Column: Public restrooms don’t mean squat with seat covers

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Let’s start this column on a need-to-know basis, and it’s going to get a little graphic here.

I am one of those people who would choose to explode before using a public bathroom. It stems from childhood. My nana made sure my brothers and I developed a robust phobia of toilets not situated at our house.

(Author’s note: This from the same woman who mopped the bathroom floor out of the toilet bowl. I CAN’T EVEN TYPE THAT WITHOUT GAGGING. Which is why I mop with rubbing alcohol, even as that bathroom has been gutted and rebuilt.)

The grandchildren were taught to hover and squat, or use layers of toilet paper if our bottoms could not be sufficiently held aloft.

By fifth grade, I had thigh muscles to make a bodybuilder weep. By the time I was hanging with high school friends, dragging the gut and slurping Cokes in my grandmother’s Ford Galaxie 500, I had a bladder that could hold a kiddie pool of fluid.

I’m sorry, is this too much information?

So there’s me, and then there’s the rest stop just north of Hood River on I-84. Last week Martha Stewart, Jr., and I were headed to Portland to be with MoMama’s family. More accurately, to coo over tiny twins and cuddle Macalicious … maybe throw in a load of laundry to show we’re helping out.

The warning sign that I was going to have to break my own travel rule — “We’re not stopping until we get to Portland. Don’t ask!” — started whimpering about halfway down the highway. Yet I whizzed by The Dalles with no thought of stopping.

I’ll just drive through to that nice Starbucks in Hood River, I told myself. Cleanish bathroom, hot coffee, what’s to lose? My travel rule has previously been compromised at that very spot in the past by an intense caffeine craving, after all.

Minutes later I began to panic. My kiddie pool was at its last drop of storage and at full scream. Why, oh why did I drink that second can of cola?

“Rest stop 1 mile” swam into my line of squinted vision.

“No,” I said aloud. “Never a rest stop.”

Nonetheless, in another few minutes I was in the most vile bathroom your brain could possibly conjure. Nothing appeared to have been touched for six months, unless you count with urine and wadded toilet paper. I feared inhaling all that must have been floating in the air. The toilet seat? I would tell you, but we’re a family newspaper.

This, I told myself, is why I must tell readers about Tidy Potty.

I get a lot of email marketing in my inbox, I’ve said this before. Most of it I dump before opening. Once a month, maybe, something looks worth a look. A few days before my Portland exodus, the very capitalized “Tidy Potty Designed to Make Public Restrooms More User Friendly” caught my eye.

It was as if the copywriter was writing straight to my phobia.

“For most people public restrooms are the last resort. Tidy Potty is a revolutionary product that takes the fear out going when you absolutely have to go. Tidy Potty is a first of its kind flushable plastic, biodegradable toilet seat cover that can be carried discreetly wherever you go. The product was created by … Thomas Harris, a former nurse turned entrepreneur, who understands the potential hazards that exist in restrooms and other public facilities that are not properly maintained and sanitized.”

I hit my keyboard.

“OK, you hooked me. Set me up for an interview?”

Thomas Harris called me a few days later, sounding hesitant. Turns out this was his first interview — ever — and he was a wee bit nervous.

Harris didn’t start out intending to be an inventor. He just wanted to protect his little girls from scenes like the one I found at the Hood River rest stop, he said.

“The idea came for me when I had to take my girls to a public restroom. And, you know, those were men’s bathrooms so it’s even worse. I thought, ‘There has to be something better for them than using tissue on the seat.’”

Every dad with a daughter just winced. You’ve all been there. It’s not much better for Harris with his 5 year-old son, he pointed out.

“When he has to go, he has to go, whatever it is.”

A nurse for 20 years, Harris knows those thin paper seat covers supplied in public bathrooms mean nothing, he said. “Those paper covers are there so you don’t use up all the toilet paper. People got used to that and thinking it works, but there is not anything made of paper that is used for protection. You would never use a paper condom. It would be absurd.”

Harris assured me I am not alone. Eight out of 10 people are uncomfortable using a public bathroom. If they are not “germophobic” they can do it, but sure wish they didn’t have to, he said.

“They” being me, and possibly you.

Enter Tidy Potty. Tidy Potty is a plastic, elasticized slipcover for toilet seats. There are flaps and tabs and groovy designs. I’m not going to lie, I immediately thought of a certain hunter when I saw the camo design.

And when its mission is done, the cover can be dropped in the bowl, where it will disintegrate and biodegrade, Harris promised.

“Like dishwasher gel packs. It’s safer for the environment than paper covers.”

There’s a real need for his product, he believes. Experts say certain parasites can only live a few hours outside the body. “But if you are using a public facility, especially during an event, there are seconds between users, Harris said.

There ya go, all you people with your enviable concert tickets.

For the parts of the public bathroom not covered in Tidy Potty, there are five Tidy Wipes to every cover, he added. That takes care of the toilet handle, light switches, doorknobs and faucet handles. Or the sink, which is hotter zone for germs than the toilet seat. Soap dispensers come in just under the toilets, according to thetidypotty.com.

You’re welcome.

Harris figured out how to make his product somewhat adorable, stuffing three covers and 15 wipes in the little ChapStick-like carrier tube that’s about six inches high. Refills further reduce the cost, he said.

“I don’t think people should sit behind anyone they wouldn’t drink behind. You really have more protection in your mouth than your bottom.”

Tidy Potty is anticipated to be available this summer — Harris is trying an independent funding campaign and a few other ideas to get things flowing. Just in time for vacation travel and camping, he said in our phone interview.

In the meantime, if you are crossing to the west side on the Oregon side of the border, don’t drink too many liquids and choose your rest area carefully. Remember what Harris said about paper. That’s all I’m saying.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at 509-526-8322 or sheilahagar@wwub.com.

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