Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Tables of Contentions

Over the years, you've had dinner with any number and manner of writers. You and the writers involved were in varying degrees of sobriety, sometimes dictated by necessity, other times by pure whim. 

Accordingly, when you see the well-cliched question asked in some interview of a writer, asking which writers that writer would invite to a dinner party, you are reminded of your father's admonition to your mother each time a new guest appeared at the family dinner table: "Count the silverware."

Your father was not serious about the actual silverware, his theatrical warning a direct attack on any notion that a meal was a raucous celebration rather than an occasion for decorum. 

From the times when you began to be interested in the off-the-page lives of writers to the point where you began to read about what they were doing when they weren't writing, you were aware of high tables at English universities, high teas at English homes, and the machinations of civilized discourse and decorous disagreement, also at English tables. 

These dinners had some effect on the development of novels set in England, which rose to a kind of esteem you understood you were going to have to cope with by making a break from your dinners at Barney's Beanery, a place of reasonably priced food, flat beer, and an incessant, over-the-top homophobia and into such cultural Meccas as Scandia, The Cock 'n Bull, and, as you got to know its owner/actor Benson Fong, Ah Fongs.

Such places could well have presented mediocre food along with their generously poured drinks, but on reflection, you did not go to such places to drink in that particular, let's go out drinking way, rather to listen to music and to eat something not on speaking terms with the cooking oil of the griddle.

Perhaps the most races dinners with writers you experienced on an en mass basis were those times when you served as an officer in Mystery Writers of America and were bound either by conscience or some aspect of interest to attend. Dinner meetings were invariably held at the Cafe de Paris, located inconveniently at the tail end of a strip mall fronting on Sunset Boulevard, near the cross street of Highland Avenue. 

Mystery writers appeared to need a round or two of drinks to allow them to drift into the landscapes of moral depravity whence their characters emerged to practice their duplicities upon the world at large and each other.

On two occasions, you saw orderly, even collegial behavior erupt into the sorts of acrimony that come from abrogated marriages, either of a romantic/familial nature or between a literary agent and client. Rolls were thrown, the passive voice used because, from your perspective, they were not thrown at someone, rather as a statement of generalized malaise. 

When the rolls had been thrown, the verb case grew to active when several of America's most innovative mystery writers threw pats of butter, wadded napkins, and on one occasion, drinking glasses about which had been wrapped the night's menu and agenda.

Appetizer:  Grilled suspects.  Salad: Mixed motives. Entree: Whole Shebang or Forced Confessions. Desert: Little Hearse on the Prairie.

A serious confrontation was avoided when your dinner companion and author, the famed King of Torts lawyer, Melvin Belli, discovered that F. Lee Bailey, his closest trial-lawyer rival, was in another dining area at Scandia, putting away Pisco Punches, Belli's momentary drink of choice, in another room with an agent. Satisfied that he not only had a book under contract, which, through lack of significant pages submitted to you, was the cause of this night's dinner, but that he'd been seated in a more prestigious section of the restaurant, Belli was willing to let bygones be bygones, that is, until he saw Bailey's desert being served.

Scandia did indeed know how to make a dramatic presentation of Cherries Jubilee. When Belli saw the two waiters bearing the flaming salver toward the adjacent room, then discovered its destination, "Jesus," he said. "Don't you think we should have one of those?"

You also saw one author whom you will not identify by name douse his French fries with enough salt to put anyone off of stealing samples from his place. "I know," he said. "It makes me seem petty, but I came from a large family, where you had to fight for everything." And you still recall when the wife of one of your favorite authors ran teary eyed from the table she'd set up with such effort, "mortified," was how she put it, "mortified and humiliated," because her husband had sneaked a bottle of Heinz ketchup to the table.

Yet another dinner with the author sort of mischief happened in the dining room of the Copley Plaza hotel in Boston, where an author you'd just signed thought to impress you, only to discover that "the gentleman at the far table sends his complements," the head waiter said, placing a bottle of Piper-Heidsack before you and indicating the sender as Alistair Cook.

"Amazing," your author, a Bostonian, said. "You get to do this for a living."


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