Town and Country

One man’s journey into the dark (and filthy) heart of the American class system.

By David Sedaris. Originally published August 2005 in GQ.

They looked like people who had just attended a horse show: a stately couple in their late sixties, he in a cashmere sweater and she in a tweed jacket, a gem-encrusted shamrock glittering against the rich felt of her lapel. They were my seatmates on the flight from Denver to New York, and as I stood in the aisle to let them in, I felt the shame of the tragically outclassed. The sport coat I had prided myself on now looked clownish, as did my shoes and the fistful of pine straw I refer to as my hair. “Excuse me,” I said, apologizing, basically, for my very existence.

The couple took their seats, and just as I settled in beside them, the man turned to the woman, saying, “I don’t want to hear this shit.”

I assumed he was continuing an earlier argument, but it turned out he was referring to the Ira Gershwin number the airline had adopted as its theme song. “I can’t believe the fucking crap they make you listen to on planes nowadays.”

The woman patted her silver hair and agreed, saying that whoever had programmed the music was an asshole.

“A cocksucker,” the man corrected her. “A goddamn cocksucking asshole.” They weren’t loud people and didn’t even sound all that angry, really. This was just the way they spoke, the verbal equivalent of their everyday china. Among company, the wife might remark that she felt a slight chill, but here that translated to “I’m fucking freezing. How about you?”

“Yeah,” her husband said. “It’s cold as shit in here.” Shit is the tofu of cursing and can be molded to whichever conditions the speaker desires. Hot as shit. Windy as shit. I myself was confounded as shit, for how had I so misjudged these people? Why, after all these years, do I still believe that expensive clothing signifies anything more than a disposable income, that tweed and cashmere actually bespeak refinement?

When our boxed bistro meals were handed out, the couple really went off. “What is this garbage?” the man asked.

“It’s shit,” his wife said. “A box of absolute fucking shit.”

The man took out his reading glasses and briefly examined his plastic-wrapped cookie before tossing it back into the box. “First they make you listen to shit, and then they make you eat it.”

“Well, I’m not fucking eating it,” the woman said. “We’ll just have to grab something at the airport.”

“And pay some son of a bitch fifteen bucks for a shitty sandwich?”

The woman sighed and threw up her hands. “What choice do we have? It’s either that or eat what we’ve got, which is shit.”

“Aww, it’s all shit,” her husband said.

It was as if someone had kidnapped the grandparents from a Ralph Lauren ad and forced them into a David Mamet play—and that, in part, is why the couple so appealed to me: There was something ridiculous and unexpected about them. They made a good team, and I wished that I could spend a week or two invisibly following behind them and seeing the world through their eyes. “Thanksgiving dinner, my ass,” I imagined them saying. “What did they stuff this turkey with, human shit?”

It was late afternoon by the time we arrived at LaGuardia. I caught a cab outside the baggage claim and stepped into what smelled like a bad tropical cocktail—the result of a coconut air freshener that dangled from the rearview mirror. One hates to be a baby about this kind of thing, and so I cracked the window a bit and gave the driver my sister’s address in the West Village.

“Yes, sir.”

The man was foreign, but I have no idea where he was from. One of those tragic countries, I supposed, a land beset by cobras and typhoons. But that’s half the world, really. He had dark skin, more brown than olive, and thick black hair he treated with oil. The teeth of his comb had left deep troughs that ran down the back of his head and disappeared beneath the frayed collar of his shirt. The cab left the curb, and as he merged into traffic the driver opened the window between the front and back seats and asked me my name. I told him, and he looked at me in the rearview mirror, saying, “You are a good man, David, is that right? Are you good?”

I said I was okay, and he continued. “David is a good name, and New York is a good town. Do you think so?”

“I guess,” I said.

The driver smiled shyly, as if I had paid him a compliment, and I wondered what his life was like. One reads things, newspaper profiles and so forth, and gets an idea of the tireless, hardworking immigrant who hits the ground running—or more often, driving. The man couldn’t have been older than 35, and after his shift I imagined that he probably went to school and studied until he couldn’t keep his eyes open. A few hours at home with his wife and children, and then it was back to the front seat, and on and on until he earned a diploma and resumed his career as a radiologist. The only thing holding him back was his accent, but that would likely disappear with time and diligence.

I thought of my first few months in Paris and of how frustrating it had been when people spoke quickly or used improper French, and then I reanswered his question, speaking as clearly as possible. “I have no opinion on the name David,” I said, “but I agree with you regarding the city of New York. It is a very satisfactory place.”

He then said something I didn’t quite catch, and when I asked him to repeat it, he became agitated and turned in his eat, saying, “What is the problem, David? You cannot hear when a person is talking?”

I told him my ears were stopped up from the plane, though it wasn’t true. I could hear him perfectly. I just couldn’t understand him.

“I ask you what you do for a profession,” he said. “Do you make a lot of moneys? I know by your jacket that you do, David. I know that you are rich.” Suddenly, my sport coat looked a lot better. “I get by,” I said. “That is to say that I am able to support myself, which is not the same as being rich.”

He then asked if I had a girlfriend, and when I told him no, he gathered his thick eyebrows and made a little tsking sound. “Oh, David, you need a woman. Not for love, but for the pussy, which is a necessary thing for a man. Like me, for example. I fuck daily.”

“Oh,” I said. “And this is… Tuesday, right?” I hoped I might steer him onto another track—the days of the week, maybe—but he was tired of English 101.

“How is it that you do not need pussy?” he asked. “Does your dick not stand up?”

“Excuse me?”

“Sex,” he said. “Has no one ever told you about it?”

I took The New York Times from my carry-on bag and pretended to read, an act that apparently explained it all.

