They were sitting under the fern next to mine. I began fern-dropping.

The woman ordered Perrier on the rocks with lime. The man wanted his straight up. Ah, yes, it would be another three-Perrier lunch during which business would be discussed under properly misted hanging plants, over tastefully appointed tables with white plates and green napkins, sprinkled by yard-long pepper mills.

That is the way it goes now at urban lunch spas that stretch under some giant greenhouse from one coast to the other.

The menu was nothing if not discreet. The fare with such artistic flourish was, of course, restrained. Modest. No roast beef would ever bloody its plates. No french fry would grease its side dishes.

The platters were lean enough to pose for the camera; the luncheon menu so light that it cost more per ounce than caviar.

When the woman's soup came to the table, it was a clear broth with six discreet rings of scallion floating on the top. The man and woman glanced at the French bread the waiter brought, as if it were a gate crasher. Too polite to kick the interloper out, they merely ignored it.

Finally, the lunch arrived. His was spinach with a smattering of mushrooms and a sprinkling of egg whites. Hers was watercress and Boston lettuce with a modest touch of Stilton.

They nibbled through the pasture of choice greens, talking enthusiastically about their health regimens. Placing the watercress neatly into the lean frame under the silk shirt, she shared the wonders of running. Filling his European-cut body with spinach, he talked about his stationary bicycle and his universal exercise machine and the assorted push-ups and downs of his mid-life.

I, sitting under my own fern, began wondering if pieces of the plant would be macheted and arranged charmingly under a dressing on a platter in front of me. I wanted to tell the waiter that F. Scott Fitzgerald once recommended giving up spinach for Lent.

Suddenly I had an urge for a hot oven-grinder with a side of onion rings and ketchup, hold the hot peppers. Suddenly I longed for coconut pie; I hate coconut pie.

It occurred to me that to order anything more massive than the five-inch square of bluefish offered to me would be to commit a social gaffe of urban enormity. The bouncer would, no doubt get rid of me.

It occurred to me, furthermore, that the right sort of people do not eat food in public anymore. They merely graze and water themselves.

Self-control, we call it, with a straight face. In the middle of international chaos, we manage to worry about staying in shape. When everything is out of control, we try to control our waistlines. Self-discipline chic.

If I had called a halt to all the munching, and polled the people under the ferns, I would surely have found ethical relativists and physical absolutists. I would have found uncertain people in an insecure environment who maintain food regimens and exercise -- religiously.

Their hair shirts would be warm-up suits and their Ten Commandments would begin with "Thou Shalt Not Eat Pasta." They would arrive at the morning weigh-in as the scale were an altar offering proof of their virtue.

The grandparents of urban life in a safer time completed with overindulgence, orgies of oysters. Now, in stress, we complete with underindulgence, twigs of watercress: from excess of feasting to excess of fasting. We whip ourselves into shape and are still called hedonists, flagellate ourselves for what we eat and are still labeled narcissists. We regard the sins of the flesh as inches that must be worked off. Maybe we are Me-Sochists. Who knows.

The man and woman finished their tea and, ducking the fern, arose, lean and hungry, from the luncheon fast. Another challenge won.

My own leaves arrived. I forked them and thought about what A. A. Milne once wrote: "What I say is that if a man really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow." I'll nibble to that.