Early Decision

I’m not now nor have I ever been a rich person. But I’ve spent enough of my life rich person adjacent to know that the whole College Admissions scam is only surprising in that someone actually got busted for it. The whole story is hilarious–almost hilarious enough that we forget about the still-acceptable legacies, the “here’s this new wing for the library” beneficiaries, or (more modestly) the kids (and I knew many of them) whose parents would shell out thousands and thousands to pay for expensive extracurriculars and high school internships, purchase plane tickets for international service work, or hire tutors to push almost-perfect SAT scores to perfect SAT scores, so already smart, rich kids can secure academic scholarships (for the prestige, not because they need the money). Sometimes this self-corrects (I knew plenty of legacies that failed out of competitive universities after a semester or two), but it usually doesn’t.

If you know me in real life, you may have detected a chip on my shoulder roughly the same size and shape of the absence of an elite college on my resume. I’m trying to get over it. Really I am. I can’t tell if the situation is made better or worse by the fact that I live in a college town, surrounded by smart people with degrees from the kind of schools that either wouldn’t let me in or give the financial aid necessary to attend. I like that they think I’m smart enough to hang, even though I lack their credentials. I still hate it when people ask me where I went to school when do people stop asking where I went to school?, because it’s a journey, and nine times out of ten, I have to deal with their reactions when I answer. These tend range from pity to Really? Sometimes, I swear I can see their reappraisals of my character or intelligence play out in real time across their faces.

My mother would tell me, and most certainly has, that all of this is just my own insecurity. “No one cares,” she says. “The only thing that matters is that you graduated.” But the market value of my BA is far, far less than it ended up costing everyone. I feel hugely guilty about that.  I’ve yet to have a job that, strictly speaking, required it. I made some dear friends along the way, but I didn’t make any critical connections in the professional or academic world that helped on the job market. If anything, my high school experience, as a financial aid kid at a moderately competitive boarding school, has been marginally more useful. And that’s grading on a real curve.

The school you go to is more than status symbol. It’s opportunities and connections. It’s access. It’s a pretty good way to size up who you’re actually competing against—whether they’re really smart and talented or really fucking rich and lucky or all of the above.  Plenty of smart people that went to great schools end up working the same shitty jobs at the same shitty wages as the rest of us. Sometimes by choice, sometimes by circumstance. It’s unlikely that I would have ended up hugely successful even if I had gone to Harvard (which was, to be absolutely 100% clear, never in the cards for me). I never wanted to be a world leader or a titan of industry. I wasn’t interested in making great scientific breakthroughs or inventing whole new ways to live. I always just wanted to be a writer and write for a living. Which I am (sort of)  and do (technically). Might I have sold a novel or gotten a job at the New Yorker had I come out the kind of tiny, weird liberal arts college in the Northeast I dreamt of at eighteen? Maybe. It’s equally possible, though, that I would have  just gotten way more into cocaine and performance art on my way to a job in the advertising industry virtually indistinguishable from the one I have now. I don’t know. Neither do you. And now my bra strap is totally showing and my accent is slipping and you can see exactly many shades I blush when I have to talk to you about college. Sorry about that. I’ll buy the next round and hope you don’t remember how petty I look when I’m feeling sorry for myself.

I made plenty of mistakes in school. I sweated so many nights away worried about not being good enough. That kid that got admitted instead of me? Maybe she didn’t. Maybe she never had to, because it never mattered if she was good enough, or even good at all.  The system was rigged from the start. The system has always been rigged. I knew it then, even then, especially then, as I applied for college among rich people, but I didn’t really know it, not until long after the acceptance letters were sent. So while I read about the admission scandal, I do laugh and gloat with the rest of you, but it’s with resignation, with fury, and something that feels almost like relief, but much, much uglier.

 

 

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Passers-by

The first thing I saw out my bedroom window was the car—black with a long nose and curved where most cars were squared, so shiny it reflected the rosy summer dusk. I was eleven, not the kind of kid interested in cars, but that car was something else. I skittered down the stairs in my nightgown, through the cocktail party melee and haze of their cigarette smoke, out the front door, across the green lawn. The car was parked beside Mom’s fat white peonies. I stepped closer to inspect the tiny shiny silver woman perched on the hood, her wings spread as if she was about to take flight.

