If you want to see rich people act really rich, go to St. Henry’s School for Boys at three p.m. on any weekday. Nothing makes rich people crazier than being around other rich people who might be richer than they are. Private school drop-off and pickup really gets them going. It’s an opportunity to stake their claim, show their wares, and let the other parents know where they rank in the top .001 percent of the top .0001 percent.
A cavalcade of black SUVs, minivans, and chauffeured cars snaked its way up the block beside me as I ran to my son’s after-school game. I’d skipped another meeting at work, but nothing was going to keep me that day. Gingko trees and limestone mansions lined the street where a crowd gathered in front of the school. I steeled myself and waded into a sea of parents: the dads in banker suits barking into their phones, the moms with their glamorous sunglasses and toned upper arms–many with dressed-up little darlings by their sides.These children play an important role in their parents’ never-ending game of one-upmanship as they are trotted out in smocked dresses, shuttled from French tutor to cello class, and discussed like prize livestock at a 4-H fair.
Idling in front of the school, with his tinted rear window half open, a cosmetics giant read about himself in the gossip columns. By his side, his four-year-old little girl watched a Barbie Fairytopia on the small screen that dropped down from the ceiling of the vehicle while he finished the article.The nanny, in a starched white uniform, waited patiently in the front seat for him to inform her it was time to go inside and pick up his son.
A few yards down the block, a three-and-a-half-inch green lizard heel was reaching for the sidewalk from the back of a fat silver Mercedes S600. The chauffeur flashed its yellow headlights at me. Next I saw a brown tweed skirt jacked up on a shapely thigh, ultimately revealing a thirty-something woman shaking out her honeycolored hair while her driver sprinted like a madman to get her arm.
“Jamie! Jamie!” called Ingrid Harris, waving her manicured hand. Dozens of chunky gold bangles jangled as they slid down her arm.
I tried to shield my eyes from the glare.”Ingrid. Please. I love you, but no. I’ve got to get to Dylan’s game.”
“I’ve been trying to reach you!”
I ducked into the crowd, knowing she would come after me.
“Jamie! Please! Wait!” Ingrid caught up to me, leaving her driver behind to contend with her two boys wailing in their car seats. She let out a huge breath as if the fifteen-foot walk from the Mercedes had taxed her.”Hooo!” Remember, this is a crowd that touches down on actual pavement as seldom as possible.”Thank God you were home last night.”
“No problem. Anytime.”
“Henry is so in debt to you,” said Ingrid.
The burly chauffeur carried each of her younger boys in one graceful arc from their car seats to the curb, as if he were placing eggs in a basket.
“The four Ambien. Henry was going hunting with some clients for five days, it was wheels-up at ten p.m. to Argentina, and he was crazed!”
“Jamie.” Next, a voice I loved. My friend Kathryn Fitzgerald. She commuted from Tribeca and she was wearing jeans and French sneakers. Like me, she wasn’t one of those people who grew up on the Upper East Side and never touched a doorknob in their entire life.”Hurry. Let’s plow up front.”
As we started up the marble stairs, a white Cadillac Escalade pulled up to the curb.You could tell a hundred feet away that there were children of a major CEO inside. It came to a stop and the aristocratic driver,wearing a bowler hat like Oddjob, got out and walked around to open the door, and the four McAllister kids piled out of their SUV with four Philippina nannies–each holding a child’s hand. All four of the nannies were wearing white pants, white rubbersoled shoes, and matching Dora the Explorer nurse’s shirts with little Band-Aids all over them. There were so many little children and nurses in their tight little pack that they looked like a centipede making its way up the steps.
At five minutes after three, the school opened and the parents politely but forcefully pushed each other to get in. Up four flights of stairs to the gym, I could hear echoes of young male voices and the screech of sneakers. St. Henry’s fourth-grade team was already out practicing in their royal-blue and white uniforms. I quickly scanned the court for my Dylan, but didn’t see him.The moms and dads from Dylan’s school were beginning to gather on one side of the bleachers.
Scattered among them were the team’s siblings with their nannies, representing almost every country in the United Nations. No Dylan.
I finally spotted him huddled on a bench near the locker room door. He was still dressed in his khakis and white button-down shirt with the collar undone. His blue blazer was draped on the bench beside him. When he saw me, he squinted and looked away. My husband, Phillip, summoned the exact same expression when he was angry and feeling put upon.
“Dylan! I’m here!”
“You’re late, Mom.”
“Sweetheart, I’m not late.”
“Well, some of the moms got here before you.”
“You know what? There’s a line outside, four moms deep, and I can’t cut the line.There’s a lot of moms still coming up behind me.”
“Whatever.” He looked away.
“Honey.Where’s your uniform?”
“In my backpack.”
I could feel the waves of stubborn tension emanating from my son.
