A reverie by Steve Satullo, November 2013
In the wisdom of senility, I no longer even try to attend most sorts of social events. From long and tangled experience, I know who I am and how I behave in such situations. But sometimes I get boxed in — the result is never pretty. A recent incident called up many painful yet laughable memories of foibles and phobias. Having lately read two widely-noticed books in what seems to be a developing Introvert Pride movement, I’m prepared to look back on the parties I have pooped with ironic defiance – “Yeah, I’m not a party person – live with it! That’s just how I am, and there’s nothing wrong with it.”
My self-acceptance has not always been so stoical. In general my recollections don’t go far back into childhood, but I can still hear a little ditty drilled into my memory — “Every party needs a pooper, that’s why we invited you – par-teee pooo-per, par-teee pooo-per!” Even Google can’t lead me back to the original derivation of that singsong, probably an immemorial taunt among schoolchildren, but it still rings in my ears.
Who can unpack the interaction of genetics and environment in any individual life? I certainly owe something to my agoraphobic mother, but also to our family’s move from city to suburb when I was going into third grade. On the borderline between elementary schools in Cleveland Heights, I chose — or had chosen for me — the school that was 90% Jewish, with almost all of them headed home in the opposite direction from mine. The demographics were particularly plain on Jewish holidays, when I would always be one of only two or three kids in class.
So either for casual after-school play or invitation to parties, I was usually the odd boy out. My mother tried to ameliorate my social isolation by giving me a birthday party, to which the whole sixth grade class was invited. Though the details are blessedly elided, I definitely remember it as not a happy occasion, fraught with apprehension and disappointment. My mother and I must have passed our anxiety back and forth — ratcheting it up — on display as the focal point of an uncontrolled social situation.
I wouldn’t be surprised if there was one girl I desperately wanted to come, but didn’t have the nerve to invite except with the whole class, and she’d be one who didn’t show up — but that’s just speculation. Leave it at this – I had a birthday party once, and it was dreadful.
The verifiable story begins with another birthday party, my girlfriend’s 18th, in our senior year of high school. We’d been dating for six months, and to tell the truth, one of the reasons I first asked Jane out was because she seemed very social and popular, so I figured to get invited to parties if I was going out with her. They say that opposites attract, so it’s no surprise that the perpetually embarrassed introvert latched on to the unembarrassable extrovert. There weren’t all that many party invitations as a result, but certainly I was welcome at hers, and I may well have primped in some uncharacteristic way.
On the sidewalk in front of Jane’s house, I met my best friend Jon, arriving at the same time. He made some remark, probably teasing but innocuous, about my appearance — always a sore point, above and beyond my teenage afflictions with acne. I promptly executed an about-face and walked the three miles home, stopping only at a phone booth to call Jane to apologize and explain.
From the beyond-it-all perspective of old age, I can diagnose myself with scopophobia, a useful word I did not discover till decades later. I simply never wanted to be looked at, and my friend’s casual observation set off the terror of being seen, and flight was the only option. One of my most persistent traits, that impulse to hide or flee is easy to identify, but never easy to live with.
The senior prom was a party I yearned to miss, but my mother made me go for Jane’s sake. Another disaster. To combat adolescent pizza-face I used to lie under a sunlamp, which on occasion put me to sleep, with horrific results. Prom day was one such, so I attended the dance with a physiognomy like a broiled lobster. Somehow I survived, but thankfully blocked out the memory of torture, though there is a red-faced prom picture to document it.
Another party I would gladly have foregone was our wedding three years later. I navigated the social ordeal by giving up all agency to the wedding planner, and simply marched according to her orders. Again, memory does me a favor by not calling up a lot of detail, but I do recall one anticipatory blow-up at my best man Jon over basically nothing, one indication of breaking under the stress of social anxiety.
