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If it works, what a relief

Three students crowded into the city toilet last week. 'We just wanted to see the cool bathroom,' said Kory DelPrete, a 17-year-old from Plymouth.
Three students crowded into the city toilet last week. "We just wanted to see the cool bathroom," said Kory DelPrete, a 17-year-old from Plymouth. (Globe Staff Photo / Joan McLaughlin)

Marisa Shea had been on the field trip for hours, and now her high school classmates were boarding the bus for home in the suburbs. But first she needed to take care of a basic human need.

She made a beeline to the only restroom in sight, a futuristic contraption with double doors and a computer screen displaying the words, "Please Insert $0.25."

She slid a quarter in the slot. Instead of activating the restroom's doors and letting her in, however, the coin passed through the machine and clinked without effect into the coin return. She tried again. And again. Seeing her distress, some friends gathered around, offering their own quarters. None worked. The bus was leaving.

"I'll just have to wait," Shea said, "and hold it the hour back to Walpole."

When Boston began installing the first of its six public toilets in 2001, the machines were heralded as technologically advanced, self-cleaning marvels that would provide relief in a city known for a dearth of public commodes. City officials still call them a smashing success. But a little time spent observing the busiest of Boston's public toilets -- near the New England Aquarium, where nearly 13,600 flushes were recorded last year -- suggests that glitches may be common .

Martin McDonough, president of Wall USA, a Boston subsidiary of the Berlin company that manufactured the toilets, concedes that problems arise with the devices. He said the company employs two full-time technicians who are devoted to keeping the toilets operating, and the technicians check on the toilets several times a day.

"They're a complicated piece of machinery," said McDonough. "They're microprocessor- controlled. They have high- pressure water jets, self-cleaning floors, sensors, emergency systems, and of course, plumbing."

On a gloriously sunny morning recently, tour buses dropped off a crowd of students and tourists at the brick plaza where Boston's busiest toilet is located, a green podlike structure with old- fashioned lettering: City Toilet.

A group from Athol passed, and a child squealed a plea. The adults fumbled for a quarter and dropped it in. No luck.

"Can you just hold it for a while?" one of the women said as they stalked off.

Other customers continued to try to make the restroom open up, shoving quarters in the slot and wandering away unsatisfied.

Help finally arrived in the form of two men with buckets and squeegees. They washed the exterior and used a master token to open the doors, then removed a panel inside. After fooling around with some buttons, they declared the machine rebooted and ready again for business.

Half an hour later, three high school students entered the toilet. They made silly faces and took photos of themselves in the bathroom mirror.

"We just wanted to see the cool bathroom," said Kory DelPrete, a 17-year-old from Plymouth. "Bathroom glamour shots -- why not?"

The students didn't see, or didn't heed, the small-print instructions declaring that no more than two people are allowed to enter the toilet at a time. Weight sensors detect any violations of the rule -- intended to prevent the toilets from being used by drug users and prostitutes -- and shut the system down. After the students vacated the toilet, it stopped accepting quarters.

Officials at Wall USA, which is responsible for maintaining the toilets, say the device is supposed to reset itself after such incidents. But on this occasion, the men with squeegees, still on the scene, reset the toilet and chastised the students.

Several customers then used the toilet, but within about an hour, it had stopped working again.

At a trolley tour ticket booth nearby, Albert Huffman, a gregarious man, rolled his eyes. He said the toilet's doors occasionally seem to open and close at random. Sometimes the contraption is out of service for days, he said: "It has a mind of its own."

Huffman said he is continually doling out advice to people who have tried and failed to use the city toilet. He keeps paper towels in his booth for patrons who come out with wet hands because the air drier hardly works. When people can't get into the toilet, he said, he directs them to the Marriott, or to the IMAX theater nearby. But neither place is exactly welcoming to the bathroom-needy. The IMAX displays signs that it is "for patrons only," and the Marriott has placed a "No Public Restrooms" sign just inside its front door.

Boston began installing the public toilets in 2001, four years after Mayor Thomas M. Menino first pushed the idea after a trip to San Francisco, which began using the devices in 1995. Cities across the country have been installing them as cutting-edge amenities, following the leads of Paris, London, and Amsterdam.

But the facilities have not been without headaches. In Seattle, which has five downtown toilets, business leaders say the high-tech facilities are being used for prostitution and drug deals. In Los Angeles, which began installing public toilets about 2 1/2 years ago, the Los Angeles Times reported that only one out of seven was working, though representatives of J. D. Decaux, the company that maintains them, said that was because the city hadn't yet hooked them up to water and power supplies. After several decades of back-and-forth, New York is working on a plan to begin installing 25-cent public toilets.

In Boston, the toilets are supplied by Wall. Wall collects revenue from advertisements displayed on the toilets and other street furniture it supplies, including bus shelters, information kiosks, and phone booths across the city.

Last year, advertising revenue totaled about $7.2 million. According to its agreement with Wall, the city got 10 percent of that, plus another $750,000. Wall said the toilets make up a small fraction of that figure, but the company declined to provide specifics.

Many have hailed the toilets' arrival, and some like them for purely aesthetic reasons.

"These things are pretty cool," said Tom Houle, a motor coach bus driver who lives in West Springfield and stops in to use the bathroom whenever he's in town, even though there's a toilet on his bus. "It's clean, and everything's automatic. And a quarter ain't too bad."

But even admirers like Houle can be suspicious of the city toilets' reliability. He said a passenger of his once had the door open just as she was pulling up her pants.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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