August 24, 2011


The 'A' Word (William Zinsser, 7/29/11, American Scholar)

I was born into the Northeastern WASP establishment and have never quite stopped pretending that I wasn't. One word in particular has always dogged me unpleasantly. My parents both had charm and humor. In short, they were attractive. Their house was attractive and everything in it was attractive. That was the point of being a WASP: to be attractive. The laws were coded into my metabolism at an early age. Gaudy clothes and flashy cars were out. Understatement was in. A sweater the color of oatmeal was as attractive as you could get. I was careful never to be seen in a green jacket or tan shoes, or to use the wrong terminology. I said "curtains," not "drapes. I said "rich," not "wealthy." [...]

I'm aware that WASPs are a dying class. They are the only ethnic minority that other Americans may safely deride. But I also know that no class has so deeply imprinted its values on the national character: honor, hard work, rectitude, public service. By today's standards of civic and corporate governance those values look good, and I'm proud to be associated with them.

Today I often recognize fellow WASPs of my generation on the sidewalks of New York, a city they no longer own. They are always "nicely" dressed-old men and women facing the day with vigor and good cheer, disregarding the infirmities of age as they hurry to their next hospital board meeting or school tutoring session or fundraiser for some underfunded worthy cause. There's something about them that's-well, attractive.

One of my favorite stories about the Grandfather Judd: he lived in Brooklyn, NY his whole life, long after he had become the last white Deacon in his Baptist church, the local grocery had become a bodega, and crime had become epidemic in John Lindsay's New York. Late one night he was rousted from bed by a phone call telling him that his car was in the street because some inept thieves had managed to roll it out of the parking garage but not start it. The police asked him to come move it. So he did. At 2 AM he got fully dressed, right down to the garters he used to hold up his socks and a tie and jacket, reparked the car and returned to bed. It just wouldn't have been proper to appear in public in a state of undress.

Posted by at August 24, 2011 6:50 AM

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