“She’s the spirit of ecstasy,” said an old man, in a tweed cap and a white silk scarf, with a silver tipped cane. He stepped around the car and smiled. “You can touch her if you like.”

I told him I loved his car. He said he did too. She was a 1961 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud. He opened opened the door to show me the interior. It smelled like leather and pipe tobacco and the wooden dashboard gleamed. The steering wheel was on the left side, which seemed wrong, but he assured me that was only a matter of perspective

He pointed at the RR stamped into the logo. “I’m also RR. And this nice lady standing behind you is my wife. She’s also an RR.”

I told him I was an AF and that the suspicious looking woman standing on the front porch was KF, my mother, and she’d probably force me to bed before even had a chance to get to know each other.

RR raised his eyebrow and twirled his cane like Fred Astaire. “Oh, well, we can probably do something about that.”

That’s how I got to stay up drinking Shirley Temples and talking to RR about typical fifth grade stuff—how I loved Benetton, European Royalty, 20th century American Architecture, and how I was planning to become the youngest editor-in-chief of The New York Times.

RR found this to be a perfectly reasonable. He might still know a few people at the Times. He definitely knew some folks at The Tribune and the Sun-Times, if I wanted to hone my skills in the Windy City. He’d been an Ad Man at Leo Burnett, part of the team that created the Pillsbury Dough Boy. “But honestly I’d rather be remembered as the man with the largest collection of books about Leonard DaVinci east of the Mississippi.”

Mom finally nudged me off to bed when she caught me nodding off just before midnight, but not before RR wrote down my address and told me to keep an eye on the mail.

**

The first things that came were a series of elaborate certificates and pronouncements  from dignitaries ranging mayor of Flat Rock (where RR had become perhaps the second most notorious Chicago transplant) to President Reagan (another RR), all formally naming RR (henceforth known as “Uncle Bob”) honorary uncle to me and my sister. I had my doubts that  Justice O’Connor or the Secretary General of the UN had actually taken the time to write me, but I’m pretty sure that letter from Tip O’Neill was for real.

Next came books. Leatherbound tomes about British Royal dynasties, coffee-table books about Art Nouveau and Art Deco, Strunk & White, “Tales from the Algonquin Round Table.”

I sent talky letters about how miserable I was being a child because I never got to go to decadent parties and how the girls were mean to me at the pool.  Then I sent him poems about cats and New York City, my two favorite things. He responded long, annotated critiques of my poetry with book recommendations, silly puns, and a wall-sized architectural map of Manhattan.

Sometime in the fall, he invited  out to the house for the first time. Uncle Bob took me out to the garage to visit the car, and while there took me on a guided tour of his department store shopping bag collection that he had strung from clotheslines like pennants. If he yanked on the string by the kitchen door he could make them dance. I was delighted. I told him I wanted to start my own shopping bag collection. He told me that was sensible hobby and let me pick half a dozen of his own to start. He followed me around his garage like a wine connoisseur, “Oh, that’s an Excellent Choice. Saks Fifth Avenue, Christmas 1963. A very good year!”

In between letters, he continued to have us out to his house every now and then, usually with other families. He liked to prod the children into antiquated games—he was particularly fond of the egg toss, for all its humiliating potential. He had a mercurial streak. Sometimes he wasn’t very nice. I went out once for a holiday party with my parents and he hardly spoke to me the whole time I was there, except to say that he’d decided he wanted at least half the books he’d given me back and hoped I hadn’t ruined them. Two weeks later, he wrote back and said he was kidding about the books.

I suspected my relationship with Uncle Bob had a timeline. I was getting older. His letters were shorter.  I had tumbled headfirst into ugly adolescence. People had stopped referring to me as either cute or precocious. And Uncle Bob himself was leaning hard into retirement. “I think he’s becoming more eccentric,” my mother said. That wasn’t comforting  “Eccentric” in the south is a big tent of a euphemism, including everything from “wears white after labor day to homicidal maniac.”

