By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 17, 2009
Never in the annals of the nation have so many porta-potties gathered for so much common good. Or rather, common need.
By Tuesday's presidential inauguration, a nearly unbroken Great Wall of Privies will have formed between Capitol Hill and the Lincoln Memorial. And with orders coming in daily from Union Station and other downtown locales, Conrad Harrell thinks the total inaugural Toilet Tally could top 7,000. That's a one-day bathroom capacity of nearly half a million gallons, an epic of septic.
"There was an event in Germany where they installed 8,000 for a visit by the pope, but there's never been anything like this in this country," said Harrell, vice president of Chantilly-based Don's Johns. "We feel like we're part of history."
These are heady days for the region's portable toilet industry, and particularly for Harrell's family-owned company. Having bagged the single biggest contract to install and service 3,500 of those toilets on the Mall, Don's Johns crews have been working 15-hour days for more than a week. They even secured a waiver from the National Park Service's usual 10 p.m. work curfew to keep the nonstop train of toilets arriving at all hours. The company scoured the East Coast for available toilets and all but stripped the region of handicap-accessible units.
"Most of the wheelchair portable toilets between New York and North Carolina are in Washington today," Harrell said.
Dozens of tractor-trailers are dropping the loaner potties at a staging area at FedEx Field. From there, workers truck them down in smaller batches, lining them up and strapping them together as the Park Service struggles to find spots for more toilets than the Mall has ever been asked to hold.
"You don't want a toilet too close to the World War II Memorial," said Matt Dunston, operations manager for Don's Johns. "This ground is sacred. I told my drivers, the whole world is watching how well we do this."
The most difficult part has been maneuvering the thousands of toilets around the tricky confines of the Mall. One day this week, driver Giovanni Gonzalez bit his lip in concentration as he threaded a 500-gallon septic truck between a swath of grass and a work of art, Mark di Suvero's red steel sculpture in front of the Hirshhorn Museum. "We have to be careful of the grass, or we'll get the park ranger calling," Gonzalez said.
Portable toilets have not always figured in the great pageants of government. According to Eva Malecki of the Architect of the Capitol's office, there were no portable wooden jakes set up for inaugurations of old, although spectators did have access to a nearby privy.
The lack of genteel facilities might be one reason the crowds for inaugurations and public speeches appear so overwhelmingly male in the daguerreotypes, according to James Cornelius, curator at the Abraham Lincoln Library in Springfield, Ill. Women were restricted to the generosity of nearby taverns and coffeehouses, while men had more universal options.
"With all the horses everywhere, it probably didn't make much of a difference," Cornelius said.
The modern approach to mass sanitation will get a not-so-dry run tomorrow, when hundreds of thousands will jam the west end of the Mall for a free inaugural concert. Dunston and crew will station themselves in an RV not far from the Lincoln Memorial. When the applause dies away, they will swing into action, bringing in up to 15 septic trucks and more than three dozen technicians to clear and clean the 1,500 toilets surrounding the concert stage. They will cart up to 105,000 gallons of waste to the District's Blue Plains treatments facility, where the company has special permission to dump round-the-clock.
"You get used to it pretty quickly," Gonzalez said as he demonstrated the process of vacuuming up the contents of a 70-gallon tank. "We're lucky it's cold now. In the summer, the smell can be very bad."
It takes about five minutes to empty a tank; scrub the walls and floor; and replace the toilet paper, hand sanitizer and deodorant tablets. Things slow down when workers discover the inevitable wallets and cellphones (along with "socks, T-shirts, ladies' underwear," said Gonzalez) that patrons drop into the tank and decline to retrieve.
Finally, on Tuesday, the teams will stand ready to empty or repair the multitudes of toilets as needed. Because they will be working within the security zone, the septic trucks will have police escorts. Surprisingly, it won't be the first time.
"When we brought toilets to the Pentagon rescue crews on 9/11, the police met us at I-66 and the Beltway and brought us in," Harrell said.
Don's Johns has a long history with mass potty logistics in the area, having provided toilets for the Marine Corps Marathon, tailgaters at Redskins games and Fourth of July celebrations on the Mall.
But this event is the company's high-water mark. Gonzalez, who came here from Puerto Rico 15 years ago, brought his wife and three children to the Mall two weeks ago just to show them where he would play a role in one of his adopted country's most hallowed public rituals. Charles Alsberry, a 14-year veteran of the business, said he will proudly lay claim to a small part of history, even if some would call it a lowly one.
"I set up the toilets for Barack Obama's inauguration," Alsberry said with a broad grin, standing before an endless stretch of porta-potties. "I enjoy my job."