In my defense, I was really little when my mom took me to my first concert at a grown-up concert hall. The music was for children, but I was still too babyish; I demanded to leave in the middle of act I so I could pee. I have no memory of what we heard that day, but the elegant bathroom made a huge impression on me. “Who was that lady?” I asked my mother, after a uniformed woman had handed me a paper towel and my mom had dropped a bill in her basket. And she explained: that was a Madame Pipi.
For a long while after that, I was obsessed. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” adults would ask me. And I would answer, “A Madame Pipi.” It seemed to me the most glamorous job in the world; to be surrounded by grandeur, dressed in a smart uniform, and have a bowl of money, besides. To a small child, all grown-ups seem important and magisterial; bathrooms loom large; the adult measures of income and status do not apply. I made myself a Madame Pipi outfit with a small apron, although my parents would not allow me to be on duty when we had guests.
Nowadays, bathroom matrons are less figures of fantasy than of controversy. Recently Keith McNally removed the attendants from Balthazar after patrons complained that the practice was extortionate and made them uncomfortable. It’s true that in modern times the meaning of the job has changed. When the legendary Lorenzo Robinson died after years working as a bathroom attendant at the Twenty-One Club, it was regarded as the end of an era. (His words: “When I leave, it’s going to be an end of an era.”)
And whereas a hundred years ago a lady at a ball might well have needed a quick stitch to a hem or a gentleman might have wanted his tails brushed down, now their role is less clear. “It makes me feel like I’m the kind of guy who dreams of being rich enough to be able to pay someone to turn on the water for me,” Henry Blodget wrote in Business Insider, criticizing Balthazar’s attendants. McNally wrote at the time of the attendants’ reassignment that, although he loved these employees, “I’m looking forward to standing at Balthazar’s urinal without another man staring at me.” (By contrast, a colleague said of Robinson, “He made it so once you met him, you wanted to come back to talk.”)
Of course, in other countries the whole matter is less fraught. It’s far more common in Europe to find a bathroom attendant, often one whose job is to accept a small fee in order to use the facilities. But even there, it is an endangered phenomenon. Yesterday was (apparently) World Toilet Day, and one blogger took to his keyboard to salute the Madame Pipi, and to lament her passing.