Where the Breadsticks Are Unlimited

One time, some years ago, when I was just kind of starting my career, and I probably knew more people in the music world than the media world, and I was all of 22 or 23 years old, though I still ostensibly knew the difference between bad taste and good taste — this, of course, because most people in music have bad taste, while people in media are said to have good taste — I took a meeting with an editor who worked at a magazine.

It was a rather informal thing, the editor and I being roughly the same age, and wanting to, as it were, “get to know each other.” I suppose back then, as we were both in the early stages of our professional lives, we were in some ways desirous of finding other people in our line of work with who we could possibly relate. I mean, I am just suspecting that’s what it was that lead to this prearranged meeting, for it wasn’t as if I had requested it. It was more like a “hey, I’ve heard about you, we should get lunch” kind of thing, which is always nice.

And so I made my way to the city from Staten Island, traveling the hour and a half, on public transit. It wasn’t an uncommon trip; for a few years, I made it at least 3–4 times a week, each day meeting more and more people, building up a network, if you will, of folks who were gainfully employed and working in an industry in which I too endeavored to one day make an honest dime.

But when I got this editor’s office, which was located in the Flatiron District, I was extremely taken aback by his suggestion of where to lunch. Remember, I had — at that time — not an ounce of real class, but I did know good from bad, and I was coming from Staten Island, which if it has any class to speak of, is only low class. And my point entire point of being then, if there really was one, was to break free of my Staten Island life, to get away from that shit.

So, I had dreamed of some swanky affair; not a power lunch per se, but at least something powerful — a meal in which you might kick back, your steak, half eaten and still ribbing with fat, butter on your bread and the fruity, aromatic taste of the sweetest Italian wine swilling against your jaws. Ah, now this a lunch! And we would get down to business.

“I love your writing, Paul. I want you to write something for me!”

“I’d love to,” I’d reply, inching closer to the table, my hands folded. “What do you propose?”

“Well, what do you propose?”

He’d smile. He’d have a devilish smile.

“Hmm,” I’d say, slinking back in my seat. Then, I’d inch forward again: “John. I have a story I’d like to do on this lost tribe in the Amazon. I’d need to charter a plane to get in there though, plus expenses of course. And then my fee — I’m thinking $100,000, at least.”

“Done,” he’d say. “Whatever you need, Paul. Whatever you need.”

“A toast, then.”

We’d raise our glasses.

“A toast!”

“To writing.”

“And adventure.”

“To writing and adventure — a marriage of life’s two finest things.”

“Amen, brother,” he’d say. “Amen.”

But what actually happened was, he turned to me and said: “Hey man — is Olive Garden okay?”

I stammered, surprised, not really sure what to say. Then I said: “Well, uhh, yeah, I mean — I guess?”

“I love their breadsticks,” he said, giddy in a way in which a man should never be, even if he is the kind of man for whom giddiness is something he is born with.

“Right,” I said. “The breadsticks.”

“You know what I really love about Olive Garden though,” he said, turning to me as we began to walk, the lunchtime crowd bustling all around us. “The breadsticks are unlimited, too. Isn’t that so cool?”

Breadsticks — cool? This guy was asking me if I thought unlimited breadsticks were cool.

I didn’t know what to say so I just said: “Everybody loves breadsticks, right?”

“Fuck yeah,” he said. “Olive Garden is the shit. I try to take all my meetings there if I can. That’s the cool thing about this job, you know, being able to take people to lunch and stuff. I couldn’t do that when I was just an intern. But now, I mean, now I feel like I’m really doing it, you know?”

“Right,” I said. “You gotta dream, man. You gotta dream. Happy for you.”

“Thanks,” he said, patting me on the back. He opened the door to the Olive Garden, and we walked in. “This is going to be great. Fucking great.”

I sighed.

And then it really was.

get in touch paulcantor@gmail.com

Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.