First Chapter Rules of Civility Amor Towles
  • RULES OF CIVILITY, by Amor Towles

    Chapter One: The Old Long Since

    It was the last night of 1937.

    With no better plans or prospects, my roommate Eve had dragged me back to The Hotspot, a wishfully named nightclub in Greenwich Village that was four feet underground.

    From a look around the club, you couldn’t tell that it was New Year’s Eve. There were no hats or streamers; no paper trumpets. At the back of the club, looming over a small empty dance floor, a jazz quartet was playing loved-me-and-left-me standards without a vocalist. The saxophonist, a mournful giant with skin as black as motor oil, had apparently lost his way in the labyrinth of one of his long, lonely solos. While the bass player, a coffee-and-cream mulatto with a small deferential mustache, was being careful not to hurry him. Boom, boom, boom, he went, at half the pace of a heartbeat.

    The spare clientele were almost as downbeat as the band. No one was in their finery. There were a few couples here and there, but no romance. Anyone in love or money was around the corner at Café Society dancing to swing. In another twenty years all the world would be sitting in basement clubs like this one, listening to antisocial soloists explore their inner malaise; but on the last night of 1937, if you were watching a quartet it was because you couldn’t afford to see the whole ensemble, or because you had no good reason to ring in the new year.

    We found it all very comforting.

    We didn’t really understand what we were listening to, but we could tell that it had its advantages. It wasn’t going to raise our hopes or spoil them. It had a semblance of rhythm and a surfeit of sincerity. It was just enough of an excuse to get us out of our room and we treated it accordingly, both of us wearing comfortable flats and a simple black dress. Though under her little number, I noted that Eve was wearing the best of her stolen lingerie.

    Eve Ross . . .

    Eve was one of those surprising beauties from the American Midwest.

    In New York it becomes so easy to assume that the city’s most alluring women have flown in from Paris or Milan. But they’re just a minority. A much larger covey hails from the stalwart states that begin with the letter I—like Iowa and Indiana and Illinois. Bred with just the right amount of fresh air, roughhousing, and ignorance, these primitive blondes set out from the cornfields looking like starlight with limbs. Every morning in early spring one of them skips off her porch with a sandwich wrapped in cellophane ready to flag down the first Greyhound headed to Manhattan—this city where all things beautiful are welcomed and measured and, if not immediately adopted, then at least tried on for size.

    One of the great advantages that the midwestern girls had was that you couldn’t tell them apart. You can always tell a rich New York girl from a poor one. And you can tell a rich Boston girl from a poor one. After all, that’s what accents and manners are there for. But to the native New Yorker, the midwestern girls all looked and sounded the same. Sure, the girls from the various classes were raised in different houses and went to different schools, but they shared enough midwestern humility that the gradations of their wealth and privilege were obscure to us. Or maybe their differences (readily apparent in Des Moines) were just dwarfed by the scale of our socioeconomic strata—that thousand-layered glacial formation that spans from an ash can on the Bowery to a penthouse in paradise. Either way, to us they all looked like hayseeds: unblemished, wide-eyed, and God-fearing, if not exactly free of sin.

    Eve hailed from somewhere at the upper end of Indiana’s economic scale. Her father was driven to the office in a company car and she ate biscuits for breakfast cut in the pantry by a Negro named Sadie. She had gone to a two-year finishing school and had spent a summer in Switzerland pretending to study French. But if you walked into a bar and met her for the first time, you wouldn’t be able to tell if she was a corn-fed fortune hunter or a millionairess on a tear. All you could tell for sure was that she was a bona fide beauty. And that made the getting to know her so much less complicated.

    She was indisputably a natural blonde. Her shoulder-length hair, which was sandy in summer, turned golden in the fall as if in sympathy with the wheat fields back home. She had fine features and blue eyes and pinpoint dimples so perfectly defined that it seemed like there must be a small steel cable fastened to the center of each inner cheek which grew taut when she smiled. True, she was only five foot five, but she knew how to dance in two-inch heels—and she knew how to kick them off as soon as she sat in your lap.

