Wednesday, June 13, 2007

a glimpse at the upper crust: the tale of an upper east side engagement party

The first over-anxious drops of rain were just making their escape from the over-burdened, ominous clouds while the sun still managed to shine through in scattered rays when I spotted the 122 number of my destination - The Cosmpolitan Club. I was immediately disappointed in the relative plainness of the facade given the mystery surrounding the purpose and whereabouts of this club that almost does not exist on Google unless you have a membership id and password. I sized up the building and the people making their way in after being deposited there by black cars and yellow cabs as I ducked under the scaffolding covering the sidewalk across the street and replaced my flip-flops with black four-inch patent leather shoes that served as a better complement to my cream colored dress with the vertical black vines and tiny polka-dots. As I was stashing one flip-flop in my over-sized bag, reaching for my second heel and attempting to balance on one stilleto-clad foot, an older man hurried to join me under the covering and stopped a couple of feet away facing a small garden where he abruptly stopped. I quickly fumbled to complete my shoe swap and removed the black summer-weight cardigan that dressed the slightly pufffy flutter sleeves down for the office, so as not to linger long enough to confirm my suspicion that his intent was to relieve himself there on the corner of busy Lexington Avenue on a Tuesday night at 6:30 pm. He did not look homeless. But the Upper East Side, especially this area, is significantly ritzier than the rest of Manhattan with its cleaner sidewalks and lack of garbage piled on the curb so maybe their homeless people are better dressed as well.

I was not overwhelmed by the lobby but was soon directed up a half a flight of stairs to a room I might imagine in a Henry James novel. But before I could even enter the room, a tuxedo-clad waiter offered a tray full of glasses of various shapes and sizes holding a variety of liquids. I selected a wide mouthed, long stem glass after confirming it was filled with perrier and a lime and made my entrance as I noted the ridiculous extravagance of not just having linen cocktail napkins but linen cocktail napkins with the couple's initials stitched in the center in the same font the initials were embossed on the thick gold rimmed invitation. Not a single face looked familiar. But I was not expecting the familiar, not here at an exclusive club on the upper east side. The near wall was lined with buffet tables of sushi and light sandwiches. In the center of the room stood a medium-size round table with a lavish centerpiece of branches and fresh flowers rising nearly high enough to touch the low hanging antique-looking chandelier. The ceilings were high with beautiful crown molding and elaborate detail inlaid across the ceiling. Large, soothing oil paintings occupied each of the side walls and straight ahead French doors opened onto a patio surrounded by greenery with a bar tucked at the end. The clouds were losing the battle of holding up the rain but the doors remained open throughout the evening despite the torrents that fell in sheets on and off. Intimate seating arrangements with velvet covered sofas and elegant wing-back chairs were tucked off to each side of the room and in each corner. As I completed my slow and desperate circle around the room, I landed on a familiar face - the mother of the groom. A woman I know professionally from my clerking days in Salt Lake - a fellow lawyer who has repeatedly extends me invitations to join her firm. I was here to network - awkwardly, at her son's lavish engagement party. She invited me and a number of other lawyers so she would have familiar faces to greet in this exclusive crowd of the Manhattan elite. Most of the women had flawlessly coiffed hair and wore pearls. They wore Chanel suits (or what I imagine were Chanel suits) with broaches and classic cocktail dresses. The men's suits and most everyone's attire looked expensive. Each time I was introduced to one of these women I expected her to place one hand on her chest and gesture toward me with a drawn out "daaahling" with her head tossed back. "So these are wasps," I thought as my eyes roamed around the room settling on various characters only briefly before another would catch my eye. I found it difficult to hear conversations and introductions which were generally spoken in soft and low voices for some reason. One woman to whom I was introduced had long slightly fluffy hair and seemed far too thin for her sagging wrinkled skin. Instead of a hand shake she offered the tips of her fingers as if I would kneel and kiss her knuckles. Her eyes bulged from her emaciated face and she emmitted a pungent mix of moth balls and lavender.

After I was reintroduced to a woman who looked as if she felt more out of place than I did having flown out from Salt Lake, we decided to ditch the awkward circle and head for the sushi bar. Fearing I might fail the delicate beverage/plate balance of cocktail hour, I suggested we make our way to the open setee tucked in the back corner which allowed us to eat and watch the crowd. As we were chatting, the toasts began and my peep hole into the wasp's world was widened just a bit.

The mother of the bride started out. Her hair was swept high in a fairly rigid gray bouffant with a small flip at the end and she wore a long stiff cream jacket with black slacks. She held a stack of papers as she praised her beautiful, only child "a daughter, no less" (a side comment which evoked a slight inexplicable titter from the crowd) on the accomplishment of engagement. Her speech was unremarkable and I honestly did not listen to most of it. She was followed by another excentric woman who became acquainted with the bride due to her relationship (perhaps marriage?) to the bride's godfather. She spoke a bit through her teeth and made some vague literary references I felt were too modern for me to catch and ended her toast with some well wishes that included "a dollop of serendipity!" There was cheek kissing of the bride and another woman stepped up to the microphone and when she arrived I knew I needed to somehow, slyly jot down a couple of notes to capture the experience. Luckily I was still near the setee so I used my 4 inch heels and the long line of toasts as an excuse to sit and put down my perrier.

