On Campus
Sep 23, 2008, 05:06AM

Pomp and Happenstance

1 part pretentious banter + 2 parts cheese spread + 3 parts Yellow Tail = Every English department staff party on Earth.

I went to a wine and cheese reception at the university last Thursday morning and these academic wingdings can be a dangerous way for me to start the day. One minute I’m skewering a cheese square and talking to the Dean about my new course idea, and the next it’s two a.m. on Monday morning and I’m sitting on a velvet couch at a club in midtown with a guy named Sven who is holding my hand, promising to make my hiccups go away.

Because the English department is rife with political unrest—when not teaching, professors are working hard and fast to get their colleague’s Distinguished Professorship revoked—no one would attend a non-mandatory gathering if it were not held in the middle of the work day. They are thus scheduled, so that professors, lured by free food, might wander in between classes, or else, stop by for a drink on their way to the faculty restroom. And so, at 11:15 a.m. last Thursday—I teach creative writing and literature at a college in upper Manhattan—I found myself facing a buffet table of booze.

Here’s how it started: I am completing my office hours with the door closed, so as not to be bothered by noisome students, and am getting ready to attend the reception down the hall. Making sure my hair is pulled back neatly, with my other hand I run a lint brush over my sport jacket—I like to dress conservatively so as not to draw attention to myself. In professional attire, I’ve found, police are much less likely to issue a ticket when they stop you, mid-stream, from pissing on the sidewalk (I refuse to wait on night club bathroom lines and often go outdoors, claiming what Camille Paglia calls “squatter’s rights”). Also, owing to my staid costume, students and colleagues would not readily suspect me of not having gone home the night before a seminar, of being still partially drunk, of using my office computer to search for free porn sites, of sneaking slugs from a tall-boy Silver Bullet—the beer that kills werewolves—that I’ve hidden behind my desk. A short string of pearls, a cable knit sweater, a pencil skirt, a blue gold-buttoned blazer and brown pumps—like this, I think, I well conceal whatever level of mania I am at any given moment operating under.

At 11:15 a.m., I wander into the party getting into and out of mini-chats with various colleagues as I make my way to the far end of the room. Unlike myself, many of my peers choose hip and/or disheveled ensembles, sometimes incorporating jeans or mini-skirts into their work uniforms. Whenever I run into a colleague—flashily dressed, with dangling earrings making music as she mills about the mailroom—my heart fills with pity for her. Holding my breath during the exchange so as not to exhale a whiskey perfume, I smile politely and nod hello. But while I’m turning blue, I think too, how boring her life must be, that she should require her clothes to grab attention rather than divert it.

The reception is held in a wood-paneled conference room named for its benefactor, Simon H. Rifkind, and is decorated with a large oil painting of the mustachioed man set into a gilded frame behind the head of a long banquet table. I make my way to the far end, opposite the oil painting, to where the serving table is. Veronica, a young Korean graduate student appears at the table beside me and says, “Great party.” I look up quickly from the bottle of Yellow Tail I’m uncorking, and freeze as if caught. “I didn’t eat breakfast,” she says with her eyes not on me but on the table, as she peruses the assorted comestibles. She picks up a paper plate and I relax and resume my uncorking of the wine. “Me neither,” I say, explaining my similar position with the wine. Almost ignoring me, she begins happily spearing cheese cubes with a purple toothpick.

I sip white wine from a plastic cup and survey the room.  A few professors mill about the large conference table chatting about whomever is not present. Occasionally an insincere burst of laughter breaks through the din—a professor from the speech department. The laugh—like a metal pot falling on the ground, beginning loudly and devolves into nothing—occurs at regular intervals for the rest of the reception.

Veronica is still hanging over the cheese tray. She is assembling an army of cheddar squares on her paper plate, and when she has finally amassed something like nine or 12 (strictly cheddar, though there are a wide array of choices), she puts her plate down and thinks, before she begins sawing off a hunk of cheddar from the giant wedge in the middle. She isn't drinking, I notice. Just cheese. She goes on telling me about the magazine she is starting. “It’s going to be like nothing else. We’re going to publish fiction, non-fiction and poetry….” she says laying the giant slice on top of the gathered cubes. Everyone is starting, has started, or will start, a magazine.

“Wild party,” she says, straightening finally and looking out over the room with me. “I heard the president of the college dropped by earlier.” Rumors of the president attending an English department party are like rumors of Madonna having shown up at the bar just prior to your arrival at a nightclub. “Is that Professor Marshall Berman?” Veronica asks, motioning to a scraggly haired man in a tie-dye shirt facing the opposite wall. “No,” I say, as he turns in our direction. “That’s Ken. He’s an undergraduate. He’s working for Howard’s literary magazine.” I refill my cup quickly with an eyeball to the right and left, like a thief.

I move over to the fruit plate and run into Howard. About 70, with flames of white hair framing a face adorned of a few missed whiskers, Howard has been the on-and-off chair of the creative writing department since its inception. And though he has not published a book in 20 years, his belief in his genius remains unshaken. Howard has “ink for blood” he says, and transfuses his blood regularly into the pages of his once-prominent literary magazine, occupying one thirds of each issue with his work.

His “fictional” stories catalogue the lecherous fantasies of an aging, sadly irrelevant writer/professor, whose staring matches with female students all too often gives way to “a penetration of one’s daily reality.” Frequently referencing The Inferno, his fictional professor likens spiritual salvation to Dante’s long sought penetration of Beatrice’s fiery vagina. Most common in his work, though, are descriptions of fictional mistresses with “heaving D-cups bounding down the university path on their way toward the Humanities building.”

“Why D-cups?” I once asked him, after having finished a recent story of his. “Because it’s fiction!” he answered me simply.

