Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Fear, Ascendant

Standing in line this morning at a Brueggers (sadly, with the departure of Schwartz's a couple of years back, the closest thing to a real bagel to be found downtown -- and no, most of you don't know from real bagels), I watched the employees laconically go about their work, the baby-faced young black woman with her pendulous breasts hanging out the sides of her unflattering apron, the young man with the reddish beard neatly trimmed who politely addressed each invitation to the "next guest" (please), and with the time their indifferent pace afforded me allowed my mind to wander back to my own days in food service.

In college I waited tables and bartended, but in high school I worked a movie theatre and a couple of delicatessans, among other things. One deli in particular comes to mind: oddly, I can't remember the name, though I think it was Laurel Market. It was a very high-class, gourmet, everything made on premises sort of place. We baked bread overnight, sliced it to order on an ancient machine that always terrified me with its ratcheting hum and its inscrutable, shuddering ability to neatly slice the softest of loaves. We bought our bagels elsewhere, I should mention, but they were real bagels, good bagels, difficult to find even in north Jersey.

Our coolers were stocked with obscure iced teas, juices, and carbonated beverages, years ahead of the mass market proliferation of same, and our sandwiches were to die for: fresh meats, often roasted in-house, cut to order on fresh-baked bread. We measured out our meats and cheeses like corporate delis do, except unlike them our portions were meaningful; a sandwich was a meal, and a damned good one. Even as a vegetarian, everything was so fresh and wholesome that I grew comfortable removing roasts from blood-lined pans, peeling away string, and slicing it into twists and paper-thin sheets of redolent beef, handling the oozy liverwurst, wiping my hands free of the residue of roast turkey on a wet rag and smiling welcomely at the next person in line, like as not a diminutive, well-to-do Jewish woman in her fifties . . .

But now no one wipes his hands. Why would he? He's wearing plastic.

Clean freaks and various phobics among you surely aren't going to agree with me, but I miss the days when I trusted my deli to hire people who would keep their hands clean enough to handle my food safely. And as a vegetarian, that requires an additional leap of faith most people needn't worry about: I can taste the residue of meat on cheese, can tell when my egg has been fried on a part of the grill used to cook meat, I know, and yet I'd infinitely prefer a world in which there's enough mutual respect that we can trust each other to care for our own hands, to worry about the passage of germs not just for our own protection but for that of our friends, family, and our clientele.

But some of it has to do with this underlying weirdness pervading society about germs in general, and I find it terribly interesting that the phenomenon seems to have gathered force since we identified HIV and AIDS. Of course, HIV can't pass from simple hand to hand contact, and is virtually incommunicable by blood, since exposure to oxygen does a number on the virus. And as for the other stuff people worry about passing, first, cellophane gloves probably aren't going to do much of anything for you, and second, your body's designed to repel these things, which are all around us, in the cleanest bathrooms, in the air conditioned air we breathe, and all the plastic gloves, HEPA filters, and antibacterial soap in the world isn't going to do a damned thing about it.

Indeed, AIDS provides a perfect illustration of this: AIDS, of course, kills you by exposing the body to opportunistic diseases and viruses, because it eviscerates its victim's immune system in various dimensions. If we succeed in our misguided effort to place ourselves in a hermetically sealed bubble, then no AIDS patient should take ill. But they do. Just as we do. In similar proportion to when the man making your bagel, or your dentist for that matter, worked with the skin of his hands exposed to the subject of his work.

Decks instead of porches. Television instead of book circles. The internet instead of coffee houses. How many layers must we place between each other before we lose all sense of other people? And how much of an impact will this endless intermediation have on our essential humanity? How is it that those things so many of us search for these days entail the abandonment of so many other things?


Anonymous binky said...

The sad thing is that the loss of humanity you lament doesn't always even buy us the safety we supposedly desire, and it's not only because we are worried about the wrong diseases. Gloves will help with the spread of some, but not unless the people wearing them act differently than if they do when wearing nothing on their hands. If they wear the gloves and then handle the raw shrimp, wipe their rears, pick their noses, and then rub your sandwich, it's the same as a bare hand. During one of my father's hospitalizations, my mother and sister witnessed the following: a gloved hospital employee came in to clean my father's room, very important for any hospital patient and especially for him, a transplant patient. The cleaner went into the bathroom, took a rag from the cleaning cart, sprayed cleaner into the toilet, used the rag to wipe the toilet, and then turned without changing anything (rag, gloves, anything) and rubbed the rag all over the sink, "cleaning" it. Then the cleaner put the rag back in the cart, and went on to the next room.

This brings me to my conclusion: the gloves are not there to protect us, but to protect the person wearing the gloves. It might be the same with your bagel.

On a personal note, I share your lament about Schwartz's. I used to get bagels every day at the one in Oakland when I was indentured in Forbes Quad... err, Posvar Hall.

9:36 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

eXTReMe Tracker