    To her credit, Eve was making an honest go of it in New York. She had arrived in 1936 with enough of her father’s money to get a single at Mrs. Martingale’s boardinghouse and enough of his influence to land a job as a marketing assistant at the Pembroke Press—promoting all of the books that she’d avoided so assiduously in school.

    Her second night at the boardinghouse, while taking a seat at the table she tipped her plate and her spaghetti plopped right in my lap. Mrs. Martingale said the best thing for the stain was to soak it in white wine. So she got a bottle of cooking Chablis from the kitchen and sent us off to the bathroom. We sprinkled a little of the wine on my skirt and drank the rest of it sitting on the floor with our backs to the door.

    As soon as Eve got her first paycheck, she gave up her single and stopped drafting checks on her father’s account. After a few months of Eve’s self-reliance, Daddy sent along an envelope with fifty ten-dollar bills and a sweet note about how proud he was. She sent the money back like it was infected with TB.

    —I’m willing to be under anything, she said, as long as it isn’t somebody’s thumb.

    So together we pinched. We ate every scrap at the boardinghouse breakfast and starved ourselves at lunch. We shared our clothes with the girls on the floor. We cut each other’s hair. On Friday nights, we let boys that we had no intention of kissing buy us drinks, and in exchange for dinner we kissed a few that we had no intention of kissing twice. On the occasional rainy Wednesday, when Bendel’s was crowded with the wives of the well-to-do, Eve would put on her best skirt and jacket, ride the elevator to the second floor, and stuff silk stockings into her panties. And when we were late with the rent, she did her part: She stood at Mrs. Martingale’s door and shed the unsalted tears of the Great Lakes.

    That New Year’s, we started the evening with a plan of stretching three dollars as far as it would go. We weren’t going to bother ourselves with boys. More than a few had had their chance with us in 1937, and we had no intention of squandering the last hours of the year on latecomers. We were going to perch in this low-rent bar where the music was taken seriously enough that two good-looking girls wouldn’t be bothered and where the gin was cheap enough that we could each have one martini an hour. We intended to smoke a little more than polite society allowed. And once midnight had passed without ceremony, we were going to a Ukrainian diner on Second Avenue where the late night special was coffee, eggs, and toast for fifteen cents.

    But a little after nine-thirty, we drank eleven o’clock’s gin. And at ten, we drank the eggs and toast. We had four nickels between us and we hadn’t had a bite to eat. It was time to start improvising.

    Eve was busy making eyes at the bass player. It was a hobby of hers. She liked to bat her lashes at the musicians while they performed and ask them for cigarettes in between sets. This bass player was certainly attractive in an unusual way, as most Creoles are, but he was so enraptured by his own music that he was making eyes at the tin ceiling. It was going to take an act of God for Eve to get his attention. I tried to get her to make eyes at the bartender, but she wasn’t in a mood to reason. She just lit a cigarette and threw the match over her shoulder for good luck. Pretty soon, I thought to myself, we were going to have to find ourselves a Good Samaritan or we’d be staring at the tin ceiling too.

    And that’s when he came into the club.

    Eve saw him first. She was looking back from the stage to make some remark and she spied him over my shoulder. She gave me a kick in the shin and nodded in his direction. I shifted my chair.

    He was terrific looking. An upright five foot ten, dressed in black tie with a coat draped over his arm, he had brown hair and royal blue eyes and a small star-shaped blush at the center of each cheek. You could just picture his forebear at the helm of the Mayflower—with a gaze trained brightly on the horizon and hair a little curly from the salt sea air.
    —Dibs, said Eve.
    From the vantage point of the doorway, he let his eyes adjust to the half-light and then surveyed the crowd. It was obvious that he had come to meet someone, and his expression registered the slightest disappointment once he realized that they weren’t there. When he sat at the table next to us, he gave the room another going over and then, in a single motion, signaled the waitress and draped his coat over the back of a chair.

    It was a beautiful coat. The color of the cashmere was similar to camel hair, only paler, like the color of the bass player’s skin, and it was spotless, as if he had just come straight from the tailor’s. It had to have cost five hundred dollars. Maybe more. Eve couldn’t take her eyes off of it.

