August 2009

Hello, I Must Be Going

In Los Angeles, a stealth exit trumps a grand entrance every time


Hello, I must be going Illustration by Shout

“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.” Groucho Marx, bard of impolite society, might have been speaking on behalf of those for whom parties, celebrations and L.A.’s social firmament are simply too much. Because on countless evenings I hear Marx crooning, “Hello, I Must Be Going,” Bert Kalmar’s eponymous patter tune. And I want to go.

I hear him in hotel ballrooms. On splendid marble patios. As musicians play, drinks are served and sleek hostesses breeze by with embraces.

It is all far too much.

Like airport-size houses and runway-length driveways, these gatherings are becoming more difficult to navigate. A decent social compass gets you only so far. You need patience and practical charm. Good dinner talk helps.

But mostly, you need an escape route. You need to be Lewis or Clark on the Martini Trail, able to see and be seen, greet friends and acquaintances and then vanish through some out-of- view passage before entrées are served... and tributes and awards roll out.

If you’ve been successful, friends will greet you the next day saying, “What a wonderful evening.”

“How delicious a dinner.”

“What marvelous entertainment.”

You will have left the impression, through skill and guile, that you stayed to the end of another three-hour salute, fundraiser or anniversary bacchanal. You will have tunneled under the wire of yet one more social encampment.

This is not to say these escapes, great or near great, are child’s play. Such maneuvers are not for beginners. Luck plays a part—a place setting near total strangers doesn’t hurt—as does a burglar’s courage.

Warning: Even Dillinger was eventually trapped with nowhere to run.

And yes, reconnaissance counts. Know the back stairways at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Commit to memory the side doors of the Beverly Hilton ballroom. Make note of the Four Seasons garden gate. The staff won’t give you a second look.

Private homes, however grand, challenge the best of us. Foyers and entranceways defeat invisibility—too many eyeballs. There are, of course, hallways and bedrooms leading to secondary exits. Major parties, however, mean discreet security. Those large, quiet men in black suits politely discourage tourism. But be daring, creative...a little dangerous. There is always the choreographed departure, what you might call—after, say, two or three gimlets—the Gene Kelly Gambit. This works best on terraces, though certain ballrooms—those with well-marked fire doors—also accommodate. Just wait for a foxtrot—salsas and waltzes work equally well—and gracefully glide away.

Exit dancing.

If you are truly fortunate, if the social stars are properly aligned, you will find yourself—on some gorgeously temperate L.A. evening—in a tent.

All lit and luxe and lovely.

So be cheered. Raise a glass. It’s almost as if your hosts have said, “Relax. Circulate, however briefly. And, oh, here’s your head start.”

Tents have folds, creases and gaps. There may be a dozen or more openings to peel back after you’ve said your hellos. Watch the servers. Follow their leads. Depart with the salad plates. The tent has no windows, no vistas. You become part of the night.

Vanished. No witnesses.

If these maneuvers sound plausible—or possible—they are not foolproof. There are caveats. A minefield or two if you’re not on your game. If caught, pleading a hand washing or phone call won’t suffice. Attention to detail is everything. No one makes for the WC with a coat and gift bag.

For example, you can’t leave before or during a wedding cere­mony. There are consequences, no matter how generous your gift. Wait for a toast or the first dance. Shake a score of hands. Claw your way into a picture or two, then disappear with grace.

Graduations? Bar mitzvahs? Recitals? Affairs involving kids—your friends’ kids—require thought and finesse. These can be trying hours, onerous afternoons and evenings. Most of the time, you can’t win. You have to be there at the bitter end to say, “Congratulations.” Maybe you mean it. Maybe you don’t. Though you must hang in. You are there...until you aren’t.

There are, of course, a brace of little things. Helpful things would- be escapees might take to heart.

Women should never wear red. Or garments so singularly dramatic, shiny, sparkly or artsy—those sweeping capes or museum-dimension jewelry—they can be picked out at 50 yards. “Do you see Juliet?” “Yes, she’s over there in that alarmingly scarlet cape.” Black is for slink-outs. Always has been. It helps to smoke—or at least pretend to. It’s a way to be predictably missed without too many questions. You’re just out for a fix. (Taking fresh air always rings false—so Jane Austen in these climate-controlled times. Carry cigarettes.)

Take care with the car. It will cost you, but it’s worth it. The valet can be your friend, your coconspirator. For a price.

You don’t want your car parked in Pacoima (unless you are partying there). You want it close. You don’t want to stand outside waiting for a quarter hour—in plain view of the late arrivals, the smokers, the lost. Pay up. Whatever it costs. You will thank me, because the night is not for everyone.

These days, I find myself without much social endurance. Without the talent to feign engagement. Without strength.

Still the invitations arrive. More each month. They are part of my contract with society. I respond. I attend.

And hello, but I really must be going.

JOSEPH HONIG is a reporter, TV pro­ducer and radio commentator. He is currently at work on his memoir.