I truly believe that on the soul or spirit level we're all equal. The street or homeless man has the same intrinsic human value as the Nobel Laureate who is on par with the candlestick maker and the baker.
Today, I received a humiliating lesson in how most of the world--I suppose--does not discern people in this way.
In my town, I am a fairly well-known teacher, poet, and small-time journalist for a local rag magazine. Maybe I am very well-known as the Coordinator of the yearly Southeast Regional Limestone Dust Poetry Festival. We are a not-for-profit organization; and, because the year-round staff consists of Ruth and . . . uh . . . me, we generally don't have time to write grants. Instead, we rely on community donations, the small fees that come with poetry submissions, and very small donations at the door. However, because this festival is a work of love for both Ruth and me, we try to give our guest poets and our attendees the best treatment and the best poetry festival possible.
I had worked out, over the phone, a discounted deal with a well-known hotel, the name of which I will not mention, though one of the initials is an "E." The director with whom I spoke, very generously, offered the lowest discount we had ever received. One night free, and the other three rooms at a rate of about $90. plus tax. Otherwise, the rooms in this luxurious hotel would have run as igh as $165. per night. Ruth and I know how to ask, and we know how to negotiate, and we are adept at begging. We have not yet learned to outright grovel. There would be no way the pitiful little till of our beloved festival could ever afford that amount. I told the director how very grateful I was, and she followed by asking me to put out negotiation figures into an e-mail to her, so that when she retured to town today, she would have a reminder. I could come in and we would set up housing for our poetry guests, one from New York, and one from Birmingham, for two nights.
Today, it was around 102 degrees in the shade. I'm one who cannot "dress well" in such heat. If I did, I would faint. I drive a 1999 Saturn, in which the air-conditioning still works--works very hard to keep going. I also contend with heart problems, which exacerbate my sweating problems. I chose to wear a light-weight, but stylish white blouse, but, oh, dear, the dreaded blue jeans. I did wear good quality earrings--not super chic, but not "bling, either. I wore the nicest sandals I have, and even polished my toenails--something I rarely do. I did bathe and wear deordorant. I did wash my hair. Of course, by the time I arrived at the hotel in the kiln of my 1999 Saturn, my hair looked as though I had just stepped out of the shower. All that cleanliness, I guess, for nothing.
In the years Limestone Dust has partnered with the "E" hotel, I have never had to deal directly with the director. This was a first.
To cut through the long and painful rejections, the secretary lied, telling me that the director was not in. However, when the phone rang, supposedly from outside the hotel, the call came in from an inner-office line. The secretary explained who I was and what my business was. I don't know what was said on the other end, but the conversation went on for so long, I imagined it might not be good. The secretary called me to her desk to explain that the director would be back sometime much later, but she had no idea when. However, I was welcome to come back the next day or the next. I could make an appointment. "Okay, I said. For what time tomorrow should I make the appointment?" The secretary's face appeared like a series of gears and levers working to come up with an answer. "Oh, I have no idea. She comes and goes and comes and goes. It would be hard to say." I was very kind when I asked, "Should I come very early in the morning and wait all day?" I could see the gears needed some WD-40, but she said, "Well, I suppose, but she may not come in at all. She's so busy with meetings, both here and outside the hotel." The secretary did, however, give me the director's card, and suggested I might call her the following day.
As I turned to go, to my left, I could see into the director's office. A Chico-like jacket hung over the back of a comfy-looking executive chair.
I left the hotel feeling down, knowing I had been avoided, that time was running short to secure rooms for our poet guests, and that it was hot enough to have melted what remains of my 1999 Saturn. As I was climbing in, a young-ish woman, dressed, not to the 9's, but to the 12's--or even the 15's--passed by, giving me the once, and the twice over, and God knows what she thought about my poor old Saturn. I felt, with some certainty, that I was seeing the illusive director.
At home, I called the number for the "E." hotel, having to ask specifically for the director's office since the secretary had given me someone else's card. On the voice mail, the director clearly stated that one could call her cell phone. I decided I would do that.
