Philadelphia at Christmas time is a magical place. The forty-foot Christmas tree outside of city hall, the Christmas village set up in Love Park, the white lights strewn up and down every center city street, all make me feel like I am character in a modern-day Dickens story. My partner, Cathy, and I take a long weekend to enjoy it. “Magical” is not a term one would use to describe middle age. This time in life is predictable and boring and safe. We want to believe we are adventurous, but for the most part we color within the lines. On our “bucket list” (being middle-aged we struggle with this term) is a visit to World Café Live, a venue sponsored by independent radio station WXPN, which offers food and music, much like dinner theater except hipper. Folk musician Tracy Grammar was playing the “Free at Noon Concert.” Before day’s end, we ended up crossing two items off of our “bucket list.”
As Cathy and I speed up the street to the entrance of the venue, a Greyhound bus is letting off a fair amount of people and an unfair amount of exhaust fumes. I don’t know why, but we weave into the line leaving the metallic odors of the city behind us. Following the stream like cattle through a chute, we are herded down the stairs to a reception area. I admit I was trying to be inconspicuous. Cathy will say she didn’t know we had become part of a private party. I hadn’t planned to crash, but after slipping into that line, it was really easy.
Two women man the sign-in table which T-bones the bottom of the stairs, but there is no signing in. No paying a fee. No giving your name to be checked off a list. Glass coasters engraved with snowflakes, two drink tickets and one raffle ticket complete each of our welcome packages.
While I check my coat, Cathy huddles over her phone researching the name of the company on the door: Elseviere. “It looks like they do medical journals,” Cathy says.
Entering the cavernous main room, we try to get an idea of how things work. About two hundred people have come out to celebrate the holiday and are scattered between a lower level that includes the stage, a dance floor and white linen covered tables, a mezzanine level bar and upper level bar that both overlook the lower level. Dimly lit like a dance club, it’s hard to believe it’s the middle of a workday afternoon.
Mistake number one: we are the only women here in jeans and sweaters. Most of the other women are dressed in pretty holiday blouses and dress pants or skirts. To make matters worse, I am sporting my new tweed cabby cap. We order two vodka tonics and produce two drink tickets that the bartender receives without hesitation.
Mistake number two: the tickets are only for top shelf concoctions and anything ordered after 3:00 P.M. The bartenders must have been instructed to snatch up tickets from those who don’t understand the system.
Smiling, we chat up the barkeep. “Hey, can I ask you something? We’re part of this party but were wondering if we could check out the Tracy Grammar concert upstairs. Is that possible?”
Even though it’s a free concert, reservations are required. But reservations are not our specialty today. While sipping on our free vodka tonics, we manage to find seats. The cafe includes modern tables and chairs with clean lines, the kind of furniture that is modern because it is retro. It’s not filled with all hipsters though. Patrons range from Carhartt-clad construction workers to sixtyish hippies in multicolored skirts yet colorless hair and faces, to college kids in North face jackets half-listening to the performer while texting. As I allow the strum and hum of the acoustic guitar to lull me into a trance, Cathy downs her drink and buys a Yuengling draught. We agree to leave after the performance and explore the city or maybe grab one more free drink and then head out. After all, we’ve already had our escapade and enjoyed free drinks. It’s best to play it safe.
As we return to the party, the head of the company, Frank, begins addressing the crowd of 200. Some people are sitting at tables eating while others are standing at the bar like us. Frank does not stand on the three feet high stage but rather positions himself in front of it.
“You all know it’s been a tough year for us. We’ve faced some challenges, had our share of struggles…” Cathy and I twist our faces into the most sincere expressions. Yes, we are nodding, what a difficult year. We truly feel lucky to be here. Cathy and I feel luckier than most.
Lisa, Frank’s assistant, sporting a bright red satin blouse and a pleated skirt, begins calling out door prize numbers. Her excitement contrasts the apathy among many of the partygoers who are only feigning interest. Twenty-five dollars to CVS, Applebee’s, Michael’s…. “Make sure you’re here at 3:00 for the grand prize – a 2012 BMW!”
Cathy and I look at each other. “We can’t-” she begins.
“We’ll go to jail,” I say. “Ok, we need to spend our time finding the most tragic figure in this company because when we win, and I have a feeling we will, we’ll give the BMW to that person.”
I tick off people who do not qualify: the obnoxious, the young. Youth provides plenty of time to make enough for a Beemer. What about the ten percent minority, the gays? Two guys dominate the scene down at the far end of the bar. One is wearing a coral-colored fitted silk shirt while the other is practicing for Gold’s Gym commercials, flexing as often as possible. They don’t need the ride to move up the social ladder. Wait a minute. There’s a sister – decked out in cement-colored cargo pants and a long sleeve, hunter green T-shirt under a cream-colored quilted vest. Comfortable shoes (do they still make Cloud Climbers?) carry her along. Save for one guy with whom she is absorbed in riveting conversation, she makes no eye contact with anyone. With her squinty eyes and serious expression, she reminds me of the I.T. genius from college so she is not the lucky one.
