The honey-bucket index

On Porta-Potties, Chihuahua racing and the vanishing American dream

Illustration By robert armstrong

To be honest, I’d really rather just tell you about the Chihuahua races, and how through them I rediscovered everything that is good and decent about America. But that’s not how this particular journey began. I was searching for signs of the coming economic apocalypse along the stressed seams of Sacramento’s suburban neighborhoods, and honey buckets seemed like a perfectly reasonable place to start.

No product in history has been more inaptly named than the honey bucket. For those fortunate enough to not be in the know, honey buckets are those aquamarine-colored portable toilets you see on construction sites and at outdoor music festivals. Human waste mixes with a chemical in the toilet’s tank to form a blue, fruity stew that smells sickeningly sweet. That’s the “honey,” thus the name’s incongruity.

One honey bucket will process the waste of 10 construction workers during the course of a 40-hour work week. It seems reasonable to expect, given rising unemployment in the construction industry, to find stacks of honey buckets piling up all over the country. We might point to this excess as an indicator of reduced economic activity, a honey-bucket index, if you will.

I confess that this brilliant idea is not my own. It comes from my senior economic adviser, otherwise known as my dad, who lives east of Redding. After the real-estate bubble popped 18 months ago, the porta-potties began stacking up at the rental place he drives by on the way into town. Nowadays, so many honey buckets have been returned, they’re stacking them outside the fence. Surely, my father speculated, the same phenomenon must exist in Sacramento.

Indeed it does. At J & J Sanitation in south Sacramento, the excess toilets were stacked four-deep next to an adjacent vacant warehouse. The sweet stink of what seemed like 1,000 honey buckets wafted over the razor wire at Waste Management’s compound off Elder Creek Road. At United Site Services in north Sacramento, the porta-loos, hundreds of them, were stacked high and deep behind the security fence.

Mum was the word wherever I went. At one storage yard, a couple of burly men moved threateningly toward me after I lingered near the entrance too long. A police car prowled the street outside another location. Phone calls to the various rental companies in Sacramento were not returned. No one seems to want to talk about the honey-bucket glut.

It’s understandable. Out here on the edge of the sprawl, where zoning laws permit portable-toilet companies and the working class to coexist, you can see the boom receding. These were among the last boats to rise with the economic tide and the first to founder. Foreclosure placards decorate many of the yards. Signs on shuttered businesses advertise, “This space for lease.” Everybody knows where all of this is going, and nobody in their right mind wants to go there.

So we seek out distractions, such as the fourth annual National Chihuahua Races sponsored by Petco, which I accidentally came across in an Orangevale shopping center last Saturday while exploring our economy’s ripped back seams.

The straight 1/18th furlong (35-foot long) track was laid out in the Petco parking lot with a starting gate at one end and a finish line at the other. More than 100 people had gathered for the contest, clutching to their breasts Chihuahuas of every description: longhairs, shorthairs, apple heads, deer heads. The frisky, diminutive beasts pulled on their leashes as brightly colored banners flapped in the light breeze.

It would have been easy to write off the event as just another example of corporate exploitation, in this case by Petco, the national box-store chain that’s replaced the traditional mom-and-pop neighborhood pet shop with ubiquitous warehouses across America. Or point to the foolishness of pet owners who purchase fortified water for dogs, endorsed by Cesar Millan, a.k.a. the Dog Whisperer.

But there was something pure on the track last Saturday, something not cheapened by rampant commercialism. It was there on the faces of owners exchanging “kissies” with their miniature friends, in the laughter of children coaxing family pets to the finish line and in the Chihuahuas themselves, untrained but enthusiastic, exploding out of the starting gate and into waiting arms in the blink of an eye. Isabelle may have defeated Bruiser in the final race, earning the right to compete in the national finals later this year, but on this day, love was in the air.

My father and I, in addition to being small-dog lovers, belong to an exclusive club a friend politely calls “the catastrophists.” We’re convinced the world is running out of oil, with disastrous effects that are already being felt. For us, World War III has already begun. We’ve been predicting that a second Great Depression is just around the corner for the past 10 years. The honey-bucket index doesn’t lie. It’s here. Soon, we’ll belong to the same exclusive club. We might want to pick up on the lesson I learned at the fourth annual National Chihuahua Races in Orangevale.

A little love goes a long way. Thirty-five feet in slightly less than two seconds, as a matter of fact.