By Ellie Robins
Under the ground there’s a shadow city. It thunders and gurgles down where it can’t be heard, a silent bassline to the dances we dance as neighbors and rivals and friends and workers and judges.
Civilization has been a process of hiding our bodily waste. From 4000 BC, through Babylon, Scotland, Pakistan, Crete, Egypt, China, Palestine, Rome, we can watch our ancestors figure out terracotta pipes, latrines, aqueducts. What we don’t know is how they felt about being human. The Mesopotamians who squatted over pits filled with broken pottery in the middle of their homes, did they burn with shame? As they built their grand aqueducts and their waste was whisked away, were Romans better able to meet each other’s eyes? Or did they develop phobias and compulsions, the fetishization of disgust now underway?
They’re diverting a sewer. It’s apt that this should happen in Glendale, the suburbs, out among the auto repair shops and construction firms. As though by some centrifugal force the city could spin out to its farthest reaches the dowdy parts of being human, preserving Hollywood’s glitz through gravity itself. It’s a lie, of course. There are sewers everywhere.
Here in Glendale, the pipes must be changed because they’re too small. Or rather, the humans are too many. Two methods will be used: trenchless and open-cut trenching, the former less disruptive but more expensive. It uses lasers, I think. There’s a PowerPoint presentation; don’t all rush at once.
Of course, it’s the kind of knowledge most of us work to avoid. In India, Dalits — “untouchables” — are still forced to remove human waste from latrines. Laws have failed to protect them from violence, eviction, and withheld wages if they refuse to do the work. We nominate people to handle our shit, so that we have someone to despise for our own bodily functions.
Do the men and women who work on this site tell their friends what they do? There’s nobody here the day I visit, two days before Christmas. The council’s sign is jaunty, in an exhausting italic font: UNDER CONSTRUCTION! ANOTHER CITY COUNCIL APPROVED PUBLIC WORKS PROJECT.
What would happen if they reconsidered, and you and I had to build our own sewers? I could write a passable poem about it. I could write a cryptic, possibly annoying article about disgust as evolutionary instinct gone awry. I could not build a sewer, though I use them every day.
Behind the site are railway tracks and beyond them, Griffith Park and the Hollywood Hills. From out here, it’s easier to remember that they’re geography, that long before a million dreams flocked to them in vanishingly tiny bodies, they were home to Tongva, who sailed the marshes outside Beverly Hills in reed canoes.
Before the hills, in the middle ground, is a sign: ONE ROAD, MANY USERS.