Among the things that make Charleston distinctive, the proliferation of horse-drawn carriages would have to rank pretty high on the list. From Calhoun Street to The Battery, they are a common sight, transporting tourists, wedding parties, etc. Of course, along with that comes what horses like to leave behind — shallow ponds of urine left to simmer on the hot, porous asphalt, blending with the other scents of the city to create an indelible aroma.
Thankfully, there's an entire team of people dedicated to cleaning up those messes, an effort to make sure that our old, historic, distinguished city doesn't smell like ... well, the way every old, historic, distinguished city used to smell.
The problem is, the fine folks who do this job are constantly harassed, maligned, insulted, or otherwise dishonored by many of our fellow citizens. So, in an effort to understand what they have to deal with, I decided to head to Olde Towne Carriage Company on an unseasonably warm autumn day to not only talk to the people who have this thankless job, but experience it firsthand.
The clichéd statement here, of course, would be something along the lines of: "The first thing you notice is the smell." Which, while it makes a nice long line, is not really the case. I mean, okay, yeah, the first thing you notice is the smell, but it's not awful. Not to say that it's the best scent, either; horse urine and manure have a very distinctive odor, as anyone who has ever had a pulse and been downtown could tell you. However, once I got down there and had a chance to speak with Charley Bruce — employed there for seven years — and Rob Clark — for over 20 — after five minutes at the barn, the smell faded into the background.
Did you know our city has five different carriage companies, but only one equine sanitation department? Whenever there's been a road deposit, the driver of the carriage calls it in to them and drops a marker — a racquetball cut in half with a little orange flag sticking out of the top. Then the equine sanitation crew drives a cleanup truck, a Ford F250 with a massive vacuum and a pressure washer attached to a giant tank of OdoBan, a chemical so powerful that it kills HIV on contact. Don't worry, Greenies, it's not harmful to the environment, either. They usually arrive within 10 minutes, and never more than 30. Even if it doesn't get called in, the team makes a habit of driving around the main carriage routes, looking for those flags. They do have a habit of disappearing, however; they make about 100 markers a week.
Which reminds me — parents, if you see your precious darling angels approach one of those flags and start to pick it up or, y'know, stick it in their mouths, two words: Horse pee. Tourists, think you've found a souvenir of your visit to Charleston? Horse pee. Frat boys, wandering home drunk and want to play some catch? Horse. Pee.
So what was it like? The day I went out with Rob was deceptively easy. Warm and sunny without being oppressively hot, there wasn't a whole lot of horse traffic out there. We came across maybe a half-dozen cleanups that needed to happen, and a couple of times he let me pull the hose out, fire up the lawnmower engine, and spray the hell out of the street. Luckily there were no pedestrians nearby, because I would have been extremely tempted to hose someone down with that OdoBan — which, for the record, smells worse than the horse pee, except when the two mix together, which could be in the running for Worst Smell Ever. Even so, it wasn't stressful at all, and seemed like it could even be a pretty fun job, all things considered.
Here, however, is where a lot of my fellow residents are letting me down. And yes, that means you. These people already have to deal with poor drainage systems in the city, with blistering heat in the summer, with driving down narrow streets and stopping for 10 minutes to clean up after a pair of mules who've left a 50-foot trail of manure in front of the Calhoun Mansion. In light of that, why do you need to scream at them, honk your horn, ride their bumpers, and otherwise engage in asshattery?
Consider for a moment: we live in a city that has been smart enough to limit carriage traffic to 20 on the streets per day. Charleston has also paid for a team with the best system in the country for cleaning up after that traffic, a team that knows where all the "hotspots" in the city are and checks them religiously (random fun fact: horses like to pee in the same spot, like dogs), a team whose entire purpose is to keep the crap off the streets, and who are paid to do so by your tax dollars. So, the next time you see one of them doing their job, instead of yelling at them, giving them the finger, or, you know, punching one of them in the face, why not say thank you instead?