For the past eight and a half months I have spent many nights at the South Lake Union Whole Foods in Seattle, WA. In addition to my full-time job at a long-term recovery support community, I also work part-time with Instacart shopping for and bagging groceries. At this Whole Foods they have set aside a small alcove between the elevators, extra carts, and restrooms for us to use as a check-out and staging area. The space can fit about two people with carts, maybe three at the most, but a lot of the time I am alone during my scheduled hours. My last shift with Instacart at Whole Foods is coming up next week. Since Amazon now owns Whole Foods (and I guess technically has since 2017), Whole Foods no longer needs their third party contract with Instacart for its online grocery shopping and delivery services, and will instead use AmazonFresh. As I finish my remaining scheduled hours my mind ruminates on different aspects of the job—reading book after book when orders were slow, talking with the butchers, and catching the late bus home, but what occupies my thoughts the most are: the restrooms.
This Whole Foods is located at the bottom of Denny Hill close to Amazon, Facebook, Edward Jones, and other big name companies. The store attracts many working in these nearby offices as well as post-downward dog yogis searching for the always out-of-stock oat milk and various tourists who have wandered just a touch too far from the Space Needle. It also attracts some of the individuals experiencing homelessness sleeping on the streets of Seattle, those carrying most of their possessions on their backs, and those who access services at the nonprofit organization I work for full-time. Whole Foods is one of the only buildings in the area accessible to the general public that has a restroom. However, I wouldn’t call them public restrooms because there is a keypad lock on the doors and the code changes every Monday. The code can be found at the bottom of each receipt printed in the store and is supposed to enforce that the restrooms are for customers (and particularly those who have already paid for something).
The locked bathrooms were something I noticed almost immediately when I started working for Instacart at this Whole Foods. To me, it seemed like a militarization of public space intended to serve economic gain and keep “those people” out of the store and away from paying customers. In the beginning, I kept vigilant watch over how Whole Foods employees handled the people who did not have receipts and asked for the code. My questions were: from whom would they withhold that information, on what basis were they making the decision to withhold it, and what was the consistency from employee to employee. To their credit, I noticed they would give the code to pretty much anyone who asked. They didn’t enforce the “you can find the code at the bottom of your receipt” for everyone, so they did not enforce it for anyone. My question then became: why have a code at all?
In a city as “forward thinking” as Seattle, this is just one example of the more subtle exclusionary practices that still exist. Asking for a code to the bathroom might not seem like that big of a deal, especially since in this location there’s a really good chance you will be given that code without a question, but it is an indirect way of communicating there are those the bathroom is meant for and there are those who it is not. Even though this distinction is not enforced in practice, the underlying message still remains and is internalized by all.
Because of the Instacart alcove’s proximity to the restroom, I probably get asked for and give out the code more often than any of the Whole Foods employees. It has been my pleasure giving out the code to anyone who might even look in the direction of the restroom as an effort to make sure all feel welcomed. It is my small way of sharing knowledge and information that can ease a small bit of another’s suffering because having access to a place to take care of the biological needs everyone experiences can reduce an incredible amount of stress and anxiety for anyone.
Reflecting on this experience has prompted me to consider the ways in which we as a society continue to make people feel unwelcome, place barriers on accessing basic needs, or are complacent bystanders in both. There are those who dedicate their whole careers to helping people gain access to various resources, but there are also ways we can be stewards of access in our every day lives. Injustice is overwhelming, but we can begin by cultivating an awareness of what’s happening in the day to day, and then realizing the ways we can dismantle injustice bit by bit. For me, it currently is sharing a restroom code, for another it might be giving away her still-good bus transfer ticket at her final destination, and yet, for another, it could be looking up the operating hours of a nearby organization for someone. Whatever it is, I believe we are called to be stewards of whatever access we have to reduce the barriers, inequities, and hardships of others.
Photograph by Cami Kasmerchak