Holy cow. I never knew so many people could stomach the idea of going out to lunch with me.
Since Monday, when my ''Lunch with Cliff'' coupon ran in the paper, 294 of those babies have been filled out and sent in. I haven't had this many people wanting to sit next to me since my mom baked chocolate-chip cookies for my fellow inmates in kindergarten.
Rest assured, no coupon will be ignored. More are welcome. My goal is to take in as many places with as many people as possible. And armed with my Enquirer expense account, lunch is on me.
The first coupon came from Sue Abbott. She works in Loveland at Totes' personnel office:
''We are four women who 'brown bag' lunch and play cards every day at our company cafeteria.'' Sue sent in the coupon ''because too many people talk about negative things at lunch. We laugh. Our message is, lighten up. The laughs you have at lunch may last throughout the day.''
How could I pass up the chance to eat with four friends - from four different departments in the plant - who use their daily lunch hour to recharge their souls?
The cards and the wisecracks flew across the top of the white Formica table. Sue went over the rules while dealing cards to Sally Wread, Cindy Simon and Vicki Murphy.
''No swearing,'' she said.
''Damn!'' Vicki cried as she frowned at her hand.
''That rule's not enforced enough,'' Sue said.
For the last four years, a game of euchre has been their last course at lunch. There's no gambling.
''We only have one firm rule,'' Sue said as she examined her cards. ''No talk of work.''
''Who watched that goofy TV movie last night?'' asked Jan Sparks, the group's first substitute and conversation starter.
''I missed the end because my son called from England,'' Jan said. ''Collect, of course.''
Vicki started to give her a blow-by-blow of what she missed.
''Is this a two-beer story?'' Jan interrupted. ''Hurry up. Our lunch hour will be over.''
Vicki cut to the chase. ''The end.''
The card players' laughter filled the nearly empty basement lunchroom.
''We laugh so much, the credit department can hear us upstairs,'' Sue said.
Before the cards came the food.
The players unzipped their soft-sided lunch boxes and pulled out a feast. Ham and cheese sandwiches on wheat, a casserole dish of Skyline chili dip with chips, homemade vegetable soup and three rounds of dessert, apples, cookies and miniature candy bars were on the menu.
''We always use this table,'' Sue said.
''It's sturdy,'' Vicki added.
''We usually eat better than this,'' said Sue.
I don't see how.
Jan brought up Ellen DeGeneres' televised coming-out party.
''There's been so much hype about it,'' she said. ''But who cares?''
A vote was taken. It was unanimous. No one cared.
Cindy shuffled the deck and Jan swore she was ''in love after seeing that gorgeous David Copperfield on TV.''
As the others talked, Sally leaned forward and whispered to me: ''We've been through a lot together.'' She mentioned the car wreck her son had in January. He's on the mend. But he suffers from memory lapses and has lost his sense of taste.
Every day after the accident, her friends asked about him. ''That didn't solve the problem,'' she said. ''Or make it go away.''
But she took comfort in their caring enough to ask, appreciated their listening and found relief in talking. Over a game of cards, they let her say what was on her mind and share what was in her heart.
''I look around this table,'' Sally said, ''and see that there still are wonderful people in this world.''
Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax 768-8340.