Well Meaning People
A few years ago, I was directing a play out of town, and the producers put me up in a hotel. One of those Super 8-type places where the pillows smell like bleach and sheets are so crispy they practically crack as you fold them. The staff was sullen and bored, although often I would come through the lobby with nary a soul in sight. A sign on the front desk read, "Your comfort and safety is our main concern." This proved to be a lie since the rooms were neither comfortable nor was the hotel particularly safe. The back door from the parking lot was always open, which meant anyone could come and go as they pleased. It was like a speakeasy for prostitutes who frequented the rooms around me inhabited by construction workers and truckers.
I happened to mention the broken door to the desk clerk on the morning shift.
"Oh," she said, "Yes. We are aware of the door. Unfortunately, the lock is broken." She said this with the finality of an auctioneer lowering the gavel on a sale. It didn't occur to you, I thought to myself to have it repaired? It was THAT kind of place.
"I'm very sorry to bother you," I said as politely as possible, "but I wonder if you might have someone take a look at it? You know, just for the safety of your guests."
The desk clerk shifted and looked annoyed.
'It's been that way for ages, and so far, we haven't had any problems."
This is the sort of thing people say when they know you have a perfectly good argument, and they just want you to shut up. More importantly, it's said in a tone that suggests YOU are being unreasonable. It runs in the same category as "What could possibly go wrong?" A sure sign that disaster is just around the corner.
I should have let it go, but she was getting under my skin. "You don't see this as a safety threat?" I asked.
She stopped doing her sudoku puzzle and looked up at me.
"We have security cameras."
"Yes," I said, still trying to be agreeable, "But if someone is wearing a hoodie or sunglasses or just knows enough not to show their face...?"
She stiffened, "It's not like a hotel lobby isn't accessible to anyone off the street. In case you hadn't noticed, people walk in here all the time."
I was about to share with her the differences between entering in broad daylight through a front door or sneaking in the back after hours, but then I thought better of it and retreated.
In the morning, there was a breakfast bar where cold eggs and dry muffins were devoured by the guests who gathered in a depressing huddle to eat and listen to the news on a television attached to a beam on the ceiling. I'd never seen anything so pathetic in my life. And the worst part was knowing I was a member of this collective. In instances like this, to comfort myself, I'll say things like, "I'll bet none of these people like classical music or have ever read Dostoyevsky."
The truth was probably that most of these people were, if not reading Dostoyevsky, living proof of his saying, "To live without hope is to cease to live."
Under the neon light, picking at dry toast eaten at Formica tables, we eyeballed each other silently, wondering what twist of fate had brought us together.
"Mind if I sit here?" a sizeable triangle-shaped woman asked me as she balanced a plate full of food in one hand and a waste paper basket-size coffee in another. There was room at other tables, but in the lottery of "who will have their space intruded upon?", I always win.
The woman, whose name I later discovered was Charmaine Horseman, immediately began to regale me with every second of her life that had brought her to this very moment - this being her daughter's gymnastic meet.
"She's worked so hard." she said, "And we've come so far. Today are the Junior Girl finals."
In the space of twenty painful minutes, I learned that little Lisa was about as perfect a tween as ever existed, her only vices being drinking too much cola and a proclivity for getting hiccups.
"It has something to do with how she inhales," Charmaine explained, leaning in and speaking in a whisper. As though hiccups were something to be ashamed of. In my head, I was thinking, ten to one, this kid has more problems than that.
When I went to school at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, we spent two years learning how to read people's behaviour. It was one of the three major elements of the work - the other two being listening and reacting truthfully. I've spent a lifetime putting this theory into practice, so it always strikes me as fascinating when other people cannot tell how bored, annoyed or uncomfortable I am listening as they describe the eating habits or significant achievements of their progeny. Over the years, I've come up with successful excuses to disentangle myself from these conversations, and I launched into one now. "Well...nice meeting you, " I began, "There is somewhere I must be. Best of luck today. "
"You're going?" Charmaine exclaimed, utterly gobsmacked that I might have a life outside this hotel.
"I have an appointment," I replied, rising from my seat and grabbing my tote bag.
"If you say so," she mumbled between bites of toast, clearly miffed.
At that moment, I realized that Charmaine had scoped out the room and, seeing me, had decided I would be the lucky recipient of her munificence. Not needing or wanting her help was tantamount to my shutting the door in her face.
She sat there crestfallen and as I turned to leave, she stopped me with her hand.
"Listen," she said, " I hope you don't think I'm being nosy or overstepping my bounds, but you were kind of rude to that hotel clerk. She's just a poor working woman trying to support herself and her family."
I have met a lot of Charmaines over the years. Supposedly well-meaning women with a proclivity for nurturing that borders on intrusiveness. Their self-esteem is fuelled by their ability to be needed. There was a time when I would have gladly accepted an older woman taking on the role of mother in my life, but those days were long gone.
"You should apologize," she advised. "You should try to be nicer." "You should try to accept the help of others." Essentially she "shoulded" all over me.
"You know... " I started to say and then stopped. "Never-mind. Good luck today."
As I made my way down the hall back to my room I heard her say,"Whatever bee you have in your bonnet, I suggest that you not take it out on other people." Then smiling, she added, "Don't worry, this too shall pass."
I was just about to say something I'd regret when I was saved by little Lisa, who came bounding to the table complaining of a stomach ache (code for she had her period) and was in desperate need of immediate attention. And off they went.
I was thinking about this encounter all day, twisting and turning it around in my head as I tried to sort out what I had done wrong. The hotel clerk, Mrs. Horseman, it seemed like no matter what I said, I was pissing people off. I analyzed the events and couldn't come up with a single thing I'd done wrong.
* * *
The following day I was in a rush to get to rehearsal and quickly made my way to the breakfast nook to grab an apple and a coffee when I spied Charmaine sitting alone at a table. My first instinct was to ignore her, but then I saw her dab her eyes and blow her nose into a napkin. I felt compelled to check in.
"Excuse me," I said, "are you okay?"
'No," she sobbed.
"What's happened?" I asked, afraid that maybe little Lisa had fallen off the balance bars or been injured on a pummel horse. "Did Lisa lose her competition?"
"No," Charmaine replied, sobbing even harder, "She came in first."
"I don't understand," I said, "Why are you crying?"
It turned out that after Lisa's hard-earned victory, her mother had decided to take her out for a celebratory cola at a place around the corner from the hotel. In the time it took for them to finish their victory lap and for Lisa's unfortunate hiccups to stop, someone had broken into their room and absconded with her trophy.
I wanted to say, "Don't worry; this too shall pass." But instead, I sat down and sympathized.
'Listen to the terrible day I had," I said, and proceeded to share with her a litany of untrue and terrible catastrophes that instantly made her feel better.
"What you should do," she started to say, and I merely sat there and nodded