BY ONE DEFINITION gentlemen and gentlewomen are people who have gone to the schools and colleges everybody's heard of, don't talk with their mouths full, avoid using like as a conjunction, don't make scenes in public, and so on. They are apt to turn up in such places as country clubs, the society pages, and restaurants in which proper dress is required. They may commit murder from time to time, but they rarely end up in the electric chair. If a child of yours marries one of them, you figure he or she has done all right. If they're usually no better than other people, they are usually no worse either. Or if they are, it at least doesn't show so much.

But there are gentlewomen and gentlemen in another sense who may be none of the above. They may speak atrocious English and get their clothes at rummage sales. They may leave their spoons in their coffee cups and douse their french fries with ketchup. There are some of them who, if they turned up at a country club, would be directed to the service entrance. Some are educated, and some barely made it through grade school. Some are captains of industry, and some pump gas for a living. But whatever the differences between them, the common denominator is even more striking.

Gentle is the key word, of course. Their table manners may be appalling, but their courtesy is instinctive. They let you take the seat by the window or have first go at the morning paper not because it's in Emily Post, but because it's in their nature. They seem to be born knowing when to come around and when to stay away. If you have them over for supper, they know when it's time to go home. Their wit may be sharp, but it never cuts. Even in private they don't make scenes if they can possibly help it.

They have their hang-ups and abysses and blind spots like everybody else, but when Jesus said, "Blessed are the meek," if it wasn't exactly them he was talking about, the chances are it was people very much like them. 

-Originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words 

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