am by nature impulsive. Some forty years ago that lifelong impulsiveness, complicit turmoil within the give-and-take of gender codes, conspired to produce among the most embarrassing moments of my young adult life. Now, in a time when the vernacular of gender has opened its gates wide to so-called “fluidity,” an amorphous, text-message friendly word that says all and nothing at once, my story is archaic at best. Yet what happened, in a restaurant of all places, still elicits self-ridicule of the kind phrased in terms of, “How could I have misjudged things so badly?” But I already know the answer: the folly of a “European gentleman” education inculcated by parents who came from another generation, one born in the 19th-century, my father, another devoted to pre-feminism femininity in which all men at all times were called to behave in what would now be considered, rather vulgarly to some, in “sugar daddy” terms, in that men existed to entitle women (long before they could do so themselves). How ironic, then, that decades after my faux pas, in these hyper-enlightened, fluid times, some women want back the spoiling their independence movement cast aside.
But that is for another time.
The story itself is painfully simple. In 1987 I was hired by a powerful Washington D.C.-based national newspaper to become an editor and writer in their prestigious “cover story” department. Though I was living in Rome at the time, I was avidly recruited, and, once hired, all my belongings were shipped back to the United States at the newspaper company’s expense. I was set up in a cubicle with a lavish view of the Potomac River and all of Washington’s marbled monuments. My boss was a distinguished but still-young woman in her late thirties (I was thirty-three at the time). Her deputy was a somewhat more casual woman of about the top editor’s age.
As a gesture of welcome, these two women, my immediate superiors, invited me to a get-acquainted lunch at a trendy, by-reservation-only restaurant on the fringes of fashionable Georgetown.
The lunch went very well, though at times the chief editor was stiff, as if not to let down her guard and thereby jeopardize her role as my superior “officer,” since at the time women in senior journalistic positions were only beginning to acquire chic as part of a movement to end male hegemony in the upper ranks of the newspaper industry. I knew and understood this trend. I had, after all, been interviewed a few years earlier by the first female sports editor of The New York Times, a job I did not get in part because the hiring hierarchy considered her an interloper and did what they could to vex her preferences. In a word, I knew the American score.
As a result, my own tone at the Washington lunch was pleasant to the point of deference, my mercurial side abridged, if not under lock and key. I was thrilled for the opportunity afforded an outsider, I told my hosts, and would do my best to show they’d made a wise choice.
I can no longer remember just what we discussed but I do remember the mood becoming more relaxed and convivial as the meal, which had lasted a long ninety minutes, ended. My chief’s deputy then made a comic remark about men and the difficulties of working with them and how sometimes she felt like “one of the boys,” hinting that being one of the boys meant a blur in gender and power roles. “Sometimes,” she laughed, “you have to forget about ever having been a girl.”
And with that, my impulse surged, and I struck, as if I’d been to dinner with two female guests in Rome. The day was mild and sunny and felt a bit like Rome. So it was I excused myself.
I pulled the server (the word waitress was already on the decline) aside and told her please to get the check. I also handed her my credit card, overcoming her reluctance by telling her it was a “treat” on special day. In a minute, certainly no longer than a bathroom break, and out of sight from the table, I added a tip and signed.
When my chief asked for the bill and was told I’d paid, “to thank you both so very, very much for how good you’ve been to me,” all went sideways and the horror began — literal horror since my chief was almost unable to convey her fury at my arrogance. I remember only one line, “Listen, I don’t know how it is where you come from but this is America and things don’t work this way so you’d better get that straight in your head.”
I was mum. The assistant said nothing but did touch me slightly on the elbow, as if to soften the flow of the many harsh words.
The time spent undoing my payment was unduly long. A corporate credit card was handed over. In all this time the silence was total and oppressive. I apologized profusely but it had little effect. The silence persisted on the short ride back, and the incident lingered in the mind of my chief, who from that moment forward adopted a deep reserve in regard to me. We spoke little and when we did the residual tension, as if she the earthling and I the alien, seemed to last months. My efforts to cover European stories were all rejected. One day my chief called me into her office and, and from behind, placed her hands on both my shoulders so that she rotated me away from the Washington vista. “I want you to be thinking about and writing about America. All that other stuff is in the past.” I wanted badly to object that I’d been hired precisely because the newspaper was seeking to bolster its international coverage, but mindful of my irreparable restaurant blunder said nothing. Not a word. I quit fifteen months later.
In my Roman spontaneity, I had stepped on raw male-female power lines and in essence brought about my own slow but unmistakable electrocution.
There is no moral to this story, only my own sense that the light-speed pace between century—old suffrage and today’s multi-gender “enlightenment” has put a dent into male and female classiness, because that very classiness, and the repartee that accompanied it, existed in an age that predated the potency of female economic (and sexual) independence. The joker is now wild and the manners once associated with being male and female pulverized to make room for a more progressive, post-lady and gentleman ways of thinking, which in turn laps over into dress and speech. Vive la difference is dead and buried. As is a certain kind of politeness, defrocked in a text and chat world bereft of the verbal foreplay once known as flirting. Sexual emancipation is now placing most traditional he-she pronouns at risk.
No doubt all this had to happen to level the playing field that for centuries was demarcated by men, who also established the rules of the sexual and cultural game. That same game created the ladies and gentlemen decorum I lived through as a boy, which placed me in an unwanted collision course with my chief. By paying the check I merely did what my mother suggested to me was proper, if not (heaven forbid) noble. But oh how my sense of time and place failed me. A Sugar Daddy wasn’t called for in an introductory lunch with “neutered” superiors.
That said, if you’re ever in Rome, dinner’s on me. Not a sexual but a territorial claim, and a wish to keep the antediluvian gentleman as nourished as it can be in a world in which “Hello, my darling” has been made subservient to the abominably anti-sentimental if not robotic — but amorphously gender-cool — “Hey!”