Two years ago, I was in a car wreck in Chicago that pushed my front bumper into the rear bumper of the leased red Mercedes in front of me at a stoplight. My chance encounter with the driver (and exchange of insurance information) led me to thinking about Naperville, the western suburb where he lived. (Everyone was fine, and the bumper was quickly repaired.) That car wreck took me on a spiritual journey, out here to I-290’s junction with I-88.
I’d started driving through this horrible bottleneck near Naperville, sometimes as often as three times a day, just to see it, and if I wasn’t doing anything important. Every roll through put me cheek-by-jowl with dozens of road workers pouring asphalt, waving plastic flags — even using several handy Port-a-Potties lined up on the shoulder. Sometimes we’d high-five.
One morning, driving toward the bottleneck to watch my friends pour asphalt, I was listening to the local NPR affiliate, and I learned that cuts in state transportation funding had jeopardized their Port-a-Potties. The things we take for granted in life are always the most vulnerable to progress.
I pulled to the side of the road and began to cry. I connected with a higher purpose for my life. These Port-a-Potties were being made redundant, and I wanted to do something. Then this guy operating a steamroller shouted out to me that he was looking for a volunteer to do a Port-a-Potty-sit as a protest. I honked my horn — “Pick me, pick me!” I thought I was going to be inside it for three weeks to a month.
But I have been living in a 24-cubic foot, eight-year-old Port-a-Potty — now known to the world as Vishnu — since December 14, 1997. It’s about eight miles west of Chicago, on federal land. It’s a little stuffy here in the summertime, and a little sad and dark in the winter. But I can always take solace in the sound of cars rolling past me, like the ceaseless ocean tide.
Eighteen months ago I built a small shelf, a foot below the ceiling. That serves as a storage space, and leaves me about six feet for myself. The construction crew brings food and supplies once a week. They open the door, and I hand them a bag of waste and accept their supplies and fresh fruit. I have a small Dutch oven, but it’s very dangerous to use in here, so I try to consume my food in its unaltered state. I collect water from the fog and the snow and the ice.
I go to the bathroom like everyone else.
It’s funny — I never imagined when I opened the door to this Port-a-Potty that I was going to ask for a cell phone, an iBook with a DVD player, a Palm Pilot, two fountain pens, a set of cocktail glasses, a microwave oven, a corkscrew, and a three-gallon institutional-size can of tomato juice. But they also gave me a flashlight with a can opener and a two-inch TV screen in it, which I asked for, and a free pocket calculator, which I did not.
There is no average day when you live in a Port-a-Potty. Sometimes I surf the Web for 10 hours a day, looking at Illinois and Chicago government transportation sites—and MSNBC.com, just to stay current. After all, if Springfield changes its mind and decides not to cut the funds, I’ll be pleased to go back to my apartment, if my landlady hasn’t evicted me. I’m also answering letters, maybe a hundred a week, and occasionally I field calls from Mancow Muller, the deejay on the Morning Zoo radio show. He always asks if I’m taking a dump. That’s OK — I can take the jokes.
But the first 18 months were pretty hard. I missed being able to stand up straight, to see my friends, to drive on I-290 whenever the urge hit me. On the other hand, I was dry and warm and safe, and the construction guys would give me updates about what was going on with the Department of Transportation. Still, the city threatened to arrest me, I had a helicopter hovering over my Port-a-Potty, and I sometimes got pummeled with 15-mile-an-hour winds.
One night I thought I was going to die. The rain, the wind, the howling. Imagine sitting at the top of a redwood tree in the middle of a squall with 90-mile-an-hour winds, while you’re riding a bucking bronco and trying to land a light twin-propeller aircraft onto the deck of a ship that’s getting tossed on a stormy sea — then sort of reduce all that danger by half or a third or so, and put it into a Port-a-Potty. Emotionally, mentally, spiritually, cut off from the only people who care whether I live or die — the construction guys, who’d all gone home for the night.
I grabbed Vishnu and started praying. Then Vishnu said: “Think of Port-a-Potties during crowded outdoor events. They open, they close, they flush, they open and close again and again. Their work is never finished. And you, too — your work is not yet finished.” I passed out. And when I woke up, I couldn’t hear anything, except the cars and steamrollers and construction guys talking to each other about where to pour the asphalt.
That was a turning point. I was no longer afraid. My love is my power. You can’t take that away from me. But this eight-year-old Port-a-Potty is not protected. I look forward to getting out, to feeling the hot asphalt under my feet, but until Vishnu is safe, I will stay here.