Just about every fast food joint or American-style coffee shop in Paris is a clusterfuck. This is a given. The high-turnover nature of the service, combined with the perception of it being an oasis for weary, homesick Americans looking for a place to regroup and argue over how the Metro works and which line would be best make it so. Side note : from experience, the woman is always right in these arguments. This is not ass-kissing to the ladies : I stand by my assertion that their driving directional skills are suspect – but for some reason, they’ve got mass transit down.
Today’s experience in Starbucks was a first, though. It was the perfect storm of clueless tourist and French indifference. As luck would have it, I had the best seat in the house to see it all – the seat in front of the lone restroom.
See, one of Paris’ great joys is the mystifyingly low number of toilets available for use. Millions of people walking the city on any given day, and approximately 72 toilets available to serve them. The only theory I have to explain this is that the city wants the homeless and drunk population to urinate all over the Metro, cleverly using their sterile urine as a detergent of sorts, thereby reducing their cleaning budget. Wait, what am I thinking?! Like Paris has a cleaning budget…
Because of this, fast food restrooms are sought after as a precious pee-and-poop outlet while touring the city. Of course, the restaurants themselves aren’t keen to non-paying customers using their precious toilet [singular – it is Paris still] and pissing off their paying ones. Which is ironic, really, because the workers are completely indifferent to your satisfaction in every other measurable way. So almost every quick-service eatery has a security code to enter the bathroom, which is usually printed on the receipt when you make a purchase. Some of the more tourist-heavy locations, like on the Champs-Elysees, actually employ security guards to mind the bathrooms. Sure, there haven’t been napkins in the dispenser since the reign of Napoleon, and there’s a puddle of vomit on the corner booth, but they are going to ignore that and focus their precious manpower on bathroom security, because this is FRANCE goddammit, and we have RULES! And you MUST follow the RULES!
Back to today at Starbucks. So in addition to the security code on the outside of the bathroom door needed to enter, this particular bathroom, for a reason I haven’t yet figured out, apparently requires you to push a button on the inside of the bathroom the exit the bathroom. Having been to this Starbucks about half dozen times, during each visit I’ve seen at least two people struggle for a few seconds to figure out how to get out. Of course, the staff could put a small sign on the inside of the door pointing to the existence of this button, or maybe even an arrow pointing to it with a character exiting a door… but this is Paris, so fuck you.
Today, the scene started to play out per usual. A tug or two on the door handle from the inside. A knock by a confused person trapped inside, a word of advice from the next person in line offering advice. But unlike every other time, it didn’t end there. Minutes passed. The pulling on the door became more frequent and intense. After a couple more minutes, two of the young men seated nearby got up to push the door in to help. Now the girl inside is freaked out.
I asked the woman next to me if she spoke English – when she said yes I asked her to tell the girl “there’s a button next to the door.” She did, but it didn’t seem to help. Honestly I don’t know if the trapped teen was just the dumbest person alive or the button wasn’t working. But she definitely wasn’t getting out of there. Now, she’s screaming in French. I have to admit, I was enjoying the hell out of this.
The crowd outside the door of concerned/bemused onlookers has now swollen to about ten strong. Was anyone going to walk the 20 feet downstairs to alert an employee? Hell no. This is Paris, where no one actually solves problems, they just look at them and shrug. Now the door knob is loosening in the door, and I think this girl might actually make it out through brute force, which would be impressive. As entertaining as it was, I couldn’t just watch anymore [plus, you know, I’m trying to get shit done in here], so I went downstairs to notify someone. I told them there was someone trapped in the bathroom, and their answer was “ok”. I’m not quite sure what “ok” means in that context, but I went back upstairs and assumed help was on the way.
Oh no it wasn’t. Now there’s maybe fifteen people outside the door, offering advice or possibly encouragement to the poor girl inside. I start to feel like we’re about five minutes away from a CNN camera crew showing up, along with that guy without a collarbone they sent down the well to get Baby Jessica. Now a resourceful young man has pulled some kind of multi-tool from his pocket [he must be German] and is attempting to take apart the keypad manually. Well, he started turning a screw, anyway. I can only assume some MacGyver shit was about to follow.
We’ll never know, because the barista finally decided to come upstairs with a key of some kind, put it in the door, turned it, and voila! the ordeal was over. The girl looked embarrassed but relieved. I swear the gathered crowd was this close to breaking out in applause, and I’m kind of bummed they didn’t. Did the barista say anything to the girl about what happened? No. Did she come back and put up a small handwritten sign? Of course not. Will this whole scene probably play out again in about an hour? Of course it will. Because it’s Paris, so fuck you.