The scones are fresh, sandwiches packed and the beers are cold – enough. For the most part, Melbourne has put on some surprisingly delightful spring weather to facilitate catch-ups of groups smaller than 10 in the parks, gardens and golf courses of the city.
But the novelty wears thin on the garden gatherings and bucolic brunches as soon as you stand up (sometimes not that easy after an hour plonked down on the grass) and see, with great dismay, that the serpentine and socially distanced queue isn’t for the hipster food trucks set up nearby but for the toilet.
The one toilet.
Maybe two toilets servicing hundreds of groups of 10.
We’ve made it outside but can the bladders contend with this? You can get on the beers but not on the bog.
While some parks have had the foresight to set up portable toilets, most councils haven’t bothered to keep up with the new demand. It’s fortunate we have to wear masks, as they hide the pained wincing as the line to the one Exeloo staggers on. Perceptions of queue length are still thrown by the 1.5 metres of physical distancing between people, making it appear as though there is no hope of ever reaching the toilet door.
“If I weren’t wearing this stupid jumpsuit, I’d be in the bushes letting myself go there with the blokes,” someone confided to me in a queue. I agreed with her that the option was sorely tempting even though the foliage coverage was relatively sparse.
Waiting in the public toilet queue has often taken me so long that I’ve come back to find the picnic disbanded. It’s a real kick in the guts realising that you missed out on the last of the cheeseboard because you spent 25 minutes lined up staring into the distance in a concerted effort not to explode.
The pandemic that kept us locked in our homes for nearly 23 hours a day has shown us the importance of outdoor accessible spaces. We are very lucky in Melbourne to have access to parks and seeing them full of people has been a real delight. We should try to continue this sort of socialising – not just because outdoor settings are less likely to be transmission sites for Covid-19 and other viruses, but because being en plein air facilitates a more relaxed kind of socialising.
It allows for lawn sports, games, larger groups of people where you can actually hear what’s going on because it isn’t being drowned out by thumping music. It allows for a bit of culinary creativity (or chips, chips are always good). But if you have to spend more time outside the smelly toilet block hearing the disembodied robo voice saying “your maximum use time is 10 minutes” over and over again, rather than lounging with friends, is it worth it or will we revert straight back to the pub?
Greater access to public toilets isn’t just a matter for picnics; being active and wandering around town, any woman could tell you, requires strategic choice of venues and the available resources. While hospitality venues require bookings and have density limits, we’re no longer in a situation where it’s acceptable to nip into a bar to use the facilities (although I’d still hope that Maccas can provide its main public service, which is its loos). In scenarios like these, a greater number of piss points is a real necessity.
Until that happens, the next picnic will just have to take place without beer or coffee.
• Claudia Hooper is a writer based in Melbourne