My toilet broke down the day the Lunar New Year holiday began. What ensued was a week in which I had no toilet, since most plumbers were off work.
I’m still not sure what happened exactly. I think in a careless moment while cleaning my apartment, I threw some wet wipes into the toilet. This was stupid, not only because throwing even toilet paper into toilets is generally discouraged in Taiwan because of old pipes, but also because throwing wet wipes in toilets is how you get giant fatbergs the size of double-decker buses clogging urban sewage systems.
I suspect that my apartment’s plumbing system is a bit haphazard in any case. The original apartment was carved into what are now five micro-studios, and the plumbing systems of all five seem to be connected. There have been times I’ve watched the water in my toilet inexplicably recede like the Red Sea, suddenly spout out of the toilet like a fountain, or quake violently with no visible stimulus.
Building code violations occur on a mass scale in Taiwan, unfortunately. I’ve seen plumbing jobs in Taiwan compared to the work of MC Escher. My last apartment, a windowless box in which I could not tell night from day, had plumbing issues as well.
For a week, my schedule became utterly dependent on the availability of public toilets.
Luckily, Taiwan is a place where public toilets exist to begin with, in sharp contrast with for example New York, where they are so scarce that Starbucks long served as a de facto source of public restrooms, until the company started cracking down. The shortage of public toilets in New York has been a problem for about a century.
Public toilets are available in many public establishments in Taiwan, such as the MRT, some convenience stores, gas stations, and many chain stores. I live next to a gas station with a public restroom—which I discovered to my surprise had a luxurious, heated, self-cleaning toilet—as well as across from a Starbucks with a restroom, and in walking distance of several public restrooms in the night market. (Whenever I used the Starbucks restroom without buying anything, I liked to think of this as a small way of sticking it to Howard Schultz, even though in Taiwan Starbucks is operated by the Taiwanese conglomerate Uni-President Enterprises.)
It was inconvenient to have to trudge out of my apartment and down five flights of stairs whenever I wanted to use the bathroom—particularly for a week off primarily spent at home, bingeing on movies. I tried to convince myself that toilets are fundamentally a modern convenience: Complaining about it was really just a first world problem, I told myself, and a problem particular to humans living in this particular era. On a macro-level historical scale, humans got by without toilets for tens of thousands of years.
But as the week wore on, grew strangely neurotic, particularly after an incident in which I ate something that disagreed with me in the night market, and found myself having to scramble to the gas station—only to find that the door to the public restroom was locked after certain hours.
At this I felt a profound sense of betrayal, since over the two years I’ve lived here I have come to feel a sense of kinship with these gas station attendants, whom I see daily but had never actually interacted with. Clearly, the sentiment only went one way.
After all, what are the two main functions that living spaces serve? One needs at least a bed and a toilet. There are plenty of places in the world where people wash, bathe, or shower away from home.
And while there are also plenty of places in the world in which people use communal restrooms that aren’t a part of their immediate living space, I realized that after a certain part of the night when the gas station locked its toilet, the Starbucks shut down, and the restrooms in the night market were also locked up, there would be no toilets accessible to me.
I had told myself that humans had existed for thousands of years without toilets to try and talk myself into thinking that my problem wasn’t so bad. But the paradox precisely is that, living in a contemporary, urban city, you can’t exactly go to the bathroom anywhere you like and not expect to get arrested. In a modern society which has toilets, that is, which is post-toilet, it seems everyone is mandated to use toilets—or face punishment from the law.
Which is to say that, again, sure, if you have no inhibitions about it, for most bathroom needs, you can basically go anywhere. But if I did so constantly in the area around my apartment for a week, no doubt someone would eventually recognize me as someone living in the area, and the police would probably do something about it.
The essence of modern life, perhaps, consists of regulating bodily rhythms, such as metabolism, excretion, Circadian rhythm, etc. to a conformist order. It’s a form of estrangement from taking care of one’s natural needs anywhere one wants; a mass biological adaptation in the interests of sanitation, and safety. This can be seen as a form of repressing, alienating and “sublimating” these natural urges, as Rousseau or Freud might have said.
Indeed, an academic book I read some years ago about the development of modern hygiene in treaty ports in 19th and 20th century China termed this “hygienic modernity.” Yet never before have I realized how central a place the toilet holds in modernity.
Since the Lunar New Year is a time of many family dinners and social occasions because everyone is on vacation, I came to prize family dinners, or going out with friends somewhere with a restroom.
