The Benefit

Written By: Michael Friedrich

Through a friend of a friend I managed to score an invitation to a charity benefit. Or maybe it was a gala. You know the kind. Where friends and acquaintances pay a few hundred dollars to schmooze for a few hours. And while the guests munch on Caesar salad bites, lamb skewers, and quinoa-tater tots, they can bask in the extravagance wholly guilt free. Because yes, they were at a party, but they were partying with purpose. Really, who am I to judge these partygoers? They’re the ones who actually paid to get in.

I’ve been coming to the Hamptons for more than half my twenty-one years, and I’ve enjoyed it the way many do, as an oasis, an escape from weekday monotony. I’ve spent my fair share of time reading by the pool, but I’ve also grown up here. I got my first jobs here. I may have poured you a glass of water or cleared plates at your favorite restaurant. Maybe last summer I pitched you a book at Book Hampton. So I must confess that while I am by no means the archetypal common man, I often can’t help but identify with him. Especially on nights like tonight, at places like this.

Our group was a motley crew of five, all old friends from high school. It was an unofficial reunion on one of those rare summer weeks between summer internships. We got our VIP stamps and headed into the big white tent where we didn’t quite belong. We were underdressed perhaps, or in ill-fitting suits, our ties crooked. We spent those first moments hovering near the entrance, wallowing in our collective indecisiveness. Then we did what any sane person would do: we headed straight for the bar.

The drink of the night was Moscow Mules; three varietals, all provided by the sponsoring vodka. One of us, unsatisfied with the syrupy concoction and feeling particularly entitled, reached over the bar, plucked whichever varietal, and thinned out our drinks himself. As sweat dribbled from our copper mugs, we cheers’d to ourselves; to the reunion. As if everyone, everything was there for us.

The forecast had called for rain, near torrential, but the storm passed us by. What we got instead was a thin fog that cast cocktail hour in an ethereal hue, giving the social stage an almost mythical quality. Needless to say, everyone was quite pleased; everywhere you turned one philanthropist was exclaiming to another how very lucky they all were. And weren’t they? Weren’t we all, to one degree or another.

The benefit couldn’t have been for a better cause: assisting and educating at-risk youths. Opening remarks were made. Then, predictably, the sap stuck with soliciting got onstage to make open appeals. “Just three hundred dollars to support one child for an entire year.”

Earlier one of the speeches had really moved me. A former recipient of the charity shared his story, explaining how the organization helped him when he was a struggling adolescent. He eventually graduated from a top-ten Law school and now serves as a member of the board. And so I checked my wallet. I had two hundred and twenty bucks. I turned to my friends. “I’m in for a hundred, who’s in with me?” Trevor, one of my better friends from high school immediately joined in. Now we had two hundred—almost there. Everyone else hesitated, each waiting for someone else to drop the final hundred. No one did—myself included, and the moment passed. Like I said, who am I to judge? The solicitor walked offstage, and the attendees spilled out towards the gift baskets. We freeloaders returned to the rapidly diminishing bar.

After cocktail hour the fundraiser transitioned into a VIP dinner. We peripheral guests even had our own table. A children’s table one may argue, but a Very Important Children’s table nonetheless. Trevor and I agreed that a special sort of aperitivo would likely enhance our meal. We scaled the perimeter of the yard and headed for the beach, already paranoid and staying low, convinced that some dynastic coot, some fun-killer, might spot us and diagnose us, accurately so, as the miscreants we were. But if Sumner Redstone was there he must’ve been busy cutting his steak. We made it to the beach just fine.

We slid down the dunes, the drinks in our bellies aiding descent. We sunk into our respective thrones. For the sake of any faint-hearted audience members, or those with too vivid a memory of Nancy Reagan, I must insist that Trevor and I partook in what was merely a strong cigarette. Meanwhile, yards behind us, ice clinked, and baby boomers danced (or tried to). We just sat in the sand. And the sky, cotton-candied when we first settled, was darkening into a midnight blue as we puffed away.

Trevor and I talked and we didn’t. We feigned excitement about looming internships. We gossiped and talked TV. We were about to be college seniors. The fact was too scary to seem real. There was something tangible in our shared silence; a maelstrom of dread and excitement that comes with such uncertainties. So mostly we just puffed and listened to the tide, its waves crashing and receding, the foam fizzling into nothingness. Trevor took a final drag and ashed in the sand. It was time to return to the party; dinner was about to be served.

Now under the cover of night we had the luxury of returning via a more direct route. At the peripheries of the backyard was an older gentleman wearing a bespoke suit and purple paisley tie casually puffing a fat cigar. His back was to the rest of the party and he was staring out into the dark ocean. Whatever his temperament or social status, he was uninterested in potential gossip. Rubbing shoulders didn’t seem to be on his agenda. The night’s sky would’ve been an abyss, except for one storm cloud all the way on the right of the horizon. The darkest spot in the pitch-black sky. That is what the man was staring at, and we quickly understood why. The cloud, which seemed to be as living an organism as you or I, spat out tremendous purple bolts of lightning almost like clockwork.

He regarded us absentmindedly and we said awkward hellos, our submissiveness immediately betraying caste. Trevor and I turned back to the cloud and the old man spoke again. “This,” he said, pausing for emphasis. “This is why I’ve been coming out here for thirty-eight years….” And he paused again. Trevor and I, in our haze, waited to be sure he was done. He was—or at least seemed to be, so we walked on to the buffet table.

Trevor stopped short and turned back around. He wanted to take a Snapchat of the lightning, to time it just right. I’ll admit he got a pretty good video. But it failed spectacularly to capture the depths of that cloud, the mysteries it seemed to present, the answers it may have hinted at.

We returned to our seats, awaited by littleneck clams and flutes of Whispering Angel. I was somewhat shaken by the interaction. I wish I could say he changed my life, that this was a pivotal moment, but it’s really too soon to tell. I looked at the bounty in front of me and came to the sad but unsurprising realization that, most likely, my shock was temporary. But as I bit into my octopus something occurred to me: if I ever do manage to make it back to one of these events, I want to be the guy standing alone in the corner, watching the real stuff happen.