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My friend Minerva is fed up with her cousins. To put it more precisely, she’s fed up with the way they feed each other.
The cousins (let’s call them Calvin and Blanche, since, having actual names of their own, they truly do exist) have been married forever — at least 40 years. All that time, it appears, they’ve been eating off each other’s plates, both at home and in public. I, for one, have actually seen them do it — at Minerva’s house, at their own house, and at fine restaurants in major cities, all across our fair nation.
There appears to be an unspoken agreement between the two of them. Blanche takes a few bites from her entree and then slides her plate across to Calvin. Forthwith, Calvin takes a forkful of Blanche’s poached salmon and shifts the plate back toward her. Being more adventurous of spirit, she then stretches across the table and dips into Calvin’s boeuf bourguignon, holding her napkin under her soup spoon, so as not to dribble on the linen. Then they look at each other and say either “Mmmm…” or “Mmmm?”
In short order, and after a swift swallow of wine, they return to their own dishes. Until the dessert course arrives, nothing else is shared across the course of the evening, except polite conversation.
It drives Minerva crazy. (“Why can’t they just eat their own food?!!?” she’s been known to screech in the cab riding home from a restaurant.) And it would drive me crazy, too, if this weren’t such a ritual for Calvin and Blanche, a rudeness they’ve fine-tuned down to the point of high art. They handle it subtly, and rather elegantly, to tell the truth. Hardly anybody notices, except perhaps for probing eyes who have very little to pay attention at their own tables.
What would drive me crazy, however, would be if Calvin and Blanche — on a first date, or four decades into their marriage — were heard asking each other, “What does that taste like?” “May I have a bite of that?” or, worst of all, “You’re not going to eat all of that, are you?”
Such questions suggest a hunger that cannot be healed by the size of any portion on any plate. They also bespeak disturbing lacks of self-confidence, self-reliance and self-discipline.
In such cases, the fellow diner is perfectly correct in asking — even if it’s something he’s been asking for the past 40 years — “Would you like to order something else?”
The answer, almost inevitably, will be, “No. Of course not. I’m loving my poached tripe on cheese grits. I’m sure the second bite will be wonderful.”
To which the well-thought-out response will be, “Waiter! May we take another look at the menu?”
Even amongst the closest of friends, the trading of tidbits is a questionable practice. Who will know, at the end of the meal, how to divvy up the tab? Who will have been keeping track of the spoonfuls of boeuf bourguignon? Who will be counting the shrimp in the scampi?
Friendships have been parted over smaller things. Reputations have been ruined by considerably less.
Here’s a concern voiced to me, post-Oscar Monday, by a not-overly blond nor excessively slender person, at the gym:
“Last night, I threw my Oscars party. I did all the food, except for the part of it that people brought, just because they wanted to. Drinks-wise, I asked everybody to BYOB. Almost everybody brought wine. [One friend; let’s not give his name] brought a jug of not-so-good Merlot; so it never got opened, all night long. When it came time to leave, he picked up his jug and went home — no explanations, no apologies, no nothing. How rude is that?”
A BYOB invite always begs for mixed blessings, of course.
Not only does it empower people to drink more than they ought to — since they’re consuming their own hooch (so who’s counting?) — it also leads to an unseemly confusion:
Should I — acting like a graduate-school student — scrawl my name on a bit of masking-tape and and stick it across my personal bottle of vodka? (I’d seem chintzy if I did that. Wouldn’t I?) Meanwhile, if I’d really like another cocktail, and, if it’s not all that late in the evening, while unscrupulous others have already emptied my fifth of good Scotch? (I ought to have a right to somebody else’s rot-gut? Shouldn’t I?)
If almost everybody is bringing a bottle of wine for the evening, and if some bottles don’t get opened, it’s perfectly all right for [One Friend; Let’s Not Give His Name] or anybody else, to take home his unopened bottle.
[One Friend; Let’s Not Give His Name] may have decided that his wine was too fine to be wasted on the company at hand. Or he may simply have decided that it’s time to take home his unopened bottle.
This was a BYOB party, after all.
A wrong idea from the beginning; so any judgment calls are iffy.
To make matters worse, the recycling of bottles is unlikely.
I had absolutely no idea who you were, the other night at a cocktail party.
It was probably my mother’s fault.
