Tuning Your American Dream

Ken Poyner

I have seen an army of soap dispensers. Not home use soap dispensers, but public use dispensers: soap dispensers mounted for industrial, rough employ in restrooms everywhere, for a public concerned with its hand hygiene. Yet, the inability to select the one best style of soap dispenser for widespread deployment seems to be a common strain in America these days. It is a burden we pass on.

Go into any men’s or ladies’ room and inventory the soap delivery systems. Here, where I work, at the nearest men’s room on the next floor up, there is a horizontal, pull-lever soap dispenser, empty, affixed to the spotted mirror directly behind the once clean double-sink. There is a horizontal, push-lever soap dispenser to the right of the sinks as well, mounted against the beige-painted sheet rock, and this is the one that currently provides soap. You are welcomed to try either, but only the one to the left will reward you.

At one restaurant the wife and I frequent, there is a vertical, push-soap dispenser set into the men’s room vanity itself; sitting beside it is a portable, unattached soap dispenser. The one in the vanity is dry, and has been for at least the last year: it is the portable dispenser that holds the only available desired product. To the observant, the green soap spots all around the base of the unattached dispenser are a giveaway.

I understand it is not a choice. It is a matter of what works best to meet the moment’s utilitarian need, at a price that the purveyor of the public facilities can profitably sustain.

Some institutions are cautious about leaving the bones of abandoned soap delivery systems lying about in public. With these establishments, it is harder to track how they have wrestled with the phenomenological problem of economically providing a satisfying hand washing experience to their casual customers. All you see is their latest efforts, ensconced on the mirror or on the wall beside or set into the vanity top or left loose beside the sink. If, however, you keep careful account and visit the location often enough, you will, with these more reserved establishments, be able to track changes year to year: new systems attempted and then tossed out for potentially more efficient replacements; complex systems eschewed for simpler delivery methods; practicality replaced with innovation; innovation replaced with practicality.

I have largely found that having two systems is the norm: you have the soap dispenser they have placed their faith in at the moment; and the soap dispenser, now empty, that was replaced. The third in line has usually been removed: after all, there is only so much wall or counter space. Two seems a comfortable number for most. Two implies progress: we had an older, less user friendly, or less sanitary, or simply less comfortable system; and, for your benefit, we have upgraded it with this newer, finer, ergonomically superior system. It is all firmly about your comfort and safety.

Beyond the number, persistence, and rotation of systems, there is also the philosophical question of how much effort should be required for the soap dispenser to operate. Some have the simple one push lever, where the soap falls or pumps or leaps into the hand that is depressing the lever. Other models are more demur, and enforce an edict of needing one free hand to pump, while the product will come to the other hand—or onto the counter, or the user’s clothes, if he or she is not watching closely. I think it is less a matter of utility than a prescient moral choice: perhaps hand washing should be a substantial act, requiring the coordination of both hands from its beginning, starting even at the point of gathering soap.

Taste and style and a sense of fashion might account for there being a broad range of dispensers. Different designs will be more likely, in the eyes of some, to entice someone to wash hands more often or more vigorously or wash them at all, or use soap when loose in the lavatory. Different designs might fit more aesthetically, by various individual standards, with the remaining ambient room décor. Vendors can luxuriate in the width and depth of the product they can create and provide merely to capitalistically meet this cornice of the public’s utilitarian need.

Giving some ground to these design specifications warrant for a pleasant environment, why is there so much change and variance in the character of soap dispensers, and why are new systems always being attempted? How much money is being spent on flights of design, on efforts to squeeze either more practicality or more soap or more enticement out of a configuration? I count the number of bathrooms in this building—and there are far more than the ones I tend to contentedly, in my routine, habituate—and think: how many man hours, how much of the facilities budget, how much mid-executive thought, goes into this ongoing effort to find a way to get soap from vats into bags or boxes and into dispensers that can safely sit in a men’s or ladies’ room and deliver soap into the hands of practical users seeking only to briefly wash and leave?

I have traveled much of the nation, and this seems to be a truly national issue: how do we, as a nation, ensure that we, collectively, have the best soap dispensing systems in our public places, without having to suffer continual trial and error, the constant reinventing of common ablution: leaving our failures and a trail of wasted cash abandoned behind us? How many false starts and replaced methodologies can we stand before we are broken, or we simply give up and walk away from our restrooms with unwashed—or only bathed in ordinary clear running water—hands?

Every six months or so, in the place I have worked for thirteen years, I encounter a new soap delivery system. Taken with the changes that also occur in the towel containment and delivery system, it is a tragedy we as a people should address. Uniformity is a remote dream—but to slow the pace of our required reinvestment, our relearning of operating limitations and behavioral modification—is a clear goal everyone can identify with, agree to, and shake damp hands on.

Author Portrait

Ken’s latest collection of short, wiry fiction, Constant Animals, and his latest collection of surprising poetry, Victims of a Failed Civics, can be obtained from Barking Moose Press. Look for Avenging Cartography, a collection of flash fiction, coming in mid-2017. He often serves as strange, bewildering eye-candy at his wife’s power lifting affairs. His poetry of late has been sunning in Analog, Asimov’s, Poet Lore, and The Kentucky Review; his fiction has yowled in Spank the Carp, Red Truck, Café Irreal, and Bellows American Review.

View the website of Ken Poyner