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Concerning a Pissoir in Bastion Square

The city fathers of Victoria , B.C., have proposed installing Canada ’s first automated pissoir in Bastion Square . Their aim seems true, in this matter. City council wishes, first, to dam the stream of downtown pissers who dampen Bastion hedges and doorways every night. Second, they wish to eliminate the resulting morning stench. Fair enough. But will Urilift technology really provide relief?

Ah, the Urilift. It’s an upright cylinder about 3 metres across, which has a belt of groin-height fluid-intake devices around its midpoint. It’s a piston, really, and rises from its underground housing only after sunset. It’s meant for beer-drinking districts. Unlike many innovations in toilet robotics, the Urilift device is European, not Japanese, technology. Every evening, the machine’s CPU deposits new detergent pucks into its little urinals. They are never touched by human hands.

OK, that last part I made up. But the Urilift is a real machine, and the people in charge of the British Columbian capital region really have shortlisted it, as a possible solution to Bastion Square ‘s Number One problem. (The Square’s Number Two problem is rarer, and might be Number 86 on the priority list.) I believe the Urilift is a very Western idea, and that the Mayor and his colleagues are perfect products of Euro-Britanic civilisation, whether they know it or not.

There are two ways this is true. First, it’s Western-Civ true, in that the Urilift machine stands for the first principle of our Enlightenment: mankind isn’t perfectible. Second, in a West-Coast truism, guys – even Canuck Victorian guys, perhaps the world’s nicest – are barely housebroken. And will never change. So a brushed-steel urinal-go-round in Bastion Square would embody certain deep Judeo-Christian truths.

Victoria ’s women, should they stop laughing about male pee-technology for a moment, might note that the Urilift is, as is said, for standees only. This seems misogynist. But the Urilift actually symbolizes our democratic society’s respect for femaleness. Not just a rotating mechanized piss-trough, the hooded Urilift piston represents women’s universal disinclination to hose down their towns with their pee. It quietly acknowledges this great and tidy virtue of the stronger-bladdered gender. The Urilift is an engine of “difference feminism.”

The shopkeeps, regulars and workers of the daytime Square don’t necessarily care about that. They have more immediate, and ammoniac, problems. Their doorways and patios often evince horrible odors. The nightly Bastion flood, as it dries the morning after, waters eyes, churns stomachs, and ups a few chucks. Ratepayer rage aside, the pleasantness of the Square is a public asset which shouldn’t be pissed away. Urilift might partially cure that noted flaw in Western-capitalist thought, “the tragedy of the commons” (wherein everyone enjoys the cat, but no one will shift its litter.)

Urilift is just one way to dry out the Square, though, and a pricey one. For its initial cost, you could otherwise book one or two full-time constables for some years to menace and drive off any beer-renters or weasel-drainers inside the Square’s perimeter. Victoria might also install total video-cam surveillance, CCTV as the English call it, wherein every unzipper in the Square would get electronically tagged for later collection and fining. But you’d need to hire some some real-time piss-tape reviewers then, wouldn’t you?

There is no easy choice before Victoria council on this smallish but smelly social problem, then. The hypothetical Bastion Urilift rig, even if it works as well as its Belfast prototype, won’t stop men commandeering the nearest semi-private public space that’ll let us let go, quickly. Since small-scale but endless social harm results from rampant male metro-peeing, should we not ask: what is the root cause of this indifference and disdain for consequences which almost all Western male urban urinators—if not all Western males—exhibit?

We shouldn’t ask, actually. God, no! There are good reasons, actually, to flush away much “root cause” investigation of social phenomena. Western rationalism and its country nephew, Canadian pragmatism, are often incompatible with it. The “root” or underlying source of a social problem, like the underground portion of a volcano, is effectively bottomless. “Root causes” are so fecundly regenerative, untraceable, politicized and arguable that they can approach magical status. Real-world Western thought is not always wrong to prefer proximate causes. So: the cause of wall-splotches and flowerbed puddles at Bastion Square is pissing men. Absent a ban or extermination of standing urinators, hmmm, could the hassle they cause be lessened…?

An un-Western, anti-Urilift, “root causes” approach to this problem might, conversely, ignite endless debate about causality and remedy. It might involve poster campaigns, sensitivity training perhaps, or a lurching political battle over cops’ and security guards’ pay, or struggles over the correct tendering of power-washing and security-camera and fencing contracts.

But the problem’s root would never be exposed, in such a fundamentally un-Western procedure. Public pissing would continue to rain down on the defenceless, through both the tourist and the hockey seasons: the urinary damage would be managed, expensively, but never fixed. There would be endless calls for gender equivalency, and for a social revolution in favour of courtesy and civility; there would be annual reports on the proliferating root causes; there would be earnest officials. Picture a War on Drugs-style campaign, as run by the Soviet Union .

I exaggerate, perhaps, or digress. Maybe I’m trying to knock down a straw man here, one built of sophisticated people’s nuanced analyses of the contemporary world’s problems. Can’t help it. Some things are in fact simple: piss is one. Victoria city council does unconsciously recognize a new truth about Western Civilization in the 21st century, which is that when you hear the phrase “root cause” (or its cousin, “further study”), it is best to keep hold of your wallet. And lower your expectations.

The Bastion Square Urilift, should it emerge, might seem ridiculous, even decadent. But it immediately attacks the obvious cause of a present problem, and presents some stainless-steel cures for it. The root cause of Bastion Square pissing – male piggishness? uncontrolled beer sales? unwise urban design? – may never be known. So? Western thought, embodied in the Urilift, says: you don’t need to know. Just – ah, Urilift – relieve the problem.

October 19, 2006 1000 words

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Lyle Neff

Lyle Neff is a Canadian poet and literary journalist who lives and works in Vancouver. His most recent book is *Bizarre Winery Tragedy* (Anvil Press, 2005)

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