In the meantime, I had dropped out of college in modish alienation, though without all that much turning on or tuning in, truth be told. From a year and a half of social isolation at college, I can conjure up only two parties, one Winter Carnival when Jane came all the way from Purdue to Williams as my date, and the residential house party when freshman were inducted by lottery. (The college’s notoriety for abolishing fraternities was one thing that attracted me there.) For the house party I had the companionship of a visiting friend I’d known since elementary school, or might never have made it across the threshold. Once in, I got severely hammered and had a fun time – I vaguely recall surfing down the staircase on dining trays.
After the wedding, Jane and I lived in a trailer park next to the racetrack in Pownal, just over the Vermont line, so I had little contact with other Williams students outside class, or with any other strata of Williamstown society. Reasonably content as a bit of alien trailer trash infiltrating the campus, I had one student friendship from my freshman entry, cemented by long sophomoric conversations about our mutual alienation from our surroundings. Tom was a senior when I came back for a second crack at my sophomore year, but we picked up right where we left off, and he remains my only contact among fellow alumni.
As partners, Jane’s sociability frequently compensated for my phobic isolation, giving me a buffer against the world. While she got through college in three years, it took me seven. Two years after our wedding, her best friend Laurie married Jon, and they came to live with us in the Williamstown house of a professor on sabbatical, so I remained within a small social cocoon. For three more years, we lived in close proximity, with Laurie and Jane working together at PownalElementary School, while Jon and I worked in the college library. With that tight foursome (along with my younger brother’s arrival on campus, and Tom’s return as instructor in studio art), I did not have to venture forth much into the shark-infested waters of Williamstown social life.
Tom was already the globetrotter he would so famously become as director of the Guggenheim, and it was he who urged me out of rural isolation into the social mixmaster of New York City, terrifying to me until I dove into it. Jane’s work at BrooklynFriendsSchool provided another small, safe social circle to swim in, but I was free to surf across the wider and more turbulent sea of the city scene.
What a revelation – everyone’s a guy on the street just like you, some a good deal weirder, and no one is looking at you! Of course there’s a huge status game going on, but you don’t have to play. There’s a place where you can be just who you are.
Then as now, when it comes to numbers at a gathering, I had no problem with four or five, could handle six to eight, but started to come unglued with more. We had a lot of friends coming through, life in the city was always lively, but I had enough protected space — park or library or theater, for example – not to feel overwhelmed.
Then there came a big party of mostly BFS folk in someone’s loft in the vicinity of ProspectPark. In a brightly-lit space with lots of people dancing, I was hiding on the perimeter, next to the window behind a potted plant, and who should I bump into there but Christine, a fellow-teacher of Jane’s? I’d survived an excruciatingly sedate Halloween party given by her and her roommate, and seen her at school, but behind that potted plant our relationship began, if not at first sight, then certainly with long foresight.
Three years later, I was back in Williamstown, living with Jane and Christine in the house of a professor who had been a mentor of mine before his untimely death. Forest Road was a circle of homes populated mostly by Williams faculty, but isolated on tree-filled lots. One of my favorite English professors lived across the street, but I didn’t see him very often. One time, though, the college chaplain who lived next door invited us to a neighborhood cocktail party.
Great! I’ll finally be able to break into the circle of the Williams faculty. I’d always felt more friendly toward teachers than students, and while a student myself, had invited individual faculty to dinner at our house on occasion. Could I enter that golden grove of academe as something more than a student but less than a professional, uncredentialed and unproven? This was a chance to show myself, as chancy as that might be — to mingle with the intelligentsia and to establish that I belonged.
Getting ready to go, I stepped into the shower . . . and could not step out again. Like a witch in water, I just melted down, nakedly leaving behind neither hat nor cloak nor ruby slippers. You could call it a panic attack, but I was stuck with my hands on the wall of the stall and my head bowed into the spray. Jane came in to see if I was ready, and I told her I couldn’t go. Christine came in and urged me at least to give the party a try. Together they stood outside the glass door of the shower, raining down encouragement and trying to lure me out of immurement in my dripping tile tomb. Only when they gave up and went to the party without me, did I emerge from my isolation booth, one more dream denied by my own incapacities.
