South Seattle Duck Walks Toward Park Building With Bad Human Smellmei 11, 2020
The duck I wanted to talk to is in this picture… Charles Mudede
I was certain the duck was a mallard, the most common of its kind in our city. What I could not tell, however, was the bird’s sex.
Though the male mallard (velvety green head, black pearly eyes, and bright yellow beak) is very distinct from the female mallard (bland light-brown all around), a young male is indistinguishable from the female. And because I saw this particular light-brown duck on May 5, which is close to the season when young males make their appearance around town (from June to September), and because I refuse to call any living being no matter how small or stupid an “it,” I decided to address this bird that had just flown into Rainier Playfield as “per.”
I was surprised when I saw per landing on and waddling from the softball field which, at that time, around 6 pm, was, along with the football field, repurposed by a number of dogs and their lovers for the game that goes on and on without variation or surprises: catch. This park is smallish (9.5 acres) and has no pond or anything that attracts ducks. It’s just some deciduous trees, thick Kentucky bluegrass (or grasses blended with with this popular species), and courts for tennis and basketball. At first I thought per was heading to the basketball court, but per stopped, looked at the mounted boards, the baskets, the rims, the man shooting hoops by himself, and decided to waddle along the side of the court toward a building that I wanted to warn per about. Do not go there, bird. It has a very bad smell. It may make you gag, if, that is, ducks gag. But you get the idea. I recommend flying to Genesee Park or to the lake.
The duck paused, considered the building with an insouciant air, and then continued to approach it. Do these animals not have a sense of smell, I wondered? If complex (meaning symbolic, rather than indexical, or, the most simplest of all, iconic) communication was possible between me and that duck, I would have told per a thing or two that I know about this building.
That’s per! Charles Mudede
I do not know when the structure was made (my guess by its design is the mid-1970s), and for many years, I never knew what it was used for (my guess was the storage of sport equipment). The truth is, I almost never walk into the park. I just sit on a bench that has its back to South Oregon Street, and listen to a lecture (usually by a Marxist professor or a Spinozist philosopher), or smoke CBD, or drink wine, or watch people play ball, or do all four.
Then the novel coronavirus exploded, the lockdown was imposed, and the park became mostly desolate. Two weeks into lockdown, I began noticing men, and almost always men, and most of them men of color, parking their cars behind my bench, and walking down to the structure—made of stone blocks and planks of wood—and returning, and driving off. It was one after another. But I never gave them or their activities a second thought. On my mind was the shape or movement of the clouds, or the wind-whirled leaves, or the organic composition of the factors of production. Then one day the smell hit me: That building… it’s a lavatory.
Part of the reason it was hard for me to realize that most of the men who used entered and exited it were homeless is because they owned such nice cars. I assumed they were just visiting the park to relax or to drop off or pick up sporting equipment. But these men were actually living in their cars, and they used the restroom not just for waste evacuation but to clean their bodies, and sometimes their clothes or refill water bottles. In the US, it is possible to own a fancy car like a rich person while having no home, no income, no place to take a shit.
Two things must have happened during the lockdown. One, the number of homeless people exploded because of the economic crash; and two, those who maintain the park’s bathroom have been overwhelmed by the explosion of demand for the restroom. Erica Burnett has indeed covered these developments in her blog post “Advocates Beg for Toilets, Running Water; Deputy Mayor Cites Cost and ‘Challenges’ Like Vandalism and ‘Theft of Hand Sanitizer.'” Seattle already had a large population living on the streets before the crisis; its size must have doubled or tripled during past two months of the economic crash.
And the horror of it all is that, for a homeless person (condemned to this immoral situation by the immoral people in power), a reeky restroom is still better than none at all. (I would never put a foot in that place.) The duck waddled around a bush across from the restroom’s door. Per went out of my sight. I noticed the northbound clouds above the structure were low and moving quickly. A second-rate novelist would describe them as “scudding across the sky.”