As our coverage for the AIA's 2010 convention in Miami rolls to a close I must mention that I can’t think of this town without remembering what happened in 1995, when my colleague Cliff Pearson and I were contacted by a press agent for a famous architect who had done, well, a rather astonishing amount of work here. She said, “We are coming to New York and we would like to take you to lunch.” I’d idolized this guy for years and would never miss this chance. This was a huge honor for me, and I think Cliff felt the same way.
Back in the good old days the magazine was at the McGraw-Hill Building at 1221 Avenue of the Americas in New York, so we arranged to meet at the finest nearby restaurant that we could think of, after all, why would you want your idol to think you didn’t know how to read a Zagats? And that place was the Sea Grill in Rockefeller Center. It overlooks the skating rink and was, and is still, a pretty fancy, pretty spendy place. I psyched myself up for weeks, and when the big day arrived I’m pretty sure I spent at least half an hour brushing my Hush Puppies, hell, I must have even put on a bowtie.
It’s not unusual for luminaries from NBC to fill this restaurant with the glow of their celebrity, but on that day even some of them were paying more attention to him than to their broiled swordfish. As he smoothly unspooled tale after tale from his storied career, waiters brought refilled our glasses from great jeraboams of Chablis, audibly groaning under giant trays of appetizers, soups and salads, platters of Chilean sea bass, pies, and ice cream. I’m frequently uncomfortable around the larger-than-life, but I have to say, this was turning out to be one of the greatest free lunches of my career.
With the warmth of our camaraderie undoubtedly underscored by all that wine neither Cliff nor I even blinked when the waiter brought the check over on a dessert cart. It was so fat it had to be stuffed into an accordion file. And then, neither of us moved a muscle for about thirty seconds after the press agent, who was a strikingly beautiful woman whom I still remember well, leaned over toward us, flashed a winning smile and said, “Thank you so much for taking us to lunch!”
The tab ran to $466.00, a figure that Pearson argued was far less when I recounted this tale in his presence not too many months ago. But Cliff loves to play the Devil's Advocate and disagrees with just about everything I say, so if this story ever comes up, don’t pay any attention to him. I’ve got the exact sum written down in my diary for that day (which was October 18, 1995), and I trust it more than anything he remembers off the top of his head, as esteemed as he may be.
Counting for inflation that would be about $650 today. Well, at that point in time the magazine was floating in the midst of a fiscal Red Sea on a life raft about the size of a matchbook. Even when things were flush those of us who are mere plankton in the company ecosystem have never lived life fast and free on the corporation's plastic.
Besides, just ask any flack, most editors in the trade press won’t even pick up the phone to discuss lunch unless they already know somebody else is paying. And, now here we were, two blobs of human algae floating in the Sea Grill with a tab fixed with more ink than the Sunday Times. I know I was thinking “Holy $&^@. We are doomed.”
I’m not sure if it was him or me who said “I think we should split this.” But we both reached for our billfolds as our guests beamed.
My wallet’s always been as stiff as a barn door on old rusty hinges because it's not opened very often, and I’m sure that when I pried the credit card pocket loose a few moths flew out of there. I was also certain it would be the last time the company’s full faith and credit would back my lunch tab. By the next week, the imposter that I am would be fully revealed and I’d be back at my old job designing handicap bathroom retrofits and roofing jobs for the State of Kansas.
Now, I never blamed the admirable architect for this situation, of course. The set-up was masterfully orchestrated by his consultant. The first rule of being a press agent, you see, is that you always tell people what they want to hear, particularly if they are paying you. His agent told him that we wanted to take him to lunch, and of course she told Cliff and me that he wanted to take us to lunch. He was flattered, we were flattered—it was a love connection!
And we certainly would have jumped at the chance to meet him even if we were paying. In that case we might have trotted him downstairs to the McGraw-Hill cafeteria, which was enormous and actually pretty good: you could get roast beef and mashed potatoes, with overcooked string beans and coffee there for $5.00. Or maybe we'd have gotten a pass to a company dining room on the 50th floor. It was restricted to our executives, and called the "Highland Room", a period piece hilariously decked out with plaid wallpaper, captain's chairs, coach-lamp sconces, and cedar-shingled mansard roofs that cantilevered over its banquettes. It even had a German waitress named Olga in a maid's outfit. It was right out of "Mad Men", and he would have loved it. That corporate relic is long gone unfortunately, and much to my regret.
After we said our goodbyes, Cliff and I made a beeline for Steve Kliment’s office. He was the editor-in-chief back then, and we had to tell him we'd been taken for what was, in all, probably a week's salary for either of us. As I recall it was pretty hot out for October, and I was sweating like a pig when we got back to 1221, where we somewhat nervously recounted this yarn for the boss.
“Old _____,” he said. “Still up to his old tricks, eh?” Somehow Steve let us off the hook, and the matter was never mentioned again. And, that being back when even plankton had private offices with doors, I’m sure I closed mine, unplugged my phone, put my feet up on the desk and slept soundly all afternoon.
Then I put in a late shift, of course.