Remember when using a public restroom meant drying your hands with a cloth towel? A towel that was a giant loop of cotton fabric wound inside a dispenser that often malfunctioned so badly that every square inch of the fabric’s grimy wetness dragged the floor?
Ahhhhh…the good ole days.
It’s been years since I’ve done it that way. In the meantime, I’ve washed my hands countless times in public restrooms from Paris, Tennessee to Paris, France and encountered some very interesting ways to dry them.
On the rare instances when I patronize an upscale restroom in an upscale restaurant or hotel, I occasionally come across lovely baskets filled with plush terrycloth fingertips towels set beside the sink. Sometimes there’s even an attendant standing at the ready to hand me a towel. She’s never very far from a sign that says TIPS APPRECIATED, which kind of turns the upscale restroom into a plain old pay toilet if you ask me.
Most of the time, though, public restroom towels are made of rough paper and dispensed from a box hanging on the wall. The old-timey models have a slot at the bottom through which, in theory, you pull out one folded towel at a time. In reality, though, the towels often come out in clumps. Meaning that the box is almost always empty and towels are scattered all over the floor. Or the dispenser might have a little metal crank that you turn and then tear off the desired length of towel. Even better are high-tech models that allow you to wave your hand in front of a tiny red light. The box senses that you need a towel and magically sends one of just the right size down the chute.
Almost as amazing as commodes that know when to flush and sink faucets that turn themselves on and off at exactly the right time. Except that most of the time they don’t.
I’m old enough to remember the early days of electric hand dryers in restrooms. They were such a newfangled notion that they were almost always accompanied by a sign defending their environmental superiority and telling how to use them:
Place hands under air and rub gently.
Repeat if necessary.
Almost always, some joker with a Sharpie had added “Wipe hands on pants to dry.”
A far cry, indeed, from the blow dryers found in some of today’s public restrooms. They’re sleek. They’re powerful. They’re deafeningly loud. And so sensitive that they know just when to start the hurricane-force warm air to blowing and when to shut it off. The dryers at the Nashville airport are incredible. You simply thrust your arms in elbow-deep and, in the ten seconds it takes to gaze in wonder at the peaks and valleys appearing on the skin of your hands, you’re done.
Electric hand dryers can even be found in the newly-remodeled restrooms at the Cades Cove campground in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I visited there in early April and was shocked at the discovery. For as long as I can remember, Smokies campground restrooms have had no soap (still don’t), no
hot water (still don’t), and no way to dry hands. Other than wiping them on your pants, of course.
These new dryers are hot enough and powerful enough to dry hair that’s been hastily shampooed in freezing cold water in the restroom sink. Your hair will look ridiculous afterwards—how could it not after you’ve spent several minutes crouched on the floor while the air blows on your head at exceedingly odd angles?–but at least it’s clean and dry.
Don’t ask me how I know this.
(May 13, 2012)