Walter Mencken 11 a.m., Nov. 27
An Excrement Job - Tales of Tijuana Bathrooms
In the Gaslamp, even bathrooms are going condo...
TIJUANA BATHROOMS: EVERYBODY’S GOTTA GO SOMETIME
Every weekend evening, thousands of people travel southbound across the San Ysidro-Puerta México Port of Entry. The majority will pass right by Plaza Viva Tijuana, a retail commercial center adjacent to the border station, and head straight for the nightclubs and bars along Avenida Revolución, the biggest "paseo" in town.
That's "where la patria begins," according to a municipal motto posted at the Tijuana Tourist Terminal between 6th and 7th streets.
The party continues in bars and cantinas on parallel streets like Constitución, Agua Caliente and Niños Heroes, and doesn't end until nearly sunrise. "No cover before 10:00 pm," "$20.00 all-U-can-drink" and "2-fer-1" specials pull the throngs of pedestrians into disco style bars such Club A, Baby Rock, El Jardin, Zka, Bacarat, Tequila Sunrise and Safari's, among others. These contemporary nightclubs have invested heavily in glitzy decors, elaborate lighting and powerful sound systems designed to blast out norteño, Tejano, Conjunto, rock and roll and techno music at decibel levels high enough to drown out conversation even among sidewalk passersby.
Inside, as whistles trill and onlookers hoot, it's common to see barhops moving through the crowd with Tequila bottles, inviting patrons to hold their heads back while servers pour straight shots directly down their throats. Club employees are usually Tijuana citizens (population, nearly 2 million), many of them first and second generation immigrants from all parts of the republic - Jalisco, Sinaloa, Veracruz, Guanajuato, Puebla, Oaxaca, Chiapas and every other state of the nation.
Most are concerned with getting liquor into their clientelle, but a few are on site to assist customers ridding themselves of those same drinks.
"Just because this is Tijuana and I work in a bathroom, I automatically get pity tips from the Americans," says "Manuel," at first reluctant to answer questions until assured he and his employer won't be mentioned by name. "I have to expect [an American] newspaper to make a joke about me and what I do. Then I'd lose this job. But I'm proud to work here, I'm proud to be working anywhere. Not everyone [in Tijuana] can say that."
He describes his position as "volunteer," in that he isn't paid a salary or required to maintain a set schedule. "I choose when I work, which is only the weekend, maybe Thursday and I pay the cost of my own combs, colognes, mouthwash, everything except the [toilet] paper and mop bucket."
Whereas bathroom attendants are a rare commodity in the U.S., except at upscale hotels and exclusive restaurants, in Tijuana the position is a fixture as integral as the wall urinals, toilet bowls and sinks for any club aspiring to provide at least a patina of high class creature comfort.
"You shouldn't need a platinum [credit] card or a diamond pinky ring to get a little pampering, a little service," says Manuel. "Why not fix up your hair, buff the shoes or splash on a little cologne so you don't walk out smelling like the burrito some guy just dumped into the toilet bowl next to yours. Everybody has got to go some time and everybody is equal when their pants are down around their knees."
Manuel says much of the bar's clientele is comprised of college students and military personnel. "Even though they don't make a lot of money, they tip very well, Many times, I make more [in tips] than the bartenders do. In the bar, one guy will buy drinks for five friends and tip a dollar. Nobody tips for someone else in the bathroom."
"They each have to walk past me, coming in and going out, and I get tips just because I keep [the bathroom] clean with toilet paper in the stalls and mop the floors."
Further down the street, a "$10.00/All You Can Drink” cover charge has lured a mostly teenage, mostly American, mostly inebriated crowd, most of them ignoring the Hispanic rock band playing cover tunes (sung in English). The line for the men’s room is long, and two multi-pierced youths shift back and forth on both feet, hands in pockets and shaking their baggie pants up and down pants nervously as they debate whether to run outside and urinate in the alley (“Nah, I hear the cops down here sell kids to South American cocaine farms”).
When I finally reach the bathroom, the attendant, Sammy, doesn’t look like he’s enjoying his job. “This night, they are not so generous. Usually, when bands play, [customers] drink very much alcohol and come into the bathroom all the time. Tonight, they come, [but] they don’t tip me.”
