Opinion: Struggling to poop in the Fisher Building reminds me Detroit's hospitality is in the toilet

This is a column about trying to take a shit in a public place in Detroit.

Walk, or maybe drive, with me here. I’m a remote worker and as someone who spends a lot of time on my laptop, I don’t like to vegetate on a couch all day. I like to be a little social, I like to support small business, and so, simple enough, I work out of coffeeshops. I’m cautious of not spending an entire eight-hour work day at one place, so when I do work remotely, I make it a point to hit two shops, and if I’m lucky, three.

I live between New York City and Detroit, which means I’ll give you the cringey line of knowing Red Hook, the Brooklyn neighborhood, and Red Hook, the chain of shops that derives its name from said hood. I’ve had my fill of both, so I wanted to check out the New Center area on a recent stay in Detroit. And that led me to the Fisher Building.

I’ve been patronizing the Fisher in some capacity before and after puberty, be it field trips, musicals in the theater, covering public education as a reporter, guesting on WJR, or signing my published books at Pure Detroit. I was already an alumnus of one of this building’s largest tenants, Detroit Public Schools. Not too long ago, my collegiate alma mater, Michigan State University, became the building’s primary stakeholder. But on this particular moment, I wanted a sea salt chocolate cookie and a cold brew from Stella, and to post up for a little bit and do the public writing thing. So I park, pay the same ParkDetroit app that came to fruition while I worked alongside the team that developed it, walk in, admire the vaulted ceilings and hanging chandeliers, and make my way over. And then my stomach starts to rumble something fierce.

I asked the clerk at Stella if there was a restroom — perhaps a secret one that’s not in the basement of the Fisher. If you haven’t been to the Fisher Building, there are two public restrooms on the lowest floor, separated by gender. It is accessible by key or swipe card, and only employees in the building have swipe cards. Said keys are held at the security desk nearest to the staircase leading to the basement, which is where the good folks at Stella point me toward.

I make my way back to the security desk and ask the guard there for the key to the restroom.

“Um, it’s out of order right now.”

I ask if there’s another public restroom; although I’ve been to the Fisher several times, Albert Kahn’s floor plans aren’t always front of mind. There isn’t. “So the only public restroom in this building is out of order?” The guard nods.

I remember WJR and DPSCD, where I’ve been, and, very likely, at least one MSU office I haven’t been to (yet) is above. “Is it possible to use a restroom on another floor?” I ask. The guard says no.

At this point, I have to do the thing I hate — no, not name-dropping, which is what this column is for. But to sheepishly go back to Stella and do the Non-Threatening Negro thing, which is where I have to put on a little extra gloss for a store or restaurant clerk and convince them that I’m not going to shoot heroin in the bathroom stall if they just let me in and out for a few minutes simply to empty my personal septic tank.

I know a certain demographic of Black people will read that and recoil in horror at the respectability politics I/we have to practice sometimes, but y’all know it’s true. But here’s some explanation for the non-Black folks, particularly you white folks still learning after moving to Detroit a few years ago: Due to a confluence of systems, it’s hard to ask permission to please-please-please use an employee-only restroom in an otherwise public establishment if you’re Black. Start with the fact that store owners are reluctant to let anyone back there at the risk of someone overdosing on, say, heroin — hence the mention there — or anything else. Or the fact that when before you even open the door, you're already perceived as a security risk based solely on the color of your skin. 

If you’ve lived here long enough, you know that it’s not easy to walk into a place to just poop, or pull over somewhere for a fast in-and-out. Much of the city is residential, obviously; you cannot knock at a stranger’s door and ask to use their restroom. (In the suburbs of Detroit, knocking on a stranger’s door can literally get you murdered.) Pulling over and parking somewhere isn’t easy, lest you poop too long and get a $45 ticket in the process. And even without a “customers only” sign, it is still indelicate, and a little rude, to go into a small business in this town to take a shit but not buy any shit. Fast-food places often lock their doors, and gas stations and liquor stores are largely out of the question.

(For years, I’ve had a mental checklist of places to go in and out real fast, discreetly or with little friction. Laundromats are great for this purpose, FYI. But this is where I play the New York card and say living in New York makes this far easier. You could slide into a Starbucks, which are numerous across the boroughs, and punch in a door code there without purchase. Since restaurants are numerous, you can get past a host by saying ‘I’m meeting my party here, can I take a look?’ and beeline straight to the restroom, then duck out just as quick.)

Here in majority Black Detroit, someone like me is the face of narcotic abuse and addiction, and someone not like me is the store clerk. A gas station clerk in this city will 99 percent of the time be Arab-American, but before you put me in the same box with the go-back-to-Mexico cop, let me say that I’ve written at length about how for decades, the only interaction between Blacks and Arabs have been inside those aforementioned gas stations and liquor stores, and if you layer the historically tumultuous relationships between the two communities with the rampant drug problems, you’ll get why a lot of gas stations may have narcan kits on hand now, but were not as friendly for restroom relief for a long time. Things may have changed in this arena as Detroit progresses, but I can’t say for sure because again, due to systems beyond my control that existed before I was born, I’m hard-wired to not even think about going to a gas station in the city limits to take a shit.

None of this applies to Stella, because — surprise! — both coffee clerks here are Black. Still, I might have to do a little respectability jig anyhow, this time of the “help-a-brother-out” genre. I don’t like that either, but I can feel my insides doing the turbo hustle and time is running out. They suggest I ask the boutique next door to use their restroom, and my thought immediately goes to how small majority Black Detroit is. If there’s as much effort involved in wanting to look respectable, there’s just as much going into not looking disrespectful. I’m not going to A., go into this hard-working Black woman’s business and blow her toilet to smithereens, B., run the risk of her telling everybody in the MDBBA that noted journalist/editor/former mayoral appointee/author-sitting-on-an-Amazon deal Aaron Foley did it.

