by Hugh Gilmore
Our educations come to us by degrees, measured not by B.A.s and M.A.s and Ph.D.s, but by insights about ourselves. I have often anticipated loving things I later came to hate, and hating things I came to love, but when I was lucky the experiences taught me about the useless prejudices I carried around as my guide to the world and its possible delights.
And prejudices about such small things too!
I’m thinking about the first time my wife, Janet, and I went to Saratoga Springs. I wanted to visit the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame because it was the year of “Seabiscuit,” the book and the movie. I enjoyed them both. And loved the museum, especially because they had a case dedicated to Seabiscuit’s jockey, Red Pollard. Some of his racing silks were in there and a few photographs and whatnots, but the item that moved me most was his copy of “The Pocket Book of Verse: Great English and American Poems.”
It was Pollard’s. Carried everywhere with him, folded into his jacket pocket, it was creased vertically and well worn. The sight of it filled me with affection for the guy. A working-class Irish kid, no money, no education, he nonetheless carried privately his devotion to poetry and the finer things that money can’t buy. I identified with him. One of my people.
Our people are also a frightened people, afraid of seeming ignorant and absolutely terrified of seeming soft. And so it came to pass, it being Mother’s Day weekend in Saratoga Springs, that Janet said to me:
“Let’s do the baths! I’ve always wanted to ‘take the waters.’ I love that expression. Let’s do it.”
“I’ll keep you company,” I said, “but that’s not for me.”
I’d never be able to go back to my old rough neighborhood, a mill town, where we all lived in the shadow of the Woolford Wood Tank factory and were bordered by the foul-smelling Fels-Naptha soap plant that spewed mucus-colored chemicals into Cobbs Creek all day and night. We were the people that walked on high beams and drilled concrete and ran pipes along the ceiling during the day. We wore socks on our hands in the winter and put cardboard in our shoes when the soles wore through. We picked the still-useful lumps of coal out of the ashes fallen from the furnace grate. Being all on the same path, there was no sympathy for the blisters of our fellow trudgers.
“What’s the matter, you can’t take it?”
Things that were soft, things that were warm, things that asked you to let your guard down were all for the “others.” The soft people.
“You got an umbrella with you? Hey guys, look: he’s got an umbrella.”
But, Janet said, “Come on, just try it. Maybe you’ll like it.”
Who, me? Not a chance. But she booked two tickets anyway. When the time came, we walked from the Saratoga Arms B & B down to the Lincoln Baths (maybe they were the Roosevelt baths, I don’t remember), a massive 1930s WPA building, one wing of which housed the part they still used for baths.
Janet went down the ladies’ corridor, I the men’s. I entered a small, partitioned room. An efficient, valet-looking man wearing a white jacket and no expression, giving no small-talk and just a here-to-serve-you attitude, told me to undress and wrap a towel mid-waist. When I was ready I should come out the second door. I did. In a small, white-tiled, featureless room stood an old fashioned bathtub, filled with what looked like weak tea. I climbed in. It was as warm as water can be without feeling hot. My gentleman’s gentleman said, “You’ll be here for one half-hour.”
I thought, a half-hour? How the hell will I ever be able to sit here for an entire half-hour? This is stupid. And already boring. I started to look around so I could describe this old place after I escaped. In fact, maybe I’ll just get out of here now. My clothes are right next door. I’ll meet Janet in the lobby. But just then I noticed that the water felt peculiarly soft. Don’t be stupid, I thought, give it a try. I can do a half hour. I put my head back and rested it on the small towel that lay against the rounded edge of the high-backed tub. Needing to justify my motionless presence, I thought I’d do a scientific study of how the carbonated mineral water made my skin feel.
Pretty good, that’s for sure. And not just my skin. I had just passed into another world. In fact there was no world. There was just … just … here, this quiet, warm – no, not warm so much as … perfect. I’d lost the barrier membrane between myself and whatever the hell existed outside this watery capsule. I sensed no opposition from the environment. I felt as though I had sunk into myself, or perhaps, cliché or not, back into the womb. I never felt so relaxed in my life.
And then I thought, with pleasure, Wow, a half hour of this! This is great. I love it. I let the last of my body’s usual tension leave me. And just as I did, a thought came to me: half hour? I don’t have a half hour any more. I have about, what? twenty-five minutes left? Twenty-five minutes! Panic hit. Time had peeped over the ledge and there was only 25 minutes left.
I lay there, suspended between my surrender to this peaceful coma and fear that the experience, the full experience, would be over before I would want to let go of it. How should I spend my remaining time?
(Continued next week)