He explains that different events draw different patrons, with specific tipping patterns. “I thought tonight would be a beer crowd…they come to see bands play and drink beers. Beer drinkers [urinate] all night, except they’ll [urinate] almost anywhere. If the toilets are full [I think he meant occupied, not overflowing...at least I HOPE], they will go in the sink right in front of me, two feet away, looking me right in the eye while it gets all over the counter. And those are the ones who probably won’t tip me!"
"I once lifted my mop up on the counter and wiped a man’s [urine] up while he was still [urinating] in the sink, and he didn’t even thank me! So I shook the mop hard as he was walking out…it splashed up all over his back and he didn’t even notice.”
“There are DJ nights where they come to dance and there are also…I would call them cocktail crowds. [Cocktail crowds] come between dinner and ten or eleven. They wear nice clothes and ask for cloth towels. I keep the face cloths in plastic bags with [zipper] seals, so they look like hospital towels.”
He says he makes no claims to customers that the towels are sterile or laundered between each use, though he admits that the sealed bags are intended to give this impression. “When no one is in here, I rinse them in the sink, squeeze the water out and dry them under the hand dryer.”
I ask if the face cloth I just saw him use to wipe down a stall door might ever end up being sink-washed and sealed into a customer bag on the same night. He smiles but does not say anything. When I repeat the question, the smile becomes even wider as he shrugs his shoulders. Before interview’s end, I notice him casually tossing the small towel into a large toolbox full of other crumpled hand towels and toiletries kept in a (locked) cabinet under the sinks.
Sammy says that Ritmo Latina and Los Villains are popular bands who draw large, hard drinking rock and roll “beer” crowds. “When there is only dancing, nobody cares who the DJ is, they are all too drunk. Many times, the bartender does the DJ [work] and changes his name every night…nobody notices.”
I’d noticed the out-of-date sounds at other Revolución clubs, as if TJ’s DJs seem to have stopped buying new house music in 1995. Sammy has a theory about this. “The older songs were shorter, so that the customers will make more trips to the bar to buy drinks. I can hear the sounds through the walls so as soon as a song ends and another begins, I have everything ready…because many people will come at once. If there has been much yelling and cheering [during the previous song], I have extra cologne and deoderant because I know [patrons] are sweating and don’t want to smell bad for their dates."
An informal survey of patrons, asked how they rate the services in Tijuana's nightclub restrooms, reveals that not everyone feels pampered by the attendants. "It feels like extortion sometimes," reveals one customer. "I don't need someone to work my zipper or hold my [penis] for me, and I know how to wipe my own [buttocks], so why should I hand over a buck?"
Or: "I'm already getting ripped off at the hotel, with the exchange rate [average 8.8 pesos/$1.00 U.S.), and half the time the reason I'm in the bathroom is [because] I got the runs from the sewage in the water they use to mix drinks."
And: "There aren't any women in there, so who am I trying to impress by tipping?"
A little further up the street, "Juan" is willing to discuss, anonymously, his gig in a nightclub men's room. Like Manuel, he isn't paid a salary. "I don't mind because this gives me the incentive to make more [money]. We have a special permit from the town so that the bar can serve drinks until 5:00 am. Between 3 and 5, I would say that's when I make most of the money every night."
Juan usually starts his shift at 10:00 pm and works three to four nights each week. "I have a wife and two children, and this is enough [income] for us to eat, live and to send our children to school. My wife works for [a U.S. machine manufacturer] five days and makes only 300 pesos [around $40.00 U.S.] each week, which is not enough to live decently, but I can make that much in a single night. We have many poor friends with no money at all so we feel very lucky."
No salary, however, means no benefits - and no protection under Mexican labor laws. The Mexican government recently reformed the country’s social security laws, including provisions for employees who develop illnesses related to their jobs.
The main benefit to employees is that the new laws provide companies with a great incentive to improve their workplace environments - their premiums paid into the disability fund is calculated according to the number of accidents or illness claims naming the company so that the premiums increase drastically with each filing made against it.
