Tom Richardson was dressed to the nines Sunday morning, resplendent in his biker best. As a cancer survivor, he was taking this Distinguished Gentleman's Ride seriously.
He rode into Bakersfield's Beach Park in a white suit on a Harley-Davidson Springer Softail, one of 57 riders participating in the Triumph Motorcycles-sponsored global fundraiser for prostate cancer research. Beaming with pride and gratitude — he overcame what doctors described to him 25 years ago as terminal non-Hodgkin's lymphoma — Richardson stopped to snap a photo of the distinctive sculpture in Cancer Survivors' Plaza.
And then he saw it, blaspheming the moment. Something outrageous and wildly, inappropriately, out of place: A six-inch turd, right there on the concrete floor of the plaza alongside the park's bronze expression of joy, victory and freedom.
"I'm all dressed up, like everyone, and I'm having a little moment" of poignancy, Richardson said. "I'm getting my angle for a good photo and suddenly there's this, this Snickers bar. Mr. Hankey lying dead, right there. I went from this emotional climax to this toilet moment."
If you live, work or play anywhere near downtown Bakersfield or central-city parks like Beach, you've probably experienced a disgusting moment like this. If you run a downtown business, it's a virtual certainty.
The explosion of homelessness on city streets has manifested itself in a number of ways: Panhandling outside stores and at traffic intersections, and encampments in parks and right-of-ways, to name just two.
Human feces is another.
Now, finally, there is action on the poop front. Starting Monday, the city of Bakersfield began contracting with a private cleaning service to remove human excrement from downtown Bakersfield and Old Town Kern. Crews will respond to requests for cleanup between 6:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., Monday through Friday.
Bakersfield City Councilman Andrae Gonzales, whose Ward 2 includes the downtown area, proposed the arrangement. It's a $91,000, three-month pilot program, funded by the public safety and vital services tax measure, that is contracting with Alert Disaster Restoration, a private, certified fire damage/environmental service that's apparently branching out into this sign-of-the-times specialty. A handful of large cities, most notably San Francisco, have had scoop-up teams for some time now.
So far, so good. Or so bad, depending on how we're scoring.
"By 10 o'clock Monday, the first day, we already had 15 calls," Gonzales said.
Gonzales announced the program Saturday via Facebook and, although many constituents congratulated and thanked him, some said it wasn't enough.
"We're looking at different ways we can mitigate the impact of the current crisis, and this is just one," he said. "We're trying to address the issues for those experiencing homelessness. At the same time we have to address the needs of the downtown property owners. We're calling it the human waste cleanup program."
I prefer Poop Patrol, but Gonzales doesn't have much of a sense of humor on this particular matter.
"It's a serious issue, a public health issue that we have to respond to," he said. "We'll address it and we'll move on to other solutions. Access to public toilets is something else we need to discuss."
So are increased police foot patrols, a "navigation center" for the homeless that will include service providers who can help with employment and job training, a new shelter with 150 additional beds, and a $5 million investment in affordable housing this fiscal year.
But downtown business owners will be especially happy about the Ex (-crement) Men.
It's about time, said Richardson, a former Bakersfield College football player and nightclub bouncer turned community theater actor.
"I was at an audition for 'Crazy for You' at the Ovation Theatre one night but I was committed to 'A Christmas Carol' down at Stars Theatre," he said. "So I walked from the Ovation down the alley from Eye Street to Chester (Avenue). That's two blocks, and I saw six piles.
"That's not cool. That's how we came up from the Dark Ages: We got sanitation, we got sewer systems. I scream all the time about this and it looks like Andrae is finally doing something about it. I have to give credit where it's due."
To report feces and request the cleanup crew, call 661-319-0000. The crew works on a first called, first served basis.