Shitty San Francisco
By: Christopher Grant (@BIGHONKINBURGER)
In San Francisco if someone tells you that they've spent an hour washing a pair of shoes after stepping in human feces, the expected reaction isn't surprise. Rather, a deep empathy, as most recent wanderers of San Francisco know that city has grown rather disgusting. It’s not uncommon to see all kinds of human byproduct on the streets and sidewalks, especially in areas like South of Market and the Tenderloin. Even in my first visit to San Francisco in 2009 I saw a man pissing into Gough Street. Wide-eyed and in disbelief, I am no longer shocked at public actions of human excretion.
So just why are people shitting in the streets? This may come as a surprise, but we, as humans, have to poop. However, the city of San Francisco has been built as if the restroom is reserved for a select few — there just aren't places to tinkle.
Ask a San Francisco native what their plan is when nature calls and they’re not at work or home. Starbucks is the most common answer — pay $5 for a drink and access to a toilet. My personal strategy is to try and plan my restroom usage, and if an emergency does come up I have a web of friends in the tech industry who will scoot me in for an emergency urinal. Yes, I have had to take my photo and register into the security books of SF Tech companies because I needed to use the bathroom (Zynga has the fanciest bathrooms, but IGN had the most usable).
Space is expensive in San Francisco, so finding a location for a bathroom is difficult. For example, the city is plastered with tiny restaurants, generally with incredible food, but with a storefront so small there’s no space for a restroom. To use a restroom in many San Francisco restaurants you’d have to squeeze by the chefs to reach their storage area in the back. It’s not that they don’t want you to use a bathroom, but having an accessible bathroom is an unaffordable luxury for many businesses. The ones that do have them tend to use the bare minimum of space — I've had to duck in some bathrooms and I’m 5’5”.
While I can walk into a startup or a Starbucks and look like a generic nerd, ready to pay for a toilet, San Francisco’s homeless don’t have that same privilege. The homeless don’t have the same access to restrooms as we do. The Four Seasons won’t let a homeless man in, and he may not have the money to buy an expensive San Francisco coffee for bathroom access. While we can easily see the shit and complain about it, we don’t see the people put into the position where dropping trou on the corner of 7th and Folsom is their best option. Even if it’s really obvious.
Beneath Ground Level
Last week I descended into a BART station, the Bay Area’s public train system, with a friend of mine after a short night of drinking. We’d been talking about video games, metrics, and how our friends all drank at a bar way too far from the BART. The conversation stopped though once we’d gotten off the escalator. On the scuffed floor tiling was a puddle of urine, made recently enough where it was still visibly flowing. The urine wasn't what silenced us though. It was the people, five or so, lying next to the wall, on the hard, urinated on, floor.
A woman was crying, clearly in mental distress. Still, my friend and I kept walking towards the turnstiles, trying to disregard the smell. We didn't know how to deal with this woman, with the homeless keeping warm in a dirty BART station. Rather, we ignored it, and the only reason I remembered that walk was because of how hard it is to forget having to dodge urine. The homeless can remain invisible, sobbing while people like me walk by. The urine has an impact though.
Homelessness in the Bay Area is this large, obvious, and entirely invisible problem in the eyes of many. Walking along the streets of San Francisco one learns to thousand-yard stare their way past the city’s problems. Head up, looking straight, and keeping your eyes entirely unfocused has allowed the city’s population to walk past the sleeping homeless. This is where the shit becomes a problem: you have to notice it unless you want to wipe human feces off your shoes. Meanwhile the response to tripping on a homeless man is to half-heartedly say sorry and walk faster. We can piece together storylines from the urine, feces, and drug paraphernalia commonly found on the staircase. Though it takes misplaced sewage for us to sort-of-almost-maybe recognize other human beings and their stories.
The city leadership of San Francisco has had its own kerfuffles with sanitation and sewage. Most recently, low-flow toilets caused a stink near AT&T Park when the lower water flow caused thick sewagey sludge to backup and clog in pipes underneath the city. Those hot summer days brought along a terrible rotten-egg stench to accompany sandals and tanktops. This sludge didn't even come from cutbacks or old age, but rather a push for low-flow toilets to help San Francisco conserve water. Now the city stocked up on fourteen million dollars of bleach to restart the city’s gastrointestinal flow. Meanwhile, in 2012 it was reported that some downtown SF BART escalators were shut down due to human waste. They had to call in a Hazmat team. If the city can’t keep the sewers and escalators clean, what can they do for us above ground?
