The Hole in the Horn of Plenty

Damon Runyon

December 1912


Van Clief was an institution. All cities have institutions, just as people have customs and habits.

If a man, or an object, does one thing long enough, he, or it, becomes an institution.

For instance, a statue of George Washington stands in a fixed spot for quite a spell; it is an institution, and is pointed out to strangers.

Similarly, for twenty years, Van Clief was rarely seen away from a particular chair at a particular table in the famous old Café des Arts for more than a few moments during the night hours that the place was open. He brought a profound intellect to bear upon the subject of dining to such effect that he builded himself an epicurean reputation which took him into the institutional class. To the patrons and attachés of the café he became, not a carefully groomed old gentleman peacefully eating food, but an institution.

Van Clief made dining an art. He made it a thing of beauty. He breathed elegance and grace into the business of handling a knife and fork. He went about it as a great painter would set himself to the production of a masterpiece. Viands which upon the plate of an ordinary diner would be simply something to eat became delicate and rare works when placed before Van Clief. The items of food which he selected from the menu card immediately took on strange dignity.

In short, Van Clief made dining not a duty, not a necessity, but a function.

The waiters were indeed proud to whisper a few words of his history to the guest from Sacramento, as they figured nine and seven into eighteen. The chef knew him by sight. On one memorable occasion, Van Clief had sent for Jacques in person, to compliment him upon a gastronomical triumph; they had even shaken hands, silently and understandingly. Thereafter the name of Jacques was graven high upon the scroll of culinary achievement.

Van Clief had permanent means; wherefore he parlayed a seven-course meal into a twenty-year banquet. A Colorado goldmine, with four million dollars’ worth of ore blocked out in it, was said to be the base of his assets.

So, for twenty years. Van Clief dined each evening at the Café des Arts. He had apartments hard by, and promptly at eight o’clock he would stroll into the café. Quiet and unostentatious as was his entry, it was always an event. There would be a genteel bustling about by the head waiter and his minions; a subdued, hissing volley of “Good evening’s,” and a noticeably sudden tightening of decorum in the atmosphere. The orchestra would slip into a gentle, dreamy lullaby that was his favorite.

Henri, Van Clief’s particular waiter, would incase him in his particular chair, at his particular table, making sure that the light fell at the proper angle, and would hand him his particular newspaper, which was the ultraconservative Evening Republican. And then, having settled himself comfortably, Van Clief would proceed, in his capacity of institution, to the momentous matter of selecting his dinner, while Henri took attentive note, and the other waiters hovered admiringly in the background.

Sitting there, Van Clief became infallibility in the premise of dining. He became the supreme judge of the court of last resort on all questions pertaining to food. Did a querulous guest make plaint that the consommé was too cold, that the wine was not at a proper temperature, that a dish was thus and so, the head waiter, later, would glide softly over to Van Clief and make respectful inquiry.

Did that final word adjudicate the matter in favor of the consommé, the wine, or the dish, then the petulant guest became, in the eyes of the Café des Arts, a fool or a knave, and perhaps both.

The proprietors of the café were convinced that Lucullus was simply a previous incarnation of Van Clief, with none of Van Clief’s judgment as to a place to dine. They honored Van Clief as an institution; they pointed him out to deserving strangers; they discussed with him their troubles concerning the excise laws.

And, from eight o’clock in the evening until past midnight. Van Clief dined, carefully, abstemiously, but elegantly—aye, graciously. During those hours, dining at the Café des Arts was indeed one of the superior enjoyments.

Van Clief was a gourmet, but never a gourmand. In twenty years, naturally, he took on contour—gracefully, elegantly, as he dined. Wisdom and ineffable content shone from his countenance. He rode the years easily, pleasantly, growing old with the wine and with the songs that the singers sang, conscious of his position as an institution, perhaps, but never arrogant or unduly proud.

He observed, without comment, whole generations of young gentlemen roll so high that they became lost in space; but he proceeded quietly through the years, adding each day something to his reputation, respected and protected as an institution— protected, because no man was permitted to go into the Café des Arts and filch a single ray of reflected epicurean glory by asking a waiter to bring him “what Mr. Van Clief ordered.“

This was attempted once—only once. The sensation lingered for weeks. You see, Van Clief had never ordered anything in his life. He selected—he suggested.

This rash request was in sacrilegious line with a proposition made to the proprietors that they should name certain dishes “à la Van Clief.”

