Recently I was walking down the platform in my local Metro station when I heard a weird splashing sound to my left. Turning to look, I saw a man with his back to me, on tiptoes facing one of the little metal wall-mounted trash cans, his hands out of sight and liquid splattering off the edge of the wastebasket onto the floor. Basic human self preservation kicked in and I snapped my eyes forward without breaking stride. And then I thought, Wait a second. It’s 11:30 AM on a Sunday. There’s other people on the platform. That guy had a good haircut and trendy sunglasses. I bet he was emptying out a water bottle and I just looked from the wrong angle at the wrong time. And figuring this would be a funny anecdote I could tell to friends or maybe work into a blog sometime, I looked over my shoulder at him to confirm what I was thinking –
And found myself taking a second look at a man who was very clearly taking a torrential piss into a subway station garbage can on a Sunday morning. I’ve been trying pretty hard to forget that sight ever since, but what sticks out in my mind was the guy’s attitude. He wasn’t slumping his shoulders or looking around to see if people were watching. He wasn’t using one of the more isolated and private garbage cans at the far ends of the platform. He seemed so confident about what he was doing that I almost felt like I was the weird one for trying to catch a train in his bathroom.
It took me some time to process that experience, and at first I came away thinking, Well, that’s why more people don’t ride public transit. But then it occurred to me that that was far and away the most disgusting thing I’d seen in three years of regularly riding LA’s subways – and really, by public transit standards, that’s not so bad.
Look, forgive me for being crude, but considering all of the things that man could have been doing with his penis out in public, using it to urinate into a container explicitly intended to hold waste was one of the most agreeable options. I’m sure I speak for everyone on the platform that day when I say that I would’ve rather he not been doing anything with his penis, but I don’t know his situation so I’m not going to judge.
I think the Metro staff are with me on this one. The stations are automated, but offsite security guards monitor camera feeds and when necessary will issue stern reprimands to passengers through a booming intercom, like a god who’s really a stickler for fire codes. “Attention Metro passengers, please do not sit on the stairs… Metro passengers, please do not sit on the stairs… Man with the red backpack and Dodgers cap, I’m talking to you… Thank you.” But the loudspeakers were conspicuously silent during this guy’s bathroom break.
I guess I can’t blame whatever guard was on camera duty that day – I mean, what can you really say to somebody who’s going to the bathroom in front of a crowd of people? I guess you can ask him to stop, but I feel like at that point his mind is already made up.
Besides that incident, though, nuisances on the Metro are pretty low key – people crowding the doors, some fragrant homeless people, and the occasional guy walking up and down the car doing an intense, extended freestyle rap while making eye contact with as many other passengers as possible. Just the other day, a bunch of teenagers got on with a boom box blasting hip hop. Some guy yelled at them to turn it down, they did, the guy thanked them, and they apologized. Compare that to the scene in Predator 2, where LA’s Metro is apparently so dangerous that every single rider carries a gun – which proves to be useful when the Predator attacks the train car and kills a bunch of people, another thing that’s never happened to me.
I think LA’s Metro is so relatively non-fucked up because it was only built in the early 1990s – unlike New York City we haven’t had a century to build a rich culture of people coming up with creative new ways to deface the subway. Buses are a different story entirely, but by and large people below ground manage to get from point A to point B without vandalizing anything. Maybe the subway just doesn’t go to the neighborhood where all the assholes live? Either that or the knowledge that the Metro has killed about 100 people in under 30 years keeps everybody on their best behavior.
I guess if I have to see a guy pissing in a garbage can every so often in order to ride an otherwise cleanish and quietish train, it’s worth it. I mean, virtually every square inch of public space in any city has been peed on by someone at some point; you just don’t really find yourself thinking about it that much until you see it happening.