THE WATER bottles lying in a pile on Buttonwood Street were not filled with water. Their contents were a mysterious, yellow liquid - one closer to brown, the others the color of lemonade.
Like Cris, the Callowhill resident who told us about the bottles, we assumed it was urine. But in the name of journalistic integrity, we had to be certain. Yes, readers, we opened the bottles and smelled them. Fortunately (or unfortunately), it took only one whiff: definitely urine.
But let's start at the beginning. Last month, Cris, who keeps us updated on quality-of-life issues in Callowhill, let us know that there was a big pile of "urine bottles" on Buttonwood Street near the Reading Viaduct. The pile, about 10 half-liter bottles deep, had been there for at least a month, he said. He also alerted 3-1-1 via Twitter.
More than a week later, the urine bottles were still there. When Cris looked up the 3-1-1 report, he saw that the Streets Department had checked it out and "did not see the issue." He followed up with 3-1-1, and we checked out the scene. We saw the issue immediately.
If you were going to dump a pile of bottles filled with urine, it's not hard to see why you would choose to dump them here. This stretch of Buttonwood between 10th and Percy ain't pretty. There's a graffitied truck that Cris said has been parked in the same spot for at least two months. There's even litter in the trees: a mangled baby stroller juts out of the overgrowth of a fenced-in abandoned lot. And, of course, there's the darkened trestle of the Reading Viaduct.
"No one lives on this street," Cris said, "so no one complains about it."
OK, so no one lives there. But does that mean that someone can just pee in a bunch of bottles and leave them there in a pile?
The one business on the street is a Mexican joint called Jose's Tacos. When we asked owner Diego Medina about the bottles, he said that he didn't know who was doing it but it wasn't the first time that someone's dumped them there.
We headed into the city-government building in front of the urine-bottle block and spoke with the building manager, Michael Santos.
"Nothing ever ceases to amaze me," he said to us, when we told him about the bottles.
His theory? There's a homeless shelter around the corner, and the men staying there are allowed inside only during meals and in the evening. They often come into his building, asking to use the bathroom, Santos said. But his building doesn't have a public bathroom, so he turns them away.
We did speak with Eric Epps, who sleeps at the shelter. He didn't know who was doing it, but he had some ideas: Maybe people are squatting in an "abandominium," he said, and they don't have any running water. Or maybe it's the guys who sleep under the trestle.
We may never know.
GEE, WHIZ: The city didn't have a good explanation for why it failed to clean up the bottles after Cris' first report. But after he followed up, the mess got taken care of.
Generally, the Streets Department would respond, but because of the questionable contents of the bottles, the Health Department was asked to go out.
Deputy Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams said that sanitation workers would collect bottles of urine ("We do some pretty disgusting things," he told us), but that, often, they ask the Health Department to first make sure the scene is safe. Williams said that sanitation workers usually contact the Health Department before they pick up potentially dangerous trash, like used needles.
We also spoke with Health Department spokesman Jeff Moran, who said that it isn't really the department's responsibility to clean up bottles of urine, but the health inspector did it anyway.
"The simple thing to do was to get rid of it," Moran said.
Taking charge even if it's not your responsibility? That's what we like to hear! (Though the health inspector did leave two gallon-sized bottles; they were picked up shortly after we spoke with Moran.) Cris, it's hoped, will get an equally prompt response if this happens again.
No problem is too gross for us. Tell us your city service issues at firstname.lastname@example.org, 215-854-5855 or on Twitter @phillyhowl. More columns at philly.com/cityhowl.