One misty morning my darling, Stanley and I vow to become tourists in our own town. So after breakfast, we leave Strawberry Hill, pass beneath the shadow of the Environmental Protection Agency building, wind through Fairfax and turn into a parking lot that leads to Kaw Point.
Despite the rain, we get out and meet the musty scent of the mingling rivers. Stanley tries the doors of the public buildings. All, including the facilities, are locked. The educational pavilion, a semicircular tableau describing indigenous Indian tribes and Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, perches above the confluence.
In 1804 when they camped here for four days, William Clark noted the personality of the river: “The party is much afflicted with Boils and Several have the Dicissentary, which I contribute to the water, which is muddy.”
Beyond a tiny forest and an amphitheater of limestone boulders, the angry swelling and rushing of brown water torments the banks on both sides of the river.
I stand near the metal cut out of Lewis and Clark, who point vaguely north, and my thoughts naturally turn to poop. It’s a serious subject, and if you are reading this on the throne, you know what I’m talking about.
In August, 2011, The Star reported (“It’s Just One Big Sewer”) nearly 2.5 billion gallons of excrement spill into the Kaw, and thus the Missouri river, about 36 times each year.
In 1804 the waters of the confluence were suspect. Now, Kansas City’s worn and outdated sewers are limited by our common necessity and by our pedestrian imaginations. If we wait until 2035 to begin fixing our combined system of storm drainage and sewers–as the EPA timeline suggests–we are slowly poisoning ourselves.
So when you feel the urge to go, I urge you to pay attention to November 19th,, World Toilet Day. (True story.) As you press your thighs against the cool porcelain of your toilet, give a thought to the 2.6 billion people in the world who still do not have access to a restroom.
Take a look at Rose George’s watershed book The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters. George reminds us of the Clean Water Act in 1972 and writes, “The construction and renovation frenzy that ensued was the largest public works project in the country to date.” While many object to more government spending, fixing our outdated sewers could be a way out of our crappy economy and a way out of our crappier habit of dumping our waste into our rivers.
Historians speculate that Lewis perceived the expedition a failure perhaps because he had read an article on steamships in an 1808 edition of the Missouri Gazette. On October 11th of 1809, destitute and deranged, Meriwether Lewis shot himself, the bullet grazing his head. When he didn’t die, he shot himself again through the chest. Still, he lived. When his servants arrived from the barn where they had been sleeping, they found him industriously cutting himself with his razor in hopes of finishing the job. “I am no coward,” he said, “but I am so strong [it is] so hard to die.”
Perhaps, all those many years ago, Meriwether Lewis, in one visionary moment, stared over Kaw Point and saw this future. And this mess inspired him into a profound depression. His prolonged and gory suicide seems an apt metaphor for what we are doing now.
As I ponder the dung colored water rushing eastward, Stanley jumps from foot to foot. His breakfast of eggs over easy has turned on him. We must go.