Mark Schultz hustled along a path in White Point Garden, eyes darting this way and that as a camera bobbed from a strap around his neck. He was in the middle of one of Charleston's prettiest spots, but his attention wasn't focused on the historic monuments, stately homes or sweeping harbor views.
This tourist from Maryland needed to find a bathroom. Fast.
Much to his dismay, he couldn't find a single pot to ... well, you get the idea. When someone told him the nearest public bathroom was a half-mile away on Broad Street, Schultz just rolled his eyes.
"That's a pretty good hike," he said, fidgeting. "I'm not sure I'm going to make it. Why don't they have more public restrooms around here?"
Schultz's question has been voiced by many a visitor to the Holy City, where finding a public potty can be an exercise in patience and bladder control. It's been an issue for a number of people over the years, including business owners who find their private facilities overrun by a steady stream of uninvited guests.
City officials insist there are plenty of public toilets to fill the need. They point to 15 communal commodes sprinkled around the downtown area, seven of which are in parking garages. The newest powder room opened last week in the City Market.
"I think we have a good supply of restrooms," Mayor Joe Riley said. "And we have them in great locations."
Still, the number of restrooms shrinks around 6 p.m., when the city locks the doors to several of its toilets, including those at City Hall. And if you're strolling the tourist-swollen Battery, you better learn to hold it because there isn't a single municipal latrine to be had.
Rawshawn Smalls of James Island loves to fish along the old seawall. But she's been caught more than once making a mad, mile-long dash to the bathroom in the Harris Teeter supermarket. "Then I end up spending money for something I really don't need because I hate to walk in some place and just use their restroom," she said.
White Point Garden once had restrooms in a floating bathhouse, but that was wiped out in the Hurricane of 1911, said Matt Compton, director of the city's Parks Department. They were replaced by bathrooms under the park's bandstand, but those closed in the 1970s because of crime and plumbing issues. The city later removed them. A similar fate met the toilets in popular Marion Square, though its users have the option of ducking into a nearby parking garage.
Riley said the city has searched for years for a solution to White Point Garden's toilet needs. "It's elusive," he said. "It's such a beautiful and historic park. To build a structure there seems to be the wrong thing to do."
The park certainly has closer fallback options than Harris Teeter, but finding public lavatories around the city can be a challenge without a map. The city doesn't exactly put up billboards announcing their presence. One bathroom near Waterfront Park is tucked under condominiums, so well hidden that many locals don't even know it's there.
Park visitors instead often head into nearby businesses, only to be told they need to make their pit stops elsewhere.
The HarbourView Inn on Vendue Range is one of several businesses around the peninsula that have put up signs announcing "No Public Restrooms" or "Restrooms for Customers Only." General Manager Nick Saltmarsh said the foot traffic can be disruptive and spoil the experience for paying guests at the four-diamond hotel.
Just up the street at The Griffon pub, bartender Chris Schill sees a daily parade of people in search of a bathroom, despite a sign limiting access to customers. "It's all day and all night," he said.
Robert Brubaker, program manager for the nonprofit American Restroom Association, said these signs and their accompanying frustrations should serve as "a big, flashing neon light" that the city has an issue with restroom availability. "It says this place is a problem for people who have to go."
A dearth of public facilities can hamper a city's efforts to create a livable, walkable community and drive off pregnant women, incontinent folks and other potential visitors among the "restroom-challenged," Brubaker said. In tight times, some communities have become creative in increasing toilet options. Some Chicago-area municipalities, for example, solicit bids from private businesses willing to open their restrooms to the public, Brubaker said. The cities help pay for upkeep and the businesses often see an uptick in sales as well, he said.
Charleston's Candy Kitchen on Market Street doesn't get a dime from the city for sharing its restrooms, but its owner decided to do so anyway, putting up signs welcoming those in need of relief. The result: a new supply of customers who buy the shop's sweet goods, said manager Myra Forsythe.
Cynthia Johnson of Ravenel doesn't much care who leads the charge, but she definitely would like more bathroom options downtown. She too has had to race from The Battery to Harris Teeter, praying she doesn't encounter a traffic jam along the way.
"You end up getting a wet car seat if you can't hold it."
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or firstname.lastname@example.org.