A few months ago, my wife and I were enjoying a generous breakfast of bangers and mash, sipping English tea, and relishing the adjoining conversation, something about a new tartan, discussed in a thick British accent.
Tea & Sympathy is in Greenwich Village, on the westside of lower Manhattan. Dressed more appropriately for a Schubertiad than the morning stroll of nearly an hour required to reach this quaint breakfast spot, we were decidedly inconvenienced for the journey to a greater degree than the nimble, legging-clad joggers that jetted past us. Nevertheless, our vintage attire placed us at the height of fashion for our breakfast; we were more English than the English (even if unappreciated and thought a bit barmy).
Our walk had started from the Hotel 31, chosen for the simple fact that it, too, looked a bit barmy. With rooms sporting updates from the 1950’s and a “unique” elevator dating from the hotel’s latest occupancy permit, issued in 1940, it seemed like just the place to crash after a night’s performance at St John Nepomucene. And, so is was.
What any sensible person would have done, especially with a toddler in tow, would have been to drive their perfectly capable car into the Big Apple. Indeed, we have a perfectly functioning horseless carriage. However, we chose rather to make our way to NYC by way of the train, through Secaucus Junction, to Penn Station, on the Uptown Train to 86th, a half an hour walk through Central Park, a stop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, another 20 minutes walk to St. John’s and finally the 6 Train Downtown to Hotel 31. Why? Because of the charm of inconvenience.
It is difficult to remember exactly when, during this trip, my dear wife expressed this phrase. It could have been while dodging heaping piles of trash, picking our way over sidewalks, trodden it seemed by the sum of humanity, or riding through subway tunnels predicted to collapse at any moment … twenty years ago. As I said, NYC is charming.
It was the charm of inconvenience that prompted our choice to afterward go by rail to our nation’s capital. We knew full well that we would be inconvenienced by Amtrak’s perpetual delays and furthermore by metro schedules, bus routes and a host of other first world problems. There would be the inconvenience of figuring out a route from DC’s Red Line to the Tabard Inn, made ever more so by a driving rain that prevailed. Again, there would be the inconvenience of navigating my way to St. Peter’s on Capital Hill for the performance I was engaged to sing, and the difficulty in trying to get back, late, and on a weekend. I could have called an Uber, but then again, if I had wanted convenience, I would certainly have not chosen the Tabard Inn.
The Tabard Inn redeems DC. DC, at least in comparison to NYC, in sleek and modern. It’s Metro appears to have been serviced in the last decade and its stations don’t appear to be at the point of collapse. Its people are young, predictably dressed, professional, ambitious. Broad avenues are built for modern traffic, buildings are built for modern people. It’s an up and coming place, just not my place.
Predicable in my own right, the Tabard Inn is Washington’s oldest, continuously operating hotel. Nothing is new, nothing is sleek, nothing is modern, nothing quite works. Its inviting sitting room is a jumbled collection of disparate benches, sofas, and chairs arranged in no apparent order. It is a huge, roaring fireplace that brings cohesion. Stairs lead around corner after corner, steeply ascending, little hallways run hither and thither. Having stayed at the Tabard Inn twice now, I think I can hazard a guess that no room’s floor is remotely level. I may also assume that most of the beds creak and all the doors squeak. Though impeccably clean, the bathrooms don’t appear to have been recently updated:
But, as my wife put it, there is a charm in inconvenience. Those of us who have decent jobs and a stable family can find it difficult sometimes to appreciate those comforts that our life affords. We are assuaged already by so much convenience, the likes of which a majority of the world finds hard to imagine, that a little bit of voluntary inconvenience can nurture a healthier sense of gratitude. Perhaps, it is start to realizing the grace contained in suffering. But, that is for another time and may a bit much to ask a generation conditioned by Amazon Prime and Netflix.
For sure, I could cut dovetails much faster with a bandsaw than by hand, but then what would I do with the time saved? I like feeling my new Lie-Nielson saw gently pulling through a nicely aged slab of cherry. For certain, taking an Uber or selecting a sleek, new hotel might be faster, easier, and more convenient, but is it more enjoyable? Perhaps, for some, it is. For me, I relish the ways that I can put a little elbow grease into life, a life that is otherwise unfathomably easier than those of most others. I hope my little boy learns that a person can receive only when they have given something first, even if it’s as simple as walking to the Capital instead of calling a cab.