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The summer I spent inspecting public toilets

It was a dirty job — literally — but it also taught me to look for joy in unexpected places.
A woman finds that her summer job inspecting public bathrooms in New York City isn't as bad as it seems. 
A woman finds that her summer job inspecting public bathrooms in New York City isn't as bad as it seems. Larrisa Hoff for TODAY

With the current labor shortage, some young people are forgoing traditional summer jobs like lifeguarding or flipping burgers for fancier gigs with higher pay and more flexibility. I’m glad college students are taking advantage of the opportunity, but I’m thankful for the grunt positions I had as a teen. One gig in particular stands out: my stint as a toilet inspector for the New York City Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations.

It was 2000, the summer after my first year of college. Although the internship at the City Council wasn’t a perfect fit with my media studies major, I thought the position would look good on my resume. When I learned the previous summer’s project involved sending the underage interns out with fake IDs to purchase alcohol for a report on the city’s bodega cashiers, I was excited. As a Catholic girl from Queens who had never smoked a cigarette or used a fake ID, I hoped they’d send me to do something scandalous. I wanted to buy porn or pot to save the city’s youth.

I wanted to buy porn or pot to save the city’s youth.

The chief investigator, Stuart, called the three other interns and me into the conference room on our first day. He pulled out a large poster board map of New York City. “We have an exciting project for you all. We expect this research to take up the whole summer.” I looked at the familiar map of the five boroughs, excitement bubbling in my stomach. “We are assessing the state of New York City’s 900 public restrooms!” He was way too excited about lavatories.

Is he joking? One intern stuck out his tongue in disgust. Undeterred, Stuart told us that we would inspect a random selection of 409 washrooms. He pulled out a massive spreadsheet and divided up the pages between us. Each page had a list of loos that we needed to place on the NYC map with yellow sticky flags. This preparation would take a few days and then we’d divide up into teams of two, a full-time investigator and an intern, for our reconnaissance missions.

While we looked up addresses and placed them on the map, Stuart, his enthusiasm undiminished, told us more about the project. “You’ll be going out in male/female pairs to check both restrooms. The bathrooms on our list include the ones found in parks, family courts, libraries, police precincts and subway stations,” he said, smiling. We all groaned in unison at the thought of entering a subway restroom.

I dreaded beginning the “fieldwork” and imagined ways I could get out of the gig. Who would think babysitting would provide fewer poop encounters than a government internship? The idea of walking the streets all day, only stopping to take photos of gross restrooms, seemed awful.

Who would think babysitting would provide fewer poop encounters than a government internship?

Once the assessment phase began, an investigator and I acted as though we were walking by and had the urge to go. I’d enter the washroom and glance around to get an initial impression. Then I’d test the sink to make sure it was working, see if there were paper towels or a hand dryer, and make sure there was toilet paper, jotting down whether it was “usable,” which the council classified as “clean and dry.” If I discovered an unpleasant odor, I’d try to describe it in my notes. I took photos of standing water and flushed the toilet to ensure it didn’t clog. If the washroom had baby-changing stations, mirrors or soap, I awarded it extra points.

At the end of our day, we’d go back to the office and share our digital photos and stories of the most offensive discoveries. As disgusting as some of the restrooms were, especially the ones in the subways, I got an odd satisfaction in finding a gross one to report back. We regaled each other with stories about dirty diapers, discarded condoms, overflowing trash bins and rat sightings. Despite all of that, I was surprised to discover I enjoyed being a “pee-pee P.I.” I felt like, in some small way, I was a part of making the city I loved better for everyone.

The author during her summer as a "pee-pee P.I."
The author during her summer as a "pee-pee P.I." Courtesy Jessica Wozinsky Fleming

Plus, each day with the investigators was an adventure. Despite being a native New Yorker, I saw more of the city than ever before. I walked through Harlem for the first time with Walter, who was Black. After our inspections for the day, he treated me to a massive slice from Koronet Pizza, his favorite joint near Columbia University, known for the biggest slices in the city.

Another time I visited Chinatown with Ray, who was Korean American. He told me about his five brothers, all with the same Americanized first name, which was not uncommon in his culture. Bob, a proud Italian and Polish Brooklynite, took me for what he called “the best pasta fagioli in the city” at a place in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He told me about the area’s rich Polish history and had me try treats from the bakeries, telling the shop owners my Polish last name and how I needed an education on my heritage. 

As the practical joker of the bunch, Bob attached squares of toilet paper to my survey forms and labeled them “Exhibit A” to get a laugh back at headquarters. Since he was also the investigator writing the report, he’d always ask for my opinion on coming up with the title. “How’s ‘To Poo or Not to Poo — That is the Question,’ or what about ‘A Tale of Two Toilets’?” he’d ask, holding a straight face before bursting with laughter.

My time examining washrooms taught me to look for joy in the unexpected and helped me realize that there’s something to be gleaned from every experience — no matter how bad it seems from the outside. I never predicted that what I thought would be my worst job would be so enjoyable.

In contrast, after college, I had positively glamorous positions. I welcomed guests as a page at “The Late Show with David Letterman,” interviewed celebrities for magazines and live-tweeted from the Oscars. Although meeting celebs and attending fancy events was fun, what I valued most at each job were the relationships I had with my colleagues. The inside jokes, learning about each other’s lives and not taking ourselves too seriously made our days meaningful. My new career seemed like a world away from being a bathroom inspector, but the parts of the jobs that made me happy weren’t so different. 

And despite my post-college success, I couldn’t let it get to my head because, for years, the first article that appeared when someone googled my byline was a 60-page document on the state of the city’s public restrooms called “Toilet Trauma.” But I was proud of that.