My bladder is the Murphy's Law of organs.
It's not that it's small, exactly; rather, it's disagreeable; neurotic.
It conspires. In cahoots with some quietly disgruntled fold of my brain, the devil bag demands emptying only when it cannot be plausibly emptied. It is as if there is a tiny agoraphobe peering out at all times and the moment he senses he doesn't have a way out — at the movies, on the subway — he pulls the fire alarm.
It shouldn't have to be this way. Ours is an age of technological answers to material problems, deep ones, such as: cannot a person pay a nearby stranger a marginal fee to use his or her private bathroom when he is about to goshdang explode?
Finally, the answer to that question, which I admit to having pondered in desperate circumstances, is: "Yes!"
Allow me to suggest that Airpnp, the new crowdsourced bathroom emergency application, has the potential to dislodge a force far more entrenched than any taxi commission or hospitality industry, which is the power of government to legally forbid you from doing your business in public places, if you're not around a commode when the urge strikes. We live in a country where you can rent the entire history of music for the cost of a panini, but every day millions of citizens are obligated, by municipal law, to agonize silently, unable to do a thing that we literally need to do to not die.
What the hell?
Needing-to-piss stress is a first-order problem, and the fact that a tiny startup from New Orleans is just getting around to it in 2015 gives the lie to the idea that the big tech corps actually have "improving the human condition" high up on the dry-erase board when they're calculating which intractable knot to untie with Objective-C next. There is no lumbering Big Toilet to disrupt, as far as I know, no swirling profits to drain. There are simply devil bags to unburden and anxious minds to ease.
It was with this downright communitarian promise (in the world of startups, at least) in mind that last week I set out, after drinking 20 ounces of coffee and 20 ounces of water, to visit some of the Airpnp pioneers in New York City, where I live.
I wanted to figure out what had moved these early Pnpers to share their most private space with, potentially, 8 million other humans. I wanted to know how other actual New Yorkers' bathrooms compared to mine. And more than anything, I wanted a glimpse of the end of my cold war (mutually assured destruction has, to date, saved me from any accidental detonations) against my bladder.
Before going any further, I should mention that Airpnp is in many ways a terrible application. First, it seems obvious that it will be sued by Airbnb, which is currently getting lots of practice in the courts. Second, it doesn't have Airbnb's kind of geotracking, and it auto-loads New Orleans as its default location because Airpnp headquarters is in New Orleans. Every time. Third — at least in my experience — you have to log in each time you use it, almost as if the app cannot believe someone is taking it seriously. Fourth, Airpnp asks for your credit card number a little bit too often, like an intern wrote it down on a scrap of paper but forgot where he put it. Fifth, and this isn't quite Airpnp's fault, but there simply aren't very many toilets available to use in New York right now. As of this writing, I count 15 in Manhattan, six in Brooklyn, four in Queens, zero in the Bronx and Staten Island. Which makes sense, I guess, since Staten Island is pretty much one big toilet anyway.
The majority of the Airpnp listings in Manhattan are simply public restrooms. That's a useful service, but it already exists in the form of the entirely fine Charmin SitOrSquat app. Public bathrooms are fine, but I wanted to piss in someone's home. I decided to look in the two boroughs with private listings: Brooklyn, where I live, and Queens.
The first bathroom I tried to use was listed by a person in East Williamsburg named Haziq L., and it promised "a toilet, toilet paper, sink, and paper towels." Unfortunately for me, Haziq had set the single-use price of his bathroom at $1000.00, which felt like probably beyond the reasonable limits of the BuzzFeed News expense reimbursement policy (or, at the very least, only worth it in the event of a catastrophic number two).
Next, I tried a few places in Crown Heights, both of which were "unavailable," a vague term that did not clarify whether they were currently in strenuous use or nobody was home to host. Discouraged, and now starting to have to pee quite badly, I found a listing for a bathroom in Bedford-Stuyvesant for a comparatively reasonable $5:
The whole "photo studio" thing gave me a little pause. I have nothing against photographers, but I had the disquieting idea that the crowdsourced bathroom and the photo studio might not be unrelated, and that I might be dragooned into some kind of project involving my waste, perhaps involving a school of unorthodox conceptual installation art, far ahead of its time. But, the waters stirred. I pressed "pay," and moments later I received a text message that opened back into the Airpnp app:
I drove to the address, parked my car, walked a half-block to the building, and rang the buzzer.
