I thought it was a myth, this public urinal that rises gently each night from its underground cavern, ready to handle the No. 1 needs of passing punters. I had stood atop its daytime resting place, a slightly larger than normal manhole cover at the top of busy Shaftsbury Square, the intersection where Botanic Avenue meets the Dublin Road.
But at 10 o’clock each night, a curious transformation takes place as the three-man pissoir moves from its subterranean nest. I fail to push the iconic music from “2001: A Space Odyssey” out of my head. Daaa…DAaa…DAAA…PISSOIR! Kettle drums now beat a rhythm as the urinal locks into place, ready for Belfast’s passing drunks.
I feel the need, the need to pee
Drinking lots of tea in the mornings makes me appreciate such amenities as public toilets. I’ve written previously about how cities should provide more public toilets for tourists since we’re already paying taxes on our hotel rooms, transportation, food and attractions. There should be more toilets, and they should be free.
While discussing that initial column with a friend here, he casually mentioned the Shaftsbury Square pop-up pissoir, an entirely new concept for us. So, of course, we had to see it.
From the picture, you can see for yourself what it looks like, but it reminds me strongly of the upright cryogenic pods for space travel you see in the movies or the transporter room of the Starship Enterprise. Instead of “Beam me up,” however, it’s more “Pour me out.” But you’ll also notice there are no doors and no curtains. Two of the cubicles are fewer than five feet from vehicles waiting at the traffic light.
Belfast does a good job with public toilets, although I do object to the 20 pence it charges at standalone toilets. My motto is, “Free to Pee, You and Me.”
‘Urin-ing’ for the truth
I had to know more about the pop-up pissoir, so I called the Belfast City department of sanitation. It took several tries, but a man returned my call one recent morning. He declined to give his name because neither of us wanted to get the PR people involved, which an interview with a named city official would have necessitated.
The Urilift, as this particular model is known, is made by an English company called Healthmatic. It was installed more than five years ago in an area where many pubs are concentrated amid complaints about les pipis sauvages, or wild peeing.
This is verbatim from the Healthmatic website: “As men come out of the pub, the urinal is there in front of them tempting them away from shop windows and pavements.” So do they think men will pee anywhere and on anything? We will, but it’s impolite to point it out.
My friend in the sanitation department says that, anecdotally, the incidence of public urination in that area has dropped since the Urilift was installed. He also said it is moved into position each night by remote control once someone has checked to see whether any obstructions (bicycles, motorbikes, drunk punters looking to take a leak) are blocking the manhole cover.
Lavery’s is one of the pubs a pint’s throw from Shaftsbury Square. The night we went to see the pissoir up close at about 10:30, the sidewalk was overflowing in front of the pub, atmosphere that author Robert McLiam Wilson colorfully described in his 1996 novel, “Eureka Street,” set toward the end of the Troubles:
“I crossed Shaftsbury Square. Though early, the Lavery’s overspill was already out on the street. Groups of unusually dirty youths lounged on the pavement with beer glasses in their hands. As I passed the bar, stepping over their outstretched legs, a warm urinous waft hung in the air outside the doorway. I hated Lavery’s.”
While I have no opinion on Lavery’s, I can say we didn’t see anyone peeing in the streets, which apparently is progress.