Sometime last week, NPR reported “the results of a recent scientific study” indicating that the gift for recognizing the faces of others, at cocktail parties and elsewhere, may be inherited. In that study — if I understood it correctly — some relatively newborn babies were presented with a chart consisting of a square, a triangle, and a smiley face. First time around, nothing much happened. Second time around, the selfsame babies slapped on the smiley face.
I wish I could be as lucky as those babies. And I wish I could politely slap your face at a cocktail party, as well, if it would help me remember your name.
Reconnecting with faces may be a gift, but remembering the names to go with them is a craft.
Once you’ve been introduced to a person, repeating that person’s name, over the course of the conversation, early on, usually helps. (As in, “Yes, Jared, I was wondering, Jared, what you were doing with your poodles, Jared”; or ” Yes, Jeannette, I was wondering how you, Jeannette, made that happen with your hair, Jeannette”; or “Yes, Morcum, I was wondering whatever happened to my 401K, Morcum. I thought you, Morcum, were taking care of it.)
Mnemonics (the trick of memory games) may help. For example: It helps if I remember that “David,” of a couple, is “dark,” as opposed to Michael, who is “mild.” It also helps if I look at my friend Callie and remember that she and her husband live on Bittersweet. (Bittersweet is a flower; so is a calla lilly; every connection boosts.)
But if a face and a name don’t click — particularly if the face has been reworked or the hair has been re-colored — there’s no embarrassment in saying what my good friend Henschel usually says to people he may have met before : “I’m sorry; but I fear you have the advantage of me.”
Worse things might have happened. The research reported on NPR also involved chimpanzees, and their handlers, most of whom were wearing masks. No faces were ever recognized.
I’ve been to that party, too. Haven’t you?
“How late may we linger at a restaurant?” friends ask me, trying to put a little parley-voo-spin on the obvious question.
What they’re actually asking, of course, is, “If we just sit at the table, ordering nothing but coffee re-fills, and more water, and stay there for 90 minutes, without even asking for a second round of cognac, while 27 couples are lined up at the check-in desk, will the servers hate us?”
I’ve conducted a brief, relatively random survey of restaurant servers. The servers claim they don’t care, as long as they’re tipped considerately — not just in terms of their percentage of the bill, but also with some consideration of the time they’ve spent re-filling coffee cups and water glasses, while old friends simply reminisce, long after the plates have been cleared.
Every server in my random survey is a liar.
Unless we’re ordering a third or fourth round of drinks, or another set of Choc-o-mania Brownie Upsets for the entire table, any rational server with a rent payment to make would clearly prefer that we move on. They hope to see us again, very soon; but they hope to see another table-full of patrons even sooner.
This is one of those moments when the relationship between diner and server devolves into a sort of unspoken arithmetic. The tally, at the bottom line, is the tip.
At a fine restaurant, where reservations must be made weeks in advance, and where the tables are spread with linen, and the silver truly is silver, patrons may linger as long as they wish. (The expense of their lingering is built into the final tab; the customers get to tip on top of the charge for lingering.) And, even at a restaurant where wanna-be diners are lined up, waiting for the hostess’s next available, every patron — even if he’s only headed to the salad bar — should feel free to ask for an extra cup of Catalina, on the side. Everything should happen in its own time. But everything in life, if we are closely attuned to it, also has its own rhythm.
The other night my friend Lynette and I were the last two patrons in a restaurant. As we got up to leave, one of the servers was waiting to plug in the floor-waxer.
I had tried to be kind with the tip. I even blew out the candles at the table next to ours.
“Do you think they hate us?” Lynette asked, as I helped her into her coat.
I said, “I don’t know.
“I usually eat at the bar.”
Some people simply cannot let it go.
Take, for example, my friend Hiram, who called me, from Minneapolis, day before yesterday. He was busy at his desk. (I could hear the shuffling of papers in the background, and the murmur of people talking on their headsets.)
“You know Lorene and I are divorced,” he said.
I said, “Yes, Hiram. You’ve been divorced for ages.”
“It’s not ‘ages,’ ” Hiram said. “It’s just 26 months.”
I said, “Twenty-six months is more than two years.”
Hiram said, “Can you hold?” I was left alone, for a brief time, all by myself in a void with nobody but me and the Bee-Gees; then Hiram was back with me. “Where were we?” he asked.
