Gladys Knights and the Pips

Holiday Parties

"Is this seat taken?" The question was from one of two handsome, smiling young men who approached the high table where my friend Diane and I had perched.

We were at a holiday party hosted by the management of our rental building. Both of us are single, and we had jokingly referred to each other as wingmen, encouraging one another if a viable male came our way.

"It's open," we replied in unison, waving our hands across the empty seat to prove there was nothing to stop either one of their nicely pressed trousers taking occupancy.

"Great, then we can leave our coats here," the other said, as he draped his outwear on the empty stool.

Diane and I laughed. Our next encounter was more heartening. "Good to see you both," said our building's chief engineer. He reached over to give each of us a hug and a few of his maintenance staff followed him and the sweet gesture.

Despite the sounds of chatter from the 30-somethings who are neighbors, and the booming music from multiple speakers, the hugs sent me back to another holiday party. And in that long ago celebration, it was also embraces from maintenance men that were springing up in my memory.

It was sometime in the '70s, let's say Christmas 1975, when my first husband and I, and our two daughters, were living in South Commons, a planned urban community on Chicago's near south side. Back then; I was both a townhouse resident and a secretary in the management office.

Mellowed by wine, and with Diane conversing with a friend, I closed my eyes and slipped back to that earlier holiday scene, stocking it with my long ago coworkers, and the music and mood of the times.

I was 38 years old, struggling in a marriage where both my husband and I competed for the title of unhappiest. 

"You're never home," was his complaint, and one I couldn't deny. What I understand now was that he really meant, what happened to the woman I married?

I wondered that, too, for after I landed in this social experiment that integrated races, income, and ages, I transformed from housewife to activist. I shifted from a wife who had dinner on the table every night to someone who wrote the community newspaper, produced the musical theater, and volunteered for every alluring cause.

Fortunately, while my husband rebuffed his revamped wife, the South Commons residents, and the staff, treated me as if I were queen bee.

While the 2013 party was held at a sports bar, the 1975 event occurred in an apartment of one of the staff. "You're welcome to come," I had told my husband, "but I don't think many spouses will be attending."

"No, you go, have a good time, be sure someone walks you home." (Despite our friction, at 39 he was very much the responsible man I had married 15 years earlier.)

As I entered the party site, Barry White's "You're the First, My Last, My Everything" greeted me. The lighting in the room was turned low, smoke rose from cigarettes, and muted conversations floated in the shadowy air.

My coworkers were already dancing and drinking; I was eager to join in and shed my winter coat and my conformist life. I sipped JB & Water,  danced to tunes like "Me and Mrs. Jones" by Billy Paul, "Midnight Train to Georgia," from Gladys Knight and the Pips, and White's "Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Baby."

I stayed at the party well past midnight. One of the guys walked me home and at my doorstep, I stretched to give him a kiss on his cheek for my safe passage.

My husband and daughters were asleep as I tiptoed in. As I prepared for bed, I hummed the playlist from the party, and the Stylistics "You Make Me Feel Brand New" was the first tune that popped in my head.

"How long do you want to stay?" It was Diane, possibly misreading my dreamlike state for boredom. I woke from my reverie and looked at my watch, 8:00 p.m.

"Ready whenever you are," I said.

In our building's elevator, before my friend exited on her floor, I kissed her cheek and thanked her for being my wingman. "My pleasure," she said. "Hope you had a good time."

"I had a great time," I said, as the door slid closed. Alone in my private sound booth, I couldn't resist crooning lyrics from Knight's "Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me:" I've had my share of life's ups and downs, But fate's been kind, the downs have been few, I guess you could say that I've been lucky.