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The unsolvable problem of
public toilets - Daniel Silliman

I thought about quitting all the time. I thought about it before going to work at the gas station, and after I listened to Bob Dylan singing "Ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more," as loud as I could on my cheap car speakers.

I thought about it when someone drove off without paying and, by company rules, I had to pay. I thought about it as people yelled at me, when they complained their lotto tickets lost, and when they thought I profited from high prices.

But I never thought about it more than when I had to clean the toilets.

It wasn't my job to clean. The night lady did it, unless there was a disaster during the day -- then it was my job. I would stand there, looking at the filth of human waste, thinking, "I can't do this. I don't deserve this."

There's really no way they can pay you to clean public restroom disaster. It's just not worth it. Looking at what people left in a public restroom, I would wonder if civilization had collapsed.

I wondered the same thing the first time I saw public restrooms locked. I was a kid and the family was in the city to see relatives, and we went into a fast food place to use the restroom, but you couldn't get in without a key. I remember the clerk looking at me, inspecting me to see if I would pass the test, and be allowed to use the facility.

The clerk's instructions were to keep out riff-raff: The homeless, hookers, heroin addicts and all suspected undesirables, laborers, landscapers, minorities, and anybody acting too desperate.

That realization, that people are being refused restrooms, shocked me. I understood the owners owned the toilets, just like they owned the rest of the place, and they could do whatever they wanted. But the cold-heartedness of locking the door, of telling people who have to go, "Tough -- that's your problem," shocked me a much as having to clean up the awful messes people left behind in gas station bathrooms years later.

What does this say about us? What does this say about our civilization?

With the two images, these two obscenities to decency, I think I'm staunchly cynical on every economic system, political solution and puffed-up pronouncement about the innate goodness of humanity. I hear them and I say, "Oh yeah? What about public restrooms?"

In Seattle, near where my parents live, they tried to solve these problems with automatic, computerized toilets. The things were supposed to be self-cleaning, self-policing public toilets, open to anybody and still safe and sanitary. The city paid $5 million for the five toilets, an outlay of faith in the idea that we will, one day, solve social interaction with technology. The city announced the experiment failed. It's shutting the toilets down because they're filthy and expensive.

According to the New York Times, even crack addicts won't smoke in them anymore. A city councilman said it just wasn't worth it.

There's not enough money in the world to smooth this social friction. There's no technological solution or engineering fix. We will not get smarter and eradicate this problem. We will not, through any program, become nicer, more polite, or more considerate.

It will never be worth it, in the ways we figure.

But when I stood there, with yellow rubber gloves up to my elbows and a cleaner strong enough to scald skin and melt eyeballs, I knew it was good for me to clean toilets.

It's the sort of humbling act that can't be a social program, but can, if you let it, can be done as a prayer.

It's not a fix, but at least I can do something decent.

Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.