Funny piece by Slate's John Swansburg about the ordeal of attending the obligatory friend's birthday dinner. We all know the economic challenges of staying solvent in an economically-diverse group, where invariably one is resentfully pushed into spending far more than intended, usually without even getting to speak with the birthday girl. "I hereby propose that the birthday dinner go the way of the $4 cup of coffee, the liar's mortgage, and the midsize banking institution," says Swansburg. We concur. And under the aegis of economic responsibility, it seems the time is right to put a stop to this festive tyranny.This is a thorny issue we're not unfamiliar with — Jessica's interview with author Janellle Brown touched on it memorably. Said Brown, who had written up just such a scene in her book All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, "There's always this awkward shuffle around the bill. Money definitely creates this imbalance, especially because in creative worlds it seems like it flows so easily and quickly, particularly when you're not the one getting it." These are issues that we're all aware of to one degree or another, but rarely are we forced to deal with these ugly realities except in the case of the birthday dinner. Sure, any dinner with friends can fall into this trap, but it's only in the case of a birthday that the facts are inarguable, on another's terms, a veritable test of your loyalty. Swansburg defines it thusly:
As my friends moved from graduate programs and entry-level positions into decent-paying jobs, a birthday meet-up at a dive bar to pound SoCo-and-lime shots started to feel a shade déclassé. Yet everyone was still living in small studio or one-bedroom apartments—no place for a proper cocktail party. The compromise: People started celebrating their birthdays by inviting friends out to dinner, typically at a moderately fancy restaurant. The kind of place that frowns on bringing your own candles and Cookie Puss but isn't averse to sticking a sparkler in a crème brûlée.
He proposes three courses of action: shamelessly arranging your own check with the waiter; attempting to keep the bill down; resigning yourself and getting a good, partially-subsidized meal out of the ordeal. He readily admits that none is without its pitfalls. Having tried all of these with varying degrees of success, and having often ended such a meal feeling resentful, frustrated and broke, I've been giving this sort of thing a lot of thought lately. My boyfriend is of the school that brings his own flask and a wax-paper-wrapped sandwich to restaurants, which is not the solution. Recently a successful friend with a good job came to New York eager to paint the town red for her birthday. I simply didn't know how to say, "I can't afford that" without feeling like a killjoy or forcing her to pick up the tab. I know people who gripe about being broke right before the check arrives and it's far from comfy. Ultimately, I suggested a bunch of "creative" alternatives and hole-in-the walls I'd been wanting to try, and we did that instead, to everyone's satisfaction. But when can we get to the point where we can talk about this stuff openly? When it comes to someone's birthday, probably never. Obviously a sensitive friend should be aware of the discrepancies in income and plan accordingly, but as we all know this is not always the case and it's easy for people to forget the difficulties of a really limited income. Then too, even the best-laid plans at the most modest restaurant can go up in a blaze of wine snob/"let's-all-share-starters/why not get champagne/let's try all the desserts!" glory at the hands of one enthusiastic bon vivant. One cheapskate throwing a $10 on the table and sitting back smugly, or somebody who didn't realize a place was cash only, costs everyone extra — and there's always one such person. The only solution is to not go; create a prior engagement and suggest a dinner a deux at a later date. Alternatively, come late in the evening, after people have eaten. If such subterfuge goes against the grain, I can only say, people who want to make a big celebration of their birthdays as an adult (and I sort of fall into this) tacitly hold to the childhood rule that a birthday person is somehow special and should not be judged or confronted on an arbitrary date designated for self-celebration. And it must be said: there are certain infantile individuals who regard a disinclination to spend and show and duly worship the birthday person as a breach of friendship and tacit protocol. Obviously no one should be friends with such a person anyway (even though we all have been at different times) and if a friendship ends over such a trifle, well then, so much the better. Here is what we can do. Every one of us, individually, can take steps to stop this pernicious trend. I propose a new one: the brisk birthday walk. If necessary, the walk can take one through a supermarket that offers samples. They will probably be playing music too! Specify no gifts, and at the end of the evening pass a hat around — let's call a spade a spade. Happy Birthday, You Bastard [Slate] Earlier: This Is Not Chick Lit: A Q&A With Writer Janelle Brown