I was going to title this piece Pay To Poop or The Pooplic Option or something else related to the maddening absurdities of the current healthcare debate and the ongoing economic meltdown, but I didn’t want to offend anyone until they started reading. But seriously, folks, the powers-that-be have announced they are closing the only public restroom in the village of Mendocino! And these same enlightened ones just carted away the handicapped-access plastic latrine at Big River Beach. That’s right. The idyllic village and tourist destination of Mendocino may soon have No Public Potties. Why?
According to Sigmund Freud, the short answer is that Americans are insensitive barbarians. Freud made his one and only visit to America in 1909, and his most lasting impression of our great land came not from Niagara Falls, but from the lack of public restrooms. He said, and I paraphrase, “A society that does not provide public bathrooms for its citizens is essentially cruel and maladjusted and barbaric.”
When I first moved to Mendocino four years ago, I was struck by the brusque, dismissive, and sometimes cruel manner in which merchants would respond to my query, “May I use your bathroom?” I was inevitably directed to the state-funded public facility on Main Street, a stinky concrete bunker maintained by the state park people on whose land (our land) the bunker resides. I would sometimes find a homeless fellow bathing in the toilet stall. Sometimes the floors were so slick with piss, the journey across the cement floor wasn’t worth the risk of a fall. But most times the place was relatively clean and usable, and I was relieved and grateful that such a depository was available to the likes of me.
Why aren’t there two or three public restrooms in a village whose economy is tied to the tourist trade? Good question. In my fourteen hundred days as a resident in Mendocino, I have been asked at least three hundred times by visitors in the vicinity of the post office, some doing that telltale jig as they asked, “Is there a bathroom around here I can use?” And I have dutifully sent them to the distant bunker that our public servants tell us they must close because it costs them twenty-five thousand dollars a year to maintain, and the state is bankrupt, so… Really? Twenty-five grand to hose the bunker out every few days? Well, yes, because the hosing must be done by someone in the union, you see, so the numerous offers by the community to maintain the bunker must be declined because, well, hosing out bunkers is, what, highly technical?
The removal of the bathroom at Big River Beach has caused the bushes thereabouts to bloom with toilet paper and stinky residue as needy beachgoers do what any of us would do in the absence of an official portal in which to relieve ourselves. Now the briny air of my favorite beach mingles with the scent of urine and feces. Ain’t it grand?
Let us look a little deeper into this stinky mess. Who will be most impacted by the closure of the public option? Not the wealthy tourists staying at one or another luxurious inn. They will have toilets to use before and after sallying forth to buy trinkets stamped with the local moniker. At a recent farmer’s market I heard a well-heeled couple returning their purchase of jars of honey, explaining, “When we got back to the Stanford Inn, we realized the label didn’t mention Mendocino.” These folks will not miss the missing toilet, nor will patrons of the Mendocino Hotel.
The Mendocino Hotel, by the way, is the current provider of the nicest quasi-public option available in the village, and I will be forever in their debt for allowing me to use their facilities even when I’m not dining or drinking therein. Scruffy folks, however, need not apply. The only time I was ever questioned by hotel staff while en route to the hotel bathroom was on a bad hair day when I hadn’t shaved for a week.
Hmm? Is it too much of a stretch to connect the closure of the public restrooms to the ongoing harassment of the growing population of poor and homeless folks living on the fringes of the village? Not at all. The local grapevine is buzzing with news that our local gendarmes are now arresting folks for sitting or lying down on the headlands overlooking Big River Beach, calling this resting “camping”, which is illegal and punishable with a two hundred dollar fine. I wonder at which sector of the population this new interpretation of the camping law is aimed?
So…for the time being I suggest you take preemptive measures before heading into the village. And should you tarry long enough to need to, you know, make water, be resigned to buying something (or pretending to buy something) at an establishment possessed of a john. Yes, they tell us a portable latrine will be placed somewhere near the Kelly House, and won’t that be an attractive boost to tourism?
But I say let us laugh in the face of economic collapse and start a fund raising campaign to buy the land across the street from the Mendocino Post Office whereupon we will erect a large scale model of the Parthenon in which will reside state-of-the-art toilets and all necessary extras pursuant to a fully satisfying elimination experience. The south-facing roof of the Parthenon will sport highly efficient photovoltaic cells producing lucrative electricity feeding back into the omni-grid, since bathrooms use little or no electricity. All waste will be recycled and eventually certified organic for use on the new community garden where cabbages the size of basketballs will rise from the amply fertilized soil.
Artists disenfranchised from the recently conquered art center will be invited to display their wares in the lavatory courtyard, and in good time a public bath, sauna, showers, and massage parlor will be added to the complex. Bumper stickers will be sold extolling the experience of “going” in Mendocino, and tourists from around the world will come to “have a go” in the famous pooper. I DID IT IN MENDOCINO and I WENT IN MENDOCINO will soon adorn a million bumpers, as locals proudly sport the resident variant I GO IN MENDOCINO.
Let us rise above the barbarism of our time. Let us be a beacon of light and a model for the rest of this plundered nation. Let us come together to build the Parthenon of public restrooms so that in our middle and old ages we can hang out in the village secure in the knowledge that when we have to go, the way will not only be clear, but commodious.
Todd’s web site is Underthetablebooks.com. This essay originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in November 2009.