The Seventh Best Email We Wrote This Past Weekend: HMM WEEKLY PREMIUM
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LAST WEEK ON HMM DAILY
What do people expect or want from towels? More than a week after the last round of towel discourse, the problem remains, and if anything, it has deepened. The New York Times travel section, in trying to write a story about the unpredictability of amenities in the unlicensed hotel sector, gave us instead a parable of the fundamental unpredictability of humanity:
When Chelle Neff and her husband, David Neff, traveled from their home in Austin, Tex., to Dallas to visit family over Christmas, they stayed in a one-bedroom loft they rented through Airbnb. On the first morning they were there, Ms. Neff stepped out of the shower and looked for a towel. “I was walking around dripping, looking around the bathroom,” said Ms. Neff, 41, the owner of a hair salon. But the only towel-like object she found was a small bath mat draped over the side of the tub. So she dried off with that. “Thank God for the bath mat,” she said. When Mr. Neff took his shower later, he used the mat, too.
Ms. Neff texted the owners about the missing towels and finally received some that evening. When Ms. Neff later posted a review of her stay on the Airbnb website, she awarded the place four out of five stars. “I took a star off,” for the missing towels, she says. “Because that is not cool.”
The issue the Times wanted to get at was the presence or absence of the towels—which is, at bottom, a problem with the shiftiness at the core of what Airbnb is, or is not, or presents itself as. A hotel owes its guests towels; a hostel may expect the resourceful traveler to supply their own; a friend will have clean towels ready for visiting friends; a rented vacation home may tell renters to get their towels and linens through third-party contractors. As our old formal economy collapses into a jumble of scuffling informalized value-extraction, which of the old promises is it reasonable to expect anyone to still keep?
But the situation facing Chelle Neff, of Austin, Texas, was puzzling on a whole different level, one that transcended the Airbnb context. How does anyone—under any lodging or housing arrangement, at home or away—ever step into a shower without knowing in advance what the towel situation is going to be when they step out? Who would do this? Even if you are absolutely certain that there are towels somewhere, that abstract knowledge is worthless when you need to reach out your wet hand to grab one. What if they're shut away in the linen closet? Or stacked on the dresser back in the bedroom?
At first, it seemed as if Chelle Neff was too trusting to live in this world. How can you hustle and gig your way to survival if you can't even plan out your towel situation? And yet: what if the whole idea of planning is what's foolish now? If your expectations will go unmet regardless, why not start off with absurd ones?
The shoe should be the shoe, and not try to be anything else. I used to believe this was a reason not to buy Chuck Taylors made of anything but cotton canvas. I didn't even really want Chuck Taylors, originally; I wanted Jack Purcells, but the forces of fad and innovation eventually busted up the supply of 1930s-style badminton shoes, and I went over to the basketball shoe.
Then I got a pair of leather Chuck Taylors as a present. A present sometimes is a suggestion, from someone else, of a different way to be. I wasn't not going to wear them, and once I did, they made sense. They were warmer in cold weather than the cloth ones were, but not as cumbersome as boots. I could get away with them in a sort-of-dressed-up situation, or at least I could get away with them in more situations than I could get away with scruffy canvas.
Most importantly, they felt good on my feet. That was where the shoe ideology mattered. Other shoes try to boss the feet around, saying the arch should go here or there, lifting the heel, tilting the foot this way or that. The Converse All-Star footbed just sits there and lets the foot assume its natural preferred shape and position. The leather was merely a surface, under which my foot was at liberty.
Slowly and gradually they lost their original semi-classy aspect and started getting tatty. They leather endured long past the point where canvas would have failed, but eventually the engineering of the rubber started to fail. Still they felt so good I couldn't quit wearing them.
Finally, I put them on for comfort on a late-night run to Fairway. We needed—what? Baking supplies? Something that couldn't wait, for which I had to head out at an unaccustomed hour. It was so late that the supermarket had slipped out of its familiar daytime mode into something off-kilter and apocalyptic. The express checkout was shut down, and there was only one line for the registers, going all the way up the baking supplies aisle (it was surely was baking supplies, I remember having to get through people to get to the shelves) and along the fish counter and wrapping around somewhere else. I didn't pay attention to where I'd lined up until things had inched forward to the fish counter, where the ice was melting out. A sheet of fish-water covered the floor, a quarter-inch if not a half-inch deep, and the line ran through it. There was nowhere else to step and stand, and when I did, the cold fish-water went straight up through the bottoms of the shoes that had been so nice, for so long. I knew my feet would never go in there again, and they never did.
Nineteen Folktales: A Series
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]
7. The Frog and the Beetle
A frog and a beetle were sunning themselves at a distance from one another on a log beside a pool, the distance having been established and maintained by the beetle, out of distrust of the frog's intentions. The frog, catching sight of the wary glint in the beetle's eyes, reproached him. "What, brother beetle!" he said. "Do you suppose I would ambush you at rest? When I seek to dine on one of your kind, I can do it as I please, whether you are running of flying. I need take no added advantage." This was the frog's usual tone toward those smaller and weaker than himself.
But the beetle was a prideful beetle, too, and his anger at the frog overmastered his caution. There and then he challenged the frog to a race, from the pool to a large pine tree a quarter-mile away and back again. "Puff your guts with air all you want," the beetle said. "You still cannot take flight."
When the race began, though, the frog set off with a powerful leap, and another, and another. The beetle, on the wing, buzzed behind him as fast as he could, but the frog leapt ever further ahead, diminishing in size as he headed for the the pine tree.
Still, the beetle flew on, in pursuit. A half mile was a vast distance for creatures of their size. The frog was not bouncing along quite so quickly as before; indeed, the further he got from the pool, the dustier and more uncomfortable he became. As he rounded the pine tree, his feet slipping on the dry needles, he felt an ache in his legs. And he could still see the little beetle flying after him.
"Enough of this," the frog muttered to himself. "To be chased by a beetle is foolishness. Let the beetle come, and I will deal with him." And the frog hid himself behind a root, to snare the beetle when it passed by.
The rustling of frog's labors in the pine duff, however, had reached the ear of a blacksnake. Even as the frog crouched to await the beetle, the snake slid silently up behind it and, opening its jaws, seized its hindquarters. By the time the beetle rounded the tree, the frog had been swallowed to the shoulders. "Lordly in the pool, lowly in the forest," said the beetle, and it flew back to the log alone.
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