Rated “R” for Dirty Situations

Attention, restroom patrons. Please do not assault the tall, dark-haired, suspicious-looking man taking pictures in there. He is not a deviant who will soon be cackling over his snapshots like Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death. Jon Thompson is the co-founder and creator of Restroom Ratings, a pithy online guide to public conveniences. He is merely there to help patrons of public conveniences flush out the best that are available.

When he is not powdering his nose or walking the dog, Thompson is a web designer for Lifetime Fitness. He is twenty-five, he lives in Uptown, and he has been posting his illustrated reviews at www.restroomratings.com for almost five years. His evaluations range from the Loring Pasta Bar’s “enchanting,” “stunning,” “truly wonderful” facilities to the “high-pressure vacu-crappers” aboard Northwest Airlines’ Airbus A319s to certain abominations where the patron, loath to touch the seat, must assume the hovering position of a downhill skier.

It was at one such facility that the project was born. “We were on a road trip through Wisconsin and stopped at a run-down gas station to fill up. My wife had to go to the bathroom, and when she came out she said there ought to be a sticker on the door so you know from the outside what you’re getting into.” Thompson pondered the idea of a rating website with downloadable stickers. That aspect of the project never materialized, but the two hundred or so restroom critiques he has posted offer an authoritative guide to the form, function, and aura of lavatories from the Twin Cities to the U.K. and Japan. He rarely takes a vacation without filing reports on half a dozen WCs or washiki toires.

It’s not exactly a hobby, and not quite a business, since the web advertisements on his site don’t really compensate Thompson for the time he puts into his endeavor. He considers the work “a calling.” The son of a plumber, he spent his early years shadowing his father on many service calls, inheriting a discerning eye for bathroom hardware.

“We’d go into someone’s restroom and Dad was like, ‘Oh, that’s really interesting, they have the older model American Standard. You can’t even get ball cocks for that kind of toilet anymore.’ ”

The idea of rating public washrooms isn’t unique, but other sites take a prosaic, cursory approach. “They’ll say there are two urinals and it’s handicapped accessible,” Thompson noted. He prefers ambience-rich descriptions that evoke the sights, sounds, and feel of the place. Also the aromas, of course, not all of which are lemony fresh. His report from one northeast Minneapolis landmark, Mayslack’s restaurant, has a sour, nostril-stinging immediacy. “If a smell could punch you in the face,” he wrote, “I would have two black eyes.” Thompson’s writing is sharp, concise, and packed with poetic humor. If his works were collected and bound, they’d make great bathroom reading.

“It’s an essay, it’s creative writing,” Thompson said. He delights in restrooms with a touch of character, such as the retro facilities at the Riverview Theater, the terry cloth hand towels and framed ad posters at Babalu, the Caribbean restaurant in the Warehouse District, and the outhouse in Taylors Falls’ Interstate Park that featured a bird’s nest with live chicks nestled beside the toilet. Of course, he also includes scores of generic chain restaurants. “There’s a lot that are exactly identical. The tough part is writing a review that’s different and sets it apart.” Still, even a run-of-the-mill loo such as that in the Mankato Wal-Mart can serve as a springboard for some off-the-cuff sociology. “Not too filthy, but not too clean, either. Still, a welcome refuge from the dozens of watchful in-store security cameras, reminders of Wal-Mart’s god-like presence in every aspect of our humble shopping experiences.”

If his site has a shortcoming, it is that reviews of men’s rooms far outnumber those of ladies’. Thompson’s wife has contributed a few items, but “she hasn’t latched onto it the way I have,” he said. So for male readers, and even for Thompson, many mysteries remain. “In Chili’s restaurants, they have the Sports section of USA Today mounted on the wall,” he said. “In the women’s, do they have Lifestyle?”—Colin Covert