Please, just for a second, consider the new water chic.
After a sweaty game of doubles, you find yourself at the home of your tennis partner. The bouquet of rancid socks, '77 makes you hide your feet under the couch; you smell worse than the dog. Do not, repeat, do not ask to use the shower. Very bad form. It is considered rude to shower at a friend's house, though it is acceptable if you shower with the friend.
Your acquaintance in suburban Marin County, north of San Francisco, invites you over to soak in the new redwood hot tub - those nifty outdoor whirlpool baths affording California's most self-indulgent sybarites an excuse to shed their clothes in the name of togetherness. Do not sneer at the strange green slime floating on the surface or inquire into the last time the water was changed. Haven't you heard? There's a crisis on, man. Recycle everything, especially water.
A Nob Hill hostess invites you over for caviar and champagne. Divine party. But . . . but where is the Steuben glass? Why isn't she using her best Limoge china? Where is the silver? My God, who does she think she's entertaining? Calm yourself. Everyone - yes, that's better - everyone is eating off the paper plates - and they're nice paper plates, with dainty blue butterflies - and sipping bubbly from paper cups and stabbing pate with, oh, no . . . plastic forks.
Bay area residents have altered their daily habits in little ways - with only minor disgruntlement - that have brought about significant savings in water. Gene Kelleher, assistant general manager of the San Francisco Water Department, reports April water usage down 25 per cent in and around the city compared to April of last year. And this, just one month after the city's public utilitis commission ordered the mandatory cutbacks. Fines for violating allotments don't take effect until July 1.
But even without the whip the carrot of environmental consciousness has lead the way. "The public just started saving on their own," says Kelleher. "They've been hearing about the water crisis in Marin County for months. Now other cities are screaming. It's different from the gas shortage. People believe there is a real problem."
It is well known by now that Bay area residents have resorted to all manner of ingenuity to save water. They're taking Navy showers: wet down, soak up, rinse off. They're only washing clothes once a week. They're brushing teeth with the tap turned off. They're scrubbing clothes and bodies with biodegradeable soap so the water can be re-used to nourish plants. They're even bringing plants in to the shower. They're installing nifty water stoppers with cute names like "Watergate" to conserve gallons per flush. Some are even purchasing proto-johnnies for out back.
"It's fun for the kids," says Mill Valley writer Bill Barnes, 32, and father of two. "Everyone understands it's a family thing. And the kids are quite happy to go without a bath. But no one is walking around with grime. There are no pig pens. Maybe people are slopping on more deoderant, but Americans tend to be a bit obsessed with bathing, anyway. I don't see anything repugnant about the smell of the human body."
The Barnes' household of five - wife, two children and a black labrodor - are cruising along quite easily with their daily allotment of 180 gallons. Upon rising, Barnes first checks the water meter. Faucets and shower heads are equipped with water-flow restrictors. Flagrant violators get their showers muzzled with gadgets that slow water to a trickle if usage exceeds eight gallons per hour. A neighbor, he says, has taken to removing his faucet heads every time he goes out of town. His son recently forgot to turn off the hose. But Barnes hasn't found such strictures necessary.
"There's enough water," he says. "We average about 110 gallons a day. That gives us 70 gallons a day to water the grass and flowers, scrub the dog and top off the tub. But I'm the only person on the block who even bothers to read the meter. There aren't any serious hardships, unless you've got a hugh garden or a giant lawn."
But several neighborhood houseguests have moved out. "The water allotments have killed mooching," says Margo St. James, founder and chairperson of the hookers union, Coyote. She lives in the city but after traverses the Bay to commune with nature in Marin. "A lot of my friends who used to live off people in Marin County have gone to Oakland. The Marin people wouldn't let them take showers. And the creek was too cold to go skinny dipping in!
Caterer Louis Reimers, 50, whose L'Entree catering Inc. has been whipping up mousses and laying out salivating spreads in Mill Valley since 1948, is appalled. His clientele is partying less, he says, out of fear that flush-happy, champagne guzzling guests could wipe out their monthly water allotment in one night. "They don't want to take a chance. People would just rather save the water for their plants. The catering side of the business is down. And the water crisis is leading to a different kind of party - from formal sit-downs with two wine glasses to simple buffets with disposable paper plates."
However, Reimers' gourmet, throw-away takeout dinner for two, priced from $4, is selling well. "I don't know what it's going to mean if we ever get the water again, but for the moment, social habits are changing," he says.
Indeed, Caterers are like butlers; they catch an eyefull of intimate detail. Mario Garcia, 31, who once catered a party for a rich Sausalito tennis buff, discovered the man in the shower with eight pairs of socks on.
"He was embarrassed," says Garcia. "It looked like he had his slippers on. But he was just killing two birds; washing himself and his socks. There's a lot of social jibber-jabber about saving water. It's the first thing you hear when you walk in a house."
"'Oh, Henrietta,'" he mimicks, "How are you dealing with the shortage? I never put Fifi outside anymore. She might wander over to the Harringtons' lawn. I make her go bye-bye in our greenhouse.' You wouldn't believe it. The most prominent families are cutting back."
As for monitoring the non-landed gentry in apartments, landlords face sticky situations. One meter usually governs the entire complex. "If one tenant is a pig, everyone suffers" concedes Benjamin Johnson, managing partner of Marin's Madera Valley apartments, who has taken to hauling in Agricultural grade water at $75 per tanker truck. "We have to depend on the honor system, and that's chancy. If things get worse, we'll have to replumb and put in individual meters."
The only fierce resistence to water chic comes from out-of-towners. Many visitors are incensed at being asked to cut back on daily ablutions. One recent spoil sport at Sausalito's Alta Mira Hotel, an exclusive, Spanish-styled hacienda high on a verdant cliff overlooking the bay, checked out and left the shower running.
The hotel - in Marin County, where stiff fines are levied for exceeding water allotments - estimates $600 in water went down the drain before the tap was shut off. "Outsiders," sniffs Alta Mira manager Ian McDonald, "are just not concerned with local problems. They wonder, "Why should we have to take a quick shower when we're paying $40 and $50 a room.' They feel they should get the full amenities. That's understandable."
It's also expensive. The Alta Mira's water bill has risen from $1,000 a month to about $4,000. In Marin County, hotels and restaurants have lodged official gripes with water officials, who plan to visit each business this week. Customers' moan the owners, have taken to dining out more often, just to use the bathroom. Water fines have gobbled up potential profits.
Still some amazement endures over the general willingness to do without saving water in a lotus land generally given in instant, copious self-gratification. "I think the shortage triggered a reflex," says former Marin County water district member Richard Boylan. "People took it as a challenge. They're the same peope, you've got to remember, who are winners in the business world, and they just transferred their reflex response to challenge and said, 'By God, let's do it,' instead of just seeing the whole thing as a burden and a bore."
Dietrich Stroech, water czar over 170,000 clients of Marin's municipal water district as the agency's general manager, however, holds a few doubts about the staying power of his upper middle class patrons. He wonders if water chic might not just go the way of the hula hoop.
"Why are they being so good?" he says. "Well, I think a lot of it is just that water conservation is the thing to do right now, you know? Like drinking tequila instead of vodka. But will they get bored with the whole thing? Not too soon, I hope."