I am an architect. I enjoy most things about my job, the only big negative is the fact that I am basically someone’s bitch.
Ass-kissing doesn’t come naturally to me, and I’m not all that good at it. Usually I leave this sort of (ahem) “client relations” to my Partner: He goes out to dinner, makes a lot of phone calls, and takes rich wives shopping for cabinets. I do almost everything else. It’s generally a satisfying arrangement, where I spend most of my time in blue jeans at a computer. My Partner, Don, is a total extrovert and very charming. He is also independently wealthy, which basically makes him a magnet for people who are rich enough to build a 1- to 3- million dollar second home, which is the bulk of our business. He’s also managed to keep our firm busy in this economy (unlike many architects I know), so I really have little cause for complaint.
Last Saturday, my husband and I were invited along to a client dinner. I usually avoid these things like the plague, but it’s good to get my face out there sometimes. I actually like this particular couple pretty well, so it didn’t seem like a waste of a babysitter. As plans were firmed up, our clients, whom we’ll call the D’Argents, let us know that they had invited along her parents, the McRiches. Oh, and could we meet over to the parents’ house for drinks first?
I had been over to their ocean-view behemoth of a house while it was under construction. I remembered it had a statue-filled rotunda, a faux stone wine cellar, and separate master bedrooms. The D’Argents had also told us that the McRich’s owned the lot next door (worth an estimated $3 million) and wanted to build on it. Though I had a vague dread about an evening with Grandpappy Wembley McRich, these were both current clients and potential clients, so I was especially obligated.
We were buzzed in through the neighborhood gate and Mrs. McRich met us at the door. She’s about 65, with dyed black hair, armloads of clinking jewelry, and a lot of eyeliner. She’s friendly and introduces herself and leads us to the others on the terrace. Wembley McRich was 70ish, still slim and a bit affected. The house is Ginormous, with every square inch covered in Frou-Frou (technical design term): clam-shell motif with gold leaf niches in the walls, velvet wallpaper, monogrammed “M” inlays, and swirly-gilded handrails. I usually refer to this style as “Art Dago,” and needless to say, it’s not my personal favorite.
It started well: we nibbled cheese and sipped wine and enjoyed the sunset. Afterward, the daughter, Mrs. D’Argent, and Mr. McRich took Don by the arm, “Come and take a look at some leaky windows.” Ahh. Now I understand why we are having drinks at the house before dinner. But some minor consulting seemed a fair trade for a couple of filets. I stayed in the kitchen with Mr. D’Argent and his mother-in-law, Mrs. McRich, discussing cheese and children until they were done.
We eventually left in two cars for the pricey steak place half a mile up the road. They seated us in a big round corner table for seven in an empty section of the restaurant. Mrs. McRich and his daughter, Mrs. D’Argent, quickly sit on either side of Mr. McRich. I didn’t think anything of this at the time.
Our waiter, Steve, seems like a nice guy. He knows the McRiches well and is thrilled to see them in this mostly-empty restaurant. Steve admits that business has been slow lately. He takes drink orders from the rest of us, though not the McRiches. My Partner asks, “Aren’t you guys having a drink?” She replies, “He knows what we want.” Steve returns with drinks, wine for all except martini glasses for Mr. McRich and my Partner, Don. The menu is discussed and everyone orders their steaks. I am quietly glad at this moment that I am not a vegetarian, as that would have been awkward. My Partner held up martini glass, and a discussion of vodka ensues.
Don says, “I’m not picky about vodka.”
My husband jokes, “Just a plastic bottle of Taaka.”
My Partner laughs, “I like Absolut. I don’t need the expensive stuff, like Grey Goose.”
Mrs. McRich declares, “Well, we used to drink Grey Goose, but then, of course, we boycotted the French.”
Ahh... I know what I’m dealing with here, and I’m not in the least bit surprised. Mr. McRich tells of his 16th birthday present, which was an airplane. (I am not making this up.) Appetizers arrive and the conversation splits into two groups. I am in the middle, so I lean a little towards Mr. D’Argent and my Husband. Mr. D’Argent is saying how there is good in all religions and he wants his kids exposed to all faiths, so they can “make up their own mind.” I like Mr. D’Argent. I was thinking the evening was going much better than expected.