A note on strangers: As a rule, you should not go into strangers' apartments alone, probably. Various factors can mitigate this rule, such as: Are you a man and quite possibly then, an idiot? Do you have a previously negotiated business agreement with the stranger in question? Do you really need to go number one? Are you trying to make a point about technology and public space through revealing anecdotes? Have you texted the address of the stranger's apartment to your co-workers so at the very least any conceptual art installation will not go unpunished?
The steel-walled stairwell leading up to Charlie's apartment could most generously be described as "functional" and increased my apprehension enough that I stuck one hand in my coat pocket and gripped the ballpoint pen in my pocket aggressively. I climbed the stairs and knocked on the door.
A man who looked very much like Turtle from Entourage, but smaller, opened the door. He was wearing a beanie, drinking a can of cola with a straw, and looked really very friendly as he stuck out his hand and introduced himself. I said, "Hi, I'm Joe, and I'm here to use your bathroom." I also blurted out, weirdly, "I'm a reporter," like I was a noncombatant or something.
Charlie nodded good-naturedly, and led me a few steps inside his home to the toilet. I walked inside and closed the door. It was neither the cleanest nor the dirtiest bathroom I have ever seen, entirely acceptable, and I was touched to discover that Charlie had lit a candle for me. The mood was set.
This is the lower third of my body right before paying to use a stranger's bathroom for the first time:
After urinating but before flushing, I remembered that my co-workers had thought this story would be much improved if I performed stunts inside the bathroom. The stunts were things like groaning loudly, flushing much too much, asking angry questions about the water pressure, and emerging visibly wet and/or shirtless and/or holding a tattered copy of the October 1992 Playboy Girls of the Big East. Charlie threw off pretty chill and accepting vibes, and I kind of doubt he would have minded if I had done most or all of these things. Still, once I was actually in the bathroom, I felt an unmistakable sense of propriety, as well as gratitude that another person had actually let me inside his sanctum sanctorum.
I couldn't go through with the stunts. I mean, he lit a candle for me.
After I left his bathroom, I asked Charlie if we could chat about Airpnp, and he led me to a room at the end of a long, narrow hallway. A gray cat perched on a navy futon did not turn its head when I walked in. The unpainted walls were covered in green graffiti, and on a table before my now-seated host were blunt wraps and a remarkable amount of weed, which Charlie was slowly getting around to.
I asked him if he thought $5 was too much for a single use of the bathroom. Charlie thought it over, and told me while that five bucks might be too much for a single urination, it might be too little for the alternative, especially when you consider that it would be of the emergency variety.
"I don't want to get in between someone and what they need to do," he explained.
Did Charlie worry when he signed up, or when he got a notification saying some guy named Joe Bernstein was coming over to his apartment, that he might be unsafe? He told me that he and his roommates had signed up "as a goof," but the fact that you had to enter a credit card to use the service would probably filter out the lowlifes.
"Also," Charlie added, "I don't think there's crazy people trying to get into my house. That's a Jersey idea."
By this point, Charlie had wrapped up a marijuana delivery device the size of a Hebrew National, and was merrily drawing away at it and telling me about his business as a nightlife photographer. "It's a good thing you didn't show up here at 10 a.m.," he said. "There were still girls here!" He and his roommates had briefly considered "upping the ante" on Airpnp, turning their bathroom into an exclusive after-party of sorts, but had decided against it. Charlie chuckled, and offered me some hospitality, which I declined, regretfully. Seconds later, he offered me some hospitality again, and I accepted, regretfully. It was rather potent hospitality.
I'm not sure how long Charlie and I sat there, hospitably, but he gave me some extremely good advice about how to get into and how to bring marijuana into New York's most exclusive nightclubs. I looked at a coffee table book that maybe featured or maybe did not feature some of Charlie's photography, and worried about lingering too long on it. The pages were very glossy. Man, that cat did not move at all!