Van Clief lived in an atmosphere of attention. The waiters anticipated his every desire. They appreciated the fact that his reputation was founded upon broad knowledge, and he commanded their respect. Greatness can receive no finer tribute.


Even the greatest man cannot live forever. It was generally predicted that Van Clief, when his time came, would pass away some night as he sat at his favorite table; that his going would be gracious, pleasant, as his life had been. But fate decreed otherwise. Early one morning, after he had gone to bed, fire broke out in the Café des Arts, and gutted it from cigar-case to kitchen. Van Clief knew nothing, heard nothing, of the upsetting of his whole order of things.

His valet failed to mention the matter when he brought him his chocolate and toast—the only sustenance Van Clief allowed himself during the day prior to dining.

Shortly before eight o’clock he strolled over toward the Café des Arts, a carefully drawn study of prosperity, done in evening attire; a pleasant old gentleman, who nodded frequently to passers-by; who cheerily hailed a diminutive newsboy, and spoke without animus to a member of the traffic squad; an elegant old gentleman, at peace with himself and the world—an institution, no less.

He had traversed this same route every evening for twenty years.

When he reached the Café des Arts, he found the two proprietors poking aimlessly about the debris, trying to uncover the safe. Van Clief’s world lay a smoldering, smelly heap, over which the arc-lights threw an eery glare. The proprietors explained to Van Clief while he stood gaping at the blackened rafters.

“But where am I going to dine ?” he finally inquired helplessly, after they had talked and gesticulated in dismal fashion for half an hour. “It’s my dinner-time!”

“Dine, man?” one of the owners shrieked.

“Dine? Why, dine where you blame please!”

Then the other, sensing Van Clief’s complete bewilderment, said kindly:

“There’s a nice place over on Thirty-Eighth Street. I’ll call a taxicab and send you there. This old place is off the beaten trail, you know, and all the other good restaurants are quite a distance from here.”

They bundled—aye, bundled—Van Clief into a taxi, and gave the driver proper directions. Van Clief had undergone a complete transformation. His self-possession, his savoir-faire, had suddenly abandoned him at this upsetting of his routine. He was a bewildered old gentleman in a taxicab, wondering where he should dine.

Through the windows of the taxicab he saw the gaily lighted streets, and the ebb and flow of the enormous tide of humanity. For twenty years he had confined himself, in the evening, very closely to the Café des Arts, which, as the electric waves washed their brilliancy in a new direction, came to be somewhat removed from the real center of turbulence, and all this was new to Van Clief.

His confusion was greater when the taxi pulled up in front of a wonderfully lighted restaurant.

The arrangement of the place was different from his dear old Café des Arts; the crowds were greater, and there were no familiar faces. No obsequious waiters hummed attention as he entered the doors; the check-boys snatched his coat and hat without a smile or word of greeting, and he was hurried to a table which stood in a draft by a head waiter who never gave him a second glance.

Van Clief was brought to an instant realization of the fact that he was an institution without a job.

If you took the statue of Washington and set it down in a bull-ring in Spain, it would probably feel the same way.

The waiters seemed insolent—not in words, of course; but it appeared to Van Clief that they attended him with scant respect, and certainly without veneration. Habit, the old copy-books tell us, is a cable. We weave a thread of it each day, and at last we cannot break it. Van Clief had woven to such effect that haste in dining was no part of his method, and he knew instinctively that the waiter was in a hurry.

Van Clief felt the ease which had distinguished him in the selection of his viands at the Café des Arts oozing from his fingertips. He became indignantly conscious that his personal suggestions were simply following the line of the waiter’s forefinger as it moved hastily down the card. He realized that his art was being debased by a rapid-fire linguist who was coldly calculating his probable value as a tipster.

His soul revolted—but he must dine. “May I have the evening paper?” he asked, when he had finished with the card. “What paper?” inquired the waiter casually. “Call, Inquirer, Chronicle—”

Van Clief was vaguely surprised. He had long ago forgotten the existence of any newspaper but the Evening Republican.

“The Republican,” he said; but the waiter shook his head.

“Don’t have it around here; I can send out, sir.”

“I’ll try the—er—Call,” said Van Clief.

The waiter placed before him an inflamed newspaper which tried his eyes and his nerves with large head-lines and wholly unconservative statements.

