May 22, 2024

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The Sports Fanatics

The secret MVP of sports? The port-a-potty

IT’S 12:31 P.M., and Ben Cansdale has been staring at five port-a-potties for a half hour. Cansdale is a member of a five-truck Modern Disposal Services crew, based in Buffalo, that is dispatched on game days to do what they call a “half-suck” when a home game kicks off.

From the driver’s seat, Cansdale, 31, describes the mayhem that is about to happen once the Nov. 21 Bills-Colts game begins in 30 minutes. As he talks, drunk people wobble past, pointing and waving at him. One woman stands in front of the truck and tries to get Cansdale’s attention so she can take a picture of him.

She laughs and points like he’s a carnival exhibit, but Cansdale shrugs it off. “People treat us like a joke sometimes,” he says. “But I take great pride in doing my job. I don’t think these people want to see what happens if we’re not here, cleaning up after them.”

Cansdale’s job isn’t glorious, but sports couldn’t happen without people like him. From college football cathedrals on Saturdays to raucous NFL stadiums on Sundays, with thousands of kids’ soccer fields in between, the port-a-potty is an unsung hero for most outdoor sporting events in the U.S. If you trace the rise of big-time sports in America and the boom of the port-a-potty business over the past 50 years, it’s like the two things are dancing together. The portable bathroom business is at $17 billion and rapidly growing, largely because of the constant need at sporting events. And that makes toilet cleaners like Cansdale essential workers at our nation’s sports fields.

He doesn’t have time to let his pride take a hit, anyway. A half-suck is the Olympics for the Modern crew — the six men, riding in five trucks, have about 90 minutes to take care of 196 port-a-potties spread over the public parking lots outside Highmark Stadium.

For each port-a-potty, Cansdale must replace two rolls of toilet paper from a latched holder, suck out as much as possible from inside the bowl and clean the seat with water and a scrub brush. He gives a quick hand sanitizer check but has never had to refill one at a Bills game. “The truth is, nobody’s washing their hands,” Cansdale says. “They just want to get in and get out.”

The Modern drivers call it a “half-suck” because the goal is speed and just to get the stalls usable for after the game. They’ll do full sucks and total cleans starting Monday morning.

The half-suck math is daunting: At about 40 toilets per guy, with people streaming in and out of the port-a-potties as they try to do their jobs, the cleaners will have less than three minutes per toilet, all while trying to navigate giant trucks through tiny windows of crowded parking lots. On top of that, the weather report says some wicked Buffalo wind and rain is about to roll in right around kickoff today, with temperatures expected to drop down into the 30s.

About 10 minutes before kickoff, Cansdale opens the truck door, and there’s a light in his eyes. “It’s go time,” he says. “Buckle in, this is going to be a wild, smelly ride.”

THE FIRST PORTABLE bathroom is believed to have been invented by the ancient Egyptians around the 14th century B.C. It was discovered in the Kha tomb and was simply a wooden stool with a hole in it and a piece of pottery underneath for collection.

The concept of mobile restrooms evolved slowly over the years, with centuries of civilizations essentially just doing small tweaks on the chamber pot. The need for portable bathrooms rose in the late 1800s as more and more American jobs drifted into large-scale mining and building projects. An abandoned copper mine in northern Michigan from the turn of the 20th century was recently discovered in remarkably preserved condition, including a wooden box that had been used by miners as their underground bathroom. For miners and construction workers who desperately needed bathrooms while on the job all day, finding a tree or a wooden box often was the best they could do 100 years ago.

That changed around 1940, when the first formal port-a-potties were developed for World War II ships docked off the California coast. The new ships didn’t yet have bathrooms, so supervisors grew frustrated at the productivity loss from workers leaving to find facilities on shore. They built temporary early port-a-potties, made with a wooden outer shell and a large metal storage tank underneath a wooden toilet seat.

The concept of port-a-potties spread quickly to construction sites in the coming years, then to fairs, festivals and sporting events. It’s impossible to overstate how seismic the addition of portable bathrooms has been to society, especially sports. “Large public gatherings for sports, especially football, have become an integral part of our society only over the past 75 years or so,” says Dr. Laura Walikainen Rouleau, a social sciences senior lecturer at Michigan Tech and author of an upcoming book, “Private Spaces in Public Places.” “You couldn’t do that without an evolution of the bathroom that included portable facilities.”

