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The $5,700 Cake
It was a $5,700 cake. Not only was it too expensive to eat; it was too pricey to look at. When someone cut into it, I fully expected people’s faces to start melting like Nazis in Indiana Jones. Yet here I was, seated at a table with the final boss of all desserts. Taking a single bite could bankrupt me for years to come. Resisting it would be the ultimate act of self-control.
Did I have a slice? Of course not.
I had two.
It’s amazing what you can get away with if you say it’s for charity. You can justify nearly anything, no matter how expensive or ill-advised, if it’s for a good cause. If you walk across America because it’s a personal challenge you’ve always wanted to take on, you’re a selfish eccentric who contributes nothing to society. But if you walk across America because you’re raising money for dogs who can’t read, you’re a hero who gets local TV interviews every time you enter a new zip code. Never mind that no matter how many millions of dollars you collect, the canine literacy rate will never rise much above zero. Every little bit helps. You can’t solve the world’s problems with money, but you can bribe them to go away for a little while.
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My friends Peter and Lila are good people, but I hang out with them anyway. They benefit from my distinct lack of other options. The two of them spend their weekends volunteering at Teacher’s Treasures, an organization that distributes free classroom supplies to local educators. In America, we expect teachers to work basically for free and also to somehow buy pens and pencils with those non-existent funds. Teachers’ Treasures corrects part of that injustice by offering a warehouse full of donated materials to educate the next generation. Peter and Lila still like children because they don’t have any of their own. I hope their visits to my house don’t ruin this optimism. After a few more game nights, they might oppose educating children and support abandoning them in the forest to be raised by wolves. I might actually volunteer at that charity.
Teachers’ Treasures holds an annual fundraising dinner to help cover its operating costs. This year, Peter and Lila invited my wife Lola and me to attend. This was less because they wanted to spend more time with us and more because I seem like the kind of guy who will lose all self-control after a few drinks. That’s a liability at a normal dinner party but a huge asset at a fundraiser where the whole goal is to get people to loosen up and pull out their credit cards. I wasn’t a guest; I was a mark. That was fine with me. I was just happy to have an excuse to put on fancy clothes and get out of the house. That’s what happens when you spend too much time alone. You get really excited to walk into a trap.
Peter and Lila bought our tickets, which weren’t cheap. We needed to donate at least an equivalent amount of money to not be terrible human beings. There was added pressure beyond just supporting a good cause. The other volunteers at this charity formed Peter and Lila’s primary social group. It was sort of like going with a new girlfriend or boyfriend to meet their parents. We needed to make a good impression if we wanted to continue to have someone to play games with every Wednesday night. I don’t exactly have a surplus of friends these days, so I couldn’t afford to blow this, no matter how much it cost me. And it was going to cost me a lot.
The charges started adding up long before the big night. Lila asked me to donate signed copies of my books for the silent auction. Technically, I got my author copies for free, but really, each one cost me a year of my life. I refuse to spend my own money to buy more, so once my meager supply is gone, I’m out for good. I still had a few copies left, so I handed over one of each. They might not raise much money at auction, but they could still be a valuable teaching tool, if only by negative example. Don’t make the mistake of becoming an author, kids. That’s the most valuable lesson of all.
I wasn’t just a contributor to the silent auction. I was also a participant. Bidding opened a few days before the event. The lot that caught my eye right away was for a pizza every week for a year from a beloved local restaurant. Normally, I buy cheap pizza from a national chain for our weekly board game nights with Peter and Lila. Here was a chance to up my culinary game while also contributing to charity and fulfilling my social obligation in return for the tickets. It seemed like I couldn’t lose—until I did. Every time I put in a bid, some jerk swooped in and one-upped me. The price skyrocketed by hundreds of dollars. The bidding war shouldn’t have been this intense. The final call was still days away. I mentioned my heroic struggle in the group text thread with Peter and Lila. That’s when I learned the horrible truth: They were the other bidders. They had exactly the same idea I did about supplying pizza for game night. It was financial friendly fire. I would never forgive myself, and neither would my bank account.
In the final hour, a third party finally outbid me. Peter heroically stepped up and decided to win the lot outright. He’s a good person, if you haven’t noticed. It’s his greatest flaw. He spent more money than I even want to think about to win the item. Still, it was technically a good deal since it was for fifty-two pizzas valued at about twenty-five dollars each. Then he picked up his prize. The description had been wrong. It was actually for one pizza a month, not a week. These were going to be the most expensive twelve pizzas any of us had ever eaten. But what was he going to do, complain to a non-profit organization that his charitable contribution didn’t benefit him enough? Peter didn’t even consider it. I would have complained until they gave me my money back or tased me, whichever came first.
