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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Barney the Butler

A Midwesterner can learn all the tricks of butler school and still never master the art of bending to please rich people.

Butler Carrying a Tray of Martinis Outside
(Photo by mark peterson/Corbis via Getty Images)

Barnabus, or Barney as he was called, was probably the only member at the White Cloud shooting range and perhaps in the entire state of Kansas who had ever eaten at Gaston Glock’s favorite Parisian restaurant. An actual Glock firearm fell way outside of Barnabus’s prison guard salary of 14 dollars an hour, so as we stood deep in a heart of a landfill, we pulverized the paper targets with slightly cheaper versions of the Glock: a Walther PPS 9mm (compared to the Glock G43), a Springfield Armory XD .40 (versus a Glock 23), and a dozen others. 

Every time we reloaded, Barnabus gave me a detailed account of the weapons in his arsenal, educated me on polymers and low-quality Chinese-made rounds, offered a history lesson on the utilitarianism of the Glock, and apologized several times that most of his prized artillery, including a Tommy gun, was still in storage from when he left White Cloud to be a butler in Europe.

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Afterward, we drove back to White Cloud in a convertible 69 Camaro SS 350, a fine vintage model that Barney rarely took out of the garage. If it broke down, he could not afford to fix it.

“See,” Barney explained, “when Clyde was living in California and making boatloads of money, he says to me one day, ‘I want a Lamborghini,’ but I say to him, ‘Why do you want a car like that?’ He says, ‘I want something fast that I can have the top down.’ So I taught Clyde about the beauty of muscle cars, red American cars, and so he buys this Camaro SS convertible. Real beautiful machine. I mean, Dale Earnhardt Jr. drives this car, you know. But then, Clyde moves to the Netherlands and can’t use a convertible with it raining nearly 365 days. Fast forward a few years and I get a call from Clyde. He starts telling me how he’s sending me a convertible. To be honest, I thought he meant a match-box car. One day a truck pulls up and the driver says, ‘I got a car for you,’ and I says, ‘You got the wrong house, buddy,’ but the driver says, ‘No, sir. Got it right here on paper,’ so I said, ‘Okay, just put it in the driveway then.’ And sure enough, here was this Camaro. When I called Clyde to thank him for the car, he said, ‘Just hold onto it for me.’ Years later, he still hasn’t asked for it back, not yet.” 

As we traced the Missouri river, the Camaro engine rumbled against the speed limit. The sweet dew of corn rising from river sediment, ripening under the humid August sun, wrapped a fresh cocoon around the open convertible. My hands felt arthritic, still vibrating from firing so many rounds. 

At some point, Barney glanced at me through his aviators and I gave a short smile back. I had seen him in a suit and tie, serving plates of food or taking jackets, running a house in Antwerp as well as an estate in the Caribbean. But this Midwesterner driving through Kansas was like a friend you haven’t seen in so long, whose appearance has changed entirely but their mannerisms and personality have remained exactly the same.

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To understand how Barney went from Kansas postal carrier to European butler, you first have to know about Clyde. A few years ago, Clyde flew a small group of his friends to Bangkok for his 50th birthday, putting us in separate rooms at the Pan Pacific. As with most trips with Clyde, I could barely afford a taxi from the airport much less a drink at the hotel bar, but the room had a wrap-around window that overlooked the Chao Phraya River and I could spend the whole day just watching the neon orange barges and junks shuttling across that rusty emerald water.

Clyde was my neighbor in Antwerp. I had met him when his renovation crew rolled over my bakfiets (one of those bicycles with a box on the front for kids). He paid for the mistake in cash, invited me over for drinks, and the next thing I knew he was bringing me along to his millionaire activities: five-course dinners in Paris, all-night parties at his canal house, VIP rooms at exclusive strip clubs. 

