Black-Tie Afternoon

THE woman in line for the New York shuttle looked me up and down in a way I'd never been looked up and down before. She didn't have a lorgnette, but I felt like Groucho Marx being inspected by Margaret Dumont after one more piece of his effrontery. The woman in line gave the same once-over to Joan, my wife, before tearing herself away to go through the security check.

It was our first hint that the anything-goes society is still not entirely blase about what you wear when and where. We weren't gotten up in leather, chains, spiked blue hair, or any of the other visuals that don't attract a second glance anymore. We were simply dressed in the middle of the afternoon for a black-tie event that night.

I was in my tired old tux. Joan was in something silk. Why not? We were whisking from Boston to New York and back again on the same date. By not carrying clothes or wasting time to change them we could do something in the city besides the scheduled event.

"You don't have to dress for the shuttle," said the ticket taker, breaking into a Diana Ross smile.

"We always dress for Pan Am," I said, not realizing Pan Am's days were numbered.

"I think we'll have to make it a rule," she said.

Everyone nearby seemed to smile and make way as soon as they saw us coming.

Once we were aboard, airplane anonymity took over. It was my first time aloft in black tie, pleated shirt, cummerbund, and pants with satin stripe down the side (too hot to keep my jacket on), but I felt this was important to nobody but me.

When my can of tomato juice came with no opening at the top, the attendant seemed much less interested in my attire than in explaining that quite a few cans were coming through like that, some of them only half full.

When Joan had last-minute doubts about traveling in our evening clothes, I assured her that we would be the only ones bothered by it. I felt vindicated as we made our way to the taxi without incident, and the driver offered no comments on the trip to the Whitney Museum of American Art, where we had decided to see a couple of exhibitions before dinner in the time made available by not having to stop somewhere to change.

On one floor of the Whitney was a wonderful array of paintings by Edward Hopper. Looking at one of his bleak restaurant scenes, I could imagine what a haunting aura he could give our get-up by placing us in an all-night diner at four in the afternoon. I don't know what on earth he might have done with the young couple in punk hair and camping clothes who were looking at his pictures next to us.

A guard of their generation was on duty in the Whitney's other main exhibition that day, a display of acquisitions of the past 15 years. I was slightly separated from Joan when I arrived at his station right near a spectacular abstraction by Joan Morris.

"You look like you're on your way to the Oscars," he said with merry eyes.

By then I had been in celebrity dress for so many hours that it took me a moment to remember what I was wearing and realize why he spoke.

"Just a small celebration," I said at last.

"Well, break a leg," he said, confident that anyone in a tux in New York would know that he was offering the show-business wish for success on opening night.

"Thank you," I said. Then I tried to report it all to Joan.

The sun was still up when we went out on the street, though it was about 6:30, and now I felt appropriately dressed in the tuxedo whose brand I hadn't thought about lately: After Six. Near the St. Regis Hotel, a woman walking up Park Avenue smiled at us in a comforting way. "You both look lovely," she said.

Who says New York is nothing but cold, scowling, and indifferent?

Of course, during our event of the evening, no one commented on our clothes. Everyone was wearing the same thing, with the exception of a few women like Joan who noticed that all the others were wearing the new plain blacks.

We left before the party ended in order to catch the last plane of the night back to Boston.

"JFK airport, please," I said to the cab driver.

"JFK airport?" he echoed. I wondered if he had heard of it.

"I was surprised," he said. "You didn't look like you were going to the airport."

We arrived at the gate at next to the last minute, and I heard an attendant running over from the counter to ask the ticket taker, "Who are they?"

Ah, once you've got it, you never lose that celebrity aura.

But, er, uh, in this case, she just wanted to know our names to check them off her passenger list.

And, back in Boston, we knew the cluster of people at the arrival gate were waiting for everybody but us.

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