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Perils of the business lunch

TO me, eating lunch and doing business are disparate activities, not easily coordinated. Like patting one's head while rubbing one's stomach, they are undertakings that work against each other. Realizing this, I now order something simple at a business lunch, like a hamburger or, better yet, a lone vanilla wafer. I had to weather my first important business lunch without benefit of this strategy. A performer whose work I greatly admired had asked me to write material for his use on stage, and we arranged to meet at a restaurant in Los Angeles. We sat at a small, circular patio table and I handed him a folder full of my work.

I had planned to order a hamburger and coffee, but when my lunch partner said, ``Burger and coffee, please,'' to the waiter, I had a sudden urge not to parrot him. I somehow felt I was asserting my individuality by ordering a health food extravaganza involving eggplant, alfalfa sprouts, brown rice, and something yellowish green that I was never able to identify.

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While the food was being prepared, my colleague began studying the material I had given him, spreading papers out on the table and making invaluable comments and suggestions. I wanted to write down his remarks but had given him all of my paper, so I pulled a napkin from the chrome dispenser and began writing on it.

The napkin surfaces had raised areas which formed elaborate floral designs, and these were ideal for pulling my pen tip in directions not intended. It was like trying to write on a stucco desk top. Nevertheless, in my zealousness I covered several napkins with thoroughly indecipherable wisdom.

Papers soon cluttered the table, and were it not for the fact that one of my napkins had unwittingly been arranged in an aerodynamically effective manner, the waiter would have had no place to set down our plates. (A slight breeze caused this napkin to lift off, and it was up to me to retrieve the illegible tissue before it set a distance record for motorless aircraft.)

Things would become sensible again now that the food had arrived, I thought. Indeed, my first two forkfuls were pleasantly reminiscent of a normal lunch. But on the third, I discovered a tiny white worm among my alfalfa sprouts and began wrestling with whether or not I should make an issue of this with the restaurant people.

Just then, my lunch partner asked me about my background, and I gave a nervous cough. The cough was phony, an unconscious ploy to give me time to shift my thinking away from the worm and toward business. While I proceeded to fill him in on my past, he was able to eat most of his hamburger. I wondered if he, being a wily, business-lunch veteran, had saved this one-sided topic for when the food had arrived.

Not wanting him to finish and have to wait for me, I picked up the tempo of my verbal resum'e, sounding, I imagine, like a 33 rpm recording played at 45 rpm. Then, after carefully isolating the alfalfa and establishing the right side of my plate as a worm preserve, I took an overlarge mouthful of my lunch in an effort to catch up.

That's when my colleague began telling an anecdote which, to my consternation, became increasingly hilarious. Everything inside me was telling me to laugh. But I couldn't open my bulging mouth, nor could I swallow, so I put a ``note napkin'' up to my mouth (thereby rubbing some ink onto my chin) and quaked silently.

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If business must be combined with an unrelated activity, I believe there are activities less problematic than eating - weed pulling, for instance. That's why, if I ever find myself in an executive position, my secretary will be saying, ``You have an 11:30 appointment to meet Mr. Henderson at the weed patch.''