    The waitress came over like a cat to the corner of a couch. For a second, I thought she was going to arch her back and exercise her claws on his shirt. When she took his order, she backed up a little and bent at the waist so that he could see down her blouse. He didn’t seem to notice.

    In a tone at once friendly and polite, showing the waitress a little more deference than she was due, he asked for a glass of scotch. Then he sat back and began to take in the scene. But as his gaze shifted from the bar to the band, out of the corner of his eye he saw Eve. She was still staring at the coat. He blushed. He’d been so preoccupied with looking over the room and signaling the waitress, he hadn’t realized that the chair he’d draped his coat over was at our table.

    —I’m so sorry, he said. How rude of me.
    He stood up and reached over to retrieve it.
    —No, no. Not at all, we said. No one’s sitting there. It’s fine.
    He paused.
    —Are you sure?
    —As sure as the shore, said Eve.

    The waitress reappeared with the scotch. When she turned to go he asked her to wait a moment and then offered to buy us a round—one last good turn in the old year, as he put it.

    We could tell already that this one was as expensive, as finely made and as clean as his coat. He had that certain confidence in his bearing, that democratic interest in his surroundings, and that understated presumption of friendliness that are only found in young men who have been raised in the company of money and manners. It didn’t occur to people like this that they might be unwelcome in a new environment— and as a result, they rarely were.

    When a man on his own buys a round for two good-looking girls, you might expect him to make conversation no matter whom he’s waiting for. But our smartly dressed Samaritan didn’t make any with us. Having raised his glass once in our direction with a friendly nod, he began nursing his whiskey and turned his attention to the band.

    After two songs, it began to make Eve fidget. She kept glancing over, expecting him to say something. Anything. Once, they made eye contact and he smiled politely. I could tell that when this song was over she was going to start a conversation of her own even if she had to knock her gin into his lap to do it. But she didn’t get the chance.

    When the song ended, for the first time in an hour the saxophonist spoke. In a deep-timbred, could’ve-been-a-preacher kind of voice he went into a long explanation about the next number. It was a new composition. It was dedicated to a Tin Pan Alley pianist named Silver Tooth Hawkins who died at thirty-two. It had something to do with Africa. It was called “Tincannibal.”

    With his tightly laced spats he tapped out a rhythm and the drummer brushed it up on the snare. The bass and piano players joined in. The saxophonist listened to his partners, nodding his head to the beat. He eased in with a perky little melody that sort of cantered within the corral of the tempo. Then he began to bray as if he’d been spooked and in a flash he was over the fence.

    Our neighbor looked like a tourist getting directions from a gendarme. Happening to make eye contact with me, he made a bewildered face for my benefit. I laughed and he laughed back.

    —Is there a melody in there? he asked.

    I edged my chair a little closer, as if I hadn’t quite heard him. I leaned at an angle five degrees less acute than the waitress had.
    —What’s that?
    —I was wondering if there’s a melody in there.

    —It just went out for a smoke. It’ll be back in a minute. But I take it that you don’t come here for the music.
    —Is it obvious? he asked with a sheepish smile. I’m actually looking for my brother. He’s the jazz fan.

    From across the table I could hear Eve’s eyelashes flittering. A cashmere coat and a New Year’s date with a sibling. What more did a girl need to know?

    —Would you like to join us while you wait? she asked.
    —Oh. I wouldn’t want to impose.
    (Now there was a word we didn’t hear every day.)
    —You wouldn’t be imposing, Eve chastened.

    We made a little room for him at the table and he slid up in his chair.

    —Theodore Grey.
    —Theodore! Eve exclaimed.
    Even Roosevelt went by Teddy.
    Theodore laughed.
    —My friends call me Tinker.

    Couldn’t you just have guessed it? How the WASPs loved to nickname their children after the workaday trades: Tinker. Cooper. Smithy. Maybe it was to hearken back to their seventeenth-century New England bootstraps—the manual trades that had made them stalwart and humble and virtuous in the eyes of their Lord. Or maybe it was just a way of politely understating their predestination to having it all.

