A Man Who Works with His Hands
a song, a room, a student
Title: The Chamber of 32 Doors
Album: The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
For a little over two years I worked in the maintenance department of the Ann Arbor public library system. Much of that time was spent doing mundane nothings, plucking cigarette butts from the sidewalk or cleaning stainless steel elevator doors. Every few days, I would take a rag and a bottle of all-purpose cleaner and climb the stairs to the library’s fourth floor and clean a conference room that, in all likelihood, hadn’t seen a single person since I had last cleaned it.
The room was cinematic in its layout, a series of long desks all angled around a broad one at the front of the room. It was dark, yellow light filtering through the blinds that were always drawn over the room’s only window. It could have been the scene of a United Nations meeting—if the UN were smaller, poorer, and confined to southeastern Michigan. More importantly: It was silent.
The quiet of it was shocking, even within a library. This particular library was a bustling place, located in the heart of Ann Arbor and filled with a constant stream of children and students and displaced academics. No matter where you stood within the library, there was the hum of activity, of feet pacing or doors closing. But the rarely used conference room was the only feature of the fourth floor. It stood alone in quietude, the sounds of activity left below.
In that silence, the songs in my earbuds always felt elevated, their sounds acute. And so I sought it out often, claiming that room as my responsibility among the maintenance staff. Even in those days, when I was a single college student, living by myself in a one-bedroom apartment, I craved time alone with my thoughts and my music. I treasured the reprieve of cleaning that conference room, adored the serenity of it.
I don’t remember how it started, but over time it came to be that I always listened to “The Chamber of 32 Doors” when I cleaned that room. It’s a great song, certainly, but I rarely think of it on its own terms—as the story of Rael and the Slippermen and some truly bananas plot beats. No, when I think of “The Chamber of 32 Doors,” I think of that conference room and who I was when I walked through it.
That was a difficult time. My privilege shielded me from any real hardship—my bills got paid and I certainly wasn’t subject to any external suffering. But there was internal struggle, certainly. All my life, I had been told that I was special, that I could be or do whatever I wanted, and that the world would be open to me after I finished my education and was ready to enter it. But as my academic experience drew to a close, it was starting to become clear that there was, in fact, no one out there in the ‘real world’ waiting with great anticipation for me to arrive. I was a good student, yes, but in a useless field,and few employers saw my limited extra-curricular experience—leading a prog-rock band, mostly—as meritorious. To those making such evaluations, I was, it turns out, not so special after all.
What I had learned in college—some understanding of the traditions of religious asceticism; how to contribute to a wildly pretentious music group—was not broadly appreciated by anyone, my undergraduate peers included. In fact, I didn’t know much about how to exist amongst my peers at all, a challenge that was not new. Then my band broke up and my girlfriend dumped me. The few close friends that formed my support network were geographically distant. Like I said, it was a difficult time.
As I cleaned the empty conference room, listening to “The Chamber of 32 Doors,” I felt seen by the song’s chorus. “I need someone to believe in, someone to trust,” Peter Gabriel sings. And I did need that. But what I couldn’t see just then was that I was not holding up my end of that two-way bargain. I was not someone to believe in, someone to trust. And to unlock those qualities in others, you must satisfy them yourself. Or, at least, that’s what I’ve come to believe. You’ll have to forgive me if I’m mistaken; all these years later and I’m still learning out here.
I give “The Chamber of 32 Doors” four out of five stars.
Cheers to Anthropology & Archaeology, which have improved to #2 in this ranking. At least we’re not dead last anymore. Things are looking up!