But in interviews with bathroom experts — yes, there are brilliant minds devoted to the topic — and even port-a-potty companies themselves, it’s remarkable how little of portable bathroom history has been recorded. “That’s a reflection of how people view and treat port-a-potties as a whole,” says Alison K. Hoagland, author of “The Bathroom: A Social History of Cleanliness and The Body.” “They’re a last-ditch, worst-case-scenario moment for most of us. So it’s a field that has barely been studied.”

This much we know: By the 1950s and 1960s, most large events had begun to hire companies to bring in temporary bathrooms for outside stadiums. Tailgating had become a new American tradition, with attendance at college football games alone surging from 18.9 million in 1950 to almost 30 million in 1970, and a need for portable bathrooms was inevitable. “In all our research, there are two main things that people always have cared about when they tailgate,” says UC Irvine professor Tonya Williams Bradford, who has studied and written extensively about tailgating in the U.S. “One is that they want a spot where their friends will know how to find them. The other thing they talk about is port-a-potties — they want them close, but not too close. They just want to be able to make a beeline for them if they need to.”

But back then, organizers usually didn’t devote much attention or money, so long lines and disastrous facilities were the norm. Many events appear to have aimed toward one portable toilet for every 500 or so attendees. (Nowadays, port-a-potty companies recommend about one stall for every 50 people at an event. And if alcohol is being served, that number drops to 1 for every 40 attendees.)

Legendary San Francisco-area sports writer Art Spander, who recently retired at age 82, has attended more than 40 Super Bowls and 50 Masters, and at least 30 Wimbledons, US Opens and men’s Final Fours. He’s especially well known for attending 68 straight Rose Bowl games, home to one of the largest collections of portable bathrooms in the world — around 1,100 for the Parade of Roses, with 1,700 at the game itself. So he’s seen the critical rise of the sports port-a-potty. Talking with me about them recently, he says, he’s come to a realization: “You know, thank god for port-a-potties,” he says. “I don’t know how sports could have kept growing in this country the way they have if we didn’t have those things.”

He tracks a big jump in the number of sufficient port-a-potty facilities to the mid-1970s. “Decades ago, there were never enough,” Spander says. “People would just have to go behind their cars or try to hold it until they got in the stadium. You used to see people just go off to the side of the road on the way into games. It was pretty disgusting.”

There’s a very good chance that that is a direct result of sports organizers watching the biggest port-a-potty disaster in human history: 1969’s Woodstock. That’s when 500,000 people showed up at a farm in upstate New York and had to use 600 toilets — an absurd 1 bathroom for every 833 people. In his Oscar-winning documentary, “Woodstock,” one of filmmaker Michael Wadleigh’s most memorable sequences is when he captured a jovial man named Thomas Taggart of the Port-o-San company cleaning out a row of portable toilets. His happy disposition, contrasted with the epic chaos and grossness of a half million people in the mud and sewage of Woodstock, became an enduring image.

One striking thing about the Woodstock footage is how little port-a-potty technology has progressed. Taggart, at a music concert in 1969, and Ben Cansdale, at a Bills home game in 2021, walk into nearly identical plastic shells, with toilet paper latched into holders on the side. Taggart uses a long hose and tank to suck out a shallow porcelain bowl, which closely mirrors Cansdale’s process. The only notable difference is the bowls of 2021 — they’re made of plastic, much wider and can hold about 10 gallons.

“The formula seems to work, and at the toilet conferences I’ve been to, I don’t see port-a-potty innovations coming in the future, either,” says University of Illinois architecture professor Kathryn Anthony, a bathroom expert who has testified in Congress about the need for equality in American restrooms. “You just need the basics, so you can get in and get out.”

BEN CANSDALE GRABS his gloves. The Modern crew is supposed to wait until the Bills-Colts game kicks off, but every second counts when it comes to cleaning 196 portable bathrooms in 90 minutes.

Cansdale gloves up, then walks around to the compartment outside the truck that holds a few dozen rolls of toilet paper. He uses the same assembly line system as many of his teammates — he does all of the TP replacement down the row, then five straight half-sucks, then scrubs all of them. It’s much faster than if he tried to do each one completely before moving on to the next.

