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Three Course Lunch for a Buck

Updated: Nov 11, 2023

Dairy Queen Chili Cheese Dog
Dairy Queen Chili Cheese Dog

I well remember the early days in New York City, finally making it as a freelance writer, when I was often taken to lunch by an editor or my agent. Really swell, those days were. Heady with the scent (or maybe pong is better) of the taxi I would snag to get there, redolent of new foods being tried out in NYC before being gradually introduced to the hinterlands), and satisfying to the always-on-the-financial-edge soul of a freelancer seeking solace among the great and good. My agent would often take me to a trendy restaurant in Greenwich Village, and we usually dined on some sort of health food and some wine. One of my editors would take me to The Sign of The Dove. It is long gone, but it was lovely. And expensive. Expense-account expensive.

Matchbook cover from the restaurant, for sale on eBay
Matchbook cover from the restaurant, for sale on eBay

Those spiffy lunches didn't happen right away. It took me a year to sell my first article, and three more years until I was making a decent living from writing alone. During those years, one might say I was still in 'grad student' mode, also known as slumming, I think.

I actually slummed, my family not being wealthy or connected. to pay my way at the University of Georgia Journalism School. I was an 'exceptional' student, by which I mean my undergraduate degree was in English Literature; being insular, as are most graduate programs, the UGA program offered me no possibility of an assistantship and paid tuition. Indeed, I had to talk them into taking me at all, despite decent undergrad work at a very tough school and glowing recommendations from some of the big noises in literature.

So, I afforded my advanced courses by the simple tactic, familiar to many ordinary kids, of starving myself and working my butt off to get the degree.

I worked my butt off in two ways: modeling for art classes when I had the time, and working four nights a week from 4 p.m. to midnight copy editing the local morning newspaper.

THAT was the real education in journalism. As an English fanatic, it appalled me to notice how much copy came in from the writers with egregious errors of all sorts. One of the 'big names' locally could not spell the word nevertheless. The political affairs reporter thought the word he used most often was 'publically.' The opinion editor went frantic--in print in his column, no less--over the fact that he thought the Southern Governor's Conference was being held in Alaska because he had seen the abbreviation AL on the press release. I ask you.... I worked incredibly hard for pay that would barely put a week's fuel in your car these days. I paid $45 dollars a month for a tiny, one-bedroom basement flat, utilities included. I ate an egg and a slice of toast for breakfast, and not much more until my dinner break at the paper. Then I would feast!

Sometimes I had a pomegranate and a hunk of cheese. Sometimes I'd go with one of the typists to the KKK, Krazy Korner Kafe, across the street from the paper. There, one could have a meal (hamburger patty passed off as 'chopped steak,' fries, canned peas, a glass of ice tea and a bowl of jello) for $1.15. Truly. But one had to understand that the kitchen help made even less than I did, worked longer hours. Even though integration of the University of Georgia had happened a few years earlier, the whole kitchen staff was black and the whole serving staff was white. Three course lunch

But my favourite meal was none of the above. It was Vienna Sausage, the one with barbecue sauce for it to swim in in the can instead of just 'meat juice.' There was a lot to savour if I had managed to snag a banana for a dime at the student canteen earlier in the day, and was willing to spend 15 cents for a Pepsi. Yes, indeed, Vienna Sausage days were prized. I liked them even better than the days on which the typists and I would go to Dairy Queen for chili dogs.

Well, actually, I probably liked those as well. But consider: a hot dog is, like a Vienna Sausage, just another form of tube steak.

But I could afford a can of the sausages, a yellow elongated fruit, and some flavourful fizzy water even when I was close to payday. Bliss with a plastic fork and a piece of industrial tan paper towel as a napkin.

Tins of Libby's Vienna Sausage
One of my favourite grad school

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