Playing Park Politics; Or, The Poopy Public Sphere

March 29, 2012, 12:57 pm

You would think our little neighborhood in Shoreline was Dog Doo City.

Last spring there was a big hullabaloo about dogs pooping in public.  The short version is this: local residents were in the habit of using a fenced field attached to two primary schools as a dog park.  I am ambivalent about dog parks, since for every twenty good citizens there is one lunkhead who appears not to be aware that his or her dog gets into fights.  Neither of my dogs has ever fought unless attacked; I find it particularly irritating, then, when a menacing dog has mine on the ground and its human companion instructs me to just “let them work it out.” In my imagination, this type of person is the culprit who leaves large dollops of dog doo for the vast majority of conscientious citizens —  those who do and do not live with dogs — to step in.

Because of complaints from parents, a do-nothing Alderman seized the opportunity to appear to be doing something. He put a bill through city council, without notifying anyone in the neighborhood, saying that all dogs were henceforth banned from outdoor spaces used by schools. Because of this, a small park that had received little attention from the city in years, including mowing, emptying the garbage cans and maintaining a small baseball diamond, was chained and locked.  No one, child or dog, has played there since as far as I can tell.

Thus was solved the problem of children stepping in poop.

Following the closure, an interesting struggle ensued over access to public space and whether protecting children from dog poop was a task that could, or should, be solved by the city. Defenders of the playground closure stigmatized “dog owners” collectively as uncaring people who knowingly infected “innocent” children by forcing them to play in poop. The subset of child owners parents who chose to make their views available to the rest of us on the Internet explained, in often hyperbolic language, that stepping in dog poop is the worst possible thing that can happen to any child. If one child could be stopped from stepping in one poop (comments often said exactly this), then chaining the field was the right things to do. Those of us who did not agree with this absolutist view clearly “hated” children.

Even though closing the field to dogs was probably the right thing to do, it reinforced the unfortunate notion that once something, no matter how pointless, is said to be good for children, we must make a law.  The incident also falsely portrayed all dog owners as bad citizens, when the vast majority of us are anxious to be good citizens. The kind of dog owner willing to debate the use of public space, for example, is engaged enough with community needs to be punctilious about picking up poop. Indeed, dog owners routinely scheduled park pick up days, fixed the fences, collected and disposed of liquor bottles, needles and human feces, and left plastic bags for those dog owners who forgot to bring one. This was more attention than the park ever got from the city, the schools or the parents. In fact, one Halloween project run by the school, which must have involved making scarecrows, resulted in leftover mounds of straw and unsightly old clothes left to moulder in the park until dog owners cleaned it up the following spring.

Inevitably, the dog poop thing escalated way beyond the facts at hand, as Internet politics often do.  My contribution was to point out that before and after the closure the neighborhood schools routinely took children to play in the historic public park at the center of our neighborhood. Rarely did they use any school playground, even ones not infringed on by dog owners. Unlike the school grounds, this park is a place where it is legal to walk dogs.  Its unspoken use as a dog toilet — and sometimes a human one — meant that dogs routinely caught diseases from each other.  Like the school park, and the sidewalks that children walk to get to school, it was not unusual to find broken glass, drug paraphernalia, and rotten food that deluded but well-meaning locals leave for the squirrels (my dog once found half a birthday cake left under a tree.) The park, I argued, was just as unsafe as the school playgrounds, and possibly more so.

Persuading people hell-bent on child protection that no one can avoid germs in urban public space, germs carried in dog poop or anything else, was a loser’s game. “Why do you hate children so much!!!!!” people would respond to those of us who pointed out that a hygienic, child-safe world (this, in a city where untold numbers of children live in poverty) was not in the cards, dogs or no dogs.

Poop triggers particularly irrational behavior, whereas a city government that doesn’t care for public spaces seems to be taken for granted. The power of poop to degrade and humiliate is something you can read about in Wayne Koestenbaum’s brilliant new book, Humiliation (Picador, 2011).  ”Humiliation,” he argues, ” involves a triangle:  (1) the victim, (2) the abuser, and (3) the witness.  The humiliated person may also behold her own degradation, or may imagine someone else, in the future, watching it or hearing about it.” (p. 7) Koestenbaum cites multiple humiliation scenarios that involve human feces, and several in which he describes his own humiliation at having watched strangers suddenly evacuate in public. (I have never seen such a thing, although I do recall collective horror, years ago, after a gym I belonged to fired an employee; before departing, he deposited a bowel movement in the middle of a pristine, white squash court. I have also heard that burglars do this.)

I have been picking up dog poop daily, with short breaks, for twenty-five years. It doesn’t faze me. However, I find visions of child poop horrifying and humiliating in some of the ways Koestenbaum describes. Parents, I suspect because they spend somewhere between two and four years per child as human poop handlers, tend not to be unhinged by the fluids and solids that emerge from child bodies. Years ago, when my recently deceased dog was a puppy, I was visiting friends and their child went off to play with her. The pair returned later, reeking horribly and happy as little clams. I assumed my dog was the culprit, as dogs often roll in perfectly vile things. As it turned out, the child had pooped and decorated both herself and the dog with her own feces. Until I understood what the smell was I was fine. Once I did — and realized I would have to wash a puppy covered with child poop — I nearly vomited on the spot.  The parent, used to dealing with human feces, was deeply apologetic and not disgusted at all.  Even recalling the incident makes me gag to this day.

