The evil of automatic toilets

“I knew a man who, in the age of chainsaws, went right on cutting his wood with a handsaw and an axe. He was a healthier and saner man than I am. I shall let his memory trouble my thoughts.”

—   Wendell Berry, “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine”

I understand Berry’s meaning in this excerpt: machines and tools entice us with their promises of speed, convenience, and efficiency, but progress comes at a cost to our sanity and health.

Certain technological advancements fail to impress me. I doubt that organization will be effortless once I get a Crackberry. If I installed a GPS system in my 4Runner, I’d probably forget to turn it on until I was already lost. Some of my best discoveries came when I was trying to find my way, a bit like the occasional surprise on a roll of 35mm film. Those accidental exposures turned out to be some of my favorite shots. We make take more pictures with digital SLRs, but do we capture better images? I am unconvinced that a luxury sedan and a camera phone make life better, and even with improvements in healthcare, most people still live the seventy or eighty years, the same as people described in the Psalms who lived hundreds of years before Christ.

Not all progress is bad. Take, for example, the men’s restroom near the parking lot at Clingman’s Dome. It has a wall of waterless urinals like big white noses. To their credit, the technology saves 40,000 of water per year—per urinal?—and uses a biodegradable liquid, replaced three or four times a year, to filter the waste before it enters the septic system.

Now there’s some technology and engineering I can endorse proudly. If we must lay asphalt from the parking lot to the summit and built a concrete spaceship on Clingman’s Dome so that on a clear day people can take photographs they’ll never look at again and see seven states that seldom interested them before, then at least on the hike up, we men can empty our bladders into the finest vitreous porcelain waste receptacles that ever richocheted urine onto our shorts and bare shins.

I am glad that people in wheelchairs can see the ridges, the color of deep sea rolling away as far as the eye can see in waves of lighter and lighter purple and blue, even if the conveniences that the park service has gone to great lengths to install have scattered the wildness, the wilderness, of those ancient Appalachian mountains.

Let me tell you what is not progress.

Twenty-four miles away in Gatlinburg—home of the foot-long corndog—is a breakfast place called The Pancake Pantry. I’d recommend the Shoney’s breakfast buffet instead. Not only do you get all the chewy bacon you can eat and all the bad coffee you can drink, but you might also get a waitress with common.

Last Thursday morning, I took some friends to see the Smokies. We met my roommate, a photographer for the Knoxville News Sentinel, for breakfast after he finished a sunrise shoot up on Clingman’s Dome. I don’t eat a lot in the mornings. All I wanted was hashbrowns, bacon, and one pancake. I asked our waitress at The Pancake Pantry about the most economical option for getting those three items.

The tip of her pencil was poised, and she held the ticket pad ready.

“Hashbrowns come as a side, but you can’t order one pancake,” she said.

“I can’t order one pancake, even if that’s all I want.”


“Why not?”

“Pancakes only come in threes.”

I waited for her to tell me that she was joking. She stood there in her cotton dress and apron staring at me, so I ordered pigs-in-a-blanket instead.


I can’t order one pancake? I have to order three? What sort of racket are they running at The Pancake Pantry? Gatlinburg already has a weight problem, not to mention an air-brushed t-shirt, hokey museum, and cheap souvenir problem, without the support of the Three Pancake Law. I can buy a “real Samurai sword” made in India, “authentic Moccassins” at a China Factory Outlets store, and other knockoffs in a town of worthless choices, yet I can’t order one pancake.

Ma’am, let me get this straight: I have to order too much food? I can’t just order a modest amount to get me to the next meal? You’re that fond of throwing food away?

Once you enter Gatlinburg City Limits, the Realm of Three Pancakes, two pancakes becomes an impossibility. Paying for one pancake is about as likely as a Dolly Parton sighting, black bear mauling, or getting your money’s worth.

The real problem at The Pancake Pantry is their toilets, not their excess. The men’s bathroom has automatic toilets.

I hate automatic toilets. That blinking red light lets you know your butt is about to get soaked. Some genius engineer with a doctorate from MIT or Berkeley thought that these upgrades would be sanitary. He should have thought a little harder. Even if the toilets, soap dispensers, faucets, and hand dryers are all automatic, we still have to touch the lock on the stall, the bathroom door, and the door at the front of the restaurant. If we pay with cash, we come into contact with more bacteria. Chairs at the table, menus, ketchup bottles—who sanitizes these things? Please.

Automatic toilets have a placebo effect. They reassure us that we are avoiding contact with other people’s fecal matter and snot, but I have a hunch that a lot of the people who are sick in the first place are people with poor hygiene. They pee all over the toilet seat and don’t wipe it off. They don’t wash their hands and leave colonies of staph and flesh-eating super-bacteria on every communal surface in a five-mile radius. They are the one sink five fingertips into the after dinner mints’ dish. They are the ones who touch three toothpicks when taking one. They wipe their noses with their hands before taking the black padded meal ticket folders from the waitress and spreading their invisible germ love all up in The Pancake Infirmary.

You know this is true.

If we already have to share public spaces with unsanitary people, is it then necessary for me to sit on an automatic toilet and have it splash my bare bottom with cold, urine-infused water two or three times during my anxiety-ridden bowel movement?

Supposedly, I stand to gain something from automatic toilets, but I haven’t the faintest idea what that may be.

Lean forward to put my elbows on my knees?

All the waste I just deposited in the toilet is now dripping off my bum. There’s nothing that gives a man the confidence to go and face the world like sitting in his own urine.

Stretch to read the graffitti on the door?

Whoosh! Enema. I must be at Splash Country.

Shift my weight from one cheek to another to wipe?

A vortex threatens to suck my bowels straight down the drain while showering my backside. Automatic toilet, you just canceled out all my work. Talk about time-saving, sanitary devices! Now I get to spend a couple of minutes patting my rear dry.

If I wanted a colon cleansing, I’d buy that solution at Walgreen’s or buy a bidet and turn it up to 11. As it were, I just wanted to do my business in peace and leave with my dignity intact. Now, my boxers are sticking to my butt. I love technology.

Automatic toilets are essentially adult diapers. No matter how you sit, no matter how careful you are, you will have an accident. You’re going to get wet.

Give me a handsaw and an axe. Give me a good old fashioned toilet with a lever right there on the side. I’ll send my one pancake to a local river, my butt will be dry, and everybody goes home happy.

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