As usual, the restaurant check exceeded the amount of long green I had in my wallet. So I reached for the short green -- my American Express Don't Leave Home Without It Card.
The young cashier smilingly picked up the card, smilingly walked to a desk in the corner and smilingly started hunting through a booklet filled with numbers.
"That's the bad-guy list, huh?" I asked.
"Yup," she said.
"I'll bet you the price of my check that you won't find me in there."
"Sorry," she said, "the boss wouldn't like that."
"Do you ever find bad cards in there?" I asked.
"Oh, sure," she said. "All the time. Usually it's people who just haven't paid their bills in a couple of months. But sometimes it's people who have stolen the cards. We always check. Always."
"Better safe than sorry," I said. But I confess that I was thinking this:
"What a waste of time! To go through all that hunting for a $12 restaurant check. If I were going to use my American Express card to stiff some business, I'd head straight for a furrier. Or an art gallery. Or a restaurant where your bill will be in three figures, not two."
But I learned to my amusement this summer that not even $10 million will exempt you from a look in the Bad-Guy Book.
We visited Southern California in August. One afternoon, my wife and I were browsing through a pricey women's clothing boutique in Santa Monica. We were the only customers in the place.
Suddenly, Dustin Hoffman walked in.
He asked the saleslady if there were any good restaurants in the area. She described two or three. He asked if they'd still be open at that hour (it was about 3 p.m.). She assured him that they would be.
They continued that way, into a long, pleasant discussion about abalone and broiled shark. Finally, Brother Hoffman and his female companion left.
The starstruck Leveys congratulated the saleslady on keeping such an even keel in the presence of such a huge movie star. No big deal, she said. Dustin and his lady fair had been in the day before, and he had bought her about $400 worth of clothes. That meant he could ask about local restaurants all he liked, the saleslady said.
The reporter in me couldn't help asking how Hoffman had paid for the clothes.
"With an American Express card," the saleslady said. "And I have never been so embarrassed in my life! My mother was waiting on him, and when he gave her his American Express card, she called the central number to check up on him."
To his credit, Dustin didn't complain, the saleslady said. But if he had wanted to, he had more grounds than most of us.
The trade press says that Hoffman grossed $10 million from his latest picture, "Ishtar." Nor could he have been poverty-stricken before he collected that hefty paycheck. His previous pictures netted him more than $50 million, say those in the know. Surely Hoffman had saved enough of that to cover a $400 clothing bill.
I have since been back to the restaurant where the smiling clerk always checks me in the bad-guy book. I told her the Hoffman story. She smilingly assured me that Hoffman wouldn't be exempt from a look in her book -- $10 million or no $10 million.
Then she smilingly checked me in the book, to see if I was good for my $8.95 lunch.
"Hey, I was good for it last week," I said, in mock annoyance.
"Last week was last week," she replied.
And you think Hollywood is a tough town?
Is California still different from the rest of the world? I say it is, and I submit the following in evidence.
All four Leveys managed to get throat infections early in our California visit. We were referred to a doctor in downtown Santa Monica. When we arrived for our appointment, the nurse gave us a form to fill out.
The first line said, "NAME."
The second line said, "ALSO KNOWN AS."
In case you were wondering whether everyone in California has a stage name.
That was funny enough. But about halfway down the form, we ran into this:
Followed by "MESSAGE PHONE."
Was there a blank for "OFFICE PHONE?" Or "WORK PHONE?"
Offices. Work. What strange, Washington notions.
And of course, California produced the best bumper sticker of the year. I spotted it aboard a pickup truck on the San Diego Freeway. It read:
"IT'S NEVER TOO LATE TO HAVE A HAPPY CHILDHOOD."