After receiving the top grade on my second-year Philosophy final at the University of Toronto, I was awarded an honorarial prize, that included money. The award was named after the donor – “The Someone Someone Philosophy Award”, though I cannot recall who that “Someone Someone” was, if I ever took note of it in the first place, which, given me, is unlikely. I only knew that somebody – Lucky me! – enjoyed giving money to people who hit their Philosophy exam out of the park!
The award was two hundred and fifty dollars, which does not seem that impressive, but, given that my entire annual tuition was four hundred and eighty dollars, if I was careful with my expenses at camp – didn’t buy my own paddle, a t-shirt, or a candy bar – the award and my counselor’s salary was all I needed to get me through the year. (I wound up buying a number of candy bars, so I guess it was even more than I needed.)
So one day, I get this call. It is a refined elderly gentleman with a carefully trimmed mustache. He did not introduce himself that way – “Mr. Pomerantz? Permit me to introduce myself. I am a refined elderly gentleman with a carefully trimmed mustache.” But he didn’t need to. His cultured tone gave him entirely away. It was a voice that said, “My children have trust funds, and I am leaving a considerable stipend to the dog.”
I feel uncomfortable when strangers call me, my anxiety reflected in a quote from my favorite western Red River, where the Walter Brennan character observes, “I ain’t never liked strangers, ‘cause no stranger ever ‘good-newsed’ me.”
The caller congratulated me on having won the Philosophy award, which, for all I knew, had been named after him, or perhaps an ancestor whose portrait was currently hanging in a museum. I said thanks, suddenly having to go the bathroom, and hoping that that would be it.
He wanted me to come over for tea.
He and his wife were extending an invitation to join them in a celebratory get-together at their house, where we could get to know each other and chat. This was apparently an annual tradition – the Philosophy award is announced, and the winner is invited to “take tea” with his benefactors. I imagine this ritual had been going on forever. Their first tea guest was Aristotle.
“So, what was Socrates like?”
“He was nice. But he never said that much. It was always Questions! Questions! Questions! He called it his ‘Method’, but between you and me, I’m not sure he knew anything.”
The ball was now in my court. An invitation – hardly an invitation to the White House or an audience with the Queen though it seemed like that at the time – had been offered. A specific time and date had been mentioned. Would I be able to attend?
I may have first said, “I appreciate the invitation”, or may not have – usually, I don’t. What I do recall – possibly prefacing it with “I’m sorry”, though possibly not – I forget to be polite when I’m nervous – is turning the invitation down.
The caller seemed surprised, bordering on shocked, and a little bit hurt.
Maybe if I had taken a moment, or discussed the matter with my mother, my response would have been different. My spontaneous reaction was reflexive. I could not help myself. I did not want to go.
In order of unimportance:
I did not drive, and had no idea how I would get there.
I did not know what they’d be serving. I imagined little sandwiches, possibly with egg, jam or ham fillings. I only ate peanut butter sandwiches. To this day, the only one I could force down would be jam.
I did not wish to expose my actual ignorance about Philosophy – I am a great memorizer, but when the exam is over, it’s gone – fearing they might take back the money and redirect it to a more deserving scholar.
My apparel was unworthy of their doormat.
My table manners were appalling. I scoop peas onto my fork with my finger, and, though it was unlikely they’d be serving peas at a tea, I cringed at the possibility of an equally eyebrow-raising faux pas.
I have no small talk for cultured people.
I was afraid that my hands would shake, or my leg that would jiggle, or I would accidentally swear, stammer or spit when I talked.
And the big one.
I was Jewish, and they were not.
Canada, at that time as least, was an overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon enclave. And I did not, in my personal life, know any of them. I also imagined they did not know anyone like me. Did I believe myself to be of a lesser status? Shamefully, at least unconsciously, I did.
I knew I would feel uncomfortable in their presence. And would make them feel uncomfortable as well. Beyond that, I was not built to be “The Standard Bearer For My People.”
“They are not as I imagined they’d be.”
Or, more crushingly,
I should have gone.
But instead, I begged off. Explaining lamely, with a lie,
“I think I have a Bar Mitzvah that day.”
(Retroactive Insight: Did I really think I was the first Jewish person to win a Philosophy prize at the University of Toronto?
Nah. I still wouldn’t have gone.)