There's no logical reason why I like basketball so much. I don't really understand the rules of the game and I've never had a particular affinity for watching tall people sweat. Yet I love going to games. I love the atmosphere, the camaraderie, the throbbing music -- even the cheesy half-time shows.
Once upon a time, professional sports were marvelously democratic surrogates for warfare: assemblies of all ends of a particular society gathering to cheer on their community's most muscled in benign battle with neighboring communities' awfully agile.
Nowadays, I thought, looking around sadly, athletic contests have become the province of the upper crust. The seats were far too expensive for all but the relatively affluent, even though the stadiums in which the teams played were paid for with everyone's tax dollars.
I leaned over and explained to Rina and Steve that I wanted to stand up and yell, "Anyone here a blue collar worker?"
They laughed and jabbed me for my hypocrisy, noting that I'd not yet offered to exchange seats with anyone in the nose-bleeder section as a display of solidarity with the less fortunate.
Steve stood up and said it was time to get some snacks, and asked if I wanted to come.
I was loathe to allow Ari, their adorable 5-year-old, off my lap, but gamely followed. I was a few steps behind him and saw disaster about to strike, but could only get out "Stee--" before the cursed event.
One of the soda vendors was showing off by twirling her full tray, with the drinks in it. She wasn't watching who was around, and as Steve passed by, she leaned too far forward. The tray abruptly stopped when it hit a metal post, but the drinks kept going -- all over Steve and some consequential-looking man sitting on the aisle.
All I heard was "stupid," "worthless" and some syllables I was surprised to hear in a family atmosphere.
Steve looked surprised at his Coca-Cola shower, but less surprised than the other man, whom I quickly recognized as a local big shot, an executive muckety muck in a local utility company. I recognized him from one of Harris' society events.
Steve's white dress shirt was soaked with sticky soda syrup, but he looked much better than the executive, whose Dolce & Gabbana suit had been ever so lightly dusted with beverage dew.
The worker, who looked about 19, was recoiling toward the wall, her face paling quickly as El Dolce's began to match the hue of her red vendor t-shirt.
A hurl of epithets burst out of him like gunfire. All I heard was "stupid," "worthless" and some syllables I was surprised to hear in a family atmosphere.
The girl looked like she was about to cry, and I felt completely helpless, wishing I could make him shut up.
Steve, his shirt dripping soda, leaned forward and -- huh? -- loudly apologized to El Dolce.
"I just wasn't looking," Steve said, calmly, coolly, his insistently tranquil tones startling the big shot out of his snit. "I must have hit the tray with my shoulder."
The big shot paused his tirade and sputtered for a second, looking from the humiliated girl to Steve and then at the crowd watching.
"At least it looks like I got the worst of it," Steve good-naturedly pointed to his shirt. "I'm soaked and you barely got hit. Still, I apologize. Forgive me?"
The executive drew himself up to his full height and looked down at where we'd been sitting, in better seats than his. He nodded graciously to Steve and sat down.
I followed Steve out and suggested that we go buy a t-shirt for him to change into. The vendor girl appeared beside us and, breathlessly, thanked Steve.
"But, like, your shoulder didn't hit the tray. It was totally my fault ... I am, like, so sorry," she gulped. "But why'd you say it was your fault? Um, I don't think I have been, like, that embarrassed, like, ever. You totally saved me."
It was odd to hear such pure contrition offered in Valley-girl speak.
It was odd to hear such pure contrition offered in Valley-girl speak.
Steve smiled. "You obviously felt badly, and there was no point in having you suffer more," he said. "I'll bet you'll never try twirling a full tray again."
"Omigosh! No! Way!" she staccatoed, sneaking one more grateful look before wandering off.
I recounted the whole story to Harris when we picked him up at the airport on the way home. We stopped at Rina and Steve's for some coffee.
"Let me understand this," Harris said, his brow furrowed in confusion. "You made yourself look like an idiot to Carl Rennert to save an irresponsible soda jerk some well-deserved embarrassment?"
I said that I thought that Carl Rennert – a.k.a. El Dolce -- may have realized that Steve didn't hit the tray.
"Oh, that's much better," Harris said, rolling his eyes. "So you made Carl Rennert feel like an idiot!"
"I don't think he felt like an idiot," Steve said, carefully. "It's a terrible thing to humiliate someone in public and I'd rather look a little foolish than have that girl be excoriated in front of an audience – and then probably fired."
"That's nothing," Rina said, smiling. She recounted how Steve once covered for a colleague of his in the economics department at Arizona State. The guy had lost his train of thought while presenting a paper at a conference. Steve had apparently stood up in the audience and asked him a question, which sounded somewhat nonsensical, but somehow made the guy realize his mistake and get back on track.
Being gallant is all well and good, but business is business.
"Steve saved him," she said, beaming at Steve, who looked embarrassed. "Not only did he look like a bit of an idiot, but he could have jeopardized a grant he'd applied for."
"You have got to be kidding," Harris sputtered. "It's one thing to play Mr. Goody Two Shoes at a basketball game, even if Carl Rennert is one of the most powerful men in Arizona. But academic conferences are your business!"
"What's the difference?" I asked.
"Look, being gallant is all well and good, but business is business," he said.
Steve shrugged and changed the subject as their baby Ben started crying into the baby monitor. He got up to go check on him.
Harris' words echoed in my ears. Business is business. The image of Steve taking blame for something he hadn't done to save someone else from embarrassment contrasted in my head with Harris scolding his secretary in front of the rest of the office two days before.
"You don't honestly think it's justifiable to humiliate someone, just because it's business, do you?" I asked him when we got into the car.
"Steve didn't humiliate anyone," he said. "He made himself look foolish to spare someone else embarrassment."
"I know. I'm not asking that. I am asking if you think it's okay to embarrass someone if business demands it." The image of his secretary, who -- in fairness --had made a mistake, shrinking into her chair was still in my head.
"Technically, we shouldn't embarrass anyone anytime," he purred, somewhat indulgently. He saw that I was serious. "Oh, Jessica. When you're dealing with people's careers and people's money, sometimes things get tense. There are natural pressures that go along with that. It's to be expected."
"But you're the same person whether you're in your office or out of it. You can't have two standards of behavior, not if you're going to be consistent," I said. "You can't excuse being a jerk by tying it to someone's bottom line."
Harris smiled and ruffled his hair. "I love your fire," he said. "You're probably right."
I pursed my lips with irritation as he leaned into the back seat to get his briefcase. He pulled out a little box and handed it to me as we pulled up to his apartment.
--Oh, great, I thought. Another refrigerator magnet.
"You said to stick with flowers," he said as I opened it to reveal a garnets delicately shaped into a flower, on a slim gold chain. My eyes widened. How did he know that I love garnets?
Beware of men bearing jewelry, a voice whispered in my head.
Jessica Shaeffer (not her real name, sorry) lives in Phoenix and is the producer of a TV fashion program.