The more I talk to my friends across the country, the more I realize that I’m in a very unique position in terms of my unemployment—namely, that being jobless in DC is very different than it is elsewhere in the country.
“So wait,” my hometown friend Elizabeth coughed over a plate of hash browns and omelettes, after I told her how I spent my time. “A famous pundit is asking you to write about your experience? And thousands of people read your column?” Her eyes grew wide. “How the hell do you know David Frum?”
I shrugged. “A friend introduced us at some cocktail party and I made him laugh a few times and I emailed him once I lost my job and he was all ‘Gala, you should write a column’?”
Elizabeth’s eyes pierced me with disbelief—especially since her job search had, like so many others, been conducted in front of Craigslist.
“I don’t know,” I conceded, throwing my hands up. “I’m just as bewildered as you. Seriously. This is how Washington works.”
And no time has made me feel as confused over the alternate reality of DC culture than the holidays. I suddenly found myself thrown into prime networking situations as friends began adding me as their Plus Ones, the air started smelling like champagne and woodsmoke, and women suddenly became more sparkly at night.
Yes, that’s right: I got to experience the Georgetown Cocktail Party. It’s a sad day when an unemployed twentysomething year old girl gets entre to the Georgetown cocktail circuit and Bill O’Reilly allegedly can’t; though I do wonder what that says about us.
First things first: I learned that the Georgetown Cocktail Party does not necessarily have to be held in Georgetown, so long as it’s held somewhere that’s filled with obscene amounts of money. I have visited Colonial mansions in Takoma, Congressional offices in Rayburn, gleaming modernist lobbying headquarters on K Street, and, oddly, an enormous conference room atop an old rickety building downtown where I got stuck in the elevator.
Surprisingly, I have not been to an actual Georgetown cocktail party held in Georgetown.
Secondly, you’re not expected to bring a complimentary cookie platter to these parties.
“Honey, you don’t need to bring a bottle of wine,” my friend Randy said gently to me, fussing with a tie his boyfriend had picked out, the night before a large event at home of the president of his nonprofit.
“Are you sure?” Suddenly the bottle of ten-dollar red wine I’d picked up from Costco looked…well, like a bottle of ten-dollar red wine that I’d picked up from Costco. “I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to be polite, right?”
We decided to bring the wine anyways, but when we reached the party and a flood of waiters in tuxedoes streamed out of the kitchen bearing silver platters of both red and white wine in glasses, as well as a mysterious electric blue drink in frosted martini glasses, I blushed and discreetly tucked the bottle in a dusty pantry corner.
“Don’t worry about it,” he assured me. “I brought you here for the people.”
Which brings me to point three, the most salient point (and the most O’Reilly-esque one): should you score a ticket to a fancy Georgetown Cocktail Party, understand that it is very different from a normal holiday party with friends and family, mostly because you actually care about friends. The goal of a Georgetown Cocktail Party is different. You are supposed to meet as many people as possible, in as many bizarre ways as possible, and get them to remember you.
For some reason, running into Famous/Important People inside the Beltway has really lost its luster—even for someone who is aware of her own pathetic insignificance in the ecosystem. The enforcers of DC culture sometimes make me feel utterly embarrassed for getting giddy over some experiences. Running into Trent Lott in an elevator? No biggie. Getting to talk with Supreme Court Justices? Yawn. That happens, like, all the time here. Oh, you know someone who made an appearance on MSNBC? Your excitement is adorable for someone who knows someone who wasn’t even on during primetime.
But not embarrassing myself in front of Famous/Important people is a very different matter. It’s hard when there are so many things that contribute: karaoke machines, Kinects for playing Fruit Ninja, David Brooks’s stern glare at my ignorance, socially-awkward libertarians from third-tier thinktanks, alcohol, second wives, and small dogs. (Though I did meet the head of a large government agency while playing Fruit Ninja with him, so there’s that.)
Also, having to introduce myself as “currently looking for a new job” can be kind of embarrassing as well, and the frustration of people aborting their conversations with me upon knowing this crucial fact began to build up.
“Yes, I’m currently unemployed, and no, there is nothing you can possibly leverage by knowing me,” I snapped one night to some oily House legislative aide who had started chit-chatting with me. “You may want to utilize your time elsewhere.”
On the flip side, though I don’t think Dave Weigel remembers who I am, I believe he now thinks I’m pretentious. (Please, please, please don’t remember who I am.)
But occasionally, oh so very occasionally at a Georgetown Cocktail Party, some bright, shining, positive and strange thing comes out of it, as when I introduced myself to a young man at the Frum holiday party.
“Wait…” he paused for a second, connecting the dots. “Do you write about being unemployed?”
I froze. A strangled noise creaked from my throat.
“I love your column!” he smiled. “Especially the one where you flirt using tomatoes.”
“…oh!” And suddenly the ice of embarrassment melted into a wave of warm, unexpected pride. “Really?”
“Oh, definitely. You should think about doing more stuff like that.”
“The food whoring?”
“No—I mean writing. You seriously could, you know. In fact, I email your column to my boss.”
“Who’s your boss?”
He said the name of a Very Famous Person and my heart stopped.
I’m sure that there are plenty of people who think this column is a waste of space, but for some reason after I heard that single compliment, I had to sit down, heady with an overwhelming feeling that I was living in a very strange dream, one where the existential frustration of unemployment was crossed with bizarre, glittering intellectual superstardom, and that these experiences would never happen anywhere else in the world.
For the rest of the night I had to constantly pause and check if I’d had too much champagne, if my fuel had turned into repartees and intelligent quips and peals of laughter, if my world had turned into Danielle Crittenden’s shimmering gold dress, winking as she floated from David Brooks to Howard Kurtz and checked on the status of their glasses in the role of a good host.