Thursday, April 23
Yes, like a lot of local geezers, I read The Union Democrat’s obituaries.
Didn’t always: Mostly old people were there, and I didn’t know many. But now friends, acquaintances and news sources, most of them senior citizens like me, populate the obits. When I join them, I will be in good company.
And one of the first guys I’ll look up in the hereafter will be Roger Johnson, whose obit appeared on April 18. A lifelong Chicago Cub fan, Roger died at 89 earlier in the month.
I was sorry to learn he had passed. But just the thought of Roger, as it has for years, put a smile on my face. Because he was responsible for Mi-Wuk Village’s Five-Star Comfort Station.
Mean nothing to you? OK, I’ll set you up with a few words from a July 13, 2007 column on what was then Tuolumne County’s most famous public restroom:
Martha Stewart could have decorated the place.
It has wallpaper, a tile floor, a heated toilet seat, flowers, and country homilies on the walls. It’s bright, airy, refreshing and neat as a pin.
But this is no country cottage or meticulously kept home of the week. Instead it’s a one-holer. An outhouse. A public latrine, for goodness sake.
That’s what makes it news: You go outside the Mi-Wuk General Store expecting one of those reeking, flyblown, graffiti-covered plastic port-a-potties, survivable only by holding your nose and closing your eyes. But instead you get the cutest, coziest little loo in the county.
My piece detailed how the irrepressible Johnson, who owned the coin laundry next door, convinced General Store proprietor Jim Drewery to swap his stinking port-a-potty for something genteel and tasteful.
Johnson built it, plumbed it and, in September of 2005, opened it to the public. Soon the “Five-Star Comfort Station” became a Mi-Wuk landmark.
“I get compliments all the time,” Drewery told me in 2007. “I’ll meet people out of town, and they won’t remember my business, but they can’t stop talking about that restroom.”
“Dad got the idea on a vacation we took to Newport Beach,” remembers Modestan Lynne Marcus, Johnson’s daughter. “Everything was so neat, tidy and tasteful down there. He was inspired.”
Johnson built the station for just $4,000, an infinitesimal fraction of the hundreds of thousands of dollars government agencies shell out for public latrines.
“Great story,” I thought, wrapping up the July piece. Little did I suspect that the Comfort Station would keep me busy for months to come.
Roger, then 76, admitted that his little loo “was kind of illegal.” It was not wheelchair accessible, he confessed, and he had built it without a permit.
In the months that followed, an anonymous citizen – one who had no doubt read my July column – made a formal complaint. And the county promptly ordered Johnson to shut the Comfort Station.
Thus began “Pottygate”: Local outrage mounted, petition campaigns were launched and Johnson had a challenge for the county’s code-enforcement officer.
“I dare her to spend even a minute in one those port-a-potties you see up and down Highway 108, and then tell me she likes it better than mine,” Roger said. The zoning cop somehow resisted.
Meanwhile, political pressure mounted. Teri Murrison, the county supervisor representing Mi-Wuk at the time, felt it: “One caller told me the success of my first term in office depended on the fate of that little potty,” she said.
“Biggest story we’ve had here in years,” added one Mi-Wuk oldtimer.
And Comfort Station users began leaving cash donations inside to support its defense fund. “Someone left $20 last week,” Johnson told me. “They either really liked the place or really had to go bad.”
Alas, no deal could be brokered and the county, after extending its closure deadline several times, stuck with Jan. 4, 2008.
Johnson threw a wake for the Comfort Station at his nearby coin laundry that very day. Coffee, cake and soft drinks were served. A poem, “Ode to a Commode,” was recited. And, amid a mix of freezing rain and snow, Roger stepped outside to ceremonially disconnect the loo’s plumbing as its fans looked on.
And I was there, reporting for what would be my fourth column on the Comfort Station.
“This is the silliest thing I’ve ever been to,” Mi-Wuk cabin owner Paul May told me at the time. “But I had to be here to support Roger.”
Silly indeed, but a priceless story. The kind we could use amid these dreary days of Corona confinement.
“Dad was all about the fun,” says Lynne Marcus. “And when things got out of control, like they did with Pottygate, all the better. He loved every bit of it.”
And there is a postscript, one I never covered in my string of columns more than a decade ago:
“After the shut-down, Roger moved the Comfort Station from my store onto his own coin-laundry property, which is just a short walk away,” recounts Drewery. “He told the county it would be for ‘personal use only,’ and they were OK with that.”
But Johnson was not the only user: For nearly 10 more years the little loo remained open for General-Store customers, who didn’t mind the short walk at all. And the county never said a word.
“Roger knew how to play the game,” laughed Drewery. “He was a wonderful, spirited person.”
Although Johnson spent the last couple of years at Sonora’s Meadowview Manor with his wife, Barbara, he would regularly visit his Mi-Wuk Village friends until just weeks ago.
And Roger also lived long enough so see his beloved Chicago Cubs win a World Series in 2016.
For a guy who gave the rest of us so many laughs, this is only fitting.