Sunday, March 06, 2005

Behave yourself at house parties

LOCATION: Your generous friend's home EQUIPMENT: Yourself, helpful attitude NOT OPTIONAL: Offering

I guess it's a bit of a cultural difference, or - well, I'm not really sure. When I was growing up, my mum was always having dinner parties. There's not a better place in the world for good conversation than in someone's home over a delicious meal. So, having grown up with this delightful ritual, I pretty much had it drilled into my head early on: YOU DON'T SHOW UP AT PEOPLE'S HOMES FOR PARTIES EMPTY-HANDED!!! Perhaps you are coming straight from your whaling boat where you've spent the past three years in an epic fruitless quest for a malevolent white whale, and you haven't even had a chance to clean the harpoon stashed in your backpack, which is crusted with ooky bits of whale intestine. You still stop off at the corner store and get SOMETHING.

Apparently, this little bit of wisdom hasn't reached DC. My beautiful friend Jaiva threw a big party at her house last weekend, with an 80s theme. When I arrived around 11pm, the party was in full swing, Jaiva had set up projectors to beam movies and PacMan animations against the wall, and the sound of people chattering was loud enough to drown out the music. Yep, everyone was having fun.

Except Jaiva.

She's an awesomely laid back California girl, so by neurotic DC standards her expression wasn't anything to remark upon, but I could tell she wasn't a happy camper. "I think we're going to run out of alcohol pretty soon," she said. "People just haven't been bringing much."

While we were discussing the alcohol problem, a guest came up and tugged on her sleeve. "Uh, the toilet's broken. You've got to come look at it."
'
"It's probably just stuck or something," Jaiva said distractedly. "Did you play around with it?"

"Nah, I don't know, you have to look at it."

So Jaiva ran upstairs and flushed the toilet for her guest. Then she moved a potted plant from a corner after someone knocked it over. Then she tried to fix the sound system, which wasn't playing music loud enough. Then she did five other things that I didn't notice.

For heaven's sake! As anyone who has thrown a good house party knows, it is a LOT of work: the set up, the hostessing, the real-time troubleshooting, and, most of all, the cleanup of the drunken mess the next day. I used to live in the basement of an art gallery last summer, where I'd throw some parties just by myself, and I've had some mornings where the combination of the sordid mess, the piles of stinking beer bottles, and the incredible contrast - from the jovial crowd just a few hours ago, to the lonely, squalid pigsty that it was my job to tackle all by myself - set me off into pathetic little fits of hysterical, self-pitying tears.

And yet, house parties are infinitely better than bars. You meet so many more people, so much more easily, and they are usually much nicer and more interesting than the average bar denizen. It's much cheaper (even if you include the cost of your MANDATORY OFFERING). And you have all the comforts of a home: couches to sit on, comfy bathrooms, even bookshelves to raid if you're feeling overwhelmed by the crowd and want to take a fifteen minute breather for a drunken reading of some Eliot poetry.

The host of a house party knows this. They want you to have a rockin' good time, and they want you to meet cool people, otherwise they wouldn't have invested so much effort in providing you the opportunity for it. And there are wonderful benefits to being a host. It's fun to share your home and offer people hospitality. It makes you smug when people praise you for your crazy parties.

Deciding to throw a party is a cost-benefit analysis: you weigh the fun from the party and the glory of hosting against the pain of the cash, time, and energy it takes to throw it well. People assign different weights to the equation, naturally, and if you happen to have someone in your group of friends who tilts towards hosting - for heaven's sake, treat them well! As a prospective host, your decision on whether to throw the next party is based on your experience of how painful the previous ones were. If you take advantage of your generous friends and friends-of-friends, nobody's going to be willing to throw house parties, and then everyone is going to have to hang out at noisy bars, sulking and feeling bitter about their $7 martinis and the fact that they can't hear anyone else speak, and it's a half-hour wait just to get the bartender to notice you.

This has turned into a rant, and I'm sorry for that, but I've just got to say: I love my friends, and I love having dinner parties for them, but when people don't let me know if they're coming, or they say they might and then flake out and never let me know, or nobody brings anything and I worry that I'm going to run out of food and wine - it really sucks, and it stresses me out.

