Friday, October 06, 2006

My Dirty Arms

As I sit down and ponder what to write about today, I fold my arms (because doing so is conducive to pondering), and I'm surprised by how dry they feel — the upper part, the part between the shoulder and the crook. At first I can't figure out why they feel so papery to the touch, but closer examination reveals a freckled quality, a speckledness — the speckledness of dirt. It turns out they're dirty!

Why do I have dirty arms? Because I have a slow-healing broken foot, I've been in a cast for three months, (under the cast are four rods and a big clamp holding my metatarsal together) and it's hard to get into the tub when you have to balance on one foot. But even so I've been diligent about washing — or so I thought. I guess because I was using my arms for washing I forgot to wash them. It's always what's most obvious, isn’t it, that one thing that's out there doing the most work for us, that escapes our notice?

My dirty arms bring me back to childhood, to a bright bathroom with a bare bulb late at night in winter, and the smell of Palmolive on a washrag: I'm secretly scrubbing my upper arms, chest and thighs, secretly because of my mother's prohibition against bathing in the winter. She believed bathing in the winter would cause you to "catch a draft" and get sick. So for my sister and I there was no bathing from November to March, only sponge-bathing the parts that showed: face and neck, arms from the elbows to the hands, knees and the backs of the knees. But on Thursdays I had gym class, and I was already the biggest freak there — literally the biggest: I was almost six feet tall by age eleven — and the last thing I wanted was to have someone spot the caked-up dirt. Ma had said, "Oh, what do you care what they think? They ain't gotta live in a drafty house." Actually, we didn't live in a drafty house. We lived in a tiny, four-room apartment above my grandmother's tiny, four-room apartment. The place had been built by my great-grandfather for stockyards workers, and had been four two-room apartments on each floor. But then when he brought his family over from Poland he redid the layout, and everyone occupied the whole house. (And when my mom got married she and my dad just moved in on the second floor, in true second-generation immigrant tradition.) There were no drafts because there was no room for drafts, the place was too small, and plus the one transom — that little window above the door that you open by pulling down on a metal rod — didn't work anyway. It occurred to me years later that Ma was hypersensitive to cold because of her overactive thyroid, and that's why she was always sensing pestilential drafts and breezes. I also later discovered, on a bus in Prague at the height of a very hot summer, that the fear of drafts is an "old country" thing: when I cracked the window to get a breeze going an old lady sitting across the aisle from me almost broke her hip running over to close it. She screamed something at me in Czech, with fear in her eyes. After she went back to her seat the man sitting next to me explained to me in broken English how some people still believe that moving air carries germs and diseases. I got Ma's whole "catch a draft" thing right then.

But who knows what kind of personal "Death in Venice" that woman might've lived through during the second World War. And as I'm writing this I'm starting to see Ma in a different light — she was kind of a cool neurotic non-conformist who didn't give a shit about bathing, just like my record-collecting geek boyfriends of the '70's, who also didn't give a shit about bathing. She was right: why did I care what those kids thought? They were all on welfare and living in trailers in the dirty park under I-90 anyway. What kind of a little conformist was I? And all along I thought I was such a rebel, engaging seventh grade boys in long, baroque polemics about Jimi Hendrix's Woodstock version of "Purple Haze." I may have sported black and white spiked hair circa '78, but only in clubs where other people were sporting the same; whenever I went back to the old nabe I wore a hat. Now Ma, she was different, in her own quiet way, all the time. I think I'll be more like that from now on. America needs its non-conformists.