The next year we moved out of Williamstown to Lanesborough, a yet more rural town fifteen miles south. I have lived there ever since, well over half my life by now, in an old farmhouse, set back from the road and surrounded by fields that have harbored various kinds of livestock over the years. Right now our twenty closest neighbors are horses, and I find them ideal to gossip with over the fence.
The year after finding a home, Christine and I became proprietors of Either/Or Bookstore in Pittsfield, still further south, so I rarely went to Williamstown at all, and never again pined for entry into its social circles. The role of primary bookseller in a small town community fit me well, and I flourished behind a cultural and commercial persona for most of the seventeen years we had the store.
Either/Or hosted all sorts of events for adults and children, and I adapted to the task of giving parties, though never without anxiety and trepidation. Our opening celebration set the tone, when I strode into the party with my fly wide open, but somehow managed to laugh at my own embarrassment, so overtly Freudian. Through the medium of books, I found I could deal with people, as an awkward yet earnest expert, respected by many.
Sports provided another circle for me to hover around the periphery. Either/Or sponsored basketball and softball teams, and the heaviest partying I ever did came after games, when the beer and the boasts would flow freely. I didn’t fit in any better with my mostly working class teammates than with college intellectuals, and became known for disappearing without notice, but I never suffered from status anxiety, though I might occasionally embarrass myself on field or court.
Despite the anomaly I presented in such gatherings, I was usually comfortable by the side of my friend Mike, who worked at Either/Or and was one of the central characters on the local sporting scene, known by all and liked by (almost) all. Before becoming friends with Mike, I never would have set foot in a neighborhood bar, but with him I have sampled a great many. A quarter-century past our prime playing days, I still meet Mike to watch games and drink beer.
Oddly enough, the other enduring friend I made in Pittsfield came from a remarkably similar background, a large brood of poor Irish in St. Charles Parish, where both of them still live. Kevin is another who knows his way around a barroom, everybody’s pal, hail-fellow-well-met. He moves in somewhat different circles, but between the two, I think they know anyone likely to walk into a bar in Pittsfield, and with them I feel part of things without ever being a center of attention.
For a while, Either/Or had a photography gallery attached, and that’s how I first met Kevin. We mounted an exhibition of his photographs, and presented a slide-talk with readings from his work in progress, about a 9-month walk around Ireland with donkey and cart. Kev and I hit it off, and from that point on, became intimate collaborators in the decades-long work-in-progress, which was finally published on the 25th anniversary of his epic walk. More than an editor but less than a ghostwriter, I have worked with him on another well-received memoir, and we’re currently in the middle of a third, about his many years as a psychiatric nurse. He remains a friend to whom I can outsource any impulse to sociability.
Another series of readings and receptions brought an author of many nonfiction bestsellers to Either/Or, and I continued a friendly acquaintance with Joe afterwards. When his next big true crime book came out, he invited me to a publication party at the Manhattan apartment of a friend of his, a recent winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. Gee whiz, that’s a world I would want to enter even more than the academic environment of Williams! So I accepted the invitation without even pausing to consider.
This was a dozen years after I had left the city, but before I started going back on a regular basis, so the trip felt like a risky re-entry as well as a homecoming. Christine and I stayed with her cousin in an ungentrified stretch of Brooklyn between the Heights and Park Slope. The crime-ridden urban jungle familiar from the drop-dead days of the mid-70s had not yet been transformed, and “No Radio!” signs were de rigueur if you parked on the street.
In the evening I set off alone into Manhattan, trusting my memory to follow old paths into the city. My sangfroid was shaken when I got stuck in traffic under part of the West Side Highway, which was being demolished. In trying to escape, I bumped over a median strip and got rattled. By the time I got way up on the West Side, a neighborhood I never knew well, it was getting more than fashionably late.
Looking for the West End Avenue address, I found the unbroken blocks of big old apartment buildings intimidating, and in front of my destination, a double-parked line of stretch limos didn’t make me any more comfortable. But I wasn’t about to back down now.
