No, that title wasn’t just to get your attention. Well, okay, it sort of was. But the truth is that I did have dinner with the President last night. With Barack Obama–that President.* And Mitt and Anne Romney were there too. And Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, and Ed Koch, David Dinkins, Henry Kissinger, Katie Curic and a gazillion other luminaries.
It’s true: Last night my husband Jon and I attended the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner in the Grand Ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City last night, a fundraising event which supports a slew of Catholic charities all over the region. We were guests of the board chair of Jon’s new charter school organization, who had purchased two prime tables for his family, friends and associates. (I promise you, I would not make it to such an event otherwise. I cannot even begin to guess how much it cost per plate.)
All attendees were instructed to arrive at the Waldorf at 5:30 to be processed by security (which turned out to be far less invasive than a TSA check). Since we hadn’t paid to be in the receiving line, we moved fairly quickly and were enjoying cocktails by six. The cocktail period was an interesting cultural experience for both Jon and me. We’re both schmoozers; we like a crowd; we like to small talk (and big talk and any kind of talk), accustomed to running into people we know everywhere. In my case, even on those occasions where I attend a gathering and know no one, I can usually find a way to strike up a conversation with a stranger and pretty quickly find common ground. I think that’s an only-child survival thing. You grow up craving company; you make anyone nearby into instant company. As an adult it’s the same. If you’re at a playground with your kids, you ask another mother how old her kid is and boom: you’ve got someone to talk to. At a party, compliment another woman’s boots or earrings, (like ’em or not); she’ll compliment yours back (like ’em or not) and again: conversation buddy. This works better with women than men, of course. I think it’s the female version of, “So how about those Celtics?”
At this event, however, where I’m sure my dress was the only dress that cost anything south of $1,000, I couldn’t use my usual tactic. When Jon slipped off to the men’s room, leaving me momentarily solo, I stood under a chandelier the size of Rhode Island, daintily sipped my champagne, and gazed at the magnificent display of fashion. It was too much fun for me to feel lonely or self-conscious. Of course, I couldn’t possibly approach anyone out of the blue to say I admired her earrings or shoes. Not here, where I might be taken for an upscale panhandler.
I’m lucky, though: as a former corps member of old-style ballet companies, I’ve played a court lady more times than I care to count. I therefore know how to stand and walk in a gown. Which led to my first bit of stranger chit-chat. A woman my age in a full, floor-length red skirt was struggling with the stairs, nearly pulling herself under the tide of her dress. I was standing by (waiting for Jon to return from checking my coat).
“Help me!” She said righting herself with the aid of the banister. Her accent was slightly, sweetly Southern. “How are you supposed to walk upstairs in these things?”
It was a rhetorical question. Still I had an answer. When I’d done Romeo and Juliet with the Pennsylvania Ballet, the dresses for the women in the Capulet’s ball scene were way too long. They’d come on loan from New York City Ballet–where the average corps de ballet woman was three inches taller than Pennsylvania’s. But our costumer was informed she must not hem the dresses, possibly because we were lesser ballet company. In any case, the costumes had heavy, satin-and-velvet skirts with long, drape-y sleeves. Though we were swimming in them, I have to admit they were a blast to have on. Add to that a Nephertiti-height headpiece and the effect was quite dramatic.
But we were supposed to walk up onto a platform, heads thrown back and turned toward the audience so we couldn’t look where we were going. This unfortunate combination of choreography and wardrobe resulted in an eight-girl pile-up during dress rehearsal as, one by one, each of us tripped on the extra material and went down like dominos. The solution was to hold the front of your dress out in front of you, literally grab two big folds of skirt and hoist them as you walked up the stairs, arms outstretched and parallel to the floor. Otherwise down you’d go, like my friend at the Waldorf last night.
“Take hold,” I told her, demonstrating with my own skirt. “like this.”
She asked me how I’d figured this out. I explained. Boom: conversation buddy.
By the end of cocktail hour, I’d lost her, found Jon and contentedly gabbed with my husband about how strange it was not to know anyone else. We’ve been to fundraisers before, but generally the crowd is more diverse–ethnically and religiously–as well as being more politically liberal. Here people were largely Catholic, overwhelmingly white, of Irish descent, mostly with deep pockets, mostly conservative.
My husband and I are used to being two of a dozen Rosenbergs at a given time, sandwiched between the Perlemans and Silvermans. Here we seemed to be the only Jews in the place. (We weren’t.) And between the biracial president and myself, there was just one black person. Kidding. Though, not counting secret service, I noticed no more than seven people of color, myself and Obama included. (The first Lady was sadly not in attendance. And I’d had such high hopes of running into her in the ladies’ room and chatting!)
I wasn’t concerned about being in the minority racially, religiously or class-wise. My only misgivings were from what I’d read that morning in the New York Times about conservatives who’d boycotted the whole event just because Obama was coming. This did not have to do with the president’s race, however. Their issues instead were Obama’s views on gay marriage and abortion, which contrast with those of the Catholic Church. Still, plenty were in attendance, including nuns, priests and other religious Catholics with the vision and compassion to bridge differences for a night to raise money for good works.
The food and wine were fantastic, the mise en scene impeccable; it was hard not to be in a good mood. At my table (Table Six, right up close to the dais with an unobstructed view of the president and his rival), besides my husband and a few of his colleagues, were a cluster of bright-eyed young people, from West Point, Yale and private schools in the New York area: the daughters, niece and nephews of our host. Though they’d all grown up privileged, they were politically liberal, interested either in community organization or education reform. All were staunch Obama supporters (as were about half the guests there). The man next to me, a cousin of the host, had joined the peace corps after college, adopted an orphaned child in Africa (I forget from which country) and raised him in the States. Everyone’s story was interesting, individual and impossible to guess from appearances alone.
What was most striking about the evening was the way people of different political persuasions came seamlessly together, especially the two duelling presidential candidates. Where they’d exchanged harsh words in Tuesday’s debate, last night Obama and Romney traded humorous barbs, laughing at themselves, at one another and at both their absent running mates.
What was amazing wasn’t just that they were both funny, but that they were so gracious with one another, with the Archbishop and with everyone up there on the dais with them. I kept thinking how hard it must be for both men, for whom each handshake, each hug, each exchange of niceties matters. If they hold on to a hand too long, or release it too soon, if they skip a hand, or fail to mention God, there are consequences. Even looking as relaxed and natural as both Obama and Romney did last night, there must be so much stress. Still, for a night there was a beautiful standstill, a reprieve from the rancor of this tense and trying campaign season. I was honored and a tiny bit in awe just to be there.
*This isn’t an official Race 2012 post, though I’ve categoized it that way because it mentions both race and the election.
**Last night the Alfred E. Smith Foundation raised a total of $5,000,000 dollars for twelve different charities.