Leave the Ugly Moments in the Umbrella Stand

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March 9, 2011 by Sarojini Seupersad

Not my best moment

Sometimes, I’m not so smart.

Let me explain. Most of the time, I’m a very nice, friendly sort of person who is empathetic and patient. I say please and thank you. I’m easy to laughter. I’ll start a conversation with nearly anyone, I make eye contact and smile at people, I hold doors open and I rarely get mad when lunatics say obscene things to me on the street. I don’t lose it when I have to stand on a long line at Walgreen’s, waiting forever to buy organic shampoo and an emergency bag of dark chocolate Hershey Kisses. If a mother is holding her crying baby, I’ll let her cut me in line. Go ahead, miss, I’m very generous and kind, I’ll say by ushering her ahead of me with a smile and a majestic wave of my hand towards the riches that lay before us.  And on most days, a string quartet follows me around throughout my daily travels.

I am, however, not completely unaffected by the world around me. I have a secret caveat to my blissful zen: some people can get under my skin. It doesn’t happen often, but it definitely happens. It can be so unnatural and happen so fast that all of that ’empathetic and patient’ stuff I mentioned earlier is completely null and void. And the change in my demeanor can be so instant that even I don’t see it coming. The people who usually stir something so viscerally in me and stretch my personal obligation to humanity to be the best person I can be at all times beyond its limits, I’m ashamed to admit, are usually rich people – but more specifically, entitled rich people.

Last Friday, I attended an art benefit gala and auction. The annual event, which helps fund an arts immersion program for under served inner-city children, is attended by very rich people. I was there in my regular non-rich, nosy capacity, mostly to meet the artists and to cover the artwork and the event, but also to see former Mayor David Dinkins who, in his official role as a member of the board, was there to open the ceremony and the bidding. Also, in my extreme naiveté, I thought it might be fun. Can you believe that? Can you even? Aren’t I adorable? I thought it might be fun to hang out with people who think plastic surgery is an investment that yields useful dividends, talk about Marina Abramovic like they’re old friends, wear too much garish make-up and spend thousands of dollars on a ticket to an art auction and then thousands more on a plate with words painted on it. Fun? Not exactly.

The first bad omen was obvious as soon as I got there.  I arrived at the gallery early to take pictures and talk to people while it was still empty. Just me and a few press photographers and the employees of the organization.  Looking around , the place was, well, a mess. A real mess. It didn’t look like an elegant affair was about to occur there. I tried to talk to some of the organizers, but they were all running around because some of the art hadn’t been hung yet and there were still tools, ladders, plastic bags and papers everywhere. Everyone was trying to clean, hang and organize, make themselves presentable, all at the same time. The effect was that nothing was getting done. Or barely anything.

Since everyone was so harriedly (yes, it’s a word spellcheck – check yoself!) preoccupied, I was free to roam anywhere I wanted to, so of course I did. And I eagerly observed. I followed a particularly angry woman holding a messy stack of papers over to the reception desk and while I acted like I was examining my camera, I listened to her complain to another woman, with not enough coherent words to explain the situation clearly and effectively, but with enough gusto to convey extreme annoyance, which wasn’t at all helpful in a situation like that. After many painful minutes, the ideas were conveyed and the situation came to light. The Situation: The guest-list was not alphabetized or organized in any fashion. Hundreds of random names on a very long list. It also contained lists within lists. There was a Gold List for patrons who paid this amount and then there was a Platinum List for this amount and let’s not forget the Complimentary List. Haven’t these people ever heard of Excel and uh, the alphabet? This was boring and not nearly as interesting as I thought it might be (no nuclear meltdown to photograph), so I continued my roaming. My problem is, I need to be entertained. Down the hall, one of the organizers was barking orders to no one in particular. The poor interns looked frazzled and bereft of any hope that the craziness would end anytime soon. A group of youngsters were sent to sharpen hundreds of pencils. Others were taping pieces of paper to the wall next to each piece of art. Eventually though, shockingly, it came together. Ladders were hidden, garbage bags were put away and the place started to look like an art gallery once again. Because of a small group of tired, college interns worth their weight in gold, I’m assuming.

When patrons started to arrive, the atmosphere turned from frantic ‘we’ll-never-get-this-done’ shock to tense ‘I-don’t-know-what-you’re-talking-about’ reality. A long line formed at the reception desk and people were instantly exasperated, screaming at the interns “I’m on the list! Where’s my name?” and practically pushing their way into the gallery. This group of people is not used to standing in line. There is nothing like watching a man in an expensive suit and David Letterman glasses glare at a 20-year-old college student accusingly as she nervously scans a multi-paged, disorganized list for his name, just so she can hand him a paddle with the number 882 on it. It’s uncomfortable. And maddening.

Let's start the bidding at $10,000. I'm serious.

