A few weeks ago, I had lunch with my friend Ellen in downtown Austin. It’s not something I do very often anymore, lunching outside the house. Mostly because going to a restaurant requires that I remove the slippers and unbelted fluffy beige bathrobe I’ve taken to wearing all day, a la Jeffrey Lebowski. (My husband: “You do realize you had an entire conversation with the pest control woman while unapologetically wearing your robe at 3 p.m.” Me: “Why should I apologize to Bug Lady Janice? She smells like spider powder.”)
Anyway, midway through the lunch, the majority of which was spent talking about international politics/cuticle upkeep, I noticed that the group of male co-workers next to us had a pile of cellphones in the middle of their table. Was this a fancy kind of centerpiece? I wondered. Something Martha Stewart created in collaboration with AT&T? “No, not at all,” Ellen told me. “It’s a new thing where people willingly put down their phones during a meal so they can concentrate on human interaction. The first one to pick up his or her phone before the check comes has to pay for the entire bill.”
“Wow,” I whispered while we watched the men vigorously discuss college football/cuticle upkeep. “Guess there’s nothing like the threat of a high Visa payment to make you social. Wish I had one of their phone numbers so I could call him right now and watch him sweat through his polo shirt. It’s weird, right?”
“Kinda,” said Ellen. “But on the plus side, at least none of them can post pictures of their food on Instagram with the caption ‘Yummers in mah tummers!’ right now.”
Of course, it’s not like I’ve never been guilty of looking at my phone during a meal. I’ve definitely done that more often than I should. Especially during family dinners when the boys are in the middle of some big argument about major league baseball stats/cuticle upkeep and I’m expecting an email from the Barry Manilow International Fan Club (BMIFC) about Barry’s favorite holiday traditions. But even so, I know I could easily go without my phone because I have years of experience suffering through business dinners and lunches with people I couldn’t stand.
Like the client from Waco I took to a fancy, star-packed restaurant in Malibu when we were there on a commercial shoot. Not only did she wear a fanny pack to dinner, but she almost knocked over Gwyneth Paltrow and Billy Joel on her way to take a picture of Body by Jake and Loretta Swit with her disposable camera. Then she spent the three-course meal loudly chatting about septic tanks and how her husband didn’t let her watch Will and Grace because of the “gay content.” I had no choice but to just listen and carefully respond with things like, “That sounds a little closed minded, don’t you think? Hey, how’s your fish?!”
Then there was the older, possibly drunk, definitely flirty, British producer I sat next to years ago in a nice Santa Monica restaurant. He rambled for an hour about the day he spent on Anthony Hopkins’ yacht in the 80’s and I had to quietly listen and smile because he was friends with my boss. “Tony, I call him Tony, has the best tastes in bathroom fixturesth you’ve ever scheen! Gold! Do you like yachtses, Windy?” What I wouldn’t have given for an iPhone to bury my nose in back then. I could have texted WTF emojis to everyone in my contact list and/or taken a selfie in the bathroom and tweeted it with the caption “Windy haz the sadz.”
But perhaps what’s even odder to me about the whole “no phones at lunch” game is that the punishment for losing is paying the bill for everyone. That’s certainly something my lovely father-in-law Irwin and his brother Ted wouldn’t have understood because their WWII generation prided themselves on always picking up the tab if possible. In fact, years ago, Chris and I spent a weekend in Vegas with his parents and Uncle Ted and his wife and we witnessed no less than five near-fistfights between the brothers whenever the bill came. They each wanted the honor of paying it, and the one time I got my credit card to the waiter before they did, they wouldn’t talk to me for an entire day. (By the way, if you’ve never been to Vegas with four senior citizens, imagine shoving a pack of tipsy ducklings inside a pinball machine, then putting a quarter in. It took us over 90 minutes to walk with them through the MGM casino, and that was after we lost Chris’ mom Jeannie, only to find her in the lounge, standing up in a booth, drinking Jack Daniels and singing along to “Mustang Sally” with the band.)
But I don’t know, the more that I think about it, maybe those men at lunch were on to something. In fact, maybe the next time I take off my slippers and my Lebowski robe and go out to dinner with a group of friends, I’ll suggest the phone game. Then, once the phones are all surrendered and in the middle of the table, I’ll order a few appetizers, a big steak, two desserts and a bottle of the most expensive wine.
Then ask the waiter to tell the table that Ryan Gosling just posted naked pictures of himself on Facebook.