I observed some things over the years, cleaning those bathrooms. If I "closed" the women's washroom, it was far more likely for a woman to knock on the door and ask to use the bathroom. If I "closed" the men's washroom, it was common for me to pop out when finished and find a man waiting sheepishly.
For clarity: I only closed one at a time. Once more: there was nothing different between them. The Starbucks I worked at then was not a particularly busy location. It was rare for there to be any kind of queue for the bathrooms, so more often than not the other bathroom would be available for the knocking-woman or waiting-man.
If I popped my head out to get a cleaning supply or more toilet paper, and if I saw a man waiting, I would let him know that he would be welcome to use the women's washroom. The man waiting would often respond with visible relief, but usually verify: "You're sure that's okay?"
"Oh yeah, absolutely. There's no difference between the two."
And he would go to use the bathroom. As though waiting for permission, even though he probably already knew there was no real difference between the two bathrooms and no real reason to distinguish them.
When I opened the door to a knocking woman, she would often look slightly panicked and ask why she couldn't use the bathroom.
"I'm cleaning it at the moment," I would say. "I'm sorry for the inconvenience, but the other washroom is available if you'd like to use it. Or, you can wait."
Sometimes, the woman would nod her head and also respond with relief. Off she would go to use the empty bathroom and I would return to my cleaning.
Other times, the woman would nod her head and opt to wait.
And then there were the women who, shall I say, panicked.
"But that's the men's washroom!"
"Right now, it's empty. There's no difference between the bathrooms. You can use it, if you'd like."
"I can't use the men's washroom."
And then there was the woman who demanded I vacate the women's washroom immediately so she could use the toilet. I had never seen someone so flustered at the idea of using the "wrong" bathroom. In the time it took me to get my cleaning supplies out of the bathroom, I'm sure she could have used the other bathroom and been finished.
I remember she said as I scurried out of the bathroom: "The least you could have done was hurry up."
I guess I could have. I guess I could have started covering up the signs when I began cleaning.
At the bookstore, no one seemed to have any trouble using the other washroom and those were multi-stall and did have urinals (and strangely distinct smells).
I wonder why.
I leaned back against my partner, and said, louder than I intended, that I couldn't see.
And then there's this moment I can't remember, what I assume is the actual blackout, and then my vision burst back and the sudden light made me nauseous. I untangled myself from my partner, certain I was about to vomit, and stumbled towards the bathroom.
You can imagine where this is going, maybe.
What followed were many dizzy moments. I remember leaning over a toilet, gagging and trembling. I remember a woman rubbing my back and asking if I was alone. I remember hearing my partner's voice from the doorway, calling my name. I remember someone telling him he couldn't come in. The woman rubbing my back helped me to my feet and led me to the sinks, where I immediately fell to my knees. Overall, I wasn't in good shape. Someone eventually let my partner in and he was suddenly next to me, asking if I was alright.
First Aid cleared the bathroom. I could hear the distant sound of the ceremony ending.
As the First Aid responders tried to help me in the empty washroom, my partner held my hand. They closed the bathroom, since I wasn't sure I could move. But as people began filing out of the building, people began to want to use the bathroom.
One woman became very insistent. Her voice, in my memory, marks the beginning of my return to actual consciousness. She was yelling, telling the responder at the door that she couldn't use the bathroom because there was a man (my partner) in there.
"The bathroom is closed anyways, ma'am."
"He can't be in there. This is a woman's washroom! I won't use it!"
"The bathroom is closed, ma'am."
I lifted my head and looked at my partner. He looked only slightly sheepish, smiling as he shrugged at me. The responder checking my blood pressure shook her head
How would anyone be able to tell the difference?