Monday, February 2, 2015

It's just lunch. Really.

     "Hey, want to do lunch some time?" I asked, breezing past the desk of a colleague, making her brief arc across the sky of professional journalism.
     "No," she replied.
     Years have dripped by, but that "No," still echoes.
     Lunch can be confusing.
     Maybe she thought I was asking her on a date. Yes, she's married, and I'm married, and while some guys don't let that get in the way, I wouldn't consider "Let's have lunch" as being in the same realm as "Hey baby, let's get it on" or whatever the current pick-up phrase is now.
     Maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm an annoying, rebarbative person who she just couldn't bear the thought of sitting across from, never mind while eating food. That possibility is not beyond my imagining, alas.
     But I like to think it's lunch. People have trouble with lunch, particularly at work.
     "Media power lunches are out," the New York TImes declared recently "Crumbs in your keyboard? In."
     Uh-huh. Lunch being out is one of those evergreen newspaper trend stories, like hats being in, that are regularly reported despite being demonstrably untrue.
     If lunch is dead, then what explains all those restaurants serving lunch? The National Restaurant Association reports sales up, 3.6 percent last year.
     If lunch is dead, the Times has been performing its rites for years.
     "These days, more and more employees consume their lunches from the comforts of their cubicles," the Times reported in 2007.
     "As lunch has come under increasing pressures of time, budgets and health concerns," the Times reported in 1999. "The leisurely two-hour interlude has slipped back to an hour or less and, for many, into carryout at the desk or sandwiches in the conference room."
     My gut tells me, rather than lunch being out of fashion, it's the idea of lunch being dead that is eternally in vogue. We want others to think we're all too busy flinging pixels to do more than turn our heads to suck nutrition out of a catheter tube.
     Does anyone really consider that a flattering image?
     To me, it's the opposite. I'm not against homemade lunch, but usually the get-out-of-the-house chaos is too hectic to prepare one, so grabbing lunch out is faster. If I've got the morning under control, I can make a big salad before bolting for the train. It's cheaper and faster on the eating end. Though you have to have the ingredients, and instead of an hour, eating it is over in five minutes and you're back at work.
     I think you suffer, not taking that break. And I have support. A new British study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science says that walking at lunch—they used an exercise program, but it holds true for walking to a restaurant—makes you a better worker.
     “There is now quite strong research evidence that feeling more positive and enthusiastic at work is very important to productivity,” one of the researchers told the Times, which has the lunch beat sewed up. “So we would expect that people who walked at lunchtime would be more productive.”
     The researchers did have trouble finding male volunteers for their study. Men have a harder time leaving the office at lunch. So maybe, as a man suggesting going somewhere to eat, it isn't the creep factor, but, rather gender inappropriate behavior, as if I were suggesting we go get our nails done.
     With technology triumphant, the risk of working 24 hours a day is already great. Skip lunch, and next thing you know you're wearing Depends to the office, because going to the restroom takes time too.
     Garry Marshall visited Northwestern, years ago, and met students putting on a musical. Trying to impress the famous director, they said how they had worked all night getting the show ready.
     "A professional goes home at night," Marshall replied, words I've taken to heart. If you know what you're doing, if you're good at it, you can eat, sleep, do all sorts of non-work activities which makes you even better when you do work.
     I hope that doesn't make me a creep. I had an interesting conversation with a colleague at the paper while we were getting our coffee, one that seemed worth continuing. I suggested lunch, and she said I should email her.
     "When can I buy you lunch?" I emailed.
     "Lunch won't be necessary as I bring it to eat at my desk most days," she replied.
     Ouch. Gee. When I read that, to be honest, I thought, "Oh God, kill me now. I've become Bob Greene, putting out some scary creep vibe, frightening the youngsters."
     Sorry about the invitation. No harm intended. But you haul yourself to Au Bon Pain enough, sit in the back in the little room all alone, reading the paper, you start to think, "This would go better with another person."
     It is not only good for you--the walk, the food, the company--but ultimately sound business. Years later, when the former columnist who blew off lunch with a brusque "No" was now rattling a cup in public relations, pitching stories -- a fate I found as satisfying as if she were rooting through Dumpsters -- she contacted me. Was I interested in writing about whatever nugatory PR pap she was ballyhooing?
     "No," I replied.


  1. Hey, wanna have lunch sometime?

  2. A mere quibble Neil, and I know words (pixels?) are cheap on the internet, but aren't rebarbative person's by definition annoying? We do not, in any event regard you to be either.

    As for the former colleague upon whom you wreaked vengeance, some flacks I have known have found solace from their demeaning profession in the sizeable paychecks they take home. And nice expense accounts -- play your cards right and you probably could have had a pricey lunch off her. And some are lucky enough to have non-nugatory causes to puff. My point: there are sometimes reasons beyond holy scripture for leaving vengeance to the Lord.

    Funny column!

    Tom Evans

  3. Not even "No, thanks"? Just "No"?

    That was extremely rude, and she deserved the payback. I'm just amazed she had the gall to approach you in the first place.

  4. Maybe you could try an approach similar to the food trucks: When you are headed out to lunch alone, tweet your destination. Your followers might just drop in to share lunch. Of course it might attract some weirdos, but weirdos can happen anywhere and at least you'll be in a public place.

    Seriously though, I'm surprised I've never seen you anywhere in the Loop. I have worked downtown for more than 20 years and often take walks at lunchtime.

    In the days of the old Sun-Times Building, I was working at Wabash & Washington and I remember seeing Roger Ebert on the street occasionally.

    Like The Sun-Times, my job has moved west, and more recently, I have spotted Mark Brown on Orleans, though the moment of recognition came a little slowly. (Brown hasn't been on television as much as Ebert after all).

  5. Work is stressful, and I'm around work colleagues all day. When I get time to take a break, it's expressly without those people. I eat alone, or with non-work friends. It's ok to be alone. Try it sometime.

  6. If I see you in the back room at Au Bon Pain, I'd be happy to keep you company. I'm sometimes there with my newspaper as I work in the building (if it's the A-B-P I'm thinking of). I personally prefer the back room at Pret---better view!


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