I liked Clyde, but he wasn’t easy to connect with. He was always retelling anecdotes of parties, so it felt that his idea of conversation was basically frat chat. A few times, especially after his mother would visit, we’d be drunk in a taxi home and he’d reveal some snippet of authentic emotion, some quiet frustration with his upbringing or a long sigh over a relative’s neediness. And a few times, when I was in despair about my own life, including my ex and kids, he would listen, really listen, and make genuine but misguided offers of help.

What made Clyde stand out from the tech guys back in San Francisco was that he didn’t speak their lingo, never threw around trite platitudes in pseudo-revolutionary tones, never said he was “disrupting” anything. He had a silent but solid belief that institutions, establishments, ideas in general, had come to be the way they were out of a collective general wisdom and not, like so many in Silicon Valley arrogantly believed, out of ineptitude. 

Clyde’s father had put his career as a top government engineer on the back-burner and moved his family to the Midwest, just so his kids would grow up with Midwest values. You could hear it in the way Clyde spoke. When the Flemish construction workers renovating his house asked him questions, Clyde would take a break from controlling his portion of the internet to answer them calmly and respectfully.

But Clyde needed people to look up to him. Most of the people Clyde surrounded himself with were wounded in some way, swimming in menial jobs or flitting along the edges of journalism like myself, burdened by debts, or simply emotionally needy. These same wounded people were always asking him for favors that he often mocked behind their backs. 

On the way to Thailand, in Schipol airport, Clyde told us that his best friend from college had just lost his job as a postmaster. Clyde said this with a strange air of detachment, like someone reasoning their luck after a near head-on collision. “Lost his girlfriend. His house. That guy, man, he’s on the edge. Just a big warning.”

Clyde and Barney had been friends in high school, then roommates at university. After they graduated, they lived nearby and worked similar jobs. Barney eventually took a job with the Post Office while Clyde drifted into the tech side of the corporate world. When the first internet bubble crashed, Clyde used his savings to hire a group of laid-off, mostly Russian programmers to start his own internet security company. He made his first million in his late twenties. 

We were all sitting on a patio in Bangkok drinking Sabai Sabais by the time Barney arrived. He flopped down in a wicker chair, forehead sweating and eyes darting around the table. Barney was overweight but not fat, his shaved head giving a menacing impression of groomed efficiency.

After his third cocktail, Barney told us about his money troubles. The break-up with the mother of his adopted daughter. The loss of his house. He was moving back in with his parents, a soul-crushing prospect for any middle-age man. There was a careless, honest confidence to the ease in which Barney spoke of his near breakdown, a complete contradiction to northern Europe. While the others seemed to be getting annoyed, I had been away from America for almost a decade so it was comforting to hear Barney’s Midwestern twang and to drift in the slow nothingness of American conversation.

We were in the middle of an Asian swamp the following day when Clyde decided to hire Barney to be his butler. There were six of us on the flat-bottomed boat, throwing bananas to a swarm of emaciated monkeys trapped on a marshy island. As our boat approached, hundreds of howling shadows emerged from the woods and swam out into the water toward us like a scene in Apocalypse Now

One of the larger monkeys jumped from a tree branch and landed on the boat. She was covered in sores, purple tongue licking bared fangs. The driver was telling us all to calm down, that the monkeys wouldn’t hurt anyone, but we were all screaming and clambering over one another. Barney calmly reached into a bag and handed the largest monkey a small banana. The two met and locked eyes. The other monkeys reacted to this calm interaction, subjects to their king. A powerful calm descended over our boat. There was something about Barney’s character that I admired in that moment, that he was the only one who showed no fear.

Later, when we were eating snacks on a pier, Barney was having trouble sitting cross-legged because of his knees so he walked around with his plate. “What should I do about Barney?” Clyde asked me when Barney was out of earshot. 

I felt good from the swim and food, so I told him about a story I had come across in a luxury magazine at my dentist’s office about hip-hop artists hiring butlers, dapper dressed servants who held umbrellas and opened doors with white-gloved hands.

“You should see these guys. A different kind of help.”

“I have a personal assistant,” Clyde said.

