"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, October 23, 2017

Y’all Come Back, Hear? Honey And Molasses vs Thanks For Coming–We All Prefer Our Own Company

‘Y’all come back and see us, hear?’ is a common salutation in the South, a gesture of friendship, community, and good spirit. 

‘Thanks for coming’ is the more tepid Northern good-bye – duty done, toleration at best, a few bright moments but nothing nearly as sweet.  Southerners use molasses-and-sweet-tea to disguise their fatigue with dinner guests invited out of neighborliness and a fading but still important sense of community.

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Peter Ocampus grew up in small New England town known for its propriety, respect for Puritan traditions, moral rectitude, and sensible English practicality.  Although his parents held elaborate weekend soirees, welcomed the best of New Brighton society, and offered them the best Swedish smorgasbord and Kentucky bourbon they couldn’t wait for their guests to leave.

“Well, that’s that”, his mother said as the last perfumed guest walked out the door.
Invitations repaid, social graces conferred, and everyone made to feel welcome, privileged, and special.

Sociality was Sybil Ocampus’ special talent. The best Georgetown matrons who entertained the powerfully rich and influential could never match Sybil’s unique combination of good taste, hospitality, warmth, and easy engagement.  She was gifted.

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“Does that do it?”, her husband asked, referring to the punctuated but regular repayment of social debts owed to the New Brighton West End.

“One more”, his wife replied.  “The Fairchilds.”

“Ah, yes”, said Bruce Ocampus.  “The Fairchilds.”

The Fairchilds could never be invited alone, of course.  No one entertained intimately in New Brighton.  Why would one, since sociality was a matter of ledger and bottom line rather than anything more personal? Yet the Fairchilds were not easy to pair – a kind of peculiarity which never went quite well with either Riesling or Chardonnay – and Sybil retraced her entertainment lists again and again searching for the right combination.

The goal was not to seat intellectual likes next to each other, but to encourage light conversation with a suggestion of intimacy and above all to keep the ball rolling.  Any hostess, whether in Georgetown or New Brighton feared ‘the gap’, the silence, the awkward moment when the ball stopped dead; and Sybil had an uncanny knack of social billiards.  There was never a still moment. Her balls kept clacking over the dark green felt of her dinner table until the last of the Sauternes was drunk and the last crumbs of the charlotte aux pommes enjoyed.

There were those persistently painful moments at the front door when the Peases, the Frisbees, and the Moores insisted on lingering, not because they were that reluctant to leave, but that an extended farewell meant reluctance to leave such a beautiful, wonderful evening.  The Ocampuses were patient enough, and hoped that their exaggerated smiles and well-wishes were not too obvious; but could not wait for the last of the guests to depart.

The New Brighton crowd was especially and particularly solicitous on evenings  when the Fairchilds were invited, even more reluctant to leave, and even more insistent about a return invitation; so the post-party gathering in the foyer was almost as important as the festivities in the living room or the camaraderie around the dinner table. 

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A simple ‘Thank you for coming’ should have been more than enough, a pleasant salutation and an unmistakable code for ‘Get your wraps and be on your way’; but no one took the hint; or if they did chose to ignore it to build social indulgences and general good will.

It cannot be any different in the South, although certainly less mannered and practiced.  More often than not, ‘Y’all come back, hear” is reasonably sincere, sociability relieving the monotony of two jobs, four kids, and acrid weekends.  At least social engagements in the South are free from the maneuvering and social positioning of Georgetown receptions.  What upward mobility? What one-upping the Joneses? What social fabrications?

“The Carters are coming over for dinner on Thursday”, said Margot Ocampus said to her husband. Stifling a ‘What for?’ and a ‘What’s the point?’, he reluctantly agreed to the monthly get-togethers of families that had lived in the same neighborhood for decades.  It was a matter of community, his wife said; and besides, a friendship that has lasted this long has at least some value, doesn’t it?

Of course not, her husband considered.  No different from the foyer socializing of his youth in New Brighton with a contemporary twist – congenial references to bus service, schools, and children’s affairs but the same obligation, social duty, and debts to be incurred and repaid.

What indeed was the point? And the older that Bart Ocampus became, the less willing he was to compromise, to put up with repetitive, boring, and inconsequential evenings with the Balders, the Levins, and the Satterthwaites.

“You are becoming pathological”, his wife said as he turned down her suggestion that they get together with the Parkers – a couple of modest aspirations whom they had known for years.  “A misanthrope.  A recluse.”

There was no doubt some truth in what his wife said, but Bart rejected the allegation that he was becoming hermetic.  After all, he had his weekend coffees with the boys who were cut from the same cloth, and as disparaging but categorically as he was.  They could discuss their growing impatience with obligatory dinners within the context of anomie and irrelevance and have a good laugh about their irony.  What was so antisocial or hermetic about that?  It was all a matter of choice.

There was one thing the boys could agree upon.  Although hell was not exactly other people, it came close.

The South is much more forgiving.  Since there are fewer social rungs to climb and therefore fewer aspirations to rise, social accommodation is far easier than in the North.  There is no parsing of social strata when plumbers, farmers, bartenders, and traveling salesmen get together.  ‘Y’all come back, hear’ means no exclusivity.

Of course the South is as socially stratified as any American sub-culture.  It’s just that the white lower-middle class is particularly significant.  The big tent is bigger than in the North where progressive identities fragment the larger wholes.

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Much of Bart's attitude had to do with age.  Older people are simply less willing to put up with the unnecessary.  Time is of the essence, and whether it is spent on the chaise lounge in the backyard with the sprinkler on or studying Tolstoy and the Book of Job, it cannot be wasted.

‘North of 70 there is no need to make apologies’, said a friend of Bart’s.  No need to justify one’s impatience with the Balders, Levins, or Satterthwaites.  No need to put up with any more stories about renovations, vacations, and marriages. Just say no.

Joseph Conrad wrote extensively about the importance of community, solidarity, and communal context.  The Narcissus would have never made it to port if the very disparate members of the crew did not band together in the storm.  The need for brotherhood exceeds simple collaboration.  It is the essence of human survival.  Edward Albee, who hated conventional institutions recognized that marriage was the crucible of maturity.  Without feeling its confining strictures and struggling against them, no one could possible leave adolescence.

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‘We all die alone’, said Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s story of the same name.  There is no point on relying on others for answers to existential questions.  Leave me alone.

We all prefer our own company.

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