Putting on the Ritz.
Across from me was my girlfriend of the day, J--, and we were sitting at a very dimly lit table in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. I had just finished apologizing to her for not bringing my blazer. Bringing my blazer to any dinner was now making good sense to me.
We were sitting in one of "the other" fine restaurants in the Ritz. Not the posh restaurant in the hotel famous for its luxurious guest service, succulent smoked salmon, and legendary patronage by Montreal writer Mordecai Richler, single malt whiskey in one hand, cigar in the other, book open before him--Joshua then and even now to me--the raconteur crying down the absurd walls of The Establishment, Francophone and Anglophone alike. No, we were not in The Maritime Bar. That joint required a jacket. I wasn't wearing any.
J-- and I were meeting for dinner. I had suggested the Ritz, since we had never been there together, but I must have neglected to make reservations. It was early December, a weeknight, twenty-five-or-more years ago. We were kind of sneaking out. Our families didn't know yet that we were dating, and we weren't ready to tell them, though I remember conferring with my Mom about the best metro stop for the hotel.
We were finally into each other, headlong, and as committed as we would ever be, but we weren't sure how certain members of our families would react to us as a couple, especially her parents (Trini and Guyanese, both suspicious and strict) and my sister (with whom J-- was also friends). We first met at a piano recital our music teacher, Mrs Buckner, put on at the end of every school year. J-- came up to me during the reception after the show and said, "I really liked the way you played." Everyone seemed to fall away, two by two, and we stood talking in a corner, by a huge, arched hall window, the summer sun refusing to set. I gave her my number--or did we decide to exchange?--when our families were ready to leave. We discovered we didn't live far from each other after all in LaSalle, just across the aqueduct. We were 14, 15, at the time. That winter's evening at the Ritz, we had recently started university.
I left the house with shoes and tie packed in my knapsack. It was snowing, heavy and wet, then softer later on, I remember. The kind of flakes that melted on contact with skin, or gathered softly and crunched like toasted cereal under boot. We sat in one of the hotel's lounges before a crackling fire afterward, holding each other and smiling into the flames, occasionally watching the snow swirl and scatter outside, through the main lobby windows.
When I got to the hotel, though, J-- had been waiting for me in a snug red dress with sheer black stockings. "I like," I said. "Right down to the leg warmers." "You should," she said. She knew red was my favourite colour, but added in a Mata Hari-cool whisper: "I'm also wearing the garter belt you gave me." My eyebrows freaked. I hurried off to slip on my tie and shoes. I smoothed my hair and straightened my pants before exiting the men's room.
When we got to the entrance to The Maritime Bar, there was a sign outside: Jacket required for dining, something like that. J-- and I stared at the sign; I didn't know what to say so tapped the Maitre D'. "That's correct, sir. But there are two other fine restaurants you can choose from...."
True enough. We dined in one where the service was gracious, the lobster Thermidor hearty and creamy, and after dinner we were in each other's arms anyway, mellow and purring, in front a Holiday log burning bright in one of the most venerable hearth's of one of the most venerable hotels in the City of Montreal. Somewhere, a pianoman played seasonal standards, hinting at auld lang syne. J-- and I were young and, yes, in that kind of love, so easily excited by the sound of sleek fingers on a keyboard, so easily moved by the smell of kindling pine. It was one of our best dates ever. There would be none other quite like it.
And yet--and yet--a generation of winters later, under clear, windy, Barbadian skies, living my life with another woman I would love, with the woman I did marry, I have hoped J-- wasn't too disappointed in the dinner, or in me, that evening.
I should've listened to my Dad. done what he might have done, under the circumstances. Not that I could ever picture him moving with my mother on the down low; their chemistry was no mystery (even if my Mom was taller by an inch), and to this day it's still hard to hide your business in Barbados. I should have stuffed a blazer in my bag. 1 should have been prepared for any wardrobe requirement. I was going out. To a fine-dining restaurant. With my lady.
My Dad's take on it: Always dress your best. He might have added: Cultivate a sense of occasion.
There's a killer black-and-white picture, circa 1950, of my father with a few of his brothers in a front-house in Barbados. They look like a bunch of boys you'd lock your daughters away from. That twentysomething gleam in their eyes, the sly Nat-King-Cole smiles, their vigorous West Indian leanness. Dad stands out, centre-stage, in a cream trench coat and polka dot silk tie, hands in pockets, hair parted to a side, dark wing tips blazing, mercurial. Confident and in control--young men of unquestionable destiny in foreign lands--but not showy or cocky. Or maybe just a little.
My Dad was a dapper dresser. He wore stylish suits, wool or cotton depending on the fashion and time of year, two-piece or three, and taught in them in high-school classrooms. He had any number, any combination, any width of ties from at least three decades of buying. He tied them all, when he wore them, with a double Windsor knot, which I never mastered.
He wore hats to church, in every season, and also hand-embroidered blue, white and cream shirtjacs to family basement parties where calypso and croquet, respectively and respectfully, were played. He saved his Afro shirt for festive, militant celebrations, like Black History Month in February or carnival Jump Up in June or community picnics to Long Sault in August.
That was how he rolled: You could always take off your jacket if an occasion didn't call for one, but you couldn't put on one if you didn't wear it to begin with.
As I apologized and explained this to J--, and she was assuring me for the hundredth time "This restaurant is nice, too," I knew three things.
They were the kind of things you knew you'd remember for as long as you had an occasion to dress for dinner and there was a woman you wanted to impress, which you hoped, ridiculously, would be forever.
Always make reservations. Always ask the dress code. And always, always carry along a jacket--in case you ever again forget the first two.
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|Author:||Sandiford, Robert Edison|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2017|
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