|Not a picture of the women or the ball in question.|
Fourteen young women. Ages 19 and 20. All wearing white evening gowns that could easily be confused for wedding dresses. Escorted by one man, marshalled by another, and chaperoned by a father. And introduced to a snazzily-dressed, heavily-inebriated crowd of several hundred white people*.
This was the Debutante Ball of Anderson, South Carolina. The ball was held in Greenville, S.C. Which, if you think about it and figure out why, is kinda funny. And sad. But mostly funny.
I don’t begrudge most wealthy people their wealth or powerful people their power. However, were I ever to find myself with an overabundance of money or influence, I would hope I’d do better things with it than fork over a few grand to paint my daughter up and present her to the world as a “debutante.”
I'd do better, more humanitarian things like, ohhhh I don’t know, buying a Harley. Or taking a trip across Europe. Or partying with a group of actually cool and fun people whose company I cherish rather than a bunch of people all worming their way to the bar to talk about other people at the party who get on their nerves.
If there was a unifying vibe connecting everyone at this ball, it was this: We Are Only Here Because We Didn’t Think We Could Say No, a.k.a., We Were Afraid Turning Down the Invitation Would Reflect Badly On Our Daughter.
While crammed into the bar and waiting the requisite 15 minutes for two drinks, one guy looked at me, laughed, and said, “Have you ever seen so many snobby assholes crammed into a single room?” Two ladies on the other side of me spent their wait judging the other women in the room. The number of times Mrs. X or Y has been divorced and who Mrs. Z has slept with. The fact that Mrs. T had to go back to work because her husband was in real estate and went bankrupt. “They had to take out a loan just to pay for tonight!”
Once the ceremony started, a man in his 50s standing behind my wife and I leaned between us and not-so-whispered, “Promise not to tell if I throw something out there?” Several people next to us chuckled.
If these comments and encounters seem so stereotypical as to be hard to believe, I understand. If I weren’t there, listening, I’d probably think I made it all up, too.
Why are we here? Grin and bear it. Just get through this. These are not the slogans of a joyous event unless it's Christmas at the Griswolds.
When we have these big debates in our country about The One Percent, or about wealth and taxes and fairness, I think about this Debutante Ball. I think of these families, most of them very well off, barely able to tolerate one another’s company. Is this what we aspire to? Is this the spoils of success?
A relative of mine was involved in this charade. And I love her and her folks. This very dilemma might one day knock on my door a few years from now, and may lightning strike if I am fool enough to believe there will be an easy way out of this.
Since we were there to be supportive, our group did our best to make the event amazing. And we’re all gifted at making stuff fun, so it was fun. But if you listened, if you looked, if you dialed into the vibe behind the make-up and enhanced smiles... it wasn't genuine fun. It was manufactured, superficial fun.
I worry about The One Percent because Lloyd Dobbler would worry about them. More specifically, he would fear taking any steps that sucked the marrow out of his soul:
“I don’t want to spend my time nurturing fake relationships with fake people in order to achieve fake success at a fake career. I just don’t want to do that with my life.”
Are all rich or powerful people unhappy? Of course not. But a ton of them sure work hard trying to convince the rest of us that this is the case.
* -- And one very cute black girl in an emerald green dress. She was the date of one of the young crowd members, likely a brother to one of the debutantes. To be fair, I witnessed no one do or say anything untoward about this woman’s presence and can hope that few if any present even noticed or cared about it in a particularly negative way.
(P.S. This particular ball occurred several years ago, and I have gone back to my journal entry on the experience.)