Is Breaking Up Hard to Do?
In the spring of 1994, I made arrangements to spend my summer vacation in Michigan. I planned the 10-day visit around my birthday, July 4th.
The play-by-play? Visit my family, see a long list of friends I wanted to reconnect with, and attend a stag luncheon at a country club honoring the pro shop manager, Bill Hesson, who was retiring. Mr. Hesson had been a close friend of my dad’s up until his death in 1986.
I hadn’t been in my mother’s house 15 minutes when she walked into her library and up to a cherished treasure: an early 19th century walnut Pennsylvania pie cupboard (another was in Williamsburg). She brought back an invitation addressed to me for a “See Our New Home” party hosted by a couple that I had become very close to while living in Michigan and was excited to see again.
We were sitting on my mother’s breeze-swept, screened-in side porch filled with the glistening, newly spray-painted white wicker furniture that had been handed down through generations of her family. She was sitting on a small settee, slip-covered in Colefax and Fowler’s “Plumbago Bouquet” cotton chintz and plumped with five or six down pillows, when she looked up from The New Yorker she was reading and said:
“Which party of the Delaneys have you been invited to?”
“Which party?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said matter of factly. “They’re having two parties while you’re here. They’re breaking up their guest list in two. Less wear on their new carpeting, I suppose.”
And then, absently turning the pages as she spoke, with a hauteur her Magna Charta ancestors would have applauded, she said, “No one I know has been invited. But then, they were your friends. I don’t know anyone who would want to see the inside of that new house. I’ve heard it’s ghastly.”
In the days that followed, I found that I was not invited to the party that most of the people I had entertained and had been entertained by in the years I lived in Michigan were invited to. I was invited to the “tradespeople’s” party.
The Delaneys’ favorite florist, Bill, was invited,
Their “interior designer,” Antoine.
Their landscape architect, David.
The captain of their jet, Herbie.
And me, their favorite Ralph Lauren sales clerk, Bunky C.
In 1994, the Delaneys were unknowingly at the forefront of a change taking place across societal America: the breaking up of one party list into two or three, and then hosting separate parties for each A, B, or C group.
Don’t you think it has a bit of a you-can’t-sit-at-our-table-in-the-cafeteria feel to it? So high school. And don’t tell me these social mountaineers were thinking of the money they’d save by hosting two or three separate parties—the very friends whose tartan navy Range Rover chauffeured orchids to Sea Island, Ga., and back.
Do you remember meeting Stretch in the essay, “Yes, We Have No Society”? A friend from my Key West days, with a John Singleton Copley portrait over his fireplace?
Many years ago, Stretch had been exceedingly helpful to a newly “married” couple that had bought a dilapidated conch house on Margaret Street, or “Peggy Street,” depending on the sexual orientation of the person you were speaking to. Stretch found them the finest landscape designer, contractor, plumber, roofer, pool installment company, the works. And within seven or eight months, this couple, Kenneth and Kyle, had a beautifully restored home they were very proud of.
It was time to have a “See Our New Home” party!
The upcoming late afternoon fête was the talk of Key West, and one heard it whispered about in the strangest places: the back room of the leather bar, The Lock-Up; the dairy aisle of Fausto’s Market on Fleming Street; churchgoers leaving St. Mary Star of The Sea after Sunday Mass. My dentist asked if I was invited as I lay in a deep, reclining position, my mouth filled with cotton balls, the residue of a just completed root canal.
What most of the whisperings centered around was not who would be doing the flowers, which combo Kenneth and Kyle had chosen, or what caterer of the moment would be providing the food and organizing the waitstaff, but on who had not been invited. And one very deserving person had not: Stretch.
I don’t think it upset him that he hadn’t been invited. One wouldn’t have seen his disappointment. After all, he was descended from Revolutionary War generals, an ambassador to France under President Herbert Hoover, and a signatory of the NATO Peace Treaty. Stretch had the breeding not to make anything of it. He hadn’t been kicked out of the Social Register for driving a Conch Tour Train for nothing!
