I’ve always had something of an uneasy relationship with the very wealthy in my life (and by this I mean not just wealthy but old money wealthy—the American aristocracy types). I mean, ain’t it grand that I’ve had occasion to interact with these birds at all—I can thank having gone to Duke for much of that. Growing up where I did, in Binghamton, New York, we were all pretty much somewhere in the range of middle class, some a little higher, some a little lower. But that meant I was never very much socialized in being capably and comfortably around the Biffs and the Beanies of the Newport scene.
Regardless, I’ve still got enough Zelig in me that when I encounter different others, I’m prone to showing my ability to join with them—to connect, to convince, to fit in. Of course, when it comes to the upper class, I count myself among those who see this as a particularly seductive challenge. It feels important to us that we show that we too can be classy, whatever the hell that means (I know, if you have to ask….) We too will show the world our ability to get along just fine with kings! Whereupon—as the sitcom pitch goes—hilarious mayhem ensues. So here’s a story about exactly that.
In the fall of 1986 life found me living in dear old London. I was there as part of a post-college, pre-grad school indulgence to first travel around Europe and then live and work in London for a period of time (there were exchange programs that facilitated this kind of thing). This was right up my buddy Mark’s and my alleys at this precious moment of freedom in our lives, and off we went.
Once in London we were joined there by Mark’s girlfriend, Jenny, along with a handful of other folks connected to Jenny by family tie or friendship. Jenny came from a well-to-do family in Long Island and thus is the link to upper class society in this story. Specifically, Jenny’s cousin Heidi worked as a nanny during this time for the executive who headed up one of the major American bank’s London office.
Being expat orphans, Jenny, Mark, Heidi and I were invited to the bank executive’s house for Thanksgiving. I say house but it was better described as a manor, a notably large affair with all manner of baronial trappings, as you might expect.
I don’t recall many specifics of how the evening went up to dinner but know I felt it was going well enough. When I found myself in an environment that was over my head, I usually became more reserved and more careful. I dried my sense of humor by half and generally did what it took to avoid being my usual frisky self, the better to avoid revealing my inner rube. Across the evening I’d been vigilant in attending to Mark’s behavior, following in his lead. Mark dealt with high society with an easy grace that came of his having gone to high school at Groton (where FDR himself attended). Doing as Mark did was my primary strategy for pulling off this con. In close second was the strategy, of course, of discreet and steady drinking.
By the end of dinner, thus, I was pleasantly pickled and feeling almost jaunty over my successful passage through this evening. When our host suggested an after dinner cordial, I loosened the restraints enough to salute the idea with a hearty (and, I thought, terribly clever), “Haz-zah!,” in response to which the host first looked startled and then politely smiled at me.
Soon a small flock of delicate cordial glasses were produced into which the next step-up in my buzz was poured, being a healthy dram of rich, dark port wine (“dram”—ha!).
The dinner conversation now pleasantly swirling around me, I found myself simply and happily gazing at the glass I held before me, the picture of a refined gent recognizing the same in the accoutrements of a fine house. So delicate and yet so strong, the glass—like the wealthy themselves!, I realized, my cleverness showing no bounds. I held the glass to my lips and sipped gently at its contents, letting it rest there, exploring its delicate strength by tap tap tapping on it with my teeth—when the little bastard suddenly broke under my bite and I found myself shockingly with a mouthful of port and glass shards.
Holy shit! The thoughts MOUTHFUL OF GLASS/MIDDLE OF DINNER/RAREFIED ATMOSPHERE car wrecked in my bran, followed quickly by dismay at how THIS situation would now play out—the emphatic apologizing, the mortification; for god’s sake, just the expelling of the mess in my mouth itself! How infinitely embarrassing this is, what an ass I’ve made of myself…
…when I realized, shock following on shock, that no one was paying me any attention whatsoever. Hunh?? I’d just chomped a chunk out of a crystal glass in the middle of a crowd. No one noticed? NO ONE NOTICED! In fact, the host was presently holding court with a story and all eyes, smiling and happy, were on him. This Defcon 5 disaster, so far—and against all odds—was a private affair!