“She doesn’t help you get cocaine. Or remember when you were trying to get that girl to leave the other day? How stressed you were.”

Clyde set his phone down, a sign that he was really paying attention. “Someone discreet. Trust is important, true. I don’t know. Barney’d have to lose a lot of weight.” 

It wasn’t long after Thailand that Barney came to visit in Antwerp. He came at a moment of chaos. Clyde’s girlfriend, Anna-Lee, had gotten stuck in Berlin. Clyde was insistent on partying with her that night, but he was also swamped with work. Barney offered to help. Clyde handed over his Amex Black (Centurion) card, and within the hour Barney had Clyde’s girlfriend on a plane, a ride booked from the airport, and, since her luggage had been lost, three bags of new clothes.

That seemed to seal the deal. Clyde offered Barney the job as his butler. He’d pay him the same salary he’d been getting at the Post Office, plus 5 percent. In return, Barney would lose fifty pounds and go to butler school for six weeks. 

We went out to a sky-lounge. Clyde was there with his entourage, a hodgepodge of expats bonded by their sycophancy. Barney was already easing into his prospective role, delivering rounds of drinks, making sure Clyde’s glass was always full, and tipping the strippers. Even though Barney was the happiest I had ever seen him, I had a sinking dread, as if something innocent was about to be lost, a corruption of a belief system that I had spent most of my liberal youth taking for granted.

The Greycoat Academy was run by a woman named Jane. She was a no-nonsense single mom who had risen from the middle-class world into the orbit of the super-wealthy. When she spoke, her authority was as tight and clear as a soft-spoken drill sergeant.

“Putting on a butler suit is like joining a tribe,” she told me. “The three C’s are the motto of the tribe. Confidence. Confidentiality. Cash.” 

I told her my worries that Barney and Clyde’s friendship would make the assignment hard. “As a butler, you have confidence in your professionalism,” she said. “Your power lies in that you are the core of communication. Gentle leadership. Doing the right thing for the right reason. If someone is upset, your response is key. They say to you, ‘I don’t like how I was treated,’ Barney’s job is to say, ‘Thank you for telling me, you won’t be disappointed again.’ This, I think, is going to be Barney’s struggle.’”

She was right. Even though Barney was polite and listened to other people, he had his own very strong opinions about pretty much everything and everyone. Barney was the kind of guy who stayed true to his character, a Kansan raised on granite values. People whom Barney saw as fake or falling outside of those values, he accepted, but always with a healthy distance. 

Barney was also frugal. He believed in getting the best for his buck. He had once thrown a Chinese coffee-maker at a Walmart salesman for trying to sell him a sub-par product.

“People like Clyde have no budget,” Jane explained to Barney during one of their first meetings. “He’s going to want to go on a trip and your first inclination is to look for cheap flights, but Clyde wants to be there in 32 hours. You can’t look for cheap flights. Your job is to simply provide convenience. You’re going from a normal life to a life for millionaires.”

Barney practiced table setting, greeting at the door, turning people away. Jane took Barney on field trips to estates, where he practiced setting tables and serving techniques. He learned the correct way of doing laundry, turning t-shirts inside out, making a bed, packing with duvets (a cultural skill foreign to Americans), how to keep a perpetually straight face, which manners to use in certain situations. 

The last part of his training was dealing with rich people, witnessing the things rich people did. Jane sent Barney out on a shopping trip to find a crystal ashtray and a set of opals at Harrods. 

“They wanted 900 pounds for an ashtray with four cigarette slots,” he said. “I said to Jane, ‘You have to be crazy,’ and she said, ‘No, this is what rich people buy.’ I said, ‘All you’re doing is putting your cigarette butt in there,’ and she said, ‘Well, I’d be surprised if they used it at all.’ I said, ‘This is nuts,’ and she looks at me all serious and I’m thinking she’s going to argue with me, but she says, ‘That is why I had you do this, Barney. Dropping $10,000 on presents is normal. You’re not dealing with reality, you’re dealing with millionaires.’

