When I was an editorial assistant at Simon & Schuster, there was a very rich and ambitious editorial assistant who used to take out agents and pay with her own credit card, pretending to have an expense account. My friends and I, over dollar pitchers of beer, debated which was worse, the fraudulence or spending your own money. When I finally got promoted to editor and got my first company credit card, it was incredibly exciting. Taking out agents, however, turned out to be a little more stressful than I bargained for. I surveyed some top editors around town and asked them to share their worst lunch dates ever. There was no shortage or replies:
“Hm, oh god, worse lunch date ever, but there are so many to choose from! Probably my first one. I was a baby editor on my first expense account lunch and the agent was 20 minutes late, then proceeded to order a 3 course insanely expensive meal with wine, and spent the entire time talking about much she loved my previous boss who was a notorious sadist and the worst person I’ve ever worked for in publishing.”
Nobody puts Baby in the corner!
Another editor, and a sharp one at that, thought he’d teach an old dog new tricks, “My worst lunch ever was with a literary agent who abruptly suggested we end our meal, even though the food had just arrived. I had been giving her the third degree about her policy of refusing to take editorial factors into consideration and selling her projects only to the highest bidder. She took offense. We did ultimately make it to the end of the lunch. No dessert, though. And I never received any further submissions from her.”
Damn, that creme brulee looked good.
Let’s give the agents a rest: “I was having lunch with an author and his wife, also a writer, on the eve of his publication. At the beginning they let me know they felt nothing but disdain for our corporate parent company. Then to alleviate their liberal guilt over taking money from such monsters, they ordered everything on the menu and stuck me with a $300 bill for lunch.”
Another newbie bought her first big book. The moment the deal was made, the agent insisted the editor take her out to celebrate. “It was my first sign of things to come. The agent chose the restaurant, the date, the time, and believe it or not the table…you can imagine my surprise when the agent was not only there ahead of me, but seated with a drink already sweating on the table, half-way finished.” DANGER WILL ROBINSON! Agent proceeded to dress down the waitress in “epic proportions” for slow service, needed each dish to be specially prepared, sent food back when it wasn’t hot enough, and ordered coffee and dessert. “Needless to say, after the agent scraped the final bits of frosting from the plate, shook out the napkin from his collar, patted his stomach over the too-tightly belted high-waisted pants, I was ready to sprint back to the office. I left the poor waitress at 50% tip…It was 3:30. We never lunched again.”
There’s no excuse for high-waisted pants. Not then, not now.
Another editor in her youth went nearly 100 blocks to meet an esteemed agent. (An unspoken rule of lunching: the younger or more junior person always travels to a restaurant convenient to the senior person.) So, our intrepid editor hopped the subway and nearly an hour later arrived at the lunch spot chosen by the agent. “The agent was there when I arrived, her head in her hands. I sat down and asked if everything was alright. She replied that she would kill herself if she had to have the Cobb salad again. When I suggested she try the Chef salad, she started weeping”
Clearly, this was a lunch date prior to the invention of SSRI’s.
For me, the worst lunch date is when the young editor across from me starts to blend into every other lunch date I’ve ever had, when I no longer remember her name or which publishing house she works for, when I start to time travel and remember all my nervous lunch dates taking agents out for the first time, skittish as a blind date, how I felt like a fraud yammering on about how much I loved books or thought the house I was working at was swell. It was all true enough, but it always felt false like too much make-up. It was the “Showtime” feeling from All That Jazz, being on like that, a trained circus animal. Sometimes I’d go to the restroom in the middle of the lunch just to get a look at myself in the mirror and make sure I was still there. Not exactly an existential moment worthy of Sartre, but still my little reverie.