    —I’m Evelyn Ross, Evey said, taking her given name for a spin. And this is Katey Kontent.
    —Katey Kontent! Wow! So are you?
    —Not by a long shot.
    Tinker raised his glass with a friendly smile.
    —Then here’s to it in 1938.  

    Tinker’s brother never showed. Which worked out fine for us, because around eleven o’clock, Tinker signaled the waitress and ordered a bottle of bubbly.

    —We aint got no bubbly here, Mister, she replied—decidedly colder now that he was at our table.

    So he joined us in a round of gin.

    Eve was in terrific form. She was telling tales about two girls in her high school who’d vied to be homecoming queen the way that Vanderbilt and Rockefeller vied to be the richest man in the world. One of the girls loosed a skunk in the house of the other the night of the senior dance. Her rival responded by dumping a load of manure on her front lawn the day of her sweet sixteen. The finale was a Sunday morning hair-pulling contest on the steps of Saint Mary’s between their mothers. Father O’Connor, who should have known better, tried to intervene and got a little scripture of his own.

    Tinker was laughing so hard you got the sense that he hadn’t done it in a while. It was brightening all his God-given attributes like his smile and his eyes and the blushes on his cheeks.

    —How about you, Katey? he asked after catching his breath. Where are you from?
    —Katey grew up in Brooklyn, Eve volunteered—as if it was a bragging right.
    —Really? What was that like?
    —Well, I’m not sure we had a homecoming queen.
    —You wouldn’t have gone to homecoming if there was one, Eve said. Then she leaned toward Tinker confidentially. —Katey’s the hottest bookworm you’ll ever meet. If you took all the books that she’s read and piled them in a stack, you could climb to the Milky Way.
    —The Milky Way!
    —Maybe the Moon, I conceded.

    Eve offered Tinker a cigarette and he declined. But the instant her cigarette touched her lips, he had a lighter at the ready. It was solid gold and engraved with his initials.

    Eve leaned her head back, pursed her lips and shot a ray of smoke toward the ceiling.

    —Now, what about you, Theodore?
    —Well, I guess if you stacked all the books I’ve read, you could climb into a cab.
    —No, said Eve. I mean: What about you?

    Tinker answered relying on the ellipses of the elite: He was from Massachusetts; he went to college in Providence; and he worked for a small firm on Wall Street—that is, he was born in the Back Bay, attended Brown, and now worked at the bank that his grandfather founded. Usually, this sort of deflection was so transparently disingenuous it was irksome, but with Tinker it was as if he was genuinely afraid that the shadow of an Ivy League degree might spoil the fun. He concluded by saying he lived uptown.

    —Where uptown? Eve asked “innocently.”
    —Two eleven Central Park West, he said, with a hint of embarrassment.

    Two eleven Central Park West! The Beresford. Twenty-two stories of terraced apartments.

    Under the table Eve kicked me again, but she had the good sense to change the subject. She asked him about his brother. What was he like? Was he older, younger? Shorter, taller?

    Older and shorter, Henry Grey was a painter who lived in the West Village. When Eve asked what was the best word to describe him, after thinking a moment Tinker settled on unwavering—because his brother had always known who he was and what he wanted to do.

    —Sounds exhausting, I said.
    Tinker laughed.
    —I guess it does, doesn’t it.
    —And maybe a little dull? Eve suggested.
    —No. He’s definitely not dull.
    —Well, we’ll stick to wavering.

    At some point, Tinker excused himself. Five minutes went by, then ten. Eve and I both began to fidget. He didn’t seem the sort to strand us with the check, but a quarter of an hour in a public john was a long time even for a girl. Then just as panic was setting in, he reappeared. His face was flush. The cold New Year’s air emanated from the fabric of his tuxedo. He was grasping a bottle of champagne by the neck and grinning like a truant holding a fish by the tail.
    —Success!
    He popped the cork at the tin ceiling drawing discouraging stares from everyone but the bass player whose teeth peeked out from under his mustache as he nodded and gave us a boom boom boom!

