January 20, 2010

Cure for the 14-minute shower

The current issue of The Atlantic is the magazine's annual "State of the Union Issue," and in it, along with a sobering piece by James Fallows titled "After the Crash: How America Can Rise Again," is a graphic, "The Nation in Numbers," that offers statistics quantifying America and Americans across a number of categories: Thrifty; Overextended; Admired: Suspicious; Twitchy; Fragmenting; Filthy; Clean. You can find an interactive version of the graphic, with additional categories, at www.theatlantic.com/2010map.

The stats are interesting -- some as sobering on a certain level as Fallows's article: in the Twitchy category, for example, we read that 50% of Americans check e-mail while driving and 11 is the number of minutes the average office worker works without interruption.

In the Clean category we read that an American woman's average shower lasts 14 minutes. (The American man's average ablution lasts for 12.)

I have a cure for these water-wasting indulgences: install token-operated shower timers in American bathrooms. Everybody will be in and out, scrubbed and squeaky, in three minutes. I know these gizmos work because I took all my showers during a 10-day stay in a Florence, Italy youth hostel under their strict control.

This was a long time ago, in my youthful shoestring days, but that Big Brotherized shower looms almost as large in my memories of Florence as the sublime view of the Duomo from the Piazzale Michelangelo (photo) and the magnificent glasses of hot, whipped milk -- latte caldo -- that I sipped each morning standing at the wooden bar of the caffe down the street from the hostel. I ordered latte caldo because it was cheaper than cappuccino, Italians' morning beverage of choice. As cappuccino is coffee infused with frothy, steamed milk, I was basically drinking cappuccino minus the coffee.

In the hostel, we were about 12 to a room, beds bunked, zero privacy. My friend Carol and I, on vacation from studies in Paris, lived there for more than a week, but most travelers stayed only a night or two. Thus we enjoyed and/or endured an eclectic mix of roomies from all over the world. I remember the Dutch best -- they dressed, men and women alike, in orange and scarlet and were partial to scarves.

We were all young, broke and dirty. Our clothes smelled like overnight trains. Hot showers and the opportunity to wash one's hair for real -- versus leaning into some sink, splashing the head and scratching soap into the scalp -- were few.

So the metered shower was a big deal. Each day before the front desk closed for the night we all made sure we had a shower token -- "jeton" was the lingua franca word: "You have your jeton?" Our jetons were treasure, and we kept them in our money belts.

Some showered in the morning, some at night, but all showers were three minutes. Each jeton granted three minutes of warm spray. You got in, furiously soaped and shampooed up, then hoped to be rinsed before the 10-second warning buzzer.

You can do a lot of self-cleaning in three minutes. In the time it takes one American woman to bliss out in the shower a full third of the residents of a dozen-man bunkroom in a European hostel are shined up and ready to go.