A Toilet is Just a Toilet

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Dan, a busboy at the Savoy, met the famous poet Emily Dickinson yesterday. He met her before and praised her, like a grown up baby. “She looks like Brad Pitt’s girl Angelina Jolie, in a long black dress,” he said.

“She and a group of dignitaries were having dinner. She faced the window looking out at amber London. And the night sky was smoky. It matched her gothic presence. I got them wine. I was manic, bouncing around the table like a lap dog,” Dan said.

“And the people she was with were poised and strategic; they had some presentation they were discussing, like the order of the speakers, her new Pulitzer, or the transportation to the school since there might be traffic.”

“Her organizer complained,” Dan said, “that it was recommended that they leave the hotel 3 hours early and that they just sit there in the green room: ‘What would you have us do for three hours?'”

Dan was reminded of the hotel in Brazil, where the houseman pulled his victim into a storage closet and made love to her even though she had doodled on herself from fear. “One moment,” he said, “you have someone’s helping hand and in the next, you have his or her passion spilling onto you as a grasp of ownership.”

“I can remember him” Dan said. “In the courtroom, he was looking at her without remorse and she was unable to look him in the eyes.”

“They had cuffed him,” Dan said, “and they lead him out after the verdict was read. His attorney was a bumbling public defender with a dirty brown suit, but it didn’t matter. The rapist was still ‘in love’ with her and she was angry, paranoid, ruined, skittish, and tender.

“So I held back waiting to recite ‘1st Rain/Cry of Faith,'” Dan said, “as it ran through my brain as the only poem I’d ever tried to memorize but I always forgot lines while I recited them. And my colleagues would laugh and so would the other guests at the table, so I kept it to myself like a kitten in my vest while boarding an airplane that might eventually escape with a whine.”

“I went through the emotions,” Dan said, “just as the article said: You meet her and undress her and that’s how it always was, like animals in clothes, it is the first thing people want to do, except of course she’s only being kind because I am one of the hired help and I am pouring water. I can’t possibly know what a couplet is or a simile; because I am not like anyone she’d care to undress with her eyes.”

“The dinner goes on like this and I get more and more disgusted with myself,” Dan said, “recognizing my station and the impenetrable facts of what will inevitably happen. Sure enough she is the first to leave. I think that I’ll never see her again. I feel like the postman in Il Postino having to borrow a line of silence, as she becomes a memory. She grants me a sweet goodbye from a distance and I hold onto it like a magician’s dove but it gets away and I am standing over the group as if they dried up and their souls evaporated. My mind followed her around the corner and I imagined her speaking from behind the podium:”

You left me boundaries of pain

“Capacious as the sea…,

“And I am still trying to memorize those lines,” Dan said, “of the only poem I wanted to remember:

“Silent, gliding bells of grace

“impure moments, chief alight

“The moon whose purple heart collides

“With savage curls of smoke.

“I breathe with tender stroking sighs

“The hour of my death, I cry

“In chambered thoughts of loneliness

“From miles away bewildering.

“Cold, this weather feels and cannot find.

“But when I see the eyes of love,

“Her puritan smell,

“The evergreen meandering through forest tall

“And sycamore sails in the thunderous air,

“How fine this dance withholds the tears

“And rain will fall through leaves so still,

“And on these spikes become impaled.”

Dan knows that even as he has memorized the whole poem, the timing would be wrong for him to say it. Dickinson is gone and he was not equal in standing to the party’s patronage. He thinks of Duchamp’s toilet, where replicas are now on display in a number of different museums, and so, “A toilet is still a toilet.”

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3 comments

  1. As it usually happens to me with literature, the more times I read any poem or short story, the more I like it. I love this story even though I am still not sure whether I have understood it completely. However, this is what it means to me: a story where a clear social class conflict appears. In this sense, I would regard Dan as a character that becomes a human prototype of an inferior class. He stands at the opposite pole of the social scale in contrast with the higher sphere represented by the other characters: the dignitaries attending an important event.

    Emily Dickinson also belongs to the higher class. What I do not understand here is her exact role in the story. As a reader I ask myself whether she is the real Dickinson and thus Dan, a character of our present times, would be traveling back to her living time metaphorically speaking. When he meets her at the beginning of the story he says “she looks like Brad Pitt’s girl Angelina Jolie, in a long black dress”. I think that would give credit to this interpretation but, as I said, I don’t know.

    Another possibility would be that Dan meets a woman in our present time who is not Emily Dickinson, but she somehow reminds him of her, like her reincarnation.

    In any case, what I see is that Dan feels excluded socially speaking. Dickinson is only kind to him because he is attending her as a customer. In addition, he cannot recite her poem by heart. That adds frustration to his life. Emily Dickinson is in front of him but he cannot enjoy her company. He can only attend her as a customer like the rest of the people at the party. Thus, he remains socially inferior and watches sadly how she leaves the place.

    In the story I think Dan truly empathizes with the woman that was raped by the houseman because, like him, she was a victim, she was also treated like an inferior.

    I like Dan’s identification with the postman in Il Postino. Loved that movie. The postman is, like Dan, a person who would be immediately classified into an inferior social class. However, he has natural curiosity, sensitivity and high intellect. Through his contact with Pablo Neruda and his poems he becomes someone who, intellectually or culturally speaking, does not match the typical characteristics of his social class. Dan, as well, is interested in poetry, which is something no one would expect from a typical busboy. Thus he is held back, he cannot recite ‘1st Rain/Cry of Faith’. His colleagues from the same social class and the guests at the tables, who belong to the higher sphere, would laugh at him:

    “…so I kept it [the poem] to myself like a kitten in my vest while boarding an airplane that might eventually escape with a whine.”

    And also:

    “I can’t possibly know what a couplet is or a simile; because I am not like anyone she’d care to undress with her eyes.”

    I love this description: “She grants me a sweet goodbye from a distance and I hold onto it like a magician’s dove but it gets away and I am standing over the group as if they dried up and their souls evaporated.” Sad beautiful image.

    Dan’s thinking of Duchamp’s toilet could have the following interpretation: His art was not valued, but and now it is with the many replicas. Dan is undervalued as a busboy just as Duchamp’s Fountain was at the beginning. The word toilet is first associated with sex and abuse when the woman is being raped. In the end of the story the word association seems to be with something underestimated, again with Dan’s social inferiority as a busboy. “A toilet is still a toilet” such as “a busboy is still a busboy”?


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