John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
A man in Daytona Beach, Fla., was recently taken to jail for spitting on the street. This is a good thing
That was the sound that preceded the recent spitting arrest of Austin Kennedy in Daytona Beach, Fla. After seeing the 18-year-old discharge a glob of saliva onto the street, a pair of local cops took him to jail and stuck him with a $100 fine.
To which I say: That's it?
There are few urban nuisances as filthy as spitting. I'd personally rather run across an angry drug addict peeing on a dumpster than one more man launching a snot rocket over the subway tracks. Mission control: You look like a camel when you do this. Yet as disgusting as the habit is, public spitting has persisted throughout American history like a drippy sinus infection that just won't go away. Navigating the streets of any major city today means potentially stepping on a land mine of slippery, bacteria-laden mucus.
That's why I applaud archaic laws like Daytona Beach ordinance 86-36(b), which criminalizes dredging up phlegm on “streets or sidewalks or in public buildings or places within the city limits.” (Per city law, it is also verboten to grow spiny plants near a sidewalk or own more than four iguanas.) Violators can incur fines of up to $500 and a 60-day jail sentence, where presumably they can spit their hearts out into a metal toilet. The police aren't passive about enforcing this decree, either: They bagged six slavering individuals in 2011 alone.
People who feel compelled to share the contents of their throats and lungs with the rest of the world also face punishment in Richmond, Va.; in Dayton, Ohio; in Burlingame, Calif. (although the city manager there has made an allowance for baseball players); and in a few other cities across this moist “nation of spitters,” as Charles Dickens is said to have dubbed our country. These ordinances are mostly remnants from the tuberculosis-ridden 1800s and early 1900s. In one instance, health officials feared that the ladies' long dresses would mop up webs of pathogenic sputum from the sidewalks.
The fear makes sense. Unless they're profuse criers, there is no other instance in which people are allowed to leak bodily fluids into well-trafficked areas. Sure, shoes form a first line of defense, but what if your fingers touch the sole while taking them off? Or if you have a dog, what's to prevent it from smearing saliva on you or your loved ones?
The fact that anti-spitting laws are still around, though, suggests their purpose is not solely in safeguarding the public health. Al fresco spitting is, one or two medical conditions aside, totally unnecessary. Saliva is meant to coat your food and go down into your stomach – only flies do it the other way around.
So why do people, men in particular, insist on spitting in public?
There's evidence that it's in our biology. Scientists have found wads of chewed yucca leaves in the American Southwest that date back 2,000 years. These leaves aren't tasty or medicinal or anything. Native Americans just seemed to like having something in their mouths to produce spit.
One sociologist has posited that males expectorate to unconsciously mark their territory, like dogs peeing on a fire hydrant. When Sally's Trove ran a poll on the subject, men responded overwhelmingly that they thought they “had no choice” when it came to hawking a fresh one, meaning “I'm sick, I chew tobacco or betel nuts or sunflower seeds [or] I can't breathe” without
spitting. The two big runner-ups were “I think it's cool” and “it's a culturally OK thing to do.”
Whatever the cause, slapping everything with spittle like your mouth is a semi-automatic rifle at the paintball range remains an acceptable form of expression in this country, save for enclaves like Daytona Beach where it's treated like the despicable offense it is. Public spitters are still waiting for a Gandhi of Gobbing to rally the opposition against these civil rights-curtailing laws. The fact is, though, that spitters aren't frequently hero figures. Once again, take Austin Kennedy from the ClickOrlando article:
[Police chief Michael] Chitwood said officers were in the process of arresting someone when Kennedy started “mouthing off” at them and then from five yards away, spit toward the officers. He said the officers could have arrested Kennedy for disorderly conduct or interfering with police business, but instead, the chief said, they gave him a break.
And, I would suggest, a court-ordered muzzle.