He gazed at his surroundings. Obviously, it was a first-class place. The guests were in correct attire; but there was great confusion, a great clatter of dishes and voices. These people were eating, not dining. Van Clief’s artistic sensibilities were sorely wounded.

Eventually the waiter brought him a large number of dishes, upon which food seemed to be heaped in masses. The man unloaded his burden before Van Clief noisily. There were great silver tureens, and dishes covered with pewterlike bowls. Van Clief was horrified.

“My Heavens!” he groaned. “I cannot dine in this fashion, my man!”

“It’s what you ordered,” replied the waiter stonily.

“But this isn’t the way to do it!” expostulated Van Clief, every artistic nerve in revolt.

“You ordered it,” persisted the waiter.

Rather than further abase himself by argument. Van Clief plucked gingerly at one of the dishes, and tasted the food contained therein. Then he fled incontinently, expostulating:

“Oh, my Heavens! I simply could not dine upon such a mess!”

He got a taxicab, and instructed the driver to take him to the old Café des Arts. The place was tightly boarded up, but he discovered an opening at one of the windows, and there he entered. He found a whole chair, somewhat charred, and located the site of his old table.

There a special officer who was guarding the place came upon him some hours later, sitting among the ruins. The officer escorted him to his apartments and the care of his valet.


Each subsequent night was like the first for Van Clief—a terrible nightmare. By calling taxicabs, he could reach the different restaurants recommended to him, but he found no place where he could dine after his custom. He found no place where he was appreciated, or recognized as an institution.

Rather welcoming the fire as an opportunity for making a long-planned move, the proprietors of the old Café des Arts were fitting up a new place up-town. To Van Clief’s horror, a drug-store opened in the former location. To him this was a sacrilege. He thought of the expedient of buying the building, and preserving it as a delicate memory; but he never carried out the idea, because he was busied in trying to get himself settled somewhere else.

Night after night he sallied forth, immaculate, impeccable, sternly resolved that he would impress himself in his true capacity; only to slink back to his apartments, disappointed and hurt at the complete loneliness of the big town; at the utter obscurity into which he had suddenly fallen.

In the cloister of the Café des Arts he had been a carefully nurtured institution, an epicurean votary at his devoirs. With the crash of the rafters in the old place he became simply a man looking for a place to eat, and such men are not institutions—they are, more often, nuisances.

Van Clief’s epicurean art never left him, but an artist without a studio is handicapped. His reputation became a mere echo along the halls of culinary fame.

As the days rolled into weeks, he lost flesh. His clothing, constructed along the lines of that graceful contour, flapped dolefully about his wasting frame. His face grew haggard, and his eyes carried an expression of wo. He could find no restaurant to which he could become accustomed; all the money in his Colorado gold-mine could not restore him to his institutional pedestal.

Sometimes he would see a face that looked familiar, and would place it as belonging to a patron of the old café; but when he sought recognition, murmuring his name, the owner of the face would receive him with a blank astonishment which caused Van Clief to reflect bitterly how evanescent is glory.

Once he saw, on the street, one of the waiters of the old Café des Arts. In his loneliness. Van Clief followed the man for hours, in the hope that he might give him a clue to a café of worth, only to find that the waiter lived in the suburbs, having retired on his savings.


Eventually the new Café des Arts was completed, and the proprietors, who had laid plans for a big opening, suddenly recalled Van Clief.

“We must have the old boy as a guest of honor,” said one.

“Van Clief? By all means, and we’ll fix up his table just as we used to have it,” agreed the other.

“And Henri can attend him—”

“Aye, and see that Jacques does his very best for the good old fellow!”

Together they repaired to the Van Clief apartments. The door was opened by a man in funereal black—a gaunt man, who held a toothpick in his teeth, and eyed them fishily.

“Where’s Mr. Van Clief?” inquired the proprietors of the Café des Arts. “Where is our good old friend?”

“That old guy is deader than a last year’s play,” replied the man. “I’m the undertaker. You come good-old-friending around here a day too late!” He glared at them like an infuriated black bass. “Was the old party a miser?” he inquired. “These rooms are fixed right handsome for a gent who died like he did.”

“A miser!” the proprietors exclaimed simultaneously. “Why, he was a rich man—a millionaire!“

“You know what the doctors say he died of?” demanded the undertaker, and they shook their heads like a brace of automatons.

“It was starvation!” said the fishy man solemnly.