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  TALES FROM THE PORTO! RELEASED FROM THE BOWELS OF HELL.  
   
 

ou're at an outdoor summer festival, stuffed full of music and beer and chili cheese dogs, tightly hugged by a crowd of reveling peers, and sweating freely in the crushing heat. No matter how uncomfortable you might be, in critical need of a shower, a change of clothes, and a little sleep, you have no intentions of leaving because you are

 
 

having a blast. These are good times, you think. No, you would not think of leaving until… you've got to go. Your body tenses up, your senses focus. You scan your surroundings, you mentally calculate the proximity of the nearest acceptable restroom and the feasibility of reaching it in time. Nothing tolerable is near enough or easy enough to get to. All that you've got is -- gasp! -- the portable toilet.

Portable toilets: the last resort of the desperate and hopeless. Their manufacturers attempt to disguise the horror intrinsic to a communal bedpan by bestowing sweet, silly, cartoonish names upon their

 
 

products -- Mr. John! Port-a-Potty! But no matter what color you paint it, it still adds up to a closet-sized box you crap in -- an outhouse minus the old-timey charm of a crescent-moon window. Nobody wants to crap in a box, much less a box where hundreds (thousands?!) have crapped before you. It's filthy inside, filthier still in your overactive, hypochondriacal imagination, and the stench is so powerful, you wonder if the word "stench" properly conveys its enormity. You clumsily attempt some soccer-style maneuvering to close the door behind you, lock it shut, position

 
 

yourself to do your dirty work, wipe, flush, wash -- if you're in one of the "fancier" models that provide the option -- and escape, all the while touching as little as physically possible with your bare hands, lest you contract diseases so horrible that doctors have yet to properly isolate and identify their origins.

What you're probably not thinking during the humbling, awkward experience of municipal crapping is: somebody has chosen to earn his living by cleaning these things. In fact, they do it nightly (if not more frequently), which means that the filth surrounding you is, at worst, filth only a few hours old.

WHO SUCKS UP SHIT FOR A LIVING?

Despite the general icky feeling that is inevitably triggered when faced with the task of flushing out what's been flushed by the masses, emptying the toilet's contents is a remarkably easy and sanitary process: a pump goes in, the shit's sucked out. All the waste matter is pumped into a septic tank, which is sealed and therefore spotless and odorless.

"It's much better than the guys working garbage pickup for the sanitation department," reasons Pedro Gomez, president of New York Portables. "Hefty bags full of food and whatever else on the street corner in the heat -- that stuff is what really stinks." And Pedro knows what stinks -- in the 1980s, he quit a successful job on Wall Street to join the portable-toilet industry. "Junk bonds wasn't too far removed from other people's shit," he jokes.

That ol' maxim, "It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it," certainly echoes in the toilet trade, probably more so than in any other line of work. But the unstated addendum to that little adage is: somebody's got to do it for a decent amount of cash. "Nobody does it for the money," says Pedro. "They do it because they do it. But there is a lot of money in the shit business -- There has to be, because nobody else wants to come near it."

But the only real dirt in this dirty job is found in the cleaning of the interior of the john itself. While waste matter is removed thanks to the technological marvel of cutting-edge shit-sucking pumps, the walls are scrubbed the old-fashioned way: soap, water, and elbow grease. The crews suit up with surgical masks, shitkicking boots, and latex gloves and get down and dirty, removing every spot and stain and stink incurred during the day so the john can be re-stained and re-stunk tomorrow.

"It's relentless," says Charlie*, who runs his own portable-toilet business in Queens. "It never ends. People out there are filthy."

The cleanest commodes tend to be those on construction sites and movie sets, because the people using them know they've got to use them again tomorrow. "Anybody stationed somewhere outdoors for a period of time is so grateful to have a toilet around, they kind of become protective of them." Pedro explains.

Usually, locations like these get the higher-end toilets -- fancy crappers with lights and sinks inside, and motion detectors to flush automatically. Anywhere else, especially if it's open to the general public, gets the cheaper kind.

"It's not really the 'business' done inside that makes it dirty," he continues. "It's just the wear-and-tear of a small room with a very, very high turnover rate. But the vandalism is worse than the crap and dirt. People are carving their names in the walls, breaking anything that can be broken, stealing the toilet-paper dispensers. Why? Why would anybody want to steal that? I just don't get people."

THERE'S GOLD IN THEM THAR JOHNNIES!

Within the stall, the cleaning crews find all manner of human detritus: wallets, keys, cellular phones, sunglasses, cash and coins, cameras, every imaginable food and its packaging, pants, sneakers, underwear, bras, condoms, dildos...

