Fran Lebowitz doesn’t have time for slow walkers. For the lifelong New Yorker, walking is a mode of transportation, not a leisure activity that clutters sidewalks.
This view inspired the title of “Pretend It’s A City,” a seven-part Netflix series about the writer and social commentator. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the 2021 documentary brings Lebowitz’s strong views — including the need to expedite tourists in metropolitan areas — to the fore.
However, his approach to walks reluctantly changed during the lockdown when the comedian had “nowhere to go… so it had an aimless quality to it”. In addition to these aimless walks, Lebowitz spent the time cooped up in her New York apartment, indulging in two of her favorite activities: reading a mountain of books and having long conversations with friends on the phone.
“I didn’t learn Dutch myself. I didn’t learn to ski – basically I would say I was as unproductive as usual,” Lebowitz told the San Diego Union-Tribune in his trademark no-frills style.
Nor were months of solitude enough to break Lebowitz’s decades-old writers’ block. The bestselling author – who published two critically acclaimed collections of essays, ‘Metropolitan Life’ and ‘Social Studies’, in 1978 and 1981 respectively – hasn’t published anything since her 1994 children’s book, ‘Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue meet the pandas.
Although she is constantly writing things down and “living in a sea of scraps of paper,” Lebowitz is known for her nervousness about getting her work published. She doesn’t know why, but quickly corrects the choice of word.
“Nervousness is too light to tell…it’s not nervousness. It’s a much bigger thing than that, whatever it is. And if I knew what it was, it wouldn’t wouldn’t happen,” she says, adding that her publisher calls it an “excessive reverence for the written word.”
Something Lebowitz is do not anxious to speak in public. From late-night talk shows to appearances on college campuses, the writer is now renowned for speaking engagements full of thoughtful, direct, and sometimes polarizing commentary. (In fact, before “Pretend It’s A City,” Scorsese made a 2010 HBO documentary about Lebowitz called “Public Speaking.”)
Lebowitz is also known for her lifelong aversion to technology: she has never owned a cellphone, computer, or even a typewriter. So how did Lebowitz fare during pandemic VR, when she had to advertise her Netflix series, as well as a few speaking dates, via Zoom?
“The upside was that you didn’t have to fly anywhere,” the comedian said, noting that anything that doesn’t involve Delta Air Lines is always a good thing. “The downside was that there was, for me, a dead quality about Zoom (without a live audience)…it was just less fun, frankly. I love doing these talking dates. What I hate is getting there.
Once the restrictions were lifted, Lebowitz was eager to get back in front of live audiences (even if it meant having to travel again). And on Monday, Lebowitz will bring his mind to the Balboa Theater in San Diego for an onstage conversation with Matthew Hall, the editorial and opinion director at the San Diego Union-Tribune.
When we spoke, Lebowitz is in 37 cities for the 2022 speaking tour — and she’s sold out.
“I can barely walk half the time,” Lebowitz said with a laugh. “Last week, in five days, I went to Cincinnati, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Minneapolis and Chicago. So that means flying to a different city every day, a different hotel every day — it’s very tiring. And if you thought traveling was horrible before COVID, do it now.
What is his secret to surviving these speaking tours?
“Coffee – coffee is the most important thing in my life,” the 71-year-old said, adding that she took the “magic drink” ice cold and black. “I would say the last week in the Midwest, I never slept more than three hours a night. People say, ‘Well, how can you get on stage? What’s your secret?’ It’s no secret I have in the backstage of my rider there must be about 17 gallons of coffee.
While the New Yorker spends long periods on the road, Lebowitz usually doesn’t have time to explore the cities she visits. It’s safe to say you won’t find her lying on beaches (she can’t stand being in the sun), sitting at the bar of a craft brewery (she hasn’t had an alcoholic drink since the age of 19) or riding the MTS cart during the San Diego tour stop next week.
But, somewhat surprisingly, Lebowitz possesses took the front carriage. Although she’s only visited San Diego a few times, Lebowitz recalls a conversation in her hotel room during a newspaper photo shoot, in which the photographer discussed San Diego’s closeness to the US-Mexico border.
“The photographer told me that right next to the hotel was a cart and that he had been to Mexico,” Lebowitz said. “I was surprised by that, because I don’t have any sense of geography like the usual New Yorker.”
A few hours later, she found herself on the Blue Line to Tijuana, where she had “a very interesting time”.
“The idea of going to another country in 20 minutes was a lot of fun for me,” she said.
Speaking of Mexico, what does Lebowitz think of Mexican food? She’s no expert: “In fact, I still have to ask people a lot of times, which is a taco and which is a burrito.”
I ask her if she’s heard of a California burrito – she hasn’t, but she imagines it has mayonnaise on it. The name conjures up a childhood memory of a California burger covered in mayonnaise, which to her, “is a crazy thing to do with a burger.”
When I pass her the real burrito ingredients: “You know, that doesn’t sound so good…why do you have to put fries in it, can’t you have them on the side?”
But just because Lebowitz doesn’t find Californian burritos — or the beaches, the hot weather, or exercising for fun — appealing doesn’t mean the social commentator is shaming those who do. People, she says, should like what they want.
“We live in a time where if you say you like something or you don’t like something, people act like it’s like it’s World War III.”
An Evening with Fran Lebowitz
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday
Or: Balboa Theater, 868 4th Avenue, Gaslamp Quarter
Tickets: From $34.50
In line: sandiegotheatres.org
COVID-19 guidelines: Masks are mandatory at book signing and recommended during the show.