The best party I ever went to was small and a bit wine-stained, but it glows in memory with the luster of perfection, a pinnacle night of youth — one of those moments when life is exactly as you had hoped it would be. The party was in a garden in the hills of Buda, on the far side of Budapest where families owned small garden plots, often featuring summer huts with bunks where you could spend the night surrounded by your fruit trees and pepper bushes. There were only maybe 10 of us that night, and the music came from a beaten-up transistor radio kept on a table in the hut along with old jars, a shovel, crusty work gloves from the Iron Curtain era. The owner of the garden stored his bottles of palinka, home-made plum brandy, down a well and tied to a string: You pulled the string and the cool bottles came dripping up from the well. It was the summer of 1993 or 1994. The cherries were ripe and a young poet, a kind of a Hungarian Rimbaud in appearance — who I see sometimes now on Facebook, no longer elfin — was eating the cherries, even though every other one hid a small white worm.
Where have all the parties gone?
Long time passing. My kids look at me quizzically when I explain how many house parties the average person used to attend. “Before internet,” I lecture them tediously, “people were constantly throwing your basic party-party, when you invited a ton of people over, and set out big bottles of Jim Beam and Seagram’s Gin, and filled the fridge with soda and beer, and the ashtrays overflowed, and the children ran around unsupervised and then fell asleep on the car ride home after midnight, and were lifted up in the arms of Dad and carried to slumber as he whispered ‘home again, home again, jiggity-jig.’ ” Nettie and Teddy say nothing when I tell them these things. “There were also many, many — many — dinner parties in the olden days,” I continue. “Before internet. We had square dances in barns, and bonfires on the beach with three or four hundred people crashing around in the dark!”
There are still parties in the Hamptons, of course. Charity galas at which no one has fun (and which most of us cannot afford to attend). Stupid wine-browsings in boutiques where no one has fun. And, dinner parties, sure — but not nearly as many as in the last century, and they’re much more self-conscious. My parents’ generation, which came of age in the 1950s, was one of the 20th century’s champion drinking-and-smoking generations, not as frantic, perhaps, as the drunken revelers of F. Scott and Zelda’s Gen Jazz, but much hardier partiers than adults are today. My childhood in retrospect is a series of social events strung out like pearls on a necklace — the thread of the necklace being long stretches of silence and boredom, between the pearls, during which we children were left alone with our thoughts.
A party at the Plimptons’ house on Town Line Road where one of the Rolling Stones, wearing a T-shirt with the words “Who the hell is Mick Jagger?” on it asked me if I was standing on the Porta Potty line. A party at the house of Jimmy Ernst over near Lily Pond Lane, during which I got a splinter in my bare foot and the host — the son of Dadaist pioneer Max Ernst — poured Scotch over my sole and then dug in with tweezers, as the merry guests gathered round offering encouragement and I shrank into the upholstered couch in mortification. During Hurricane Belle in the Bicentennial Year of 1976 there was an overnight party at the Morris family’s house on the corner of Buell Lane: Dozens who lived, like us, near the danger zone of the shore gathered seeking shelter from the storm, and as the wind raged and the lowball glasses were emptied, one after the other, a tree came down outside the black windows with an incredibly loud, end-of-the-world rending noise. We children ran around in a frenzy. That’s the party where I first saw cocktail weenies. Weenies were anything but fashionable; I think they came out of the pantry by way of emergency rations.
I haven’t really partied since the turn of the Millennium. I’ve become a semi-recluse — disinclined to make small talk about art openings or “Bridgerton,” averse to meeting new people or leaving the house when push comes to shove — but for the first time in 20 years I am gearing up. Throw your hands in the air like you just don’t care! I want to have a dance in my back garden, with colored paper lanterns. I want to gather in groups to play parlor games, as we sophisticates of Manhattan literary circles used to do. I’d love to throw a house party, too, if I weren’t dissuaded by thoughts about the cleanup the morning after: There are no other adults in this particular household to wash the glasses and take the empties to the trash bin.
My niece Adelia reports from New Hampshire that college parties do rage on. Her sorority at Dartmouth hosts “MILF” dress-up parties and parties where you have to wear Skidz or Zubas (the crazy-colored elastic-waist baggy pants popularized by weightlifters in the early 1990s). They engage in intense Dartmouth Pong competitions in the basement and consume great amounts of beer. Her sorority is a breakaway: It cut ties with its national organization in 1993 to become the only sorority at Dartmouth to host its own campus parties. The sisters did this for safety and autonomy: Kappa Delta Epsilon is a female space where the women control both the kegs and the gatekeeping at the front door. I’d call that progress.