There comes a time in every man’s life when he must cease to combat and revile the hand that feeds him and accept that when one is hungry, one must eat.
I had long expected my period of teenage rebellion to extend into my late 40s, swearing never to lie flaccidly within walls built by an aging generation of prepsters. Perhaps wearing too many old-man sweaters has started to rub off; whatever the reason, I have arrived at a place where everyone eats foie gras, has monogrammed towels, and, most importantly, attends The Event. This Christmas break I submitted to the will of the immortal elite, relinquishing my tender body to the confines of a cheap tuxedo and my soul to the being that is The Debutante Ball.
Until the night itself, my only knowledge of The Event came from a small and beloved 1990 film known as “Metropolitan.” “Metropolitan,” the first in Whit Stillman’s three-part ode to being young and a yuppie in Manhattan, narrates the lives of a group of young, self-titled “preppies,” home from the Ivies over winter vacation and very much immersed in the debutante scene. Of course, true to the interests of the protagonists, most of the hot action occurs post-ball, when the characters loosen up and lounge languidly on 18th-century French couches in their apartments. And by hot action I mean heated arguments about Jane Austen novels, raving monologues about the fear of being the new “doomed generation,” and, of course, lots of corny samba dancing. Within this chaos of self-flagellating absurdity, promises are broken, secret plots are revealed, and ultimately, the preppy class is reborn triumphantly as the “urbane haute bourgeoisie.”
Now you’re probably thinking what I’m thinking: Is our language really so impoverished that we require French phrases to define our existence? But rest assured: The reality of The Event is a far cry from these esoteric babblings, as I was soon to find out. And so I took up my lares and penates, the beloved items of the dear Tom Townsend, the anti-Deb Fourier-worshipping redheaded hero of “Metropolitan,” and marched into the Chicago Hilton and Towers hotel. I was a New Yorker in “the other city,” an absolute foreigner to the ways of the Chicago elite. Gravitas oppressed me as I was confronted by two lines: one of the debutantes, balancing daintily in all of their primed perfection, and the other of people waiting to have some hard shots at the bar. I found my deb, a friend from boarding school days, and met her other escort, whose greatest personal struggle had been deciding whether to be an escort for the ball or a member of “the floor committee.” Together, Escort B and I proceeded down the debutante line. I soon learned the lingo, alternately feeding off of Escort B’s knowledge of the girls and winging it here and there.
“Did you go to Lake Forest Country Day?” I queried.
“Why yes, yes I did!” answered the flustered girl.
“I went to North Shore Country Day. I saw you at a sixth-grade dance once.”
“Oh, is that right?”
Silence. The awkward stalker angle was clearly not the way to win the love and affection of these girls. I tried a new tack on another one.
“Hi, I’m Tom Townsend. Did you go to Saddle and Cycle Day Camp?”
“Yeah, I did. Did you?”
“Yeah, when I was really little. Did you know Brent Thompson?” I asked.
“Brent Thompson — ” The girl made efforts to register the name. “Oh yeah, yeah! Brent, of course! How is Brent?”
“As bulbously fat as your lie,” I thought to myself.
Pretty soon Brent Thompson became the staple of my conversations. Some girls loved Brent, many had lost touch with him. Since the ball, I myself have lost a bit of touch with Brent, to be honest. Some day I will return to Chicago and track this young man down, shake his hand and perhaps give him a pat on the back, for Brent Thompson certainly saved my ass.
After about an hour, most of the guests got over the thrill of shaking the debutantes’ damn hands, though there were a few old crazies who went through the line four or five times, at which point I wanted to check whether they were even tall enough to be on this ride. Once the receiving line was over, all of the guests marched into the grand ballroom. The decor brought to mind rococo splendors as conceived through the eyes of Lisa Frank. Tacky pink and orange lights illuminated the room, revealing faux-classical colonnades and the excesses of flora. Soon, however, “The Grand March” was to begin. I envisioned an age-old ritual of dancing and honor set to an Elgar overture. Instead I was presented with a series of curtsies set to an instrumental version of “California Girls.” The band present at the event has scarred me too much to be described at length, but let’s just say it bordered on klezmer.
After the march, the fathers handed their daughters over to the “floor committee boys,” who paraded the girls around the dance floor, stopping at times to allow them to curtsy and turn. I read later on that three women had teamed up to choreograph these “Figures,” which only fell short of dog show proportions in the surprising lack of hoops for the girls to jump through on the stage.
Dinner appeared, and with it came conversations about boarding school and Hemingway. My maniere d’etre was blase. I wasn’t having it, especially not when the entire ball took to the floor. Waltzing to Vivaldi? Of course not, but I must say that dancing to covers of “Celebrate!” and “Dancing Queen” did allow me a nice return to awkward bar mitzvah social experiences.
As the old people got tired and the young people drunk, the ball crawled to a close. At a point of near-klezmer insanity at 1:20 a.m., I obtained a copy of “The Cotillion Red,” THE official cotillion book. Sadly, the text was not a call to all debutantes to rise up as the new Marxist leaders of the world. After this last disappointment, I was spent. I trudged upstairs to the hotel room, while around me drunken preppy revelers spoke in the language of hotel room numbers:
“2034 is supposed to be really sweet.”
“I heard the guys in 1845 ordered a keg.”
“Are you girls going to 620 or 1710 first?”
Amidst the almost unintelligible hotel room-number speak, I realized that I was viewing, through a small space-time tear, the deb party of the future, in which humans and robots dance and party and communicate through complex number formulae. Over the course of the night I had lived an epic spanning hundreds of years, from the tradition of the debutante ball to its current state amidst the turgid dreck of modern pop culture to the future, when robots will make much better escorts that disillusioned preppy boys. But do robots dance well? When it’s klezmer, I have a feeling that anything goes.
T. S. Coburn is le pastie de la bourgeoisie.