Phillip LopateUSAWriting2011
Tea at the Plaza

What is important to an adult and what matters to a child are so often at variance that it is a wonder the two ever find themselves on the same page. Parents may feel an occasional urge to spend money extravagantly on their offspring, only to discover that it means very little to the children themselves. You buy an expensive antique Raggedy Ann doll for your kid that she tosses in a corner, thinking it ugly and musty, meanwhile much more enthralled by the shiny plastic action figure they give out free at McDonald’s. And yet, if you’re like me, you keep falling into the trap of costly, unappreciated presents, perhaps because they’re not really for your child but for the child-self in you who never got them when you were growing up.

I remember, when my daughter Lily was four, my wife Cheryl and I sprang for a family carriage ride through Central Park in the snow. We had such an idyllic Currier & Ives image in our heads, and it seemed such an ideal treat for the holidays—all the more special because we were dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers and usually stayed clear of what the tourists went in for. “Let’s just do it!” we cried impulsively, determined to play at being tourists in our own city. Yet I could not help noticing the reluctant, even alarmed expression on Lily’s face as she climbed, or was lifted into the barouche, behind the bewhiskered coachman with the tall shamrock hat, stationed across from the Plaza Hotel. We started off at a slow trot; the carriage entered the park, my wife and I entranced by the vista, and Lily starting to whimper and complain that she was cold, until she spotted a merry-go-round, the prospect of which excited her far more than an actual horse giving her a ride. As we neared the merry-go-round, Lily became so insistent that we had to ask the coachman to stop the carriage. I forked over what felt at the time like major dough for a fifteen-minute trot, grumbling as she ran over to the carousel.

I vowed under my breath that I would never be such a patsy again. But we had not yet gotten out of the business, my wife and I, of manufacturing exorbitant “perfect memories” for our daughter to cherish all her days. So we took her to Broadway shows, and to the Nutcracker Ballet (where she fell asleep), and we began—at first very vaguely, then with more urgency—plotting an afternoon’s high tea at the Plaza’s Palm Court. Somehow that corner at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue was the Bermuda Triangle that kept sucking us into fantasies of civilized luxury. You must understand that this was not a case of passing on some proud family tradition: my father did not take me to Brooks Brothers for a fitting of my first suit, but to the backroom of a Gypsy shop that probably trafficked in stolen goods. I grew up in working-class Brooklyn, and never entered the Plaza when I was a child, nor did Cheryl, who hailed from hardscrabble upstate New York and might, if she were lucky, get to order a hot chocolate with whipped cream at the local luncheonette. But our child was a middle-class New York child, thanks to our fatiguing efforts to claw our way up the social ladder, and, by God, we were bound and determined to give her all the social graces and sophisticated experiences that befit her, if not our, station in life.

So, with somewhat grim if hearty countenances, we got Lily and ourselves all dressed up, and took her into Manhattan for the thrill of a lifetime. We did not ride the subway from Brooklyn, mind you, as that would have spoiled the general effect, but drove in and, unable to find a parking spot on the street, left our car in a garage a few blocks east of the Plaza, in what must be the most expensive parking area in the planet.

But hey! Who cares about the expense? We’re treating ourselves! We entered the regal steps of the Plaza, which had powerful electric warmers on (this was winter again), and stood in line at the perimeter of the majestic Palm Court.

I had already called ahead and knew they did not take reservations over the phone; but fortunately the 4 PM, mid-afternoon line was not that long, and we were assured of seating. In fact, business seemed relatively slow, for a treasured landmark. We oohed and aahed, Cheryl and I, at the fabulous high ceiling, the palm trees, the piano, the marble floor, and the fashionable or laughable costumes of various diners, Ladies Who Lunched. Lily nodded, smiling and looking dutifully about, but seemed a bit cool toward it all, as if she were indulging her parents’ naïve enthusiasm. Once seated, we took up our menus rather stiffly. The waitress wrote down our orders—three specials with all the trimmings, o spare not the clotted cream, the crème frâiche, the clabber or what have you, the peach cobblers, the jams, the crustless cucumber sandwiches, the savories, the petit fours, the works! All that centuries of human ingenuity had found to include in this cozy English tradition of High Tea, we wanted.
“Think of it, Lily, Eloise herself ran through this very same room!” I said.
“But she’s not real, is she?” said my knowing six-year-old.
“No, but still—“
“Of course she is!” insisted my wife, ever eager to prolong childhood credulity, be it Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, or Eloise. She darted me a scolding look: I knew that expression, which warned me that I was in danger of taking away our daughter’s childhood with my cynical insistence on realism.
So we kept it Nice; we were all on our best behavior, and commented favorably, when the food came, on the beautiful tea service, the exquisite arrangement of edibles, the deliciousness of everything—it short, it was a dull conversation, but appropriately so, duly dull, you might say. We were proud of ourselves for adhering well to the parts assigned us in this civilized ritual, for coloring within the lines. No one would ever guess we lived in Brooklyn.

We had stuffed ourselves; and now Lily began getting restless, as children will in that post-prandial moment, not yet knowing how to take advantage of a reflective pause. Enough with the talk, she wanted action. I commiserated with her squirminess—more to the point, I felt childishly restless myself, and so I volunteered to take her for a walk about the floor. “Should I come too?” asked Cheryl.
“No, stay and enjoy the last of your tea.” (I was already deep in the throes of performing a Good Deed.)

