This past week has brought us the concept of “alternative facts” and I think it’s about time.
There have been many times in my life when the facts of a situation have not been ideal and an alternative would have been much preferred. Alternative facts not having been invented yet, “amusing fabrications” was the best spin I could put on those times that playing fast and loose with the truth seemed to be a good life choice. How much more satisfactory it would have been if I could have simply presented some alternative facts.
In the early ’80s, I landed my first couture job, a dream gig at the time. As personal assistant to an owner/designer, I would learn every aspect of the business. One of the first things I learned was that I was the first person ever to hold that position who depended on the salary for a living. For all previous assistants, it was merely a supplement to their trust funds. This was an interesting situation to step into.
The socialite clients immediately sniffed out an interloper in their midst. Whether it was my shoes or my accent or the fact that they had never before clapped eyes on me, they knew right off I was not a member of their tribe.
Conversation ensued with an attempt to assess my station in life so as to determine how I should be treated. If it turned out I belonged to some backwater Southern aristocracy, I might be awarded the minimal respect deemed necessary for a provincial member of their caste. If it turned out I was merely one of the great unwashed who had somehow landed in a spot above my station, then the client would know exactly how our relationship should play out. It wouldn’t be pleasant.
It didn’t take long for these overbearing snobs to look down their imaginary lorgnettes at me and inquire as to my father’s occupation, a very efficient method of sorting the wheat from the chaff, depending, for instance, on whether my answer was “sharecropper” or “partner in a law firm.”
It was neither. I replied, “he’s in oil,” an answer not particularly useful to inquisitors as my Carolina foothills accent sounded remarkably similar to a Dallas/Ft. Worth accent.
In case you’re wondering, “he’s in oil” was neither a fabrication, nor an alternative fact. It was an actual fact, albeit a misleading one. My Dad did make his money in the oil business, driving a delivery truck filled with heating oil. The fact that he neither invested in oil, drilled for oil, refined oil, nor had any equity in the oil business of any sort, including, but not limited to, the truck he drove every day, was information I chose not to divulge.
When pushed for further details, I would come clean or go with alternative facts, which until this past weekend, I did not realize was a real thing. I naïvely thought my choice was to lie or tell the truth, and made my choice depending on the level of contempt felt for the client at hand.
Each time a fabrication was not called out, it would beget a new fabrication until I had constructed a complete alternative personal history that would have been totally at home in a Harlequin romance.
Clients with a large appetite for alternative facts soon learned that at some undisclosed point in the past, oil had been discovered on my family’s ancestral rutabaga plantation in the North Carolina foothills, a plantation which had been won in a poker game by my great-great-grandfather, a deposed Hungarian count who fled the Nazis in the mid 1800s. The fact that there were no Nazis in the 19th century did not seem to have any appreciable impact on the credibility of my story.
A surprising number of people believed this bizarre mishmash of Count Dracula, Gone with the Wind and half the bodice-rippers ever written, especially since, as the story advanced, my accent evolved from Carolina foothills to something that would only be spoken by the lost lovechild of Rhett Butler and Zsa Zsa Gabor.
Perhaps the story gained credibility due to my obvious passion for rutabagas, not only the vegetable on which my people had risen to our mythical fortune, but a vegetable very similar to turnips, whose truck many speculated I had recently fallen from.
Sometimes, recipients of alternative facts need detail to enhance the narrative. When asked how my father discovered oil in the Carolina foothills, a rare occurrence, as everyone knows, the answer was simple, straightforward and alternative. “One day he was shootin’ at some food, and up through the ground come a bubblin’ crude.”
Try saying that with a straight face. Alternative facts are not as easy as they look.
If anybody was still buying this load of crap, excuse me, load of alternative facts, there was no choice but to add, “Black gold. Texas tea.”
That was when I discovered the old saw is true. You can fool some of the people all of the time.
Apparently, it’s still true.
Reach Bill at 336-415-4699.