As a twenty-something year old woman living and working in London you will have a drunken story involving a toilet attendant. This is a given. What if we told you, that much like the checkout girl, the place of the toilet attendant is now under threat? In Japanese motorway services robotic toilet attendants are catching on; each machine costs about 3.5 million yen, which is just about £20,000, or, in layman’s terms a person’s salary. We’re taking comfort however in the UK’s tendency to proudly cling to our social mores (the milkman, anyone?) and much like the cabby, the toilet attendant has become a permanent fixture within the British imagination; as observer, comforter, confidant, critic and sage. Of course, it’s not all so romantic - the image of the attendant, mutely perched on wicker chairs in fancy department stores is a world away from the modern reality of holding back girls’ hair while they throw up recently ingested cava, busting drug-abuse and enduring deafening EDM.
We wanted to talk to some women working as toilet attendants in London’s 2015 club scene. One trip to Camden town on a Friday night was all it took for us to realise how veiled the industry is. On the whole, door girls were friendly, bouncers less friendly and the toilet attendants scared. We fast learnt that the women are hired by independent agencies. According to the numerous Stone Island clad bouncers we met, women come and go; we heard tales of TA’s simply packing up one evening and never returning again. Two women we met in Camden both bashfully refused to talk to us, asking us to return later. When we did come back, the first lady told us she could no longer speak to us. She told us someone had upset her. When we asked if we could help, she blinked her doe eyes slowly and shook her head. The second woman simply refused, lifting her hand and shaking her bowed head.
Then we find Eddie. “My biggest tip ever was probably thirty quid. I charge a pound for all my bits, lollipops, chewing gum, but I've had things stolen when I've had my back turned cleaning a toilet.” It’s 11.30pm and we’re stood in the glittering cloister that is a Soho club’s toilet stall chatting to fifty-year old Eddie about her role as the club’s toilet attendant. Eddie stands, silhouetted in the murky downward lighting, half leaning against the marbled walls, her bleached bob is a perfect halo in the darkness. She racks her five inch nails along the spotless stainless steel basins in time to the trembling bass and she rolls her lip piercing gently, “most people are nice, yeah, but sometimes they want to be arsey. I give as good as I get.” Eddie works part time on her career as a singer, “I was signed many, many years ago, but now I just do clubs in Manchester, or I'm in the studio working on new material” she explains. Eddie travels from Brixton each evening to begin her shift at 11pm. “My parents are Nigerian but I'm a born and bred Londoner. You can hear it can't you?”
We soon get wind of a toilet attendant; word has it, who is 'making a small fortune.' We imagine this can only be an exaggeration having learnt that on the whole unless they’re agency-hired, these women make a living from tips alone. We queue at said club, obedient and sober, alongside rowdy night owls who are jovially miming sex acts on some railings. We immediately cross the sticky dance floor and head straight for the well lit unisex stalls. There stands our woman. Cropped hair, all freckles, smartly presented in a creaseless black shirt and suit trousers. If you asked Mary what she does for a living the first thing she’ll tell you is, “I look after people.” Unlike Eddie, this is Mary's full-time occupation. “I’ve worked here for seven years. I have a six year-old daughter. My mum takes her to school.” Mary gladly talks us though her set-up; “I have Joop, CK one and One Million which is very, very important for them. They love One Million.” We’re frequently interrupted by people hollering “Hello Mary, babe!” before hugging and kissing her. It's clear from Mary's grin that she loves her job, which prompts us to ask if people are ever badly behaved? “People love to bring out their willies which is funny, or, sometimes when they're drunk they forget to wash their hands, so I tell them ‘wash your hands boys and girls!’”
Like most of our friends, you too may have found yourself singing along to a TA’s jingle as you drunkenly stagger out of the cubicle. “Oh yeah” deadpans Eddie, “you have to have one. Mine’s ‘no jiggly jiggly in the toilets, this is not a council flat’”. Mary's is a little more simple but highly effective: 'no sucky-sucky in the toilet!' And, our favourite, ‘no Dolce and Gabbana no sucky your banana’. You have to admit it has a ring to it.
And when everyone's not busy trying to have sex with one another, what do girls like to chat about? “Normally they've had an argument with their partner, so they’ll ask me 'what can I do?' and I say ‘Patience. Have patience because that's what makes relationships work.'” Eddie is similarly conciliatory with chatty punters who’ve usually just been dumped: “It never pisses me off. I always give people advice. I don't like to see them not enjoying themselves so I tell them just to ply themselves with more drink!” Eddie's compassion is unique; “I don't drink” she explains “I had a crack problem for fourteen years. I've been sober for four years and four months today. I'm non-judgemental, I've been there myself. Sometimes I'll try and get people to come to AA with me. They don’t always listen, but AA was what worked for me.”