Mexico’s Federal Regulation on Safety, Health and the Workplace (RFSH) outlines the country’s safety and health standards and their enforcement. RFSH rules and procedures require employers to ensure that employees are as safe as possible from illness and accidents originating in the workplace., in accordance with the Federal Labor Law and international treaties ratified by Mexico. Articles 165-167 of Title Six provide fines for violations from 15 to 315 times the daily minimum wage.
While this legislation is meant to protect employees like Juan, other new reforms could have very negative effects.
Juan says his income will drop by half if the nightclub is forced to close at 2:00 or 3:00 am, which is a looming likelihood. Tijuana city officials have ceased issuing permits allowing nightclubs to remain open until 5 a.m.
Further regulation has been hard to implement, however, according to Mariano Escobedo, president of the Visitors And Conventions Bureau, including legislation regarding labor laws and workers' rights. He says it's not unusual for the larger clubs to take in $20,000 a night on weekends, and that translates into a lot of civic clout. "We can't tell a bar owner he can't have free drinks for the ladies all night long, and we can't regulate $10 all-you-can-drink cover charges, or stop them from staying open [late]," Escobedo said. "Between 2 and 5 in the morning, everyone is half drunk and totally out of control."
I witness some of this wild wild west behaviour on the east side of Avenida Constitucion, just north of First Street. The Tijuana district known as Zona Norte is home to places like The Chicago Club, The Adelita bar, the Hong Kong Bar and others which look, from the outside, just like the clubs a few blocks away on Avenida Revolución.
The same songs pour out the entrances, women are dressed in slinky clothes and men are preening and swaggering no matter how obviously inebriated. On the other side of the leather curtains usually draped over the doorways, prostitutes are practicing the world’s oldest profession, which in this case is legal - licensed and regulated by the city.
The clubs are open until nearly dawn and, on weekends, the bathrooms are staffed with attendants who agree that men who frequent these bars aren’t worried about impressing a girl. “If a guy has the right amount of money,” an attendant at one club tells me, “he doesn’t need cologne or hair gel or a shoe shine. Mostly, I give change for twenty dollar bills, so they can pay for a room or tip the girls, and they usually give me a dollar each time. Not everyone automatically does this so [bar employees] come in every half hour and pretend to need change, just to make a big show, so men in here notice I have small bills, for tips.”
“I get tips when men ask questions [like] if Mexican condoms are safe, [ones] that they buy at the hotel desks, but they usually ask this after they’ve been to hotel to use one. I keep a basket full of American [brand] condoms right here but the men are so anxious to pick a girl that they don’t think about anything else. I don’t sell much [except] two ply toilet paper and soft paper towels I tear off rolls. Most of the tips are because I answer questions about the girls - which girls don’t make [the men] wear a condom, which girls do anal sex and which are the youngest girls. They want to think the girl is only thirteen or fourteen, even though they know that’s illegal here. I just say ‘I hear’ or ‘there’s a rumor,’ but I never say for sure. Especially since some club girls really are that young."
"Not at this club, of course,” he adds, making me repeat my promise not to specify his name or the venue where our conversation takes place. Answering my questions cost twice what I’d paid uptown, $20.00, which he demanded in advance when I told him I was a reporter.
My interview “tips” are higher at all the Zona Norte clubs. However, the restrooms in these noisy brothels, at least on the nights I visit, seem to be the cleanest in all of Tijuana, especially at Adelita where the fixtures and floors as spotless as those found in San Diego’s more expesive hotels and exclusive restaurants. The only cleaner bathrooms I find in all Tijuana are at McDonalds.
Of course, it’s only in Zona Norte where customers will find women casually walking into the men’s rooms, sometimes even soliciting business within. “It’s more quiet in here and already a lot of the women don’t speak English well enough,” I’m told. “I explain to the men what the girl charges and what she does, or tell her what the man wants from her. The man tips me when they leave, usually just a dollar, but the girl will come back and give me at least five dollars. If she doesn’t, I will do my best for other girls instead and tell the men only about them, not her. Or I tell the men that she will rob them.”
With so much liquor flowing, someone's inevitably going to get beligerrent or combatitive, so Javier's job at a dance club in the Zona Norte sometimes requires him to double as mediator, referee or even bouncer.
