The Dirty Glass

by John Steinbeck

Not far outside of Bangor I stopped at an auto court and rented a room. It wasn’t expensive. The sign said “Greatly Reduced Winter Rates.” It was immaculate; everything was done in plastics - the floors, the curtain, table tops of stainless burnless plastic, lamp shades of plastic. Only the bedding and towels were of a natural material. I went to the small restaurant run in conjunction. It was all plastic too - the table linen, the butter dish. The sugar and crackers were wrapped in cellophane, the jelly in a small plastic coffin sealed with cellophane. It was early evening and I was the only customer. Even the waitress wore a sponge-off apron. She wasn’t happy, but then she wasn’t unhappy. She wasn’t anything. But I don’t believe anyone is a nothing. There has to be something inside, if only to keep the skin from collapsing. The vacant eye, listless hand, this damask cheek dusted like a doughnut with plastic powder, had to have a memory or a dream.

On a chance I asked, “How soon you going to Florida?”

“Nex’ week,” she said listlessly. Then something stirred in that aching void. “Say, how do you know I’m going?”

“Read your mind I guess.”

She looked at my beard. “You with a show?”


“Then how do you mean read my mind?”

“Maybe I guessed. Like it down there?”

“Oh sure! I go every year. Lots of waitress jobs in the winter.”

“What do you do down there, I mean for fun?”

“Oh nothing. Just fool around.”

“Do you fish or swim?”

“Not much. I just fool around. I don’t like that sand, makes me itch.”

“Make good money?”

It’s a cheap crowd.”


“They rather spen’ it on booze.”

“Than what?”

“Than tips. Just the same here with the summer people. Cheap.”

Strange how one person can saturate a room with vitality, with excitement. Then there are others, and this dame was one of them, who can drain off energy and joy, can suck pleasure dry and get no sustenance from it. Such people spread grayness in the air about them. I’d been driving a long time, and perhaps my energy was low and my resistance down. She got me. I felt so blue and miserable I wanted to crawl into a plastic cover and die. What a date she must be, what a lover! I tried to imagine that last and couldn’t. For a moment I considered giving her a five-dollar tip, but I knew what would happen. She wouldn’t be glad. She’d just think I was crazy.

I went back to my clean little room. I don’t ever drink alone. It’s not much fun. And I don’t think I will until I’m an alcoholic. But this night I got a bottle of vodka from my stores and took it to my cell. In the bathroom two water tumblers were sealed in cellophane sacks with the words: ”These glasses are sterilized for your protection.” Across the toilet seat a strip of paper bore the message: “This seat has been sterilized with ultraviolet light for your protection.” Everyone was protecting me and it was horrible. I tore the glasses from their covers. I violated the toilet-seat seal with my foot. I poured half a tumbler of vodka and drank it and then another. Then I lay deep in hot water in the tub and I was utterly miserable, and nothing was good anywhere. 

Charley caught it from me, but he is a gallant dog. He came into the bathroom and that old fool played with the plastic bath mat like a puppy. What strength of character, what a friend! Then he rushed to the door and barked as though I were being invaded. And if it hadn’t been for all that plastic he might have succeeded.

I remember an old Arab in North Africa, a man whose hands had never felt water. He gave me mint tea in a glass so coated with use that it was opaque, but he handed me companionship, and the tea was wonderful because of it. And without any protection, my teeth didn’t fall out, nor did running sores develop. I began to formulate a new law describing the relationship of protection to despondency. A sad soul can kill you quicker, than a germ.

from Travels with Charley


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