I’ve always boasted about my gift for finding free parking in Manhattan, but this time it eluded me. I had no experience with these streets, and I was newly warned of the epidemic of car break-ins. There were some spaces along Riverside Drive next to the park, but in my time, you didn’t go near New York parks after dark.
In desperation I finally pulled into a spot. A dark car was idling across the street, a hooded youth in sneakers loitered on the corner with what could be a bag of tools. It occurred to me that this Volvo with Massachusetts plates could have its innards stripped before a canapé touched my lips — but I couldn’t wait any longer.
In fear and trembling, I sprinted the blocks to the apartment building. As I arrived, some people were already coming out and getting into a limo, one I recognized as Howard Cosell. Standing under the awning of the entrance, catching my breath and wiping my brow, I reasoned why and found that, with anxiety behind me and anxiety in front of me, I just couldn’t ride into that valley of ego-death. I ran back to the car and made my getaway. So much for my glittering evening with the literati.
When Either/Or wound down near the end of the millennium, victim of downtown decline and chainstore competition, I started working at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, continuing all the pleasures of the book business, without myself having to lure customers or pay bills. My first summer working there full-time, we had a blockbuster season with a well-attended exhibition of early John Singer Sargent, called “Uncanny Spectacle” from Henry James’ description of the young painter. After the final failure of Either/Or, it was thrilling to find myself part of an artistic and retail success.
At the close of the show, there was a party to celebrate, and I was eager to attend. In would-be witty reference to Henry James, I wore my t-shirt with this quote across the front: “We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” I thought that would be a great conversation starter, but how could I forget the embarrassment I would suffer with people staring at my chest?
At that time I had an office on the mezzanine of the library, and I could see through a window into the courtyard as staff started to arrive for the party, relatively dressed up. Much as I wanted to attend, I felt my potential anxiety well up, and even though I yearned to be part of the place, people, and purpose — and could have put on a regular shirt over my misguided attention-getter — I decided over the course of an agonizing hour that I just couldn’t go into the galleries and join the party. So early on, my long but ambivalent history at the Clark was set.
I thought I wanted to be an insider, but found myself an outsider. I wanted to approach it like my own business, but learned it was none of my business. Eventually it seemed best to keep the institution at arm’s length, quitting my regular job and continuing as an independent contractor. Thus it never felt bad to be left out of the loop, or on the outside of something I wanted to be in on. There were certainly good reasons to keep my distance — if I were further inside, I would have been gone sooner. As it is, I’ve bought books for the Clark museum shop longer than I did for Either/Or.
It’s like a reflex for me to see whatever actually happens – or fails to happen – as for the best, what was meant to be, a sign of fate, a lesson to heed. It may be a psychological trick, but we stoics urge tricking oneself into contentment. “It seemed like a crushing disappointment at the time, but in retrospect it seems funny and predestined.” Repeat as needed.
The recent contretemps that led to this outpouring of reminiscence was a soirée at Tom’s place in Williamstown, which he’s kept through four decades, during his far-flung career of museum directing and building. It’s his home base for now, while spending a term as distinguished visiting professor at Williams. Over the years I’ve been to quite a number of parties at Tom’s former-frat-house-turned-one-man’s-castle, and bailed out on a number of others.
This sit-down dinner for sixty I knew was way out of my league, celebrating a three-museum extravaganza that Tom had ring-mastered, with opening of a new Anselm Kiefer building at MassMoCA paired to an exhibition of Keifer’s earlier work at the Williams College Museum of Art, while bringing a Chinese museum director to the Clark, and drawing curators and collectors into a global web of interconnection. I could be pretty confident I wouldn’t fit in, and had decided to decline the invitation.
For some reason Tom thought I ought to be there, so he sent me a message that I had to come, and copied it to his secretary, telling her to bug me every fifteen minutes till I agreed. He said Jane should come too, so I wasn’t going in all alone, but feared that my ability to disappear at a moment’s notice would be compromised.
