146: “This Room Is Not Clean” (James Thurber)

                James Thurber’s essay, “There’s No Place Like Home,” reads an English/French phrasebook as though it were a narrative poem. Here’s a little piece of it:
                “Panic has begun to set in, and it is not appeased any by the advent of `The Chambermaid’: ‘Are you the chambermaid?’ ‘There are no towels here.’ ‘The sheets on this bed are damp.’ ‘This room is not clean.’ ‘I have seen a mouse in the room.’ ‘You will have to set a mousetrap here.’ The bells of hell at this point begin to ring in earnest: `These shoes are not mine.’ ‘I put my shoes here, where are they now?’ ‘The light is not good.’ ‘The bulb is broken.’ ‘The radiator is too warm.’ ‘The radiator doesn’t work.’ ‘It is cold in this room.’ ‘This is not clean, bring me another.’ ‘I don’t like this.’ ‘I can’t eat this. Take it away!’”

                Reading that, I’m awed by what Thurber can do with comedy. I’m having fun. And I notice that comedy–and maybe a certain kind of self awareness–dies when we only speak of our flaws carefully, reverentially, to demonstration how bad we feel about them.
                And okay, sometimes I’m that bumbling Englishman. Sometimes I interact with the world as though it will be a hotel room made up for me. Clean towels, a mint on the pillow, and no one else’s hair. That’s how I’m thinking when I’m in a hurry, and I get mad at another driver for hurrying. That’s how I’m thinking when I say it’s too hot outside, or to cold, or call the rain “bad weather.” (I imagine all the plants outside with New York accents: “We’re drinking here!”). That’s how I’m thinking when I’m mad that the milk’s ‘gone bad.’ That’s how I’m thinking when I wonder why I didn’t get that job I applied for, why that guy is praising someone who isn’t me, why people won’t just listen to what I have to say. Those are the times when I expect the world to be “in order,” which means (of course) in the order I’m expecting. And then I become the panicked, insistent Englishman, muddling through rooms, horrified at the mess, unable to understand why the law of my will isn’t applying to All This.
                At the end of his essay, Thurber quotes, “‘What must I do?’ ‘What have I done?’ ‘I have done nothing.’ ‘Have already paid you.’ ‘I have paid you enough.’ ‘Let me pass!’ ‘Where is the British consulate?’” If that’s not existential panic, I’m not sure what is; and if you don’t see the appeal for a Proper Authority to Enforce The Law, then I’ll set my dogs on you. Nothing here could be my fault. Things should have been arranged better. I’m going on to some place better. I deserve to, I’ve paid to, and there oughtta be a law (there is a law!) to make me right.

                In traveling, I have an opportunity to shake my little laws, to escape from them and see other things; and in traveling, I can be so intent on holding my fistful of control up before my eyes, so that it looks like all the world. A hot day, a well, and me, the thirsty fool too in love with his bucket to let go long enough to lower it into the water.

One thought on “146: “This Room Is Not Clean” (James Thurber)

  1. “I can be so intent on holding my fistful of control up before my eyes, so that it looks like all the world.” Loved this line so much! A delightful post as always, and I appreciated the imagery of exasperated New Yorker foliage very very much.


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