The Accidental Purist

     Gnat showed up in a van he said he’d been driving for two weeks, but it looked like he’d owned it for twenty years. It was covered with dents, dirt and debris on the outside, and the interior contained fossil layers of convenience store and Burger King refuse, covering the once-pristine upholstery. He’d driven this monstrosity to visit me while I was pretending to get a college education in Savannah. In a weak moment of nostalgia for our hobo high school years, I had invited this dumpster diver to spend a few days with me in my new apartment. I was taken aback by his malodorous condition.
     Gnat brought the smell inside with him. He was wearing surgeon’s scrubs, making him look like the escaped mental patient he essentially was, and it became clear that this was his only set of clothes. The scrubs had seen no spin cycles in recent memory. Soon I could see that Gnat didn’t require two full weeks to create his mobile biohazard because, within an hour of his unpacking his belongings, every room in my apartment resembled his unfortunate vehicle. Gnat was, to put it kindly, untidy. He was the sort of person who, given a cookie to eat, was seemingly left with more crumbs on his shirt than there had been cookie to begin with. Like Pigpen in Peanuts, he seemed capable of actually multiplying the filth around him.
     I’m generally okay with this. Since I engage socially with starving artists and streetwise hooligans, I know I lot of seriously filthy people. Yes, many are filthy in the excommunicated-from-the-church sense, and Gnat surely qualified there, but I mean those who have a steadfast disinterest in antiseptics. They avoid cleaning the toilet, the toaster oven or their own torso, and being their pal means coming into contact with the toxic and potentially-infectious environments in which they dwell. Within reason, this doesn’t bother me. Unlike so many germ-crazed citizens, I don’t feel the need to slather myself in sanitizer just because the lawn chair wasn’t hosed down with antibiotics.
     In fact, I think I share with most Americans a respect for good, honest filth. In spite of our germ phobia, in spite of our constant showering, in spite of our cat-like vigilance against “the dirt we don’t see,” Americans worship mythic heroes who are filthy. Unwashed cowboys, greasy mechanics and factory workers, dusty ground troops, soot-smudged firemen, Tom Waits – we idealize them as the unshowered backbone of the country, and like them, we long to get sweaty, grimy and gross in the pursuit of personal accomplishment (provided we can scrub down with body wash afterward).
     Midwestern tourists may flock to Giuliani’s squeaky-clean, Disney-brand New York, but they always lament that the grime and contamination of the old New York is gone. And maybe that’s why I had a soft spot for the Gnat.  He was like that old New York – Kojak’s New York - that wonderland of crack houses and raw sewage, before the hipsters moved in with their graphic design and artisanal cheeses. The beautiful thing about damaged, unvarnished scuzzbags like Gnat is that they have no choice but to be their honest, gunk-encrusted selves. No attempt at gentrification, no pressure washing or resurfacing, could alter his true, unfiltered, horrendously wretched self.
     Gnat and I had a long history of bohemian misadventures: ingesting unclean, non-FDA-approved substances in moldy basements, swigging beers with Black Sabbath in garbage-strewn cul-de-sacs, sleeping off weekend binges in bug-infested garages. We had been comrades in corruption. The trouble was that, in the intervening years, Gnat had enhanced his lifestyle of unwashed hooliganism and intoxication, while I had been tidying up.
     Gone were the questionable carpet stains of my former dwellings. Gone were the mountains of tallboy bottles and overflowing ashtrays. No longer did I leave dishes in the sink until they sprouted plant life. No longer did my refrigerator look like a laboratory experiment. I was embracing the clean life, Cloroxing the tank and tile, Pine-Soling the hardwood, Cascading the breakfast bowls.  While I wasn’t exactly compulsive about my bathtub scrubbings, I was not, as Gnat preferred, using said tub as a toilet. And now, here he was, bringing to my lemon-fresh world his filth and his foul odor, soiling my sanitized adulthood with the putrescence of the past. I was resisting the urge to delouse him in a cloud of disinfectant. With bleach. He had to go.
     After a week of wallowing in this horror, I finally convinced Gnat it was time to pollute other regions. I helped him pack up his clutter and watched him drive away - into a future of intermittent homelessness and jail time. I started dousing the apartment in cleanser immediately.
     I didn’t see Gnat again for another twelve years. He was living in a rented house – more of a shed – in North Charleston, and I invited myself over out of morbid curiosity. He wouldn’t let me inside. He said the place was a mess. Gnat, who I’d once seen blow his nose in his own bed linens, who allowed a pet ferret to use his car as a litter box, who had slept under bridges with no hope a morning shower – that Gnat was now ashamed of his living conditions.
     We hung out at Hardee’s instead, where I watched him distribute ham and cheese particles all over his shirt and the floor, trying to imagine what Grey Gardens nightmare was inside that house. I never found out how bad the filth had gotten. I doubt he had any artisanal cheese in there.

1 comment:

James Robert Smith said...

Yeah. Those folk are sad and scary.