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'Invisible Black Busboy' Took Notes for Classic Expose

August 20, 1992|BOB SIPCHEN

It's not unusual for job applicants to fudge their resumes.

But Lawrence Otis Graham really stretched it to land his job as a busboy (officially, a bus man ) at the snooty Greenwich Country Club in Greenwich, Conn.

For one week, the young black man catered to the club's all-white, upper-crust members. Steppin' lively and fetchin' forks, he raked in seven bucks an hour as matrons called out, "Here busboy, here busboy."

Then the self-described "23-year-old dropout" went back to his $105,000-a-year corporate attorney's job in Midtown Manhattan and to his true identity as a 30-year-old graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law.

His story, in the Aug. 17 New York magazine, is a classic of expose journalism. Spoiled teen-agers shriek with laughter at the notion that a chum's parents are threatening to put her in public school! Graham becomes invisible to the middle-aged golfers, who talk openly about the merits of maintaining no-blacks policies at country clubs.

In one of those excruciating scenes that will make readers wish they were on the spot with a pot of scalding coffee to spill, a young man among a cluster of cigar-chomping Yup dudes grabs Graham by the wrist and pulls him forward.

"Now, Larry," he says, winking at his pastel-clad brothers. "Here's what I want you to do. Go get us some of those peanuts and then give my guests and me a fresh ashtray. Can you manage that?"

The busboy nods, knowing he'll get his shot in print.

Anti-Semites and bigots swarm over the place like flies around caviar. But the club's defining characteristic is an insular boorishness, and the refined Graham is deadly in pointing out the bad neckties and Babbittry behind the supercilious stares.

The story's weakness is its failure to name the members: Who cares if the clods scream libel? The legal fight would be even more wonderfully brutal than the expose.

Even more annoying is Graham's refusal to identify (or sue for job discrimination) another country club that wouldn't accept his application after learning he is black.

But those sins will be forgiven as readers sit back and envision the reaction of these smug clubbers upon discovering that they've been outwitted and outclassed by their humble busboy.

REQUIRED READING

* Sierra magazine's September/October issue presents a point-by-point analysis of the presidential candidates' environmental policies. Given that breakdown, it's not surprising that for only the second time in its history, the Sierra Club's magazine endorses a ticket.

As a spotted owl might say, guess who?

* P. J. O'Rourke, of course, has a different take on the candidates. The Aug. 20 Rolling Stone features his musings on what went down at the Earth Summit in Rio.

It was there that Al Gore said: "We have to understand the insights and understandings (of indigenous) societies and apply these."

To which P. J. says: "The world is balanced on the back of a large turtle, and it's clitoridectomies for all the girls."

RIOT REDUX

* With its summer issue, High Performance ("A Quarterly Magazine for the New Arts") joins the ranks of periodicals with special riot issues.

Like the musical CD that accompanies it, too often it lapses into the sort of poly-sci poetics to which artistes succumb when they lack the gumption to grapple with an original vision. But it also gets closer, on occasion, to the gut-level feelings of the streets than most of what appears in the mainstream media.

Like Rodney King speaking after the riot, Gail Wronsky fumbles for the right words to describe how she was attacked because of her color and winds up hopelessly muddled. Wanda Coleman is at least honest and direct in her ever self-absorbed anger.

As a whole, the collection wobbles from beyond banal--"The hollow promises of the American democracy burned irretrievably in the hot flames of this summer's rebellion"--to very good, such as Philomene Long's poem:

. . . What would you do for a riot?

I would give the news helicopters advance notice

as to what intersection it will be--then pull

Arnold Schwazeneggar out of his Mercedes

and club him with Sylvester Stallone.

* John Edgar Wideman spent only four days in Los Angeles after the riots. Even then, he was a tourist, driving through the destruction and then returning to a Beverly Hills hotel.

For those reasons, his essay in the September Esquire falls short in capturing what happened here. Nevertheless, it is the best rumination to date about why it happened and what it means.

Given the lead time at Esquire, Wideman probably wrote this while buildings still smoldered. So his excesses can be written off to the heat of the moment. Can he still say with a straight face, for instance: "Could this insurrection be the beginning of the end of capitalism, the West cracking, capitulating. . . ? "

But elsewhere, as when he's discussing the parallels between what might happen here and South Africa's struggle to create a non-racial society, he is dead-on.

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