One day, Doc collects starfish with Hazel, one of the residents of the Palace Flophouse. Hazel loves hearing people speak, relishing “the tone of conversation.” This is why he always asks questions—simply to keep a conversation going. “I wonder what they do with them,” he says, asking Doc how the people who’ve hired him to collect starfish are going use the creatures. When Doc answers, Hazel asks another question, and then another, until finally Doc manages to put a stop to the interrogation. In the ensuing silence, Doc asks Hazel how things are going at the Flophouse, and Hazel says that Gay has just moved in because his wife hits him. Doc points out that Gay’s wife “used to swear out a warrant and put him in jail,” but Hazel points out that Gay started liking jail too much, so now she beats him while he’s sleeping.
Although Hazel is perhaps not as intelligent as Doc, his desire to listen to “the tone of conversation” denotes a friendliness that is not altogether that different from Doc’s easygoing, amicable personality. This is most likely why these two men are able to connect, despite the fact that Hazel only asks questions for the sake of asking questions—a practice one would assume Doc would find annoying, since he is a careful and methodical thinker. The fact that these two men get along, then, is a testament to the idea that kindness brings people together despite their differences.
Hazel and Doc talk about Henri, who is building himself a boat. “He’s got it all changed around. New kind of boat. I guess he’ll take it apart and change it. Doc—is he nuts?” Hazel says. “Oh, yes, I guess so,” Doc replies. “Nuts about the same amount we are, only in a different way.” This statement astounds Hazel, since he looks “upon himself as a crystal pool of clarity and on his life as a troubled glass of misunderstood virtue.” Wanting to make a distinction between Henri and himself, he reminds Doc that Henri has been building his boat for seven years. “Every time he gets it nearly finished he changes it and starts over again,” he says, but Doc says that Henri “loves boats” but is “afraid of the ocean,” which is why he never wants to finish building the vessel.
Hazel is troubled by Doc’s assertion that everyone is crazy. This is because Hazel thinks of himself as a “crystal pool of clarity,” essentially believing that he is an uncomplicated, straightforward man. His life, on the other hand, he sees as a “troubled glass of misunderstood virtue,” indicating that he doesn’t feel fully in control of the choices he makes (or has made). It seems that he feels that he himself is virtuous, but his good intentions are often muddied by the “troubled” situations of life. When Doc implies that everyone is a little bit crazy, then, Hazel is forced to reckon with the fact that life is illogical and disordered.
On the way back to the laboratory, Hazel notices stink bugs on the ground. “What they got their asses up in the air for?” he asks, but Doc says he doesn’t know. “Well, why do you think they do it?” Hazel asks. “I think they’re praying,” Doc replies. Hazel, for his part, can’t fathom this idea, but Doc pushes on, saying, “The remarkable thing isn’t that they put their tails up in the air—the really incredibly remarkable thing is that we find it remarkable. We can only use ourselves as yardsticks. If we did something as inexplicable and strange we’d probably be praying—so maybe they’re praying.”
Part of being empathetic means understanding that one’s own experience isn’t necessarily universal. Doc illustrates this point here by encouraging Hazel to shift his perspective. “The really incredibly remarkable thing is that we find it remarkable,” he says, referencing the stink bugs’ behavior. By saying this, he points out the ways in which humans often take things for granted, accepting certain things as normal and others as extraordinary. If people like Hazel learn to shift their perspectives—leaving behind conventional notions of normality—then they will be in a better position to understand how others experience the world. This, in turn, will enable them to empathize with the people around them more easily.