RIGHT OFF, she spotted him. He was sitting across the table from me, eating his baked chicken, his green veggie -- the iced tea and the coffee waiting. She was wearing her coat, which is the proper way to dress in a cafeteria, and when she spoke the voice was high: "Why aren't you at San Sue See?" she asked. Art Buchwald the columnist smiled. When you're famous, every place is home.
"We're trying out different places," Buchwald explained. "The purpose of this lunch is to see if this place is appropriate for the power structure."
The purpose of the lunch, really, was for me to write about how Art Buchwald, after lo these many years at the Sans Souci, is looking for a new place to have lunch. The two have parted company, probably but not definitely for good, gone on the rocks, splitsville, done a Marvin, and what this means, precisely, is that Washington no longer has an "in" place for lunch. The town, I have to tell you, is in turmoil.
This is why Buchwald and I are cruising the main room of a place called Sholl's Colonial Cafeteria, a baked chicken apiece on our trays, looking in vain for a place to sit down. The room is full of strangers eating with strangers, old women sitting at tables with young secretaries, acting deaf and pretending not to be listening to their conversation. Three of four times Buchwald and I get beat out for a table, once by someone old. In earlier days when I was a steady cafeteria eater, an old lady could not have beat me to a table. Finally, we find a place to park.
"The price is right," Buchwald says, fingering the receipts showing a total of $4.33 for the two of us. "It's within the (price) guidelines, but somehow I can't see Kissinger looking for a table."
Sholl's is Buchwald's cchoice for lunch. He calls it "neutral territory" because it's not really a contender for his steady patronage and so he can go there without someone writing in the columns that he has made his decision. There are, after all, big bucks riding on his decision, the conventional wisdom being that wherever Buchwald goes, others will follow and like some Pied Piper of cream sauces he will lead the Sans Souci crowd elsewhere. Buchwald is the first to confirm that this is true and the assumption is so widely accepted that the thought that this might be an act of courage does not occur until later.
"I seriously believe that I have to take my time because wherever I go is going to be the next place for the power structure," he says. "If I make a mistake, its going to be very hard to change." My notes don't say if he was smiling.
There is, however, more than money riding on the outcome. There is the feeling that things are about to change, that "in" and "out" are going to change places and that Art Buchwald is going to help make this happen. This is not something trivial because Washington is a town of titles and grandiose job descriptions in which a good day's work is thought to be a meeting at which another meeting is planned. The Sans Souci and restaurants like it defene people, separate, say, congressmen from other VIPs and you can count on a good maitre d' to do what the electorate has not -- show some taste. For years, the Sans Souci has said Buchwald is the tops.
A man at the next table has his eye on Buchwald. He fishes into his pocket and takes out a dollar bill. "Art," he says as if he has known the man all his life, "Art, if I have you autograph this bill, will it be worth more some day?" Buchwald laughs and signs his name.Another man comes over and says something, trying to be funny. Buchwald laughs, Always polite. Always polite. No one ever said Art Buchwald wasn't a prince.
Soon we leave and walk down toward the White House and, because it is on the way, the Sans Souci. We talk about what this column should say -- the theme of it -- and Buchwald thinks it should be about rejection -- "None of us can stand rejection," he says. He is right, of course, which is one of the reasons I almost never went to the Sans Souci. I never wanted to get rejected. I got enough of that in high school.
We go on like that, talking about headwaiters and how we all fear them and how it's nice to be known somewhere, some place where you don't have to explain yourself and identify yourself and get yourself fingerprinted just to sign a check It's nice to order "the usual" -- it is a sweet feeling every guy in a bar knows, and it occurs to me that Buchwald is putting this all on the line. Starting more or less from scratch. He is abandoning this thing many columnists want, a restaurant you can call your own. It was Buchwald himself who said he always wanted to be like Walter Winchell at the Stork Club. His own table. In a corner of my heart, I think this would not be a bad thing.
We stop at McDonald's for coffee and I ask:
"What if you chose a new restaurant and no one followed? Are you worried about that?"
Art Buchwald the columnist looked at me and nodded. "Yeah," he said, "yeah," and then a bit later he walked back to his office, taking greetings from strangers on the street and knowing, I think, that he need not worry.
When you're famous, every place is home.