By Cecilia LaFrance
Stationed against the congested curb at the Colfax and Logan intersection, an unusual trailer sets up every day, seven days a week at 6 a.m. and resides until 10 pm. But no one’s complaining about the loss of prime Capitol Hill parking. In fact, the Mobile Denver Public Restroom provides relief to the bustling downtown, its visitors, its businesses, and its people in need.
“For the most part, people know what they have to do up here. They do their business and get in and get out,” says Richard Nall, an on-site attendant. The privy trailer offers two standard and one handicap stall, each complete with a toilet, sink, central HVAC, and running water. The company contracted by the City of Denver protects their investment and assures service with attendants. “We’re here to maintain the rules, keep it clean, and see how many people need it every day,” Nall politely delivers a concise and practiced explanation.
Between cleanings, Nall clocks his hours in or near an attendant’s station closeted between stalls. A chair facing the sidewalk allows him to comfortably monitor people approaching, and a carefully placed mirror on the open door gains him a glimpse of entrances and exits to the chambers beyond. Nall says the Capital Hill mobile facility gets 150 to 200 visitors each day, less than the 250 – 400 he sees at his regular station, the 16th Street Mall Mobile Restroom.
The metal of the steps clang and the trailer shudders with the closing of a stall door as a hipster sporting a backpack disappears inside; his lack of hesitation and eye contact mark him as a return customer status preferring discretion. Another man approaches with a wrinkled brow, reads the trailer’s messaging, appears to calculate the distance or time to his next pit stop, and takes advantage of the service. Nall’s eyes shift momentarily as he starts a mental timer. Not often, maybe once an hour, he figures, Nall has to give a warning knock to anyone overstaying their welcome. Five minutes is an acceptable stay.
Nall didn’t envision this job for himself, but he’s grateful for it. After injury ended a 20-year career in construction, Nall went five years without a job, the last of which he spent homeless. “I was looking for anything.” The bathroom gig worked out through happenstance. Nall had stopped at the mobile restroom, but was told the units were out of service due to a faulty pump. “I asked if I could look at it and I fixed it.” They offered him a job. “I’ve been here over a year.”
Nall credits his employers with excellent treatment, especially in the wake of the only trouble he has experienced while manning the mobile restroom. After Nall approached a man in violation of a 75-foot no loitering rule, he was attacked on his way back to his station. “He came up behind me and hit me with brass knuckles.” Nall suffered fractures to the head, and his employers acted like family with a ride home from the hospital, welfare calls, and offers of help. “So, I like it pretty well.”
“It don’t deter me,” Nall says of the attack. “Brass knuckles won’t do what a bullet did.” Nall pulls back his knit hat to reveal an aged bullet hole scar on his forehead, a consequence of “defending a female” at the age of 16. The shot from a 357 Magnum double mushroomed and became trapped in his head. “When people call me hardheaded, I tell them ‘medically proven’.”
A burly man in an oversized coat stumbles up the steps and slurs while asking permission to use the restroom. The door bounces behind him and remains unsecured. Nall’s warning of “occupied” doesn’t reach the couple who approach next, and the women’s eyes widen as she discovers the status on her own. She lets go of the door in disgust, and it shuts and she steps back to a safe distance. Down the street, a man props his bike against a wall and lights a joint; he coughs on each exhale, and the common Denver odor wafts its way past the restroom facility partially funded through the marijuana tax. The drunk finishes his stay and loses his balance on his exit. The metal handrail that steadies him comes free from its base when he fails to release it. Nall is quick to secure the equipment, ever aware of the drunk’s progress away from the trailer.
“We’re not stupid,” Nall says of the prevalent drug use plaguing the streets. Each of the stalls is equipped with a Sharp container designed for diabetic treatment needles, but serving another purpose. “We’d rather have it in those boxes than on the street.”
Nall grew up with an alcoholic family and seeing drunks and addicts doesn’t bother him. “They choose to let the addiction run them and not to run the addiction.” Recently off alcohol himself, Nall speaks as an experienced veteran. “I’m a rarity on the streets,” he says, never having done drugs and bouncing back from homelessness. He doesn’t know what’s next for him, rather what’s needed—getting himself back up after five years without work. “Just rebuild what I lost.”
The traffic light at Colfax changes and a fresh group of pedestrians parade by, a few with carts loaded with their only possessions. The sun travels further behind the timeless architecture of the State’s Capital, casting the man passed out on the opposite sidewalk further into shadow. Nall steps to his door for a smoke break and stands over new arrivals waiting their turn.