I was brought up to believe that exchanging piss with a skunk is generally unproductive, but I find myself in a situation that deserves some comment. A few weeks back, this space mentioned a new guidebook to the Hamptons . (I employ italics to signify words that clearly mean different things to different people.) This book’s principal claim to distinction, and its main prepublication promotional gimmick, was a promise to divulge the secret backroad routes employed by insiders to avoid the notorious traffic on the Montauk Highway.
It does not appear to have entered the calculations of the author of this guidebook that disclosure might encourage streams of incremental traffic along quiet residential roads, with possible consequences to the safety, and assured consequences to the peace and privacy, of those living nearby. This is, after all, an area infrastructurally-let alone culturally-ill-equipped to absorb tourist traffic in any significant quantity. If you doubt me on this latter point, ask anyone who’s been out this way this summer. East Hampton is like Venice. I might add that I don’t live on any of the roads in question (although I have friends who do), but from my porch I watch the visitors stream by, footsore, confused and bladder-weary, and my heart goes out to them.
Now it has been my experience that gross insensitivity in such matters as the precedence, privacy and space of others is, as often as not, a function of upbringing. I therefore wrote, really quite innocently, that public disclosure of local lore reflected (I paraphrase myself) the author’s “background and breeding.” Or-by implication: lack thereof. Three little words (in an article of some 3,000) that appear to have embodied the precept of the immortal Wee Willie Keeler to “hit ’em where they ain’t” (or “aren’t”-as I was taught at school). Shooting for a single, I seem to have cleared the bases.
What I had failed to take into proper account, you see, was that the familial equation in this instance includes a male parent encumbered with the notoriously low flash point common to persons who, no matter how long they live in a place, no matter how fancy the address they secure for themselves, will never be regarded with respect, nor as “belonging,” and who are aware of this to the point of paranoia. I suppose one can’t blame them. For such people, life is full of invisible boundaries they keep banging into, and the more they bang, the more it smarts, I guess, and the more generalized becomes their resentment. Or-I suppose you could put it-the more acute becomes their awareness of a perceived (by themselves) inferiority.
Anyway, I filed and then went off to Jamaica. On my return, I was greeted by a paternal eruption whose pyrotechnic “values” might make up for the show the East End was robbed of over the Independence Day weekend by inclement evening fogs. A full, 1,500-word “column” in a local giveaway paper accusing me of acting like a cross between Lady Bracknell and Dr. Mengele. I don’t go looking for enemies, but luck or whatever seems to bless me with the right ones, and here we go again.
Actually, although on the surface it reads like an overwrought, gutterish attack on yours truly, I take the screed in question to be a riveting “affirmation by opposition” of everything I like to think my work in this space stands for. In addition, its defamatory recitation of the facts and circumstances of my life is almost wholly inaccurate, to the point that a number of people familiar with (and licensed in) the law, as well as with my own professional history, have urged me to bring an action for libel.
Ordinarily this is something I, who despise litigation, wouldn’t consider for a minute. But their analysis seems persuasive and I have to say that, given who’s involved, the opportunity to round out with financial ruin the social and political anathema this individual has already visited on himself and his family might be construed less as a matter of personal vindication than public service. And so I am looking, quite seriously, into the possibility. Worth noting also is the fact that the New York Post reprinted certain of these defamatory assertions without checking with me or anyone else for accuracy, and that paper’s proprietor has deliciously deep pockets. That said, I fear I must stick to the guns of principle and reiterate, firmly, that, if anything, the gentleman’s outburst only confirms the larger point I seem to have been making. Namely that, whether we’re talking about life or advertising or running a restaurant or waste management or the development of character and taste, the same rule applies: garbage in, garbage out.
In life, one not only provokes outbursts, one can also produce an almost equally satisfying opposite: the stunned silence. Here’s how that goes: “Hello. Is that Michael Thomas?”
“The Michael Thomas who writes for The New York Observer ?”
“Hi, Michael. I’m Such-and-Such, a producer for So-and-So a TV “news” or “talk” show. Would you be available tomorrow to comment on the media and John F. Kennedy Jr.?”
Here’s another one, courtesy of a friend who owns a shop:
“Hello, XYZ Shop.”
“Hi. It’s So-and-So from Such-and-Such a vendor-supplier.”
“Hi, So-and-So, what can I do for you?”
“Yeah, well, listen: If any celebrities buy any of our stuff, would you let us know their names so we can get our publicist on the job?”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
By now, you will understand why I welcome the opportunity to get away every summer, with my Beloved Stepmother leading the family charge, for a week in Jamaica.
“Jamaica?” people exclaim. “In summer?”
Well, I tell them: Here’s the thing. At Tryall, near Montego Bay, where Poppi’s house is, the temperature’s the same, the water’s more agreeable, the golf is right there, the food is excellent and the asshole quotient is one-100th percent of what it is out here. All I did was read, write a bit and watch Francis improve at golf, in one week, more than anyone I have observed in 50 years of playing the game. Even after I cut his handicap drastically, he beat the tar out of me, and he handled the psychological part wonderfully well and patiently, since fathers aren’t the most understanding golf teachers. Tiger he may not turn out to be-that’s up to him-but he knows he can play well enough to have fun, and I handed over my losings with pride and admiration and a vow to win it all back.
I must say that Jamaica stacks up well. Out here, people pay $50,000 to rent a house for the season (or for a month, if they want “oceanfront”), and look what they get: Beaches overrun by the public and private golf courses they have to abase themselves to get on-if they can. Chic restaurants happy to take them at 5:30 and 11, weekends excluded. Pretty towns where it’s impossible to park and that are overrun with day-trippers. The gossip columns full of events that they’re not invited to, or which they have to pay to attend. At Tryall, for half the same money (or less), you get a four-bedroom villa with five in staff; world-class golf and a turquoise sea at your doorstep, terrific food, amusing people from all over the world who are happy to see you. And just 10 minutes up the road, there’s Round Hill, with its Ralph Lauren glamour.
Of course, you do risk gossip deprivation. Without noticing it, I missed all the excitement of the Talk launch and the Hillary interview-which was so calculated to produce buzz I wonder if money didn’t change hands. Actually, what I’m really interested in is the new memoir of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Unvanquished, which I gather has some really good stuff about Barbara Walters finking for Bill Clinton and then taking the Eichmann defense. Boutros Boutros is a guy I admire, mainly for his choice of enemies.
My only regret is that I’m horribly out-of-date about this summer’s big scandal, which involves a (purported) gazillionaire who has absconded with a media queen in a liaison that prompts me to paraphrase (I’m sorry, I can’t help myself!) the immortal Oscar’s description of fox-hunting: namely that what we’re looking at is the unspeakable going down on the inedible.
The man in the case has a bad reputation out this way. He’s also a big Clinton backer who may not have anything like the money people-or his new beloved, for that matter-credit him with. He has engaged John Scanlon to rep him, P.R.-wise, generally a useful indicator of dubious virtue, if not downright guilt. It should be interesting. Stay tuned.