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Mr. Manners 

Comedy, they say, is the weak taking on the powerful. Enlightenment, the Infiltrator says, is attending an etiquette class for business executives.

Wednesday, Sep 22 2004
"Present yourself with confidence and authority in any business or social situation!" the Web site says, showing pictures of people in business clothes eating expensive dinners, laughing, and looking self-assured. But who are these manners purveyors to tell me it's a world of have and have-nots, where etiquette rules magically unlock a world of success, but only for the well-to-do.

The bastards!

I decide to attend their $245, five-hour class on the etiquette of dining, handshaking, eye contacting, and power lunching in the guise of Chas Lemon. On the online enrollment form, I say that Chas works as "An Eccentric Millionaire," further explaining that Chas is signing up because his "bitch said to get some manners!" To get into character, I don't bathe or shave for two days and wear a black Oakland Raiders cap. Yes, that's the approach: The world is Chas' oyster; he just happens to have been using the wrong motherfucking fork all this time.

The class is held in a posh Geary Street hotel at which I arrive, purposely, 45 minutes late. In a small, ornate, private dining room, five of the most uptight people I've ever encountered sit rigidly at a large oak table. As I enter, the uptight five look at me as if I'd just made a bad smell. An immaculately groomed woman named Cheryl is lecturing on the proper use of the soup spoon.

"Is this where that manners thing is being held?" I grunt, picking at my arm. My five classmates -- two men and three women -- appear to be middle-aged, corporate executives; all are adorned in business clothes. This is the most adult function I've ever attended. You can almost feel the clenched buttocks. I have a sudden desire to loudly fart, to just let one rip. I restrain myself.

"You must be Chas," says Cheryl, a tiny woman (so tiny, I have an urge to lift her) who is wearing a finely tailored business suit and who is perhaps the politest person on Earth. Her manners prowess is so great it was once displayed on Good Morning America.

"What's up," I mumble, wiping my hand before shaking hers. Cheryl makes her way clear across the room to greet me, utilizing both strong eye contact and a firm -- but not too firm -- handshake. I assume this is the proper way to greet tardy people at an etiquette class.

"I was just sharing a little trick on how to remember your place settings. BMW -- 'bread,' 'meal,' 'water,'" Cheryl says.

"Cool!" I say.

I'm directed to a chair marked by a "Chas Lemon" placard. In front of it is a place setting that includes about 20 different spoons and forks and 30 or so glasses. We're to be taught how to use the spoons and forks during a three-course meal, utilizing our newfound manners. With the proper tact for one who teaches an etiquette class, Cheryl asks, "Chas, would you mind taking off your hat?"

I smile and nod. "Oh, sure, no problem," I say. Leaving the hat on, I slouch in my chair and take vigorous notes on soup spoon usage.

"Here's one way to remember it," says Cheryl. "'Like a little boat out to sea, I eat my soup away from me.'"

"Now Cheryl," inquires the businesswoman, who looks like she dreams of one day putting heads on the corporate chopping block and who sits to the right of me. "With the soup bowl, the spoon goes in the bowl, but with a soup plate, it goes on the side, correct?"

To answer her question, Cheryl shows us a series of slides, circa 1989, that depict unhappy, well-dressed people using the wrong table manners, while happy, well-dressed people employ proper manners. The gist: One will be miserable if one has bad manners.

"The plate is not a rowboat," Cheryl adds. "A knife and fork should never be placed like a pair of oars in a rowboat."

Cheryl goes on to show us wrong ways to hold a knife and fork, including "the pitchfork" and the dreaded, elbows-out "cello."

"Now Cheryl," interrupts the businesswoman with the heads-chopping cravings, "when it comes to bread, is it OK to break off a piece?"

The petite instructor pooh-poohs the notion, saying the thumb should be used to dig out a small chunk. (Why putting your thumb in food is better than breaking a piece off is not made clear.) Remember, Cheryl says, to take the entire pat when you're buttering the bread. Put any leftover butter on the side of the bread plate. And, of course, you need to fold up the foil that held the butter pat. Never put it on the tablecloth!