On the last day of training, Barney sent me a selfie of himself in a fitted butler outfit. It was a strange sight, this proud American man stuffed into a modern day servant’s uniform. I was simultaneously proud of him and discouraged at the situation. There was something eating at me, some vague and undefined rot that I was contributing to, like going into a mom-and-pop store, trying on a shoe, and then ordering it for cheaper online. It was as if I were a traitor in some way, as if I had let Barney down. 

Clyde had a party to celebrate Barney’s completion of butler school. Barney greeted everyone at the door, his usual ebullience replaced by a chaste but warm nod and smile. He didn’t engage in chitchat beyond “I’m doing fine, thank you for asking.” I was eager to know how he felt as a butler graduate, to probe his emotions, to see where the old Barney ended and the new one began, but I wasn’t even allowed to shake his hand.

I had always viewed class-consciousness as culturally exotic, something historical and mostly irrelevant, like Belgian royalty. Here, though, in Clyde’s elegantly renovated 17th-century house, two Americans, Barney and I, were not allowed to shake hands. There was an invisible wall between us.  

Jane sent one of her top butlers, Sean, to help out with the party. He was a short, olive-complexioned man with an Irish accent and timid eyes who exuded calm control. I was glad he was there. I wanted Barney’s night to go well.

Clyde’s latest girlfriend, Cynthia, a laid-off personal banker whose world travels had been temporarily grounded by Clyde’s lust, was consciously or unconsciously testing Barney. She wanted complicated hors d’oeuvres that Clyde’s personal chef, whom he had hired soon after Barney, was unable to make properly. Then she moved on to wanting complicated drinks. The caterer only knew how to serve gin and tonics. Thankfully, Clyde had an assortment of friends that he had met in hotel lobbies and one was Najeem, an immigrant from the Middle East, who was more than happy to take over the role of bartender.

“Throughout the party,” Barney told me later, “I kept wanting to tease Najeem, to joke with him, but I couldn’t. I was only watching from a distance. Everyone was testing me. Clyde’s dad kept messing with me, asking about the hors d’oeuvres. I had to explain what was in them. He asked if the piece of meat was male or female. Stupid things like that. I wanted to stay, ‘Beats the shit out of me,’ but I wasn’t allowed to get out of character. So I said, ‘That’s a very good question. I’ll find out an answer for you.’

The musical guest at the party was a guitarist who had nearly won Belgium’s Got’s Talent. When he arrived and saw that there were fifty people at most, he exploded. He went outside while his manager spoke with Barney and Sean. 

“Sean played to the singer’s ego,” Barney told me later. “It was something to see. He told him that the people in the audience were well-connected and loved his music. They wanted to hear him live so that they could tell their even wealthier friends to hire him. In the end, we didn’t even need the manager anymore. Sean had that singer right where he wanted him. In fact, the singer told his manager to go to hell, and then played nine of ten songs he was supposed to play.”

Cynthia eventually got drunk and went off to bed with Clyde. The rest of us stayed downstairs until late, talking and laughing. I wanted Barney to join us, to joke along, maybe even talk endlessly as he was so prone to doing. Instead, he and Sean oversaw the clean-up and continued to serve drinks. When Clyde came down in his bathrobe and whispered in his ear, Barney wished us good night and herded us out the door. 

It’s impossible to summarize what happened to Barney after that party, but his job as a butler only lasted for a couple more years. He and Clyde had a falling out. Their social differences had become too vast, and their friendship got in the way of Barney’s ability to be completely subservient. 

Barney returned to Kansas and became a prison guard, then a parole officer. But his perspective on the world had been changed forever. He had experienced a new life, a new world, and having to move back home with his parents after seeing such great wealth did something to him. Barney was never the same. But that guy on the boat in Thailand, the one the monkeys assumed was our leader, still goes to the shooting range every week and fires his Glock imitations. 

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