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Tea and Empathy / Culture Comforts

November 10, 1996|Mary McNamara

A friend who is not prone to hyperbole recently took her mother to the Tea Room in the Pasadena Macy's, nee Bullock's. It is, she informed me, her eyes wide, a place frozen in time. Frequented by genarians of the septua-, octo- and possibly nona- varieties, it offers such yesteryear amenities as popovers, finger sandwiches, roving fashion models and women in hats.

I called my brother and told him I was taking him to lunch. Of course, I waited until we were doing 70 on the 110 before I told him where I was taking him to lunch; he followed me into Macy's in a manner I hadn't seen him adopt since Mom made him accompany me to tap class. His muttering rose to full volume when the elevator deposited us on the third floor in ladies' lingerie (note to Macy's: not your best product placement; the last thing I want to see on my way to lunch is Size 3 French-cuts). Upon entering the Tea Room, however, the muttering ceased.

On a patterned sea of muted green and rose, a fleet of tables surrounded a runway. At the tables sat figures from another age--women color coordinated from their Monet clip-ons to their Liz Claiborne mix-and-match separates to the soles of their comfortable yet stylish pumps. A few husbands were on the premises, resplendent in suits of gray and brown, shoes shiny, handkerchiefs saluting from breast pockets. Younger women were there, too, in slightly hipper outfitage--Donna Karan sportswear, Banana Republic casual--many of them overseeing toddlers so well-behaved in their highchairs that one suspected a Disney connection. I stood for a moment with my flyaway hair and un-cosmetically enhanced visage, wondering if I would be allowed in. In a city where people wear shorts and Birkenstocks to the opera, it was a shock to find people who dressed for lunch.

Graciousness is not a natural human characteristic; it is a manifestation of society, a system of behavior that, presumably, makes life more pleasant. For it to work, it must be strictly, if subtly, enforced. The Macy's Tea Room is an oasis of graciousness, and lining two walls on vinyl banquettes are its sentinels--the ladies. Clear-eyed, solitary figures with an air of expectation, hair like spun sugar and sensible sweaters, they have gentle smiles and well-modulated voices, and you do not want to mess with them. I found myself wondering if I still knew how to curtsy.

A waitress who I am pretty sure was a last-minute reincarnation of my grandmother handed us menus. I went with the Lady's Choice, a cup of soup with an assortment of crustless sandwiches, and my brother got the club sandwich. When I asked for one of their world- famous popovers, the waitress leaned in and said, "They cost $2, you know" in such a mindful, concerned sort of way that I made an instant resolution to draw up a strict personal budget that very night, to stop wasting my money on frivolities like CDs and takeout and to start saving it for important things, like my hope chest.

During our meal, the fashion show commenced. That is, one very attractive woman strode across the runway, then moved from table to table describing the clothing, including price and where it could be found in the store. She was notable in two ways: she was over 40 and she was modeling, I'm afraid, some of the most unattractive clothing I have ever seen.

Of course, we were not the audience; the audience was the ladies, and the ladies were not looking for couture or statements, they were looking for smart outfits, and they seemed to like what they saw just fine, thank you. They nodded and smiled over their finger sandwiches, which were, as my brother the MBA noted, the high-volume product. We left a big tip--my brother likes any restaurant where he is the handsomest guy in the room. As for me, well, I'm hoping next time I can snag banquette seating, though I suspect that such an honor, like a Supreme Court appointment, is bestowed for life. Maybe there's a waiting list.

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