"If he needs a million acres to make him feel rich, seems to me he needs it 'cause he feels awful poor inside hisself, and if he's poor in hisself, there ain't no million acres gonna make him feel rich, an' maybe he's disappointed that nothin' he can do 'll make him feel rich....
...It ain't that big. The whole United States ain't that big. It ain't that big. It ain't big enough. There ain't room enough for you an' me, for your kind an' my kind, for rich and poor together all in one country, for thieves and honest men. For hunger and fat."
It's not just that John Steinbeck is a huge pimp. It's also that rich people are the devil. I can't help it - I don't like them. They freak me out. Unfortunately, I am cursed with a particularly discerning palette. Thus, when uber-rich people invite me to dinner, I can't say no. On Tuesday I was representing my boss at a house that could swallow up the trailer from whence I came seventeen times over. I walked over with my iPod blasting Bob Dylan singing about a dead hobo. The jazz trio could be heard from the courtyard. Cheek-kissing ladies funneled through the doorway. I stood at the edge of the drive in my favorite blue sneakers, a little post-welfare ball of anxiety. I hate these people. But I want to eat their food.
The entry way is clogged with activity. A frantic young woman repeats "May I take your coat" to the air, her arm outstretched toward no one in particular. She takes my coat and points to a table covered with alphabetized name tags. This young woman has the perfectionism disease big time. Her pearls sit exactly one quarter inch above her neckline and if you somehow threatened the sanctity of this exquisitely planned event, she would eat you for breakfast.
And so begins the excruciating "mingle" hour. To me, mingling is drinking wine in the corner and mocking people. This is delightful with a partner, but alone it just looks crazy. I stand there with my wine, not eating, staring at people in shifts, leering just long enough to make them uncomfortable. One woman accosts me.
"Oh hello, dear. I thought I saw you walk by the house, and I said to myself 'well she looks like she would be coming here, why would she walk by?' and now here you are."
I say, "Yeah, I was listening to music and I hate to stop mid-song."
"Oh! Isn't that wonderful, sounds like you've got your priorities straight."
I'm so bad at this. I have nothing to say to this woman. I gulp Fume Blanc.
"So, tell me dear, what do you do with yourself."
I tell her what I do: Teach. She cocks her head. Then I mention my employer's name.
Within seconds there is a flurry of Burberry and Chanel; I am engulfed by five old ladies. "Ohhhhh you work for him? How iiiiiiis he. It has been tooooo looooong. Oh you must tell him I say hello. Oh you are so lucky to be working with him. It must be just fabulous."
All of a sudden, I exist.
They poured upon me stories of the late 1960s, when they met my boss and fell in love with his work. I offer words of admiration for his work, looking into my wine glass, which is looking mighty low. They hand me cards and tell me to make sure to pass those on to him and flutter away as a unit. Existence by association. Blissful, as you might imagine.
Alone again. Mingle hour is almost up; I have eaten exactly nothing. The furniture looks like a museum collection. The art on the walls is old and represents an obnoxiously vast cultural diversity. I feel like I might break something.
Along comes the Ambassador, tinkling a bell. She holds it up over her head and motions for us to gather elsewhere. She herds us into the largest room, we moo obey. We sit facing a podium. I take a chair next to a sleeping cat. The Ambassador tinkles her way to the front. She has a microphone - it's time for introductions. She instructs us to speak about ourselves, and passes it to her left. It is five people away.
I look at the cat. The cat looks at me.
The five before me are presidents and founders of various philanthropic outfits. They kept saying, "By day, I'm an attorney. By night and weekend, I run this or that organization that I started. We help 'the communities.'"
What communities, exactly? Certainly not the ones we all live in.
Anyway, I'm struck by the sudden presence of a commonality: We all have more than one job. I will hand that to these rich people. They are really busy giving small fractions of their fortunes to "the communities."
I stammer through some mildly humorous thing about teaching. Then I mention, again, my boss whose name makes everyone go, "Ahhhhh." The Ambassador winks at me.
The microphone passing takes a significant amount of time. As it nears the end people are either more comfortable or more drunk, because the two sentence intro turns into paragraphs and jokes and commentary. Most entertaining are the high school students invited to represent their schools. They are perfectly adolescent, and say funny things. Two of them are black, and this pleases the crowd immeasurably. Oh look how integrated our little party is.
After the introductions and a few longer speeches by guests of honor, the Ambassador talks about raising millions of dollars through parties like this for great organizations that support the arts in education in Massachusetts. Then she says, "Because I only invited rich people!" Everyone laughs. "Like me!" Laughs.
Oh. How we chuckled.
Then she goes on to say that in "this very room" Frederick Douglass and other community leaders of the past gathered and plotted against oppression and inequality. Everyone gets reverent, breathing in the space.
Yeah. I'm sure this is just how Frederick pictured the future. We have fabulous parties to raise some money to put a year's worth of art and music programming in the urban schools because otherwise "those kids" wouldn't get any. Nice work America.