Jerry Rubin was in the 49th day of his fast for peace when we met at the Rose Cafe, a gathering place for decent middle-aged ladies, unwashed intellectuals and lumbering weightlifters from a nearby gym.
His fast was to end the next day and I questioned the wisdom of an interview conducted at a lunch he couldn't eat.
"You sure you want to meet at a restaurant?" I asked as we walked in the door.
The cafe is in Venice, not far from Rubin's beachfront home.
"No problem," Rubin said. "This is my fourth fast. I can handle it."
He was gaunt and jittery and his pants were loose from not having consumed anything but water, juice and herbal tea since April 17.
We sat in a corner. Nearby, a heavy-set man ate pasta with a languor that bordered on slow motion.
A woman to our left made loud smacking sounds as she chewed what appeared to be a pastrami sandwich.
I felt as though we were in a Brian de Palma movie.
"Watching people eat makes me feel good," Rubin said, staring at the chicken salad I had ordered.
His eyes shone with a mad hunger. I was certain that at any moment he would smash me aside and grab my wheat roll.
"I feel guilty eating this way," I said, taking a bite.
"Hey, man, don't," Rubin said, following the path of my fork from plate to mouth. "Eating is a beautiful thing."
His mouth moved slightly as I chewed.
"Is that a carrot you're eating now?" he asked.
"Right," I said.
"That's what I thought. You can't quite tell with the dressing on it that way. It could be chicken. That must be chicken over by the tomato. Is that a slice of cucumber next to it?"
"Look, Jer, if you want . . . "
"No, no, go ahead," he said. "I insist."
I shrugged and took another bite and he said, "Man that's nice."
Rubin is 43 and has been working on behalf of peace for a dozen years. He is not the Jerry Rubin, by the way, who was a 1960s Yippie. That Jerry Rubin, the last I heard, was running a disco in New York.
This Jerry Rubin is still marching and singing and picketing and fasting for peace.
His latest fast had begun as his wife was preparing fried matzo for dinner during Passover. Her cooking abilities had nothing to do with Rubin's decision to go on a hunger strike. He was fasting to renounce war toys and violence-themed television cartoons.
He would declare the fast over on its 50th day not because peace and harmony suddenly prevailed in the world but because he had never intended to starve himself to death in the first place, and that was beginning to seem like a distinct possibility.
"Why fast at all?" I asked as we sat in the Rose Cafe on the 49th day.
He continued to follow the path of my fork from plate to mouth and back again. I felt like a contestant in an eating match.
"I wanted to sacrifice something very dear in order to make a statement," he said. "Food is very dear. Also, you get media coverage when they think you might die."
"You haven't cheated at all?" I asked. "Not a bite?"
"Not a morsel," Rubin said. "I've been surviving on imaginary calories."
"You pretend you're eating?"
"Sure. Sometimes I chew popcorn in my head. I love it. We went to a movie the other night and I couldn't concentrate because of the popcorn smell."
"What are you looking forward to eating when the fast is over?"
"Pasta dripping with sauce," he said. "I dream about taking a mouthful of spaghetti and letting it sit in my mouth for five minutes before chewing it."
The sheen in his eyes intensified. If the day had gone suddenly black, they would have glowed in the dark.
This was Rubin's longest fast.
Of the others, one lasted 25 days, the second 30 days and the third 22 days. All were somehow related to peace.
"I'm beginning to forget how to chew," he said. "God, I hate water."
One of the reason I like Jerry Rubin is that I have never met anyone quite so dedicated to peace. Others come and go, riding the crest of the movement's popularity, but Rubin just keeps at it, year after year.
He's not getting rich at it. His salary is determined by what he can raise during fund drives as director of L.A.'s Alliance for Survival. During days of flagging national interest, that amounts to very little.
"You ever think of just getting a regular job?" I asked.
"I think about it during the bad times," he said. "People say I ought to write a book or something. But I'm a high school dropout with no skills. I don't even know how to type."
I'm not sure that fasting or picketing does anything to help in the quest for world peace. But I respect a guy like Rubin for trying.
We left the Rose Cafe.
"I bet you're glad I'm done eating," I said.
"Didn't bother me a bit," Rubin replied.
We walked a little ways and then he said, "But would you mind describing exactly how chicken tastes in a salad?"