I went to school with snarky stoners and rich Foreign students (mostly Iranians) and lots of entitled shits. I always thought of the entitled shits as 99ers, based on my estimate of their average IQ, but I’m sure quite a few of those IQs were closer to 90. They were reliably hilarious, the 99ers, often fun to have around, with something of the simian (as in “W” Bush, I realize, in retrospect) about their faces… those tiny, close-set eyes and taut parenthetical lips… and a social carelessness that the other kids, the kids from genuinely good homes, who’d been raised to be circumspect in public, couldn’t match. These 99ers were what everyone commonly called WASPs.
Writing this I am there again, my first week at school, wandering the aisles of the off-campus grocery with a gaggle of 99ers. Suddenly there comes Allison L., lurching from out of nowhere, a comedy horror prop, her eyes crossed from the nitrous oxide she’s huffed from a whippit of Reddi Wip, whooping and urging me to hop in her cart. Social self-consciousness forbade me.
Being an extrovert and a Quiz Kid, I could quip or dissemble or debate my way out of most tight spots, but the 99ers, the entitled shits, the WASPs, just could not be bothered. They simply did not care what real humans thought of them. They gave zero fucks, as we now say, this lack being a foundational element in Functional Psychopathy. Whatever it takes, to berate and cold-bloodedly humiliate a waiter or salesperson or tradesman, is similar to whatever it takes to casually sign off on a move that will bankrupt thousands, or send them off to war… it’s only a question of scale. As cool as it might be to be able to turn this elemental nonchalance off or on at will, the fact is that it is either hardwired (a genetic defect) or inculcated irrevocably with bitter grey mother’s milk. There is no off-switch. It is not a defect exclusive to WASPy populations although it would appear to concentrate there.
It was as an ironic member of my college volley ball team, which featured lots of 99ers, that I got my stark early doses of WASP culture. Having been raised to believe that “it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game,” I was out of my league among these Winning Is Everything and Winning by Cheating is Even Better kids. My teammates would often grab the net, yank the net, reach over the net, bump opponents through the net, fling dirt, hold and throw the ball while it was in play, etc, while either orchestrating parallel distractions, to hide the offenses, or crowd-shouting the referee down if caught in the act. Because most of us playing were just bookish, mellow, shruggy ’70s types with bad posture, and it was just a volleyball game, no one wanted to seriously argue the point, so the cheaters would usually get away with it in a flurry of high-fives and butt-slaps. The rest of us never quite got why it mattered that much. They were just volleyball games at a Liberal Arts College and the name of the team was the Bodhisattvas, after all. Who could take it seriously? The 99ers could and did. Very seriously. I watched my teammates whine, bully, threaten, taunt and conspire to cheat their way to third place in the end-of-semester tournament. The fury unleashed whenever we lost a game was always both hilarious and secretly satisfying.
Those prolonged screams of defeat were much bigger than the volleyball games that unleashed them. Somehow, those tiny-eyed sons of the sons of dying lipless Tribal Chieftains knew that the ground was slowly being snatched from under their feet; that the secret, interlocking shapes of postWar power had shifted in unrecoverable ways. 99ers were, increasingly, pretending to become progressive and prejudice-free, but the brutal Truth was that they were waking up to the fact that they were very soon going to be needing to marry into Outsider money and influence… if certain Outsiders would have them. After all those years of restricted country clubs…
Gloria Vanderbilt selling jeans on TV: imagine how the older WASPs must have shuddered and puked: how déclassé! Imagine how they’d have reacted to know that Gloria was fucking Gordon Parks, too. The sudden visible plunge in WASPy fortunes made you realize how many of the “elite” had been living off the substantial interest of the hideously successful depredations of their 19th century robber baron ancestors, all those years, and little else. All those years of gene-degrading inbreeding and for what? Even the CIA (the praetorian guard of the banking class) couldn’t save them. Think of the Woody Allen films, of the middle-to-late Seventies, as a subliminal victory lap: forty-two-year old Stewart Allen Konigsberg, in bed with a 17-year-old Mariel Hemingway, as seen on screens from Greenwich Village to Kansas City. In your face, WASPs.
Writing about this has managed to make me nostalgic for the sublime social comedy of those C-student inbreds I knew; their delusions of Eugenic grandeur. I last thought about the Bodhisattvas and cross-eyed Allison L. , and all that, early this year, when I discovered that my first college fling, the WASPy, straight-backed Sarah, from Massachusetts, had killed herself. Not many years ago.
It is difficult to bring Sarah back to life, even a little, in my memories of her. Not because the last time I saw her was 40 years ago, but because there was always such a palpable distance between Sarah, and Life, even then, when I was 18 and she was 20. As though she was only observing, from her spot on a straight-backed chair, in a shadowy room, to the side of Life’s kitchen.
“It’s right there. Can’t you see it?”
