Alexander Chee | Apology Magazine | Winter 2014 | 19 minutes (4,822 words)
This essay by novelist Alexander Chee first appeared in Apology magazine’s third issue (Winter 2014). Apology is a semiannual print journal of art, interviews and literature, created by ex-Vice editor-in-chief Jesse Pearson. The fourth issue is available for preorder. Our thanks to Alexander Chee and Apology for allowing us to reprint this essay here.
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How could you, my friends would ask, when I told them. How could you work for someone like him? Do you ever want to just pick up a knife and stab him in the neck? Poison his food?
You would be a hero, one friend said.
I did not want to stab him, and I did not want to poison him. From our first meeting, it was clear, he was in decline. And as for how could I, well, like many people, I needed the money.
And besides, he didn’t really matter. I loved her.
Before I worked as a waiter for William F. and Pat Buckley, I knew them the way most people did—from Page 6 of the New York Post and its editorial page; from Vogue, the New York Times, and the back pages of Interview. When I first moved to New York, in 1991, Pat Buckley was the preeminent socialite if you were looking in from the outside—and I was.
Like many ambitious young New Yorkers, I had ridiculous fantasies that involved how one day I would run into her in the rooms I saw only in those pictures. Reading the Times on the train on my way to work, I imagined walking into the dimly lit salons where the rich and powerful met and determined the fate of the culture, if not the world.
When I say I really didn’t think of him, I mean I didn’t read what was referred to by her friends at their parties as “his magazine,” the National Review, though I sometimes read part or all of his column in the Post. I tried to read him when I did because I thought of him as the opposition and I wanted to know what the opposition said and thought, or I thought I did, but too often it was too awful, too enraging, to finish. I knew civilized people were supposed to read the ideas of people who disagreed with them and at least think about them. In this way I was not so civilized.
When I met him finally, he was not as vigorous as she was, perhaps from drink or cigars or both, though she certainly drank and smoked as well. He was shorter and more rumpled, as if one day he had gotten tired and then never quite rested enough. She was tall, tan, and animated, with a wild shock of carefully highlighted hair. She wore a painterly face of makeup that at times resembled the portrait of her that hung in their home. She had the habit of filling the room, and then you might notice him somewhere in it, holding court in a quieter way. It was easy to imagine the woman she’d once been, handsome though not manly, a natural leader. And for those of us who worked there in their house, it was her we watched, always. For it would be her we answered to if anything went wrong.
In 1997, I began working as a waiter for William F. and Pat Buckley. I was the picture of a New York cater-waiter: 5′ 10″, 165 pounds, twenty-nine years old, clean-cut. I took the job because I looked good in a tuxedo and couldn’t stand the idea of office work unless it was writing a novel. It was the easiest solution to my money problems when I returned to New York after getting my MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and I’d already been doing it for two years when I was called to work for the Buckleys. Cater-waitering paid $25 an hour plus tips and involved working everything from the enormous galas in the Winter Garden to People magazine lunches to openings at the Guggenheim. The tuxedo and the starched white shirt—and the fact that each assignment was at a different, often exclusive, place—all made me feel a little like James Bond. Sometimes my fellow waiters and I called it the Gay Peace Corps for how we could come into places, clean them up, make them fabulous, throw a party, and leave. And I liked that when I went home, I didn’t think about the work at all.
As a writer’s education, also, being a cater-waiter allowed me access to the interiors of people’s lives in a way that was different from every other relationship I might have had. When you’re a waiter, clients usually treat you like human furniture. The result is that you see them in unguarded moments, and that, I liked. There was the Christmas buffet dinner where the host and hostess served their visiting family from a group of wines given to them by friends that they considered unworthy of being cellared. Or the Christmas party where the host took a friend into the coatroom to beat him in private (so badly he had to leave) to punish him for being a jerk to us, the waiters, and then handed out his friend’s cigars to us afterward and said, “My friend said to say he was sorry.” There was the party on the Upper East Side where we changed in a spare apartment we jokingly called “Daddy’s Rumpus Room,” as the walls were padded with gray flannel and the windows all frosted so that no one could take a photo from outside of whatever it was our host did in there.