Scanning the crowd, I observe two Pakistani little people making their way up to the buffet. Each woman wears black dress pants, rayon earth-tone blouses, and moderately expensive watches and bracelets – too much for a work party, so I make an assessment. They are not power-players but their husbands do well. The other revelers are invisible to them. They must be elitists and will not be getting my BMW.
“The food looks incredible. Maybe we should eat,” I suggest. On white tablecloths sprinkled with red, green, and silver sparkly confetti, twenty silver chafing dishes line up like soldiers from “The Nut Cracker.” In front of the chafing dishes, we jockey for position with the rest of the buffet line athletes.
“I’m cutting in line,” a fifty-something man announces.
“I’m reporting you to H.R.,” I say.
“I would too,” he jokes right back.
Along the thirty-foot-long bar, party guests watch themselves eat in the mirror that extends all the way to the ceiling. Cathy and I enjoy Beef Wellington, pulled pork and shrimp but later sit at a half-empty table on the lower level for dessert. We’ve gathered up dropped drink and raffle tickets like Zuzu’s petals in It’s a Wonderful Life. Keeping one ticket behind the other, I try to check my multiple tickets during the next round of door prizes.
“We need aliases,” I decide. “I’ll be Holly Rowe. What do you want your name to be?”
Cathy looks at me as if I’ve lost my mind and at the same time scans the room to see who may be looking at us. This masquerade is way beyond her comfort zone.
“Seriously. It’s safest if we have fake names. What would you like your name to be?” I nudge her. She’s not the game player I am.
“Lisbeth,” Cathy gives in.
“Lisbeth? Lisbeth the lesbian? That’s not conspicuous,” I say but I don’t push her further or she won’t play.
Cathy heads up to check out the other bar and I head back to adopt a few shortbread snowmen from the dessert table.
* * *
“536727!” Oh my God, that’s my ticket number. I can’t believe it. I walk across the dimly lit banquet room towards the stage and lean over a heavyset woman in a painful holiday sweater with alternating rows of standing and jumping white reindeer on a red background. While giving her a sideways hug, I whisper in her ear, “What’s your name?”
“Well, Janet, you’re just going to have to trust me.”
From the stage I look out at the sea of blurred faces in the banquet room. The spotlight shines in my eyes and I squint.
“Wow. Thank you so much.” The microphone shrieks and my voice sounds unnaturally loud, shrill. “Some of you know what kind of year we’ve had.” I pause to get my breath and see Frank, the boss, wearing a quizzical expression – the way a dog will tilt its head and furrow its eyebrows when it can’t comprehend what is happening. The red exit sign flickers from the far corner of the room, beckoning me. It’s too late for that now. “Three trips to Guatemala and red tape and wondering if we’d ever get little Esme….” I let out a breath and forcibly swallow. “But we did and here we are. I know many companies wouldn’t support working from home but without that option, I don’t know where we’d be right now. Esme is the greatest blessing in our lives and Lisbeth and I cannot be more grateful.” I look at Cathy/Lisbeth and smile and nod as if to say, you know what we need to do. “What Frank said earlier is true: at the end of the day, it’s about family and loved ones. Through everything, it was Janet who stuck by us, who would take the late night, hysterical phone calls. It was Janet that offered support, Janet who knew when to just listen.” I pause and look Janet in her wide-eyed face. “And it is Janet that is getting this BMW!”
People gasp and I hear “Oh my Gods” all over and I’m waving her up and everyone begins clapping and pushing her up to the stage and her mouth keeps opening and closing as if she is trying to say something. I give her a quick hug while handing her the raffle ticket. Before returning to the safety of the darkness of the crowd, I say as honestly as I’ve ever said anything, “You deserve this so much more than I do.”
* * *
But that’s not how it played out. My ticket didn’t win. There was no BMW, just travel vouchers and we didn’t win those either. The speech that I rehearsed in my mind a thousand times never took place. The woman in the reindeer sweater may not even be named Janet. It’s probably just as well.
“Dance contest,” I text to Cathy.
“Not without you.”
“Probably not a good idea,” I say with some relief when Cathy returns from the upper level. Initially I was going to jump up on stage with sixteen other dancers and then realized each contestant has to be introduced by name and perform a solo. Half a vodka tonic stood between me being up there and hiding in safety among the masses.
As soon as the contest ends, people move to the dance floor.
