“My god, you have the weirdest walk ever,” a co-worker remarked the other day as a group of us headed outside for a cigarette break. He and another colleague tried to imitate it: sort of like a shuffling Frankenstein’s monster, but with the feet always crossing over themselves, on the verge of tripping.
“I have a joint disorder,” I mumbled. Since my speaking style is limited to two settings—yelling and slurring, or mumbling and trailing off at the end of my sentences—I had to repeat myself.
“I said I have a joinorder!”
“I. Have. A. Joint. Disorder. That’s whyIwalkfunn …” I trailed off again.
There was a beat.
“Well, thanks for making me look like an asshole,” my wounded co-worker replied, as if I had been the one mocking his gait.
The thing is, it wasn’t just my walk, or my voice. (I used to get comparisons to that Will Ferrell Saturday Night Live character who couldn’t stop yelling. “I’M SORRY!” he would scream during a segment. “I SUFFER FROM VOICE IMMODULATION! IT’S A MEDICAL CONDITION!”)
It was everything. Once, when my boyfriend asked my sister about some of my stranger habits—why I didn’t shower very often, for instance, or couldn’t clean my room—she explained that I had “problems recognizing ‘human cues.’” Like I was an alien from another planet. Or was somewhere on the autism spectrum.
As a writer, you tend to be pegged as a “creative,” which means your eccentricities are given more leeway than in normal society. So what if I didn’t want to sit in my chair at work, but rather perch on it like a bird or a tiny Velociraptor, pecking at the keys? At least I got my stories in on time. (Except for those days when even my four alarm clocks failed to wake me up, and I’d run to work half-dressed in what I was wearing the day before.)
Yes, literally half-dressed. I’ve been known to show up to an office wearing only a shirt and shoes, positive that I could pass for wearing one of those trendy dress-shirts. Those occasions were referred to as “Drew forgot to put on pants again” days, and treated like a bimonthly holiday. Then there was the time when I wore a dress backward and inside-out all day, until I happened to see myself in a mirror around 5 p.m.
“Why didn’t anyone tell me?” I asked the women I worked with.
“We thought it was a new style you were trying to make happen,” they shrugged.
The list goes on: I can’t make eye contact. I eat my food in a way that has made friends sick. I punch people when I am drunk—to show affection. My face, at rest, apparently looks so miserable that I am constantly asked “What’s wrong?” or “Are you tired/hungry?” When I am forced to smile, it looks like the rictus grimace of an insane person. I don’t have many friends, since I can never remember people’s faces or names, no matter how many times we’ve met. I especially don’t have a lot of girlfriends, since I am convinced all women are simultaneously judging me for my sloppiness and incredibly jealous of my stellar looks/personality.
Careerwise, this method of living has worked with surprisingly little impact for several years. In spite of being a tattooed Eliza Doolittle (but with worse posture), I’ve somehow managed to hold down several jobs.
But I’ve now run into a problem: in my new position, I have to start mingling with the upper-crust of Manhattan society to find stories. Of the few times I’ve gone to galas and other nice events, I’ve made better friends with the catering staff (free food!) than with the people I’m supposed to be covering. I don’t understand on a basic level how strangers just go up and start talking to one another. At the age of 27, my lack of understanding “human cues” has finally become a real issue.
This is what I tried to explain to Shirley Schoonmaker, CEO of Beatons High Society Secrets, a “quick” finishing school that offers insta-transformation with courses on everything from “One Week Change” to “One Day” fixes (along with classes on how to walk in heels, how to be poised on a first date and, down the road, how to be an elegant bride). Beatons—which began in London and has branched out to include a New York HQ as well—has trained everyone from royals and dignitaries to PR executives and socialites. Surely they could help me.
I stumbled in 15 minutes late to my etiquette meeting; headphones still on and holding an empty water bottle in one hand. (I couldn’t find the cap, and had sloshed the contents all over Midtown as I raced to my appointment.) But Ms. Schoonmaker was warm and gracious, with a sweet Scottish lilt to her voice. She let me take my shoes off, because they were two sizes too small (I had drunkenly traded them with a female acquaintance at a party the night before, not realizing that despite looking cool, I now had to walk like one of those BDSM ponygirls).
