FAIRBANKS — “No Indoor Plumbing!” the ad promoting the current News-Miner photo contest reads, adding “No Problem for Interior Alaskans.” That could easily be construed by Outsiders as leading to an awfully messy living situation. But even in the land where in-door toilets are the norm, there’s been a serious decline in public restrooms.
Even here in neighborly Fairbanks, most businesses don’t offer them, leaving a superabundance of desperate people utilizing establishments that do, like the public library, and sometimes they aren’t as neat or nice as they should be.
“Potty talk, or What They Don’t Teach Us in Library School” is a topic on which I’ve lectured several times at librarian conferences, and I was able to point to Noel Wien Library’s restrooms as models of improved design. Several years ago we brightened the restroom lighting considerably, replaced old, dark wall tiles with lighter ones, added timers to the toilets, urinals, and faucets, as well as stainless steel dividers, and new air blade hand dryers. Old-style blower dryers, for example, were used by those bathing in the sinks, and thereby flooding the whole room, to dry body parts other than their hands; that’s impossible with the blades, which are also quieter and use far less electricity.
Such a presentation is rife with opportunities for potty humor, and, like most men, my boyish sense of humor is lost upon my wife. I was amused to read a friend’s message today about visiting China Poot. Orth’s Dictionary of Alaska Place Names says that’s a lagoon on the east side of Kachemak Bay. Then yesterday, I reviewed a potential Guys Read book about the Chinese legend of the Monkey King, who learned his seventy-two forms of transfiguration from a wizard named Master Puti.
“Puti” won’t pass without comment among Guys Read’s fourth-grade boy audience, nor among its corps of volunteer readers. Many women seem to lack the gene that causes appreciation of elemental humor. Decades ago, my wife and I drove down College Road for the first time and saw a building called “Sewer’s Delight.” One of us laughed and laughed, while the other, a seamstress, expressed only mild amusement.
The photo contest and Sewer’s Delight reminds me of “cloaca,” a recent A.Word.A.Day term that has several meanings, including “outhouse” and “sewer.” The Romans called their mighty sewer system the “Cloaca Maxima,” and an intriguing online essay on “Cloacina: Goddess of the Sewers” by the Arizona Water & Pollution Control’s historian, Jon Schladweiler, provides interesting background.
The Romans subdued their Estruscan predecessors and around 500 BCE forced them to construct Rome’s mostly underground sewer system. Shortly afterwards, a statue of a woman was found submerged in an above-ground portion of the sewer, and this was interpreted as a religious sign. A shrine soon was dedicated to the statue, which was called Cloacina.
In time, Cloacina transformed from “the goddess of filth” to represent purity and become the protector of sexual intercourse, and eventually she was known as Venus Cloacina. The shrine’s featured on many Roman coins, including one I carry for luck after my dad assured me that would guarantee I’d never be broke since it couldn’t be spent.
He also warned me against gambling, but that profession paid off well for David Walsh, the Tasmanian whose billions came from horserace betting. Walsh enjoys raising eyebrows, and building the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania enables that desire. According to a Reuters article, MONA’s motto is “shock, offend, inform, and entertain,” and it’s famous for it’s outrageous artwork, including the “Cloaca Professional,” a “poo-machine” that’s fed twice daily and performs as advertised at 2 p.m. daily. It’s a dreadful experience, by most eye- and nose-witness accounts.
Major American public libraries are initiating new services for do-it-yourselfers, including installing print-on-demand machines for emerging writers, and 3-D printers for tinkerers and inventors. The writers and inventors have to pay for the printing and the plastic they use, but they’re able to realize their dreams better than ever before.
Some big libraries are also collecting “e-waste,” “obsolete technology that’s thrown in the trash,” for inventors and tinkerers, most of whom are men, to utilize. Can a funny-named goddess be far behind?
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries.