Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The First Guest

    “Sure, they call it high society, but I tell you, it still isn’t well organized. A man can borrow a coat and tails or a smoking jacket, he can hire a sommelier or piano players, even women, as they say, good enough to eat, even in little aprons; you can set up a full dinner for your guests, right down to the last bowlful of rolls, every little thing taken care of. This is all done in the name of a higher social life, but there are always gaps--if I may say, rather striking gaps.
    So say you’re invited for tea somewhere, to a reception or something like that. You ring the doorbell in the best of moods, and in the foyer you suddenly notice that there aren’t any coats or hats hanging up. A horrible feeling, sir. A man would rather run away or say that he forgot his handkerchief at home and will be right back, but that won't do. You marvel aloud (so it doesn’t seem like you’ve been thinking about it already): “So I am the first?” And the girl in the white apron makes a curtsy and giggles, “Yes, sir.” And you’re in already, you have already fallen into the hands of the hosts, and you mumble in embarrassment that perhaps you have come early, that your watch is running ahead or something, Meanwhile they assure you a bit too hurriedly that everything is fine and that someone must be first. Of course, it is the truth, but that doesn’t mean that you had to be that someone, am I not right? Nothing to be done; the first guest always seems a bit stupid and clumsy to himself: as if he had taken the invitation to be too great an honor, as if he had crept in unannounced or something: simply an undignified situation, and the moments crawl by as though preordained before the second guest comes—after which the others, miserable creatures, pour in in a torrent. And so you shuffle before the hosts, not knowing what to say, (because they are distracted and waiting) and you would rather be God-knows-where else. In short, you are somehow…wilted for the day, and cannot in any way reclaim your disrupted self-confidence.
    And now imagine how many of these teas, dinner parties and social events there are in a season, and at each one there is some unlucky sap, who, through no fault of his own, must play the sad part of the first guest. You cannot even count the number of people who are struck down by this every season. And then it occurred to me that someone has to put a stop to this. For example, I would arrange a rental agency for professional first guests. All you would have to do is call in advance, and I would send my man to the right place a quarter of an hour before it started, so he could be the first guest there; for that it would cost twenty crowns and food. It’s a given that he would have the proper clothes, education, and even technical training. For twenty crowns it could be a student or an old, quiet and mild retiree; an athlete would cost more, of course, let’s say fifty crowns; a distinguished foreigner or Russian prince would cost maybe sixty. My professional first guest would be in place sooner than any other first guest could be; he would stay with the hosts until all the other guests had left, at which point he would eat an open-faced sandwich and disappear discreetly. I tell you, anyone at all could make their fortune doing this; he would meet the best people, and you know, when people know someone from society—in short, the thing has a social angle too, sir; it might be arranged without any large investment…just a small office and a telephone…”

LN, 15 November 1936

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