A roar rises from inside the stadium as the Bills run onto the field. Cansdale takes that as his starter’s pistol. Fireworks blast off overhead and a military jet buzzes past the stadium as Cansdale takes off, carrying a mound of toilet paper rolls. He makes it through the first two stalls when he throws open Door No. 3 and finds a Bills fan in red, white and blue Zubaz pants peeing, oblivious that he forgot to lock the door.

Cansdale smiles and shakes his head as he closes the door. He’d said on the ride over that people have no qualms about using a toilet during the cleaning process, and that’s exactly what plays out over and over again for the next hour and a half. “They gotta go … so they go,” Cansdale says.

Now it’s time to get rid of “the volume,” as Cansdale calls the contents of the port-a-potties. He has a big vacuum tube connected to an empty 500-gallon tank on the trunk — it looks like if a Ghostbusters proton gun and a leaf blower had a baby. Cansdale warns in advance that of all the gross things he sees and smells in his job, nothing compares to the initial blast of air that comes out of the vacuum before it reverses flow.

It’s so much worse than he described. The wave of warm air is like opening up a 450-degree oven that has been baking full baby diapers all day. When it hits, a guy standing nearby gets a whiff and immediately dry heaves and starts half-jogging the other way.

For the next hour, Cansdale moves with surgical precision as he sucks out each toilet. They’re much shallower than you’d think — an empty stall looks a lot more like your kitchen sink than a bottomless pit.

He hangs up the hose at around 1:10 p.m., and now it’s time for the grand finale: scrounging up any cans and debris, pouring five gallons of water back into the toilet to refill most of it, and giving a quick scrub all around the seat. When it gets a little colder, he’ll fill his truck with salt water so it doesn’t freeze.

He grabs discarded White Claw and beer cans with his gloved hands and throws them away. As he works his way down the line, Cansdale’s hose begins to clog, so he reaches down with his gloves and pulls out … somebody else’s gloves. Later, he fishes out two iPhones floating at the top of separate stalls.

When he gets done with the last one, he walks down the row and drops in a small blue dye pack. The plastic packs have some deodorant in them, but their job is mostly to color the water so people can see as little as possible of what lurks beneath.

Cansdale flings open the first door, gives a quick scan, drops in a pack and lets the door slam shut behind him. Then he checks toilet No. 2, then 3, then 4. When he gets to the final one, he pulls the door open and finds the guy in Zubaz — yep, he’s back — who didn’t lock the door again. He shrugs and heads for the truck, on to the next row of port-a-potties on the other side of the parking lot.

Cansdale throws his bucket on the truck, climbs in and looks over with the devilish smile of someone who has, literally, seen some s—. “Welcome to the port-a-potty disposal business,” he says as he revs the engine.

WOULD YOU BELIEVE that the bathrooms of tomorrow might look a lot like … port-a-potties?

Terry Kogan is a University of Utah law professor and a founding member of Stalled!, a group of architects, legal experts and LGBTQ+ advocates who are pushing for more inclusivity in restrooms around the world. Over the past century, Kogan says, many of society’s most important conversations about diversity and inclusion have ended up centering on the bathroom.

“Sexism, racism, access for those with disabilities … we don’t have the best track record when it comes to public restrooms,” Kogan says. “I wouldn’t want to make it too radical and say that the bathrooms tell the story of a nation. But you can tell a lot about a society by how it configures its bathrooms.”

And now, in the middle of a national conversation about gender, bathrooms again have often become a focal point. Kogan and his colleagues believe we still send discriminatory messages with men’s and women’s restrooms, usually with images of a person in a skirt or a person with pants that signals what a man or woman is. Stalled! also believes that our current men’s/women’s construct isn’t age-inclusive because it often limits parents and caregivers of different genders.

On the Stalled! website, Kogan & Co. present detailed 3D visuals of what futuristic, inclusive bathrooms could look like — and they sure seem like really fancy, clean, indoor port-a-potties.

For a stadium restroom, Stalled! suggests building a wall that separates a large space from the main traffic flow outside. On the other side of that wall, there’d be an open area for anybody, regardless of gender, with mirrors, benches and sinks. And in the back, there’d be rows of closed-off stalls, with no visibility into them, where you’d have no idea who was in the bathroom beside you, and it’d be noisy enough that even sheepish people wouldn’t have to worry about the sounds associated with using a restroom.

