It's not entirely uncommon for Rodney Haven to find shit smeared on the walls of the public restrooms he cleans in downtown Portland.
But where others might see evidence of human depravity, Haven sees signs of creativity.
"Look, it's a work of art, man," Haven will say when he stumbles upon a doodoo design. "It's all in the state of mind.… I have a different mentality."
On Monday, Dec. 8, Portland Commissioner Randy Leonard unveiled his new loo, a 24-hour public toilet on Northwest 5th Avenue and Glisan Street. For $140,000, Leonard's loo aims to address the city's "No. 1" and "No. 2" problems.
"It's a big deal if you're downtown," says Leonard, who calls access to toilets a basic human right. "And I don't care what income bracket you're in.… If you have to use the restroom, it isn't funny."
All the excitement behind Monday's "first flush" can't hide one fact: Someone has to clean Leonard's new loo in order for it to succeed. And while Leonard fought for the project's funding, design and implementation, he sure isn't going to be hauling away trash or refilling the Purell dispenser.
That job goes to Haven, a formerly homeless Portlander who lived under the Ross Island Bridge off and on until 1994. Along with two other employees of Central City Concern on behalf of the Portland Business Alliance, Haven is responsible for keeping most of downtown Portland's nine public restrooms, including the new one, clean.
He's a true believer in Leonard's cause, which brings to Old Town the city's first 24-hour freestanding restroom—for homeless residents and anyone else who has to go.
"We still don't have enough public bathrooms," Haven says. "It's like food, water, air."
But he'll be the first to know if the experiment, which Leonard hopes to expand, isn't working.
An urban anthropologist of sorts, Haven has learned during his four months on the job the tricks Portlanders play in the older public restrooms, the fully enclosed ones like those on West Burnside Street between Park and 8th avenues. He knows, for instance, where they hide their hypodermic needles, how they clog the pipes and when they drink after a day of panhandling. He knows firsthand how Portlanders could subvert the city's best-laid plans.
"There are more intelligent people living on the streets than there are in political office," Haven says. "I lived on the streets for 12 years. I was one of them at one point, too."
Last Friday, Haven—who says he's "53 going on 35"—began his regular rounds downtown by checking out the new loo. "And that cost how much?" he asked with a mix of excitement and skepticism. "Oh boy."
Stainless steel and made in Portland, the new loo has panels at top and bottom that look like horizontal window blinds. They're designed to give the user privacy while still allowing police officers to monitor who's inside and what they're doing.
That design is entirely unlike the layout for the public toilets on West Burnside Street near the North Park Blocks. Those restrooms, built decades earlier, look like brick poolhouses from the estate of a 19th-century manor. But they're among the dirtiest and most heavily used of all the public restrooms downtown, Haven says.
As Haven opened a door to one of the toilets recently, he joked, "There's a surprise in every box."
His 15-minute routine was the same, though. He sprayed heavy-duty antibacterial cleaner on every surface, killing potential germs and even viruses such as HIV. He whistled without pursing his lips. Then he washed away the cleaner with a high-powered hose, added new rolls of toilet paper and checked for any remaining trash.
"You can't do this stuff haphazardly," he says. "You've got to do it right."
The all-night toilet at City Hall closed Monday, Dec. 8, following the opening of the new loo.