I was on a long flight not too long ago, one where they turn the lights out for most of the trip and everybody is just laying like jelly all over their seats fast asleep. Legs propped up over armrests, seats reclined into laps, and headphones, blankets, and eye masks creating cocoon-like defenses against all light, sound, and touch.
Frankly, I don’t like flights like this because I feel really uncomfortable. I think I’m going to wake people up and bother them. I feel like I’m hanging out in a nursery and I’ve finally got all the babies asleep, now I just have to sit in a rocking chair in the corner taking quiet, calculated breaths until the sun rises.
It’s very stressful.
I have always been paranoid about waking people up. When I was younger and would come home late I would take about twenty minutes to get from the driveway into my bed. I tiptoed up the walk, slid my house key in the door very slowly, took my shoes off outside, and tiptoed up the stairs to the bathroom. Often I wouldn’t even flush until morning, preferring to let my business simmer overnight rather than wake somebody up with the sound of excrement zooming through the walls on it’s way out of the house.
On the airplane I don’t tilt my seat back too far because I think I might crowd the person behind me. I walk down the aisle slowly and analytically, quickly grabbing chairs and overhead compartments for support so that a sudden jolt of turbulence doesn’t knock me into a sleeping grandma’s lap. I have brief visions of shattering her hip and sending her dentures flying into someone’s glass of wine.
It is because of my attempts to keep really quiet on these Voyages of the Subconscious that I am fascinated by the toilets in the airplane.
First of all, they exist! The fact that you can go to the bathroom on an airplane is pretty novelty. I bet nobody expected that a hundred years ago. Can you imagine two sailors looking over the front rails of their massive ocean liner in 1908, one of them pointing way up in the clouds and whispering to the other “One day a man will take a dump up there.” No, me neither.
Anyway, after we get over the fact that these bathrooms exist, let’s talk about that amazing flush. You do your thing, close that lid, hit that little plastic button, and a second later there’s a full five seconds of giant, full-force, vacuum-sucking noises. It’s so loud it’s unbelievable — like a transport truck full of silverware flipping over on the dirt patch between two World War I trenches.
I used to think that the airplane toilet was a little hole that opened up right to the outside of the plane. I looked down when I flushed expecting to see clouds or little cities below maybe, and figured someone had just done the math and proven that dropping dirt bombs from thirty-thousand feet didn’t actually hurt anybody. It was just a matter of gravity, distance, and atmospheric pressure or something.
Turns out I was dead wrong about that.
See, according to the Internet’s geek patrol, regular ol’ house toilets just don’t do the job in the airplane world. The combination of toilet bowl water and rough landings tend to leave splotchy autumn-colored rainbows all over the plastiform vanity and walls. For this reason airplanes use a whole new type of toilet called vacuum toilets. I guess these vacuum toilets are perfect for the job because they don’t use much water and are fairly low maintenance. Just one little side-effect, though: When you flush them it sounds like somebody’s making a smoothie out of rocks.
Now personally, I love that beautifully loud airplane toilet flush. I can’t very well leave a gift bowl for the next passenger, so I’m forced to press the button. The power and noise of that flush undoubtedly wakes up the last few rows on the airplane every time so I have no choice but to confront my fears.
So I say thanks, airplane toilet flush. Your whooshing, vacuum-packed boomflush wakes the whole world up.