Going About Their Business

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Seattle progressives had long been concerned that bums had no place to go to the toilet, and were doing it in doorways and planting strips. By longstanding city ordinance, every business serving food for consumption on the premises must have a toilet, but it can be for patrons only, and this was deemed deeply inadequate and also privileging to the rich. In 2004, after much debate, the city council opted to provide the public streets with five enclosed commodes. These were no ordinary outhouses. After use, a machine would spray and dry the seat. The doors would stay closed for no more than 15 minutes, giving a warn- ing at the 14th minute that one’s time was almost up.

All this had worked well in Europe, the salesmen said. It was to cost the taxpayers nothing so long as the toilet company could put advertising on its wares, and on some bus stops. But ads were unacceptable to the Se- attle City Council, which instead signed a contract to lease five toilets for nearly $700,000 a year.

There were some farsighted cynics. One council member, who was outvoted, said there had been problems in other cities. Seattle’s “alternative” weekly, The Stranger, issued a spoof press release from the mayor’s office, which began: Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels announced today that Seattle has opened its first safe-injection site, located on Broadway Avenue…. The site, a free high-tech kiosk complete with sink and toilet, is designed to allow the avenue’s large and previously underserved population of addicts to commit furtive sex acts for money and bang dope in much-needed comfort and privacy.”

The Stranger got it right. In a front-page story in October, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer said that the city’s five commodes had been monopolized by crackheads, sometimes half a dozen at a time, and that derelicts were afraid to go in them. As for sanitation, the paper said, the seats were self-cleaning but some patrons used the floor.

The city’s response was to announce that it would install a camera outside one of the toilets to deter criminals. Said the P-I: “It also plans to pass a rule barring more than one person from being inside a toilet at the same time, unless helping a child or a handicapped person.”

Forgive me: I pay taxes to these people.

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