I wrote this post a couple of restaurants ago, but I held off posting it for months and months, not sure when, if ever, I would. But I took some time this evening to read back through my archives of private essays. This is a story that I still think about, still wonder about. I decided the time was right to share it on this site.
Imagine you are able to fulfill one lasting wish–the wish of all wishes, the one wish that those you love get to live with you, through you. Who would you be? Where would you go? What would you do?
It’s an almost paralyzing dilemma, isn’t it?
Now, imagine you are 8 years old. How could you possibly know how to wish a wish so all-important?
My guest wished to be the President of the United States today. And so he was, from first thing in the morning to late in the afternoon–and no part of the reality of this wish was omitted–not the 30-person security detail, nor a complete motorcade, nor a police escort and a pool press photographer.
Part of his day brought him to my restaurant for lunch, a private lunch that I had helped to plan. And I am quite sure that I will never have such an extraordinary hour at work again.
In the midst of so many busy shifts this week, and taking on new part-time assistant duties to the event manager, I had almost forgotten today was the day the “President” would visit. When this dawned on me mid-walk to work, I was already a half hour later than usual. I made up time by skipping breakfast.
The minute I walked in to the restaurant, before I stashed my bag that held my party shoes and while still wearing my pink Pumas, I chatted with our maitre d’ about how the President would be dressed so she’d know to properly greet him. I grabbed menus for these VIP guests and found the head waiter who would be serving the entourage. I then went into the private event manager’s office and tried to sift through her email and phone messages, but I couldn’t do it. Not then.
The President was coming. And if it was the wish of this President to be here, to eat our food and experience our place, then perfection was the only acceptable outcome. So I wandered my restaurant, intent only on double checking with everyone I could find that everyone was ready for the President.
Turns out, my mention yesterday to Chef and my GM that it would be great if they could greet the President at some point during this lunch was heard and acted upon with a gusto that surprised and endeared me. At precisely 10:55 a.m., with the motorcade a mere five minutes away from arrival, I decided to head outside so that at least I would be there to see him arrive. Instead, I saw the entire wait staff assembled in line in the front foyer. I pushed through the front door and went outside to find my GM, the executive chef, and many more servers lined up on the sidewalk. Secret Service personnel hovered all around.
“You just missed him,” said Chef.
“What?” I cried. “He’s not due for another five minutes!”
“No, you missed the real President. He just drove by in his motorcade.”
“Are you serious?” I laughed.
“Oh yeah, he thought we were all lined up to see him. He even waved to us. And all we thought was, ‘Nah, not you! We’re waiting for the OTHER President, our President!”
“Right,’cause we can see him anytime!” I said.
And we all broke down laughing that hysterical, almost-crying laughter that is so hard to get under control.
Then we heard the sirens. Seconds later, a parade of cars made their way up the street as the stoplights held on red. Tourists flocked to the sidewalks, cameras at the ready. Who was coming? Must be someone really important, they whispered to one another.
The six-car motorcade pulled up–multiple SUVs, several sedans, and the President’s stretch limo. The security detail scanned the crowed, the pool press photographer readied her camera, and out stepped the President, so tiny for his eight years, with his best friend Stephen, and his parents and baby brother behind him.
We all immediately applauded, and immediately the President came to our impromptu receiving line. “Nice to see you, Mr. President,” said my GM, shaking the boy’s hand. “An honor to have you dine with us, sir,” said the Chef. “My pleasure to meet you, Mr. President,” I said, shaking his hand as well. We all received personalized pencils from him. We all thanked him profusely. I followed the security detail through the front door.
The servers, and each and every diner in the place, stood and applauded as the President entered the restaurant and briskly walked toward the smaller of our private rooms for his luncheon.
“I heard it was the President,” exclaimed one tourist in the foyer. “Did you see him?” asked another. “No, he was already down the hallway.”
The President ordered a hot dog and fries. The security detail waiting in the cars outside received 28 boxed lunches. The uniform-clad gentleman with “the briefcase” handcuffed it to an unused chair. As the food and dessert was eaten, the President and his friend and his baby brother got wound beyond up. The younger brother was hopping from chair to chair, the best friend was juggling the personalized pencils. I glanced at the President, who was now rolling around on the floor, giggling.
“I’m sorry,” said the real-life press photographer who had volunteered her time for this event, “The President is on the floor right now. He’ll make a statement in a moment.” And we laughed.
And I watched the President’s mom and dad watching their boy. And I wished a wish for them–to have many, many more days such as this.
“We’re going to the zoo tomorrow,” the mother told the photographer.
I had just walked through the zoo this morning, a seldom-utilized delaying tactic I employ when I need a few more minutes of sun and fresh air before heading into work. Today, I had seen the pandas eating bamboo, the “water-loving” cats stalking their prey, the elephants tossing dirt and hay over their backs.
“Oh, you have to go between 8:30 and 9 a.m.,” I interrupted.
The photographer and mother looked at me with uncomprehending stares.
“Because that’s when the animals get fed,” I explained. “They are incredibly active, then. And the place is empty.”
“Spoken like a true Washingtonian,” smiled the photographer.
I shrugged. The mother nodded and said they’d try to get there that early.
At which point the President had collected himself, and my GM came in one more time to thank him for dining with us. Hands were shaken, shoulders were patted.
The President nodded to his best friend, all silliness over. He approached me to thank me again, this time handing me a heavy coin-like object that had the Presidential Seal on one side and this boy’s name on the other. “It’s for VIPs,” he told me.
And I held it together the best I could to not do anything but smile and thank him.
And I knew it would take every ounce of effort I had in me to keep it together the rest of this day, for many days ahead, as I think about this day.
They left as they came to my restaurant, amidst hearty applause, the President smiling shyly and walking through the throng with all the poise and polished demeanor that you’d expect from the President.
And that is how I will remember this President, forever.