I’m just like Joe Cocker
I was thinking lately about taking advantage of my friends, and staying at their places during the past and future few months. I’m basically surviving on the hospitality of others. Occasionally I feel guilty about this. The friends I impose upon work hard, pay their bills, wake up early and have daily committments. And I’m sponging off of them. Kind of a deadbeat way to live for an extended time. But I think there’s more to being a houseguest. About a year ago, when I had a lot of friends visit me in Portland, I was thinking back to reading the Odyssey in school, and how hospitality was such a crucial element to mythology. Zeus was the patron of hospitality, and he and other gods would often would appear at characters’ doorsteps, disguised as beggars, and judge those by how they treated strangers at the door:
With such thoughts, sitting amongst the suitors, he saw Athene
and went straight to the forecourt, the heart within him scandalized
that a guest should still be standing at the doors. He stood beside her
and took her by the right hand, and relieved her of the bronze spear,
and spoke to her and addressed her in winged words: ‘Welcome, stranger.
You shall be entertained as a guest among us. Afterward,
when you have tasted diner, you shall tell us what your need is.
(Odyssey, p.30, ll. 118-124)
“What is your need?” Not just, “have a glass of water,” but your need. That’s one of the ultimate ancient Greek ideals: The process of kneeling at the floor of your host, and that host treating you as though you may be a god. It’s really a pre-Christian form of the Golden Rule. The wretched beggar at your door could be a god, a figure that all aspire to be. The lowest or most unfortunate among us could be the greatest in disguise. Or take it even further and extend it to the ideal that Christ is to be found in the filthiest corners of poverty and weakness. What goes around comes around. However you want to put it. Zeus also screwed a lot of animals.
It’s also worth noting that building and maintaining a network of friends is admirable and to be rewarded. As much as we may not like to think it’s so, a paramount benefit of having friends is the exchange of material benefits. Buy this round, I’ll buy the next. Scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. The lovey dovey shit is nice, but friendship is basically marked by the willing, generous exchange of stuff.
Aside from the killing and thieving, organized crime really had this down. Kneel before me, kiss my rings, do me a favor when I need you, and you’ll never be in need. I had a manager when I worked at a restaurant who also had this down. Dave never let me down. He’d buy me dinner and drinks, get me days off, let me go home early, deal with an angry guest, whatever. He hired me and took care of me. And when he said jump, I said how high. He never had to ask me twice to do a thing. If you were one of his guys, and he could help you, he would. It’s self-serving at the core, and materialistic, but I would argue an admirable tenet of human nature. The generous exchange of help. I’ll wait for you. Should I fall behind, wait for me.
During my recent time living in Portland, I had eight different houseguests. I loved having every one of them and would have them back to sleep on my couch anytime if they needed it. And yes, I’m using my friends. I’m taking advantage of their hospitality to survive. But if I come and knock on your door tomorrow, keep in mind, I may be a god in disguise. And if you ever come by my door, I’ll relieve your of your spear, offer you a comfortable place to sit and a meal, and say, “Tell me what your need is.”