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Campus Sex and Tom Wolfe’s Clothing

Michael Lewis is the author, most recently, of "Moneyball."

One of the odd things about sleeping in a house with small children is that you never know whom you might wake up next to: This morning it’s Dixie. She has a new trick. Every third night or so, between midnight and 2, she wanders through the pitch black until she arrives at my side of the bed. She heaves first her special pillow and then her little body on top of me, en route to her mother’s side. At 6, she bolts upright, fully rested, and begins to prod. She can be ignored. If we act as a unit and hide beneath our pillows, we can buy ourselves as much as 15 minutes more nighttime. But this morning the worst happens: Tabitha breaks ranks. From beneath my pillow I hear her muffled voice: “Dixie, did you take my keys?”

Her keys. She went to bed not knowing where they were. An alarming pattern has emerged: Mama’s keys go missing, 2-year-old child is fingered as the prime suspect, and a ridiculous search of many improbable places ensues. An hour later, the keys turn up beneath the mountains of papers on Mama’s desk or in one of the 600 caverns in Mama’s Mordor-like purse.

“Put your pillow over your head.” I groan. “It’s our only hope.” I burrow more deeply backward into the night.

“Dixie!”

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“Hi Mama!”

“Did you take my keys?”

No answer.

“Dixie, you took my keys, didn’t you?”

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Long pause.

“Yes.”

I poke my mouth -- and just my mouth -- out from under the pillow. I am no longer human; I am tortoise.

“There’s no point in interrogating a 2-year-old,” I say. “She’s completely unreliable, she’ll say yes to anything.”

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Mouth retracts as quickly as it emerged. Day is postponed; night returns.

“Dixie, where did you put my keys?”

No answer.

“Dixie, tell me where you put my keys.”

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No answer.

“Dixie, where are Mama’s keys?”

Long pause.

“In the door.”

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Outraged, I rise up and announce that I will find the keys. The keys have me feeling like the competent member of this household.

“You can’t go blame Dixie every time you lose your keys,” I say, and off I go. I check everywhere -- desk, purse, counter -- and find nothing. I slink upstairs, offer up a poor excuse of an apology, then drag Dixie out the door to preschool. At noon comes the message on my voice mail: “Hi honey. I found my keys. They were in the garbage can. So whose fingerprints are on that? Not mine!”

To San Francisco to meet Tom Wolfe. Six months ago, when the fancy lecture series people asked me to help Wolfe promote his new novel, I didn’t think through the consequences. “I Am Charlotte Simmons” arrived last week, with a thud. I finished it this afternoon, still laughing at all these silly little status concerns of other human beings -- and then panicked. I realized: In two hours, I am expected to walk onto a stage, fully clothed, in front of 1,000 people. Next to Tom Wolfe!

I recall dimly, when I first accepted the assignment, saying to Tabitha how funny it would be if I interviewed Wolfe in a white suit. “Don’t do that,” she’d said with a look of alarm. “You’ll just come across as an attention-starved dork.”

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I enter my closet self-consciously: rows and rows of clothes and nothing to wear! Soon it’s clear that, no matter how I mix and match, I have just three choices: preppy, faux-lumberjack and theoretically hip. Without exception, every stitch of hip clothing that I own -- black suits, oddly striped ties, dress shoes shaped like duck-billed platypuses, shirts made by someone other than Brooks Brothers -- all have been either purchased or selected by my wife. I have worn these items, at most, once, and then allowed them to drift naturally to the back of the closet.

Now I grab from the back a dusty black suit and a neon green shirt -- both never before worn -- and try them on. Oh God! Not me! Merely my wife’s idealized view of what I might be! If I happened to be a more interesting person than I am! Item by item, I wade through the closet until I arrive at what strikes me as a satisfyingly original look. Dashing out of the house -- all this dressing has made me late -- I run into Tabitha driving up.

“Look at my little preppy!” she shrieks, and bursts out laughing.

Before the event, there is a dinner. I am seated across the table from Tom Wolfe’s wife, Sheila, who has a remarkable gift of putting writers who are not Tom Wolfe at ease. Poor woman, I think. I imagine Wolfe picking through her closet, her underwear drawers even, examining all labels, judging the precise status implications of every couturial decision she has made. (Wolfe sits at the end of the table in his white suit, striped shirt with stiff white collar, white wrist watch, white shoes with spats and white lisle socks with blue polka dots. The man, just off an airplane, is a walking advertisement for starch.)

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“It must be hell being married to your husband,” I finally say, apropos of nothing. “How do you ever put any clothes on?” She says that in fact Tom Wolfe has very little interest in women’s clothes; it’s only men’s clothing that obsesses him. His own, especially. She says that even when he spends the entire day working in his New York apartment, he dresses up.

Wolfe’s a huge hit, of course. When he set out to explore American college life, he says, he assumed he’d wind up writing about political correctness. But after hanging out with the students he came to conclusion that political correctness -- or any politics -- is largely beside the point of college life. “The students don’t care about any of it!” he exclaims. (He fills the air with exclamation points when he talks too.) The students were impervious to ideas. What they really cared about was sex. And, because they helped them to get sex, clothes.


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