On Tuesday night I caught up for a drink with a friend I hadn’t seen since late last year. She was at a bar at Southgate, Left Bank, with her husband, and I was there by 5 o’clock.
After about three beers, I was thinking about heading home. It was only meant to be a catch-up, and I had to get home to feed the dog. Then someone brought back another beer for me, then another after that and then my friend said, we’re going next door for dinner.
She’d been on the phone to her brother, who is a multi-millionaire business owner, and who just happened to be at a restaurant nearby having dinner. Come along, he’d told her.
At this stage, I tried backing out again. Gotta go home, I said, have a great night. But then she demanded I join them and her husband, a lovely guy, said I may as well join them. You might find it interesting he told me. Besides, it was a free dinner. So I joined them.
We found my friend’s brother in a private room with his friends and hangers-on. Apparently, he has a standing booking and turns up 3-4 nights a week for dinner. Hence the private room.
I looked about. As I already knew, it wasn’t my scene. There was a group of about six sitting around a round table, a married couple from the business and a few gay friends of the host. Bar one, they were pleasant. The host himself I’d met him a few times before and always found him a charmless character. He’s gay, short and plump with a nearly bald head and small eyes. He’s one of those people who don’t seem to say much but looks out on his entourage, occasionally speaking in a closed-mouth sort of way.
I had a glass of wine and thought twice about ordering a steak, uncomfortable to accept the generosity of someone I hardly knew. I joined in the conversation, but mostly I observed. In my imagination, I considered how 3-4 times a week the host holds court like this, watching on as others enjoy the fruits of his hospitality. It sat poorly with me all round. I’m old school in a lot of ways, but, you know, I’m not above accepting the occasional freebie if someone really insists. Sometimes it’s not worth making such a fuss about. Next time, you think. But to turn up night after night knowing that your meal – and your company – was being paid for is a different thing.
I get how people like free things. And a free meal in a nice restaurant is a treat. But to do it, again and again, makes it seem cynical. Worse, though – for me – would be the sense of being owned. Rented, at least. And I think that’s likely a part of the appeal for the host. He knows their price, and he can easily afford it. He watches them eating from his trough and takes pleasure from it. It’s just money after all, and he has plenty of that. In exchange, he has power.
And yep, I may be being unfair and judgemental here, and just plain wrong. Maybe it’s not the same people all the time. Maybe they’re generous in return in their own way. Or maybe they’re just happy knowing it gives the pleasure host to entertain them – it’s made round to go round, as my grandmother used to say. It’s all perspective. To each their own. It’s not for me, though.
Despite this going through my head, I ended up ordering a steak. I wasn’t going to starve myself on principle, and I intended to pay for it.
In the end, I ate it but never got to pay for it. As I was finishing my meal, a fierce argument broke out. “Come on, mate,” my friend’s husband said, pulling me from my chair, “I’ve seen this before”.
We took our wine and left the room, sitting out in the restaurant proper. I knew it was a volatile family, and my friend herself was subject to fierce emotions. We drank our wine while it was explained to me that once these family conflicts start, they couldn’t be stopped. Best to get out of the way.
Long story short, we were soon gone. I had only the opportunity for a quick goodbye as I grabbed my coat and bag, ushered away from the fractured atmosphere. Then I was walking to the station.
The night only compounded itself from then. No trains were running on my line, and the three Ubers I ordered one after another never arrived. In the end, I got a taxi home for twice the price, and long after I should have been.