I got invited to a party! Oh boy!
Well, not just me, everyone who had ever attended the Advanced Toastmasters club was invited. I had attended the last two meetings before the party. Normal clubs meet weekly, but this advanced one met monthly—or perhaps fortnightly …it was all so long ago…—and I never went back.
It was a special party, where “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure!”
The “spending limit,” you might say, was to bring something from home you were willing to part with, of about a dollar’s worth, and wrap it up. Maybe it was near Christmas, I forget …but I surely didn’t feel any Christmas spirit afterwards.
Back at my house, I have always liked art and design. I appreciate it even when graphic artists use a “four color sheet” for designing a chocolate bar or popcorn wrapper; while I feel awe seeing art where the sky, of truly indescribable color, grows ever duskier towards the stars—how do they paint something like that? I still don’t know. Until the night of the party I had a big tin with a wrap-around picture of peaceful cows under the trees at dusk, with their barn awaiting them in the background. No printing on the tin, just the painting. It was big enough to use to hold my fleecy zip-up-the-leg over-pants. Well. Not only did I gaily wrap it, but first I rolled up some long lengths of newspaper and put them around it too, hiding the geometric shape, making more of a fun mystery. I doubt that I put something inside to make an intriguing rattle—that would have been gilding the lily.
We did some usual party stuff, and then came the anonymous presents, one by one. I think I received a tiny novelty book of things to say in the bar. I remember looking in askance at a present that was a coconut-rice chocolate bar—Bounty, I think—while wondering: why would anyone bring a mundane present, of zero creativity, that just gets eaten?
A man started pulling apart the wrappings of the present from me. Then came the loud harsh voice of a witch: “What are those—are they newspaper things? That’s just stupid.” The man got down to the pretty tin. “What is that?” asked the witch “Hey, it’s only a stupid popcorn container...Who would ever wrap that?” Who indeed. And who would ever attend a party that included a witch? A witch everyone would condone, enable and approve. Nobody told her “hush,” and nobody said “Nice painting.” And now I was out a really nice tin.
I’m sure I kept a straight face without turning red, or white, or any revealing combination of colors. The party swirled on and I had no chance to go over and ask my friend, as a perception check. Or, to be honest, there was no chance I would embarrass myself by asking. I went home feeling a little too young, too poor, and with all my “oh boy’s” used up.
Once home, besides thinking, “I guess I could have wrapped a Bounty bar…” I thought of an orphan. No, not Oliver, and not Ann: I remembered Friday, the young woman in the book Friday by Robert Heinlein. Poor Friday, like a boarding school orphan out of Never Let Me Go, (now a movie) couldn’t leave the cold orphanage until adulthood. Referring to the rest of us as humans, she said, and I’m paraphrasing, “I’ll never understand human behavior, all I can do is memorize the rules.” I hear you sister.
I’ve got nothing against rich humans—what the scientists call the “middle class.” In fact, as a university graduate, I suppose I’m an honorary member of the middle class myself. Another honorary member would be the Boss, a working class singer. I’m sure Bruce Springsteen's television set is in color, and really big too. One day, looking at his set, he said in disgust, “Fifty-seven channels, and nothing’s on.” If rich people think a candy bar they can gobble down is better than something real and permanent, then maybe it’s because they own far more than 57 things— so their stuff is “nothing” to them. Does this mean they don’t collect buttons to sew on? Don’t put patches on their old blue jeans? I guess so, if their stuff is nothing. Must make it real easy for them to de-clutter.
When I was a boy, with parents who came of age during the Great Depression, we’d economize by wearing sweaters in the house and turning the thermostat down. I was the kid who slopped coffee grounds on himself doing the chore of taking stuff to the compost: a practical way for us to save money. We’d recycle stale beer bottles for cash. We’d re-use and we’d repair. That was how we coped. Now I’m a grownup, living alone. If I wake up feeling hung-over, looking out at a Sunday morning sidewalk, wishing that I was stoned, I don’t want to complain, “My fingers are cold and nobody loves me.” I can’t control love, but I can sure control my thermostat.
Owning my own place now, with no grubby compost, I always keep it hot enough to wear a T-shirt, and never mind the expense. Besides, my condo suite is right over the boiler room. I had dreamed of a warm house, but I never dared hope one day I’d have nice wall-to-wall warm linoleum…
Some behavior I have witnessed, but which my thrifty parents would never have understood, is this: Now it’s the rich who are into recycling, as something exotic, as a voluntary noble joy. That, and they think the lower classes need to be ignobly forced to recycle as a drab chore, for their own good.
I can just imagine that rich witch from that party saying, “Anyone who doesn’t recycle like me is stupid.”
I’ve memorized the rule of “Next time, just giftwrap a chocolate bar” but I’ll never, ever understand a witch.
Here’s a poem,
by Edwin A. Robinson
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good morning,” and he glittered when he
And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
~My favorite Star Trek episode is the one where Captain Kirk and Nurse Chapel are underground, where Lurch from The Adams Family played Ruk. (I like it for the “blocking,” where the actors stand) In that one, Dr. Roger Korbyn—surely named for Richard Cory—while respected and rich in knowledge, is misunderstood by the landing party and he even, as he realizes at last, misunderstands himself.
~A brilliant piece of characterization in TV’s Sarah Connor Chronicles is where a tragic high school girl, a friend of John, describes a wonderful time by saying, “It’s all carrots and apples.” She says this because in the show her sort never, ever, get to taste “peaches and cream.”
~Years ago I went through a phase of reading every nonfiction essay by Dorothy Allison, best known for her novel Bastard Out of Carolina, now a movie starring Anjelica Huston. Something Allison said struck me, and although there are oodles of her quotes on the Internet, I could not find the one I read so many years ago, so here it is in my own words: “I’m an incest survivor, a feminist, and a lesbian: And none of those things have affected me as much as growing up poor.”
~Speaking of artistic tins, here’s a quote of hers: “Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that if we are not beautiful to each other, we cannot know beauty in any form.”
Dorothy Allison, Two or Three Things I Know For Sure, 1995
~A related essay is my Poverty and “The Hunger Games,” archived February 2012.