In other words, humiliation and revulsion are contextual and relational, and this has a great bearing on how, and why, different constituencies might fear fluids flowing out of different bodies and into the public sphere. For example, I was in a restaurant last week in which there were about thirty open tables. Despite the many seats available, a clearly exhausted parent with a very ill child made a beeline for the table right next to me. The toddler had a florid, wet, running cold: sitting six inches away from me, I could see the child’s hands gleaming with snot and saliva, her poor little raw nose emanating yellow slime. I glowered at the waiter until he hustled them to another location.

You get my point here?  The public sphere is a dirty, dirty place where our efforts to protect ourselves, and our children, are so futile. The only thing we can do is be aware of each other and try: I don’t think we need to ask the state to persecute people who take obviously ill children out to infect others who have done nothing to deserve it. In my view, the strains of influenza and bacteria that children trade with each other and with adults are hazards we take for granted, even when we would prefer that parents with ill children not take them out to breakfast. Nose picking, endemic among children, is a silent threat to all, as is that tricky age where they are old enough to go to the bathroom by themselves but not to wipe with skill or wash properly afterwards.

But goddess forbid you suggest that stepping in dog doo is an unfortunate, but rarely lethal, feature of life that parents have coped with for at least the 53 years I have been alive. This week, over a year after the closing of the park, we on the neighborhood list serve received yet another message about poop. It came from a citizen who has volunteered himself to be routinely crucified to improve our public spaces.  According to our neighbor, a family from one of our suburbs “decided to go to Wooster Square Park on Saturday for a picnic.” Returning home, the parents

noticed their daughter had a smelly substance under her finger nails….Upon further inspection the 4 year old had some of the same substance in her mouth and ears. Yep you guessed it. The substance was dog feces. They cleaned her up but overnight had to take her to the Emergency room because she was vomiting.

Upon testing the little girl they found the stomach swarming with coliform bacteria a certain pathogen communicable by dogs to humans.

….The mother actually went back down to the park to get my name. At first she blamed me until I pointed out that I am the one trying to stop this disgusting and total irresponsibility on behalf of dog owners. She was so upset she was talking about suing the city. I have not heard from her since Sunday but she was piping mad and I do not blame her.

Somehow this item then became local news. Yesterday I went to the park with a friend for a mid-day walk and there was a television crew there to interview dog owners.

Prior to pontificating about public space (my friend Jane did a graceful demonstration of how to extract dog poop from the grass with a plastic mitt), I asked the reporter why a child eating dog poop and becoming ill from it qualified as news in a city as politically and fiscally broken as ours. She rolled her eyes in agreement, saying that she had asked her editor the same question.

Perhaps when parents go through the harrowing experience of having to take an ill child to the hospital it is wise to take the opportunity to publicize the civic duty to pick up poop even if it isn’t news.  In addition, when you are being interviewed for local television it is also kind not to say, “And where were those parents when their child was eating dog doo? What were they doing? And why did they not imagine that a park that would have been full of people walking dogs on that sunny day did not have fecal matter in it, even microscopic and residual amounts from those who do make a good faith effort to clean up after their dogs?”

It really is better not to say those things because people are likely to take them the wrong way.  As Koestenbaum might observe, how humiliated the parents must have been when they discovered that their daughter had been playing in dog poop! How compounded the humiliation must have been when they discovered that she had sucked on poop-covered fingers after rubbing poopy fingers in her sweet shell-pink ears (there are so too many openings to the body!) Then, imagine the same parents, drenched in humiliation, as a hospital resident informed them sternly that her illness could only have happened because they — as parents — were unaware that their child was covered with dog poop for so long.

You feel terribly sorry for them up until the moment when they respond to their humiliation by accusing a complete stranger (who has volunteered to organize a park association) of negligence, and then follow that absurdity up by intimating that they will sue the city because the public areas of a virtually bankrupt city are not clean for people who visit from the suburbs.

Why do we turn private distress and humiliation into demands for public policy intervention, when those issues that might profit from government management — schools, health care, public recreation — are seen as better left alone by policymakers? Why, do people make a Federal case out of dog poop but not the uninsured and the homeless? (If you are of a certain McCarthy-era generation, you may recall that the response to perceived parental humiliation was to whine:”Okay-ay-ay-ay.  But do you have to make a federal case out of it?”)

I think it is annoying, but not so terrible, to step in dog poop.  There. I said it. But instead of insisting on national health care, we insist instead that the public sphere be completely germ-free. Contact between children and dog poop his been a repeated focus for news in this city when, in fact, we have terrible schools, terrible health care for the poor, historically high rates of property crime and murder, few public services and very high taxes.

Now I find that humiliating.




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