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Ahead of rare San Diego appearance, Fran Lebowitz chats about writing, Zoom calls and California burritos

Fran Lebowitz is a social commentator, humorist, writer and New Yorker.
(Brigitte Lacombe)

The New York-based author and social commentator will participate in an onstage conversation at Balboa Theatre in Gaslamp on Monday.

Fran Lebowitz doesn’t have time for slow walkers. For the longtime New Yorker, walking is a mode of transportation, not a leisurely activity that clogs up the sidewalks.

This viewpoint was the title inspiration for “Pretend It’s A City,” a seven-part Netflix series about the writer and social commentator. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the 2021 documentary puts Lebowitz’s strong opinions — including the need to speed up tourists in metropolitan areas — front and center.

However, her approach to walks reluctantly changed during lockdown when the humorist had “nowhere to go … so it had an aimless quality.” Aside from these aimless walks, Lebowitz passed the time cooped up in her NYC apartment, indulging in two of her favorite activities: reading a mountain of books and having long talks with friends on the phone.

“I didn’t teach myself Dutch. I didn’t learn how to ski — basically I would say I was as unproductive as I ordinarily am,” Lebowitz told The San Diego Union-Tribune in her trademark no-nonsense style.

Months of solitude also wasn’t enough to break Lebowitz’s decades-long writers block. The bestselling author — who released two critically acclaimed essay collections, “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.”

Though she is constantly writing things down and “lives in a sea of pieces of paper,” Lebowitz is known for her nervousness around publishing her work. She’s not sure why, but is quick to correct the word choice.

“Nervousness is too light a way put it ... it isn’t nervousness. It’s a much bigger thing than that, whatever it is. And if I knew what it was, it wouldn’t be happening,” she says, adding that her editor calls it an “excessive reverence for the written word.”

Something Lebowitz is not anxious about is public speaking. From late night talk shows to college campus appearances, the writer is now renowned for her speaking engagements full of thoughtful, blunt and sometimes polarizing commentary. (In fact, before “Pretend It’s A City,” Scorsese directed a 2010 HBO documentary about Lebowitz called “Public Speaking.”)

Lebowitz is also known for her longtime aversion to technology: She’s never owned a cellphone, computer or even a typewriter. So how did Lebowitz fare during the virtual-only reality of the pandemic, when she had to do publicity for her Netflix series, as well as a few speaking dates, via Zoom?

“The upside was you didn’t have to fly anywhere,” the humorist said, noting that anything that doesn’t involve Delta Air Lines is always a good thing. “The downside was there is, to me, a dead quality about Zoom (without a live audience) ... it was just less fun, frankly. I love doing these speaking dates. The thing I hate is getting there.”

Once restrictions 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 her wit to San Diego’s Balboa Theatre for an onstage conversation with Matthew Hall, the editorial and opinion director at The San Diego Union-Tribune.

When we talked, Lebowitz is 37 cities into to 2022 lecture tour — and she’s exhausted.

“I can barely walk half the time,” Lebowitz said, laughing. “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’s her secret to surviving these lecture tours?

“Coffee — coffee is the most important thing in my life,” the 71-year-old said, adding that she takes the “magic beverage” iced and black. “I would say in that last week in the Midwest, I never slept more than three hours a night. People say, ‘Well, how can you go on the stage? What’s your secret?’ It’s not a secret. I have in my rider backstage that there has to be like 17 gallons of coffee.”

While the New Yorker spends long stretches 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 laying on the beaches (she can’t stand being in the sun), sitting at the bar of a craft brewery (she hasn’t had a drink since age 19), or riding on the MTS trolley during next week’s San Diego tour stop.

But, somewhat surprisingly, Lebowitz has taken the trolley before. Even though she’s only visited San Diego a couple of times, Lebowitz recalls a conversation in her hotel room during a newspaper photoshoot, in which the photographer brought up San Diego’s close proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border.

“The photographer mentioned to me that right by the hotel was a trolley, and that it went to Mexico,” Lebowitz said. “I was astonished by this, because I have the usual New Yorker no sense of geography.”

A few hours later, she found herself riding the Blue Line to Tijuana, where she had “a very interesting time.”

“The idea of going to another country in like 20 minutes was very fun for me,” she said.

Speaking of Mexico, how does Lebowitz feel about Mexican food? She’s not an expert: “In fact, I very often have to ask people still, which is a taco and which is a burrito.”

I ask if she’s heard of a California burrito — she hasn’t, but imagines it has mayonnaise on it. The name prompts a childhood memory of a mayonnaise slathered California Burger, which to her, “is an insane thing to do to a hamburger.”

When I relay the burrito’s actual real ingredients to her: “You know, that doesn’t sound that great to me ... why do you have to put French Fries in, can’t you have them on the side?”

But just because Lebowitz doesn’t find California burritos — or beaches, hot weather or exercising for fun — appealing, doesn’t mean the social commentator shames those who do. People, she said, should like what they want.

“We live in an era now where if you say that you prefer something, or you don’t prefer something, people act as if it’s like World War III.”

An Evening with Fran Lebowitz

When: 7:30 p.m. Monday

Where: Balboa Theatre, 868 Fourth Ave., Gaslamp Quarter

Tickets: Starting at $34.50

Online: sandiegotheatres.org

COVID-19 guidelines: Masks are required during the book signing and recommended during the show.


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