    Tinker poured the champagne into our empty glasses.
    —We need some resolutions!
    —We aint got no resolutions here, Mister.
    —Better yet, said Eve. Why don’t we make resolutions for each other?
    —Capital! Tinker said. I’ll go first. In 1938, the two of you . . .
    He looked us up and down.
    —Should try to be less shy.
    We both laughed.
    —Okay, said Tinker. Your turn.
    Eve came back without hesitation.
    —You should get out of your ruts.
    She raised an eyebrow and then squinted as if she was offering him a challenge. For a moment he was taken aback. She had obviously struck a chord. He nodded his head slowly and then smiled.
    —What a wonderful wish, he said, to wish for another.

    As midnight approached, the sound of people cheering and cars honking became audible from the street, so we decided to join the party. Tinker overpaid in freshly minted bills. Eve snatched his scarf and wrapped it around her head like a turban. Then we stumbled through the tables into the night.

    Outside, it was still snowing.

    Eve and I got on either side of Tinker and took his arms. We leaned into his shoulders as if against the cold and marched him down Waverly toward the carousing in Washington Square. As we passed a stylish restaurant two middle-aged couples came out and climbed into a waiting car. When they drove away, the doorman caught Tinker’s eye.

    —Thanks again, Mr. Grey, he said.
    Here, no doubt, was the well-tipped source of our bubbly.
    —Thank you, Paul, said Tinker.
    —Happy New Year, Paul, said Eve.
    —Same to you, ma’am.

    Powdered with snow, Washington Square looked as lovely as it could. The snow had dusted every tree and gate. The once tony brownstones that on summer days now lowered their gaze in misery were lost for the moment in sentimental memories. At No. 25, a curtain on the second floor was drawn back and the ghost of Edith Wharton looked out with shy envy. Sweet, insightful, unsexed, she watched the three of us pass wondering when the love that she had so artfully imagined would work up the courage to rap on her door. When would it present itself at an inconvenient hour, insist upon being admitted, brush past the butler and rush up the Puritan staircase urgently calling her name?

    Never, I’m afraid.

    As we approached the center of the park, the revelry by the fountain began to take shape: A crowd of collegiates had gathered to ring in the New Year with a half-priced ragtime band. All of the boys were in black tie and tails except for four freshmen who wore maroon sweaters emblazoned with Greek letters and who scrambled through the crowd filling glasses. A young woman who was insufficiently dressed was pretending to conduct the band which, due to indifference or inexperience, played the same song over and over.

    The musicians were suddenly waved silent by a young man who leapt onto a park bench with a coxswain’s megaphone in hand, looking as self-assured as the ringmaster in a circus for aristocrats.

    —Ladies and gentlemen, he proclaimed. The turn of the year is nearly upon us.

    With a flourish, he signaled one of his cohorts and an older man in a gray robe was foisted up onto the bench at his side. The foistee was wearing the cotton ball beard of a drama school Moses and holding a cardboard scythe. He appeared to be a little unsteady on his feet.

    Unfurling a scroll that fell to the ground, the ringmaster began chastising the old man for the indignities of 1937: The recession . . . The Hindenburg . . . The Lincoln Tunnel! Then holding up his megaphone, he called on 1938 to present itself. From behind a bush an overweight fraternity brother appeared dressed in nothing but a diaper. He climbed on the bench and to the merriment of the crowd took a stab at flexing his muscles. At the same time, the beard on the old man became unhooked from an ear and you could see that he was gaunt and ill shaven. He must have been a bum that the collegiates had lured from an alley with the promise of money or wine. But whatever the enticement, its influence must have run its course, because he was suddenly looking around like a drifter in the hands of vigilantes.

    With a salesman’s enthusiasm, the ringmaster began gesturing to various parts of the New Year’s physique, detailing its improvements: its flexible suspension, its streamlined chassis, its get-up-and-go.

    —Come on, said Eve, skipping ahead with a laugh.

    Tinker didn’t seem so eager to join in the fun.

