What kinds of things would you expect to learn in a course called White Gloves and Party Manners?
I was twenty years old when I asked this, a scrawny, freckly, eighties version of Pippi Longstocking. I sat in the college campus lunch room across from my new friend Darcy, a Malibu Barbie with an extra forty pounds.
My new friend was everything I ever dreamed of being. Zaftig build, pale blond hair, a suntan the color of caramel. Her canary yellow Mustang zoomed through our college campus parking lot, as dazzling to me as a dragonfly’s wings. That she was undeniably heavy didn’t matter. Her choice of attire emphasized the weight in the important places. One of many lessons I would learn from Darcy.
We met in our theater arts class. I guess she liked my bold goofiness as much as I admired her cool confidence. But more than those qualities, I admired the life she led. It was exactly the “middle-class normal” existence I dreamed of living. She came from a home with Persian rugs and real art. Her parents threw dinner parties. I came from peeling linoleum and real guns. My parents threw dinner plates.
When Darcy was twelve, her mother enrolled her in the White Gloves course so she could learn “life skills.” I asked her what kind of life skills those were, as I watched cute guys who didn’t see me snap their heads towards Darcy’s middle-class cleavage.
“Important things one needs to know to get by in the world,” she said.
I assumed this meant practical things like which coupons to clip and how to stock up on Swanson frozen dinners when they went on sale. But Darcy learned the proper way to waltz with boys at dances, and how to wait for them to pull out her dining chair.
At our dinner table when I was growing up, no one waited for anything. Some of us didn’t even wait for the platter to hit the tabletop before harpooning the biggest piece of meat. Waiting to read subtle clues at our table meant you wagered which was the bigger risk: waiting too long and find the food had disappeared, or risk losing a finger for the reward of a pork chop.
That a person could pay for courses to learn social etiquette was something I’d never imagined. Until then I thought I'd done well to read Ann Landers’ advice column every day.
For a twenty-year-old, I was more street-wise than Darcy. Her family went on real vacations. But mine went on probation. They celebrated birthdays and anniversaries while we celebrated homecomings from rehab. Yet compared to her, I was naive in many ways.
My decades-long friendship with Darcy would teach me more about class than I ever imagined. Our meeting in 1983 had sewed the seeds for a lifelong lesson. Many people would come into my life to teach me their own lessons about class. And someday now I'd understand that people with Persian rugs can lack the human decency of ones with peeling linoleum.