According to a 53-page report on alcohol and drug abuse recently published by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, nearly half of the weekend clubbers returning to the United States are legally drunk, with a blood alcohol level of .08 percent or higher.
According to Javier, "I've been in the middle of some [very bad] fights. [Customers] have pulled knives on each other, usually because of a girl or because someone [got ripped off] for drugs. One time, I heard something metal drop...I see a guy [has] dropped his gun on the floor [while] sitting on the toilet. Two other guys were doing their business at the wall [urinals] and ran out the door before they even pulled up their zippers. I was right behind them...[that] seemed like a good time to take my break."
"My job is to take care of my customers," said Roberto Cervantes, a promoter at Club A. "I believe we do a good job keeping our customers safe. We're pretty strict about IDs and we search everyone for weapons, but you never know what can happen at a club." One of the club's bartenders agrees, but says he's never felt in danger of harm.
Except perhaps, he says as "The Thong Song" by Sisqo thumps away and all the club lights begin flashing, for the night he nearly died laughing.
"A girl went into the men's room and had [the attendent] put an empty beer bottle on the floor, open end up. She bet everyone in there, five bucks each, that she could [urinate], standing up, and get more [urine] in the bottle than any of the guys, or else she'd let them all [have sex with her]. You could tell she'd practiced how to [urinate] straight down from a standing position."
Did the woman win her bet? "Hell yeah, all the guys had [erections] and couldn't [urinate] straight down to save their lives. But, I'll tell you what, the girl had to split half her take with the guy working in there because, man, he had a hell of a mess to mop up!”
AN EXCREMENT GASLAMP JOB
I was startled the first time I walked into the men's room at 4th & B and saw a uniformed attendant on duty.
"Okay," one patron was telling him. "I need, like, a comb or a brush. Oh yeah, and candy, for my breath. I don’t wanna smell like booze when I kiss my date." The attendant attended. "Here’s a buck, man."
"Thanks, enjoy the show," answered the attendant, his soft voice barely audible over the sound of flushing urinals.
At no time during this entire exchange did the two look each other in the eye.
The attendant - who later told me his name is Robert - handed another customer a paper towel, which the (apparently) inebriated man used to wipe approximately a third of his hands before tossing toward a nearby garbage can. Toward, but not into. Robert bent over to retrieve and dispose of the damp wad, expressionless, his face a blank cipher.
If Robert noticed the nearby thunderclap fart and subsequent kerplop, his face didn’t register it. Instead, he busied himself wiping the sink counter, for about the third time in a minute.
On this night, Robert's customers were there to see Blue Oyster Cult. It was clear that most of the old time rock and rollers were as surprised as I to find someone employed in the bathroom. "This is my other job, what I do nights," Robert told me. "In the daytime, I work at a fast food place. This job is a little better in a way. I actually make a lot in tips here. Sometimes anyway."
"I have no idea what the going rate is for a paper towel, so I didn't tip him," one long-haired patron told a similarly coiffed friend. The friend's right hand never let go of his beer cup from the time he entered the restroom until the time he left, resulting in an impressive display of one-handed zipperwork.
I heard ol' One-Hand tell his companion "Any time a guy's standing near me when I unzip my pants, I'm bothered." This may explain the man's hurry, and why he didn't even bother to wash the one hand.
I made a mental note: if I'm ever introduced to that man, don't shake his hand.
An older guy wearing a beret (?!) who resembled comedian Rodney Dangerfield not only gave Robert a dollar, but he dug deep in his pocket for a handful of change, taking only a shot of aftershave in return. "Why not?" he told Robert, clearly amused by coming across this unexpected entrepreneurship in the men's room. "I've never come out of a public bathroom smelling better than when I went in."
Robert told me that jazz events attract stingy patrons who nonetheless avail themselves of his services and amenities. "Rock shows aren’t bad," he said. "The people are real upbeat. The same guys come back a lot. The best crowd we’ve had in a long time was for Brian McKnight. No drunks, a lot of good tips, real steady flow. It can be a real good place to work on nights like that."
He mentioned something about looking for a third job. However, it was hard to hear him over the sounds of peeing, flushing, handwashing, and the screaming strains of "Joan Crawford Has Risen From The Grave."
