We move through the world surrounded by a cloud of invisible stuff. Think of the Charles Schultz character Pigpen who has been brought vividly to life in the newly released Peanuts, The Movie.
I saw this movie a few days ago, and then went out for lunch to a restaurant in whose Ladies Room there hangs a sign identical to tens of thousands of such signs hanging in the rest rooms of the nation’s eateries and grocery stores.
“Employees Must Wash Hands Before Returning To Work,” it reads.
Now when I was a kid and the sign first started appearing, I at first thought “OK, so the management is saying ‘Yes, the people who work for us have to wash their hands after using the toilet but the rest of you? No worries about washing up! You just mosey on go back to your table and chow down!’” It was years before I understood that a person is totally nuts if he doesn’t wash his hands before leaving the bathroom.
Because it’s not just about how clean the facilities are or are not: it’s about how germy we ourselves are, with our same system of pipes as any animal – to say nothing of our habit of touching the dirty surface of the world and then bringing our hands up to brush our lips or touch our noses.
This new movie depiction of Pigpen with a moving particle-filled cloud of dust billowing about his feet looks queasily lifelike and makes you wonder: What exactly constitutes this cloud?
The answer is, the same stuff we’re all surrounded by:
- Bits of lint and fiber from our clothing and bed linens.
- Pet dander, if there are pets in our house.
- People dander, in the form of dead skin cells, some large enough to come in flakes. (Yuck, I know.)
I once read a great book called The Year 1000 from which I learned that most people back then inhabited a two-tiered structure housing both man and beast, the animals sleeping on beds of straw on the earthen floor while above them, because the heat generated from their bodies would rise, the humans slept, on straw beds of their own.
This worked for them, in part because they had developed resistance to much of the ambient bacteria. It doesn’t work so well for us in the developed world, as it seems, we have been exposed to so many antibiotics that the germs consider it a fun game to keep morphing into ever more creative strains that we neither we nor the latest generation of antibiotics have power over.
It’s this new susceptibility that had me asking myself why, in the name of all that is holy, so many restrooms bearing the sign about mandatory hand-washing provide only cold water from both taps.
And the soap dispenser is so often empty. And the roll of paper towels has fallen from its now-broken holder and is teetering on whatever random surface will support it. It makes me want to write each establishment an impassioned letter, then try to get it printed in the paper.
I know that over the next 48 hours all my thoughts will be thoughts of praise and Thanksgiving, I imagine but today: Well, sometimes you just have to express your feelings, the way little Charlie Brown does.