Over a late-late night drink when everyone starts looking better and better, this brunette with a petite melancholy face at the bar smiled a soft one and asked me for a light. As the torch of my cigar lighter licked her cigarette, her gentle hand brushed a caress over the back of mine.
I know what you are thinking…. And I may get to that in a moment…
But first, I posed to her: “Why so glum, Darlin’? Your goldfish drink too much… Your boyfriend forgot your name… Your boss make one politically incorrect demand too many?…”
She flashed that demure grin again… This time it seemed to reflect hurt… or more of a wince… almost theatrical… She offered a long smoky exhale, got her shapely slim-and-trim bones rearranged on the bar stool so she was facing me, and said simply. “Work. Got off an hour ago. Takes me a while to get this pathetic look off my puss.”
Hmm… Nice puss there – even if there wasn’t a cat sitting in her lap.
I wondered: “Your work keep you flat on your…back?”
Another smoky exhale. Her hazel eyes darted over me, assessing. “No, on my feet…” And then she added rather matter-of-factly: “I am a restroom attendant.”
For some reason my amorous thoughts went a tad flaccid. Like I stepped in something. And whatever I was thinking flushed right outta me.
Hmmm… I had to admit that I never met, or even known, a bathroom…
“Ladies’ room,” she corrected.
She explained that she worked at one of the grander hotels in downtown Philadelphia where there are attendants in the lavatories near its luxurious restaurant and bar. And then, perhaps a tad defensively, she got philosophical.
“I have found that the more pathetic I look the more tips I get… The younger, and middle aged women feel uncomfortable…”
“Around the hired help?” I inquired.
“It’s not the days of house servants anymore.” she continued. “No, something about a restroom attendant… It’s like being or existing at the bottom…”
“Aptly put,” I chirped.
She disregarded my saccharine humor. And then she added: …“Or you’ve fallen rock bottom… a place we all fear ending up…”
“Bottoms up,” I said raising my glass. Mostly I just didn’t know what else to say.
She proffered a tolerant smile.
“…So I give them my pathetic look. The more pathetic, the more tips I get. It’s all a game…I like playing it… I get to feel empowered. Like I am making them actually feel something. And give me something for it.”
So, I wondered with polite curiosity, you make your job palatable by acting? Playing a game? Making other folks, like me, feel guilty? And then getting paid for your ‘performance’.
“For the most part,” she said. “But don’t we all?… I finally got a college diploma. And this is what I am doing… Maybe I’ll write a book…Or write a masters…”
“I mostly write,” I offered like a simpleton… “on bathroom walls.”
Since Emma and I parted company — the next morning — I have to admit I am a tad haunted by the experience of meeting a person who takes her job so openly and theatrically. I guess we all do, really. We all play roles. Indeed, as the bard said: We are all actors upon this stage. I think she was being honest. That is, she wasn’t ‘playing’ me. I mean, of all the things she could have been, or said she was… it didn’t have to be something so … rock bottom…aromatic.
But what I’ve noticed more and more, now, is when I pass by the ‘pathetic’ faced street beggars I am assessing them. And reassessing them. I am seemingly less empathetic and more of a skeptic.
They are crouched and squatting unkempt on the city pedestrian thorofares. Their backs often against a wall. Their pitiable pleas hand scrawled on cardboard placards dangling across their chests. They are not song and dance men like the ‘good-ol’days.’ They are playing on our ‘there-but-for-the-grace-of-G-d’ goes me.
And I think of Emma and her words late into the night. And naturally I am wondering: Is this for real? Are they for real? Has their ‘show’ just become their street theater? Their job? Are we all just rationalizing fools? Are we all just self aggrandizing, grandiose actors and personae de jour?
Is everything a performance?
When do we admit – or resign ourselves – to: This is what I do. This is who I am. This is my life until I can think of a better life. Play another part in the play…
When do we — or do we ever? – get to know our real selves? And accept who we really are? How many character layers of onion skins must we unpeel?
Obviously all sorts of metaphysical questions and issues bombard you…
And naturally I wonder what is it about Emma that she can articulate her occupational therapy so well. How she well knows to act accordingly.
For isn’t that what is always getting my nose punched: Not knowing or wanting to act what is expected or predicated by the force of others; that is, ‘accordingly.’ I know, I know… someone famous in history no doubt said: I’d rather miss the mark acting well, than win the day by acting sordidly… But I don’t know if that really matters in the long run… Like most folks I guess I figure a win is a win… And it only goes in the record books as a ‘W’ or an ‘L’.
But most of us seem to want folks to act according to qualified standards – even if they aren’t acting criminally. Nor uncivil. We want to be able to pigeon hole them in comfortable categories. I guess I find that an anathema. I detest it because I abhor what is boring and uninteresting. That, to me, is a crime.
Nevertheless, most of us want to see people how we expect them to act. I mean, we don’t want to see our politicians laughing and enjoying themselves. We don’t want to see our soldiers being pusillanimous. We don’t want to see refugees un-accepting of our help. We want to see our clowns happy. Our grievers sad. Our leaders pensive… Etcetera…etcetera…etcetera…
We want to see others as we expect them to be. Almost preconceived. As we have been inculcated by the media, or by their own public relations, or just by our own expectations and prejudice.
But then, of course, for the most part, that is when we really don’t notice them anymore. We stop noticing the ordinary. For we really only notice the unusual…the unexpected.
It gets crazy like that, doesn’t it? I first noticed Emma because it was late and she had a wonderful pair between her shoulders. But what I remember about her was that she was unusual – not only in her attitude, but her assessments and rationalizations. She has made me pause in memory… and think about something.
Was she acting honestly? I honestly don’t know. But I do know that if you can fake that, you’ve got it made. We all acquire a particular quality by constantly acting in a particular way. I think I read that somewhere once. But it rings true.
Look, thinking is easy, acting is difficult. And to put one’s thoughts into action is the most difficult thing in the world.
And from now on, every time I see an attendant in a restroom, I am going to quietly thank Emma for reminding me.
And dats yDrewIS on dis penal colony…