[Hpn] SF Media Pissing Match pt 3 -- Going undercover in search of a public toilet.

coh coh@sfo.com
Wed, 11 Jul 2001 10:53:38 -0700


July 11, 2001

Pee I
Going undercover in search of a public toilet.

By A.C. Thompson

FOR YEARS POWERFUL San Franciscans have clamored for an end to so-called
quality-of-life crimes.

Stop the dregs from pissing in public! they shriek. Don't let the bums poop
on the sidewalk!    ­One politician, former supervisor Amos Brown, built a
career by uttering the words "urination" and "defecation" so frequently that
city hall insiders actually wondered if he suffered from undiagnosed
Tourette's syndrome or obsessive-compulsive disorder. San Francisco
Chronicle attack dog Ken Garcia ­ a man who refers to homeless people as
"human toll booths" ­ wants illicit excretors thrown in the slammer.

Mayor Willie Brown is the city's most potent proponent of the
jail-the-pissers concept. The fedora-wearer has stepped up arrests for
"nuisance crimes," turned Golden Gate Park into a helicopter-patrolled
police state, and, hoping to drive the homeless masses into the hinterlands,
yanked park benches out of United Nations Plaza.

For the past three weeks Brown and District Attorney Terence Hallinan have
been locked in a steel-cage grudge match over the issue. Da Mayor wants to
dump $250,000 annually into prosecuting pissers, drinkers, and sleepers. "If
people are urinating on the streets ... they ought to be dealt with," Brown
recently told the Chronicle.

Hallinan, facing a budget crunch, would rather go after bona fide bad guys.
Still, last year the San Francisco Police Department doled out 249 tickets
for urinating/littering (the offenses are covered by the same law). Not
surprisingly, most of the people cited didn't bother to show up in court.

Following in the self-important footsteps of Barbara Ehrenreich, this
intrepid reporter decided to do a little experiment. I gulped two pints of
Peet's coffee, put one dollar in change in my pocket, and left the posh Bay
Guardian H.Q. in search of a toilet. The idea was to see just how hard ­ or
easy ­ it is for a destitute, roofless person with a full bladder to obey
the don't-squirt-on-the-street law.

Trudging out into the northern Mission District, I headed over to Franklin
Park, a little sliver of greenery at 17th and Bryant Streets. I met Linda,
54, curled up on the grass, flanked by a pair of shopping carts. Pink
circular scars covered her weathered hands and ran up the length of her
frail-looking arms. Linda's lips were cracked, her teeth crowded and brown
and broken off. 

I asked if there was a public toilet within a 10-block radius. Linda
guffawed like I was hopelessly naive. "There isn't any place to pee around
here without spending money," she said. "There aren't any public toilets."

But that doesn't mean Linda thinks outdoor squirting and squatting is cool.
"It's kinda nasty, you know. Some of these people do it in front of kids."

What does Linda make of Willie's quality-of-life crusade? "It's fucked up.
Why doesn't he spend that money giving homeless people somewhere warm to
sleep? I don't like being out here. I got full-blown AIDS."

Feeling the need to purge, I headed off to continue my experiment. Scouring
the streets, I decide Linda was right: in the northern Mission, there's
absolutely nowhere to go ­ unless you can pay for a sandwich at one of the
fast-food joints. Strolling through Erie Alley, a graffiti-covered
backstreet between Folsom and South Van Ness, I spied eight turds. Something
tells me Spot ain't responsible for any of 'em. Rubbish ­ burned clothes,
empty 40 ouncers, rotting fruit, a million cigarette butts, a huge,
half-empty bucket of peanut butter ­ was spread liberally across the alley,
which reeked of urine.

Clad in a stained leather jacket, Pam was sitting on a flattened cardboard
box. "They only got one public toilet in the Mission ­ for all these
people," she griped.

I went to commune with that toilet, the big green JCDecaux pay pissoir at
16th and Mission Streets, in the heart of the dope zone.

Standing outside the French designer commode, I dropped my quarter into the
slot. Nothing happened. The $180,000 toilet was busted. There are 23 of
these things spread across the city, and, according to the Chronicle, about
25 percent of 'em are toast.

Desperate, I considered BART ­ the subway station has a pair of very nasty
rest rooms ­ but quickly nixed the idea. To use the toilets, you've got to
buy a ticket ­ and the minimum round-trip ticket runs $2.20.

Downtown was little better ­ and I was getting frantic and walking very,
very fast. (What made me think this was a good plan?!) On Market Street
between Van Ness Avenue and Powell Street I discovered exactly two free
facilities. One was in San Francisco Center, the shopping mall; the other
was at the main library. (I figure both will post guards after this story
runs.) By the time I found my holy grail, I was on the verge of bursting.

It's not like this everywhere. Pot-loving, ur-liberal Amsterdam has an
abundance of free pissoirs. The facilities aren't high-tech, and they're not
made by the French, but they get the job done.

But this is America, and Americans don't like logic ­ i.e., if there were a
few more rest rooms available for the 5,400 to 14,000 people who live on the
streets, maybe, just maybe the streets wouldn't smell of piss.

But we Americans do like cops. And we love kicking people when they gotta

E-mail A.C. Thompson at ac_thompson@sfbg.com.
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