But then the clerk asks: “Did you ask the guard for a women’s restroom key?”

I didn’t, because I knew better. I once tweeted my surprise that with all the hoopla around Michigan Central and the attention paid to innovating and modernizing the city’s most recognizable ruin, there were still gendered bathrooms added to the new floor plan. Detroit is Midwest, Up South and conservative and churchy, and despite the city’s late-model attempts to Brooklynize everything else, I can only think of one or two places — Wayne State being one of them — where I’ve seen all-gender restrooms. I’m assuming anything called a “bodega” here now won’t be on that list, either.

I also thought of the places where all-gender restrooms should likely be present, but shockingly aren’t. Unlike the many faceless profiles on Sniffies cruising the 7.2 looking for public bathroom sex, I’m an out gay man that looks for public bathrooms for bowel movements. But imagine my surprise to find that most places in Ferndale — Ferndale! — are lagging in this area. Take the time I was at Inyo two years ago and the men’s bathroom was occupied, so i went into the women’s. After a quick flush, I got the dirtiest stare from someone going in, but wait — is this not Fabulous Ferndale, where presumptions of gender shouldn’t be existent? This is where I became radicalized on the issue, but where I differ is that I don’t just see it as a queer civil rights issue, but also a I-need-to-take-shit-badly issue, and there was no difference between the men’s and women’s quarters in that establishment anyway.

Anyway. My civil rights brain ran a little too hot at Stella before the common sense side took back over: If the Stella clerk suggested using the women’s restroom to me, someone who presents as male, maybe things are starting to get a bit more progressive? But my intestines were on 12 at this point so I set aside my pride again and went back to the goddamn security desk and asked the guy if the women’s restroom was available.

He took a long, thoughtful breath and said “ummm, well it is.”

“Could I use that one, then?”

He took another pause. “You’ll have to give me your ID.”

“I have to give my ID to use the restroom?”


In nearly 40 years of shitting, this had to have been a first. Maybe, I thought, I’ll leverage this and make history as the first person with a penis to use the women’s restroom in this building’s 94-year-history. (Even better, I’ll be the first Black one, too! First Black woman on city council, Erma Henderson. First Black man to take a shit in the Fisher women’s room, Aaron Foley.) He gave me the key, and as I made my way down the stairs, I thought that surely the restrooms weren’t always locked since this thing opened in 1924 — sorry, I didn’t have a chance to confirm with Dan Austin before press time. But let’s say they weren’t; who’s to say I’d be the first guy to use the women’s restroom ever? Why the hesitation just now?

Anyway. Despite the foot traffic above, there’s only one other person appearing as male in the basement, and I don’t see this person until I’m out of the women’s restroom (oh yeah, spoiler: I finally shat). I noticed that there was no activity in the men’s restroom, and also no indication — an open door, a yellow floor sign, a literal sign that says “out of order” hanging — that the restroom was out of order. Out of curiosity, I tried the women’s key in the men’s slot, and it didn’t work, but the guy assumed I didn’t have one.

“You need a key for that bathroom,” he said.

I hold up the blue key tag: “That’s what this is.”

He says, “I could try my swipe card.”

I didn’t feel like explaining how I ended up in this situation so I just said thanks but no thanks and headed back upstairs to ask the guard if the men’s bathroom was really out of order, or had I been led on.

“Well, the truth is, someone lost the key to the men’s room.”

“And there isn’t a spare key?”

“No, there isn’t.”

“Or a swipe card?”


So here we are, in Detroit’s largest art object, and there’s only one fucking key to one of two public restrooms, and, using that as a baseline, only one for the other. Which leads me to the big, journalistic, thought-provoking question: Is Detroit actually prepared for tourism, increased population, new businesses, and the increased foot traffic that comes with all three? And not in the, is-there-enough-parking, are-there-enough-qualified-service-workers, kind of way, but more in the, why-aren’t-the-biggest-tourist-attractions-in-this-city-prepared-or-progressive-in-bathrooms kind of way?

As I publish this, we are at the dawn of Movement, which brings thousands of new visitors. And thousands of new visitors came for the draft just a few weeks ago, and thousands of people will here for the Grand Prix, and more than a thousand people just showed up on some recent Census numbers, and so on, and so forth. It's safe to say some of them will likely visit New Center, perhaps a stop en route to the Motown Museum or the Piquette Plant, and some of them may have nature unexpectedly call them while doing so.

I did get my cold brew (but no cookie), but knowing that coffee runs through me like a Hellcat on the Lodge, I knew I couldn’t stay at Stella long. But before I left Fisher, I walked over to New Center One to check their bathroom sitch, and before I could catch the words “do you have a restroom?” falling out my mouth, I saw the sign in all-caps, bold lettering “NO PUBLIC RESTROOM” at the security guard’s desk there, and he answered just as quickly. I looked around at all the Henry Ford Health branding in this place and considered pointing out the irony, but decided to walk over to Cadillac Place for more investigation. The guard there pointed me to the men’s restroom; I’m able to open the door, but I have to note that the panel that controls the door for those not able to pull it was working on the inside of the bathroom, but not the outside. Hello, state government tax dollar accessibility concerns.

So if you’re in town for, whatever big event is going on here. Or! You’re in town because you just moved to the downtown core, or just bought a house a few miles away. Or! You just live here. Always remember the old Latin phrase: Speramus meliora, dum cacas prius quam domum exeatis.
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Aaron Foley is a Detroit-based writer and the editor of BLAC magazine. Follow him on twitter @aaronkfoley.