Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Birds of a Feather

Last week, I attended the Hispanic Federation’s 20th Anniversary gala at the Waldorf-Astoria. I was so uncomfortable and felt so out of place.

It wasn’t the fact that I was among people who spoke a different language than I did, were of a different race, or even that their politics differed from mine.

The problem was the men were all dressed in tuxedos and the ladies were all glammed up in evening dresses, wearing jewels and beautifully coiffed hair-dos. While I was dressed in business casual, as befitted my lowly position as a photographer.

I bemoaned the fact that I had not thought to perhaps purchase a female tuxedo, a ball gown being out of the question for the function which I had to perform. I apologized profusely to my hosts for not being properly attired.

But then I spotted them. People of my own kind.

They were behind the red-velvet ropes and brass poles. They were my kind of people. They were photographers. And they looked terrible, bless their hearts! They made me look like I was wearing a tuxedo.

The guy photogs were dressed in blue jeans and stadium jackets. The ladies were also in jeans and sweatshirts. One young lady was decked out in a furred vest, straight off the racks in So-Ho, I’m certain.

They clearly had no ambition to be invited to partake of the gold-plate dinner, which meant I wouldn’t have to, either. I would be free to jump back in my little SUV and return home to relax on my living room couch.

I have no veneration for high society. I am a veteran of countless admirals’ receiving lines. My grandfather, being an instructor at a government academy, often rubbed elbows with the elite of maritime and naval society. He had met President Roosevelt.

We, his grandchildren, were brought to these elaborate events that we might learn how to conduct ourselves with decorum in polite society. We were taught (by my mother, not my grandfather) the correct way to place our napkins, eat our soup, break our bread, return our utensils, and greet the admiral and company.

The training has come in handy in my current position. Being required to attend formal functions, I am literate in the ways of the elegant table, and have been known to prevent co-workers from committing the faux pas of cutting their bread with a knife.

I’ve held them back from taking the first bite before the hostess does. You don’t even pick up your utensils until she does. Each of these rituals is critically important in correct society. The unwary do not know their danger in making such mistakes.

Soup-slurpers beware: you are under surveillance and every mistake marks you as one of the bourgeoisie, the canaille, the rabble, the ragtag and bobtail, the four million.

Jacqueline Kennedy, a hostess famed for her coterie, was an amazing snob who would soothe the mortification of a guest who had committed a gaffe, and later rip that unfortunate guest to shreds after they had departed and she was alone with her own kind.

Oh, what sharp and pointed teeth these aristocrats possess. No hoodlum of the street ever wielded a more filed and vicious blade than their rapier tongues. With every virtue of good manners in evidence, they sit silently watching, holding their weapons in check until the opportune moment comes to slit their victim’s emotional gullet.

The participants at this particular dinner, I think, are not yet tutored in the ways of aristocracy. They only see the glittering chandeliers, the glamour of a well-appointed table, and the beauty of the women in their finery.

I’m no advocate of picking up your soup bowl and slurping down the contents, of course, or wiping your dripping chin with your sleeve. Ordinary, normal etiquette is an advantage in any society, whether you’re at McDonald’s or the Waldorf.

I simply become bitterly suspicious and contemptuous when those rules of etiquette are honed to a fine point of absurdity, whose only purpose can be ridicule. When a society draws its lines too closely, forcing its actors to balance on a tightrope of conformity, awaiting with anticipation a fall, good manners become bad manners, etiquette becomes caprice, and social occasions turn into warfare.

That’s when I abandon the battleground (as duty allows). I do find certain entertainment in watching the players, the home team, as it were, drawing an unwitting adversary into the breach.

But I painfully recall my first forays into childish society, being invited to my first birthday party, only to be berated by the other young guests for wearing a hand-me-down dress, all that my impoverished family could afford.

I soon liberated myself from this outrageous situation by dousing the hostess with the contents of my soda glass. Chaos ensued and I was promptly sent out to the garage to await my mother, who would take her uncouth, ill-mannered daughter home.

Naturally, I would never dream of committing such an act as an adult. But I avoid voluntary social situations – even lunch – at all costs. As a photographer, I’m welcome at functions, but obviously not being on the social list, I am absolved from the normal backbiting activities involved therein.

In any case, if it’s not wise to insult your hostess, it’s even more ill-advised to upset the photographer who’s holding the camera.

I’m still aghast and agog at Carrie Sheffield’s column in The Washington Times and write this blog with her in mind. Her obviously Republican (or is it Democrat) blue-blooded notions of propriety and demeanor take me back to the Admiral’s Receiving Line.

Her dismissal of the Tea Party activists, as though they were party-crashers at some affair of state with silver service and chandeliers, ought to raise eyebrows in a free society. She and the Liberal Media, to the manor born, prefer the salle a manger to the plebeian public square.

Shall all matters be decided in the privacy of aristocratic salons, where the privileged meet in seclusion? Wait – they already do that. That’s what the Tea Parties are protesting and I suppose Ms. Sheffield is Marie Antoinette dismissing the mobs at the gate out of hand, not imagining that they are clamoring to escort her (figuratively speaking) to Le Machine.

We eat cheeseburgers not pate de foie gras. We go to Little League games, not polo matches. We drive Fords not Merdes Benzes. We listen to Oprah not opera. We graduated from local colleges, not the Ivy League. Nevertheless, she underestimates the level of our education. And our resolve.

And we hold big Tea Parties, not little tea parties, where we hold up signs, not our little pinkies.


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