I sat down next to him.”It’s time to put it on.”
“I don’t want to wear my uniform.”
Coach Robertson came over.”You know what?” He put his arms in the air, signaling his exasperation.”I’m not gonna force him into it every time. I told him he would miss the game, but I can’t make him put the uniform on. If you wanna know the reality of the situation here, he’s being ridiculous …”
“It’s really not being ridiculous.Okay?” This guy was never in tune with Dylan. I brought the coach to the side. “We’ve all discussed this–Dylan’s unease before a game. He’s nine years old. It’s his first year on a team.” The coach didn’t seem to be moved, and he took off.
Then I put my arm around Dylan. “Honey. Coach Robertson isn’t my favorite person, but he’s right. It’s time to put on the uniform.”
“He’s doesn’t even like me.”
“He likes all the boys the same, and even if he’s tough, he just wants you to play.”
“Well, I’m not gonna.”
“Even for me?”
Dylan shook his head. He had big brown eyes and strong features, with thick dark hair that never fell just right. Dylan’s mouth smiled more than his eyes ever did.
“Dylan! Hurry!” Douglas Wood, an obnoxious little kid with freckles, a crew cut, and a pudgy bottom, waddled over.
“What’s wrong with you, Dylan?”
“Well, then how come you’re not playing?”
“I am playing.”
“Well, how come you don’t have your uniform on?”
“Because my mom had to talk to me. It’s her fault.”
Coach Robertson, angry with Douglas for leaving the warm-up and with my son for his refusal to play at all, marched toward us, pumping his elbows.”Come on, kid.Time’s up. Let’s go.” He picked up Dylan’s backpack and pulled him by his hand toward the locker room. Dylan rolled his eyes back at me and lumbered along, dragging his uniform behind him on the floor. I headed for the bleachers with an ache in my heart.
Kathryn, who’d gone ahead to save me a seat in the bleachers, was now waving to me from the fifth row on the St. Henry’s side. She had twin boys in Dylan’s grade, as well as a daughter at our nursery school. Her twins, Louis and Nicky, were fighting over a ball, and Coach Robertson leaned down to whistle loudly into their ears to break it up. I watched Kathryn stand up to get a better look at their arguing, her long blond ponytail cascading down the back of her worn suede jacket. As I edged by twenty people to slip in next to her, she sat down and squeezed my knee.
“We made it just in time,” she said, smiling.
“Tell me about it.” I placed my tired head in the palms of my hands.
A few seconds later, the Wilmington Boys’ School team burst through the gym doors like an invading army. I watched my tentative son hang back beside the other players. His sweaty teammates ran back and forth, all in their last fleeting years of boyhood before the gawky ravages of adolescence took hold.They rarely threw the ball to Dylan, mostly because he never made eye contact and always jogged along the periphery of the team, safe outside any commotion. His lanky build and knobby knees made his movements less than graceful, like a giraffe making short stops.
“Dylan’s not playing well.”
Kathryn looked at me. “None of them play well. Look at them; they can barely get the ball up into the hoop. They’re not strong enough yet.”
“Yeah, I guess. But he’s down.”
“Not always down. It’s just sometimes,” Kathryn answered. Barbara Fisher turned around from the row in front of me. She was wearing tight jeans, a starched white blouse with the collar turned up against gravity, and an expensive-looking fuchsia cable-knit sweater.
She was too tan and as thin as a Giacometti statue.
“Ohhh, here’s the busy-bee-worky-worky-mom at a game.”
I jerked back.”It means a lot to me to see my son.” I looked over her head toward the boys.
Barbara moved over five inches to block my view and make another point.”We were talking at the school benefit meeting about how hard it must be for you, never being able to get involved in Dylan’s activities.”
She was so annoying.
“I like to work. But if you choose not to work outside the home, I can certainly understand. It’s probably a more enjoyable lifestyle.”
“You’re not doing it for the money. Obviously. Phillip’s such a heavy-hitter lawyer these days.” She was whispering (she thought), but everyone around us could hear her.”I mean, you can’t possibly be contributing much financially on a scale that matters.”
I rolled my eyes at Kathryn. “I actually make a pretty good salary, Barbara. But, no, I’m not really working for the money. It’s just something I like to do. Call it a competitive streak. And right now I need to concentrate on Dylan’s game because he can be competitive too, and I’m sure he’d like me to watch him play.”
“You do that.”
Kathryn pinched my arm too hard because she hated Barbara more than I did. I jumped at the pain and smacked her on the shoulder. She whispered into my ear,”Amazing Barbara didn’t find a way to bring up the new plane. In case you missed the billboard, Aaron’s Falcon 2000 jet finally got delivered this weekend.”
“I’m sure I’ll hear about it soon,” I answered, staring out at the court. Dylan was now attempting to block a shot, but the player ran right around him toward the basket and scored. The whistle blew.
