Well... my father might have. He loved languages, especially Latin, as a root language for the kind of words he preferred – “abbreviated” rather than “shortened,” “fatigued” than “tired,” “extraordinary” rather “strange” – and French, for its nuance and its silky sound. He enjoyed using words that had been lifted directly from the French, like soupçon, au fait, blasé, carte blanche. I may have inherited from him a peculiar little brain nodule that keeps on the alert for a chance to use the word “nuance.”
I first encountered “déclassé” in a book. (I have no idea what book.) I didn’t look it up. We don’t look up most unfamiliar words we encounter. Since they are made up of familiar components, we sort of know what they mean. When we see or hear them again, we adjust and refine our definitions of them, based on the new contexts in which they appear.
“Déclassé” was a literary word, and remained a literary word, as opposed to a colloquial one, even when it had its moment as the word du jour at the West End Bar, or its fling as a Greenwich Village synonym for “tacky.” In conversation, “déclassé,” might be used to describe a fictional or historical person, but as an adjective modifying present circumstances, it usually referred to something, not someone. A tie could be déclassé, a party could be déclassé, an idea could be déclassé, but referring to a contemporary as “déclassé” would be as meaningless as saying that someone was kind to their servants. There were no servants, there were no classes.
Still, if you had asked me if I thought the Brozens were déclassé, after a little thought I would realize that yes, they were, even though I had never thought about them as such. If you had asked me if I, myself, was déclassé, I would have scoffed. The word did not apply, since class meant nothing to me.
I was, of course – I am – déclassé.
This was first pointed out to me one winter evening in the early 1990’s, as I prepared to shut Rhinebeck Records for the day. Yes, I had become Manny Brozen. That is, I had become a curmudgeonly record store owner (although a somewhat more charming one than Manny Brozen, which was not hard to do).
Even though it wasn’t yet five o’clock, night already had fallen and the windows above the CD bins were large, gloomy black rectangles. My last customer had left half an hour ago and I didn’t expect anyone else to come in. As the cash register was spitting out its paper ribbon with the daily tally, a short, balding man in a camel’s hair coat and highly polished brown shoes strode through the door. He glanced around the shop, took a pointed look at me, then marched down to the alcove where I kept my stock of cassettes, He stood in front of the cassettes, which were crammed into wire shelves hung from pegboard, his back to me, as if he were browsing. After a few minutes, he spoke. “You don’t know who I am, do you?” he said.
“Sorry, I don’t,” I said.
He said his name. It meant nothing to me. I can’t remember now what it was and, in fact, had forgotten it by the time I got home and told the story to my wife.
“I’m friends with so-and-so and so-and-so and so-and-so,” he said. One or two of the surnames were vaguely familiar; they were names I might have heard mentioned by my parents. “You insulted me,” he continued, “when I was kind enough to invite you to an exclusive gathering.”
He was crazy, I decided. Crazies did make their way into the shop.
“I even told you there were going to be beautiful women there,” he said.
It all came back to me; I was surprised that it did.
Over forty years earlier, when I was at college, I had been summoned to the phone at the end of the corridor on the tenth floor of Livingstone Hall. (No one had their own phone.) On the line was someone with an unpleasant and whiny voice, who introduced himself as “friends with so-and-so and so-and-so and so-and-so” (surnames I associated with my parents’ generation). One of them had given him my name and he was inviting me to a party, that evening, on Park Avenue.
I didn’t know this guy, I didn’t like the sound of him, I had no interest in going to a party, especially on Park Avenue; I had my own life, my own plans, my own friends. When I declined, he pressed me. “There are going to be some beautiful women there,” he said. I must have laughed when he said that. I decided he was some sort of pimp manqué, the sort of disreputable society hanger-on you’d find in a French or Russian novel. “No, thanks,” I said, or something like that, and hung up.
I didn’t tell my visitor in the record store that I remembered him, I just kept shaking my head and looking blankly at him, He grew more and more angry, and stomped toward the door. Just before exiting, he turned toward me and sneered, “Déclassé!”