Cheese: A Story of Regret

When I first moved to Manhattan, I lived in a four-story walk-up railroad flat in an old tenement building on 16th Street. The type of apartment I lived in was called a “railroad flat” because, like a train, you had to walk through one room to get to another. This made having a bedroom in the back of the building rather difficult to navigate, especially since I shared the apartment with a sexually active on-again/off-again couple. I had to walk through their bedroom in order to go into or get out of mine and I never knew what to expect on the journey. We lived like this until they broke up, and by then, mercifully, I had enough money to pay the rent by myself. This meant that that I could watch whatever I wanted on television whenever I wanted to, and I could listen to my music—the Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, Modern English—as loud as I damn well pleased. I also attempted to decorate my apartment in a way that was more adult-like, and as soon as I saved enough money, I replaced the dingy milk crates holding my books with a real bookcase and traded in my futon on the floor for a slatted bed with a headboard. Given my profound lack of funds and my limited expertise for all things D.I.Y., I found myself investigating a myriad of design alternatives in an effort to invent my very own version of “home sweet home.”

I used contact paper to wallpaper the kitchen; I used double-sided tape to stick on a faux-tin tile backsplash behind the sink, and I created custom floor-to-ceiling bookshelves with bricks bought from a local lumber store that I lugged up the four flights and stacked in an alcove by the window. I also started to entertain. I began by inviting family and friends, and slowly expanded to colleagues and neighbors. I also experimented with cooking and enjoyed presenting my handmade abstractions rather than re-plated Chinese takeout, as I had previously been serving.

Millman's declaration.

About a year into my foray as a New York City designer-cum-hostess, I was invited to dinner by one of my best clients, a woman named Karin. She was a powerful and beautiful media executive, and I was excited to be welcomed into her very exclusive clique. I bought myself a brand new bright pink sweater from Benetton and brought along the best bottle of wine I could afford. When Karin's husband opened the door to their downtown loft, I felt as if I had momentarily left the planet. The lights glistened like little stars and the clink-clink of the crystal glasses made it seem as if the stars were blinking. I looked all around, and saw tall, skinny women in sleeveless black dresses and sinuous up-dos and felt dull and lumpy in comparison. And the food! There was a table a mile wide piled high with glasses and bowls and platters of the most glamorous hors d'oeuvres I had ever seen. There were thick pâtés, cocktails the color of my sweater and shrimps the size of lobsters. I didn't know how to enter into this foreign world and stood paralyzed next to the punch. Seeing my dismay, Karin came over, wrapped her arm around my shoulders and introduced me to an editor friend of hers. Her grace eased my insecurity and I tried to avoid embarrassing her with my awkwardness and naiveté.

After that night, I re-thought my own hostessing efforts and vowed that from then on, I would entertain with a bit more elegance and savoir-faire. And for the most part, I have. I still entertain often, but I have long since moved out of the fourth-floor walk-up. Now, guests walk downstairs into my living room as I try to out-do myself by bestowing the very best, as often as I can.

Anxious and impatient, I imagined myself as George Costanza and pushing her out of the way while yelling “fire.”

Last December, I had an end-of-the-semester party at my house for my design students and friends, and spent the afternoon happily arranging and preparing and organizing. About an hour before the soiree, I began to worry that I didn't have enough food. The presentation didn't look perfect and I decided that I didn't have the right amount of cheese. With an hour to go before the festivities were scheduled to start, I calculated how much time I needed to run to the market, buy more cheese and return home with time to finish getting ready. I determined that if I ran, I could just about do it. It was nearly dark as I rushed out, and I raced through the store barely looking at what to buy. I loaded up my cart and chose the shortest line. I fretfully rocked back and forth waiting my turn. The woman ahead of me seemed to be on her way out, but when she gave the cashier her credit card, it didn't go through. She asked the cashier to try it again. And again, it didn't work. Anxious and impatient, I imagined myself as George Costanza and pushing her out of the way while yelling “fire.” I loudly sighed and did my inner eye roll. The woman tried another card, but it too wouldn't go through. I glanced at my watch. The cashier asked her if she wanted to pay with cash, and she examined her wallet. She shook her head, no, she didn't have enough money; she apologized and walked out. Finally, at long last, my turn! As I put the copious packages of cheese on the belt, I asked the cashier what the woman had been trying to buy. She pointed at a bag of potatoes at the end of the counter. The woman had been trying to buy a bag of potatoes. Here I was, anxiously and obnoxiously trying to prove who knows what to everyone around me by purchasing ludicrous amounts of cheese, and the woman in front of me didn't have enough money to buy a three-pound bag of potatoes. I stood red-faced as I paid for my purchases, and when I was finished, I hurried outside to try and find her. But she was gone.

It was now completely dark out, and I walked back home slowly. I carried the cheese close my chest and my eyes burned in the bitter wind. When I got home I put the cheese on a pretty platter and felt the smallness of my spirit as I waited for my guests to arrive.

About the Author:

 Debbie Millman is a designer, author, educator and brand strategist. She is host of the award-winning podcast “Design Matters,” Chair of the world’s first Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts, CMP of Sterling Brands, President Emeritus of AIGA, and the Editorial & Creative Director of Print Magazine. She is the author of six books on design and branding.