This time at least we got through the door. Circling the group dispersed through Tom’s immense living room several times, I could find no point of entry. Nor even a glass for a drink, which at least I could have held across my chest in a defensive posture. Who was I supposed to talk to here, the billionaire oil trader/art collector or his prize artist, the well-known international curator or the superstar academic? The one person I even could think about approaching just happened to be the white-haired, Oxford-accented emeritus president of Williams and chairman of the Clark trustees – at least I had taken his medieval history course oh-so-many years ago.
Sorry, I gotta get outta here. Things would likely get interesting after midnight, but no way I could traverse the hours till then. Sitting down to dinner with this crew was out of the question, and I’d already had more than my day’s quota of social dysfunction.
There had been nothing disastrous about Director Chen’s event at the Clark’s Stone Hill Center in the afternoon, and it wouldn’t have been my responsibility anyway, but how much feeling of being an outsider, a complete supernumerary, can one person take? I’d escaped with my drink and gone out on the terrace, with its great view of the color-turning hills. As it happened, Tom also came outside with his preschool son Daniel, so I did have someone to talk to for a few minutes, but no one else.
In the evening, I urged Jane to connect with Daniel, figuring I could hover around them as cover for my awkwardness, but he was clinging to his father’s pant leg and couldn’t be drawn away. I knew just how he felt – what am I doing here with all these big people dressed in black?
I’d just been reading a chapter in The Introvert’s Way called “We Gotta Fight for Our Right Not to Party,” so I was sure of myself and had no trouble convincing Jane to skedaddle with me. In amusing callback to her 18th birthday, I sent Tom an email afterwards, apologizing for our disappearance.
It’s easy to take this bit of recidivism as meant to be. I’m sitting in on Tom’s class this semester, and we’re a good deal closer than we’ve been in years. Here we are — nearly fifty years after our sophomoric bonding over our desires to be elsewhere than Williamstown — sitting together in a conference room not fifty yards from our ancient dorm rooms. We’ve certainly taken different routes of return, but still — here we are.
A witty friend of mine, also a bit of an introvert, once said, “At this point I don’t want to meet anyone I don’t already know.” I share the sentiment. Bob is one of “The Boys,” a group of friends from elementary school with whom I re-connected when Jon’s sons started to have Bar Mitzvahs, with parties I was almost happy to attend. Old friends are the best friends, so I continue to keep up with Jon and Bob, Bill and David too, amazed how connections formed in childhood endure.
Though I’ve never felt like one of the guys, I’m struck by the line-up of All-American guy names I’ve cited here. Though I have not confined my friendships to men of my own cohort, these are the gang with whom I’ve hung out most, the starting line-up of my roster.
This essay turns out as much about friends I have kept as parties I have pooped. I wouldn’t call myself antisocial, but you may think of me as asocial. It’s true that I am uncomfortable with groups of people, but I’m devoted to enduring friendships, always happy for intense one-on-one conversations. If there is such a thing as a social butterfly, I guess you could call me a social tick – when by chance I alight upon a welcome host, I attach myself tenaciously and suck my fill of life’s blood.
I’ve always subscribed to the Groucho Marx motto, “I wouldn’t want to be part of any club that would have me.” Or any party, either. I don’t regret the parties I have funked over the years, or worry over what I may have missed. Whatever pleasures I have foregone, I’ve avoided a greater measure of discomfort, and I can’t believe my presence was ever missed. All those I might have met, my personality would likely have prevented anyway, no matter what chatter I faced, in what line of fire I stood up.
So I won’t belabor myself for bailing out of parties, and will know myself well enough to decline most invitations, not entering into situations that I will only want to escape. No longer quite as shy or subject to embarrassment as heretofore, I happily remain introverted. Simple psychology dictates that I am depleted rather than replenished by casual social encounters; an inward focus comes naturally to me. Mingling will never be my manner, solitude always my profound delight. I’ll keep my relations either deep or distant, with little middle ground – forever, or never mind.
Okay, I’ve held this barstool long enough, bending your ear with trepidations I have known and connections I have missed, but hey, that’s who I am. Can’t change any of it. After all of this, I wear the label like a Boy Scout merit badge – I’m a Party Pooper par excellence.