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Once a year, New York City hosts Restaurant Week. The premise: Exorbitantly priced restaurants, for one week, set up a special menu for us swarthy groundlings. It’s prix fixe -- which is a fancy pants way of saying "fixed price;" why we give more cultural credit to phrases worded in another language will always escape me -- which means you get three courses, four options each, for the low, low price of $30.03 per person.

Restaurant Week, like New York, is inherently insulting. Essentially, five-star restaurants are throwing a bone to the lower-middle class, allowing us to soak in their atmosphere, put on a nice tie and pretend like we’re bigshots, at least for one week a year. The wait staff is openly indifferent to your existance -- like you're going to give a decent tip -- and the general attitude of the whole joint is condecension. They know we're just there because they happen to be cheaper for the night, and don't think they're going to let you forget it.

This, of course, is exactly why I couldn't wait for Restaurant Week.

I was never really aware of my class issues until I came to New York. I'd always considered myself open-minded to notions of wealth. If people had money, and lots of it, good for them; they're people the same way my blue-collar middle-class parents are people, and it doesn't make them any better or worse because of it. It's about we treat other people, you see.

When I moved here, all that changed. I'm not sure when it happened; it might have been when my ex-girlfriend started dating an old-money rich stockbroker whose parents paid his rent from a trust fund and who lived in Manhattan but still owned two expensive cars. (Now that I think about it, yeah, that was probably it.) It also didn't help that I was working 12 hours a day and still struggling to pay the rent. It was impossible not to look at all the snots on the Upper West Side, with their Louis Vitton handbags, belts by Prada, soul by Satan, with their sleek, shiny, artsy-modern seven-bucks-for-a-damned-Budweiser nightclubs, looking like they just stepped out of the fucking salon, and loathe them with all the envy I could muster. Fuck them and their smug self-satisfaction, their belief that they've done something to actually earn their lifestyles, their inability to earn an honest day's living, you know, if they had to.

This is not the right attitude to have when you live in New York City. It's an excellent way to become a sour, unpleasant person. Thankfully, um, I'm a charming drunk. Or something.

But, true to form, deep down, we really do all want to be these people, which is why I eager snapped up a reservation for a date and myself to Beacon, a schnazzy place serving "American" cuisine in midtown Manhattan. True, I wanted to impress the girl -- for whom the most romantic gesture I'd made up to that point was offering her money for a cab ride home after a date -- but what I really wanted was to feel part of the club, to play dressup for the night. I put on my best tie, to go with black shirt and black pants (I looked like a member of the Hives) and a long "stylish" trenchcoat that my uncle wore in the '50s. If only I'd had a tophat.

We arrived at the restaurant at 8:30, our appointed time. I checked our coats and ordered a bottle of the cheapest wine available, of course. We'd had a few drinks beforehand, so we settled into the atmosphere with warmth. Our waitress came by, had me sip the wine to make sure it was adequate (this ritual beguiles me; I inevitably crack a fake smile and chime "Mmm!" looking a lot like Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction after he tries Jimmy's coffee), and handed us our Grimy Proletariat Worksheet, the prix fixe menu. We both ordered steak.

An hour and a half later, when our waitress deigned to actually serve us our food, we'd blitzed through the wine and were beginning to doubt ourselves. We were halfway through a rather charred and tough steak when my date looked at me. "I feel kind of gluttonous right now, don't you?" I feigned ignorance. She continued. "I mean, we're sitting here, criticizing the food, and people all across the world would kill for something like this."

I took a deep breath. "You see, this is what I'm talking about. We're in a position where we have to feel like we're just so incredibly fortunate to be in a place like this. But I work very hard, and I feel like I've earned the right to come here once in a while. But you and I, we're such noble, down-to-earth people that even on a night like tonight, when we're only here because it's the one week a year we can afford such a thing, we can't help but feel like we are being self-indulgent, that we're doing something wrong. We can't help but think about the less fortunate. The people here, the people who regularly come here, they don't entertain such thoughts. They just sit here and complain about their three-year-old's prep school, or how there are so many homeless people, or how the Times' arts section is becoming too liberal. This is the trap they have set for us. They make us feel guilty for wanting a brief taste of it all, for dipping our wick in their world ever so briefly. How dare they! We, you and I, we're the only two pure souls in here, and it's a battle for our souls that we have to fight every day. This is why we will never be a part of their world. We're just too real, you see? We're the only ones who get it!"

Well, OK, actually I said, "Hmmph" while cramming more steak down my gullet. But I think she knew what I meant.

I called for the check. With the wine and an off-menu dessert added to the prix fixe, and with tax added, I glanced at the damage. My "cheap" night out had become the most expensive dinner I'd had in years, maybe ever. I swallowed hard, paid the check and glanced at my date. "Um ... can you pay for the cab out of here?" Four middle-aged women, whom we'd nicknamed "the hags" chuckled under their breath. It was Restaurant Week, and it brought out all kinds. At least we had bathed.

I am fooling myself if I believe that I will be any different if I ever come across any money. I will likely sit in my ivory tower on the Upper West Side, chortling over my copy of Harper's, savoring my vintage Napa wine, wondering why the rest of the world finds matters so damned difficult all the time, while some young punk plots my imminent destruction. I suppose I will have it coming.



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