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Unappetizing Words: 'Let's Do Lunch'

L.A. STORIES: A slice of life in Southern California.

March 23, 1993|RIP RENSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I'll never eat lunch in this town again.

No, no, I haven't been blacklisted because I wrote a tell-all book about such pressing matters as Goldie Hawn's hygiene or Steven Spielberg's fondness for doughnuts.

I've blacklisted myself.

It's no great loss to the Ivy, Spago or the art of networking, I assure you. I'm about as adept at networking as I am at netting tuna. Come to think of it, I have about as much desire to network as I do to inflict death on the sorry, declining tuna population. (Magnificent, speedy creatures, they are!)

It's just that my "business" lunches haven't worked out too well. Kind of like the way things didn't work out so well for that oil tanker off the coast of Scotland, or President Clinton's search for an attorney general. My business lunches are roughly equivalent to going into a hospital for a routine checkup and coming out with a baboon liver.

Consider the time a powerful editor once called from out of the blue to compliment me on an article I'd written. What a nice gesture! I listened appreciatively, and was about to thank him and hang up when out came six words I've come to dread: "I'd like to buy you lunch." I was trying to weasel out of it when he suddenly added that most beguiling of statements: "Maybe I can throw some work your way."

A few days later, there we were--chowing down in a friendly, honest eatery many rungs below Wolfgang Puck-land. The powerful editor had been cordial; in fact, he'd gone out of his way to introduce me to another editor at his publication who had suggested that assignments were likely. Yet while I sat innocently awaiting a pleasant chat--possibly covering the weather, the Lakers, or horticulture--the powerful editor bestowed upon me a vast, unsolicited cascade of "helpful advice." For well over an hour.

Now, I'm all for advice as a rule. "Don't count your chickens before they hatch" is one of my favorites. Oh, and I'm also a fan of "Don't cut off your nose to spite your face." (I once heard a delightful variation of this from a drunk Dodger fan who kept yelling, "Didja see that? He cut off his nose in spite of his face!") But sudden, unprovoked pronouncements such as "You're wasting your ability," or "The world won't come to you," or "Why aren't you writing some celebrity biographies?" or "You've got to hustle--do you think I got where I am by waiting for work?" aren't really helpful. I mean, I never asked for this guy's appraisal of anything other than the salad dressing.

Yet I decided to sit there, affecting what I term the "free-lancer smile." This is a protracted tooth-baring exercise utilized while enduring unpleasantry for the sake of getting an assignment. In this case, I went the extra mile and threw in some "free-lancer humility"--utterances such as: "Right, you're absolutely right," or "Can't imagine why writing a celebrity bio doesn't appeal to me," and "Sure is great to see you!"

I was courteous, demonstrably (and genuinely) grateful for the "free" lunch--even the misguided concern--but . . .

I never heard from the guy again.

Of course, that was his prerogative. He didn't have to like me, or my writing. Besides, I might have had food stuck between my teeth. Or maybe it's those garlic capsules I take.

That episode pales--at least in terms of surprise endings--compared to the time I was whisked to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel for lunch with a hotshot editor from another city who was looking for writers for his new magazine. He loved my work. He laughed at my jokes. He offered champagne. He didn't offer me a whit of advice about writing celebrity biographies. The lunch lasted a good two hours. We were yucking it up like old high school chums. A mutual friend agreed that a job offer was merely a formality.

Weeks passed. Phone calls were not returned. When I finally got through to the hotshot editor, he talked to me in a tone one reserves for rejecting panhandlers. "If you get any good ideas," he said, "call." I don't think he even remembered me.

On a another occasion, I was interviewed by a female editor from one of the nation's better newspapers, who then took me to lunch, I assumed, to assess my "social" aspect. A female colleague of mine who had suggested the interview came along. I was polite and, I thought, properly pleasant. I held doors open for them. And I tried something that another colleague had suggested--something quite alien to me: I tried to project self-assurance.

Then came the post-lunch chat with my friend. "What's wrong with you?" she asked angrily. "Why were you acting like that?"

"Like what?" I asked. "You know," she said, "weird and chauvinistic!" I told her I would have been equally polite to men, cats or dogs, but it didn't help. And I vowed to never act self-assured again.

All of these experiences shrink into triviality, however, next to an event Roger Corman might have titled "The Day of the Editor."

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