I was at a pub near Liverpool Street station last weekend having a pint. I went to the toilet and found an African woman surrounded by lollipops, perfume, mints, condoms, gum, Tic Tacs, mouth wash, tampons and cloth towels chatting away on her mobile phone. I’ve encountered bathroom attendants before but never in a pub on a Saturday afternoon and never one who seemed as intent on ignoring me as I was her.
It got me thinking about what they’re there for, who hires them and if other people find toilets a little crowded with them in there.
A quick search on Twitter revealed that most people, like me, are also confused by their presence. What’s the protocol? Do I tip always? Is it rude to ignore them? “Somebody please tell me the rules of a bathroom attendant….cuz I don’t wanna tip em for handing me something I can reach” said @Bolwat.
Some people are down right offended by their presence. “There’s a bathroom attendant at the Cubs game. Really? Go fuck yourself.” said @flintskinny.
I found this BBC article from 2008 which talks about the policing role of bathroom attendants. Paul Smith, the director of Noctis- a UK based organisation representing the interests of late night venues- says having someone in the toilet is an effort to prevent drug abuse on bar premises. He told the BBC there’s “huge pressure on clubs, from a few years ago when some were accused of turning a blind eye to drug-taking in the toilets”.
“Now it’s part of a socially responsible business to keep the toilets properly managed. We work closely with the Home Office on the issue of a regime for making sure toilets were properly maintained,” he said.
If they are simply there to maintain the toilet and provide “personal attention” to clients, as one club owner told the BBC, then why are pubs so secretive about it? The BBC claimed to contact more than a dozen clubs but none of them commented.
I tried to contact this particular pub near Liverpool Street station to find out why they employed a bathroom attendant at 7:00 pm on a Saturday.
A friendly woman answered the phone and said she didn’t even know they had bathroom attendants on the weekends. After a pause to speak with her manager, she told me the person I wanted to speak to wasn’t there at the moment. I asked her when he would be there so I could call back and she asked me to wait again. I hear her muffled voice saying “Eddie, hey Eddie!”. Pause. Suddenly a husky male voice says “hello?”. I explain my quandary and he tells me the same thing- the guy I want to talk to isn’t there. So I ask him when he will be there to call back. “Uh next Saturday,” he says. “Ok, and what’s his name?”. “Uh Eddie,” he says and hangs up.
By being so guarded about their motives behind hiring this person to sit in their bathroom handing out towels makes the whole situation seem more suspicious than it actually might be.
One thing that is obvious is that it’s not a glamorous job. Some even claim it’s one of the worst. The BBC article profiled Samuel, a bathroom attendant who says he works for a cleaning company which acts as the middle man between the bar and him. He doesn’t get a paycheck from the cleaning company and has to pay out a portion of the £30 and £60 a night he earns in tips.
In addition to low pay, attendants have to put up with drunk clients who can often be violent. Samuel claimed to be assaulted almost every night on the job. And in 2003, X Factor judge and Girls Aloud singer Cheryl Cole (then Tweedy) was fined for assaulting a bathroom attendant after she demanded Cole pay her for a lollipop. And it’s still common place today. “I love the girl fighting with the bathroom attendant be [sic] because she threw up,” said @emsy_pemsy last month on Twitter.
It’s stories like these that make me pity the bathroom attendant and tip them out of obligation the next time I see them. I could dedicate a whole other post to the social class issues raised by bathroom attendants but surely if the bar they’re working in paid them enough I wouldn’t have to fork over for a service that makes me feel a little awkward and that I didn’t even ask for in the first place. Or am I just being a cheapskate?