When we bought our previous house, the people who lived in it before us had been there a long time. They were in their 70s and the world around them seemed very scary to them. There were multiple locks on the front and back doors, a deadbolt lock on the bedroom door, and heavy curtains on all the windows. The world outside was something they feared, and they worked hard to keep it at bay.
It’s a common story that, as we grow older, we become more fearful of the outside world. Not necessarily to the extent they did, but we tend to prefer and default to the comfortable, the known, the safe. I want to avoid that if I can.
This week, I am traveling. On Sunday night, I was in Queens, New York, where someone else had booked a room for me at an inexpensive hotel. When I walked in, it was… jarring. The lobby had two aquariums that were eight feet tall. Polished granite floors and giant geodes on stands. There were animal skins and mounted heads on the wall. A giant ceramic Indian elephant stood guard, and the small lobby was oppressively packed with trinkets. The door was flanked by two 10-foot tall plastic palm trees. If the Addams family went into the hotel business, I think it would have felt a little like this.
It’s safe to say that it was unsettling. I was expecting one of the beige chain hotels that other people generally book for business travelers, and instead, I ended up in what felt a bit like a Disney ride. And I had a moment where I felt unsafe and wondered if I was in danger. I wondered if I was foolish for staying in this strange place, in a strange city. I posted pictures on Instagram and Facebook, and some people warned me to be careful.
But it was fine. The hotel staff was helpful and courteous, the room was comfortable, and the towels were thick and luxurious. In the morning, the coffee was hot in the lobby, and they recommended a diner up the street that was cheap and delicious, always a combination to be encouraged. By literally every standard except aesthetics, it was a spectacular visit.
So why did I feel like it was dangerous to sleep in a place that did nothing wrong but have owners with different tastes than I did?
It was because I had committed one of the oldest mistakes in the books: I had confused my comfort and my safety.
I was not remotely unsafe because of the plastic palm trees and the gaudy chandeliers. I was merely uncomfortable. But because I am a straight, white, cisgender, Christian male and the surrounding world literally was designed with my comfort in mind, then anything that is not that often codes as unsafe.
But really, it’s just uncomfortable.
I never felt remotely uncomfortable at the grocery store before until I moved to Jackson, a city that is 85% Black and realized that the store I was in was not designed with my comfort in mind. The music was not geared toward me, the food selections were not brands I knew, and none of the staff or management looked like me.
But every Black person in that grocery store knew that exact experience many times throughout their lives because the dominant culture isn’t built for them. Only on steroids, because the parks and streets are named for people who weren’t like them, the pictures of elected officials on the walls of government buildings don’t look like them, the makeup in the stores wasn’t designed for their skin tone, and their history had been erased.
Comfort is really just a privilege I have from living in a world designed for people like me.