"... tell yourself lies. I’m in a candy factory. I’m surrounded by candy."
Oh, the things they've seen: By stringing together narratives of different workers, one artist has created a show illustrating what it’s like working in the sewers.
We don’t usually think about what happens after we flush the toilet. We press the lever, the stuff goes away, and our job is done.
But for the workers at Seattle Public Utilities, their job is just beginning.
"At the utility, people talk about the sewer system and they describe it in a variety of ways. The sewer pumps go on and off like a heartbeat. Fat is literally clogging the arteries of the city. The stormwater pipes puking out green liquid into Lake Union. The sewer system is a living thing," Towles says.
Where things go ...
Artist Stokley Towles’ one-man-show is called Stormwater: Life in the Gutter. It’s designed to educate people on the sewer system, particularly the lives of the people who work there. And, he hopes, prompt people to think about where things go when they flush.
Towles tells the stories of a few different workers – a weather reporter, a gutter detective, a watershed scientist – collected from interviews over the past six months.
Stories of the 'bath tubs'
Their work isn’t without its challenges. When there’s heavy rain, pipes carrying sewage and stormwater get backed up. So these monster bath tubs, as Towles calls them, sit 30 feet beneath the city, waiting to capture the extra sewage and slowly drain it back into the system. Workers wade through these tubs to fish out material that’s clogging the pipes.
"There’s rocks and sand and tree roots and there’s baby wipes that people feel the need to flush down the toilet, rags, the occasional baseball or basketball. And then of course the toilet is the ceremonial place to say goodbye to dead pets, so there’s goldfish, the occasional hamster," Towles says.
How do they handle this dirty job? Here’s the perspective of a couple workers:
"Ricardo says, you have to remind yourself that other people’s sewage is our money. John: tell yourself lies. I’m in a candy factory. I’m surrounded by candy. I’m just shoveling it," Towles says.
The show isn’t meant to make people lose their lunch. Seattle is working on a long-term plan to control sewage and stormwater overflow. Last year, 190 million gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater flowed into lakes, streams and Puget Sound. The plan is still in its early stages, and seeking input from Seattle residents.
Lori Patrick is with Seattle Arts and Cultural Affairs, which commissioned Towles’ performance. She says the show raises awareness of environmental stewardship.
"We often flush our toilets, step out of the shower and don’t think about all of the work at the city level that goes behind keeping this system flowing and moving," Patrick says.
The moral of his story, Towles says, is to be curious about exactly that.
Performances are free and open to the public:
- Wed., Oct. 19, 6:30 p.m. – Good Shepherd Center, 4649 Sunnyside Avenue North
- Sat., Oct. 22, noon – Pritchard Island Beach Bathhouse, 8400 55th Ave S.
- Wed., Oct. 26, 6:30 p.m. – Northeast Branch, The Seattle Public Library, 6801 35th Ave. N.E.
- Sat., Oct. 29, noon – High Point Branch, The Seattle Public Library, 3411 S.W. Raymond St.
- Thurs., Nov. 3, 6:30 p.m. –Youngstown Cultural Arts Center, 4408 Delridge Way S.W.
- Sat., Nov. 5, noon – Ballard Branch, The Seattle Public Library, 5614 22nd Ave. N.W.
- Thurs., Nov. 10, 6:30 p.m. – 2100 Building, 2100 24th Ave. S.
- Sat., Nov. 12, noon –Washington Park Arboretum Graham Visitor’s Center, 2300 Arboretum Drive E.
On the Web:
- KPLU's previous story on a Towles production: "Talking Trash: The Social Life of Garbage"
- Crosscut.org: An artist explores the city's sewers and tells about the "aging beast"