And then there was the Upper East Side party for some wealthy closeted gays and lesbians who, to hide their sexuality and protect their fortunes, had married off so they resembled straight couples. They looked on with a placid mix of despair and happiness at their sons and daughters, many of them openly gay and lesbian, who were there with their same-sex lovers.
The best thing I’d done for myself as a waiter was to have the cheap polyester tux we all had to wear tailored shortly after starting. I soon caught the eye of a private-client captain, who eventually brought me to the Buckleys. He was a funny, boyish older gay man whose expression could change from a warm smile to an icy stare in less than a heartbeat. He had an English face and complexion, with a last name that didn’t match. I interviewed with him and left certain I’d failed. If he liked you, he never let on right away.
He worked for some of the wealthiest clients in New York City. I recall helping Martha Stewart pick out a favorite petit-four in the home of the Grubmans while Vera Wang and Tommy Hilfiger looked on. I learned, as I washed up afterward, that the plates had cost $3,000 a setting. I became used to climbing, at high speed, the back stairs at prominent homes all up and down Fifth and Park Avenues, and washing plates and glasses that cost more than my yearly rent.
The moment I describe next was not at the beginning any different from any of those other jobs, but I remember it because of a word: maisonette. It began with a phone message on my answering machine: “Come to ____ Park Avenue. It’s a maisonette. Don’t go to the front, but come around the side. But don’t ring the bell. I’ll be in front and take you in the service entrance. Tuxedo, plain shirt, bow tie. I want a fresh shirt—no stains on the cuffs or collars. And be sure to shine your shoes, as she’ll know.”
And then a pause. “When I say she’ll know, I’m talking Pat Buckley. You’re working at the Buckleys. Look your best.”
I knew William F. Buckley in the same way that every gay man of my generation knew him: as an enemy. On March 18, 1986, the New York Times published an op-ed column by him that advocated for the tattooing of people with AIDS on their buttocks and wrists. He initially proposed something more visible, but then rejected it as an invasion of privacy.
There was a part of my history that made me an unusual figure in the Buckleys’ home. I was a former member of the San Francisco chapter of ACT UP, the AIDS activist organization. I had driven to Maine to lie down in the street along with thousands of other protesters in front of President George H. W. Bush’s house in Kennebunkport in 1991, for a die-in protesting his inaction on AIDS. I still had PTSD upon seeing policemen after being attacked by them in riots in San Francisco on International AIDS Day in 1990. I had been a committed member of the group’s media committee, appearing on television sometimes, determined to make a difference in the fight against a disease I was sure was going to devastate the world. This was an era when it was still shocking to hear that 10,000 Americans had contracted AIDS. But in just the six years between the die-in at Bush’s house and the day when I walked up to the Buckleys’ entrance, I’d watched the number of infected grow exponentially, each year, past all imagining.
So when I tell you that I thought of William F. Buckley as the opposition, I mean specifically, as regards to how he had given a powerful public voice to the belief that the illness revoked your basic humanity and placed you beyond help. The tattoo he suggested was to make sure you knew it. Whatever you might think of my friends who joked of my killing him, you may better understand the sentiment as a reaction to experiencing from him a denial that they were even people.
On the day I arrived at the service entrance to his Park Avenue maisonette with a waiter’s tuxedo on my shoulder, I knew that we bitterly disagreed on the question of what it means to be human. I had never imagined meeting William F. Buckley at all, and so when my first day in the Buckley house began, the reality of what I was about to do to set in. I remember walking to Park Avenue from the subway and looking up at the enormous stone and brick tower in disbelief. I wondered briefly whether they ran background checks on the waiters, whether they knew of my past, whether someone like me could really work there. I drew a breath and put all of that out of my head.
And then the door opened and I was let in.
A maisonette, if you didn’t know, and I didn’t, is a house hidden inside the walls of an apartment building. The owners share services with the rest of the building but have their own door. In the entrance to the Buckleys’ maisonette, at that time, sat a small harpsichord of the most beautiful gold and brown wood. I was told that Christopher, their son, could play it very well. A portrait of him from when he was young hung on the wall on the right, near the entrance, and in it he looked supernaturally beautiful, like the child of elves. Next to the harpsichord was a tree made of metal and what looked to be cut glass or semiprecious stones for leaves, set in a bed of rougher stones in a low vase. There were trees like this all through the downstairs, chest-high, and the effect was like entering a forest grove under a spell, where the beautiful child from the painting might appear and play a song. The forest was also populated with expensive rugs, cigar ashtrays, lamps, and chairs covered in chintz. The house gave the appearance of having been decorated once in a particular style and then never updated again. Between the dark reds on the walls and the glittering stone trees, it felt warm and cold at the same time.
