The infamous Palm Restaurant of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s was similar in one way to almost any great, or not so great, restaurant where I have had the pleasure dining… it had that one table where absolutely no one wanted to be seated.
At The Palm, it was #34X.
Not only was it close to the kitchen and extremely small, it was wedged between a small dividing wall directly across from two six-top tables no more than five feet away.
If the cramped proximity to other diners were not enough to make #34X blatantly undesirable, the deluge of traffic passing through those five feet was never-ending,
Waiters and busboys hustled in and out of the clamorous kitchen which rang out with the constant clang of pots and pans, while slightly-tipsy customers stumbled past it to the restrooms with the mistaken impression that speaking as loudly as possible was an acceptable approach to addressing their companions above the din.
And this cacophonous parade always reached its peak as it passed Table #34X.
The Palm Restaurant was a Hollywood icon where the status and power of La La Land was paramount (and Paramount).
Industry trade papers and gossip magazines judged the career viability of industry players based on the location of the tables at which its denizens dined.
Often, the table at which you and your guests were seated was a make-or-break event in which your very status was either given a rose or voted off the island.
If the front four tables, reserved for the uber-elite, were synonyms for success dressed up in white tablecloths, then poor #34X would have been considered the last and most horrifying circle in Dante’s “Inferno.”
So, imagine my surprise, one Saturday night over thirty years ago, when I looked down at table #34X and saw Sam Shepard, dining alone at that outpost of social and professional embarrassment.
Tall and ruggedly handsome, not only was Shepard one of the great playwrights of his generation, he recently had been nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in “The Right Stuff.”
Hesitantly, I approached the table with bread and butter and expected the usual complaint about the table and how it was a disgrace to be seated there.
But to my amazement, Mr. Shepard greeted me graciously and exclaimed, “Wow! This place is really packed. I can’t believe they sat me so quickly. I didn’t even have a reservation.”
He ordered a beer and before I had time to turn away, he gently touched my arm, smiled, and said, “Why not make that two beers.”
By the time I got back, he seemed to own the entire space around him, sizing up the rowdy bar crowd with a steely gaze, much like Wild Bill Hickok, whom Shepard had portrayed in “Purgatory.”
He ordered a steak and salad and, as he waited for his food, I told him, “You know it’s strange, but I have studied your work in some of my English classes.”
He seemed surprised and laughed, “Guess your teachers didn’t put much thought into the curriculum if they had you studying my work?”
It seemed surreal, maybe because he was so young, and everybody else I had studied in my English classes were so…dead.
Or, maybe it was because there was nothing pretentious, or phony, or superior in his attitude and manner.
“And who else have you studied?” he asked, trying to put me at ease.
“Joyce, Yeats, Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, Shaw, Tennessee Williams,” and I went on and on as though I was trying to impress him.
Not once did he interrupt me.
Finally, after feeling like a total fool, I stopped and gathered my wits. Sam smiled and said, “I really like D.H. Lawrence’s work. How about you?”
“Absolutely, one of the giants,” I replied with relief at his graciousness.
For the next fifteen minutes, we discussed D.H. Lawrence as waiters, busboys, and customers started complaining about my lack of response to their requests.
After all, who was this nobody… sitting at this tiny table … to whom I was giving all my attention?
Begrudgingly, I returned to my responsibilities, rushing through them so I could return to the gracious wordsmith seated at the outpost of public relations unacceptability.
I quickly returned to #34X where Sam asked me about my own writing.
I told him about the strict and regimented approach I was following to ensure that my output was steady.
He smiled slightly with a look that only a wealth of experience can bring.
“Loosen up,” he suggested. “Let your characters do the writing for you.”
At that time of my young life, his sage advice, while welcomed, was somewhat beyond my understanding.
It took twenty-five years for his words to gain clarity as I unconsciously followed his advice.
My characters developed their own voices instead of having me speak for them…they were doing the work, and I was the mere scribe who took down their dictation.
True to Sam’s prediction, I really started to enjoy writing.
Writing is no longer like Hemingway described as “slicing open your wrists and slowly bleeding to death.”
It has become a much more creative, satisfying, and quite frankly, life-saving endeavor.
I often think back to that night when The Fates intervened, colliding my world with that of a man had been lauded with a Pulitzer Prize, Obie Awards, many critics association awards and Oscar, Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations.
I fondly remember the night when I met Sam Shepard.
I shook his hand as he got up to leave.
He thanked me for the wonderful conversation and wished me luck.
At that moment, my luck took a turn for the better.
I was fortunate enough to have received writing tips from Sam Shepard.
Six months later, Sam came back to the restaurant, on a much less crowded night.
He was alone and asked to be seated in my section.
As we talked, I was amazed that he remembered, almost verbatim, what we had discussed six months earlier at that miserable little table, #34X.
It was a gracious and thoughtful display exhibited more by “true kings” than by pretenders to the throne.
By all accounts, Sam Shepard eschewed the limelight. He spent much of his time at his horse farm near Midway, Kentucky, where the locals found him to be “a regular guy, just like everybody else.”
How wonderful a world it would be if everybody were as gracious, thoughtful and talented as Sam Shepard.
Sam Shepard passed away last week at his home in Midway. He leaves behind three children, two sisters, a cadre of fans and some very wise words…
“Let your characters do the writing for you.”
I shall, Sam. I shall. And thank you.