Of course, I like Howard. He drinks too much, is constantly offending colleagues and students without ever realizing it, and most importantly, he appears to like me—a favorable impression perhaps owed to my heaving cable-knit-covered B-cups.

Howard wears berets, a style choice with which I disagree for all its pretensions. The last time I was at once of these parties, a bit drunk off Yellow Tail (the preferred wine for readings and academic event planners), I plucked it from his head and, poking him in the chest, told him reprovingly, “You can't just go around wearing a beret, Howard!” Later when his back was turned, I snuck down the hall to the mailroom and hid his beret in the English department microwave. I don’t know if he ever found it. He’s worn berets since then, but I’m not sure if it’s the same one. Perhaps they just sprout from the top of his head naturally, like a lizard’s tail. He’s wearing one when I find him by the fruit plate, and, fingering my lighter in my sport coat pocket, I consider burning it off this time.

Veronica joins our conversation just as I’ve finished asking Howard if he knows how to erase a Google memory queue. Every time I type something beginning with F on my office computer “free porn” pops up. But I don’t tell him that; instead, I work to impress him, telling of an article on pornography I’ve just read in a new scholarly journal/litmag hybrid. “What kind of pornography do you most prefer?” I ask sipping from my cup. “The collected Musil,” he says playfully, commencing one of his stares, as Veronica sidles up beside me, and begins gnashing a hunk of cheddar.

Howard is known throughout the department for his penetrating stares, which he issues, I think, as a way to suggest his genius unrestrained. He lifts his chin and turns his head in three-quarter profile, thus giving the gaze a sharp cast down across the nose, imitating in this way, a cartoon of a Grecian bust.

An attractive red-haired Young Adult book writer in her 30s joins us. She is careful to extend her hand and to make eye contact with each of us before announcing to the group something that sounds like, “My book is made of porcupines and I find myself often shiny about this.” I’ve no idea what’s she’s just said and after I make a few requests for her to repeat it, with no better luck, I simply nod. Howard remarks on her exotic accent and asks her where she’s from, to which she answers that she hails from the Education Department. Howard is bewildered, but decidedly untroubled. He meets the challenge by commencing a short speech about his “ink for blood.”

Her eyes are blue and display a characteristic common to the those working in the Education field, which is to exhibit a look of genuine concern at all times. So that when she asks me after another minute, “And how are you?” it reads less as a social formality and more as if she’s actually questioning after the condition of my soul. Howard continues wrestling for her attention. Talking in small explosions of offense mixed with flattery, he suggests she resembles Dante’s Beatrice. She sips from a cup of red wine, and says thank you before the conflicting agendas of their eyebeams become entangled.

Veronica and I watch silently, our breath held. After a moment, Howard throws an eyebrow violently skyward in an attempt to defeat the redhead’s gaze, but Beatrice remains unruffled. A few seconds pass and no one says anything. I break the silence by making a joke, something about “incorporating myself.”

The redhead does not laugh, but turns slowly toward me. Fastening her gaze on me now, I try my best to return her stare, but her eyes seem almost to widen as I look into them, so much that I fear I might fall in. Hearing the crackling inferno that awaits, I stiffen with fright and force myself to break away from her gaze and look down into my plastic cup. She then asks me earnestly, "What will you manufacture?"

I tell her my company's slogan: “Iris Smyles Inc.—‘We're Trying’” And then pressed to explain more, as if it were a serious enterprise I was planning, I go on. “You can hire my firm to do anything really, but understand whatever task is asked of us we will most likely fail to complete. Though we will try, and that’s all that really matters, isn’t it?” I ask.

No one laughs. It is one of my less successful party anecdotes, and I am ashamed. I sip my drink nervously and sheepishly re-enter the silence, perspiring beneath the hot stares emanating off both Howard and Beatrice—one, at an angle drawn sharp across the nose, the other straight on, advertising hell fires through the pupils—as they silently criticize my business model.

After another cup of wine, I feel myself on the verge of becoming intolerably charming—or perhaps obnoxious, however you term it—and remind myself to behave, though my private reprimand only fuels my demented good humor. Our circle has widened with the addition of a female Melville scholar whose most recent paper posited the White Whale as feminist icon, and a gay black Gender Studies professor, whom I immediately like as he is dressed in a conservative suit and bow-tie, which I take to mean he has plenty to hide.

The Melville scholar is difficult company and I try to divert attention away from my nutty chatter by crossing and uncrossing my legs repeatedly, doing this so many times that a woman across the room wonders aloud if anyone else is hearing Cicadas. My diversionary maneuver only works on Howard, who is directing his genius-stare toward my stockinged legs. I extricate myself from the conversation, and step a few feet over to visit Veronica again by the cheese.

She is busily accumulating still more cubes and I admire her single-mindedness. The crowd begins to thin, and I quickly begin polishing off the rest of the Yellow Tail. Veronica shovels the remains of the cheese plate into her purse. Sipping and chewing respectively, we watch the party recede into the hall. The flushed faces of the English department, like red daubs of oil paint, disperse. The pots-and-pans laugh sounds distantly.

Veronica and I remain a bit longer, implicitly wishing to avoid the throng in the hallway. I sip my drink. She nibbles a cracker, throws it away. The room is finally empty. Still standing behind the serving table littered with half-eaten refreshments and discarded plastic cups, we survey the empty room, looking out over the long wooden conference table down the center. I make eye contact with Simon Rifkind’s portrait on the far wall. I admire his modest suit and tie and wonder what he used to lie about. “What was this party for anyway?” Veronica asks me.

“I don't know,” I say.

Veronica zips her purse. The room is otherwise quiet. “It was a good party though,” she exhales exhaustedly.

“Wine and cheese!” I say, toasting my plastic cup to her paper plate, and with that inaugurate a four-day bender.


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