As prehistoric as their design can feel, portable bathrooms are, oddly, where society may be headed. “In that way, port-a-potties are a great equalizer,” he says. “They’re private, anybody can go in them and people seem to get over their fears about who will use the stall beside them.”

Stalled! advocates to basically wipe out all gender labels to make what Kogan calls all-gender, multiuser stalls, similar to the way most rows of port-a-potties make no distinction.

But in Buffalo, one of the most popular places for Bills Mafia members to convene is Hammer’s Lot, where owner Eric “Hammer” Matwijow considers it a perk that he labels two stalls for women only. He’s a gruff, 64-year-old roofer with a lifetime of port-a-potty experience, and he spends $2,500 per season to have six total port-a-potties (two for women, four for whoever wants to use them) serviced by Modern Disposal.

On the day of the Colts game, Hammer spends a large chunk of his morning barking at lot workers about the bathrooms. “Make sure there are no guys going in the women’s port-a-potties,” he yells.

In conversations with more than 20 women outside the Bills’ stadium, cordoning off restrooms got a unanimous thumbs-up. “It’s a huge factor — I like the idea of women having their own toilets,” says one woman who politely declines to give her name for a story about port-a-potties. “I don’t want to have to hide behind a car, and I don’t want to go in something disgusting. So you gotta have ’em, and you gotta make sure they’re not a mess, too.”

That can be an issue in private lots. Almost half of the 380 total Modern port-a-potties near Bills home games are in private lots, but the drivers can’t squeeze their trucks into smaller lots like Hammer’s when they’re full of cars. So by 5 p.m. on the day of the Colts game, a Hammer’s Lot worker had declared one out of commission and put two trash cans blocking the front of it. (Cansdale had to clean that one the next day, and says he needed a power washer to clean barf off the sides of the walls.)

Across the street in another lot where port-a-potty maintenance seems to be less of a concern, a couple walk up to two stalls holding hands. Near the doors, they release their hands and open their respective doors … only to look at each other and turn away in horror.

“No way,” the guy says, and they leave seconds later.

Sometimes the cost of having to hold it isn’t as bad as the price of getting to go.

THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT portable bathrooms that seems to really bring out our inner Johnny Knoxville.

On Nov. 6, Iowa State band director Christian Carichner was having a quick lunch at Jack Trice Stadium before the Cyclones played Texas. The band warms up on game days, then has a tradition of scattering around the tailgating lots to play the fight song. As Carichner mowed through a soggy cheeseburger, a friend approached and showed him a viral clip of his band. About 50 members had hidden near 10 port-a-potties, waited until they were sufficiently occupied, then jumped out and started blasting the 25-second fight song.

The clip shows kids putting fingers in their ears as perplexed toilet users meander out into the blaring noise of “ISU Fights.” A few hours later, the band put on a remarkable halftime performance in which it paid homage to a history of video games and e-characters, from Super Mario Brothers up through Pokémon. “And yet, the thing that goes viral is our band members at the port-a-potties,” Carichner says. “But hey, nobody wants to go into a port-a-potty. If you’re going to be in there, don’t you think it’s a little nicer with some music playing in the background?”

There’s also a horrifying subgenre of YouTube videos featuring people trying to run across the top rows of port-a-potties. The most infamous examples seem to happen at Triple Crown races — especially the Kentucky Derby — where daring adults attempt a toilet sprint. Many videos feature fans throwing full beer cans at the runners, and eventually most either fall down on top of the toilets or down through the ceilings. The roofs of port-a-potties are quite thin and can support only about 100 pounds of pressure before they collapse.

The day of the Bills-Colts game, Cansdale and other crew members stand around at Modern’s local headquarters and rattle off an endless stream of stories about port-a-potty shenanigans.

The rundown, of course, begins with the tipped-over port-a-potty. “The funny thing is, if you tip one over backwards, it’s usually fine — everything stays down in the bowl,” says Dan McKenna, the crew supervisor. “But if it goes over frontwards …”

McKenna doesn’t finish his sentence, and he doesn’t have to. The crew members all nod their heads, a solemn remembrance of what makes for the longest, darkest moments of any port-a-potty cleaner’s day.