But as someone who is primarily nocturnal, it filled me with a profound, unshakeable sense of anxiety, to have no toilet available at night, in a twenty-minute walk for around six or seven-hour span of time. A trip to the bathroom, then, might mean I would have to commit to a forty minutes’ walk to a bathroom, which could prove quite inconvenient if it was urgent. I began to dread the night as a time in which access to a readily available toilet was no longer certain.
I tried adjusting my schedule to be awake during the hours in which public toilets were available, and sleeping during hours in which they were not. However, no luck. My Circadian rhythm is too unchangeably nocturnal—another way in which I was a slave to a natural bodily cycle that I could repress, perhaps. I’d fall asleep and have strange dreams about running towards a bathroom that always seemed out of reach, then wake up and realize that it was time for another trip to the bathroom.
The only answer was to go out and do all-night things in places open for the Lunar New holiday in which toilets were available. I might have preferred to stay in and save some money. But you’re only young once, I told myself. Might as well go out some more.
Apart from throwing myself into social occasions with friends, since it’s a personal goal of mine to visit every dive bar in Taipei, I took the opportunity to visit all of the dive bars I had been meaning to go visit. Night after night was spent wandering between dive bars. Or I would go clubbing. It was a bit ironic, I thought. There have been times when I’ve gone clubbing all night in lieu of finding a hotel, since that usually is cheaper. Now I was going to clubs for their toilets.
Still, whenever I ran into friends who were also out partying over the holidays, I couldn’t bring myself to admit to them I wasn’t primarily there to hang out with them or to listen to the DJs…but for the toilets. To be fair, one of the places I went to—a new venue that had recently opened up—turned out to have the fanciest toilets I had ever seen in a nightlife establishment.
The results of all this were brutal on my liver.
Eventually I managed to guilt my landlord into convincing a plumber to come in and work on my toilet, even if it would be more expensive to bring one in over the new year. Both he and the plumber came—which, as it turned out, was probably a good thing. What followed was no doubt the strangest experience I have ever had with a plumber. I would have never been able to deal with him alone.
For one, the plumber, who was an old man, brought his wife along for the ride for no clear reason. She sat on my office chair and watched him work. Once in my bathroom, he set about dismantling my entire toilet and began to insert this thirty-foot-long mechanical plugging device into the toilet. As he pushed it in, he screamed loudly every time he did so.
I am afraid it sounded and looked very strangely sexual in nature. Halfway through, he stopped and began loudly arguing with his wife about something, before resuming work. Sewage began streaming out from my toilet and not only through the bathroom but into my apartment, coating the floors.
I generally think well of these people whose jobs are to come and fix the broken things in our homes, but this man generally seemed like a horrible human being.
My landlord seemed shell-shocked by all this. We had both thought it would be a relatively easy fix. He began to question the plumber, who reacted with rage at having his many years at expertise questioned. The plumber and my landlord began shouting at each other in Taiwanese, arguing about the pricing for the job. I was a bit surprised, since I had never pegged my landlord as someone who would speak fluent Taiwanese. Eventually, the wife also jumped in and it became a three-way argument, which went on for over half an hour before the old man eventually agreed to resume work.
“He’s crazy!” my landlord whispered to me. I shrugged as I sat on my bed and watched helplessly, already resigned to sewage getting on all of my belongings.
Finally, the plumber left, after telling me not to use the toilet for 24 hours after he’d caulked it again. I later found that he had left his calling card in the form of several stickers listing his phone number and the services stuck covertly around my bathroom, as Taiwanese handymen are prone to do after finishing a job.
My landlord, an extremely nervous man who has the strange quirk of addressing me only using the polite form of “you” (nin or 您) despite the fact that he is twenty years my senior and has known me for about a year and a half, told me that he was worried that the plumber had done some kind of sabotage during the brief five-minute window during which the door of the bathroom had been closed. Before he left, he asked me to try flushing the toilet… seven or eight times… to see if it worked, despite the warnings of the plumber.
“This is how you break the toilet again,” I thought. I told my landlord I would do precisely what he said, and ignored his instrucitons. Ever panicky, he called me back half-an-hour later to confirm the toilet was still working. Then he called again another half later. And a few hours after that as well.
At least he had come through for me this time with the insane plumber. My general issue with my landlord is that he seems to be irrationally terrified not only of his tenants, but also any handymen called in to fix anything. He seems new to being a landlord, having bought the property partway through my lease.
Anyway. I finished cleaning up the sewage, which entailed dousing my floors and all of my belongings with bleach. Maybe I will go celebrate at the Modern Toilet, the infamous toilet-themed restaurant in Taipei, now that I finally have a working toilet and all the modern convenience that entails.