Thursday, March 20, 2014

Fine Linen

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A few weeks ago I was visiting a former client on the Upper East Side.

Her older daughter is in school, but her younger is about my child's age. My wild nymph ran past the little girl, who was so porcelain pristine in her silky cotton dress and cashmere cardigan that I was afraid the wind stirred by my child might knock her over.  My daughter was dying to see the toys in the nursery, which is a Neverland of wonders of huge quantity and variety. The nursery itself feels like its own country. That it manages to contain the toys and the play house and the play kitchen and two beds and has piles of the softest carpet and not one but two life-like rocking horses with saddles and stirrups makes it a fairyland.

When I entered the front hallway, its walls lined with pencil sketches of sailing boats and maps of Maine, and then proceeded to the living room with its Sotheby's air of old money collectibles and upper crust curtain patterns and of course, chintz wallpaper, I was reminded of a famous quote of F. Scott Fitzgerald's. It is apparently often misquoted as having been uttered in conversation with Hemingway, but it comes from a short story called "The Rich Boy." (I looked it up.)

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves.
I'm going to take a deep breath and assert that I believe this is largely true. Try as I might, I can think of no exception to this rule whom I ever came across among the wealthy clients I served. Not one.

We had a chat, my old client and I. I was there, actually, to pick up some hand-me-downs which she had set aside for my daughter. We hadn't spoken in a long time, but she sent me an e-mail announcing that she had a bag of "gently used" clothing for a little girl. And to be honest, I was surprised. And to my relief, I was grateful rather than annoyed. (She has made no pretense of "friendship" so one might view the gesture as patronizing.)

Have you ever tried to capture air in a net? That's what having a conversation with her was like. I couldn't help but wonder if she reserved her deep reflections and intimate emotions, even entertaining anecdotes from her day, for people who weren't "the help." I couldn't help but create several alternate identities for her, so desperate was I to put any identity behind the mask of vague politeness that she wore.

I groped for a few topics I thought might work.  How was she enjoying the brief respite from the freezing winter this year? Were they going on any vacations soon? Did her older daughter still have the books I gave her when I left my post? The conversation trickled like blood in a corpse.

Affect is a funny thing. It can both mask and reflect character. In my earlier years I frequently confused the nonchalance and ease of the wealthy with intellect and confidence. They must know something I didn't, talk about important things when in the right company, have access to books before they were published. In fact, they were nonchalant simply because they had no worldly cares. And perhaps because of that, no interests, worldly or otherwise. And I am sure I never saw any of them reading a book.

How I envied whatever those embroidered, ironed pillowcases and lilac soaps seemed to endow their owners with. I didn't know what it was, only that it was out of reach, formidable and invisible. I wanted so much to understand what I must be missing. In truth, there was only the decoration. It was just like wandering the elaborate set of a play or film.  If you got too close, if you examined the linen and the monograms and maritime maps very closely, you would see that they were merely props and a facade of a hollow interior, like a street front in an old Hollywood film.

It was wonderful to lie on those soft quilts as I tucked children into bed. Every knickknack was a luxury, every toy looked like an illustration in an old book. But eventually the air grew stale and I wasn't sure I could get enough oxygen to breathe. And then the parents would finally come home and it was late and I was tired and we fumbled with money the way a prostitute and her client might, except I daresay a prostitute is never asked for change to make up for three dollars over-payment. And the father would rarely be allowed even to glance at me. He would make his (often) drunken way to the bedroom while the mother interrogated me about the children's baths and bedtimes, homework and meals.

I would exhale in the elevator down to the lobby and say "goodnight" to the doorman. When I arrived at the street I would turn the corner, brace against the midnight cold, pocket the extra money for cab fare and walk to the nearest subway home.

Why do humans measure their worth by comparison with others? Most of us do it at one time or another. Primates are social. It's got a dark side. When my daughter and I first walked into the apartment that day, she set down a book she had carried with her on the walk. It was a pretty book  -- lushly illustrated with an inviting cover. My client's daughter desperately wanted to hold the book and read it when she noticed it as we were leaving. But the mother was in a hurry to have us out the door, so she cried.

My child and I ran up the avenue. Later, when we got back to our apartment, my daughter breathlessly related the most interesting story of the day to her father. "The little girl wanted to read my book but her Mommy said, 'No, no, no!'" Even the youngest of primates enjoys being envied now and then, particularly when she has just spent an hour envying the very someone who now wants just one thing that she herself possesses.

A scene from Metropolitan, a low budget film that both spoofs and nostalgically idealizes the high budget world of the East Side. 


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