When I connected with Michael Vandeveer at the arrival gate, I was struck by his impeccability. This is a man who has mastered the art of grooming, I thought as we shook hands. I should take lessons.
Every hair on his head was trimmed to perfection; ditto his short, reddish beard. His nostrils and ears, I noticed, appeared spotlessly clean and hair free — no easy trick to pull off for an aging human male, let me tell ya. I want to say that his skin appeared exfoliated and moisturized, but — though I've heard it's a good thing — I realized I didn't know what exfoliated actually meant. Suffice it to say, his skin looked flawless.
Don't get me started on his clothes, because I was for reals jealous. Neither flashy nor ostentatious, his attire communicated — whispered, at that — subtle, casual class. My duds, on the other hand ... well, best not ask.
Michael was looking at me askance as we approached the baggage belt, probably because he had caught me ogling him. Attempting to finesse the awkward moment, I asked him what kind of work he does.
"I'm recently retired, but I was an international butler," he replied.
Yeah, baby! I thought. I wasn't sure precisely what an international butler does, but it sounded very Austin Powers.
We loaded Michael's luggage into the taxi and, upon my invitation, he took the seat up front next to me. We were bound for the small town of Vershire, smack in the heart of Orange County and the location of my customer's residence since he quit his international butlering.
"Michael," I began as we drove toward the interstate, "I got to say that your career intrigues me. Could you tell me what it involved?"
"Well, you can think of it as a live-in personal assistant but encompassing every aspect of the employer's life. The people I served often had dynamic professional lives entailing socializing throughout the world."
I noticed how thoughtful and specific Michael was in his elocution. For some reason, I found that slightly thrilling.
"So, I imagine you would accompany them?" I asked. "You must have logged a lot of time in hotels and airports."
"Not so much. My clients flew almost exclusively on private jets and tended to stay in villas and private homes more than commercial hotels."
Yes, I'm of the same inclination, I thought. I much prefer villas to commercial (ugh) hotels.
Going right for the juicy mother lode, I asked, "So, I know this might be sensitive, but could you share some of the names of the folks you worked for over the years? I imagine the list includes some celebrities?"
"Well, that is sticky, isn't it? Discretion lies at the heart of the work I did. But I suppose now, being retired, I can dish a little bit."
"Oh, please do," I said, chuckling. "Dish, that is."
"The first thing to know is that the best clients embody what the English call noblesse oblige, which roughly means the responsibility to act with generosity and kindness toward the people who serve you. Most of my clients demonstrated this quality. For example, for years I worked for the Hammerstein children — the offspring of the great American librettist Oscar Hammerstein. They were unfailingly kind and considerate to me and all their staff."
"That's so cool," I said. "I love Rodgers and Hammerstein. I'm a big musical theater guy, especially the musicals from the '50s."
"Another lovely person I worked for was Steve Winwood's accountant."
OK, that one's kind of random, I thought. But I do enjoy Traffic and Blind Faith.
"What about the other end of the spectrum?" I asked. "You know — the jerks?"
"Well, the best, or perhaps worst, example of that would be my last employer."
Michael then named one of President Trump's key henchmen — excuse me, "consultants" — a guy who has served the administration in both formal and informal roles and regularly shills for him on TV news outlets. Trust me, you would know him.
"This is a man who, walking through a room, would not even acknowledge me or any of the other household help, as if we were invisible. One day, he was booked to do a morning cable show, and the limousine they sent for him arrived two minutes late. He refused to take it, instead making me call the production staff and have them send another one. He also instructed me to tell them to fire the driver, but that part I couldn't stomach and simply 'forgot' to mention."
"A portrait in douchebaggery," I said.
"In a word, yes," he agreed.
"So, in your capacity as butler, did you manage a whole staff? My frame of reference, to be honest, is Mr. Carson on 'Downton Abbey.'"
"I get that reference all the time," Michael said with a smile, perhaps his first of the conversation. "And, yes — I often was called upon to manage a household staff. That was part of my duties."
We got off the highway and on to the state routes heading southeast toward Vershire. I was sure I'd driven those before, but I had forgotten just how hilly, nearly to the point of roller coaster-y, Orange County is. The trees were just beginning to bud out, the sun showing off high in the afternoon sky. Ah, spring, glorious spring.
"So, Michael — do you have a family?"
"Actually, I've never married. Never really had any longtime relationships, to be frank. The job, the traveling has been all-consuming, I suppose."
I detected wistfulness in Michael's tone and flashed on another famous fictional butler: Mr. Stevens, the character played by Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day. If you haven't seen it, do; Sir Anthony delivers a sublime performance for which he was justly rewarded with his second Academy Award.
In the film, Mr. Stevens silently longs for Miss Kenton, the housekeeper played by Emma Thompson. Though the feelings are reciprocated, not a word is ever spoken of it between the two, because Mr. Stevens' undivided loyalty remains with his master, Lord Darlington. In the end, unsurprisingly, he realized that he had chosen poorly.
I had an inkling that Michael might have chosen a life path similar to that of the fictional Mr. Stevens. The good news is, his journey is not yet over. Life's too short to fly solo forever.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.