Originally published in The New York Times (ca. 1995)
The notice was posted on the weathered wooden wall of my elevator like a proclamation from Martin Luther. “On June 1, new toilets will be installed in the building. Please sign up for a convenient time.”
I didn’t want a new toilet. Reading between the lines was easy but painful. Some stranger would come into my home and rip out one of its nicest, most reliable features. An elegant porcelain bowl and a white drumstick-shaped handle gave it a distinguished old-world charm. But the forceful white-water flush was where this machine really showed its mettle. One flush and there was no need to look back.
Our elevator became the venue for mini town meetings. An elderly couple waxed philosophically when I expressed my dismay. “It’s happening everywhere,” the man said, shaking his head. His wife frowned.
Said a new mother carrying her baby: “I understand these new ones don’t work too well.” She seemed sad and resigned.
I felt conflicted. I knew those comforting flushes were a big waste of water. But a water-wasting devil sat on my left shoulder and hissed in my ear: “Don’t do it. Grease a palm or two. You work hard. You deserve a good toilet.”
A friend of mine on the West Side conspiratorially told me that he had managed to keep one high-flow toilet and give up the other. He was, however, stingy with the details.
The super’s persistence and my environmental compulsions prevailed, and an anemic new toilet found its way into my home. I now jangle the chrome handle, hold it down and pray. The whoosh of my former toilet has been replaced with a choking gurgle. And the confidence to walk away without looking back is shattered. The “low flow” is now a part of my life. It can be especially unsparing to party guests not familiar with its mechanical workings. And since many people will flush a low-flow repeatedly, you wonder about the ultimate water savings.
A few weeks ago I spoke to someone at the city’s Department of Environmental Protection. He reminded me that the new low-flow toilets and shower heads have resulted in a decline in water consumption, “as low as seen in modern memory.” I felt good about that. At the same time I felt betrayed when he told me that the entire program had been voluntary. My landlord had made it seem absolutely compulsory, motivated perhaps by financial incentives the city offered building owners.
I actually had a choice. Knowing that, would I have refused to relinquish the old-world charm of a reliable flush? The question is moot. But I can look forward to telling my grandchildren about the good old days – the prickly stream of an old shower head and the roar of a flush that left no room for doubt.