“Ohhh,” the driver said. “I understand. You do not like pussy. You like the dick. Is that it?” I brought the paper close to my face, and he stuck his arm through the little window and slapped the back of his seat. “David,” he said. “David. Listen to me when I am talking to you. I asked, do you like the dick?”

“I just work,” I told him. “I work, and then I go home, and then I work some more.” I was trying to set a good example, trying to be the person I’d imagined him to be, but it was a lost cause.

“I fucky fuck every day,” he boasted. “Two women. I have a wife and another girl for the weekend. Two kind of pussy to eat and enjoy. Are you sure you don’t like to fucky fuck?” If forced to, I can live with the word pussy, but fucky fuck was making me carsick. “That is not a real word,” I told him. “You can say that you fuck, but fucky fuck is just nonsense. Nobody talks that way. You will never get ahead with that kind of language.”

Traffic thickened due to an accident, and as we slowed to a stop, the driver ran his tongue over his lips. “Fucky fuck,” he repeated. “I fucky fucky fucky fuck.”

Had we been in Manhattan, I might have gotten out and found myself another taxi, but we were still on the expressway, so what choice did I have but to stay put and look with envy at the approaching rescue vehicles? Eventually, the traffic began moving, and I resigned myself to another twenty minutes of torture.

“So you go to the West Village,” the driver said. “Very good place for you to live. Lots of boys and boys together.”

“It is not where I live,” I said. “It is the apartment of my sister.”

“Tell me how those lesbians have sex. How do they do it?”

I said I didn’t know, and he looked at me with the same sad expression he had worn earlier when told that I didn’t have a girlfriend. “David,” he sighed. “You have never seen a lesbian movie? You should, you know. You need to go home, drink whiskey, and watch one just to see how it is done. See how they get their pussy. See how they fucky fuck.”

And then I snapped, which is unlike me, really. “You know,” I said, “I do not think I am going to take you up on that. In fact, I know I’m not going to take you up on that.”

“Oh, but you should.”

“Why?” I said. “So I can be more like you? That’s a worthwhile goal, isn’t it? I’ll just get myself a coconut air freshener and drive about impressing people with the beautiful language I have picked up from pornographic movies. ‘Hello, sir, does not your dick stand up?’ ‘Good afternoon, ma’am, do you like to fucky fuck?’ It sounds enchanting, but I don’t know that I could stand to have such a rewarding existence. I am not worthy, okay, so if it is all right with you, I will not watch any lesbian movies tonight, or any other night, for that matter. Instead, I’ll just work and leave people alone.”

I waited for a response, and when none came, I settled back in my seat, completely ashamed of myself. The driver’s familiarity had been maddening, but what I’d said had been cruel and uncalled for. Mocking him, bringing up his air freshener: I felt as though I had just kicked a kitten—a filthy one, to be sure—but still something small and powerless. Sex is what you boast about when you have no exterior signs of wealth. It’s a way of saying, “I might not own a fancy sport coat or an apartment in Manhattan, but I do have two women and all the intercourse I can handle.” And what would it hurt me to acknowledge his success?

“I think it is wonderful that you are so fulfilled,” I said, but rather than responding, the driver turned on the radio, which, of course, was tuned to NPR.

By the time I got to my sister’s, it was dark. I poured myself a scotch, and then, like always, Amy brought out a few things she thought I might find interesting. The first was a copy of The Joy of Sex, which she’d found at a flea market and planned to leave on the coffee table the next time our father visited. “What do you think he’ll say?” she asked. It was the last thing a man would want to find in his daughter’s apartment—that was my thought, anyway—but then she handed me a magazine called New Animal Orgy, which was truly the last thing a man would want to find in his daughter’s apartment. This was an old issue, dated 1974, and it smelled as if it had spent the past few decades in the dark, not just hidden but locked in a chest and buried underground.

“Isn’t that the filthiest thing you’ve ever seen in your life?” Amy asked, but I found myself too stunned to answer. The magazine was devoted to two major stories—photo essays, I guess you could call them. The first involved a female cyclist who stops to rest beside an abandoned windmill and seduces what the captions refer to as “a stray collie.”

“He’s not a stray,” Amy said. “Look at that coat—you can practically smell the shampoo.”

The second story was even sadder and concerned a couple of women named Inga and Bodil, who stimulate a white stallion using first their hands and later their tongues. It was supposedly the luckiest day of the horse’s life, but if the sex was really that good, you’d think he would stop eating or at least do something different with his eyes. Instead he just went about his business, acting as if the women were not there. On the next page, he’s led into the bedroom, where he stands on the carpet and stares dumbly at the objects on the women’s dresser: a hairbrush, an aerosol can turned on its side, a framed photo of a woman holding a baby. Above the dresser was a curtainless window, and through it could be seen a field leading to a forest of tall pines.

Amy leaned closer and pointed to the bottom of the picture. “Look at the mud on that carpet,” she said, but I was way ahead of her.

“Number one reason not to blow a horse in your bedroom,” I told her, though it was actually much farther down the list. Number four, maybe, the top slots being reserved for the loss of dignity, the invitation to disease, and the off chance that your parents might drop by.

Once again the women stimulate the horse to an erection, and then they begin to pleasure each other—assuming, I guess, that he will enjoy watching. This doesn’t mean they were necessarily lesbians—not any more than the collie was a stray—but still, it gave me pause, forced me to think of the cabdriver. “I am not like you,” I had told him. Then, half an hour later, here I was: a glass in one hand and, in the other, a magazine picturing two naked women making out in front of a stallion. Of course, the circumstances were a bit different. I was drinking scotch instead of whiskey. This was a magazine rather than a video. I was with my sister, and we were just two decent people having a laugh. Weren’t we?