By The Rivers Of Babylon, There We Sat Down, Yea, We Wept, When We Remembered…

… how long it had been since we engaged in one of life’s urgent necessities. Here is the wonderful Barbara Ehrenreich:

As anyone knows who has ever had to set up a military encampment or build a village from the ground up, occupations pose staggering logistical problems. Large numbers of people must be fed and kept reasonably warm and dry. Trash has to be removed; medical care and rudimentary security provided—to which ends a dozen or more committees may toil night and day. But for the individual occupier, one problem often overshadows everything else, including job loss, the destruction of the middle class, and the reign of the 1 percent. And that is the single question: Where am I going to pee?

Ehrenreich is writing about participants in Occupy movements almost everywhere, but she draws the connection between the presumably temporary plight of those participants and the effectively permanent suffering of the chronically homeless. Unlike the Occupy protesters, the homeless frequently find their very day-to-day existence and minimal basic activity criminalized by city after city. Ehrenreich, in a nutshell, on the matter of urination:

… Public restrooms are sparse in American cities—“as if the need to go to the bathroom does not exist,” travel expert Arthur Frommer once observed. And yet to yield to bladder pressure is to risk arrest. …

I remember a sign in the public library down the street from me. The sign (since removed, I believe) had a list of no fewer than a dozen activities prohibited in the library. Among them were sleeping or even putting your head down on a library table, and washing or shaving your face in the library restroom. The clear intent… they didn’t have to spell it out… was NO HOMELESS PEOPLE ARE ALLOWED USE OF THIS LIBRARY. But I can’t help asking: if there have to be homeless people, where is a better place for a non-disruptive homeless person? City councils, however many GOPers occupy their chambers, might as well get over the fact that criminalizing homelessness without offering effective alternatives just doesn’t work. And hence the Occupy movement, willingly (I’m sure) or otherwise (I doubt), has homelessness as one of its issues. Good. It’s about time someone gave a damn!

AFTERTHOUGHT: I am reminded that I, despite having never been homeless, have probably changed clothes and groomed myself a couple hundred times in public restrooms; it is the common lot of all active performing musicians who work elsewhere than in concert halls. All I can say is that it’s a damned inconvenience, not something anyone would undertake without a good reason. My heart goes out to people who have to do it every single time they clean and groom themselves. Our society owes them better.


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  • Bryan  On Tuesday October 25, 2011 at 7:43 pm

    For an extended period I was a ‘world traveler’ by virtue of what the military had me doing, and I have to say that once you leave the transportation hub in US city, you are are on your own, because public restrooms are rarer than payphones in the US.

    I live in a tourist area, and on the miles of beach on our barrier island, there is one restroom and it isn’t open 24/7. If you decide to have a midnight stroll on the beach, you had better have gone before you arrived, because the public restroom is closed.

    Since gas stations became convenience stores, those restrooms are gone.

    For a nation as uptight about bodily functions as the US, they sure don’t make it easy.

    • Steve  On Tuesday October 25, 2011 at 10:32 pm

      Bryan, the only place I’ve spent any time where the restroom situation is worse than the US is Austria. In public squares in major cities, they indeed have public restrooms… which you pay to use. And they are not sympathetic to people who pee free.

      The worst clothes-changing I ever faced was in the restroom of a gas station that was also a convenience store. The floor was filthy. The fixtures were soiled beyond belief. There was no clean counter surface. And I had to change there; there was no choice. Americans aren’t big on the notion of maintaining the commons!

  • MandT  On Tuesday October 25, 2011 at 7:43 pm

    Great post Steve….we need to keep on posting about homelessness and poverty, which to my mind are becoming an American epidemic, I’ve been out most of the week with heart problems, but am catching up. So, want to recommend an excellent new post: Left Perspectives at peace, M

    • Steve  On Tuesday October 25, 2011 at 10:38 pm

      M, I know your heart’s in the right place; please be sure it keeps on beating right where it belongs!

      America has been here before, in the 1980s when St. Ronald was president. I remember from my cycling days riding the city bike trails along the bayou under street bridges; every bridge had not fewer than two residents, and most of them apparently had jobs (because they had alarm clocks), jobs that apparently didn’t pay enough for them to afford to rent a room. We did see some better times between then and now, but here we are again. Eternal vigilance is the price of three square meals a day. Speaking of which, it’s about time for me to crank up donating to the local food bank again. They do good work here.

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