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Table Talk

“Nonfiction” (“Double Vies”) is an amusing French film about fast happening changes in the publishing industry, about the dematerialization of the book. Wonderful word, dematerialization, a distancing word, expressing perfectly the cynicism and ultra-sophistication of the film. I took its points, but became obsessed in the process with what I began to call the dematerialization of the table.

A couple of scenes take place in restaurants, tiny tables jammed together at lunch, noisy, crowded bars (people drinking beer, not wine, btw). Amity and compassion, conversation altogether, are out of the question; insincerity, indirection, cruelly subtle innuendo, flourish. And tables are definitely out at argumentative dinners among friends in apartments and other settings. Guests don’t quite sit, but perch, on the arms of chairs, on a bench alongside a house. Precariously on cliffs, on rocks, making it easy to wander away for a private cell phone exchange with one’s lover, par exemple. Food does materialize at a seaside barbecue, but the leisurely unfolding of an elegant, multi-course French diner would be out of place here. Dishes come out of the oven, but it is unclear that anyone has cooked.

Why then meet at table? asks Samuel Johnson, “Why to eat and drink together, and to promote kindness.”

I have been meeting at table lately, not in London or Paris, but in Beverly Hills and Pasadena, and here, in two installments, offer American tables for examination, comparison. In evidence.

Tall glasses, mint sprigs, green, the whole drink is green and tall and full of ice. They aren’t drinking at the table next to us. They aren’t drinking wine, that is, as we are, in full knowledge of its provenance. It’s all very pretentious, very Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. Choice of napkins, black if your pants are black. Really? OK, sure. So this restaurant, which used to be Italian is now French with Moroccan touches, Moroccan flavors, or maybe it’s the other way around. Piped music, faint, could be the radio, coming from behind us. They have ruined the patio by enclosing it, by removing the tree in the center which had held us all in its embrace, berries, twigs, and seeds dropping on white linen, or into the soup. Offshoot of a New York place, but better. The former clientele was quiet, intense, deals being made, occasional movie star sightings. Not that I spotted them, but my children did. Rustic Italian, painted cups and plates to support the food. An apricot tart was the best thing, everything else good enough, though unremarkable. We were nobodies, but we kept going in spite of a bad review. For this we took credit, Ernst and I. It was not our scene, it was way across town, our place.

Our family place. For birthdays and farewells, a place to meet friends from the West Side for dinner, like C and her husband, where C met me for lunch when Ernst was dying at Cedars Sinai across the street. Years intervene, husbands die, C remarries, my children grow up and move away. C and I, friends since boarding school, seek but never find another intimate, equidistant spot, where the food is good, the atmosphere a little heady without calling attention to itself, where we can be at home yet away.

So, as I was saying, at the table next to us there are ten, twelve, all women, loud. They’re celebrating something, a birthday, I speculate. A range of ages. Escapees from whatever confines them, husbands, children, though if children, they have nannies because they’re still going at 3:00 PM, desserts coming out in layers, chocolate and raspberry, custard cream and whipped. They look good, though we won’t have any because I don’t eat dessert at lunch, and C is counting her points, looking forward to the single fig newton she will be allowed this evening. I must remember to buy some, I think, and immediately the hurt I felt that my son, long since grown, refused to eat fig newtons, remaining critical even now of the healthy school lunches I packed for him, how many years ago, 40, yes 40, in the case of my son. My beloved son in whom I am well pleased.

Odd how some things stick, still rankle, as the women at the table next to us grow louder without wine while we are eating our salads. Though C is having a sandwich she’s in the act of destroying, muttering, taking the thing apart because of the bread, which is too many points, but eating it anyway in the end. It’s really good, she says. Really, it’s very good. So I take a piece to push what’s left of my smashed beets and roasted carrots around. Also very good. What seemed like a lot of too expensive prosecco at first is now not quite enough, as so often happens, but must be, because I have to drive home, which will take me more than an hour.

Not one of the women at the table next to us is beautiful, or even in my view particularly attractive, though they have clearly dressed up for this occasion, whatever it is. They have had their hair done, they have made up their faces, they are wearing scarves, but not head scarves. They fill up their clothes. They are not skinny or trim or even slim, and it’s impossible to know if they will berate themselves later, declaring silently or to someone at home that they must go on Weight Watchers. I find myself worrying about C’s points, because according to her so many things are free, chicken, fish, most vegetables. But what about how they are cooked or what in? I don’t mention this and certainly not the exposed flesh of the closest woman with her back to us whose pants are too small.

C tunes in. I noticed. I noticed right away, I say. Why didn’t you share? Because it felt mean, embarrassing, though I have nothing to be embarrassed about. The edema in my right leg is hidden on the extra chair across from me, so well that the busboy nearly yanks it free, no doubt wondering why this particular chair has suddenly become heavy. I’m embarrassed, as the woman would be, I’m sure, if she were aware that her butt crack, as C calls it, is showing.

Bias is big these days. We are warned, cautioned, exhorted, to examine ourselves for bias as though for fleas, for lice, or bedbugs. So full disclosure: I fear becoming fat; I’m against the change I find in this restaurant which has become pretentious and vulgar, and this change has everything to do with its new clientele, the fat loud women at the next table, inveterate shoppers, bags and boxes piled, sagging, at their feet. Everything overdone, over-priced, flashy, Middle Eastern. Or characteristic of the version of Middle Eastern culture common to Los Angeles. For I had no such thoughts as a tourist in Morocco where I was more likely to be ashamed of fellow Americans. I wanted to stay in Morocco forever, or at least long enough to go about on my own, free of guides, where I had the best chicken sandwich, the best hamburger, I’ve ever had, where the Atlantic was brown, where the belly dancers at our hotel, balancing trays of candles on their heads, were wrinkled, their breasts withered, yet beautiful, where we drank mint tea and bargained for hours for a Kilim rug on a rooftop hung with laundry, sweat pouring off us. Oh happiest of days!

C and I are kind to each other. We ignore Ms Butt Crack, immersed soon enough in talk of our own, of travel art plays we might see friends men parents upbringings that school we went to outslde of long ago and far away Philadelphia -- bottomless resource. How glad we are to have found each other, to be able to go backward and forward in time, to discover delight in repetition, in the distant groundwork which helped to make us what we are.

There’s really nothing to get excited about. Restaurants change hands, whole blocks, neighborhoods even, are razed, ceaselessly. It’s disappointing, but after all we’re at separate tables, not exactly breaking bread. I must avoid group-think, not women, but woman, each one fully herself and worthy of respect. Thus do I talk to myself at Costco. In the locker room at the Y. I imagine some bonding, trust building exercise in which we would encounter each other blindfolded, fall backward into each other’s arms. Still, I’m not sure that the mix present on this patio of kindness and unkindness (mostly mine), of bias shame guilt meanness nostalgia embarrassment snobbishness hunger phobia tribalism resistance to change pretension conspicuous consumption and incipient anorexia can be sorted out, put in perspective, or that they will not leave a bad taste in our mouths.

To Be Continued

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