At that moment, I am surprised by Mr. McRich pointing across the round table at me and saying very loudly, “She needs to smile!” Startled, I slightly curve up the corners of my lips in reply. He continues pointing at me, addressing the table, I presume, “She’s not having a good time! She needs to smile!” Quietly, I reply, “My mouth naturally turns down.” Mrs. McRich is mortified by this and tries to shush him. I give him one huge fake smile and turn back to my Husband and Mr. Argent.
This is a peeve of mine. I have been told before to “Lighten up!” and “Stop frowning!” At rest, my face looks like I am frowning a little. But damn it, I’m your Architect, not a Miss America contestant. This is business here, so I must ignore it and move on. Steve is quick to replace the martinis.
Steaks, stuffed potatoes, and grilled asparagus arrived and it’s all very good, as is the red wine. The conversation turns to smoking and Mr. D’Argent tells tales of quitting. He mentions an old Sophia Loren movie where a kid drinks coffee and smokes cigarettes. My Husband and Mr. D’Argent make appreciative noises for Sophia Loren. Don says it’s in the movie, “Summertime,” set in Venice. I reply, “No, Katharine Hepburn’s in that one.”
Mr. McRich, out of the blue, again points across the table, this time at my Husband and me, and blurts, “You are Obama People!! Are you Obama People?!” My eyebrows shoot up at this. My Partner, who has been in business a long time, has drilled into me that I never should discuss politics with clients, especially since my husband and I are die-hard liberals.
He continues, “I’m a capitalist, but you are Obama People!”
Apparently, Obama People do not believe in capitalism.
My Husband tries to deflect this, “Am I wearing a bumper sticker or something?”
Mrs. D’Argent inserts, “You’re not supposed to talk about religion and politics…”
Mr. McRich won’t be dissuaded, “They aren’t answering! That means they are! Are you Obama People!?!”
I don’t trust myself to reply. I say nothing.
My Husband demurs, “I’m no fan of George Bush.”
Mrs. D’Argent is conciliatory, “No one is.”
My Husband continues, “So I really feel like either of these guys would be better than what we have now. I think things will settle down after the election.”
Mrs. McRich nods, “Oh, I hope so.”
Mr. McRich, is not easily diverted, “They never answered my question!”
Mrs. D’Argent, “Religion and Politics, Daddy…”
A short, charged silence ensues, then my Husband mentions a recent trip to Boston. Everyone gratefully jumps on that line of conversation. Steve continues to bring olive-garnished beverages to Mr. McRich, knowing what is good for him as a waiter, if not for us.
The next outburst from Mr. McRich comes, again to my Husband and me, “Are ya Jewish?!” WTF!? This man is offensive to me on so many levels, but my professionalism is deeply ingrained. I am of mixed Mediterranean heritage, so from looking at me I guess it’s possible. My husband, on the other hand, is ALL northern European - Scottish, Irish, Swedish and German. If he was any whiter, he’d be transparent. So I try to deflect this one by gesturing to my husband, “Him? Really?”
The conversation slides downhill from here, though I was grateful that it was no longer directed at us, at least. I am getting a crick in my neck from turning away from him. But I do hear him going off on how “all Muslims hate us” (!) and even, finally, the “God Damn Episcopalians” I am surprised that I was still capable of being surprised, but I had no idea the mild-mannered Episcopalians could inspire such ire, drunken or otherwise.
At this point, I am just waiting to be released from this surreal ordeal. Mr. McRich attempts to light a cigar at the table and is physically restrained on both sides by his wife and daughter. My Partner makes a desperate attempt to escape, with “Let’s go see what granite they have in the bathrooms.” Half of us dart away, returning as the check is handed to Mr. McRich, who loudly complains about the cost of the dinner, a dinner that he invited us to attend.
We finally leave and Mr. D’Argent whispers apologetically to my Husband and me in the parking lot regarding his father-in-law, “He’s very good to us, but he’s a handful.” Cheek kisses all around, except when I get to Mr. McRich, he gives me a hug – slightly too long and slightly too tight.
We escape to the quiet sanctum of our car, and spend the rest of the night asking ourselves, “What the hell just happened?”