As soon as I said my name, she let out almost a gutteral "ew!" that I don't think she could help, and then was quite irritable about my having called. I asked her why she gave out her cell phone if she didn't intend for anyone to call it--strictly as a rhetorical question. I told her I simply needed to make an appointment since her secretary had no idea when she might be in next, and I couldn't continue to go to the hotel over and over, and especially in the heat. She said, "Well, you see, I am very busy, and I do come and go and often do not know when I will be in." I countered with, "So, isn't that the reason for appointments?" She treated that as a rhetorical question, even though that was not one. Of course, I know this woman makes appointments all the time. She just didn't want to make one with me.
She sounded flustered and said, "Look. I'm very busy. in fact, I'm in a meeting right now." I apologized for having bothered her. She said, "You didn't bother me, but I do have to go. Look. Come in next week sometime. Maybe Monday, and we'll get this thing all worked out." I hated annoying her further, but I did by saying, "Ms. ___, I do need to make sure rooms will be available for my guests." She assured me that they would be, absolutely no problem. Just come by on Monday--or some other day next week--and we would get everyting worked out.
Deep in my soul, and shallowly in my soul, I knew I could come in for a thousand Mondays and never get the discounted rooms.
Everything added up. First, I had brought cash. That was immediately suspicious. Ruth had originally written out a check to me, from the Limestone account, because I didn't think hotels took checks--only cash or credit cards. Second, I did not fit the "mold" for a "festival director" in my town. I have met and know quite well some festival directors here, and they and I do not look at all the same. Further, they are not on disability from multiple cardiac deaths, whereas I am; and they often, though not always, look like the director--if that was the director--dressed at least to the 9's and drive anything but a 12-year-old Saturn with peace signs on the bumper and a chain of God's Eyes from Turkey hanging on the rearview mirror. It dawned on me that I had been assessed as a con artist of some sort who planned on paying $300 for a bunch of my evil cohorts to occupy three other rooms for two nights in this luxurious hotel.
It dawned on me that they saw me as absolutely "nobody."
It hurt. It does hurt to be seen as "no one at all." I suppose I could have run home (in my 1999 Saturn) and brought back my resumé or cut out newspaper articles. But, no, I decided. I didn't want to have to prove myself to these people. These, in fact, lying people.
I did call on a good friend from our local newspaper, who is going to call for an appointment tomorrow. I'm sure she will get one. The director does not know that I will be with my friend. I don't plan to dress any differently. I will be clean and try very hard to be polite and use good manners.
I do want to ask, "Who do these people--the director, the secretary--think they are? That they could look into my soul and know who I was because my hair was sweaty? I think they could have, at least, given me the benefit of the doubt. At the bottom of my e-mail, I had listed all possible websites, including that of the Red Room. I suppose not all people who dress to the 15's read poetry or know what it is or even know the expression "to go one's own way" or "non-conformist" or "eccentric." Okay. I'm not a dresser. At the same time, I don't know them, either. I did judge them, that's for sure. But it wasn't by their clothes, actually. It was by the way they rejected me and planned on continuing to reject me but pretending not to reject me at all.
I don't wear dirty clothes or torn clothes; but if someone else does, God bless them. They probably don't have the money to buy better, or they have chosen, for whatever reasons, to live in the streets and not care about what they wear. I knew today how the homeless and street people are treated all the time, every single day. Most people don't care how they treat them just as long as they can keep them away from their own space.
I wonder what the director and her secretary would say if I were to say that the Great Leveler, Death, makes everyone the same. All egos fall away in death. The ego-pain we must go through in this world and the fallout of the ego-pain of others is, in large part, what makes up the hurtful, hellish part of this world. And what makes losing the ego altogether a Paradise of equality and love. Based only on my experience today, I don't think they would get it. But maybe I'm wrong.
Causes Bonnie Roberts Supports
The Southern Poverty Law Center, The National Resource Defense Council, The ACLU, Doctors without Borders, Save Darfur