She had a classy but frizzing triangular cut and wore a black dress with white polka-dots. Around her neck hung a multi-strand choker of pearls with a red pashmina somewhat dramatically tossed over her right shoulder. Her wrists were filled with gold bangles and her brightly floraled shoes did not quite match. She introduced herself as the bride's godmother and immediately caught my attention with her air of superiority in explaining how "many of you may know the bride-to-be as Katherine or Kat or even [curtly, articulately and somewhat disdainfully] Katie. But to me [dramatic pause] she will always be Petunia." A bit of surprised but polite laughter rippled through the room. Encouraged, the godmother pressed forward about how Petunia was her pet name as a child so she passed it along to the bride due to their special bond and despite the fact that since she always wore pearls (gesturing toward the pearls at her neck) and gold bracelets (holding up her free right arm and clinking the bracelets around as evidence) for which the bride as a baby always grabbed, she could have "just as easily called her Pearl, which young Petunia pronounced Puh-rl" with a loud and obnoxious emphasis on the first syllable which sounded more like the hee-haw of a donkey or "Goldie."

The stories went on, painting a picture of this petite brunette as a shopping-obsessed, spoiled trust funder - although no actual mention of a trust fund was mentioned, I just assumed. I was not impressed but everyone smiled and laughed at the warnings to always give her ample closet space and never deny her shopping privileges. The next woman to step up to the mic was small and bird-like and claimed to be some sort of teacher, I suspect from some elite all-girls private institution in the City. But she also seemed to be a sort of governess, if those still exist, or friend of the family because I gathered she often traveled with them. There were stories of some "camp" she accompanied the bride to at Westpoint where the poor girl was subjected to playing basketball, sleeping in the barracks (which was more stark than the worst college dorm!) and she whined but somehow survived. There were stories about summers in the south of France (I swear I am not making this up) where the small child was able to control the locals with her "pefected come hither look" and insisted everyone bend to her will which delighted the speaker. She was praised as being able to pull off and be comfortable in anything from jeans to formals "as long as it is designer."

By the last doting admirer of the bride (a male, who was subjected to endless criticism of his attire and specifically his shoes by the bride-to-be), I was worn out and could no longer listen. I was curious what the groom's parents would say. They are a wealthier family living in the exclusive by Salt Lake standards neighborhood of Federal Heights. The father is a doctor, the mother a lawyer. Successful, no? Not in this crowd, I mean, they work for a living and that seems somewhat "low." (Please read my dripping sarcasm). The majority of the people in the room appeared to be part of the "ladies who lunch" set who I sometimes encounter when I take summer associates out to lunch on the firm. They come from generations of trust fund enabled socialites where ivy league educations are collected for prestige sake, not for the job it might secure. The groom's family is a large, not quite typical (due to the working mom part) Mormon family with children (perhaps 5?) ranging from their 20s down to elementary school age. Good, friendly, open people who couldn't possibly be prepared for a daughter-in-law like this. I first met the mother when she offered her beautiful home to my friend to host a party.

The only toast came from the father - it was short, involved a somewhat entertaining story about the groom's early and enthusiastic introduction to chess, praise of the bride, a few jokes about her fashion criticism directed at him and a sweet welcome to the family. The mother explained to me later that she had no desire to get up there.

After the toasts, I stayed longer than I expected, sitting on the setee enjoying a conversation with two female lawyers, one of whom talked about her 30-year reunion with the 8 women from her graduating class at one of the women's vacation home in the Bahamas last summer. I find it fascinating to discuss my profession with women of her generation who really were among the first to forge through the male barrier. All the while I kept one eye scanning the room for people a bit closer to my age - or even the bride's and groom's ages which seem to be lagging a minimum of 5 to 6 years behind mine. I spotted only a handful. This event appeared to be primarily for the bride's mother, yet another distinction between this world and my own.

I realized this was a one time passport to a world to which I have no desire to belong - other than to sample a summer or two in the south of France. I enjoyed the glimpse but with so much emphasis on the stereo-typical and somewhat empty interest of shopping above all else, it felt hollow. There was a passing reference to her ivy-league education at Brown but ultimately she was painted as a coy fashionista who had ensnared her husband. I really hope my friends and family have more to say about me if toasts are ever called for. Although, I must admit, it would be fun to have an eccentric pearl and gold bedecked godmother. She probably gives great birthday presents.

I said my goodbyes after I noticed a lingering break in the rain and made my way to the street, pausing briefly by the door and wondering if it would be tacky and rude to swipe a clean white linen napkin as a momento. They couldn't possibly need them all, could they? I stopped myself and walked down the steps to the entrance where I paused to relieve my feet of the beautiful but painful shoes. I declined the doorman's offer to hail me a taxi and chose to walk home in the cool, clean air along the freshly scrubbed streets so I could slowly ease back into my own world.


lizzie said...

wow. i wish i could have been there...but then again, i would not even come close to fitting in, especially in my jeans. sounds so fun!

tiff said...

wow. in every way. the story. the people. your writing. i'm loving this new style! :)

thanks for pointing me in the right direction, i did miss this somehow!

autumn said...

What a story. I would have loved to have been there. I love to see people like that and marvel at what kind of unrealistic lives they must lead. Great post

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