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Tuesday, September 14, 2004

JUDGMENT DAY: RISE OF THE COMMODES 

While I was on vacation there was a crisis involving our plumbing at the branch. For reasons that have been yet to be discovered, all of the branch’s toilets suffered massive overflows. As if that weren’t horrible enough, sewage came bubbling up from the floor drains, flooding the public and staff bathrooms with gallons of rank, pathogen bearing water. City workers spent days pumping water out and trying to fix the problem, and then our custodians labored to decontaminate the entire area. The stench was sometimes unbearable and the staff was completely traumatized. By the time I returned from vacation there was no trace of the problem except for a faint dank odor of rot and decay, like that of an old mausoleum or the Metro. I thought I had dodged that bullet and smugly congratulated myself on my lucky timing.

Our stalwart public toilet takes a lot of abuse. It is occupied every minute this branch is open and sometimes there will be a line of people ten deep waiting to use it. When I see people impatiently lined up in front of it I am reminded of those sad stories of enslaved Chinese prostitutes smuggled to old San Francisco Chinatown. Because of the Anti-Chinese immigration laws, Chinese immigrants could not bring their wives and families with them nor could Chinese women immigrate. Chinese women were scarce and the few that made it to San Francisco were brought to work in virtual slavery as prostitutes. Men would line up around the block for these women, who would usually only last a few years before dying of disease and overuse. Anyway, the Department of Public Works informed the branch staff that our plumbing is shared with those in the parks, which might be the root of the problem. As bad as our toilets have it the park toilets have it worse: besides non-stop occupancy, the toilets are constantly filled with inappropriate foreign objects, bear witness to the orgiastic revelries of Loretta and suffer God knows what other indignities.

Yesterday a woman emerged from the stairs to the bathroom and pronounced to me, “It’s just that it smells…FECAL down there! I think something must be wrong.” I explained to her that the branch had undergone plumbing problems and that she was probably just experiencing some lingering odors from that unfortunate situation. I went blithely back to work. I should not have dismissed this Cassandra so quickly, because not minutes later I heard someone exclaim, “Water is everywhere!” I went to investigate and sure enough, the toilet was busily overflowing and murky water was coming up from the floor drain, like someone had exploded an M-80 down the commode. I looked in the staff bathroom and my worst fears were confirmed: inches of water swimming with bacteria and toxins were covering the floor in there as well. I shut down the bathrooms and called DPW, who arrived in a few hours with heavy equipment. After the good men of DPW worked on it most of the night, the problem seems to be fixed for now, but I know this won’t be the last of it.

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