There's another kind of party - and I've had these as well - where there's something in the air, and all your guests are good. They let you know they're coming, and then they come, and they bring so many drinks that you end the evening with more alcohol than when you started, and they spontaneously help to clean up, and, if it's a dinner party, some of them do the dishes; and if the toilet breaks, they spend a bit of time figuring out how they could fix it without having to bother you. When that kind of party happens, even if your house is still trashed at the end, you don't mind, and you clean it up in a happy daze, because you feel that your efforts were appreciated, and you don't feel like you were taken advantage of. And then you start planning the next party right away.

But if you have too many of the bad kind of party, you start to get bitter. And then your acquaintances hail you in the street and call, "Zoe, when's your next party? Soon, right? I just love your parties!" and you make a lemon face and think to yourself, "Yeah, you just love showing up at my door empty handed and drinking all my booze and eating all the fruit in my fruit bowl and breaking stuff and hiding it so you don't have to confess, and then stumbling home leaving me with all the mess. That must be really great for you."

So here's to spreading the house party love, and facilitating each others' hosting efforts, and to a DC where everyone is willing to invite people over to their homes, and we spend many more evenings enjoying each others' company by candlelight over a home-cooked meal, or dancing with friends in somebody's living room, and the hosts never, ever regret it the next day.

14 Comments:

Anonymous Drew said...

Having spent a good amount of time in the past cleaning the carpet with a steam cleaner after a house party, picking up hundreds of plastic cups, and cleaning up other people's puke (and occasionally my own), I'm all too familiar with the fun vs. work equation of whether to have one. I've noticed that over the past few years that my friends and I have been slowly moving from the house party to the dinner party, which definetly makes for a different kind of evening.

Fortunately, empty-handed guests seem to have become a thing of the past. While I haven't hosted a party for over a year, I know my friends who done so have been left with a surplus of food and alcohol after most of our recent bashes. I never understood showing up without any contribution, especially since it doesn't have to be anything more than a bottle of wine or some beer, unless food has been explicitly requested.

7:43 AM  
Blogger John Holt said...

Once again, the Kentucky-Austrailian connection: Never show up to a friend's house empty-handed.

Even if its (shamefacedly) chips and cookies. Sorry I didn't have something more substantial for our tummies. Will do better next time (consider this my RSVP!!)

9:31 AM  
Blogger zzzzzoe said...

Oh, you are my bestest guest ever, Waveline! I call it a tradition but I might as well call it "An excuse to lure Kaelan to my house every Sunday"...

11:44 AM  
Anonymous Toby said...

Ms. Manners' position on showing up to parties "empty-handed" is that it is perfectly acceptable. If someone is throwing a party, then it should be expected that this person pays the bills. Rather than show up to the party with a "payment" of a bottle of wine or something, the polite thing to do is send a thank-you note and be sure to invite the host or hostess to a party of your own.

10:43 PM  
Blogger zzzzzoe said...

The problem as I see it, Toby, from an economic perspective, is that some people (like me) have naturally higher propensities to throw parties. For some people it's pretty draining and they don't do it more than a few times a year; I'd be happy to have groups of people over twice a week. And not to brag, but I think my friends really appreciate my parties. I'd like to be able to afford to provide all the food and drinks at that level of frequency, but I can't. So I think a more rational social convention for people my age is to always take some of the burden off the host. In Miss Manners' paradigm, you'd have a Pareto inefficiency of too few parties provided, to use some economic jargon :)

7:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You'd be happy to have groups of people over twice a week -- as long as they "pay" you for the privilege of being invited by bringing you something them, right?

Ms. Manner's point is that a good hostess doesn't rely on the whims of other people to ensure that she has enough food and beverages for her invited guests.

If you can't afford to have a party, then you shouldn't, not unless you make it clear that it's BYOB or potluck. You're not doing anyone any favors by inviting people to your house and then being pissed off because they didn't supply you with the means to feed and water everyone!

Before you jump to conclusions: I always bring something when I'm invited to someone else's house, usually a bottle of wine or a dessert (if it's a dinner). If I know the host/hostess well, I will call and ask if there's anything I can bring. Even if they say no, I will still bring something. However, when I have a party or a dinner, I make sure that I have enough food and alcohol for all. Anything that I receive is just gravy as far as I'm concerned -- and I appreciate it!

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