Archive for December, 2009

The Great Metropolis face-off, Burning Man vs. the Big Apple, round 2: finding a restroom

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

One difficulty of living in cities is finding a public restroom, especially when under pressure from the pee-pee dance, or worse yet, the pressing need of an explosive #2.

Gotta go, gotta go in the Big Apple:
In cities like NYC, accessing a restroom is not an easy feat. NYC has virtually no public restrooms, other than those located in the parks. This missing public amenity forces pedestrians to memorize restroom locations scattered throughout stores, restaurants and cafes, libraries, transit hubs such as Penn Station, etc. Alternatively, those who have Internet access can consult online guides such as this map.

Singing the portapotty blues at Burning Man:
Because of Burning Man’s temporary location in the desert, Black Rock City denizens rely upon large banks of portable chemical toilets, which are relatively easy to locate. Contracted services regularly clean the portapotties by pumping out waste and replacing the toilet paper, but users must take care not to dispose of anything BUT human waste or toilet paper. Foreign objects clog the hose used to pump out toilets, causing possible injuries to the cleaner.

True to the Burning Man spirit, Burners have applied their creativity toward refashioning portable toilets into a more enjoyable experience. For example, artist and documentary-maker Susan Barron hand-sewed and placed 170 Mr. Hanky (the “Christmas Poo” from the animated South Park show) dolls in the doors of portable toilets. Another year, someone hid an electronic chip (the kind that makes greeting cards sing) that relentlessly hummed the lullaby “Rock-a-bye Baby” throughout the week, making one’s time in the portapotty a more surreal experience. Others have redecorated individual units such as this one. Burners have also reported that groups host games, such as a Jackson 5 trivia contest, to enliven the wait to use portable toilets. Finally, the Pee Funnel theme camp provides funnels for those who wish to stand and pee, rather than hover or sit.

Ease of finding restroom: Burning Man: 1, Big Apple: 0.
Creativity applied to enhancing the restroom experience: Burning Man: 1, Big Apple: 0.

Half flush versus full flush option (hint: paper needs full flush)

Half flush versus full flush option (hint: paper needs full flush)

Larger view of flush options in the David Brower Center, Berkeley, CA

Larger view of flush options in the David Brower Center, Berkeley, CA

The Great Metropolis face-off! Burning Man vs. the Big Apple, round 1: Costco

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

In honor of Burning Man’s 2010 theme of Metropolis, I’ve decided to run a series of comparisons, some light-hearted and some serious, between Black Rock City, aka Burning Man, and New York City, aka the Big Apple. The former has been a temporary home since 1998 for me; the latter is currently my permanent home.

Costco in East Harlem, NYC, 2009
This past Sat., as late afternoon turned into early evening, I walked through East Harlem toward the new Costco, passing by community gardens sponsored by various big box retailers and a dog alertly sitting beneath a “beware of dog” sign. From a distance, the new building blazed with blinding lights, drawing in the curious, some of whom gripped special postcards that waived the store’s membership requirement for the day. Costco occupies the ground floor of a new multistory complex that will soon have a Marshall’s, Target, and Home Depot stacked on top of each other. When transplanted to space-starved Manhattan, a sprawling mall strip of big box stores is vertically upended, a literal totem to consumerism.

As I navigated the aisles, I became reacquainted with what Americans find desirable – wide aisles stocked with large quantities of frozen food, bulk items encased in excessive packaging, and a sea of clothing stacked on tables. Unlike other chain stores in NYC, which often have shortages that bring to mind Soviet era austerity, this store’s shelves were well-stocked. After checking out the aisles and going through the cashier’s line, I finally remembered one of Costco’s quirks. The store does not provide shopping bags, presumably because customers will dump their bulk items directly into a car trunk, rather than walking home with their purchases in hand. So I packed my own bags, not realizing that the staff by the exit wanted to first compare customers’ receipts against the items in shopping carts. A moment’s thought about this guard against “shrink,” a not uncommon practice at other big box stores in NYC, suggested that stores may not only distrust their shoppers, but also their own cashiers.

Costo Soulmate Trading Outlet in Black Rock City, 1998
Black Rock City’s version of Costco is, well, more interesting. Rather than entering a big box to shop for bulk goods, you duck into a large tent. Under the shade and seated in a chair (much appreciated amenities in the middle of a desert), you complete a survey that enables you to make a connection with your playa soulmate. I patronized this service during this theme camp’s first year. Guided by an earnest “employee,” I filled in answers to questions, had my photo taken for the Costco card, which was then printed and handed over to me, and I went on my way to other adventures. This camp’s quirk was that a member would only get the name of a soulmate and his/her camp location, but it was up to the intrepid to locate the soulmate at Burning Man. While working with fellow volunteer RonJon to erect the dome structure for Media Mecca, I had my first Burning Man experience – my soulmate Moondog, adorned in Elvis-style sunglasses, a Hawaiian print shirt, and a necklace of shark teeth (or something similarly pointy), came running up, with gift in hand. 10 years later, RonJon still chuckles about this unlikely meeting in the desert.

What’s preferable: pushing an over-sized shopping cart around, or making a memorable connection? Thanks for the memories, Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet. Big Apple: 0, Burning Man: 1

Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet, San Francisco Decompression, 2009

Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet, San Francisco Decompression, 2009

The societal consequences of felony convictions

Saturday, December 5th, 2009

Yesterday, I attended a talk by New York University Prof. Diedre Royster. The author of Race and the Invisible Hand, Royster mentioned her surprise that Americans are not aware of (1) what kinds of acts can result in felony charges, and (2) the consequences that can accompany a felony conviction.

One can receive a felony conviction for a variety of acts. Most readers will think that felony convictions are for interpersonal crimes that involve violence, such as rape and murder. However, a prior history of small criminal acts, such as a series of petty thefts, can result in a felony charge. Under the PATRIOT act, exercising the Constitutional right to assembly or even planning a protest can be redefined as terrorist acts subject to felony charges. Seemingly innocent acts can lead to charges for a felony crime, such as using a digital camera to videorecord a few minutes of a relative’s birthday get-together in a movie theater. Acts that are misdemeanors in one state, such as possession of a small amount of marijuana, are felonies in another state.

Depending upon the state, a felony conviction is associated with numerous penalties, including the temporary or even permanent loss of voting rights during incarceration and parole. In Locked Out, Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen discuss the consequences of this loss of the right to vote, which affects 1 in every 40 Americans. Moreover, a felony conviction can lead to the loss of the professional license necessary to practice a variety of occupations, from psychologists to CPAs.

Research indicates that convictions and incarceration can disproportionately impact the employment chances of certain groups. For instance, sociologists Devah Pager and Lincoln Quillian’s experimental study revealed that although employers self-report a willingness to consider such applicants, they are less likely to call back job applicants who have served time in practice. More disturbingly, employers are also less likely to call back black applicants, preferring white applicants, even those with a criminal record, over black applicants without a criminal record. Read the results of this empirical study here: “Walking the Talk? What Employers Say Versus What They Do.”

What can be done? At minimum, individuals should learn their rights, be aware of attempts to alter these rights, and make sure that other individuals are not deprived of their rights. The Burning Man organization, for instance, educates participants of their rights and responsibilities. Groups such as the ACLU help keep track of legislation and policies that affect rights.