They are the Retro Guys. They meet once a month for lunch at the Palm restaurant in Washington, and they do bad things.
They eat red meat. They drink martinis. They gobble fried foods. They smoke big, smelly cigars. And through it all, they laugh.
Even though they are only in their late 30s, they realize they are throwbacks. Retros. They are what guys used to be like when guys read True magazine at their barbershops instead of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter at their hair salons.
"We remember an earlier era," Mark said, tossing his martini olive high into the air, tilting back his head and catching it in his teeth. "An earlier era when it was still fun to be alive."
They don't care about cholesterol. Or fiber. Or zinc. Or love handles. They care about getting together and chowing down.
"The guiding principle of our lives can be reduced to three words," Michael said. "Salt before tasting."
Isn't that a little risky? I asked.
Michael smiled indulgently as he waved a big hunk of prime rib from the end of his fork. "What does salt do?" he asked.
It elevates your blood pressure, I said.
"Exactly--it makes your heart beat faster. What else makes your heart beat faster?"
Well, getting excited.
"Exactly. And what gets you excited?"
"Right. Sex," he said. "So salt is merely sex in a shaker. Nobody tells you to cut down on sex. So why cut down on salt?"
Michael is a builder who believes in red meat and tanning without PABA. Mark is a lawyer who always gets extra melted butter and extra bearnaise with his Surf & Turf. Chuck is into publishing and getting no form of exercise. And Brian is an author who thinks Dove Bars are a health food.
They first got the idea of the Retro Guys from the movie "Sleeper." Woody Allen awakens in the future where medical science has discovered that cigarettes, fatty foods and hot fudge sundaes all are healthy.
"Fat, cholesterol, salt and tobacco," Brian said. "The building blocks of life."
Aside from the huge slabs of meat and platters of lobster that always crowd their big round table, the Retro Guys make sure they get the extras that make life worth living: the creamed spinach, the fried potatoes and the French fried onion rings. Afterward they have ice cream with chocolate sauce before they light their cigars.
I was invited to eat with them on the condition that I wouldn't try to tell them they were killing themselves.
At the next table, a young man in an elegant double-breasted glen plaid business suit was ordering lunch. He was about 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds without an inch of flab on him. He might have been a fullback in college. "The skinless breast of chicken was a delight last time," he said to the waiter. "But today I think I'll take the broiled fish. No butter, of course."
"What a dweeb," Chuck said.
A dweeb? For taking care of his body?
"I'll tell you why he's a dweeb," Chuck said. "He eats real careful, right? No red meat. No skin on the chicken. No butter. He probably hasn't had an egg in the last five years. And he makes sure he gets plenty of fresh vegetables, zinc, folic acid, vitamin B-6 and magnesium. He probably works out regularly and goes jogging in the park every morning."
"So," Chuck said, forcing an enormous piece of rare steak into his mouth and wiping a little driblet of blood from his chin, "so one day he goes jogging, gets bit by a tick with Lyme disease and dies!"
The Retro Guys burst into table-pounding laughter. "Show him the cartoon," Chuck said to Brian.
Brian took from his jacket pocket a cartoon from the Feb. 20, 1989, New Yorker. The Retro Guys have adopted it as their official symbol. It shows a healthy, happy businessman striding confidently down the street and saying to himself: "Less cholesterol. Regular checkups. No nicotine. No alcohol. Low sodium. Moderate exercise. No sugar." Above the man, a large safe is hurtling from the sky on its way to crush him flat.
"It's true," Brian said. "Who was that runner?"
"Jim Fixx," Mark said.
"Yeah," Brian said. "He's dead, right? And that guy who ate nuts and berries and tree limbs?"
"Dead as a doornail," Brian said, heaping sugar into his coffee. "But I'm still here."
"Yeah," Mark said, "all 300 pounds of you!" Everybody laughed.
Brian glanced at his watch. It was 3:30 p.m. "Too late to go back to work anyway," he said. "So whatta you say to an after-dinner drink?"
As the waiter cleared space for the brandy, I asked the Retro Guys if they had any final words of wisdom to impart.
"Live fast," Brian said.
"Party hard," Mark said.
"Pass the creamed spinach," Chuck said.
"Mgwff rumpfer blmng," Michael said, his mouth full.
I asked for a translation. He swallowed and wiped his mouth.
"So many onion rings," he said, "and so little time."