    I took a pack of cigarettes from my coat pocket and he produced his lighter. He took a step closer in order to block the wind with his shoulders. As I exhaled a filament of smoke, Tinker looked overhead at the snowflakes whose slow descent was marked by the halo of the street lamps. Then he turned back toward the commotion and scanned the assembly with an almost mournful gaze.
    —I can’t tell whom you feel more sorry for, I said. The old year or the new.
    He offered a tempered smile.
    —Are those my only options?

    Suddenly, one of the revelers at the edge of the crowd was hit squarely in the back by a snowball. When he and two of his fraternity brothers turned, one of them was hit in the pleats of his shirt.

    Looking back, we could see that a boy no older than ten had launched the attack from behind the safety of a park bench. Wrapped in four layers of clothing, he looked like the fattest kid in the class. To his left and right were pyramids of snowballs reaching to his waist. He must have spent the whole day packing ammunition—like one who’s received word of the redcoats’ approach straight from the mouth of Paul Revere.

    Dumbstruck, the three collegiates stared with open mouths. The kid took advantage of their cognitive delay by unloading three more well- aimed missiles in quick succession.
    —Get that brat, one of them said without a hint of humor.
    The three of them began scraping snowballs off the paving stones and returning fire.

    I took out another cigarette, preparing to enjoy the show, but my attention was drawn back in the other direction by a rather startling development. On the bench beside the wino, the diaper-donning New Year had begun to sing “Auld Lang Syne” in a flawless falsetto. Pure and heartfelt, as disembodied as the plaint of an oboe drifting across the surface of a lake, his voice lent an eerie beauty to the night. Though one has to practically sing along with “Auld Lang Syne” by law, such was the otherworldliness of his performance that no one dared to sound a note.

    When he had tapered out the final refrain with exquisite care, there was a moment of silence, then cheers. The ringmaster put a hand on the tenor’s shoulder—recognizing a job well done. Then he took out his watch and raised his hand for silence.

    —All right everyone. All right. Quiet now. Ready . . . ? Ten! Nine! Eight!

    From the center of the crowd Eve waved excitedly in our direction.

    I turned to take Tinker’s arm—but he was gone.

    To my left the walkways of the park were empty and to my right a lone silhouette, stocky and short, passed under a street lamp. So I turned back toward Waverly—and that’s when I saw him. He was hunched behind the bench at the little boy’s side fending off the attack of the fraternity brothers. Aided by the unexpected reinforcement, the boy looked more determined than ever. And Tinker, he had a smile on his face that could have lit every lamp at the North Pole.

    When Eve and I got home it was nearly two. Normally, the boarding-house locked its doors at midnight, but the curfew had been extended for the holiday. It was a liberty that few of the girls had made the most of. We found the living room empty and depressed. It had scatterings of virginal confetti and there were unfinished glasses of cider on every side table. Eve and I traded a self-satisfied gaze and went up to our room.

    We were both quiet, letting the aura of our good fortune linger. Eve slipped her dress over her head and went off to the bathroom. The two of us shared a bed, and Eve was in the habit of turning it down as if we were in a hotel. Though it always seemed crazy to me, that unnecessary little preparation, for once, I turned the bed down for her. Then I took the cigar box from my underwear drawer so I could stow my unspent nickels before going to bed, just like I’d been taught.

    But when I reached into my coat pocket for my change purse, I felt something heavy and smooth. A little mystified, I pulled the object out and found it was Tinker’s lighter. Then I remembered having—in a somewhat Eve-like manner—taken it from his hand to light my second cigarette. It was just around the time that the New Year had begun to sing.

    I sat down in my father’s barley-brown easy chair—the only piece of furniture I owned. I flipped open the lighter’s lid and turned the flint. The flame leapt and wavered, giving off its kerosene scent before I snapped it shut.

    The lighter had a pleasant weight and a soft, worn look, polished by a thousand gentlemanly gestures. And the engraving of Tinker’s initials, which was in a Tiffany font, was so finely done you could score your thumbnail along the stem of the letters unerringly. But it wasn’t just marked with his monogram. Under his initials had been etched a sort of coda in the amateurish fashion of a drugstore jeweler, such that it read:
    TGR
    1910 - ?