I was being auditioned, the captain told me. If I succeeded at this, one of his most difficult assignments, I would be a regular. “Mrs. B will watch you like a hawk,” he said, “in general, but especially for this first one. So you have to be on your very best behavior if you want to be asked back.” As the door closed behind us, he said, “That’s what we call them: Mr. and Mrs. B.”
I was introduced then to a kind older gentleman who, in my memory, ran their household. I don’t recall his precise title or his name, but if it had been a palace, I think he would have been the chamberlain. He impressed me instantly as one of the sweetest and most elegant men I had ever met, with a full head of white hair and a wry look in his eyes that stayed whether he was regarding a martini or a waiter. He was busy with showing the cooks around the kitchen. The waiters were brought upstairs to change in a small room that sat at the end of a hallway near the entrance to the back stairs, which led from the second floor to the kitchen. It contained a single bed made up with a torn coverlet, and a treadmill covered in wire hangers and books. Dusty sports trophies lined dusty bookshelves.
“Whose room is this?” I asked the captain.
“Mr. B’s,” he said.
I stared, waiting for him to laugh.
He said, “Oh, honey. Sure. She’s the one with all the money, after all. Canadian timber fortune, I think. Her friends call her Timberrr because of that and because she’s tall and when she’s drunk she falls over, because she won’t wear her shoes.” I thought of Madge Wildwood in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I laughed, he laughed, and then his face came over serious and flat and we both stopped laughing at the same time.
“Don’t you dare write about any of this,” he said. “Or I’ll have to hunt you down and kill you. With my bare hands. Because I love them dearly.”
The parties the Buckleys had in New York were typically attended by a strange mixture of her friends and his, which is to say, I remember holding out a tray of scallops wrapped in bacon toward the socialite Nan Kempner and the deeply conservative writer Taki Theodoracopulos, both of whom looked down at it as if it had insects on it, and then I moved on toward the magazine people, who swarmed the trays quickly, eating everything. It was her very rich society crowd mingling with the young writers Buckley was fostering, and they had very little to say to each other, typically drifting to different sides of the room, and yet never hostile.
Despite the way the writers condescended to me, I knew I made more money than they did. But it wouldn’t matter. I was holding the tray they were eating from. The food was always from another era: the terrines, for example, which I never saw anywhere else I worked. The scallops wrapped in bacon. Gravlax salmon on Melba toasts. They did not go in for the new trends in cooking—there was never going to be a piece of charred tuna, pink on the inside, on those trays. The only pink was in the roast-beef appetizers. There would never be coconut-crusted shrimp. And dessert was often, perhaps even always, rum raisin ice cream, a favorite of theirs. I found that endearing.
On my first night there, when I was not supposed to make a mistake, I did. I remember very clearly being in the dining room and making my way through the thickets of chairs around the tables. Someone was speaking to the room for some reason as the courses were changing—we were doing a service where we came in with one plate and left with another, switching it out very quickly, in rows of waiters. I cleared from the wrong side and served from the wrong side, and while the guest didn’t seem to notice, I was helpless except to look and see Mrs. B glaring at me as if I’d personally done it to hurt her feelings. Her dark, thickly lined eyes barely held in her fury.
I went to the captain immediately. He swore and glowered at me. “Chee…” he said, trailing off. And then he said, “It’s okay. I mean, you’re in for it now. But there’s only one thing for you to do.”
That one thing, it turned out, occurred at the very next party, and it was a part of my probation. Instead of passing food or drinks, I looked after her. Mrs. B typically sat talking to someone animatedly, her cigarettes, lighter, lipstick, glasses, and cocktail beside her on a small table. She drank Kir Royales, but with a light blush, not too dark. She would take off her shoes, setting them to the side. And when she leaped up to speak with someone she recognized on the other side of the room, she left everything behind.