Stretch had a plan, and it was brilliant.
He told me of it one evening a few weeks before Kenneth and Kyle’s party. We were having a drink in the cozy living room of his conch house on Olivia Street. A small silver-framed photograph had been added to the round, chintz-covered table beside my chair. It had been taken in the mid-1950s and was of three men, proudly holding aloft a rainbow trout each had caught during an Adirondacks weekend spent at Stretch’s family compound. His dad, a face deeply tanned from years of Upper Lakes summers, stood in the center. On his left, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and his right, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles. “I found it in a box under my bed,” Stretch said, smiling. “Isn’t it a hoot?”
The day of the party found Key West basking beneath a diamond-cut blue sky and a daffodil yellow sun that dispensed such cool, perfect rays, it could have been wearing Ray-Bans. As I rode my bike to the post office on Simonton, I glanced down Margaret (Peggy) Street and saw that it was chockablock with minivans and Ryder rental trucks, their drivers delivering flowers, folding tables and cellophane-wrapped trays of hors d’oeuvres.
When I arrived at half past four, the party was already in full swing. The dollhouse-sized living room, dining room and hallway were packed with slender, suntanned men and their baby-rhinoceros-sized “girlfriends.” Around the pool area, some 40 people were gathered, drinking and talking in groups of six or eight, almost all dressed in Calvin Klein Resort, their handsome mahogany faces crinkling in laughter and their expensively cut hair revealing carefully devised highlights.
One group reminded me of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fictitious Blackbuck’s of The Great Gatsby, “who always gathered in a corner and flipped up their noses like goats at whoever came near.” They looked each new arrival up and down, like a searchlight, and then cloistered themselves against any intruders.
Less than a mile away, at the corner of Duval and Front Streets, the last Conch Train Tour of the day was ready to depart. Stretch surveyed his passengers for this soon-to-be memorable ride with a bemused smile…
Elephantine women in bright XXL T-shirts proclaiming a recent visit to Dollywood and the St. Augustine Alligator Farm sat with bleary-eyed, hungover, sunburned men holding cones of cotton candy and “Big Gulp” Orange Crush drinks.
A troop of Girl Scouts, each one immaculately turned out in a uniform of starched perfection, badges and awards placed on a cotton breastplate á la the Duke of Edinburgh. Their troop leader was also in uniform, so handsomely turned out one wanted to salute her.
An elderly, white-haired group of four Red Hats from Pensacola.
And lastly, two young couples dressed in Ralph Lauren Collection, their Belgian loafers with bright piping an elegant contrast.
Stretch hadn’t driven a half-mile up Duval Street before the troop of Girl Scouts began an a cappella rendition of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” They never got to 98—Stretch saw to that. He slowly guided the Conch Train over to the side of Duval and Petronia Street and, speaking into his headset microphone, gently explained that passenger sing-a-longs would, unfortunately, not be allowed, as fellow passengers would be unable to hear descriptions and comments on the historic sites they were to pass. A curtain of silence fell upon the beribboned girls. Within a minute or two, a hushed murmur began among them, as they quietly asked each other if any one of them had seen a drag queen yet.
The snappy, black and yellow Conch Train, with its pie-eyed occupants, breezed down Whitehead Street like a bumblebee, past the historic Key West Lighthouse, the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, the Truman Annex, the Turtle Kraals and the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens.
At their last stop, the Southernmost Point marker, Stretch allowed passengers to step off the train for picture taking and a short break. When everyone had returned to their seats, he slowly guided the train down Duval Street.
Late afternoon turned to early evening and in a unison of thought, every one of the passengers felt as though they had never before spent a more enjoyable afternoon. The little train was quiet. The sunburned men were dosing, the Girl Scouts huddled together in a group hug, and the two Belgian-loafer-shod couples were taking mental notes of the chic restaurants they passed.
