Thursday, July 20, 2023

The Girl with the British Dunhill Lighter

I just had the caulk around my tub replaced. It was a rather delicate procedure because I have a tub liner. But now it's done and I'm a happy gal. I love my time in the shower and that black-spotted caulk was a sad way to start the day.

When the handyman was telling me the rules of the road of maintaining the new caulk I could hear my friend Henry's voice in my head. Before his 2018 accident, he loved doing his own work around the house. He knew The Home Depot on Roosevelt in Key West the way I know my local Target store.

He became proficient with bathtubs back in 2001. Sick of renting but not yet able to afford a house, he bought a trailer home. His partner, Reg, was not eager about it. He didn't like the idea of being "trailer trash" and besides, this particular trailer was in disrepair, which is how Henry was able to afford it. So here's where they netted out: They would continue living in the home they were renting until Henry was able to get the trailer "livable," by Reg's standards. Henry was teaching at the community college so his schedule was unconventional. When he wasn't working at school, he'd race over and work a bit on the trailer. 

While this was going on, Reg met a new friend at the hotel where he worked. I'll call her Jane. She was a Brit who had just moved to Key West. The room that she rented wasn't working out. Reg told her about the trailer and said she could stay there until she found a new room. Yes, she knew she'd have Henry hammering around her at all hours. Yes, she'd have to live out of her suitcase. No, she couldn't cook (no stove yet). But she'd have running water, lights and a refrigerator. She had a safe place to lay her air mattress for a couple weeks.

After Henry replaced the grout and caulk around the tub, he left a note on bathroom door, telling Jane not to use the  shower for 48 hours. This was 2001, so texting wasn't yet a thing. But he wrote another note with the same instructions and dropped it off at the hotel where Jane and Reg worked. Henry and Reg discussed it -- Reg would reiterate this to Jane and she could wash her hair and handle her personal hygiene at the bathroom sink for the next day or two. Reg said he was pretty sure if Jane asked housekeeping nicely, they'd let her use a hotel bath before they cleaned the room. So they had a plan. 

Except that, when Henry returned to the trailer the next day, he could tell she had used the shower. Reg pleaded with Henry not to confront her and swore he'd handle it. I don't know how it was resolved. But, by the time I arrived in Key West for New Year's, Henry and Reg were settled into the trailer and Jane had her own place.

It was the holiday season and Jane came by for a drink so I got to meet her. She had an adorable accent and I really wanted to like her. But ...

She had just flown back to Key West from NYC, where she'd spent Christmas with friends. And, oh! How she squawked about airport security! It took forever and they took her expensive lighter away. 

Think back: this was just less than four months after 9/11. She was going to the city where the Twin Towers had fallen. Maybe because she wasn't American, she didn't understand what a heartbreaking violation that was. But I couldn't bear it. After all, I had just flown from O'Hare to Miami to Key West. I'd seen the TSA signs at the airports and at that point, lighters and matches were not allowed. I pointed that out to her.

"But it was a British Dunhill Lighter!" Jane exclaimed. "And I'm not a terrorist." 

I drained my drink and bit my tongue. Reg really liked Jane and I didn't want to make the party tense. 

On the way to my hotel, when we were alone, Henry said he could read my mind. "You think Jane is insensitive and racist." 

"Yes," I admitted. "She's obviously not a terrorist because she's a little white blonde girl and her lighter is expensive." I added that it was immoral for her to give the TSA grief when we were all just trying to find our way in this post-9/11 world.

Henry went on to say that she was "entitled," one of the first times I'd heard the word in this context. He explained that here she was, a barmaid with no home, and he and Reg gave her a safe place to live when she needed one desperately. Even though Henry is highly educated (a professor at the college!), he is also gay and Puerto Rican. Therefore she felt comfortable ignoring his request about the shower.  He told me she probably felt it was similarly beneath her to ask the mostly brown-skinned girls in housekeeping at the hotel for help. Clearly TSA rules applied to others, not to her (or her British Dunhill Lighter).

"In Key West we believe in the human family," he said. "I do not think she will be happy here."

By the end of 2002, when I returned to Key West, she'd left Key West and neither Henry nor Reg knew what became her.

Henry was right. I miss him. So much.