The whole crew sighs in unison when one of them mentions how at almost every construction site, some clever worker puts on his best Cousin Eddie voice and yells down at them, “Hey, is the s—ter clogged?”

McKenna then mentions that lately they’ve had a few instances where people either light port-a-potties on fire or blow them up entirely.

Uh, blow them up?

He gestures for us to follow him, and he walks back between a few dozen port-a-potties surrounding the garage area that have been returned, sucked out but are in need of a full clean.

McKenna stops in front of a stall that will soon be going to port-a-potty heaven. He approaches one with side walls that are still mostly upright, but the entire middle, including the toilet seat and bowl, was blown to pieces by either dynamite or a significant amount of fireworks. Somebody from Modern put a fluorescent green traffic cone at the bottom that serves as a temporary tombstone for this poor fella.

“Rest in peace,” one guy says, and everybody laughs.

BY THE TIME the Bills limp into the locker room trailing the Colts 24-7 at halftime, the entire crew of Modern is on the road back to headquarters five minutes away. The five trucks have successfully half-sucked almost 200 portable toilets, and the guys are exhausted.

Their “volume” is emptied into one big tanker, which then takes it over to the Buffalo sewage treatment facility. They’ll repeat the same thing the next three days, this time with a meticulous full-suck of the private and public lots. Two weeks later, during the windy Monday Night Football game in which Mac Jones throws only three passes, Cansdale and his crewmates do the suckiest half-suck anybody can remember. The wind is so strong that multiple port-a-potties blow over and zip around parking lots like big plastic sailboats, sending terrified Bills fans running. The only thing that keeps them anchored is following up the half-sucks by filling the bowls as high as possible with extra gallons of water.

But when Cansdale heads home on game days — even the port-a-potty-calypse of Bills-Patriots — he’s way happier than you’d think a person could be after vacuuming out plastic toilets at a football stadium. Before taking this job earlier in 2021, he’d been making $15 an hour as an electrician. He’s now above $25 an hour, with significant bonuses for working Bills games. He’s still pretty much a rookie, but his veteran teammates talk about him like he’s the Micah Parsons of the 2021 port-a-potty business: gifted, fast, relentless, unafraid of the fray.

Before he took this job, he was scraping by while he and his pregnant girlfriend, Lindsay, rotated between which bill they could skip that month. He dropped out of the punk-rock band he’d been in for 10 years and desperately tried to come up with a way to buy a ring and propose to Lindsay without getting the lights to their small home shut off. Then she had their son, Silas, 11 months ago and things got really tight. He had to look for another job.

He posted a résumé on a job-search site and got 17 reach-outs right away. One was from Modern Disposal, asking him to become one of the 750 people who take care of much of Buffalo’s trash and portable toilets. He felt some initial embarrassment about possibly being in the waste business, but then he heard about the salary and benefits and applied to be a garbageman. Within a week, he was at Modern Academy, where the company trains the trash collectors and port-a-potty half-suckers of tomorrow.

There’s a pretty clear hierarchy at Modern Academy — most people with a commercial driver’s license would prefer to do garbage rather than sewage. So solid prospects with no real preference, like Cansdale, often get courted for the port-a-potty track. “When it comes down to it, I find no shame being able to take care of my family,” he says. “I make good money and have good benefits, and I live stress-free right now. I don’t see any shame in that.”

He comes home from mad dashes, like he had on Sunday, exhausted and smelling terrible. He calls Lindsay from outside the house so she can distract Silas while Cansdale flies inside and jumps right in the shower. When he gets out, he plays with his son for a bit before dinner, then everybody preps for bedtime.

Cansdale still tries to play his acoustic guitar a few minutes every day, usually right before they put Silas to bed around 7 p.m. On the day of Bills-Colts, when he starts strumming an original song, he hears the pitter-patter of tiny feet trodding toward him. His son surges into the room and listens to his dad play.

It’s a silly tune Cansdale developed one night during a particularly messy diaper change. Silas loved it the first time his dad sang it, and Cansdale loves that it’s the last thing he’ll do on this day. The lyrics are nonsensical and interchangeable, except for the one-word title, which Cansdale thinks is just the perfect chorus: Stinkybaby.