Parvenu’s Guide to Social Climbing

By Bill Colvard -
Bill Colvard -

Lately, it’s been on my mind that I need to get a little more exercise.

It didn’t help when I talked to a man on Sunday who is 13 years older than I and had just completed a 3,700-mile bicycle ride all the way across the country.

He didn’t start riding until he was 62, so I can wait two years before I tackle that goal, but meanwhile, I need to do something now.

Imagine my delight when a peek into my inbox earlier in the week provided an opportunity to participate in my very favorite combat sport — social climbing. It’s been awhile, and my skills are really rusty, but hopefully, it will come back to me. Kind of like riding a bike across the country.

Not to brag, but I have been invited for cocktails and a cookout at Roaring Gap. Ok, I admit it. Definitely bragging. And when I say “at Roaring Gap,” I mean the real Roaring Gap, old Roaring Gap, the real deal. This may not mean much to Mount Airy folk, but to a poor boy from Elkin, it is everything.

Because Roaring Gap means “old money” to us peasants down in the hollers below its Olympic heights. It is our firm belief that these folks are not only rich, they have the very best capital, that which has been repeatedly cleansed by probate of its original sins. That’s why we’re jealous of it. Because we’ll never have it.

As much as anyone says, “if you work hard enough, you can have anything you want,” that’s not true if what you want is old money. It takes a minimum of three generations for filthy lucre to achieve dusty respectability.

I believe I can honestly say this is my greatest achievement in social climbing to date. None of the drawing rooms of the Upper East Side into which I wormed my way was a better get than this.

I remember when I was a young boy hearing Dad explain the difference between the real Roaring Gap and the other two clubs with a Roaring Gap address, High Meadows and Old Beau. In his opinion, if you couldn’t get into Roaring Gap, you might as well give it up.

And he should know. When he was a young boy, he hiked up the mountain from his grandmother’s house in Doughton — a house with no indoor plumbing, I might add — to caddy for tips on the fabled links of Roaring Gap. So he had standards, and clued me in early to the fact that there’s no snob like a poor snob.

To the best of my knowledge, Dad’s caddying in 1952 was the last time anyone in my family has breached the gates, except for the odd church picnic at the lake. Certainly, I have not crossed any of those rarefied thresholds.

And ironically, enough, Dad’s toiling for tips from Roaring Gap’s captains of industry provided the impetus for my invitation. In a column from a couple of years ago, I mentioned his experience at that bastion of old money to illustrate some point I was making about class differences, and a friend contacted me and said she’d love to have me up to see the place for myself.

The scene of the crime, if you will.

Of course, I jumped at the chance, not so much to avenge my father, but because I’m a filthy little climber at heart. But nothing much came of it. Since then, it’s come up a few times when my friend and I have crossed paths at the grocery store, but it’s always been kind of vague. And I have learned to not take vague Southern invitations very seriously.

But then the fateful message came.

“Thursday. Cocktails on the porch at 5:30. Cookout on Mrs. X’s terrace at 6. Casual attire.” (Name withheld to protect whatever unlikely possibility that a return invitation is not burned to the ground by this column.)

Nothing vague about that. Game on.

Only problem is I have been out of the game for quite a while, and I haven’t the slightest idea what “casual attire” means at Roaring Gap. So I ask.

“Is it Martha’s Vineyard casual: khaki pants and polo shirt? Or is it Nantucket casual: navy blazer over khaki pants and polo shirt?”

“Martha’s Vineyard,” I am told. “It’s a weeknight, and mostly family.”

I am thrilled by this information. I have a number of Robert Graham polo shirts which are better than the inevitable Ralph Lauren polos which will be worn by the other guests. Not so different as to confuse them or make them uncomfortable, just different enough to make me feel superior in at least one small way.

And I have a pair of Ralph Lauren Polo khakis that I bought at the Hospital Thrift Shop in Elkin, which now that I think about it, are probably either castoffs from one of the other guests or detritus from one of their dead relative’s closets. It’s not every day that any Ralph Lauren turns up in the Elkin thrift shops, and you have to figure most of it has made its way down the mountain after a weight change or a death.

Initially, I was very pleased about “mostly family.” In my previous excursions into social climbing, you started by finagling an invite to one the big soirées and had to work your way down to the more intimate gatherings. “Mostly family” was the Holy Grail.

But, I have a feeling down here it’s more like an out-of-town tryout for a play. If I don’t botch it too badly, drink a finger bowl or something, (thank goodness, there are no finger bowls at a cookout, or anywhere else in the 21st century — or are there?), maybe I’ll be considered presentable enough for company. Or more likely, not.

Fortunately, now that I am a member of the Fourth Estate — an ink-stained wretch, if you will — I imagine a little loutish behavior is expected of me. Though I shall do my best to be charming. It’s the only currency I have.

As I prepare for my evening of rubbing elbows with the swells, I picture Dad smiling down from heaven, and saying to me, “Don’t worry son. As Imelda Marcos mentioned to me when we partnered for bridge last week, “Nouveau riche is better than no riche at all.”

I can only shake my head and mutter skyward, “Not helping, Dad. I have no riche at all. And when did you learn to play bridge? Especially with the consort of a dictator?”

There is no answer from the beyond, save for a faint, “Polish your shoes. Don’t wear socks.”

Bill Colvard Colvard

By Bill Colvard

Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.

Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.