It was fun to walk around with Lily and stick our noses into every corner of the nearby bar, the cloakroom, and the lobby. We pretended to be spies; she picked a person to trail after for a few steps, then darted away madly in the opposite direction and hid, giggling. In our last go-round we came upon a family—a mother and her three young daughters in dresses, the youngest of whom was holding a clutch of balloons. Probably she was celebrating her birthday. Lily was instantly enchanted—not by the birthday girl, by the balloons. They were plump, filled with helium, and had marbleized patterns outside and little silver bells inside that jingled. How she wanted one of those balloons! I could tell it meant everything to her at that moment; so I went over to the mother and asked her if my daughter might have one. The word “borrow” would have been dishonest, as we had no intentions of ever returning it.

No, have it for free, just like that, is what we meant; it was a brazen request to ask of a perfect stranger, and fortunately the kind woman understood what was at stake and acquiesced. “Which one would you like?” she asked Lily, bending down. Stalled between pink, the blue, and the red, Lily finally chose the red. The woman then turned to her daughter and asked ceremoniously, “Would you mind giving this little girl one of your balloons?” The girl, obviously a well-brought-up child, gravely assented, and Lily walked away holding its string, happy—in ecstasies—as happy as I’d ever seen her.

We were both pretty high, delighted with our luck, when we sat back at the table. There is something marvelous in a place like the Plaza about getting something for free, even if it’s just a nickel balloon. My wife wanted to know the whole story, and Lily began telling it, with her usual dramatic flair and embellishments. Just as she was gesticulating to make a point, she lost hold of the end of the string and the balloon floated up to the ceiling. How many seconds it took to make its ascent, I could not begin to tell you, but the subjective experience was one of quite extensible duration: just as in a car crash your whole life, they say, flashes through your mind, or just as a glass rolling off the table takes forever when you can do nothing to arrest its fall, so my accumulated past of error, catastrophe and missed opportunity fluttered before my eyes, while I watched the balloon drift up, up, languidly taking its time.

Was I passing on my destiny of disenchantment and lost illusions to my daughter? It was too horrible to contemplate. What is even more unconscionable is that a part of me wanted to laugh.

This despicable urge to laugh arose in me, in spite of (or maybe because of…) the fact that Lily has started wailing. Piercing sobs issued from her as she watched her balloon (which had only been hers for five minutes) escaping further and further. The diners at nearby tables stopped in mid-fork, perhaps readying themselves to intervene in the event they saw evidence of child abuse; when they satisfied themselves that there was none, they returned to their food, most likely blaming us for not being able to control our brat better. Meanwhile the captain of the waiters hurried over to see if there was anything he could do. Our waitress began making commiserating faces and noises such as one directs at a little baby. All to no avail. My wife took Lily in her lap and began calming her down.

I attended to the check, handing over my credit card and totaling up the tip, the full amount coming to two hundred dollars. I could not rid myself of feeling chagrined that that outlay, plus the garage bill, had been nullified by the loss of a little nothing balloon. “We’ll get you another balloon as soon as we leave the hotel,” Cheryl promised Lily, who was beginning to decelerate from wrenching sobs to puppy whimpers.

After I had gotten my credit card back and we’d put our coats on and were about to leave, I turned to the simpatico wait-captain and asked him how long it would take for that balloon to come down, thinking it might be possible to retrieve it and give the story of our outing a happy ending.
“Oh, about a week, I’d imagine,” he said with a slight accent (Maltese? Cypriote?).
“And is there no way to get it down before then?”
“No way.”
For some reason, this report that it would take a week to come down set Lily off on a fresh burst of wailing. Now she was inconsolable. She was like Hecuba, experiencing precociously the fullness of grief. We hastened her out of there, but she kept up her loud sobbing in the street.
“Knock it off!” said Cheryl, suddenly out of patience. “You’re making a spectacle of yourself, you’re acting like a two-year-old!” While I completely agreed with my wife, I also, in that instantaneous switch of good cop/bad cop roles for which parents are so adept, became entirely sympathetic to Lily’s woe: I knew that emotions do not have to be reasonable to shatter us, and that sobs feed uncontrollably on sobs, regardless of our efforts to stop,
“Let her cry,” I said. “I’m not embarrassed. Who cares what these people think?”

The truth was, I was strangely happy. The whole incident had struck me as funny, a cosmic comeuppance for our pretensions to being the sort of swells who had tea at the Plaza, though I am prepared to admit that this urge to laugh may have also been a defensive reflex arising from my powerlessness in the face of Lily’s anguish. Meanwhile, Lily, as if picking up on my undertone, began to giggle, in-between her sobs—a part of her perhaps recognizing that she was being ridiculous, a drama queen, making entirely too much of this. I think, though, that my errant satisfaction issued from a darker source: I felt myself bonding with my daughter in our now-shared discovery that life was composed, at bottom, of loss, futility and ineluctable sorrow. There was nothing you could do about it except to laugh.

Years later, that is precisely what we do: whenever we recall the lost balloon, it is always good for a chuckle, and Lily is the first to laugh at herself. But we know better than to return to the Palm Court for tea. In fact, speaking of loss, that elegant ballroom, which conjures up Edith Wharton’s and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s New York, and which we all thought would last forever, regardless of how slow business might be, is hanging by a thread. The new owners of the Plaza have turned a good part of the hotel into condominiums, and have wanted to gut the Oak Room and the Palm Court as well, but the landmarks preservation community prevented them, for the time being. If someday these cherished interiors are demolished, as seems likely, I will be sad but I will not be only sad. The Palm Court will have gone the way of Rumpelmayer’s, the legendary pink-ensconced ice cream parlor that once stood a block away from the Plaza—both institutions no longer around to torment parents with the chimera of a perfect children’s outing.