"Cheryl, back to the bread for a moment. When passing it, does it go to the left or right?"

Oh my God, I think suddenly: There's four more hours of this crap to go. I raise my hand.

"Now, what do you do if your host makes loud racist comments?" I ask.

Cheryl ponders. Then she suggests politely excusing yourself from the dinner.

Finally, it's time for the food.

"Bring it on," I nearly shout.

As the food is politely wheeled out by exceedingly polite waiters, Cheryl explains proper eating posture.

"Both your feet should be planted on the floor," she says. "Never cross your legs. Your back should be straight, and your elbows should stay off the table."

We all assume the position, sitting identically. The pose is unbelievably uncomfortable. It must be how children in a Charles Dickens orphanage eat, I decide. Our server, a well-mannered French guy, brings out leek consommé.

"Like a boat out to sea, I eat my soup away from me," Cheryl inanely chants.

No one looks happy eating the soup. In fact, these CEOs or CEOs-to-be look kind of sad. My fingers hurt from holding the spoon in the proper way. I decide to go whole hog with my act, to be the guy who just doesn't get it, the slob who never has and never will fit into mannered society.

"Like a boat out to sea, I eat my soup away from me," I say, dropping my spoon into the leek soup. I pick it up again, hold it for a few seconds, then drop it again.

"It takes a bit of practice," coaches Cheryl.

"Like a boat out to sea, I eat my soup away from me," I repeat, overcompensating, making the maneuver into a 10 times larger arc than is required. I disregard the rule of filling the spoon only three-quarters of the way and loudly slurp my overflowing spoonful of soup.

"I like soup!" I state to the chopping-block businesswoman. I slurp again, then drop my spoon.

"Now ladies, here's how you avoid getting lipstick on your glass," Cheryl says, sticking out her tongue, placing it over her lip, then drinking. It looks like a petting-zoo llama consuming a feed pellet.

"You've got to be kidding," I say, stunned. "People actually do that?!"

Cheryl confirms the move's validity, then goes on to share another anal-retentive classic of etiquette: "If you're worried about having a clammy handshake, you can try spraying your hand with antiperspirant."

"That blows my mind," I exclaim, shocked.

I make sure I'm the last one to finish my soup.

"Are you done Chas?" Cheryl asks.

"Not yet," I say, slurping again, then dropping my spoon.

About five minutes later, I say, "Yeah, I'm ready to '10/2,'" making an inside etiquette joke about correct knife and fork placement. The group lets out a low, well-mannered chuckle. Manners humor!

The French guy brings out the main course, which is chicken in a red wine and mushroom sauce.

As we begin eating, Cheryl gives unusually moronic advice: "Under any circumstances, don't put the knife in your mouth."

"What do you do if you have to go to the bathroom during a power lunch?" I ask.

"You discreetly say to the person next to you, 'Excuse me for a moment.'"

I turn to the uptight woman on my left. "Excuse me for a moment, I feel like I'm going to flippin' burst."

I get up and waddle to the bathroom. Once there, I make sure I stay way too long. Let them play with their little forks and spoons without me, I think. When I return, the uptight group is already on dessert.

"Always hold a wineglass in your left hand while networking," Cheryl is saying, "so your right hand is accessible for handshaking."

I discreetly turn to the uptight woman next to me and say, "I feel 10 pounds lighter!"

At the end, Cheryl gives each of us a little manners-class diploma. Mine reads, "Chas Lemon is hereby awarded this Key to Confidence."

We go around the table, each of us sharing one thing learned in class.

"For me, it was the knife and fork and what to do with it while dining," states the decapitational businesswoman.

"I never knew that a name tag should be worn on the left side for 'the power stance,'" says an uptight businessman.

It's my turn.

"Like a little boat out to sea, I eat my soup away from me!" I say and, in leaving, insert my finger directly and deeply into my nose.

About The Author

Harmon Leon


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