The Meaning of Lunch They may call it prosciutto, but it's still a lot of baloney.
By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Think back. Think all the way back. Go ahead. Do it.

You're running around in a tiny diaper! You can hardly keep from sucking your finger! Whoa! Stop!

Okay, I guess that's too far back. Let's're in grade school. You've suffered through the morning. Gym was pretty bad. Kirby Gaines picked you up by the waistband of your shorts again and gave you a wedgie. Mrs. Krinsky popped a quiz on photosynthesis in science. But in a few minutes there's going to be your very favorite period of the day. You know: lunch.

Morton called five minutes ago and blew a tsunami of steam up my butt about the Broder situation. Bob is mad about the amount of money being spent in Tucson. Harbert is fed up with Gewirtz and wants him transferred to someplace where nobody can see him. But I've got a 1 P.M. reservation at Michael's. It's not the only place to eat in New York. But it's the only place to eat in New York right now.

Close your eyes and take a deep breath, then say it quietly to yourself. "Lunch." What steamy images float up from the deep recesses of your brain stem? For me, it will always be baloney and cheese on white bread with a little mayo, and a Thermos of Campbell's tomato soup on the side. Maybe a couple of Fig Newtons. On Wednesdays, it would be the special--meatball wedge made fresh, right on location. Everybody got the wedge, with two containers of very cold milk. And, oh, yes: an ice-cream sandwich.

Today I think I'll get the artichoke salad with goat cheese resting on prosciutto sliced so thin it would take an electron microscope to find it, followed by the chicken frites--half a bird resting on a bed of spinach, surrounded by a mountain of matchstick French fries. For dessert, a couple of bad cookies and a cup of decaf. Yesterday I had the same thing. Also the day before. If we skip the designer water and my partner decides not to have anything with lobster in it, I believe we could get out for under what it costs to buy a midrange Walkman.

It wasn't about the food, of course, in the lunchroom. It was about being there, about where you were positioned in the room, about who was placed next to whom that day, about the noise, the running around between courses, the occasional food fight. It was about the staff, too. There was Mrs. Ianello, who dished out the hot meals. You had to handle her very, very carefully, or she would ignore your order and give you something she thought you should have, like wax beans. There was Otto, who mopped, and Arturo and Lester, who were supposed to monitor our behavior but usually just ate our Fritos.

Steve handles the room now, since Peter went to Mesa Grill, and Lore'al generally takes care of the book. They know me. The waiters know me, too. They know everybody, along with our little weirdnesses. This one likes his Cobb salad mixed but not chopped. This one likes exactly three macaroons to be given to him free at the end of every meal. Every other week Michael himself comes in and nearly explodes with glee at each person he sees at his or her accustomed table. This is a group that bows to none in its tolerance for first-class sucking up. You know my name! I love this place! A couple of years ago the gorgeous coat-checker left us to become Vanity Fair cover girl and actress Gretchen Mol. This only made us feel better about ourselves and our lunchroom. If we play our cards right, one day we could possibly be as famous as the guy who's bringing us that $8 bottle of Evian!

My table was the third from the side door, six back from the and Levine and Kaskowitz and six or seven other guys I didn't feel that strongly about. It was a good table, not a great table. All around me people were munching and slurping and yakking. We didn't all like one another very much--not by a long shot. In fact, a lot of us hated one another for the indignities and unkindnesses that mark human life at any age. But we had to eat together. We were, after all, in the same school.

Today Bryant Gumbel is with Joseph Abboud in the front window at the table where Tom Brokaw often holds court, and Susan Lyne (who has done such a fine job at Disney) is taking her place at the No. 1 slot along the wall next to the table recently vacated by William Weld, former governor of Massachusetts. Hard by the divider between the bar and the main dining room, agents from ICM and William Morris apply suction to their companions at adjoining tables, and Joanie Evans is doing something over there next to Walter Isaacson and his lucky lunch companions from Powerful Media. I see my pal Dworkin at a table often favored by Katie Couric. We pretend not to know each other, even though we will meet for drinks later this evening, because Michael's is not about friendship. It's about forging meaningful relationships that can endure for the term of at least one lunch. My table is No. 4, along the wall. It is a very good table, and I see people looking and wondering who I am. I'm the guy who eats here three times a week, that's who I am.

Thirty-eight minutes into the period, the bell rang, and the entire place cleared out as if it were an air-raid drill. It was time to move on to Mr. Trundle's social studies class, where the entire first semester consisted of memorizing the street addresses of every major building in New York City. Think I'm lying? Ask me what the address of the Woolworth Building is. Go ahead. Ask me.

Today we have to wait for the check for quite some time, as usual. And it's an outrageous sum, as always. We could linger for another cup of coffee (nobody drinks booze anymore, except perhaps for Liam Neeson, who had what looked to be a fine, robust Bordeaux the other day). But the bell has rung. In the '80s, it used to ring at 2 P.M. In recent years, 2:30 seems to be the moment when fear and ambition kick in, possibly in equal measure, and the lunchroom clears. This afternoon we have meetings with guys who want to know what our budgets are going to be in the year 2003. A more foolish exercise I can't imagine, but I'm prepared to give them what they want, down to the penny, and what I intend to do with that money three years from now. Think I'm lying? Go ahead. Ask me.

By day, STANLEY BING is a real executive at a real FORTUNE 500 company he'd rather not name.