West 20's 1998

“40-Minute Lunch” =
West 20’s/1998

Where: At the counter by the window of Le Petit Abeille, a little Belgian café near where my husband and I lived on West 28th between 6th and 7th Avenues. Then, our block was crowded with flower wholesalers, although that trade seems to have largely disappeared from our old block. There was a huge amount of traffic, maybe because of the flowers: lots of honking semi trucks that sometimes made even my beautiful workspace, with its view of the tip of the Empire State Building, hard to work in. On the day I went to Le Petit Abeille, it was raining, and I didn’t want to go back outside, so I kept scribbling away.

Music: Truthfully, I don’t remember. But in those years on West 28th Street we listened to a lot of Bjork, Aimee Mann, Everything But the Girl, and (in my case, I’m ashamed to say), Deep Forest.

Why: I’d been obsessed for a while with celebrity profiles — one of the most debased literary forms currently in existence. My reaction to them was complicated: I hated their fawning, yet felt sympathy for the writers struggling valiantly, always, to uncover something new and meaningful — or at least to present the same tired goods in a way that felt fresh.

History: I have written one celebrity profile: of Calvin Klein, for ELLE, many years ago. The occasion, I think, was the follow-up to his wildly successful first perfume, CK1. While I nurtured fantasies of a deep exchange with Mr. Klein, the profile I produced was no different — and certainly no better — than any other. However, I did get a lot of free CK1, whose lemony smell I still love. I wore it for years and years before I ran out.

Fact: The worst reading of my career — by far — happened at the University of Southern Maine a few years ago, and involved “40-Minute Lunch.” I’d been billed as an “experimental” writer, so I felt like I needed to read something strange or risky. I sensed a minute or two in that I’d made a colossal mistake. I had read “40-Minute Lunch” aloud once before, at Bread Loaf, with children in the audience, and there had much hilarity. This time I was met with deep, perplexed silence; the folks in Southern Maine weren’t feeling my angry, jealous, fawning interviewer. The reading became a split-minded experience: one part of me was boring my way doggedly through the story, while another part was engaged in an active, urgent discussion: They hate it now, and he hasn’t even tried to rape her yet! Should I stop reading and say, Look, I can see this isn’t working; why don’t we all just move on to the reception? Why did I ever think this story was funny? It’s offensive, in bad taste — I can’t believe I wrote it. And this is the tasteful part…Etc.

Beginning:

Movie stars always look small the first time you see them, and Kitty Jackson is no exception, exceptional though she may be in every other way.

Actually, small isn’t the word; she’s minute — a human bonsai in a white sleeveless dress, seated at a back table of a Madison Avenue restaurant, talking on a cell phone. She smiles at me as I take my seat and rolls her eyes at the phone. Her hair is that blond you see everywhere, “highlighted,” my ex-fiancée calls it, though on Kitty Jackson this tousled commingling of blond and brown appears both more natural and more costly than it did on Janet Green. Her face (Kitty’s) is one you can imagine looking merely pretty among the other faces in, say, a high school classroom: upturned nose, full mouth, big blue eyes. Yet on Kitty Jackson, for reasons I can’t pinpoint exactly — the same reasons, I suppose, that her highlighted hair looks superior to ordinary (Janet Green’s) highlighted hair — this unexceptional face registers as extraordinary.

She’s still on the phone, and five minutes have passed.