I said, “We weren’t any where.”
“Valentine’s Day,” he said. “I need to do something.
“Do you know somebody who could do some flowers? Nice, you know, but not roses. Can you hold?” This time the void was filled by Celine Dion. Then he was back.
“I was thinking maybe the florist could deliver them to Meghan.” Meghan is Hiram and Lorene’s daughter — their only child, except for Hiram, Jr., also known as “Hype.” (Hype spends a lot of his time in a recovery center in Providence, R. I.) “Then she could just take them to her mom, and say, ‘Dad wanted me to give you these.’ ”
“Why?” I asked.
“Sheez,” Hiram said. “It’s Valentine’s Day. I don’t want her to be lonely.”
“But what if she …?” I started to ask. But Hiram took care of the rest of the sentence. “Hate not to be paying attention,” he said. “Major presentation at 10:45.” (I spent the next minute-and-a-half with Barry Manilow.)
“I’m back,” he said.
“What should the note say?” I asked. “What note?” Hiram asked.
“The note Meghan’s going to deliver with the flowers.”
“Don’t worry about Meghan,” Hiram said. “She’ll know what to say.”
“What if Meghan gets out of this equation? What if she has a date of her own?” I asked. “What if you just had the flowers delivered tomorrow afternoon?”
More than a trifle aghast, Hiram said, “What do you think Lorene wants? A bunch of dead pom-pom mums on Valentine’s Day?
“I still have a great deal of respect for that woman,” he said.
“Can you hold?”
I spent the next three-and-a-half minutes with ABBA.
When he came back on the line, Hiram said, “And would you make sure they don’t send roses? Anybody could send a bunch of roses. I could have ordered a bunch of roses for myself.”
He took a quick, short breath of hesitation. There was a flustering of papers in the background.
“Hate to do this to you” he said. “But can you hold?”
“You still may have time to make a reservation,” I assured him yesterday.
“Oh, no,” my friend Cecil gulped. “There’s no table, anywhere, where she’d like to eat.”
I asked, “Well, what does she like to eat?”
Cecil said, “I’m not sure. She has tattoos.”
“Tattoos?” I asked.
“Yes,” Cecil said, “Three intertwining cobras, tatooed up to her left elbow.”
“Do you know what they mean?” I asked.
“No,” Cecil said, “but I thought she and I might have dinner.”
Valentine’s Day is not the time for this sort of first date, or any sort of first date, I can assure you. It is not a time for testing the waters. It is not a time when two people who hardly know each other should be left standing in line, waiting for a table, talking about their tattoos, while a hostess calls out “Briggham? Are you Briggham? Are you the table of three?” It is not a time when the hostess finally turns to them and says, “Oh yes, you’re the Grisgow party, aren’t you? The ones with the intertwining cobras.”
By that time, all romance has certainly been sapped out of any evening.
On a Valentine’s evening such as this, a gentleman is much wiser to serve up some take-out cannelloni, at his own place, spooned up on nice plates, even if they’re borrowed from his mother. (Candles always help.) Quiet is good. (So are flowers, trite though they may seem.) A 90-minute wait in line is never impressive. If it leaves two people with nothing to say, for an hour and a half, it can easily last for a lifetime.
I asked Cecil, “Are you sure you want to spend an evening with tattoos you don’t understand?”
“I don’t know,” he said, in a hesitating sort of way. “But it’s just a first date.”
I said, “But Cecil, It’s Valentine’s.”
Cecil said, “Maybe we’ll just do pizza.”
Here’s a modern-life situation that arrived, a couple of days ago, via Facebook:
The other night, my wife and I stopped in at a local night club. It’s a place where the clientele is predominately gay, but it’s a place where [Suzy] and I have a lot of friends. The other night, as we were leaving the club, we ran into a longtime friend of mine, a former business associate — somebody I’d always assumed was gay — so I stuck out my hand for a handshake. Immediately, I felt he was reflexively uncomfortable, and he didn’t even respond to the handshake. I said, “You know [Suzy], don’t you?” He said, “Hello.” But that was all he said. Despite the fact that he had a friend at his side, no further introductions were offered. I tried to make conversation, but it went nowhere. It was a bad, bad moment. How could I have fixed it?