Meanwhile, I had the challenging task of winning something else that cost enough to cover our tickets and help the teachers without also making me hate myself for the next six months. It was a delicate balancing act. I ended up in a bidding war for four different reasonably priced items. Suddenly, I was in the lead for all of them. Four times a reasonable price isn’t reasonable at all. Luckily, I managed to lose two. I came away with a wine party at my house complete with a sommelier and some tickets for attractions in Southern Indiana. It was way more than I intended to spend, but by then we were at the fundraising dinner and the open bar was taking its toll. This was already the most expensive meal of my life. It was time to go for broke, but not literally or I would have definitely gotten a fraud alert from my bank. They know I’m not a good person and will freeze my account if I spend too much on anyone other than me.
I committed myself to eating away my regrets. The charity made that easy. It was the best buffet I’ve ever been through, and that’s saying something. I’m experienced with venues that offer mass quantities of food. My preferred meal delivery method is a feeding trough. The charity offered bacon-wrapped chicken, gravy-covered beef, and mashed potatoes that were to die for. Seriously, if I were to drown in a giant vat of them, I would swim to hell with zero regrets. I piled my plate with as much of it as I thought I could get away with without being kicked out. I didn’t realize that we were allowed to go back for seconds and thirds. That’s for the best, or the charity would have lost money on me, even after everything I spent at the auction. The downside was that, when I finished my one-plate feast, I was still hungry. There were appetizers to fill the gap. Every table had a platter of ricotta cheese with prosciutto around the edges. I think the idea was to use it as a topping, but the ratios were confusing. There was about 200 times more cheese than would ever fit on the tiny circles of bread they gave us. Naturally, all the actual adults at the table ignored the cheese. I asked one of them to pass it to me. Then I ate the entire platter scoop by scoop with a tiny serving knife. I didn’t intend to, but once I started building momentum, there was no stopping me. At one point, Lola looked over at me and asked if I even like ricotta cheese. I do not. Clearly, my life had spiraled out of control. That’s when we hit the photo booth.
Below is the best picture I’ve taken in my entire life. This is the face of a man who regrets everything and nothing at the same time. I can’t calculate how much spreadable cheese it takes to get to this point, but it’s measured in pounds.
Lola strategically closed her eyes in that picture so I can’t use it anywhere on the open internet. Instead, this is the retake.
You’ll notice that I forgot what to do with my eyes. I thought maybe I would open them. That was the wrong call. This picture only makes sense if that ricotta cheese was actually cocaine.
If you look closely in those wide, scary eyes, you can also see pain. By that point, I realized that I had been dealt the ultimate snub. The signed books I donated were nowhere to be found. The event organizers treated my contribution as if I were a five-year-old handing them a finger painting I made all by myself. Yes, it was lovely, and they would be sure to display it in a place of prominence. You know, like the dumpster out back. Fellow Indianapolis author John Green also donated a signed book. His was displayed in a place of prominence on the auction website and went for a winning bid of $135. The difference is that he’s sold a billion copies of his books while I’ve sold, well, a few less than that. Really, that should make my books more valuable. They’re much rarer. When it comes to charity, every penny counts. Evidently, my books weren’t expected to clear the one-cent threshold, so they weren’t included in the auction. I started this article talking about cake, but the real dessert was humble pie. I’ve eaten enough of it to last me a lifetime.
Don’t worry, there was actual cake. The event ended with a bidding war to determine the order in which we approached the dessert table. I can’t think of a better use of my money or anyone else’s. At that point, though, it actually was everyone else’s money. When I confirmed my bids in the silent auction and cashed out, the fundraising app wouldn’t let me spend any more. Thank goodness it cut me off. The next phase was the priciest of all. In a matter of minutes, tables collectively raised tens of thousands of dollars bidding against each other for the right to pick out a cake first. Due to the wild generosity of the people sitting around me, our table came in second. They paid nearly six thousand dollars for the right to choose a dessert. We then had to send up a representative to make the selection on our behalf. It was like the electoral college, but more important. Our designee made an excellent choice. If you wondered what a cake that cost more than my first car looks like, this is it.
The people who actually paid for the cake graciously sliced it into pieces and shared it with the rest of us. After shamefully eating my body weight in ricotta cheese, I still somehow found room for the cake. The other three members of my party tapped out halfway through their slices. I wouldn’t waste a crumb of a $10 cake. Tossing part of one that cost $5,700 was blasphemy. I finished Lola’s slice, and then Peter and Lila’s pieces, too. When that much money is involved, germs no longer apply. By volume, I probably ate two full pieces, giving me the largest share of the cake I didn’t pay for. If the other people at the table hadn’t been watching me, I would have licked the plates. It’s a wonder I don’t get invited to more things.
If you want to donate to Teachers’ Treasures, you can find them here. With the right materials, teachers can turn out more scientists and engineers and fewer English majors whose books end up in the trash.
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for now. Catch you next time.