We’d be staring in a mirror together, both of us focused on a place under Sarah’s right eye, a subtle pink patch no bigger than a tab of micro-dot acid, a possible blemish, that I wasn’t quite sure I could see. Sarah could see it (for her it was huge; a deformity) and the force of her seeing was almost persuasive. She was certain that others could see it and that it was the first thing that others saw about her. What I could see was her coin-blond hair, her pale smooth cake-batter skin, the neutral setting of her always-slightly-parted lips. The facial expression of someone who’s been hit with incomprehensible news.
“Sarah, let’s go,” I’d say.
A party or barbecue or sun-struck Frisbee game was always in progress while Sarah and I spent what felt like the same two or three hours stepping away from, and circling back, to the reference point of her makeup mirror. The irony being that she never wore makeup; I never saw her in lipstick, even. She considered makeup vulgar. Now her “looks,” she claimed, had been damaged by some imported French pore-cleanser that she’d been sent by her mother. Maybe it was her wicked “stepmother”.
We’re all familiar with the tradition of the movie scene in which the heroine has been drugged, or has taken an overdose in despair, or is being overcome by mystical forces, and she is lapsing into a coma or towards death, and the hero, who has found her in the nick of time, is shaking her, even slapping her, begging her to wake, stand up, snap out of it. I often felt the urge to do that with Sarah. When that movie moment really came for Sarah, well in her fifties, was there anyone there to act it with her? Begging her to wake? Shaking her to save her? Using desperate force with hopeless love?
The morning we first met was in the cafeteria.
I never saw her sitting at the Izod-wearing WASP tables; usually she sat, stiff, at a little table on her own, chewing demurely and touching a napkin to her lips, at regular intervals, over a book. When she had no book she stared at the table as if she did. The quality of her concentration seemed to turn the bright loud modernist cafeteria into a cozy old study of dark wood and silence. I had noticed her my first day at college and during almost every subsequent meal until we finally met.
I was seated at my already-regular spot among the snarky, jazzy, clove-cigarettes-and/or-pot-smoking, leotard-or-chinos-wearing in-crowd of kids from the second floor of my dormitory. Joan Armatrading’s Show Some Emotion was the song we heard up and down the dormitory corridors in the morning and Van Morrison’s Moondance was the song we heard at night. Bowie’s Cracked Actor I remember hearing for the first time in the basement during a black-lights and lava-lamps kegger and the lyrics to that song…. suck baby suck, give me your head… stunned me with the force of my own reflected provincialism. I, who had always assumed he was way-Cool, was now taking Freshman lessons in that esoteric discipline and only my quick wit kept me from making a bumpkin of myself in front of my hipper-than-thou new friends, who were, dangerously, much sharper than the WASPs and inscrutable. They mocked the jocks and the WASPs and the JAPs and the straggling residuals of the Hippie epoch. They read Vonnegut and Tom Robbins and Berryman, the booze-soused greats. One of them, Vickie, would quote Rilke, which was a thing that sometimes happened in the 1970s, young college students spontaneously quoting Rilke and meaning it, and Vickie and Mary and Ted and Co were in their element when Peter O’Toole’s dark star vehicle, The Ruling Class, played at the local Art House cinema. They sang those songs around the dorm for weeks. Sarah, conversely, was into Harold and Maude, she told me in bed, near the end of our relationship, and saw it many times on campus and always teared up near the end of the movie. I see now what Sarah saw in Harold and Maude.
I watched her walk into the dining room with her tray, that first morning we met, and pantomime indecision.
She put her tray near mine at the hip-kid table and listened to what I was listening to, which was Mary J. drawling something droll about her mother, to whom Mary referred, derisively, as “Dotty.” Dotty was a fading beauty and glowering socialite married to a fossil dentist, and Dotty was the cliché of the wicked mother who resents her daughter’s youthful beauty and curses it, only the fairy tales we were raised with traditionally soften the cliché by substituting the alcoholic, heavily-mascara’d mom with “wicked stepmother”. In the Disney Weltanschauung, Mother = Virgin Mary = Perfect Eternal Goodness. What else has Disney, besides Bears (see: Timothy Treadwell) and familial relations, lied to us about? Money?
Mary was from money but she was not a WASP; Sarah was from not-that-much money but she was a WASP and laughed nervously, scandalized, as Mary proceeded to publicly disrespect her parents, with chilling precision, at that table. I laughed less nervously than Sarah but I was taken aback by Mary’s performance, too. I was wide-eyed at such precipitously revealed sophistication over breakfast (I’ll never forget that bowl of Golden Grahams), which had the effect of drop-kicking Mary out of, so far above, my sexual league. Soon I was sleeping with scandalizeable Sarah. Not well but often. She smelled so good and she was smarter than the other WASPs. And it only occurs to me now that she might even have been lying about being one.
Once, while kneeling, having pulled my long copper cock out of her mouth, Sarah wiped her chin and asked me to slap her, and I said not “no” but “no way,” the force of the judgement, implied in my inflection of which, making her cry as if I had slapped her. Sarah was kneeling and she wept piteously and I eventually knelt beside her and put an arm around her shoulder and cooed inanities while thinking how awkward it was going to be when it came time for us to stand again, since only Sarah had her clothes on, a preppy plaid skirt and silk Dior blouse she had seen and admired on Allison L.