Your job at that moment—should you have screwed up as I had screwed up—was to go immediately to the back and emerge with a fresh Kir Royale prepared exactly as she liked it. You never brought her the one she’d just abandoned. You then grabbed her lipstick, glasses, cigarettes, and lighter in your other hand, bent down to retrieve her shoes, and went over to where, by now, she was in conversation again. You did not interrupt, but waited until she looked at you, and then you said, “Mrs. B, you left these,” and she would exclaim, take them from you, and sure enough, if the color of the Kir was right and you were appropriately chastised in your manner, and you did all of this exactly right each time she moved, you survived.
As I handed her shoes over that first time, I blushed a little, like someone in love.
I’d not read Mr. B’s famous column on the AIDS tattoo before I worked for him. After I began working for him, I still did not read it. I felt it was somehow safer not to, because once that friend had asked me whether I’d ever imagined stabbing Buckley in the neck, it then flashed through my mind once I was inside the house. I remember serving him and watching his neck as I sat the plate down. The single thing I forbade myself to think of became, of course, impossible to ignore. I felt a little like the character in Chekhov’s Story of an Unknown Man, who pretends to be a serf in order to work inside the home of the son of a politician he opposes. It’s an act of political espionage that uncovers nothing, and soon the narrator despairs of what he’s done. He eventually runs away with the neglected mistress of his employer.
This is not what I did.
For as much as William F. might have done to undermine the situation of people with AIDS, Pat seemed to do in their favor. In 1987 alone, for example, a year after the famous column, she was involved in raising $1.9 million for the AIDS-care program at St. Vincent’s, a hospital at the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic in New York. Today, it might be easy to underestimate the value of that gesture. But at the time, no one wanted anything to do with people with AIDS. Pat was one of New York’s greatest fund raisers for charity, and however many lives her husband may have put at risk, it seems to me she saved many more. If it was ever glamorous to raise money for people with AIDS, it was partly because she helped to make it so. And while the finances of their family are known only to them, it seems to me that Mr. Buckley would never condone the types of donations Mrs. Buckley likely gave. If there is a question as to whose money it was, perhaps the proof is there. She could, it seems to me, have afforded to go against him.
And so if it seems strange to you that one of America’s most famous homophobes was married to a woman who was a hero to many gay men, if it seems strange to you that the household where she lived with him was sometimes full of gay men serving food and drink to her guests despite his published beliefs, well, it was strange. It was also complicated. And yet the times were such that we, her waiters, experienced the millions of dollars she raised for those who were abandoned to their fates as a kind of protection and affection both. It was not for us, per se, but it could easily have been us next. For gay men in the 90s, that thought was never far from mind. And so I think we could joke about killing him. But never, not even a little, about doing even the slightest thing to hurt her.
I remember being in the back of the Buckleys’ limo, headed to their home in Connecticut for a party there. Their driver, our captain observed to me, kept a gun under the seat. A Cabriolet convertible pulled even with the limo and honked three times quickly to get our attention. It was Nan Kempner, waving wildly, girlish. She was still the beautiful icon, her hair held back in a scarf tied at her neck, the top of the Cabriolet down. This was just several years before her death.
“She thinks we’re them,” one of the waiters said.
I didn’t think so. I was pretty sure she knew we were the waiters. Why wouldn’t she know Mr. and Mrs. B were already there? She was a good sport, is the thing. It made no sense, of course, but it was easy to believe she was happy to see the men who carried around the food she so routinely ignored.
The Connecticut party invitation was a sign you’d arrived—both for the guests and for the waiters. To be asked to work there meant they trusted you the most. What I remember chiefly about the party is the roses, everywhere, carefully maintained. I first pictured Mrs. B tending them, before my imagination conceded to who she was and replaced the image with that of a gardener. I had a rose garden myself in Brooklyn, and well-tended roses have always impressed me. The country place was a large if somewhat unassuming house in Stamford, a city quickly becoming notorious for gang activity across the tracks from these seaside places. As Nan Kempner had sped away earlier, I wondered if she knew to worry about being carjacked in her convertible. Perhaps she had a gun under her seat too.
