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Desert Companion

Should I pay or should I (not) go?

square-toilet-flush.jpg

Toilet
Illustration by Brent Holmes

The 1975 session of the Nevada Legislature would be known for many headlines and intrigues, including the stalling of the Equal Rights Amendment. But it would be remembered for one issue above the rest. Call it the public’s right to go. That was the year the Legislature, arguably stretched to its progressive limits, saw fit to end the practice of allowing pay toilets in publicly owned buildings. It was a tougher struggle than you might first imagine.

These days, the notion of pay toilets in public places seems laughable. But it was once an American standard. By one credible account, their use began in the early 1900s, with increased train travel through rural areas bereft of indoor plumbing. Train stations became popular places to go, the “in” place for the local outhouse crowd. Soon, locks were needed to keep them out, which required a train agent with a key to be on hand.

American ingenuity being what it is, a solution was found in the form of a coin-operated lock.

Over time, pay toilets became a profit center. By 1970, there were more than 50,000 in the United States. Although business owners and some government entities argued that the practice was a constitutional right, the fact that urinals didn’t require payment also made it a question of fairness: Women had to pay a dime for the privilege men enjoyed for free. Movements sprang up from Illinois to California with the goal of ending the practice.

Support comes from

In Nevada, the political push came from a diminutive Democratic assemblywoman named Eileen Brookman, “Queenie” to her many friends. Fond of bright orange pantsuits, she was a diehard progressive. She saw the pay toilet issue not only as an attention-grabber, but as an example of sexism masquerading as sanitation. She authored a bill to abolish the practice, reminding her Assembly colleagues, “When you have to go, you have to go. And when you have to pay a dime, it’s a crime.”

Not surprisingly in Nevada, some of Brookman’s conservative counterparts criticized her effort. They argued that the nominal charge was a necessary part of doing business. Representatives of the nation’s two largest toilet door lock companies, Nik-O-Lok and American Coin Lock, argued that the pay function helped deter “drug addicts, homosexuals, muggers and just plain hippies from haunting public restrooms.”

Brookman found an ally in the Senate: Joe Neal. “Queenie, as we called her, Eileen Brookman, was such a decent person,” Neal would recall many years after her 2004 death. “She was a feisty kind of character who would pick up this issue and take it seriously. And she did.”

When Brookman died, the Las Vegas Sun reported an outpouring of affection. Former Assembly Speaker Joe Dini said, “She fought for the oppressed and the poor,” and former Assemblyman John Marvel recounted her unending support for Native-Americans, adding, “Everything she did, she did in orange.”

“She may have been only five feet tall, but she could wrestle with the best of them,” Clark County Commissioner and former legislator Chris Giunchigliani recalled in a recent interview. “She was just a pistol with a passion for people and education and kids.”

And the pay toilet bill is a big part of Brookman’s political legacy. “Why would you take a public facility and put women at risk for no good reason?,” Giunchigliani asked. “It was an example of discrimination in the law. She saw the problem and got it fixed.”

There was considerable opposition to her bill, but few critics appeared comfortable discussing it. Conservative Senator Carl Dodge of Fallon, in the middle of a 23-year lawmaking career, argued that making toilets free would reduce sanitation. Like others, he was squeamish about change and didn’t see this as an issue of fairness.

Neal disagreed. “While I may agree that, psychologically, people may feel there is a need for pay toilets, biologically, I feel that we should have what this amendment proposes — that 50 percent of the toilets be open,” he argued on the Senate floor. “Because we are speaking of a biological situation here, and sometimes the psychological cannot control you whenever you have to go.”

“When she came with that toilet bill, a lot of people laughed, but I thought it was a good thing,” Neal recalled in 2015. “The argument I attempted to make was one of fairness. It was the fact that they did not put a cap on the urinal, but the women had to go in and use the commode.”

 It was a tourism issue, too. Pay toilets were in use at McCarran International Airport — none of the Carson City brain trust thought twice about the message that might send to millions of tourists who had traveled to Las Vegas only to be greeted by one-armed bandits and a lock on the stall. “You’d better use the toilet while you’re on the plane,” Neal recalled years later.

Brookman was dedicated, but Neal was tough. When one attempt to ban public pay toilets failed, Brookman declined to name the lawmakers who worked for its defeat. Not Neal. Incensed, he issued a press release outing them.

In 1975, the vote wasn’t close. Thanks to efforts in many states, by 1980 most pay toilets had been removed from public buildings.

On May 21, 1975, Governor Mike O’Callaghan signed the pay toilet prohibition into law, and a sigh of relief was heard from Winnemucca to Searchlight. Newspapers around the country carried the story, and Brookman became known as Nevada’s pay toilet princess. Neal was proud to be her prince.

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