All public toilets start out the same: blemish-free white porcelain bowls resting on tessellated tiles, some with designs of exotic cultures or legendary creatures. The taps all face the same direction and when each tap is turned on, there is the same rate of water flow into pristine porcelain sinks. The sound of the air dryer is a mighty bellow, a clarion call which reverberates throughout the room. The toilet paper rolls are neatly inserted into their holders, the remainder stacked in the adjacent janitor’s closet. This is the same for every floor from the basement to the highest floor.
However, what becomes noticeable is the stark changes in cleanliness after x years.
The most obvious deterioration is the first floor, which receives the most human traffic. It is worth noting that the toilets on this floor are the most ‘public’ due to their close proximity to the entrances and exits, as well as their use by non-patrons. The floor is caked with grout and almost every toilet bowl has a broken handle or seat. There is a strong odour that no amount of air freshener can defray. Toilet paper is streamed across the floor in wasteful heaps. While the taps work, their flow has decreased to a mere trickle. The air dryer may not be working, and if it is the sound it makes is an asthmatic wheeze, as if in its death throes. It is worth noting that the first floor usually houses banks, but the executives are often seen heading to the escalators when they feel the urgency.
The second floor toilets are slightly cleaner than the ground floor’s as their traffic is reduced. However, due to the number of electronics shops hawking handphone parts and stick-ons, to computer parts and software, as well as a litany of mobile plans, traffic is still heavy, and the occasional toilet bowl is clogged with bills or receipts. However, taps run fairly smoothly and the air dryer does work, albeit seeing small slips of paper dance in it like artificial snow in a snow globe.
The third floor toilets are unique in that they are the cleanest of the toilets, due to the shops that occupy the floor. Restaurants, tuition centres and toy chains occupy this floor, meaning that management places high pressure on the cleaners to ensure that the floor is spotless, the toilet bowls are in good working order and there are even several perks like puffs of air freshener activated by the opening of cubicle doors. While standards are high, morale among cleaners is low, with some of them behaving like trolls, grumbling and scoffing at each user upon their exit, their tongues as harsh as the bleach and disinfectants lining the floors and the toilet bowl seats.
The top floor toilets are an ironic mess. Despite being furthest away from the entrances of the mall, they share a similar state of disrepair as the ground floor. Bowls are choked with ticket stubs and snapped arcade cards. The ammonia-soaked air contains a tinge of popcorn butter. There are writings on cubicle doors, some requesting you to ‘call xxxxxxxx if you wanna have a good time,’ others vehemently screaming in bold font to ‘FUCK JOHN TAN.’ Despite a regular cleaning schedule, the cleaners have left the struggle as it is, their Duchampian declaration of found art.
Thus far, this comparison of toilet conditions excludes two floors: the management office and the basement. Little is known about the management office on the highest floor, except that there is a toilet there, and that it is exclusively for management staff. Cleaners are not considered management staff and are thus barred from using it, though there is one dedicated cleaner who is permitted to enter to clean it, but will never use the facilities that he has just cleaned.
The final floor is the basement, where the food court is located. Here is where the cleaners rest, alongside the retired, unemployed and those who have an afternoon to kill. Sometimes they sit in cramped cupboard-like storerooms, sipping on coffee and nibbling crackers, watching patrons pass by. The toilets here are neither clean nor dirty. Sure, there is a faint whiff of urine in the air and the occasion spit of phlegm found in the sink, but the toilet bowls are immaculate because the patrons keep it that way. They follow the instructions to flush, keep the wash area clean. They don’t stuff toilet paper in dryers or chastise the cubicle doors with ink. They sometimes treat the cleaners to kaya toast, and the cleaners reciprocate by stocking soap, keeping the floor dry. The ones that come to the basement though, are regulars: people willing to stop and eat at the food court, because they know the two or three special stalls in that generic Kopitiam. They know the cleaners by name and are willing to compromise, to accept that the faint whiff of urine is the cleanest that it can get. Most pass them by, and thus the basement toilets are often the best kept secrets of any shopping mall.
Crispin Rodrigues is based in Singapore and his poems have been featured in Kepulauan and From Walden to Woodlands. He is editor-in-chief of local online literary journal The Eloquent Orifice.