I did the only natural thing then and shifted into survival mode. Somehow, my thinking went, I CAN get out of this—undetected. To do so I DEFINITELY had to play it cool, stay calm. I did this by sitting mock-casually back, and gauging the threat potential of the shardy slew in my mouth. Ah—so far, no pain. This is good! I hadn’t cut the inside of my mouth in any way—yet, that is—thus making viable letting the threatening slosh remain there a while longer. Now, what to do what to do…
Shit! The host’s wife sitting next to me had turned and was now smiling at me. I could tell by her look she only sought confirmation that I too was enjoying the wittiness of the host’s story telling. I de-pursed the dyke of my lips as best I could and bent them into what I hoped was something of a smile, lighting my eyes up to beat the band and distract her from the gnarl of my smile. I nodded appreciatively at her but quickly looked back at the host, imitating someone anxious to catch every word of his story. What I was really anxious was for you to stop fucking looking at me, lady, and look back at him. Please! It worked! She crinkled her eyes at me and looked away.
Phew! It was now a matter of escaping the table scene, so benign and convivial to everyone else, a field of landmines for me. Timing! I needed to nail the timing of my next move, being to get up and leave for what I expected others to assume a bathroom break. I waited, waited—and there it was! The punch line to his story, delivered! The guests broke out in laughter, while I smiled with my eyes at him, then in one motion bent forward, pushed back in my chair, and pivoted up and away from his direction. Before anyone said anything to me I was striding out of the room, broken glass in hand, contents of my mouth held carefully in place by a now trembling tongue.
Free at last, free at last! Thank God almighty….!
Elated once outside the dining room, I kept moving, needing to get out of range fast of any potential trailing questions or jests that might demand I answer. None followed and soon I was penetrating the recesses of the house, frantically searching for a bathroom. I could hear the conversation behind me had proceeded without a hitch so knew I had at least a bit of time to figure this out.
Jesus, this place! Rooms upon rooms, hallways hither and yon—and not a stinking “loo” to be found (I was tempted to spit the mess out in a potted plant in “lieu” of a toilet, ha ha).
Making a turn, I found myself in a living room of some sort that included a set of stairs to the floor above. You tell me why I thought just then, the further away the better, but that’s where my panicking animal mind went and up the stairs I bounded.
But not gracefully, I’m afraid. With the second step my foot caught the edge of the next stair and forward I shot in full stumble. I broke my fall with extended hands uttering “Ooh!” instinctively—but not without real consequence, as the majority of the port and glass shards splashed in a stream onto the carpeted stair in front of me. The cream colored carpet, that is, and of course. The dregs of the wine from the glass I’d released seeped likewise into another section of the carpet.
FUCK! “NEW CRISIS!” flashed across my brainpan. I’d been so stinking close to being done with this travesty! What to do what to do?!
Ah! I found the answer in my other hand, in the form of a paper napkin that had accompanied the cordial earlier. Bullseye! I quickly swiped at the stain in front of me. Only the napkin was green, and made of material clearly disposed to sharing its color freely when wet. The red stain on the carpet before me now became a purplish blotch twice in size.
In other words, I’d just given the house the one and only thing it appeared to be lacking: a birthmark.
The jig up, I was toast. The walk back to the dining room was a wretched one, my own green mile. Slipping back into my chair I whispered to the host’s wife about there having been a little accident, then took her to the scene of the crime. How’d she react? As only the well-born will: by laughing uproariously, over the idea that I’d become so disoriented in my search for a bathroom I’d gotten this far, and then this happened (Are you kidding me? Of COURSE I omitted the matter of the tableside chomp!). Love ‘em or otherwise, you can count on the wealthy to be magnanimous in a pinch. She refused just then to give it another thought and wanted only for us to get back to the fun. Which we did, and at which point…I ordered coffee.