Committee to End Pay Toilets in America, arguing that the practice was discriminatory because men used urinals free of charge while women had to pay for stalls. In 1975, the pay stall was banned in New York.
Since then, the city has made several efforts to launch its own pay-toilet program. In 2008, it announced a plan to install 20 self-cleaning toilets around the city through Cemusa, a private contractor that shares revenue earned from its ad-bearing street furniture. But the city has had trouble finding decent locations. As of now, there are only three.
The most popular, boasting up to 75 visitors a day, is on Madison Avenue just north of 23rd Street. With its sleek metal exterior, the $500,000 contraption looks like a cross between a meat freezer and a spaceship. "15 minutes max," reads a sign on the front. "No smoking." I slipped a quarter in the slot and the door slid open. The toilet gave a welcoming flush.
Little did I know it was up to no good. Everything went fine until I tried to leave. I pressed the green exit button. Nothing. I pushed it again. Nada. I pounded on the door and shouted, hoping a pedestrian might come to my rescue. I even tried the yellow assistance button. The phone rang, but no one picked up.
There was nothing to do but wait. I read some email and checked the web to see if prior users had reviewed the facility. "Really cool!!!!" one person wrote. "Kinda like a wet prison bathroom."
I felt relieved when a yellow light started flashing, indicating that my 15 minutes was almost up. Sure enough, the time expired and the door slid open. No harm done. But in general, when I use a restroom, I like to be the one who decides when I leave.
A Cemusa spokeswoman says no one has ever gotten trapped inside before: "Lucky for us, you're the first."
I've had better pay-toilet experiences in Coney Island, where Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park runs a fee-for-flush operation in the shadow of its giant Ferris wheel. Co-owner Dennis Vourderis says his family charged a dime until the 1980s, when they renovated the facilities and hiked the price to a quarter. It's a popular attraction—a hot summer day sees more than a thousand guests. Still, Mr. Vourderis estimates his total toilet revenue at $15,000 a year, barely enough to cover the cost of water, TP and an attendant.
For many New Yorkers, the lavatory of choice is at Starbucks, beloved for its single-toilet facilities that provide the privacy of your own little room. Indeed, there was a minor panic in 2011 when a rogue band of Midtown baristas started locking the restroom doors. Debra Kaye, a partner with Manhattan branding consultancy Lucule, says chains like Starbucks have an incentive to make their restrooms available: "If you're known for clean bathrooms, that's an asset that will really help your business," she says. "And in New York, we've been trained. You don't just go. We try to buy something."
Many New Yorkers grouse that Starbucks is the only option, and complain of the long lines. But they just aren't being adventurous. Indeed, the city's tourism office, NYC & Company, has a web page devoted entirely to the question of where to go in Manhattan. The most intriguing suggestion? "New York City Police Department stations will let you use their bathrooms if you ask."
It's true. I stopped by the 13th Precinct on East 21st Street. The place was a bit intimidating, what with the special offers posted at the door ($100 cash for guns) and the crowd-control gates in the lobby. But when I asked to use the facilities, they waved me right in. I was tickled to find my stall adorned with verse: "If you sprinkle when you tinkle, please be neat and wipe the seat." Cops! They're so adorable!
There are also free phone apps that map public restrooms around town. I tested three and found SitOrSquat the most comprehensive, listing more than 3,000 locations. Using this app is like donning magic glasses. Suddenly, there are restrooms everywhere. Indeed, the question isn't how to find a place to go, but how to choose among all the fabulous options.
So what's the best public restroom in New York? Some point to Henri Bendel on Fifth Avenue, which offers stalls the size of studio apartments and a lounge where you can flop on the leather sofa and read coffee-table books.
The restrooms in Bryant Park also have their charms. Situated in a little stone building on 42nd Street that looks alarmingly like a mausoleum, they feature fresh flowers, classical music and a full-time attendant. The automatic seat-cover dispensers are especially exciting.
But to my mind, the best seat is the handicap stall at the Plaza Hotel just inside the lobby's Rose Club. Never mind the padded bench, Miller Harris toiletries and fragrant spring blossoms, the softly lit marble and mahogany stall offers its own private sink, dressing table and ornate, gilded mirror. Now that's more like it!
Alas, hotel Managing Director George Cozonis warns that due to their small size, the bathrooms "can only accommodate a very limited number of outside guests."
The rest of us, I suppose, can use the bathroom downstairs in the food court. Just be prepared to supply your own flowers.