Wait a second, public restrooms! Of course! Why don’t more people just use San Francisco’s fine public restrooms? Well, there just aren't that many public restrooms in San Francisco. Note that by public I mean “come one come all” run-by-the-government toilets. The Bed, Bath, & Beyond might let me use the restroom, but the people who really need them are getting hunted down by security or are limited by store hours. What makes it worse is that there aren't too many public restrooms in San Francisco that run all night, seemingly less than 40 according to the San Francisco Public Works. It runs back into the issue of space and cost. Space is limited, expensive, and toilets for the poor don’t provide good returns.
There’s also the fear of what comes out of a restroom, less so than what goes in. Sex, drugs, violence — sometimes all at the same time! And to be honest it’s a pretty common trope in American mythology. How many movies have raunchy bathroom sex? How often does someone duck out to cut cocaine while staring out of the excessively large gap between stalls. I definitely shot someone in a Grand Theft Auto mission while they were hiding in a public toilet. So what’s the modern, San Franciscan solution to gross public toilets?
AUTOMATIC TOILETS. Now the automatic toilet isn't uncommon, or even new — there’s 25 in San Francisco already. They've popped up in a few east coast cities such as New York, and on the international scale they can be found in Europe and Japan. Automatic toilets are also a spectacle to behold, as the toilet seats sanitize themselves by retracting into the wall and dousing themselves in chemicals. One San Franciscan even stood on the in-bathroom handrails to record a toilet cleaning itself. These toilets are the toilets of San Franciscan yuppies and are often found in touristy areas - truly the toilets of a modern day tech-focused city.
Except even then a clean toilet seat doesn't necessarily lead to a clean bathroom, and there are still major issues in regards to safety, sanitation, and shit. Blasting chemicals, alcohol, and ultraviolet lights at a toilet seat doesn't naturally protect the rest of the bathroom space. They’re gross, incredibly slow due to the cleaning, and the 20 minutes of allotted toilet time is still more than enough for a quickie or to start cutting up an eight ball. If you plan to visit San Francisco, just keep a map of local Starbucks locations handy.
Seattle learned this lesson the hard way. Want to find one of the automatic toilets Seattle installed in 2004? Well, the city sold them. On eBay. The five million dollar investment backfired when the unsupervised and poorly maintained automatic toilets had become tiny dens of graffiti, drug abuse, and surprisingly little bathroom usage. The city didn't really make it’s money back when the auctioned toilets returned a paltry $12,549. Woops.
So what do we actually do about this shitty problem? The mechanized marvels don’t necessarily help anyone besides some of the tourists exploring Coit Tower or Fisherman’s Wharf. In the end they've become poorly maintained, run-of-the-mill public restrooms — requiring city employees to maintain, clean, and repair these outhouses. We need to layoff the Toilets of the Future and aim for something less San Franciscan. We need something that seems almost contrary to the major tech focus in San Francisco. Something that conflicts with business models like Uber and Airbnb, that technically don’t produce anything but rather arrange agreements with contractors or volunteers. We need standard public bathrooms with a paid staff to actively maintain it. We need people. I write this as a techie nerd living in the Bay Area. I write this as someone that loves self-checkout and electronic doodahs. Get some multi-stalled toilets in public spaces, and let’s spend the cash to give everyone a space to relieve themselves.
And what about the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll? Well here’s the truth of it: no one is actually scared of a bathroom because it’s a bathroom. Yeah some people might get grossed out or not want to use a public shitting space, that’s understandable. If you’re scared of drug dealers and public sex, you’re really scared of the area you’re in. I don’t think some well-maintained toilets will clean up Hunter’s Point or turn the Tenderloin into a family friendly destination. But getting some basic public services might be a start.
What about the people committing acts of public defecation? They’ll have to cooperate if people want a cleaner city. And I don’t mean the homeless. The homeless do play a part in making San Francisco a communal toilet, but they’re not the only ones involved. What about the drunken engineer after a great night out? What about the tired BART commuter that can’t use a restroom at a BART station — they were closed in response to 9/11. The terrorists won’t win if someone drops a deuce in a Montgomery Station toilet, but we sure do act like they will. It’s the San Francisco community that contributes to the toiletfication of San Francisco, not just one specific group.
And that’s hard to accept. When I see a log on the ground I don’t think of the greater social dilemma and city planning that helped it get there. I think about how nasty it is. When I’m judging whether a shoe is worth saving the first thought running through my head isn’t about public restrooms, but at how big a jerk the shitter must be. We’re all shitty people though, in that we produce shit, and once a dook hits the ground it becomes the community’s problem, instead of the mystery shitter. There’s a glitz and glory to San Francisco. From the overwhelming skyscrapers visitors gawk at from BART entrances, to the chaotic history of disaster, violence, industry, and money that helped make the city what it is today. Even with glamour, until we’re taking care of our streets and giving bowels some private space, it’s just Shitty San Francisco.