As more guests were given entrance, it got unbearably crowded and it became a chore to pass through the hallways that led from room to room. What’s more, the organizers hung artwork in the hallways, too, so patrons stopped in the hallways as well. But this particular group of people didn’t observe the regular pedestrian traffic pattern rules of over-crowded rooms; they simply marched on as if no one was in front of them, apologizing to no one, yet expecting the crowd to part like the Red Sea.  Sure, this caused some problems, yet mostly for me only. Trying to get through the hall, I moved out of the way of one person and somehow, I was pinned with my back against the wall of the hallway, tall, vigilant and stiff, almost  like I was trying to avoid getting spotted by the prison spotlights while I made a break for it. People brushed passed me in both directions, looking at me like I was crazy. I ignored their stupid stares (this is because of you!) and I eventually edged my way back into the crowd.

After that, I needed a break. It was hot, I was thirsty and I couldn’t get close to David Dinkins, so I went to get a drink. On my way to the bar, as I passed a sculpture made of grey nylon wires strung from the floor to the ceiling, a man in a grey suit smiled at me. Older, but good-looking with friendly eyes. His friendly eyes stared at me, flirting, and wouldn’t stop staring. I smiled back, only because it was my first reaction, but it was a little too intense and bordering on creepy. The bartender was all smiles and handed me my water with an understanding expression: I know, I’m here, too. As I sipped my water and turned to walk away, Mr. Creepy Stares came over to me and said, “Hi, are you enjoying yourself?” He surprised me and I almost jumped in the air, but I managed to spit out, “Uh, not exactly, but it’s fine.” I turned my back and started to walk away. He stopped me and planted his business card in my left hand and said breezily, “Would love to talk to you some time.” What? Oh God. Is he hitting on me? This man hadn’t been my age in many, many years so I looked at him like he was an old man hitting on a much younger women (which resembles an expression of confused constipation), slowly backed away, then turned and practically ran down the crowded hallway, back into the abyss.

I had to find somewhere to throw the card out because I didn’t want to walk around with it or worse, go home with it still swimming in the bottom of my bag. I can see the scenario already: I’ll find the card at the bottom of my bag in two weeks, and not remembering who he was, I’d call him thinking he was an artist contact or photographer. I don’t need those kinds of mix-ups in my life and getting rid of it immediately was necessary. Oh good! There’s an umbrella stand. That’s as close to perfect I could get, outside of an actual garbage can, which was mysteriously nowhere to be found. I threw the card in the umbrella stand near the coat check, but felt guilty, like I was littering or something. I’m sure that umbrella stand is filled with that guys business cards anyway. I instantly felt better about my irresponsible decision. I sipped my Perrier and walked back to the main room.  Mr. Creepy Eyes was there, holding hands with a lovely older woman, his wife, I’m assuming. Aww, that’s nice. My gag reflex overtook my need to breathe and my feet were suddenly leading me out of the room. Unbelievable. She’s a perfectly sweet-looking blonde women, who probably has no idea her husband stares at young women and then asks them out when her back is turned. I wasn’t going to enlighten her, but I felt guilty, somehow. An accessory after the fact.

I decided to be productive, ignore the mean, rich people and interview some of the up-and-coming artists about their work featured in this event. While I was talking to an excited and vibrant young artist name Christine, a press photographer came over and started taking candid pictures of us. After Christine and I talked a bit and exchanged contact information, I walked to the next room. The photographer followed me and took a picture. Probably a coincidence. He’s not taking my photo, right? I’m not anybody. That would be weird. I walked around some more and he followed me some more, taking more pictures from afar. Wait. He’s taking my picture. No, he’s definitely taking my picture. Why is he taking my picture? I walked down the hallway and he followed far behind. I turned around and he took another picture.  That’s it. I was done with this arrogant, cockalorum crowd. My hands coiled up into a fist. Seeing red. Breathing hard. I walked towards him. He looked scared.

“Why are you following me and why are you taking my picture?”

“I, yeah, I was just…I’m covering this event. You know…,” he mumbled, as he pointed to his camera.

“I’m covering this event, just like you and I am NOT part of this story! WHY ARE YOU TAKING MY PICTURE?”

“Yeah. Listen, I’m sorry, I just, uh, I think you’re uh… unusually beautiful.”

“What?” I was shocked silent for a good ten seconds. I stared at him, confused, and slowly unclenched my fists. I looked at the floor.

“Oh.”

I blushed so much my whole head felt warm. I blushed as hard as a brown person possibly can. I was so embarrassed. I finally managed to say, “Umm, thank you. That’s…so nice to say. And I’m sorry I overreacted and everything…it’s just that…” As I trailed off, shaking my head frantically, I looked at him apologetically. He nodded, slightly embarrassed. And with a weak, cutesy shrug of the shoulder, I was gone. Definitely time to go.

Sure, following me around and taking my picture stalker-style was kind of troll-like, but I can tell he was just having a little fun and like me, he had nothing better to do. If I had noticed someone there who caught my eye, wouldn’t I have followed him for at least a second, too? To me, it was the most natural human act I observed all night. And I yelled at him for succumbing to it.

I got my coat, walked through the crowd and pressed the elevator button. With a “ding!” I surrendered to the elevator, smaller than when I left it earlier. Inside, right above the floor buttons, there was a mini television that gave the temperature, top news items and sports scores and periodically said, “Now you don’t have to engage in awkward conversation.” Thanks elevator, but you’re a little late. I wish I could’ve left that conversation in the umbrella stand, instead of it following me home, taking my defeated picture.

Sometimes, I’m not so smart.

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