A Few Strawberries Short of a Belgian Waffle
We are all familiar with the seminal cultural study known as The Beverly Hillbillies, with its sitcom-centric interpretation of the social implications of parachuting the working class in among the leisure class. It’s not so funny in real life. Case in point: me. I was born on a hardscrabble vegetable farm in upstate New York during the post-war baby boom. That life planted a chip prominently on my shoulder. I hated the produce brokers who made my Dad plead for an additional 25 cents per bushel of tomatoes or beans. I resented the rich kids in my grammar school for their pool parties and fancy lunches. I suppose others might have reacted by aspiring to leave the unwashed masses and join that higher class. Not me, I was a child of the sixties — proud to be a proletariat. I stubbornly clung to that identity when I should have been old enough to chase some reasonable financial goals. So what brings me to the Hamptons this fine evening? Serendipity and the social ambition of my new bride, who owns a house in Amagansett. As I stand in the middle of a Southampton pasture, I can sense the ghosts of those failed Long Island potato farmers who couldn’t afford to work the land anymore. Now it’s a horse farm of some investment banker or stock broker. Farm? Snort. In my book, you can’t call your place a farm unless you rely on it to put food on the table. You can’t call yourself a farmer if you’re wearing skinny white pants—as our host was. I should have known not to drink in that pre-pissed off state, but I needed one bad. Tonight his “farm” is a venue. We are here for a summer evening of drinks and food at some benefit for some cancer cause or other. Who could complain about that? “You could” my wife said. “Just don’t embarrass me. I have friends here. So just forget your proletariat shit for one evening okay?” “Okay’” I said distractedly. My mind was rubbing its hands together in thirsty anticipation as I stumbled across the pasture to the bar. Once there I chatted up the young bartender in tight black top and cutoff shorts. “I’ll have a Stoli,” I said, knowing that the event was sponsored by Grey Goose. Just being a wiseass. She looked at me funny and wagged a big bottle of Grey Goose in my face. “Sure, make mine a double,” I said. She humored me, poured me a good pour. As I turned to survey the crowd, I saw my wife across the pasture near the pool. I sauntered over. “Ain’t life wonderful” I exclaimed when I got within earshot. She gave me a once-over with her smoky eyes. “Are you drunk?” she asked. “No not yet,” I replied, “Right now I am just happy to be freed from the world of the hoi polloi.” “No, you’re with the hoi polloi now, the upper class.” “That’s not what hoi polloi means. It means the masses” “I thought you liked being among the have-nots— your peeps. “Yes, I was being facetious.” “What is wrong with you?” she asked. “Why do you insist on being difficult? Do you know what people would give to be in your shoes tonight? You’re in a beautiful place with drinks and food, interesting people… “Really, which ones are interesting?” “Don’t be such an ass.” “No, really, what makes them interesting? Their money?” “No, not their money. They’re interesting because they dress fabulously, and they have beautiful homes and they like nice things.” “So, it’s all about things then?” “Oh, go get another drink.” So I walked away and left her standing in the grass, high heels digging deeper into the turf in rage. I moseyed up to the bar. The same young girl was still slinging vodkas. “I’ll have the usual,” I said. She shot me a look. “A vodka. You know they say the best tasting vodka is Smirnoff. Fifteen bucks a fifth.” She silently poured a shot into a plastic cup and I sauntered away again. I spotted my wife chatting with a couple outside the tent and I sidled up to them. It was Joan and Jim, some sort of trust fund babies, quasi art collectors. “Your wife is fabulous,” Joan said to me. “She may be fabulous, but fabulous doesn’t carry any weight with me,” I said. They began to look uncomfortable, sensing that they had stumbled into a domestic dispute. Mister Power Broker raised his glass. “Looks like I need a refill,” he announced. And off they went. I was not so lucky. I had to stay and face the music. “You are one mean drunk,” she said. “Well, I’m not really drunk. I’ve only had two vodkas.” “You embarrassed me in front of those people. We were making a date for the four of us to have dinner at Nick and Toni’s.” “The four of us? You didn’t think it was necessary to consult me?” “You weren’t here. You were busy flirting with the slutty bartender.” “I wasn’t flirting. I was just being friendly. You always tell me I should be more friendly” “Regardless, I’m sure they won’t want to have dinner with us now. It’s too bad. They would be good people to know.” “It’s fine. We can’t afford to eat at Nick and Toni’s anyway.” “We should be able to afford it with what you make. But no, all your spare money goes to your kids. And that’s not right.” “There’s nothing wrong with throwing a hundred dollars in my kids’ direction once in awhile. And really, it’s a pittance compared to what I spend on you.” “Well, pardon me, but I like to eat out. That’s the way I was brought up. We used to eat out every night” “It’s not the way I was brought up. Not even close. We never went out to eat. We were poor. We had tomato soup and cheese sandwiches for dinner.” “You’re not poor now. And I don’t want to live like a poor person.” She turned on her heels and stalked away, toward Jim and Joan. To apologize for my bad behavior, I guess. To explain that I had a little too much to drink. So I wandered among the food stalls with ironic cotton candy and corn dogs, and stopped stock still in front of the vendor selling Belgian Waffles. Belgian Waffles! I felt like I was being hit over the hit with a sweet, sticky allegory. That’s what the Hamptons reminds me of! Belgian Waffles at the World’s Fair, 1964. I remember walking from exhibit to exhibit with my family—Tomorrowland, ConspicuousConsumerland, Gasguzzlerland— and wondering how far into the future our dinner resided. We would stop at various food stands, then, after a hushed conversation between my patents, we moved on without sustenance. I suspect now that those conversations were about budget, money, what our family could and could not afford. I imagine them being shocked at the price of a hamburger. In those days we would occasionally go the local hamburger shack and get a sack full or 20 cent hamburgers and 12 cent fries. And I’m betting that at the Fair, burgers were two, three dollars or more. There was Chinese food, of course. I’m sure my Dad would have vetoed that, ditto the kabobs at the Moroccan Pavilion. And suddenly it was late, the food stands began closing so we stopped at the last open stand, serving only Belgian Waffles. Big fat fluffy waffles with strawberries and whipped cream. As a kid’s treat, that waffle topped with strawberries and clouds of whipped cream seemed like a dream. For a tired and hungry boy needing a meal, they didn’t do the job. But that was our dinner. We left the Fair tired, frustrated, sugar-buzzed. Once we were out of the city my dad stopped for gas along the parkway and got back into the car with a six pack of Bud. He methodically and silently drained each one on the drive back to Albany, as I fell asleep in the back seat. Tonight, lost in thought, I finished my drink, but instead of getting a refill, I headed to the car to wait for the end of the benefit. On the way I couldn’t help but think about the similarities between the World’s Fair and Hamptons. They are both so alluring, but each in its own way is less than fulfilling. Both tempt you, but in the end leave a hollow feeling in your gut. Here in the Hamptons I fell the same as did roaming the Fair nearly 50 years ago—jumpy with that same nervousness, hunger, and out-of-placedness. I could never have imagined this Tomorrowland in my future. I find myself wandering a world’s fair for the fabulous. They are strolling around smiling, shopping, buying, eating. Me? I’m longing for meat and potatoes—and needing a nap in the back seat of the car.