A while ago, my hometown of Boulder, Colo. bought a bunch of old bicycles and left them around the city, spray-painting them green to distinguish them from other bicycles. It was a great idea: Boulder is very sunny and sometimes it's warm; people there like exercising, for example with bikes.
Within a few months, though, all of the bicycles had disappeared. It turns out if you have free bicycles lying around, the only people who will ride them are college kids on acid, who subsequently lose them in the mountains.
When I moved to Seattle two years ago, one of the first things I noticed was that you had to buy something (i.e., $4 latte), before you could use a bathroom.
Unless you happened to be in Victor Steinbrueck Park, where there's a free, self-cleaning toilet. It was just waiting there, like a green bicycle.
Like Boulder, Seattle has just learned a lesson about human nature the hard way: It turns out that public restrooms are great places to poop and pee, but they're also really great places to do drugs and have sex. Also, if you don't allow advertising on them, you won't afford anybody to clean the self-cleaning toilets.
I wonder what former councilperson Tina Podlodowski, who advocated for self-cleaning toilets a decade ago, is thinking now. Or if former Mayor Paul Schell, whose veto of the project was overridden in 2001, is laughing at the $4.3 million since spent on them.
Whether or not you have, like me, googled "Seattle million-dollar toilets," you know all about them. The self-cleaning toilet is about what it means to be human -- it's about well-laid plans going, quite literally, to shit.
I witnessed the toilets' final hours, from around 8 a.m. to around 8 p.m. Thurs., July 31. This is what I saw:
9:44 a.m.: The outside is covered in small dents, the inside feels maybe clean -- except for the toilet, which has three inches of toilet paper in the bottom. The instructions come on in English, Spanish, and Chinese, then a terrifying sound begins, like somewhere there's a vacuum powered by a jet engine.
Michael Hill works next door at the ID post office. The first thing he tells me is that he never uses the toilet. The next thing he says is that other people use it, sometimes two at a time. Across the square, a woman is standing at the corner.
10:04 a.m.: Man with exotic camera takes pictures of the pagoda, but judging from the angle he also must have captured some of the toilet's last moments.
10:10-10:17 a.m.: Four people use the toilets. Woman at corner disappears. I realize as I take notes that editorial interns and plainclothes cops are virtually indistinguishable.
11:01 a.m.: When I get to this toilet, a family is waiting to use it, looking Midwestern. A man comes out, but the toilet is beeping loudly. The waiting family looks confused and doesn't actually go inside. After the doors have closed again and the man has walked away, one of the people waiting pushes the button -- the doors don't open. The family stays there until two city workers come by and pry open the doors. I am too embarrassed to ask anyone questions.
11:29 a.m.: Somebody has been inside for awhile so one of the two guys waiting kicks the door. Hard. That's why there are dents in them.
Victor Steinbrueck Park
12:13 p.m.: After he is done I talk to a man who won't go on record, except as "Turtle."
"There's filth in there, drugs," Turtle says. "It's a good idea, but people smoke weed in there. Crack. Shoot heroine, you name it." I ask him what we should do and he says there's nothing to be done.
12:34 p.m.: I use the bathroom and inside there's a can of malt liquor, a plastic wrapper, and a pile of soaking wet toilet paper on the ground. The toilet is clean and flushes well.
At Real Change
Like, 2 p.m.: I call Andy Ryan from Seattle Public Utilities and ask him about the high-pitched beep.
"That's the 'pull-your-pants-up' alarm."
We talk about the toilets: how there aren't any attendants, how they're cleaned more than any other toilet in the city.
"They're no better or worse than any toilet," he says. "They just cost more."
4:24 p.m.: It starts raining. There is a family -- midwestern -- outside of the toilet. I have been watching the toilet from across the footpath, by a flight of stairs. I decide now to cross the footpath and talk to the family. I go over to them, and a very young boy goes into the toilet. I stand a few feet from the family and feel uncomfortable. I say, "Have you ever seen a free, self-cleaning toilet?" but nobody hears me. The boy emerges, is applauded.
Around 6 p.m.: The button is green and I press it, but when the doors open a man is standing by the toilet.
"Hi," I say. The doors close.
Later, when he comes out, I learn his name is Mike Jefferson and he's used the toilet three times. He says the toilets are good for people who have to "piss or puke" on their way home after the bars have closed.
I go inside and find a complete roll of toilet paper by the toilet, soaking wet. There's also the piston of a syringe and graffiti.
7 or so p.m.: A crowd has gathered under the pagoda by the public toilet, since now it's raining harder. I circle the block a couple of times, I guess expecting to see a drug deal or something. But they're just trying to get in out of the rain. I realize that I've stared at people going to the bathroom all day and take a bus home.
The next day I walk by a toilet on my way to work and there is a small padlock on the door. Seattle's automated public toilets have gone the way of the green bicycle.