One Man’s Adventures into the “Office Lunch”
There was a time—long before spritzers, tight budgets and moral restraint—when business lunches were densely alcohol fueled in both book and magazine publishing. Unlike client lunches for Madison Avenue toilers and boozers, publishing lunches were either a time to loosen an author’s demands with drink or soften a recalcitrant agent’s hard-lined resistance.
But nothing was quite so raucous and loose as a lunch among staffers—male editors unafraid to let their hair down and fill their glasses up.
As a young editor, I was new to the team at a particular firm, the Manhattan outpost of a publishing colossus based in the ‘burbs. When invited to lunch with a clutch of colleagues, I was flattered—and willing. One was a Columbia grad; two others had Harvard credentials. I felt honored to be in their hot company.
What I hadn’t known was that I’d be expected to keep up—not so much with the crosstalk but with the drinking. Three rounds were ordered and consumed before anyone bothered to check out the menu—by which point I could barely focus. And when the meal was served, it was a challenge for me to down and digest it.
When it was time to return to work, I remember getting to my feet slowly, determined not to let my particular “weakness” be apparent to my colleagues.
I walked along with them—our building was a few blocks away—as though treading lightly on eggs.
Back in my office, I shut the door and laid my head on the desk. It was spinning—my head, that is, though it could have been my desk. I felt alternately flushed and chilled, then nauseated. “Better get to the john,” I decided, concerned that if I waited too long, I’d never make it.
There, holed up in a cubicle, I spent much of the afternoon. My head throbbed, my stomach gurgled, and when I shut my eyes I was smacked with dizziness. I tried but couldn’t throw up—nothing; I seemed powerless to do anything.
Ultimately, I staggered out of the cubicle and splashed cold water on my face, which by then was ashen, and tiptoed back to my desk. Later, I phoned my wife to whisper that I’d be home early because I felt I was coming down with flu.
I remember entering the apartment, barely greeting her and ignoring the imprecations of my toddler daughter. I flopped on my bed and tried to nap, but by then the room itself was spinning.
Of course it wasn’t flu; my wife knew that—and said so. I was mortified. I would have been more mortified if I’d even suspected that my lunch mates were aware of my malady. Such men were seasoned drinkers; shuffling back to the office after a liquid lunch was considered de rigueur.
Aware that I was due for a visit with my doctor, I made an early appointment. After checking my vitals, he asked if something was troubling me. I said only that, in college I’d learned to “hold my liquor,” which obviously what I was no longer able to do. Without going into detail, I outlined the recent “business lunch” that had sent me reeling for the better part of a day.
My doctor stared at me. He was a chunky guy whose forearm bore tattooed numbers that signaled a childhood spent in a Nazi death camp. I always felt more than a bit intimidated whenever I saw those numbers. Here was a mild-mannered guy whose calm demeanor obviously shrouded a fearful past. And what issues or concerns could I possibly share that compared in any way to his earlier struggle for survival?
“Is this really a major issue?” he asked, giving me a stern look. “Are you saying you have to drink—in order to keep your job, maybe?”
“Well, no, I mean, well—” I sputtered and mumbled, unable to put my muddled thoughts into words, as my doctor continued to stare at me and shake his head.
“If you can’t drink, don’t. That’s all. Why do you have to prove anything? Is this a macho thing? After all, you’re not some teenager. You’re a grown man with a responsible job that demands the skills and experience you’ve acquired since college. How much booze your body can tolerate bears no relation to the quality of the work you do—except perhaps to compromise it.
“Now…is there anything else on your mind?”
Clearly the session was over. I couldn’t leave the examining room fast enough. In the months ahead, I watched each of my colleagues exit our offices, each with an excuse, of course, but obviously not of their own volition. The culture they’d furthered (and I’d failed at) had been their undoing, because some senior manager had become aware that several members of his team were ineffective most days, after lunch.
It took years for me to disassociate the concept of a “business lunch” from my bruising first experience. And now, years later, I look back with wonder—how, truly, did any work get done? Certainly not in the afternoon.
Image courtesy of Morguefile: http://mrg.bz/mkTmbA