Warm-up over.All the kids retreated to their sides in a huddle.
“You know what’s so obnoxious?” Kathryn whispered to me.
“So many things.”
“They can’t just say,’We’re leaving at three for the weekend,’ which would actually mean they are leaving at three in the afternoon by car or train or some commercial flight or whatever.” She leaned in closer to me.”No, they want you to know one thing: they’re flying private.
So suddenly they start talking like their pilots–’Oh,we’re leaving for the weekend, and it’s wheels-up at three p.m.’” She shook her head and grinned.”Like I give a shit what they’re doing in the first place.”
When I first married into this crowd, coming from middle-class, Middle American roots, these Manhattan Upper East Side families naturally intimidated me. My parents, always donning sensible Mephistos on their feet and fanny packs around their waists, reminded me all too often that I should keep a distance from the people in this newfound neighborhood–that back home in Minneapolis, it was easier to be haaaapy. Though I’ve tried to adjust for the sake of my husband, I’ll never get used to people throwing out their pilot’s name in conversation as if he were the cleaning lady.”I thought we’d take a jaunt to the Cape for a dinner, so I asked Richard to please be ready at three.”
Dylan was on the bench with about ten other teammates as Coach Robertson threw the ball in the air for the jump ball. Thankfully, Dylan was excited by the game.He was talking to the kid next to him and pointing to the court. I relaxed a bit and let out a breath.
Two minutes later, a sippy cup ricocheted off my shoulder and landed in Kathryn’s lap.We both looked behind us.”So sorry!” said a heavily accented Philippina nurse. The McAllister centipede was trying to maneuver into a row of bleachers behind me.Two of the younger children were braying like donkeys. This was the kind of thing that really got Kathryn going. She was no stranger to poor behavior from her own children, but she couldn’t stomach the lack of respect the bratty Park Avenue kids spewed at their nannies.
She looked at them and turned to me.”Those poor women.What they must put up with. I’m going to do it. Right now. I’m going to ask them if there is a set schedule for matching uniforms and see what they say.You know, like Sponge Bob on Mondays, Dora on Tuesdays.”
“Stop. Kathryn. Please. Who cares?”
“Hello? Like you, the obsessive list keeper, wouldn’t want to know?” Kathryn smiled. “Next time you’re at Sherrie’s house for a birthday party, sneak into the kitchen and go to the desk next to the phone. There’s a bound color-coded house manual that she had Roger’s secretary type up. Instructions for everything–I mean every single thing you could imagine.”
“I thought you weren’t interested.”
“Okay, maybe I am a little.”
“Timetables for the overlapping staff: first shift, six a.m. to two p.m., second, nine to five, and third, four to midnight. Schedules for the pets, for the dogs’ walkers and groomers. Directives on which of the children’s clothes should be folded or hung. How to organize their mittens and scarves for fall, for winter dress, for winter sports. Where to hang all the princess costumes in the walk-in cedar closet once they’re ironed–yes, you heard me–after they are ironed.Which china for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and season: seashells for summer, leaves for Thanksgiving, wreaths for the Christmas holidays. I can’t even remember half of it.” Kathryn pressed on.”It’s priceless.”
“You know what’s even sicker?” I added. “I’d want to get cozy under my sheets with a mug of hot tea and read every goddamn word of that insane manual before bedtime.”
Thirty minutes later,the game was going strong. Suddenly Wilmington scored and the crowd jumped to their feet and roared. I stepped on top of the bleacher to get a better look, almost falling onto Barbara Fisher. Then Wilmington stole the ball again from St. Henry’s. My Dylan, in sync with them for once, wildly trying to block the ball while his opponents threw the ball back and forth around the key.
Time was running out before halftime. Wilmington was up one point. One of their players made a bold move to score again, but the ball bounced off the rim.They grabbed the ball and tried again.This time, the ball bounced off the bottom corner of the backboard at a hundred miles an hour. Right at Dylan. Miraculously he caught it, and was completely stunned. Looking petrified, he surveyed the distance to his basket on the other side of the court, miles and miles to go before he scored.Then came an opening between two opposing guards and Dylan sprinted.The crowd cheered him on. I looked at the timer … :07, :06, :05,:04.We all counted the seconds before the buzzer rang. Dylan was directly under the basket. Oh please, God; scoring this shot would rock his world.
The shot was clear. He looked at me. He looked at his teammates rushing toward him. He looked back at the basket. “Shoot, Dylan, shoot!!!” they screamed.
“C’mon, baby. C’mon, baby. Right up there, you can do it.” I dug my nails into Kathryn’s arm. Dylan took the ball, grasped it in both his arms like a baby, and fell to the floor sobbing. He just could not shoot.The halftime buzzer honked. Silence on the court. All eyes on my little mess of a boy.