Washing Up


AS A CHILD your host was raised (for 5 or 6 years) by his grandparents. They were not “Children of the Depression” but rather “Adults of the Depression”. Grandpa had been in his 20s. Grandma, born just prior to the turn of the century, was 30 when the stock market crashed. So their habits and, really, their psyches, were shaped by having known the excess of the pre-crash era followed by the trauma of the collapse. They knew how far things could go in both directions. So, it will come as no surprise that they were never prone to excess. Even though we were neither terribly poor nor terribly wealthy, we were always frugal. Regardless of what other folks did in the 1960s – neither in the rural South where your host grew up nor in other places – but “use it up, wear it out, make due or do without” should be translated into Latin and place on our family crest.

One of the things that always stands this writer apart from other people of the same era is that the idea of wasting any resource horrified us. Leftovers were always reused. Food was never tossed out. Lights turned off. Heat kept low (we burned coal in our furnace). And, always, water was conserved. In childhood, while washing face, hands, and neck was a common experience, barring emergencies, bathing was reserved for Saturday Nights. There were jokes on TV about this. Everyone in Mayberry knew Saturday was bath day. Even into the mid-70s, the idea of bathing more than once or twice a week (it was Saturday and Wednesday by 1974) seemed like a needless waste. To bathe every day – even more than once a day at times – seems a terrible luxury.

Lust (Luxuria) from The Seven Deadly Sins
Etchings, 1558. Pieter van der Heyden

This brings us to the word of the day: luxury. It seems most interesting that while luxury, to us, implies fur coats and sumptuous foods at its Latin source, luxuria, this word means lust.

What makes this the word of the day is the fact that I had no hot water this morning or, rather, I had tepid water. I think the heater in our building was working, but, perhaps, someone had taken an over-long shower. I’ve done that myself in the past. Additionally, this being SF, most of our pipes are actually outside. Thus to get from the boiler to me involves a trip in the cold outside air. It has been quite cold. Anyway, I had not my usual luxurious shower today. And I found myself thinking of Exodus 90 and also of the folks that come to me and ask for help. And how showering in the cold is normal for some folks, as is not showering at all.

This is not a post about feeling guilty for our modern luxuries. But it is a post about not-recognizing that they are, exactly, luxuries. No one has a right to bathe every day or even to do so in warm water. No one has a right to not-smelling or even to not-smelling their neighbors. To put it even better, no one has a right to clean neighbors.

I think of how race was once used to exclude strangers from whole neighborhoods. Now it is also class and smell with the defense (in all cases) being “property values”. My right to not-smell you is enough for me to demand you not be allowed to sit in “my pew” or next to me on the bus. In fact, it’s such an important right that I will fill up the road with private vehicles so we don’t have to smell each other – gas fumes are better. My property values are more important than your dignity as a human icon of God as is my right to have meat at every meal, my right to have cheap plastic junk at Wal*Mart, and my right to consume adult content on the internet.

At root, our modern luxuries are, exactly, luxuries.

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He is almost 59. He feeds the homeless as a parochial almoner and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He is learning modern Israeli Hebrew and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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