Showdown at High Noon

Rough Draft
(Richard Thompson)

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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, October 16, 2005

Years ago, in Miami, I fancied myself a genius of lunch, always dining with friends in some preposterously authentic riverfront fish shack or wonderfully cave-like burger joint. Sometimes we'd blast across the bay to the News Cafe on Ocean Drive, where we'd watch the models roller-skating down the sidewalk. The palm trees would sway in the sea breeze. We'd get refills on the iced tea. We were never rushed. We were our nation's future, and our nation would damn well have to wait for us to finish our excellent lunch repast.

Times have changed. Work is harder. Leisure is something I do only in my leisure time. The success of lunch is now measured entirely by its brevity.

My ritual is strict, beginning promptly at noon, when I decide to drink more coffee and put off lunch for another hour. At 1 p.m., I close all the applications on my computer and then make a random phone call and check my e-mail again and decide to delete a few hundred pieces of spam. Somewhere around 1:45, I notice that my colleagues are returning from lunch, cheerful, satiated, having enjoyed a fine meal and good conversation. I call these "the normal people."

Finally, 2-ish, starved, lightheaded, I go to lunch simply as an alternative to passing out. On the street corner I pause to search for some environmental cue that will lead me toward a plausible lunch location. Options include Cosi, Au Bon Pain, Subway, the Korean place and the other Korean place. The Korean place is good, but the other Korean place is better. The problem is, at either Korean place you have to assemble your own plate of food, which is inherently anxiety-producing, because you are paying by the pound. You have to scrutinize the molecular structure of everything and analyze its deliciousness as a ratio to its weight. Who can handle that much pressure?

There's a bigger problem with making the decision about where to eat: I don't really want any food at all. I'm post-food. Food is death. Scientists have proved it: Free oxygen radicals that damage cells are side effects of metabolism. Your life span is essentially fixed: You eat a certain amount, and then you die. Skip lunch and live longer!

But I also want the hunger to go away, and the blood sugar to recalibrate, just so that the brain can function again. A human body is a life-support system for skull meat, the gray stuff that somehow allows you to not only write sentences but also mangle them. Ideally I would be a brain in a vat, kept alive like a sponge in a fish tank. It might get dull at times, but there'd be no luncheon dilemma.

Eventually, I decide what to eat by going wherever the streetlights indicate. Don't walk that way; walk this way. Follow the green.

Every so often in a fit of madness, essentially as a stunt, I will choose Something Different. It is always a disaster. You walk into the new place and are confronted with a menu written by an aspiring novelist. You just want a turkey sandwich, but instead there will be something with a name like "The Gertrude Stein," described by the menu novelist as "smoked, pollen-glazed Yorkshire gobbler with a cranberry-mustard confit, lemon-truffle ragout, sunflower sprouts and watermelon butter on a toasted Parisian cafe baguette." You hear yourself saying out loud, feebly, almost ashamedly, "Can I please get a turkey sandwich?" Confused silence from the person behind the counter. Person makes $6 an hour, and that is not enough to put up with dumb bunnies who don't even know how to order a sandwich.

The worst places take your money and then give you a little receipt and tell you to go stand in yet another line or wait at a table with a number. At this point you want to say, "I will give you all the money in my pocket if you will just hand me a turkey freakin' sandwich." But you don't want to scare people and become known as the person who got carried away in handcuffs from the Corner Bakery.

So, finally, you get your food, and you hunch over it and stuff it into your mouth, and do various things with your teeth and tongue and gullet that in only the most technical sense could be described as eating.

Most of these lunches are so grim and traumatic that my mind actually represses the memory of them soon thereafter. This is, in fact, ideal: lunch reduced to an event whose existence can be inferred only by the disappearance of hunger.

For a few hours, I can relax -- and not worry about how I'm going to avoid having dinner.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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