Nobody can ever “fix” this sort of clumsy encounter. It sounds as if you, [Suzy], and your friend — not to mention your friend’s friend — were all caught in an out-of-context moment. They didn’t expect to encounter you on the sidewalk outside a “predominately gay” night club; and they probably weren’t the first people you were expecting to meet, either, waiting in the queue for a cab outside Kasa Koniption.
In our modern, shaken-not-stirred cocktail mix of a world, awkward, off-kilter moments are well-nigh inescapable. (Twenty years ago, the question wouldn’t have been, what was your friend doing at a gay bar? The more likely question would have been, what were you and [Suzy] doing there?)
You and a friend — even a best friend — can be caught off guard in the most seemingly innocent of moments. For example, you encounter a business colleague at a corner table in a fine restaurant, and the woman with whom he’s dining is definitely not his wife. Or you mis-remember the name of a longtime friend when you’re trying to make an introduction at a cocktail party. Or you ask a friend how things are going with her husband — from whom she’s been divorced for a year and a half. Such moments fleet away, ever so quickly, if we simply let them go. There’s very seldom any cause to proffer an apology, except maybe to say, “Jack actually is one of my closest friends; you’d think I could come up with his name,” or “Sorry for not remembering about the divorce. How are things with you?”
In any case, it is never wrong to say hello, or if proximity permits, to extend a handshake. If the response to the handshake seems “reflexively uncomfortable,” the problem probably stems from the handshakee — not from the handshaker, unless the handshakee has some good reason to suspect that the handshaker will be revving up his iPhone, the minute he hits the cab, calling all his old fraternity brothers and saying, “Hey. Guess where I just ran into Floyd Bosko tonight?”
That sort of small talk suggests a very small, and rather out-moded, mind. If a gentleman becomes known for this sort of untrustworthiness, his reputation is long overdue for an overhaul.
My friend Brick just broke up with his girlfriend, Tristina — via a text message.
I said, “Brick, that is just about the lowest thing I’ve ever heard of.”
Brick and I were standing in the snacks-and-nuts aisle at the grocery store. (Brick was wearing a baseball cap, turned backwards.) “Hey man,” he said, “at least I signed it. It’s not like she didn’t know where it was coming from. It’s not like I just tweeted her, or something.”
I said, “Brick, it’s less than two weeks until Valentine’s Day.”
“Yeah, I know that,” said Brick. (He was breaking open a pack of pork rinds.) “That’s why I thought I’d give her a heads-up.”
Then he paused, just long enough for a confused little furrow to work its way across his otherwise untroubled brow. “Whaddaya think I am?” he said. “Stupid?”
I said, “You could at least have called her. You could at least have talked to her in the parking lot at the gym. You could have at least have stopped by her condo. ”
“Oh sure,” said Brick. “And then she would have started crying.”
I said, “Brick, you could at least have faced this like a man.”
Brick tossed back a fistful of pork rinds. “Jeez,” he said, brushing the pork-rind bits off the front of his sweatshirt. “That’s what I thought I was doing.”
Some messages seem horrific enough, even written by hand on the best quality card stock; but they certainly have no place being left on somebody’s voice mail, much less on the screen of an iPhone. It’s bad enough to send along a last-minute “Sorry. Got tied up. Maybe you can take a cab to the airport,” or a conflict-avoidant “Thought you ought to know. We just decided to give your office to Eustace.” But, when it comes to passing along certain messages, the biting of bullets is still required. Among those messages are, “I’m really sorry I ran over your dachshund,” “Sorry for the remark about the woman in the two-piece. I didn’t know she was your mother,” and “Great 18 months. It’s OK if you don’t keep my toothbrush.”
In some situations, the music must be faced, face-to-face. In some cases, there is no easy way out, no acceptable escape hatch — at least, not for a gentleman.
So I said to Brick, “I guess you’re open on Valentine’s Day.”
“Gee, I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe I could still get a table at Cafe Cozy. Girls like Cafe Cozy a lot.”
Standing there in grocery store aisle, I looked at Brick and said, “Are you going to pay for those pork rinds?”
Brick looked back, scratching a flake of something crispy out of one of his eyebrows. “Hey man,” he said, “Whaddaya think I am?… “a jerk?”