Paracelsus is spending time this week thinking about his parent’s fiftieth anniversary. He’s pulled out his family tree charts and is puzzling over the generations that came before. Coincidentally, the movie The Titanic has just been released in video (Wait! Stop! Please don’t rush away to rent it just yet — I should never have mentioned it this early in the column).
What’s the coincidence?
The Titanic was 882.5 feet long. It sank in the middle of the North Atlantic. There is a great temptation to think that the icy dark water that closed over it is, effectively, infinitely deep. It just went down down down into another realm entirely, a separate reality, a different world. But in fact, it’s sitting on the ocean bottom some 12,500 feet below the waves. That’s only 14.2 lengths of the Titanic deep. Because of the Titanic’s titanic size, it didn’t really fall that far relative to its length. The equivalent depth for a human six feet tall would be 85 feet deep. Deep, but not crazy go to heck and back deep.
When I first saw this depicted graphically, I was immediately struck by the image of a person’s life stretched back across time; the water isn’t really as deep as it seems. Lincoln pronounced the words “four score and seven years” in Gettysburg only 1.93 seventy-year lifetimes ago. And four score and seven years before that, the Revolutionary War, is only 3.17 seventy-year spans underwater. Deep, but not crazy go to heck and back deep.
This is strangely comforting to me. I can picture the sloping deck of the Titanic, not in a storybook dimension beyond imagination, but gently resting on a solid muddy landscape. And I can picture my great great grandfather Jay Whittington Lewis marching along muddy North Carolina roads to join the Confederate army. He’s still there, just as my parents are still kissing each other with wedding cake in hand. The past is more present than it seems. And that’s pure gold.
The persistence of the past figures into this week’s contribution: we are fortunate to be joined once again by St. Frank (see his wild tale of debauchery under the Christmas tree in the Naked Felix, in case you missed it the first time around). This time he takes us to a small room far far away (unless, of course, you’re reading this in Germany).
by St. Frank
Kevin fumbled with the big, old fashioned key before managing to get it into the lock and push the door open. Before him was his room. The others he had met on the flight were staring, right now, into the same kind of little cell that he was. He let it sink in. The late afternoon sun seeped into the room, past an unruly shrub and a half – closed green curtain. He sighed and thought to himself that this was one of those moments that he would never forget, no matter how hard he tried. He was looking at what he would call home for the next year as an exchange student in Germany.
He walked in, closed the door behind him and placed his suitcase in the small closet to his right. Stepping further into the room, he noticed a desk with a few shelves above it. Beside that, there was a small trunk and a second chair. Opposite these there was a small, single bed with what seemed to be a straw mattress. Kevin walked to the window to see what kind of a view he would have; he always felt it important to have some “perspective”. With a room this size, he knew he would need the sense of openness that a window would provide. The shrub obscured most of the window, so he was forced to contort his body and crane his neck to catch a glimpse of the outside. What he saw did nothing to raise his spirits: There was a tiny patch of grass with a scraggly tree and beyond that was the Laundromat for the whole student housing complex.
Kevin turned his attention back to the room. He pulled a Camel out of his pocket and lit it. As the room filled with smoke, he turned to the window to try to clear the air and discovered that it had two latches, neither of which he knew how to operate. “I’ll figure it out later,” He said aloud. He turned around and through the deepening haze he looked the room over. It was a blank canvas; a clean slate that he could change to suit his whim. He wondered what he would do to the place to make to reflect his character.
Six months later, Kevin was thinking about that first day. How he’d practically hid in his room for two days rather than face his German housemates with whom he’d be forced to speak. Things had changed a lot since then. He had, however, done very little with the room, which now looked more like a shabby cave. During the winter, he had moved the bed next to the radiator under the window in a vain attempt to warm himself as he slept. This proved to be disastrous, as the window never closed properly after he had finally determined how to open it and as a result, the freezing temperatures outside created condensation on the window which became a small waterfall onto his blankets. The waterfall also managed to create a small forest of mold on the window frame, which created an odor that was bested only by Kevin’s perpetually overflowing ashtray. He lit another one and laughed to himself as he looked back over the past few months. His friends had hung posters, added TVs and even put in new curtains. Kevin had merely covered the desk top with insane drawings and started an impressive empty beer bottle collection on the floor. He stopped using the trunk and closet for their intended purposes long ago and simply let his clothes lay where they landed. In the middle of the floor, there was a giant dictionary that he had used to kill a vicious looking and incredibly fast spider. He hadn’t bothered to pick it up, thinking that the spider was still alive or that if it wasn’t, he’d have to clean it up.
The sink was another story. On the only occasion he had held an impromptu party in his room, also the last time he’d cleaned the place, he offered a very drunk girl the sink as a receptacle for her vomit. He had meant it more as a rhetorical offer, just being polite, but he was more afraid she’d throw up in the hallway and wake his housemates. At any rate, she took him up on his offer and let fly about three pounds of spaghetti into the basin. Kevin tried to clear it, but it was just never the same.
After that little episode, there were no more parties, and visitors were loath to enter his room for even a brief visit. Kevin began to almost enjoy his fetid surroundings, but still felt obliged to “do something with the place”.
One night, after a particularly rousing group of anti-Helmut Kohl demonstrations, Kevin had gone through the town tearing down protest posters that had lined the path of the marchers. These consisted of various anti-police, pro-Communist and pro-squatter rants. None of them were very well done, but their intensity made up for their general naivetÃ©. For good measure, he ripped down a few concert posters too. Back at his room, Kevin splattered the walls with his ill-gotten booty, and stepped back to take it all in. In truth, it looked pretty crappy, but he was too tired and drunk to care, so he fell onto his bed and passed out.
As the academic year neared its end, Kevin began the slow, deliberate task of cleaning the room and packing his belongings. The place had to be inspected before he could collect his deposit, and he knew before he had finished that he’d never see that money again.
The last day of his occupancy, Kevin looked at his now barren room. He had scrubbed the desk; gone were the drawings of screaming heads and ghoulish faces. He had poured the equivalent of ten pounds of lye down the sink in a hopeless attempt to clear the spaghetti and vomit-clogged drain. He had wiped as much of the mold off of the windowsill as he could stand, and as he took one last look, there was a knock at the door.
Kevin opened the door, and in stepped in a sour looking old woman without so much as a ‘Guten Tag’. These women seemed to be in charge of every cafeteria, restroom and library in Germanyâ€¦. They’d fit right in at the DMV. She stepped resolutely toward the window and spotted the mold. She grunted something under her breath and scribbled on a pad. This went on for a few minutes until she suddenly thrust the paper into Kevin’s hand, and left without a word. As expected, he had received no refund.
The next day, Kevin said good-bye to his little hovel and began his journey back to America. To this day, he cannot shake the memory of the tiny cell that he once called home.