At the Top of Our Game
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By Marc Porter Zasada
IN THE METROPOLIS, we train ourselves to great nuance: the cut of our clothes, the music of our conversation, the choice of our entrees. And in these arts, we grow as agile as athletes.
It's twilight at Hal's Bar and Grill in Venice Beach, a place of funky elegance, just now in that empty pause before the dinner rush. Five corporate executives arrive noisily and stuff into a booth beneath a large abstract sculpture. Here we practice the rituals of well-dressed bonhomie.
The waiters setting up for dinner grimace as we laugh, we deliver friendly thrusts, we chat about melon-flavored martinis. But we are playing a game of great skill. The Urban Man, just now a west coast VP, considers carefully when to be loud, how to laugh, what to order.
Tonight we're out with our east coast CEO: a man who wears shirts with actual cufflinks. We debated for days about where to take him. I said, "Too much postmodern L.A. flash, and we risk looking... provincial. Too little, and we risk...mediocrity."
My colleague Greg suggested Hal's. Yes, by day it's too sunny, too prosaic for a rendezvous with a fortysomething man worth sixty million. But as evening grows along Abbot Kinney Boulevard, a certain pleasing mystery lights the litter and the liquor stores. Shabby becomes edgy. The sometimes gaudy art on the walls achieves a certain glow.
Yes, we gambled, just precisely enough L.A. edginess for our man.
But it's Richard, our sales chief, graced with glad golf-course conversation and a strong chin, who orders first and admirably. He ignores the "Alaskan halibut with roasted beet reduction on caulifower puree." He would not risk his reputation on "Grilled Pacific yellowtail in lemon grass-blood orange dressing." No, he boldly orders "Roasted colorado rack of lamb" with a fricassee that includes black truffles.
It's a firm statement of manhood with a gentle nod to internationalism.
But, Greg! Greg forgets himself and orders "Scalloped monkfish wrapped in pancetta with chardonnay-potato sauce served on fava bean ravioli." Monkfish? Fava bean ravioli? Clearly a stumble, and...where else will his judgment prove unreliable?
Me, I order a large green salad -- saying as clearly as words: "We in the L.A. office are a practical bunch, eager to discuss quarterly goals." Without looking at the menu, the CEO asks for filet mignon. Of course! Once again, I bow to his values and his east coast savoir-faire.
Now comes the compulsory round of personal anecdote: Richard tells a genial tale about mosquitoes on a family vacation. I deftly mention an innocent remark from my six year old. Briefly, we pause to recall "why we all work so hard."
And then the CEO brings up Q4.
Outside, the evening opens into night, and Hal's fills with a roar. Thirtysomething creatives with their shirttails out talk "opportunities," not goals. The waiters no longer have time to give details about martinis. Glasses tinkle, those cufflinks flash, and entering the final round, we corporate types have to lean close and shout to keep the ball in the air.
Perhaps you think us a trivial lot, playing a foolish game. Perhaps you think we should discuss the dark storms overseas or the growing social divide just outside the door.
But who's to call any game unimportant? The pole vaulter studies angles for years, then...jumps over a pole. This summer, they gave gold medals to badminton players. Why not celebrate our moments of funky elegance and reward urban men and women with stock options and truffles? Why not call each word, each joke, each gesture -- each order from each nuanced menu -- a triumph of human skill and determination?
Please note that the names of people mentioned in this commentary have been changed. Copyright -- 2004 by Marc Porter Zasada. All rights reserved.
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