The Uncomfortable Gaze #1
I am back from holiday, and starting a new series; descriptions of moments in my life, extended or singular, which held my attention longer than they should. Some of them might be small, some big, but I hope that I can show why I stood or sat or crouched staring at them for so long, filing them away for future use.
I’ve done some drawings for them, as well.
A few weeks ago, I found myself at Heathrow Airport, not waiting for a flight. I watched the various tropes blunder around the too-wide halls on plastic wheels; an American woman, trying to rustle up some enthusiasm for healing crystals in her dour, unctuous English man, who ignored her stoically while she peeked and peeped at him adoringly over his hamburger. I saw very little romance, and when it was time for me to go I wandered into the toilets.
I was, of course, as quick as I could possibly be; the smell was like that of a cure for something worse, and between the lemon-streaked mirrors and the lemon-streaked urinals there wandered a cleaner, looking for a gap in between the muzak. It was tremendous, all-encompassing; tinny, beatless, meandering and almost extinct now, rarely found in an age where classical music is copyright free and all-purpose. Here, its last remnants try to cover the rising smell through a synaesthesia, mixing with the peeps of men’s shoes on the tiles.
As I walked out, trying to hide the damp spots across my thighs, I fell in behind a security guard. He wore a tangerine tabard, bars of argent across the back, and walked with a whistle.
As we approached the door, in less than a single moment, he performed the kindest act that I had seen all day. I was not unhappy, at all, and had seen a more or less trundled procession of expected kindnesses since I got here; the retracting of stretched legs, the attendance of a waiter, an awkward, smiling circle of teenagers steadily being planted by their parents, drooping under backpacks.
But the security guard tried to slip his past me; at the entrance to the door was a sort of plinth, made of white plastic and topped with three buttons, red, yellow and green. It was a feedback system, a convenient way for the men who held their breath and tried not to touch the porcelain to give their opinions on the experiences. Beside each button was the image of simple face, one smiling, one apathetic, one disgusted.
The security guard has not even been to the toilet – I had certainly not seen him leave a cubicle or a urinal – but as he swept past the altar, his hand flicked down, with a pam, into the green, smiling face, before he whistled off, like a plane, into the bright depths of the airport.
I do not think I gave any feedback myself, but I did watch him go. I decided then and there that I would actually record this gaze that I forget about sometimes, that can make people uncomfortable, and begin to catalogue the minuscule things. I do not know if this man knew the cleaning staff personally, or whether it was just a genuflection that he made without thinking, on seeing that big, green button, but it was one pam closer to a commendation for them, or a night off, and I knew that he would never tell anybody how he helped them.