"Pretty much anything that can fit in the door gets left behind," says Charlie. What the cleaning men unearth tends to be garbage brought in with the user, not stuff moved through anybody's bowels. Going through people's flotsam and jetsam becomes an exercise in anthropology and archaeology.

"You learn a lot about the crowd that way," says Pedro. "Carnivals, street fairs, festivals always turn into total freak shows. You find the most unexpected stuff in there."

There is no lost-and-found for what's discovered in the johns, because nobody ever comes around to claim anything. "They figure it's lost for good," says Charlie, "or they just don't want it back." All that's found is usually thrown out, except for jewelry, which is dropped in a bucket of anti-bacterial soap where it can soak for days, and then pawned. "You can make a small fortune in lost rings and necklaces," says Pedro.

"Luckily," says Charlie, "nobody drops bodies or portions of bodies in the johns. You dig anywhere in New York, you'll find fingers and heads and other body parts, but nobody thinks to bring a dead body to the john."

Well, that all depends on your stance on abortion. "We didn't know what to do," Joe* tells of the day a frantic employee pumped out a clogged toilet to discover "something horrible, but not exactly identifiable." The exhumed horror in question turned out to be a deceased fetus. "We were frightened, we were just horrified."

The fetus had been found in a toilet serving a fair for the public at an army base -- whether its origin was military civilian nobody knew. The F.B.I. was called in to remove the fetus and handle the ensuing investigation (and its possible military implications), and Joe's company never heard back. "Thank God," he says. "I don't want to know any more."

SOME THINGS YOU SEE, YOU CANNOT UN-SEE.

Most of the horror stories witnessed or experienced by the guys, however, are told with laughter, traded among peers like old soldiers telling war tales. Nearly everybody knows a rookie driver who, in an attempt to haul toilets away after an event, has locked a potty closed and hoisted it onto the truck, unknowingly taking a passenger for a horribly messy ride inside the stall.

"You do that once, you learn to double-check that it's empty before locking and loading. You find that the guy caught inside is pretty pissed," Charlie says, not stopping to note his (unintentional?) double entendre, "and there's no amount of apologizing that can possibly make up for it when you're looking at this poor guy and he's covered from his shoulders to his knees in messy, wet shit."

Getting stuck in a portable toilet, then shaken and stirred is so ludicrous a scenario that most people cannot imagine just how terribly horrific it could be. (Of course that very circumstance was set up intentionally as a stunt on MTV's "Jackass.")

"There are lots of toilets found so messy and shitted up, you can't believe human beings were responsible for it," according Joe. The worst he'd ever seen was at an Indian heritage parade in Brooklyn. "I don't know who the guy was or how big his asshole was, but there was a splatter of shit, one color, one huge pattern, floor-to-ceiling. Disgusting. Somebody managed to shit enough to cover the whole thing -- a seven-foot-tall john. We didn't clean it for a long time. We just stopped and looked at it and thought about it for a while. We sat down and had coffee and cigarettes and tried to imagine this guy -- or woman -- walking backwards, poking his ass through the door, and blasting the john out."

In his decades of cleaning crap, only one experience stands apart as a truly frightening horror-movie scenario: Woodstock, circa 1969.

The hippies, characteristically unkempt to begin with, and increasingly careless as the high of music, love, and massive quantities of drugs intensified, had rather poor aim in the johns; that is, when they chose to even use the portable potties provided. "There was shit all over the place," Joe recalls. "Long trails of muck and mud everywhere."

Making matters worse, the Woodstockers' bare feet carried globs of earth with them into the bathrooms, which meant that by the time the event ended, the potties, inside and out, were covered in brown goop. What was mud and what was fecal matter was tough to distinguish. But the mud brought with it earthworms -- or "shitworms" as Joe called them. "It was absolutely revolting. Worms crawling everywhere. Shit's bad enough to clean, but shit that's moving?"

The stuff nightmares are made of. Joe wisely stayed away from the recent Woodstock anniversaries; a sage choice, since Woodstock '99 earned more attention for its mud than its music.

Guys like Joe, Charlie, and Pedro have spent many years cleaning up other people's shit. They've cleaned tens of thousands of toilets. They've seen more shit than any man should bear. The men all agree, though, that after a very short time, you become immune to it, and you treat it like any other job in the world. "Donuts or car parts or whatever you want," says Charlie. "After a while, it's just the materials of your job."

"The only thing that's ever freaked me out," says Joe, "is some people out there have an unnatural fixation with shit. Shitfans. They call us, they come by our place. They have questions. They wanna see stuff. Some people are just bewitched by it."

 

*BT*

Josh Abraham is the president of Yankee Pot Roast Industries, which produces massive quantities of Fruit Roll-ups for the United States Military.