The downtown San Francisco Whole Foods has been embroiled in controversy ever since it slashed store hours and debuted a long list of new bathroom protocols.
Releasing one’s bladder or bowels can prove to be a perilous, frustrating, eye-opening experience in San Francisco. For a city of over 880,000 full-time residents, SF operates just 136 staffed public toilets at 62 locations across the city — 25 of these are self-cleaning stations, cocooned in a deep-army green metal exterior with signage that reminds you to not leave anything in them after you’ve exited.
Doing some simple number crunching, this means there’s one publicly accessible restroom for every 6,500 San Franciscans, housed or otherwise. It doesn’t take an astute mathematician to see the problem here: There’s a massive shortage of bathrooms in San Francisco that aren’t housed in a local business, culture hub, or community center.
Alas, this denotes the bulk of people crisscrossing the seven-by-seven who must use the loo usually resort to entering a corner bodega or small grocery store or large supermarket. But the chances of being able to use a facility’s restroom sans purchasing something is an increasingly rare circumstance.
Even after that purchase, there’s an odds-beating probability you’ll need to procure a bathroom key. Or combination code. Maybe both.
It’s a maddening, seemingly nonsensical struggle to pee in San Francisco when your lower stomach is descended and nearing late-pregnancy-like sizes. Arguably, nowhere in SF is this toil more exemplified than trying to use the toilet at the new downtown Whole Foods located at 1185 Market Street.
You must be ushered in by a bathroom attendant; you need a recent store receipt to use them; you then have to scan a QR code to unlock them. And I went through the entire process, so you don’t have to (unless it’s a high-key digestive emergency).
“Do you have a receipt,” the well-meaning security guard, who doubled as a restroom usher Monday, November 21st, said to me. “I need to see it before you can use the restroom.”
Digging through my paper Whole Foods bag — the handle straining underneath the weight of overpriced, bruised fruits and vegetables — I excavated my receipt printed from the self-checkout register minutes earleir. Surprisingly, it was still intact; the thin printing paper had not yet surrendered to the jostling Honeycrisp apples.
“Here it is.” I show it, unfolding the receipt in its entirety. I feel weirdly proud that I remembered to keep it and not immediately toss the flimsy thing away; in my mind, this receipt was deserving of magnetic fridge space.
She looks at me, smiles, and takes me left to the line of gender-neutral restrooms. I imagine she’s done this same guided trek numerous times today. The time is 5:50 p.m., and the store closes at 7 p.m. — a full two hours shorter than it did before October 24th.
The San Francisco Standard, the city’s new contentious media outlet that exploded in both reach and staff (thanks to initial funding from Sequoia Capital), was the first to cover this location’s adjusted operating hours.
“It’s to better serve our customers, and it’s more or less because of the area and security issues,” said the store’s manager, who asked to remain anonymous, told the media outlet when asked about the new 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. store hours. “There’s just high theft and people being hostile.”
(I’ve visited this specific Whole Foods location many times since it opened on March 10th. I’ve witnessed at least two brawls in the common area where shoppers can dine; once, a person experiencing homelessness put half an entire pepperoni pizza — without packaging — in their backpack. This is to say [in one fell swoop] that I understand the causation behind the motivation, but can’t see how cutting hours is beneficial for customers and, by its approximation, will suddenly shore up store safety.)
I still need to pee. There’s a cumbersome infographic to pull up on my phone to retrieve a QR code. A scanner to show said QR glows in front of a door — the physical barrier between me and a bladder release.
The door opens automatically, and I shuffle my bag into the restroom, which seems as impractical as it does unsanitary. But I have no other choice: “You can’t leave any unattended bags outside the restroom,” the attendant remarks.
The bathroom, itself, is dirty. A bloody tissue sits to the left of the bowl, and someone has clearly used this space as an injection site prior; there’s a syringe poking out of the needle disposal bin that has a small piece of aluminum oil peaking out.
At this moment, I’m more irate than I am surprised. There are an estimated 25,000 people in San Franciscans who use injectable drugs, though the City has yet to open and operate a legal safe injection site. How can you project blame on someone when there’s no present solution at hand?
Water swirls the bowl in a deafening whirlpool, and I exit the restroom by pressing a small red button that automatically opens the door. My hands are wet with water from the trough-style sink, reaching to my right and discovering the paper dispenser is, of course, empty.
The bag holstering my produce — items collectively valued at $22.74 that I procured in order to use this bathroom — dampens from the moisture slicking my palms. I was physically relieved, but mentally mired, wrapped in a tight coil of greater symbolisms and situational frustrations.
“Thank you so much,” I say to the gracious attendant, her jovial charisma still present as I pull the corners of my mouth toward the fluorescent light fixtures above. “I hope this whole process gets easier… for both our sakes.”
In that reflective moment, I couldn’t escape the notion that the current bathroom predicament at the downtown Whole Foods store perfectly encapsulates nearly everything wrong with San Francisco’s accessibility problems.