the lost man chronicles
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Wednesday, February 8, 2006

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Vanity Fare

“Black tie, huh?”, the attendant asked with a tone taunting lah-di-dah.

“Oh, just another dinner at the Waldorf again…” I retorted rakishly, smirking a wax of faux brass, an ersatz superciliousness, given away by a grin mischievously meant to blow my cover as I swaggered out of the gym.

I had just run a quick mile and was now on my way to the New Yorker for New York Awards Gala at the Waldorf=Astoria, the Art Deco landmark better known as one of New York City’s swankiest hotels. The enigmatic “=” is a historic reference to when the two founding cousins, William Waldorf Astor and John Jacob Astor IV, joined their ritzy establishments with a corridor to connect them. Originally erected on Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street, the buildings made way for the Empire State Building in 1929 and were rebuilt on Park Avenue, opening in 1931 as the largest hotel in the world at the time.

A palatial home-away from-home for globetrotting jet-setters and the worldly well-to-do, the hotel boasts many firsts including:

 The first to abolish the "Ladies Entrance."
 The first to introduce room service.
 The first to suggest people live permanently in private suites.

This evening’s soiree was being hosted by Citizens for NYC, a not-for-profit that aims “to stimulate and support self-help and civic action to improve the quality of life in New York City neighborhoods.”

I had been invited by my company’s foundation because I had helped create the branding for this year’s charitable campaign. I later found out that the company takes about thirty tables a year at various fundraising functions in New York City each year; taking a table meaning a contribution of ten to fifty grand per event.

After taking my short taxi ride up Park Avenue, feeling a fierce, albeit quite false, sense of pride to be in black tie, to be off to some swanky affair, to be a “New Yorker,” I stepped out of my pompous moment and onto the red carpet that greets patrons at 301 Park Avenue.

I was directed to the Grand Ballroom for the fête du soir, and after checking in my coat I sheepishly entered the dimly-lit reception room where the cocktail hour was being held. Demurely I scoured the crowd for someone, anyone, that I might know and immediately felt quite alone. I was eager to take photos, but hesitated because I thought I might instantly give myself away, revealing that I was not one of “them,” one of the well-heeled and well-endowed other guests who could actually afford to attend. Moreover, being that a large portion of the party looked at least a generation older, I opted to remain inconspicuous, at least until after I had my first glass of empowering, bracing, raw scotch.

The first gulp went down quite clean and I navigated my way into the room that gleamed out in the corner of my eye, one further enticing me with a piped piper fiddle of solo violins. As the alcohol erased the day’s tension that had been knotted up in my shoulders, and I began to lose my riled sense of self-consciousness, I released my one-eyed baby from her holding bay and began to snap away at the festive mingling.

Tingling with memories of when I used to organize these fancy bashes myself at the nation’s oldest international education institution, a bit a of cynicism overcame me. Because as an insider I knew how manufactured and rife with pretense the whole affair could be. Then again I may have merely been reacting a spite-tad in defense of my impoverished ego.

Alas, I finally did find a few colleagues. Yet, although I was satisfied to no longer feel alone, I also realized that now I had to make small talk or otherwise bear the awkward lull that inspires contrived interlocution.

I took a few photos of my co-workers to avoid fidgeting, and chatted with them for a few minutes while I simultaneously scanned the room for the passed hors d’oeuvres to stave the hunger. However, since I’m not too crazy about shi-shi seafood, I had to pass on the crusty crab cakes when they came around. Eventually, I excused myself to find "the boy's room."

However, before making my way over to the john, I stopped at the bar where I ended up striking up (or rather striking out on) a challenging conversation with a lonely-looking sprite named Amber who was fresh out of school and now at McKenzie consulting. To my dismay, the sparkle of her youth and cute cocktail tease-of-a-dress did not hold my attention all-too long before my brain yawned and begged me to move on for that tinkle.

Sprinkle, sprinkle, splash-splash and a hand pat-dry later, I stood outside in the corridor leading to the ballroom as the NYC Fire Department's Emerald Society of Pipes and Drums brigade skirted past me playing a bit of Bonnie Lass of Fyvie, boisterously announcing it was time for the real show to begin.

The event began with a generous portion of Smoked Salmon Galette ornamented with a fennel and sweet onion salad and a garnish of micro greens, all topped with a light-yellow swirl of horseradish crème fraiche and chive oil. A galette is a savoury buckwheat crêpe, a type of pancake of sorts originally from Brittany.

Usually, I’m not a big fan of salmon and most seafood for that matter, for the slightest hint of a “fishy” smell repulses me immediately. But, the culinary aesthetics of our chef’s exquisite arrangement drew me in and I decided to try it. It must have come in straight from South Street Seaport because it was surprisingly quite tasty and fresh, with only a hint of its trademark smell. I ate until I was feeling as if I was forcing myself to finish, and then skirted what was left to the periphery of the plate, so that I might indulge in finishing the light and crusty galette.

As we ate and the smaller first forks scraped the china, the inaugural round of awards was presented to the evening’s pantheon of honorees. These included Nurah W. Ammat’Ullah, the Founder and Executive Director of the Muslim Women’s Institute for Research and Development; and Clyde Evans, President and Executive Director of Rise Up & Walk Youth Outreach Center, who both received Osborn Elliot Community Leadership Awards from the former mayor of New York, the Honorable David Dinkins.

At this point, the whole evening began spinning out into a vertigo of expanding degrees of separation for me. For as I watched this octogenarian bestow the giant aqua-blue Tiffany’s box that probably had a tree-load of equally aqua-blue tissue paper in it and that each and every award recipient received this evening, I suddenly remembered my own personal association with Duh Mayor.

In 1994 he began teaching as a professor of public policy at Columbia University’s graduate School of International and Public Affairs while I was a student there, the year that I served on the student council. As the Social Chair in my second year, I organized a “Frank (Sinatra) and Friends” cocktail hour, which I opened with an informal interview of the Mayor before my classmates in attendance. Albeit nothing exciting came of it, for the rest of my tenure Mayor Dinkins at least knew me on a first name basis and would politely acknowledge me with a smile whenever we passed in the halls.

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