“We’re dancing,” I announce. The group of 30 moves with a pulse of its own, with a collective rhythm, the Elseviere beast writhing after a year of torturous toil and office politics. If not valued, at least the creature gets free food and booze for three hours. “Every day I’m shuffling…” pounds from the DJ booth.
“I’m not feeling it,” Cathy says.
“I’m not looking back on this someday and regretting that I didn’t squeeze everything I could from this experience.” Before I can say anything else, Katy Perry’s “Fireworks” comes on and we’re up.
Clusters of people dance and cheer each other on. I bounce up and down to Lady Gaga and try to catch people’s eyes to see if they invite us into their circles. What drunken strangers don’t acknowledge other dancers? Like at weddings – it’s a code, isn’t it? Dance floor fission begins as the cell of dancers split to form two lines and pairs of dancers bounce and jiggle like Jello elves down the center aisle. Mistake number three: making ourselves noticeable by dancing. I don’t regret it. “You only go around once,” Cathy’s dad always says.
Around 3:15, Cathy fights through the throng of people and I wait for her to ransom my leather jacket. I calculate totals for the day: coat check tip -$2, tips for bartenders – $10, Yuengling – $2, checking “successfully crashing a party” off our bucket list – priceless.
“What’s your name? I don’t think I know you and I know just about everybody in this company. Where do you work?” says an African-American woman in a tan burqa.
Distracted temporarily by her makeup (I didn’t think Muslim women were allowed to wear makeup), I respond, “Karen (So much for my alias.) I work in Philly.” Mistake number four. When Cathy researched Elseviere on her phone, she saw there were many offices including one in Rockville, Maryland. Initially we thought this was a regional office party. If pressed, we could say we work in the Rockville facility. Obviously this is a party just for the Philadelphia office. Philly, really?
“What department do you work in?”
“H.R.,” I say. Every company has an HR department. I wouldn’t have to know anything technical. I toy with saying I am an elf – one of those people companies hire to spy on fellow associates as a quality assurance measure. Would an elf be invited to an office party?
Burqa, whose name is Tia (Spanish aunt?) turns to another African-American woman and says, “She must know Salena,” and without waiting for an answer turns back to me and says, “You know Salena?”
“No,” I say, “I don’t really know many people. I haven’t been with the company that long.”
“Who you know then? How long you been with the company?” This burqa is relentless.
I look around to see who is listening. People walk by the deserted sign-in table and make their way to the stairs. I wonder how quickly I could scramble up those stairs and extract myself from this situation. I hem and haw and lean in conspiratorially,
“Here’s the thing…” I look around again. “I’m a lesbian-”
“So? Nuthin’ wrong with that. So?” (Muslim community embracing the gay community? In my head, a South Park episode is developing.)
“See, the thing is, my partner and I just adopted a baby from Guatemala.” Discarded raffle tickets litter the hallway. What are the chances we’d be confronted in the last five minutes of our escapade? “I’m not supposed to say anything and despite what Frank said today about the importance of family, I know they aren’t big on letting employees work from home… but they’re allowing me to.” I pause for a split second to let this sink in. “I conference call when necessary but that’s about it.”
“Oh, no, they don’t like that. Don’t say anything about it,” Burqa says frowning.
“So I don’t really know anybody here and I think they’re letting me work from home because they worry I’m going to go all ACLU on them or something.”
“You been to the gatherings?” this is the other woman, Nita, speaking now. Although she stands at 5’9 or 5’10, she commands little attention. “They have gatherings like monthly or something. There are a lot of people in the company…”
“I don’t know about the gatherings. I haven’t been out of the house in months,” I say.
“Four months. I haven’t been out in four months. This is the best I’ve looked in four months (to explain mistake number one), I’m sleep-deprived and you’re lucky I don’t have sputum on my shoulder.” I gesture.
The duo appears stunned. Cathy approaches, hands me my coat and tries to get away when Burqa rebounds, “What’s your name?”
Cathy doesn’t stick to the plan either. “Cathy,” she says.
Panic begins to rise within me. Run, run, run, run, takes over my thoughts along with concerns about Cathy destroying my story. What if they ask to see pictures of the baby? What will I show them? A cat? Deliberately remaining planted, I try to appear casual. I extend my hand to shake for the second time. “Tell me your names again, it’s Tia and…”
“Nita,” says the second woman.
“Nita,” I repeat. “It was so nice meeting you and thank you for being supportive. Please don’t say anything about what I told you. I hope to see you both again, maybe next year.” I smile my most sincere smile, looking each of them in the eye while shaking their hands.
Up the stairs to the street level, out of the bowels of the building and into the winter sunlight, down the street and around the corner we go, restraining ourselves from running. Steam rises up around us from the subway grates providing a smoke screen of escape.