At some point, I asked him the cat's name.
"Benny," he said. "There's another one running around here somewhere."
I thought a minute. "Like, B-E-N-N-Y?" I asked.
"Hmm," he said. "Not really." Then we both laughed.
Somewhat later, after Charlie showed me out ("Thanks for everything," I had said, perhaps too emotionally), I sat in my car and listened on the radio to smooth jazz featuring the bass guitar stylings of the former NBA 20-point scorer Wayman Tisdale for what seemed like too long.
Eventually and without panic, I realized that I needed to do number one again. I popped back into Airpnp and hit an instant match, for only a dollar this time, in the Woodside neighborhood of Queens. I was stuck in annoying surface street traffic for the whole drive, about an hour and a half, and by the time I walked in the door of Caprice Car Service, on Roosevelt Avenue in the shadow of the elevated 7 train, I really had to go.
"I'm here to use your bathroom!" I announced to the dispatcher at the front desk.
"Of course?" he asked. I walked to the back of the small office and entered the bathroom, in which the shower curtain momentarily took my breath away, quite possibly as a result of Charlie's potent hospitality.
Staring at the wild horses, I made my water. I washed up, walked out, and was greeted by a short and smiling young woman, who told me that her name was Diana Cardenas, that she owned Caprice with her father, Hernan, that she had signed the business up for Airpnp, and that the man at the front desk, Rafa, had no idea what was going on. Diana escorted me back to her desk, and on the way I noticed jealously with my nose and then my eyes that Rafa was eating a massive plate of chicken.
Diana had just made an Airpnp account the day before, she said, after reading about it on the internet. "I have a small bladder," she told me, "and sometimes I can't find a place to go!" I was in love, not only with Diana, but with Rafa's chicken, which I was finding harder and harder to ignore.
I asked Diana whether she thought a dollar was too little to charge for, per Charlie, what could be heavy use. "That's why I put on the listing 'be friendly and clean up after yourself,'" she told me with a grin.
"Just one more thing," I asked, ogling Rafa, who was literally licking the bones. "What is a really good place to eat around here?"
Diana recommended a sushi place nearby, which, no thanks, and so on the way out I asked Rafa where had he got his hands on that chicken.
"Next door, dude," he said. "It's awesome."
Next door I did indeed consume much of a rotisserie chicken. I was nearly in tears as I approached the counter and asked for mas... mas... mas... servilletas!
Wiping my face with the servilletas back in my car, and now gulping a seltzer, I figured I would probably need to piss again before long, and so I flipped back into Airpnp. To my surprise, I realized that I had more or less tried every listing except one, a $10 toilet in Astoria belonging to one Luna G. It featured a humorous illustration and I was charmed:
I tapped and waited. After 10 minutes, Luna G — or Airpnp — had not yet responded, and I reasoned that for someone in a true emergency this would be an unacceptable period of time. I turned my car around; the iPottie would have to wait for another day.
When I returned to my apartment, the first thing I did was head to the bathroom and take a piss. It felt vaguely antisocial and a little anticlimactic. Also, it felt great.
I took stock of the day. In about four and a half hours, I had paid $6 for two urinations, two good conversations, some unconventional hospitality, knowledge of what has to be one of the best rotisserie chicken spots in Woodside, and a nice little self-guided surface street tour of the Brooklyn-Queens border. I realized that despite having to pee several times throughout the day, at no point did I feel in conflict with my bladder. In fact, I felt for once like my bladder and I were playing for the same team. You could argue that this is because I devoted an entire day to trying to figure out places to go pee. I would argue this is because I knew at all times that a bathroom would be available. It's not a new principle: The only thing worse than discomfort is not knowing its duration. But can I honestly say I've ever used an app before, even one as janky and not ready for primetime as Airpnp, that has had a commensurately soothing effect in any area of my life? No way.
Stretching out on my couch, I checked my text messages. The iPottie was available. That felt like a good thing to know.
The latest update to Airpnp, version 1.02, includes location tracking.
Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bernstein reports on and writes about the gaming industry and web culture.
Contact Joseph Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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