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March 1, 2006

Old Money

She took a strawberry from the bowl and looking into my eyes, placed it gently between her full lips. Then without biting, she removed it from her mouth and subtly played her tongue across it. I felt very shy and embarrassed. She was curvaceous and beautiful, though she seemed aggressive, almost angry with me. Her hair was thick and held up haphazardly in a knot behind her head, thick strands falling alongside her ears and face. I was excited but also quite scared.

We were in a very middle-class house in a middle-class neighborhood, but strangely when I arrived there were twenty-five unopened champagne bottles on the kitchen counter next to the three-gallon bowl of strawberries. I was unaware of any special occasion other that my visit.

I stayed in a house on the street where my mother grew up. I could see her childhood home from the bedroom window. The hallway floor was marble and the stairs were wide and sweeping; the walls were paneled with hardwood. The road was a hundred feet wide, divided by a fifty-foot-wide grassy strip in the center, and lined with elms.

I was sleeping in the bedroom of my host's daughter. The big and empty house, with kids now gone, was home to a couple who had forgotten about each other. In the industrial kitchen, I talked with the woman about my strange life growing up in England, of which I felt ashamed. In the high-ceilinged drawing room, the man and I, partially obscured by newsprint, discussed money circuitously.

The man-of-the-house took me to the racquet club for lunch with some friends. When we arrived, they wouldn't let me in because I didn't have a sports jacket. "Never mind sir," said the maitre d', "we have spare ones for just this kind of occasion." He pulled an overused and inappropriate looking jacket out of the closet.

As I self-consciously spooned the soup, my companions told me about the dance hall upstairs: you had to bring a lady or they wouldn't let you in. Taking care not to get the drooping cuffs of my far-too-large jacket in the soup, I inquired, "Do they keep spare girls in the closet too?" This brought a laugh from the stiff audience and then I felt accepted, in spite of my strange attire.

I was twenty-two and I was spending a few days in St. Louis on the way back to England after staying in California for four months. It seemed like a very strange and insular place.

I visited with our family lawyer in his downtown offices. I had lunch with him and some of the other partners in a restaurant at the top of the skyscraper, looking out across the city. I told them that I was an engineer and felt embarrassed. I think that this was because I grew up in the UK where, even during the industrial revolution, it was primarily a financial services center. In the UK, it seems that doctors, lawyers, and even accountants, are more highly respected than engineers. Many people in the UK don't even know what an engineer is and the term is often used, incorrectly, for people who fix things.

The situation is almost reversed in the US where a whole new infrastructure had to be created. Professional engineers were instrumental in that, and the other professions served them. My great-great-great-grandfather, William Jones, was a civil engineer and designed steel bridges. In the victorian tradition, he also founded a school and became the mayor of Muncie, Indiana.

Nevertheless, my mother's father had been a lawyer in St. Louis and I had a feeling that I was expected by them to be a lawyer also. Sensing that I was unhappy, they told me that I was young and that I could always change career. I'm thirty-one now, and I'm still an engineer.

I went to a party at a small but old-money home; there were picture rails and things made of plaster with peeling gilt. It started at six in the evening and was to end at eight; no dancing or staying up late getting drunk; it was very civilized. I chatted with people politely using a glass of wine and an hors d'oeuvre to shield my heart.

One lady asked me if my mother was Mary. She was quite old and I wondered if she meant my mother or my grandmother, since they were both called Mary. In hindsight, I think that she was talking about my mother. I said that I was her grandson and she looked confused and then disinterested. She wandered over to someone else and I heard her say, "It's old news."

A few moments later a woman bustled in from the kitchen. She was quite drunk and she took me aside to have a word: "You see those two girls over there?" she slurred, "they're my daughters and you can have either one; take your pick." I looked at the two girls, who seemed embarrassed. One was mousey and shy, the other, the one who liked strawberries, was looking determined. I was too shocked to tell this mother that I was engaged to be married; I just said thanks. And then she invited me to a party at her house.


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