It’s happened to me twice lately. I send someone a gift, in one case a book of my poems because a woman asked me for it, in the second a copy of A.J. Liebling’s The Sweet Science because a young man I’ve sponsored on a trip to South America told me he was a boxer. In neither case did I get what is every gift-giver’s due–the stiffly-worded and partially sincere thank-you note that I learned how to write under duress in fourth-grade English class; formal address, salutation, body, complimentary close, signature. Is that too much to ask?
South American volcano: What a lame excuse!
The female donee is, according to rumor, composing a lengthy and thoughtful letter that will serve to both express her gratitude and demonstrate her literary chops. I’ll believe it when I see it. She’s probably sniffing roses, Vikki Carr-style, while she takes pen in hand and tries to come up with something that compares to my handiwork.
The kid, on the other hand, got his today when I visited his school in a hardscrabble, polyglot, inner-city neighborhood where life is as cheap as the overwrought adjectives that litter its mean streets. “Hey, Jermaine,” I yelled out when I saw him from a distance. “What’s with the no thank you note?”
Vikkie Carr, in her “psychedelic” phase.
It wasn’t the four-figure sum I’d parted with to pay his way to a tiny village for the kind of academic enrichment that my kids had declined to participate in. After taking the tax deduction, it only cost me three figures. No, it was the $10.95 I spent on the book–the thoughtfully chosen companion to the long plane flight, le cadeau juste. It was just the right gift for the young traveler.
“Oh, yeah, sorry ’bout that,” he said. “I’ve been . . . uh . . . really busy.”
“With what?” I asked skeptically.
“Well, when we got to Costa Rica, there was an earthquake, then the volcano erupted, then the village collapsed into a sinkhole, then . . . “
Kids. They think the world revolves around them. “Sorry, pal,” I said tersely. “I don’t care what kind of youthful hijinx you were up to. You have to get thank you notes out right away–it’s the Code of the WASP.”
“Go to your room and write your thank-you notes first. Then you can beat off.”
“You mean the flying insect?”
“No–the former ruling class of America, the ones who came up with the Mickey Mouse-do’s and don’t’s the rest of us chumps have to abide by in order to get ahead.”
He gulped, and I could see that the seriousness of the situation was sinking in. “Are you a WASP?”
“Half, on my mother’s side,” I said. “It’s the part of my heritage I’m constantly trying to live down.”
“So it’s like a firm handshake when you first meet someone?” he asked.
“On the nosey. If you get a present or an interview for a six-figure entry-level investment banking position, the first thing you have to do is write a personal thank you note.”
“I’ll go to the computer lab right away and . . . “
“Ix-nay on the omputer-cay,” I said, wagging my finger and shaking my head. “You have to hand-write it.”
The kid was, to say the least, startled. “Gosh–are there a lot of other stupid artificial rules I should know about thank-you notes?” he asked, his voice trembling a little now, creating a chiaroscuro effect with the brittle man-child carapace he covered himself with as he fought his way through the pit bulls and crack dealers on his way to our new, state-of-the-art school building, outfitted with the latest metal-detectors at every entrance.
“Thank you very much for the tattoo you gave me for my gang initiation . . . “
“You’d better believe it.”
“Would you–teach me some of them?” he asked hesitantly.
I looked him up and down, my eyelids narrowed just a little. “Sure,” I said after a few moments, “if you’re really serious about becoming an obsequious, brown-nosing, apple-polisher like me.”
“If that’s what it takes to make it out of this boulevard of broken dreams, where there is no childhood, only a sort of early-onset adulthood, no . . . “
“Can it,” I said, cutting him off. “You’re starting to sound like me, fer Christ sake.”
We went into an empty classroom and I reached into my brief case to bring out two sets of note cards; one, a collection of colorful UNICEF cards that a kid gave me when I slipped him an extra bag of Reese’s Pieces last Halloween, the other a box of formal ecru-with-blue-trim cards that were so thick you could use them to make a sail for a thirty-foot catboat.
“Now,” I said as I laid the choices out before him, “which would you choose?”
“Uh, I guess the cards with the kids on them–they’re fun.”
“BAP!” I said, making my game-show buzzer sound. “Wrong answer. Go with the expensive, upscale cards–it shows you’re a social climber with a great future ahead of you.”
UNICEF card: “Are you serious? It looks like something my kid drew!”
“Okay,” he said, taking a pen from his shirt pocket. He scribbled “Dear” and then started to write my first name, so I stopped him.
“You want to keep it formal–use ‘Mr.’”
“But you told me we were friends and I should call you by your first name.”
“That’s the real world. Now you’re in the phony world of manners.”
He scratched out what he’d written and started over above it, like I used to do in the days before Wite-Out, the custom-blended fluid that delivers precise corrections with no messy brush.
“Thank you very much for sending me to South America,” he began, but he stopped when he heard me clucking my tongue. “What–what am I doing wrong?”
“You’re putting the cart before the horse,” I said. “Did you ever see the movie ‘Six Degrees of Separation’?”
“With Will Smith? Are you kidding? I could never show my face in this place again.”
“WASPs dig the little gestures–jars of jam as gifts. So thank me for the book first.”
“Oh, okay.” He scrawled something out and handed it to me. “Thanks very much for the book about boxing. My mother doesn’t approve of the sport, but maybe after she sees that I have a book about it, she won’t mind that I expose myself to head injuries that could prevent me from reading it.”
“Nice,” I said with genuine admiration. “I . . . really can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or not.”
“Were you a boxer?”
“No–high school football.”
“That explains why you’re a little slow on the uptake sometimes, I guess.”
“Okay–so what comes next?” I said, returning to the business at hand.
“I thank you for the trip?”
“Not yet. You’ve got to take a peripatetic approach . . . “
“What’s that mean?”
“You want to amble around a bit–go for the capillary, not the jugular.”
“So I . . . ”
“Talk about something that’s beside the point.”
“Okay, so like ‘Sport helps me clear my mind, and makes me manage my time better.’”
“Good, good. Conversational, personal, and yet–not self-absorbed, like so many teenagers today.”
“And you weren’t?”
“Of course I was–but I grew out of it.”
“Except for these stupid, self-regarding blog posts.”
“Well, there’s that, yeah. So how much room do you have left on the card?”
“Um . . . about half an inch.”
“Okay, now for the wind-up and the pitch. You can use half of that space for ‘Thanks again,’ etc.”
“How about, “And above all, I want to thank you for the opportunity to see others less fortunate than myself, and I stayed away from hot, molten, fast-moving lava like you told me to!’”
Sweet, I thought to myself. This kid was going to go far. Maybe he’d never become an advertising executive or a high-powered public relations flak, but he’d mastered the art of sincere bullshit. He understood that sincerity was key–if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.
“That’s great, just great,” I said as I clapped him on the back.
“Here you go,” he said as he tried to hand me the note.
“No!” I almost screamed, stopping his hand in mid-air. “You put it in an envelope, put a colorful stamp on it, apply one of your personalized return address stickers, and then and only then do you put it in the mailbox.”
“Isn’t that kind of . . . inefficient, when you’re standing right next to me?”
“When expressing your true feelings, you want to strive for a highly personalized level of impersonality.”