Ms. Schoonmaker’s background is in journalism: she worked at the Sunday Times in London before going on to the BBC. She eventually managed a number of television stations as an executive. “But every step of the way, I kept thinking, ‘How do people learn how to be presentable?’” Ms. Schoonmaker told me. “I would watch newscasters with the greatest presence, and then offstage they would confess that they were terribly insecure. I had gone through the proper training schools, but I just thought, ‘There has to be a faster way.’ I wished someone would have just sat me down and just told me what I needed to fix about myself.”
Beatons’s classes range from hour-long one-on-one sessions to group training over the course of weeks. But Ms. Schoonmaker prefers the individual method to larger rooms. “It makes people more honest,” she said.
The first thing Ms. Schoonmaker did was give me a brief personality evaluation. How do I see myself? (Clumsy, awkward, paranoid, goofy, funny.) How would I like to see myself? (Graceful, eloquent, poised, mature.) Then she had me stand, and using “the technology from Avatar” (as she laughingly called it in an effort to stop my obvious sweating), she affixed long stretches of tape around my body; arms, waist, shoulders, back. Then she videotaped me: standing, walking, sitting, talking about my life.
When it was time to review the tape, the results, even to someone aware of her social inadequacies, were shocking. I expected to look like a grumpy Quasimodo: growling and spitting while taking giant, haphazard lunges across the room to reach my victims. Instead, the girl I saw standing in the video looked about 5 years old. She had her legs crossed, rarely looked up, and couldn’t stop toying with the hem of her dress.
When the girl on the video screen began to walk, Ms. Schoonmaker turned to me and started to say something—then hesitated. Too mean? I told her I needed to know what she thought … never mind if it hurt my feelings.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” she said, “but you walk like one of those scary dolls in a horror movie.”
“I was thinking more like the chick from The Ring, actually,” I replied. At least there was something feminine about me, even if it was in the uncannily similarity to an undead girl that jerked and shuffled out of a well before she devoured your face.
The “sitting” video was even worse. “Would you trust someone who sits like that?” Ms. Schoonmaker asked as we watched footage of me perched on a desk chair. “Why would you trust that person with anything?”
Then there was the voice, which sounded like a bored teenager’s. Peppered with “likes” and “ums,” it conveyed a sense of exhaustion and cynicism usually exuded by people who still get an allowance.
Since we had only half a session left, we decided to focus on standing and walking. There was the familiar “Pretend there’s an invisible string holding your head up” exercise, along with some “shoulders back, tummy in” practice stances.
As I was practicing my poses, Ms. Schoonmaker pushed me. Hard. I stumbled, and almost falling to the ground. Before I could ask “What the hell, if you please?” she pushed me again. And again. This went on for several more shoves before I realized standing with my legs crossed didn’t give me a great center of balance.
When it came to practicing a walk, the heel-toe-heel-toe long strides that I was supposed to take (while maintaining my great new posture) made me feel like an ungainly freak. Ms. Schoonmaker directed me as she once again recorded my performance for posterity.
The results were surprisingly encouraging. Just by keeping my head up, I looked years older … but in a good way. I looked like an adult. Almost elegant. My walk was still bizarre, but I promised to work on it. I also asked if Ms. Schoonmaker would teach me “how to be a real girl,” sounding a little like a transgendered Pinocchio.
Later that night I went to Diesel’s “Fit Your Attitude” event at its flagship store in Midtown for the launch of its new line of jeans. Stylists from Dry Bar were giving free blowouts, while Make Up For Ever reps applied fake lashes and lip gloss. A perfect place to complete my new “look.” I approached my friend Robbie, a PR virtuoso who had graciously invited me when we had run into each other the night of the infamous shoe-switching party.
“Notice anything different?” I asked, head held aloft by that invisible string, shoulders back, tailbone straight, legs uncrossed.
“No. What is it?”
“What do you think of my posture?” I prompted.
“It could use some work,” Robbie agreed, before going off to greet the next guest. However, after the men at Dry Bar had turned my frizzy locks into a miraculously un-pinned updo, I was able to show off my new posing positions as shutters snapped. “Lean back as far as you can!” I heard Ms. Schoonmaker whispering in my ear. “Farther back! Literally, bend over backward.” I was a star!
When I walked into my office Friday morning to show off the new me, I had to stand next to my editor for several minutes until he noticed my new pose. Then he burst out laughing. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he giggled. “You just look like you’re in so much pain.”
Never mind. If Ms. Schoonmaker’s promises are to be believed, this will all start to feel natural over time. It will get easier. And soon, if I work very hard at it, I can be slowly introduced into high society, like a child raised by wolves, finally reunited with humanity.