I just returned from a lovely philosophy conference held at Pennsylvania State University. I read a paper in which I argued that, for Plato, even ugly or plain things become beautiful when they are with certain other things that together make a beautiful whole.
The conference was in the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center. What a sleek and classy place. Very understated, with green glass everywhere and versions of classic light fixtures in rows down every hall and conversational groupings of similarly classic chairs around many corners. Even the hotel staff were slim and sleek. Here’s the lobby:
As much as I might have liked the pool, the understated ambience and the highly rated restaurants, given the price, I opted instead for the Sleep Inn, a few miles away. I would save enough by staying there to pay for taxis to the meetings. Less sleek and more utilitarian, the Sleep Inn lobby featured homemade Halloween decorations–ghosts, goblins and skeletons–and and a breakfast nook.
After the decorations, the first thing I noticed was a sweet smell–the kind of oversweet air freshener that I have never liked–and I wondered if I was going to be happy there. The next thing I noticed was that all the staff were white! The counter staff, the housekeeping staff and, as I learned later, the shuttle driver. That’s difference from Reno, where I live. There, and in the surrounding areas in Nevada and California, the staff would have been more heavily Latino. I felt like I hadn’t seen so many white people in one place for a long time.
I learned a lot about the staff while I was there. One, who cleaned the breakfast nook, was a bit mentally slow, I discovered. But she was very nice! She looked after me each morning, to see how I was doing. Another, a ruddy-complected man behind the counter, seemed gruff at first. But he was extremely helpful when I couldn’t get a cab, tried to set up Uber for me on the lobby computer and, when it didn’t work, called the shuttle driver and asked him to take me to the hotel, something they’re not ordinarily supposed to do.
The shuttle driver was a tall white man in his thirties who really wanted to talk once he heard I was a philosopher. His hair was reddish blonde with a top-knot and he spoke with that inimitable Pennsylvania accent and just a touch of hip-hop style, so little I wondered if it was a remnant of his youth. He knew a lot about global religions, from ancient Egyptian religion to Talmud and Kabbalah, to Islam, Sufism and religious discoveries in Latin America, and told me he had gravitated to the Egyptian ones, for his own personal practices. He said you have to understand what a human being is before you can know how to live your life. He said he once had quite a number of years when he had time on his hands to think about such things. We talked about different spiritual practices for staying sane in difficult times.
He asked me what we do at philosophy conferences and I told him it was pretty much like the conversation he and I were having in the shuttle. Philosophy, after all, according to Plato’s Socrates is about how to live. I suggested to the driver he might want to study philosophy.
After two days, I let the housekeeper make up my room and left a tip on the pillow for her, whoever she might be. Off to my conference, where I heard an excellent talk by a philosopher who is declaring independence from America due to its global imperialism and exploitation. Not a casual thought for him, but something he has come to over the years. When I got back to the Inn, I found this on my bed:
I took the Inn shuttle to the airport two days later and had the same driver. I asked him a lot of questions about State College. Everywhere, it seemed so wealthy! Big houses, sprawling and expensive Penn State buildings all around, looking plush and imposing. Big, well-groomed yards, etc., etc. But back at the Inn, some of the staff looked a bit worn and seriously overweight.
My driver said that State College is very nice, very educated and thoughtful, but very expensive. He lives in State College, he said, because he wants his son to go to good schools and to be around people who think about things. Outside of State College, he went on, the schools are bad and there is cocaine and heroin everywhere. Of the Inn staff, he said, he is the only one who lives in State College. All the rest live about thirty minutes away. I thought about the lives of the sweet women at the counter who helped me with arrangements, one rosy-faced and the other long-haired, both seriously overweight and both very kind, driving thirty minutes to work from towns with poor schools and high drug-use. The shuttle driver and I talked about the decline of manufacturing and its impact. He confirmed that that was the problem.
He told me talking to me changed his thinking about his life and future. I said, you should be a teacher. I think you’re a teacher. You read a lot and you remember what you read and you’re good at talking about it. He raised the issue of his time in prison, but he thanked me and then I went on my way.
Want to know what’s going on in this country? Go to State College, Pennsylvania, for an answer. Sleek, expensive institutions surrounded by people–in the case of the rust belt, many white people–out of work, underemployed or threatened by drugs. The sleek institutions are not just surrounded by such people, but served by them, by people like the friendly and helpful ones I met at the Sleep Inn.
By the time I left the Inn, I didn’t notice the over sweet fragrance any longer. Why? Because, when all the homely and all the beautiful things came together at the Sleep Inn, it truly became a beautiful little place.