NEIGHBORS FROM HELL - if you think living next door to an unemployed drummer sux, check out Susan's neighbors...
"It took me twenty years to get up the nerve to record my own music," says songwriter Susan Smith, "and now I have to wait until a judge says it's okay to release my CD."
Smith sold her first composition while still in her teens, living with her parents in Oceanside, in 1980. She's since written dozens of songs recorded by artists like REO Speedwagon, Orleans and The Atlanta Rhythm Section, among others, usually published under her "professional" name S.F. Simon.
Her music has been used in film soundtracks for "Blame It On The Night" and "Never Too Young To Die" and for the TV series "The Crow: Stairway To Heaven" but, other than demo-making, she never recorded her own music until late last year. "I play piano and guitar and I have an okay singing voice, so I went for it. [I] saved some money, rented studio time, hired some local [musicians] and recorded a whole album of quirky PJ Harvey type songs under my stage name, Suzie Simon."
Smith signed with Rockland, a small east coast label, which was set to release the CD - called "Neighbors From Hell" - on February 4th. However, the title track, an "autobiographical musical rant," caused the release date to be pushed back until the results of a civil lawsuit against Smith are in.
"The song is about these two women who live on my street, a mother and daughter...I can't mention names but everyone around here knows about them. They're basically hermits, and the house they live in looks like The Addams family place, only messier. The yard is overgrown with weeds and briars, the paint's falling off in sheets, boards are coming off the [outside] walls and there's a pile of trash in the backyard full of skunks and possums and rats."
Smith took a photo of her neighbor's ramshackle home from her own front porch and Rockland used the picture as the CD's front cover.
"I never see these women [because] they hide inside all day and night, but I wanted them to know what effect their house has on our neighborhood, so I dropped a demo copy of 'Neighbors From Hell' in what's left of their mailbox, cover proof and all." A sample of the title track's lyrics:
"Crackheads and junkies say that crib's a mess
What these creeps live on is anyone's guess
Got no visible means of support, for their house, for their breasts
Or their beliefs, or their porch roof, or the rats they call pets."
Smith was served with a civil lawsuit claiming "defamation and invasion of privacy," and had to appear in court that same week to block her neighbors' attempt to have an emergency injunction placed against the release and distribution of "Neighbors From Hell."
"The judge said the suit had enough merit to grant the injunction pending the outcome of the case, and they were ready to send marshals into Rockland's office out east to sieze the master tapes and every pressed copy of the CD and the printed sleeves. Rockland FedExed an agreement to sit on everything to keep it from being siezed, but now it's going to be at least until summer before I get the chance to plead my side at a hearing. I'm dead set against dropping the song or changing the cover and I'll fight it as far as I have to."
The lawyer Smith retained informed her that the plaintiff's case is weak. "There's no picture of the women themselves, there's no address...there's no way of even knowing what state the picture [of the house] was taken in. The record company isn't even based in California so who's to say the house isn't in the Bronx somewhere? Maybe ten or twenty people on this block would recognize what the song's about and this is the kind of neighborhood where everyone's probably into Jewel or Neil Diamond, not Suzie Simon and her neighbors from hell."
Rockland is appealing the injunction against distribution of the CD and will be flying a representative to San Diego to do so. Smith herself, as publisher of the song under her own publishing imprint SimonSongs, will fight the defamation and privacy invasion suit herself.
"I've already dished out thousands of dollars for a lawyer. If I'd have just given [my neighbors] the money instead, they could have fixed up their stupid damned house and maybe they'd like me enough to not cause me so much [expletive]."
Like this blog? Here are some related links:
OVERHEARD IN SAN DIEGO - Several years' worth of this comic strip, which debuted in the Reader in 1996: http://www.sandiegoreader.com/photos/galleries/overheard-san-diego/
FAMOUS FORMER NEIGHBORS - Over 100 comic strips online, with mini-bios of famous San Diegans: http://www.sandiegoreader.com/photos/galleries/famous-former-neighbors/
SAN DIEGO READER MUSIC MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/sandiegoreadermusic
JAY ALLEN SANFORD MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/jayallensanford
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