The date was Jan. 12, 1971. Not exactly a date that would live in infamy or one that would be generally remembered, but it was noteworthy in this respect: A sound that millions hear every day was heard for the first time on network television.
That sound was the flushing of a toilet, echoing from the Zenith or Magnavox speakers courtesy of the 1971 situation comedy “All in the Family.” The show would later break ground in more noteworthy ways. But whether it was talking about race relations, introducing openly gay characters or just flushing toilets, its trailblazing moments often had one thing in common: they opened the door to discussing topics previous generations had avoided.
Sometimes, one has to talk about toilets, especially in the middle of a drought.
A Las Vegas letter-writer certainly wanted to talk about them. Commenting on the practices of reusing shower water to flush toilets in Cambria, the writer declared she would “not frequent an area that has the potential of spreading human disease from unsanitary hygiene practices in the name of saving the water.”
She conjectured (based on not a shred of evidence) that people who conserve water might not wash their hands or properly sanitize eating utensils; that they might eventually stoop so far as to dumping chamber pots in the ocean.
All of this is, of course, a bunch of hooey — and Cambria residents responded with a flurry of their own letters telling her so.
Still, I have to give our Nevada letter-writer credit for one thing: She’s kept us talking about toilets. And that’s a good thing. In fact, it’s a lot more important during a
California drought than it was for Archie and Edith in their fictional New York home 44 years ago.
Toilets are huge water users. According to the Colorado engineering firm Aquacraft, the average person flushes a toilet about five times at home every day, using a total of more than 14 gallons in the process. A story in SFGate put it this way: It’s the equivalent of California flushing away two Taj Mahals full of water every day.
That’s why Gov. Jerry Brown and numerous others have invoked the old saw, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow …”
Yes, I know, there is an inherent “yuck” factor to that. But some folks, like our letter writer, have taken an unwarranted leap from getting “grossed out” to imagining “a public health hazard for contracting E-coli, salmonella, typhoid, dysentery and Hepatitis, just to name a few.”
This isn’t a question of conservation vs. hygiene. Although recent studies have debunked the half-century-old myth that urine is sterile, that doesn’t mean liquid waste in a toilet bowl is any threat. You can’t catch something from urine in a toilet any more easily than you can contract HIV in a public restroom. The reason is simple: It’s in the toilet.
Remember, Cambria is a community that had the lowest per-capita residential water use in the entire state of California, so it’s reasonable to assume that folks who are so diligent about conservation would be equally conscientious about hygiene. At least, it’s a lot more reasonable than the letter-writer’s assumption that a community of highly responsible people might be creating a cesspool with which to contaminate hapless tourists.
Speaking of tourists, I’ve been one myself, and I can tell you toilets are important — especially to those with physical conditions such as Crohn’s disease and prostate problems — even pregnancy — that can create the need for frequent restroom visits.
As someone with one such condition (diabetes), I can tell you it isn’t pleasant to find yourself in the middle of a big city that, inexplicably, seems to be devoid of such facilities. I once walked into a convenience store, made a purchase and was told that, no, there was no “public” restroom available. My unspoken response was, “OK, then what do you do when nature calls?”
At least 13 states — California is not among them — have passed variations on the Restroom Access Act, which requires businesses to allow customers the use of employee restrooms if they have medical conditions that require immediate access to a toilet.
Cambria, thankfully, has shown sensitivity to both those who need to use the restroom (well, don’t we all?) and the need to conserve water. It’s a difficult balance to maintain, but Cambria has managed pretty well. Some businesses don’t allow the public use of their toilets, but they direct customers to nearby facilities maintained by the Community Service District.
And they are nearby. This is crucial. Even when Cambria’s permanent restrooms were closed for a time, clean, portable alternatives were provided in the same locations — along with a place to wash your hands. There’s one in East Village and another in West Village, just a few blocks down the road.
The availability of restrooms in Cambria offers a pleasant contrast to being stuck in L.A. traffic, driving from one convenience store to the next, hoping one of the clerks will take pity on the desperate, wayward traveler.
The next person from Las Vegas who impugns Cambrians’ cleanliness might want to pay a visit to San Jose, Modesto or Riverside — all of which made the Forbes list of the nation’s 20 dirtiest cities a few years back. Or drive down to Los Angeles (also on the list), inhale deeply that smoggy air and try to find a public restroom — clean or otherwise — that’s open to the public.
If you’re that person, chances are you’ll be running back to Cambria with an apology on your lips.