It isn’t every day I get to have lunch with a Nobel Prize-winning author. More frequently than I see Haley’s Comet, which last came through my neighborhood in 1986, and isn’t expected back for another 50 years, but still, it’s a big deal.
So I’ll never forget the day in 1970 when I walked into the faculty club at the University of Chicago and saw Saul Bellow, author of The Adventures of Augie March, with its famous opening line: “I am an American, Chicago born–Chicago, that somber city–and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style.” Do not, I reminded myself, spill the soup.
I didn’t actually have lunch with Bellow. I had lunch beforehand, in the kitchen with the rest of the help. I’ll admit it–I was just a waiter, not a member of Bellow’s inner circle of friends. I wasn’t even a member of his circle of enemies, which may have been a slightly larger group, if one reads his works as romans a clef.
So I didn’t eat with Bellow, but I was at a lunch that he attended, which was as close as I’d ever been to literary fame at the time. And probably ever will be.
I hadn’t, at that point in my life, actually read anything by Bellow. He wasn’t on the first-year reading list, and maybe he will never displace Faulkner, or Joseph Conrad, or Scott Fitzgerald. But he was a living, breathing novelist with an international reputation, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize six years later. It was all I could do not to rush up to him like some stupid Hollywood autograph hound and say “Mr. Bellow, you’re one of my biggest fans!”
But I respected his privacy and stuck to my role, bringing out the food, filling water glasses, sneaking a peek at the two greatest hits underneath the blouse of the Barbra Streisand look-alike on my shift.
“Has anybody got any mint waxed floss?”
But I watched his every move, because I wanted to see how a famous novelist looked and acted in real life. Would he be ferocious, skewering the chalky professors at his table? Would he be captivating, regaling his listeners with stories of his years in Europe? How exactly is a minor living legend supposed to behave, I asked. Just in case I ever needed to know.
The answer? Bored. Bellow sat down at an empty table, crossed his legs, folded his hands in his lap, and looked around the room with an expression that said he’d rather be dead in a ditch than where he was just then. My guess is the luncheon was a dog-and-pony show for potential donors–just the way a guy who probably had to fend off high-brow literary women with a stick would want to spend his day.
Being a big-name author in academia isn’t a bad gig. You give a graduate seminar every semester, boff a couple of coeds–it’s in the contract, right after the “Whereas” clauses–get your picture on the cover of the alumni magazine. But you’re also there for some contact with actual human beings, like say a wealthy alumnus/alumna who’s written a first novel. You can just imagine how that would go:
ALUM: Mr. Bellow, it’s Ed Fahrquar.
BELLOW: I have enough life insurance, thanks.
ALUM: No, from the UofC? The development office said I should feel free to call you.
BELLOW: I was taking a nap.
ALUM: Terrific. Say, I’ve just written my first novel, a coming of age story about a boy and his dog and their picaresque adventures hitch-hiking across America.
BELLOW: That’s . . . nice.
ALUM: You wouldn’t mind taking a look at it and telling me what you think, would you?
BELLOW: (To self: I could use some scrap paper for grocery lists.) Sure–send it over.
Bellow’s aspect was distant, reserved, and everyone who passed by knew he was–famous. So no one joined him at first, which he appeared to prefer. He stared around the room, then took his butter knife, stood the pat of butter on his bread plate up on edge, and put his knife down again. After a while a few people sat down at his table, introduced themselves, and he broke into a slight smile, which did nothing to dispel his air of ill-suppressed discomfort. I was distracted for a moment by someone at another table and when I turned around, he was gone. The only evidence of his brief presence that remained was that pat of butter on its edge, as Bellow must have been the whole time he was there.
From this close encounter with fame, I took a lesson that has come in handy over the years. If you want to appear superior to everyone around you at a social gathering, look bored–and play with the stuff on your table! Here are a few of the techniques I’ve perfected that lend me an aura of literary snootiness at gala dinners, business lunches and power breakfasts:
Balance two forks on a toothpick: Snap a toothpick at its mid-point and stick one end in a salt shaker. (Of course you can use a pepper shaker, but you’ll have a hard time finding one because high-class joints all have those pepper mills that are the size of a bazooka.) Join the forks at the tines, and suspend on one end of the toothpick. Where are you going to find a toothpick in a faculty club of a major university, you ask? Just ask the Assistant Professor of Long-Haul Trucking sitting next to you.
Balance your fork on your finger: If you can’t do the above-described trick, try this one, you klutz. Lay your fork right side up across your index finger at a right angle, and allow it to teeter-totter back and forth until it reaches equilibrium. Knives do not have a concave surface, and spoons are too light for this trick.
Drop a wine cork so that it stands up on an end. This trick is easier than it sounds. Hold the cork horizontally, so that it is parallel to the surface of the table, from a height of approximately two inches. My preferred grip is between the outstretched second and fourth fingers, although this leaves the middle finger pointing across at your tablemates, which may lead to misunderstandings. Hold the cork gently, then release both fingers at the same time. At first, if you succeed in making the cork pop back up on its end just one time in ten you’re doing fine. With practice, you should be able to do it in three tries or less, causing ingenue poetesses to look on you as a God of Belle Lettres.
“Do the wine cork trick again–it drives me wild!”
Matchbook field goals. You can’t smoke in most fancy restaurants and clubs anymore, but you can get a book of matches–what you’re supposed to use them for is not exactly clear. Stand the matchbook on its edge and flick across the table at finger goal-posts set up by a table-mate.
The cooperation of another bored person in your party is essential, but a Nobel Prize in Literature is optional.
Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Chicago: Not Just for Toddlin’ Anymore.”