We changed clothes this time in an upstairs room with a view of the grounds and the pool before hustling down and attending to the needs of the hundred or so guests swarming the lawns. The party passed in its usual hustle, and was entirely unremarkable until the evening, as we went upstairs and changed to go. From the window, I saw Mr. Buckley head to the pool with a dark-haired young man we could see only from the back. I raised an eyebrow, and one of the waiters said to me, “It’s a tradition. He always invites a male staffer to a skinny dip at the end of the night when there are parties up here.”
“Really,” I said.
We heard the splashes. My coworker smiled. “Really. That’s how they used to swim at Yale, after all,” he said. Before I could absorb this, Mrs. Buckley appeared in the doorway.
She was, as I’ve said, very tall, and she loomed there like a ghost. We all froze. We were in various stages of undress. I had my pants on, but my shirt and jacket were hung up, and I wore just a V-neck T-shirt. She had never once come to where we changed before. Her eyes were half-lidded as she looked down at me—I was very near the door. Nearest of all the waiters, who stared as she gave me a long, long look and walked slowly ahead until she was right in front of me. “Thank you,” she said, very quietly, looking at me. “Thank you so, so much.” And as she said this, she set her long fingers down into the hair on my chest.
“Thank you,” I said. It was clear to me she couldn’t see me very well. She didn’t have her glasses on, and she was drunk.
I can only think I was very good with a Kir Royale. I wondered if perhaps Mrs. B had decided it was time for her to go make an invitation to a male staffer of her own. Why was she there that night, for what reason, when she had never come to us like that before? Was that night somehow unbearable, when all the others had been bearable? Whatever the reason was for her arrival in the room, all of us were shocked to see her.
There was a terrible loneliness and sadness in her expression, and then it was gone, and she seemed to come back to herself. “Thank you, thank you all,” she said, and turned and left the attic.
We finished dressing, and started back to New York in the car before the swimmers returned.
In the days after, when I thought of this evening, I could barely believe it. And then months went by, and years, and I could still barely believe it. I knew that, yes, if I ever wrote of it, my captain would throttle me—at the least. But more important, I’d lose my job. And for what? Waiters and escorts both know that indiscretion is a career-ending move. You only reveal a secret if you are never going back again, and at the time, I knew I had reached one of those accommodations one finds in New York—I had carved out a little place I could make a living, in a city where finding and keeping work has always been an extreme sport. I was also supporting my younger sister as she made her way through college with this money. I couldn’t afford, in other words, to risk it—to become famous as a waiter who spoke of all this and then be blacklisted by New York publishing in the process. They were monstres sacrés, and I was not. Everything in my life would change, and nothing in theirs—I wouldn’t be a hero, just an example, the briefest object lesson. And so it soon became a story that I told, instead, and to which people listened in disbelief, and at the end we laughed, as if it were only funny.
All these years later, the moment itself has come to represent some sort of peak, the climax of my life as a cater-waiter. It’s as if I never did it again after that night, though of course I know I did. I’m sure I was back at the Buckleys’ at least once more, for example, in New York. But in the way of these things, there was no good-bye—I didn’t know in advance the moment I would leave, and there was no presumption of intimacy such that I would have written a note saying, “Thank you for the time in your service.” I left the business, having finished and sold the novel I’d been working on. I transitioned to living off a mix of grants, advances, and teaching writing. I remember arriving at a party in Chelsea after the publication of that novel and finding my captain holding a tray. He smiled at me, we spoke, he congratulated me. Unspoken between us was that I still should never write of this.
And now Patricia Buckley is dead, William F. Buckley is dead, and the Buckley maisonette has been sold by the beautiful son. Even St. Vincent’s Hospital is gone. The building is being slowly converted into a nest of luxury condos.
When I knew I would not return—could not return—I finally did read the famous column. And when just exactly what he’d written was there in front of me—the actual wish for tattoos for people with AIDS—I had numerous reactions. I was surprised to see there was not just one tattoo he wanted for them, but two, one on the forearm and one on the buttocks. I wondered if he knew, before he died, that this column would be mentioned in his obituary along with the names of his wife and son and his place of birth—that it would, in fact, tattoo him. And I couldn’t help but imagine him in that pool in Connecticut with the young male staffer, swimming underwater, the walls glowing with light, their naked bodies incandescent, just like at Yale, and—maybe—wishing there was some mark on the boy he could easily see.