In the summer of my thirteenth year, I wrote from sailing camp about feeling horribly alone and scorned by my cooler, more sophisticated bunkmates, he sent a note back telling me that at least I wasn’t in the Bastille and a box containing a three volume history of the French Revolution and about twenty six packages of TWA roasted peanuts. I spent the next three weeks immersed in salty, waterlogged pages about the  Committee of Public Safety. It was not what I wanted, exactly, but perhaps what I needed. It’s hard to feel bad about being the only girl in your cabin without boobs when Danton is about to be executed.

When I got back home, Uncle Bob summoned us to this house for a picnic. He reserved most of a local park. He’d bought food and gifts and games for a whole bunch of honorary nieces and nephews. When it came time to leave, his wife loaded up the wicker baskets and coolers full of sodas and wine. He counted us off—five total and told the parents that the kids would ride in the Rolls Royce with him. We were thrilled. I’d spent countless hours exploring the car, but I’d never ridden in it. Bob slid in and directed all of the small children to the capacious back set. I was oldest, so I was got the passenger seat.

He told the parents to follow him and went zipping off down the road. Once on the highway,  he pulled over onto the shoulder and instructed me to slide the wheel. I balked. I’d never driven a car before–let alone a Rolls Royce. Uncle Bob reminded me that I’d been sailing camp and that cars were probably much easier to drive than boats. I couldn’t argue with him.

The steering wheel was more sensitive than I’d suspected, but generally, I thought I handled myself and the car pretty well. I only almost drove off the road or into oncoming traffic seventeen or eighteen times. Uncle Bob just grinned and laughed. My mother reports watching Bob’s car with mounting horror as it swerved left to right across the narrow, winding highway. She wondered aloud how many Bloody Marys Uncle Bob had consumed before getting behind the wheel and whether it was, in fact, irresponsible to let him convey the children to the park. I think it was my dad that finally pointed out that Bob was in the passenger seat—you know, right hand steering wheel—and that I, AF, was driving the car.

I was giddy when we arrived at the park. I hopped out of the car, feeling as if I could accomplish anything. The parents started unloading the food, the games and the gifts and just as we were about to sit down to eat, Bob announced that he and his wife would be leaving. He said he was tired and didn’t want to deal with any of us. He demanded the children give back their gifts.. Some of the little kids were crying. I was surprised, but you know, honey, Uncle Bob is getting increasingly eccentric.

My parents took us for cheeseburgers in Hendersonville and tried make us feel better about the ruined day. But I got in the car headed back to Asheville, sad about my lost friend. “Uncle Bob will be back,” said my mother. “You know how he is.” I did. That’s I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t hear from him again. I got a card when I graduated from high school with an illustration of the lion from the Art Insitute of Chicago on the front. It was signed, simply, “Congratuations, RR.”

I figured I’d never see him again.

***

After I crashed and burned in my early 20s, Uncle Bob asked my mother to come in and lecture a group on Southern Women. He had volunteered to teach a class on “Life Below the Mason-Dixon” for his fellow relocated yankees at the local College for Seniors. He was older, close to ninety, and even more ornery.

I remember being deeply irritated that day, hurt that he’d asked me, because I never talked to him about the south, except for how much I didn’t like it I hated being referred to as a Southern Woman and all the fiddle-dee-dee-isms that entailed. I never wanted anything but out. And yet, at I was still in the south,  back living in Asheville. I hadn’t studied the Jacobins at the Sorbonne. I hadn’t become the youngest editor of The New York Times. I hadn’t ever even lived in New York.

After the lecture, I asked Bob about the car. He said he hadn’t taken her out in the while. I thanked him for being a friend all those years ago. I told him how I liked to tell people that  the first time I ever drove a car was the last time I’d ever drive a Rolls Royce.

I didn’t think he’d heard me and or that he hadn’t paid attention, so I gathered my coat and started to walk out the door.

“Last is an awfully final word, AF,” he said. “I’d suggest a more ambiguous ending.”

I don’t remember for sure whether he smiled. I’m pretty sure I didn’t even look back. But I’m going to tell you that he did.

 

 

 

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