One of the things I liked about living in Tokyo was that when you were out and about and had to pee, you simply found the nearest public restroom, never far away, and went on your merry way. Try that in San Francisco. Try it on BART or when you’re waiting twenty minutes for a bus.
One of the things that blew my mind when I left Tokyo after a couple decades and came back to San Francisco was that when you entered a BART Station you were likely to hear an announcement about how many escalators and elevators were working. “All elevators are in operation today,” was – still is - the sign of an unusually good day.
San Francisco’s BART has 379,000 riders on weekdays. Tokyo’s subways have 8,700,000. Possibly they have a proportionate number of breakdowns, but I doubt it. I have seen escalators out of order there on very rare occasions, but usually they’re fixed in 24 hours. The escalator at West Oakland Station has been out of order for over seven months.
There’s a connection between public restrooms and escalator-elevator breakdowns, in case you wondered where I was going with this. They don’t break down because we don’t build them right. They break down because we have so many homeless people peeing and defecating in them. And because we don’t have a very good response team cleaning them up when that happens.
First it was the drug culture we live in. I remember years ago when they started closing public rest rooms because so many people were using them to shoot up. More recently, though, the drug culture has now met the fear culture and we’re afraid somebody named Mohammed is going to come blow himself up, if we give him an opportunity to go into a room in the subway and lock the door.
I’ve still got control of my bladder, Allah be praised, although I sense that may not always be the case. I remember visiting my father once in his later years and asking him why he had stopped driving from his home in Connecticut to Nova Scotia, the place he felt most at home on earth. It took a while to get the answer out of him. He couldn’t drive anymore and was dependent on others. He admitted, finally, that he was embarrassed he had to ask whoever was driving to stop so many times so he could relieve himself. It was a great opportunity for me to do something for him. "Pack your bags," I said. "We’re going to Nova Scotia tomorrow and we can stop 100 times if you need to." (In the end, he stopped very few times, but at least he didn’t have to worry about asking.) I see my father in myself in many ways, and I’m wondering how long it’s going to be before I have to stop using public transportation in the Bay Area because in emergencies, the choice is between a dark corner and your pants. None of the BART or Muni Stations in San Francisco have accessible restrooms anymore.
This may feel like a very minor issue if you’re the kind of person who never goes anywhere except by car. But it’s part of a larger picture of quality of life in America and a slowdown in the effort to get more people in cities out of their cars and into public transportation. As long as we fail to find ways to adjust for druggies and the homeless, and, even more importantly, as long as we allow the right wing to persuade us we have to prepare for a terrorist around every corner, we make American life that much harder for the folks Hubert Humphrey once referred to as being at the dawn of life, the twilight of life and in the shadows of life.
It’s not just about corporations and big business and jobs and the economy. It’s not just about the debate between stimulus and austerity.
The fact that there are 28 escalators out of service in the Bay Area’s BART system, with its total of 44 stations, is a sign we are not very serious about the quality of life in America these days. Trillions of dollars for the military. Millions in bonuses for bankers. Last October Oakland closed five elementary schools, forcing kids to travel farther from home and increasing the class size in other schools. And now we read West Oakland BART Station’s escalator is still out of order after seven months?
We’ve got some very lousy priorities, it seems to me.