Divine Aphasia

The Silberman Bathroom Automation Index

June 25, 2008

In June of 2004, at a hotel in Houston, Texas (a city which I was visiting to compete in a quiz bowl tournament and to which I hope never to return—its principal features, as I recall them, were a foul odor, an interminable highway, and an obvious abandonment of any responsibility for urban planning), I encountered my first automatic paper towel dispenser. I waved a hand in front of the infrared sensor, a motor whirred, and a foot-long sheet of brown paper towel emerged and was perforated, ready to be torn away. No yanking, pushing, or turning required on my part.

I was a little stunned. The public restrooms my youth most commonly sported automatic toilet flushers and automatic faucets. On a few exotic occasions, I encountered automatic soap dispensers. But when I discovered automatic towels for the first time in that Houston hotel lobby, I had a sudden realization: some restroom, somewhere, was bound to have all four technologies operating at once. The ultimate hands-free restroom experience.

Thus began my search. I swore then and there that I would be ever-vigilant when using the facilities. I would not cease my search until I discovered a bathroom offering me motion-sensetive flushing, water, soap, and paper towels. (I exclude automatic hand dryers from my metric because they are abominations.)

Some three years later, I was in the Detroit airport, flying in for the last quiz bowl tournament of my high school career. I had awoken early for my flight; I was tired and disoriented and I had to pee. I entered the stall and observed the quotidian sensor, the LED inside blinking red as I approached. I emerged and placed my hands under the faucet, and lukewarm water flowed over them, as it had so many times before. My heart skipped a beat as the unblinking electronic eye of the soap dispenser observed my approach and directed some pump to squeeze a dollop of hand-soap into my waiting palm. Barely daring to hope, I turned to the wall—where hung an automatic towel dispenser. I had found it: a bathroom scoring a four out of four on the Silberman Bathroom Automation Index. As a friend commented when I reported the news, it was “a triumph of the electronic will.”

My quest was at an end.

Or perhaps it was just beginning. It’s still just the one bathroom.

Evan Silberman