May 16, 2012

When our great-great-grandparents wanted to find water, they got themselves a forked stick, walked all over their property with that stick in front of them, and when the stick pointed at the ground, they’d dig a well. It wasn’t exactly scientific, and it clearly wasn’t magic, but our great-great-grandparents believed in divining rods.

Then, when Americans got a little bit smarter, our great-grandparents’ generation figured out indoor plumbing. Suddenly, they didn’t need sticks anymore. When they wanted water, they’d simply hire a plumber, and water was available at the turn of a handle. People suddenly smelled a lot better. The story should have stopped there.

Today, all that progress is threatened by a new invention — the little motion sensors that are popping up in public bathrooms across the country. They decide when to turn on the water, flush the toilet and, in some cases, whether you’re even going to have lights in the bathroom. It sounds like a great idea — but it doesn’t work.

Somewhere in the bowels of corporate America, some genius invented a new technology that didn’t need to be invented and then shoved it on the rest of us. This trend started in airports, where at least it was understandable. People who design airports and airplanes are clearly vindictive and hateful. Their goal is to make you miserable. Nowhere else will you find such uncomfortable seats, long walks, bad music and harsh lighting. Not being able to get water in the bathroom was just the icing on that misery cake.

But it’s spreading. All across this country, in public bathrooms, people are now impatiently waving their hands underneath faucets, and then swearing when nothing comes out. They move from faucet to faucet, waving away like idiots, hoping one will give some water.

And thanks to technology, now even our plumbing thinks it’s smarter than we are. If one of the faucets finally does work, it will give you maybe 5 seconds of water before unilaterally deciding you’ve had enough. The only way to get more water is to resume frantic hand motions. You spend more time waving than washing.

In the old days, you could actually decide what temperature water you wanted to use to wash your hands. Today, the sensor faucet will decide that for you, thank you. If the sensor faucet feels like giving you warm water, that’s great. But if the sensor faucet would like to dispense cold water today, then that’s what you’re going to get.

The faucet people might want to find the company that makes the little sensors for hand soap. Those work so well that you barely have to move and they’re squirting out little foamy streams of soap. Sometimes all you have to do is open the men’s room door, and they’ll all start squirting. This is especially frustrating, as you can end up with a hand full of soap but nothing to wash it off with.

Worst of all, though, are motion-sensor toilets. They’re supposed to somehow sense when you are “done” and magically flush so you don’t have to. Toilet sensors are often so sensitive that they go off when you open the stall door, when you sit down, and every time you turn your head or reach for toilet paper. It’s very unsettling and if someone else is walking about the men’s room. That can get embarrassing. You can almost hear them out there thinking, “What kind of crazy person flushes the toilet seven times?” Calling out something like, “It’s not me! This dim-witted toilet is too sensitive!” just makes it sound worse. You could sit there and wait till the bathroom empties out so no one knows it’s you, but you’ll have to be still as a statue or risk random gushes of high-powered water.

Sometimes, of course, toilet sensors are quite insensitive, and they won’t go off at all, forcing you to get up and down repeatedly, or dance in front of the toilet hoping for some response. Eventually, you have to hunt for the little “back-up” flush button, which is hidden somewhere where you can’t find it, meaning you stand there poking away at every odd nook and cranny on the plumbing of a public toilet until, finally, something happens.

By the time you have found that little button, you’re looking down at your germy hands in horror. The only logical response is, of course, to run out and thoroughly wash your hands, which only means more waving and cursing.

I just realized the person who invented the automatic bathroom sensor was, in fact, a genius — a diabolical genius — he’s the guy who works for a company that makes waterless hand sanitizers.