Letter 33: Brief Interviews – Interview #42

Dear Dave,

Like the eyes of Dr. Eckelberg watching over the Valley of Ashes, so stands Interviewee #42’s father watching over the comings and goings of the men who visit the restroom of the “top-rated historic hotel in the state” (86).  Dressed in his all-white uniform, he sees and hears and smells some of the most wealthy and most powerful men in the nation, and perhaps in the world, at their very worst – doing their business in the men’s room.  Like the symbolic eyes of God in Fitzgerald’s classic, so stands this unnamed man to serve as a reminder that even our most private moments may not be as private as we think they are.  Those times we may think we are totally alone or anonymous or unseen often turn into moments of great embarrassment when we find we are not as alone as we once thought.  There is no such thing as absolute privacy.[1]

But that is all just a side note.  I just thought it was an interesting connection between this nameless restroom attendant and the faded billboard in Gatsby.

Like “The Depressed Person,” you end this story with the #42 considering the question of whether he admires or despises his father for his twenty-seven years of service in the men’s room.  It seems from the overall tone of the story and #42’s inability to answer the question that his feelings are rather ambivalent toward his father; he hates the humiliating circumstances his father endured day in and day out for those twenty-seven long years, but he can’t help but respect the man for the sacrifices he made to provide for his family.  I can’t help but think you intend for us to answer the same question for ourselves.  In my long consideration of these questions at the end of this story, I find my feelings much less ambivalent; I actually have a great deal of respect and admiration for this man.

In chewing this story over, I’ve come to realize there is a subtle, but very important difference between humility and humiliation.  And that difference is not in the actions done or the suffering endured, but in the motivation behind them.

Humility comes from a place of self-sacrifice for the good of others.  It is a willingness to lower oneself to the lowest of the low – even to the position of a men’s restroom attendant[2] – for the benefit of others.  It is the postal carrier who walks the beat for thirty years to see his kids through college.  It is Salvation Army Santa who stands outside the grocery store in the bad part of town to collect spare change for the charitable organization.  It is the political campaigner who volunteers his[3] weekends to go door-to-door to advertise for a cause or a candidate he believes in.  Humility involves a sense of the greater good and realizes that personal sacrifices must be made for that greater good.

On the other hand, humiliation typically comes out of selfish motivation.  It is self-deprecation in the name of fortune or fame.  It is amazing what people will do, or allow to be done to them, for a chance at a wad of cash or fifteen minutes in the spotlight.  All the hours of reality television that I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve watched come flooding back to me when I think of this:[4] those who show up for “American Idol” in ridiculous costumes to gain some camera time, or the “Survivor” contestants who chow down on live insects for a shot at a million dollars.  All it takes is some booze, a hot tub, and a camera and there’s no telling the depths to which people will stoop in search of fortune and glory.

For Interviewee #42’s father it is a matter of duty.  For whatever reason, this is the hand life has dealt him, and he does his job with honor and grace.  He not only performs his job with dignity, but does it for a noble cause: the care of his family.

I wonder if #42 is fully aware of this.  I wonder if he can truly see past the indignity his father suffers at the hands[5] of these “hideous men,” and see the reason why he does it.  I wonder if he can see what those twenty-seven years of humiliation have provided for him (i.e. – Interviewee #42).  He may not admire his father for what he did, and he may be embarrassed to speak of him, but what would his life be now if his father had not done what he did?

[1] If you doubt me, just think of all the nose-pickers you see in the cars next to you during your morning and evening commutes.[back]

[2] While I am sure this job still exists in many exquisite hotels and restaurants, I think a more working-class equivalent would be that of working at a fast food restaurant.  I worked at a major fast food chain for a month in college; it has to be the worst – and most humiliating – job I’ve ever had.[back]

[3] Though I am using the third-person male pronoun, I do not mean to be gender-exclusive in the point I am trying to make.  I know many a woman who have been equally self-sacrificing – sometimes more so – than their male counterparts.  I merely use the “he” rather than the “s/he” or the “he/she” out of old habit and laziness.[back]

[4] Although the genre of reality television is relatively new, humiliation for entertainment certainly is not.  I remember an “I Love Lucy” episode in which Lucy must first endure being sprayed with a seltzer-water bottle, then put on a charade for Ricky of having a former husband in order to win money on a radio game show.[back]

[5] Or rather the bowels.[back]

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