Passengers knew they were headed back to the Conch Train Station on Duval and Front Streets, and the quickest way was straight down Duval. When their driver suddenly turned right on Eaton Street, they began asking each other, “Where is he going?” The Girl Scouts looked to their troop leader anxiously. Stretch drove two blocks north, stopped to let southbound traffic pass, and then turned left on a street named “Margaret.”
He slowly brought the train to a stop in front of a beautifully restored conch house where a party was in various stages of gaiety. Laughter came from the open doors and windows. The Ralph Lauren-clad couples recognized Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” played by a combo, drifting over the palm trees from the back of the house, up to the retreating afternoon sun. The scent of jasmine was in the air.
Stretch spoke into the headset, his clipped, patrician voice laced with a mid-Atlantic accent four years at Groton had perfected:
“Ladies and gentlemen, and young ladies. I have stopped in front of one of the most beautiful examples of an Old Key West conch house, its exterior, gingerbread New England. For a decade it sat empty and forgotten. A year ago, it was rescued by two gentlemen, Kenneth and Kyle, and lovingly restored to its original condition. Kenneth and Kyle are hosting an open house this afternoon and if you would like, you may step off the train and partake in the delight of experiencing the true flavor of Key West and one of its most beautiful homes.”
Before you could say “New Kids On The Block” the Girl Scouts leapt from their seats, checked the street for traffic and ran through the open gate and into the house. “Girls, decorum!” their troop leader called after them, to no avail. The four tiny Red Hats left the train next, giggling among themselves at the excitement of it all!
The collective thought of the half dozen alumni of Dollywood and the St. Augustine Alligator Farm was succinct: Is it worth it? Wiggling out of this too-small seat was a bear at the Southernmost Marker, but again, to see an old conch house? Their menfolk convinced them of the possibility of refreshments inside, and with that, they laboriously stepped off the train, straightened their XXL T-shirts and walked up to the glossy, newly painted black front door. One of the men, a devotee of too many afternoons at Sloppy Joe’s, called out excitedly, “Folks ain’t gonna believe this in Twin Rivers!”
The haute preppy foursome stretched their slender, tanned legs and had no difficulty exiting the train at this unexpected stop. Their gym-honed waists were as small as the train seats.
The party was festive. Everywhere one looked one saw an alluring, captivating guest, their head thrown back in laughter, a fresh mimosa or flute of champagne placed in their hand. Kenneth and Kyle were thrilled with the turnout.
Until the uninvited Conch Tour Train “guests” invaded their halcyon reverie.
The party turned into snobbish pandemonium. The “Blackbucks” simply couldn’t take it and hastily retreated through the alleyway fence. The stick-thin wife of a Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist, her bloodshot eyes wide and unbelieving, cried out, “A big Girl Scout just grabbed my vodka tonic!”
I remember the combo was playing “Isn’t It Romantic?”
Kenneth and Kyle scrambled through the throng of authors, Girl Scouts, poets, Red Hats, composers, socialites, artists, hungover hicks, decorators, a manicurist from the spa at the Pier House, and the president of the Florida Keys Community College to reach their front door. “Where did these creatures come from?” they asked each other.
And then the hosts saw an empty Conch Tour Train idling across the street. They laser-focused on who the driver could be and, in a moment of bewilderment and perhaps, understanding, Kenneth and Kyle saw their conch house rehab benefactor leisurely reading a book. And wouldn’t you know, at that exact moment, Stretch put the book down and glanced over to the front door. With a smile one would see in an Olan Mills baby photo, Stretch kept his gaze on Kenneth and Kyle for two or three seconds more before he turned his head and resumed reading Tales of the City.
His victory was complete. Thirty-five years later, the incident has solidified in the folklore of Key West.
The moral of the story? When you’re in the planning stages for your big summer party this coming August, take a tip from Betsey and Jock Whitney. Invite all of your friends. No one will feel left out. You have enough room for the whole gang anyway. And you may find that you’ll be genuinely sorry to see the last one depart.
That night, your dreams will be filled with merriment, happiness and lightheartedness.
The nightmare of an uninvited Conch Tour Train showing up at your front door will be as far away as Key West.
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