The swells came to San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel Sunday night in tuxes and gowns to feast and revel in the springtime rite of honor and sacrifice known as Oscar night.
The best thing that happened was a white-haired woman with a German accent came over and said she knew I was a journalist because journalists are always "dressing so badly." I was wearing the suit I got married in. She meant I had no tux. Even though they dress badly, she said, journalists are interesting to talk to. So she sat down. Her name was Charlotte.
"Don't you have a dinner jacket?" asked Charlotte. "You have to go to a secondhand store and get one."
I told her I would.
Then Charlotte, who said her family was kicked out of Silesia (now in Poland) after World War II, told me that these days women wear hardly any jewelry, and this is something of which she does not approve. She herself was wearing 20 miles of pearls on her neck, four loops on her wrist, a gold ring with a grape-size sapphire surrounded by diamonds, three gold bracelets and a gold watch.
The actress on the giant screen was wearing, like, hoop earrings. I looked into the plain, unadorned face of the actress and thought, here we Americans are in the hog wallow of wealth without a competitor in the world and we dress like Pilgrims. I asked Charlotte if she thought it was our puritanism. She said no, it's just that Americans have no style. Not yet.
"Just the same, I don't want to be seeing the bare bosoms," she said.
I thought, well, that's a matter of opinion.
The Grand Ballroom of the Fairmont up there on famed Nob Hill was about the size of a hockey rink and filled with 50 tables with 10 chairs each, set with silver plates, three forks on the left, two knives and a spoon on the right and a spoon up top, wine glass, champagne glass and water glass and a lovely pinkish napkin folded to stand up and display three points, like a handkerchief in the pocket of a multimillionaire.
Waiters brought us little flat raviolis with seafood inside. They brought us salads. They brought us meat. It was lovely. In the center of each table, golden grasses grew out of two black film spools.
So this is where they keep the rich people, I thought. The women: tanned, sleek -- that look. The men: tanned, sleek -- that look. Me: a little eccentric, a little schlumpy -- that look. And there we were, all of us at a table watching three giant television screens.
It was a $150-a-plate benefit for the Film Institute of Northern California's "outreach and educational program." When I first heard it was a film outreach benefit, I thought: You mean there are children going to bed at night without cinema, children coming home after school to houses without fresh videocassettes, even children living in houses without a VCR? We must do something. We need film outreach. The man from the Film Institute said it was a very worthwhile thing.
At first I was sitting at the table all alone just counting the silver and the candles in the chandeliers and trying to describe the centerpiece and watching the dark man behind the drinks table shake martinis in stainless steel and watching the many gowns. Pam Hamilton, the public relations person, said, "Why don't you get out and mingle?"
At first I gave her my blank stare that my wife says I really shouldn't give people, but I never know what to say to publicists because I operate outside their orbit in a world of my own making. However, after a while I thought I ought to get up and do something, so I walked around in the crowd, where people were drinking out of martini glasses.
I saw a woman who looked interesting to me because the dress she was wearing was blue velvet and had a 4-foot train and was very low cut, which I realized when I got close to her. I told her she looked interesting and she said, "Why?" and I was going to say, "Because you're practically bare up front," but I realized that would not be kind, so I just said because her dress had that 4-foot train and I was picturing her on a commuter train.
It was that word "train" that was playing tricks on me; I kept picturing her in a locomotive and people stepping on the train of her dress. She held up her hands that had gloves up to her elbows and said, "Accessories." And then she mentioned my fedora. And then her friend brought her two martinis. The martinis seemed to speak to her in a firm, commanding voice that she alone could hear, and she seemed to listen intently to the martinis. I went back to my table.
My new friend Charlotte was drinking her red wine and reminiscing about having to leave Schlesiaen in Silesia and coming to Canada in the mid-1950s. She wrote for a German-language paper there about the imigri experience. So she, too, was a journalist of sorts.
I could have walked among the tables, looking for notable people to talk to. Are there famous people at this table? Pardon me, sir, do you have some glow of eminence? Might I just rub my cheek on your lapel? I could string a story together like beadwork. But I sat at the table, watching the TV, looking at bow ties and gowns and nice hair. And then the sound of all the televisions became a pain. It was as though all the metallic, grating reality of the entertainment business began to drill through me. I had to go.
I drove from Nob Hill to the Roxie theater in the Mission District. For eight years it has been showing the Academy Awards on Oscar night. You can go in a tuxedo or not in a tuxedo, and most people were not in tuxedos because it's the Roxie. Bill Banning runs the Roxie. He was not in a tux. In the Roxie it smelled like happy popcorn. In the aisle people were slouching. People were hissing at Meryl Streep. They were hooting at Mel Gibson. They were snickering and talking back to the television. Outside the Roxie was a woman with antennae on her head. I told her I had been at the Fairmont and had had to leave. She asked, "Do they let you bring your own booze in there?"
Then I went back inside the Roxie, and the greatest thing happened when Hilary Swank won the Oscar for best actress for her performance in "Boys Don't Cry." People in the Roxie stood up and cheered. It was good. And she made a good speech. Then everything was better.
These were my people. But still I did not know any of them. So there was one more thing to do. In my journey from the land of swells to the land of my people, I had to drive to Fillmore Street and visit an actual friend's Oscars party, a little one where people were sitting on old couches and on the floor, feeding babies, where there was a little black dog that licked my face.
I got there in time for "American Beauty" to win the Oscar for best picture. And I thought of my new friend Charlotte back at the Fairmont.
She was talking about how Europeans look at Americans through our movies.
"If 'American Beauty' wins," she said, "they are going to say the Americans are fucked up."
C'est la vie.