(Bill Clinton still evokes a vast assortment of memories even 20 years after he left office. Regardless of how you may feel, the encounter with Clinton that follows seems worth sharing.)
On a warm afternoon in San Francisco, three Secret Service agents—inconspicuous if not for white plastic coils snaking up their collars—calmly stepped into The Embarcadero’s Pier 23, a popular café and watering hole perched on San Francisco Bay. The sky was clear and blue and a gentle sea-scented breeze slipped in through the back doors of the wood-frame building.
As the agents did a casual walk-through they paused for a moment near the bar, captivated by a large fading black-and-white photograph prominently displayed. Nine young white women wearing white cowboy hats, white boots and little else leaned against a tall white wooden ranch fence, their elegant backs slipping gracefully into G-strings, derrieres smiling, legs alluring to the men already stirred by the sea breeze.
After examining the aging photograph the agents smiled bawdily, turned to each other and nodded as if to say: “He will like it here!”
Reim Mohan stood wide-eyed from her post at the captain’s stand, a telephone pressed to her ear. Her eyes grew large as the call ended and she struggled to place the phone back on its stand. After drawing a deep breath, she told a waitress nearby: “Isn’t it exciting?” Then, glancing at the Secret Service men with sudden apprehension, she stood up straight, pursed her lips, glanced at her reservation list and pretended to make a note there.
The secret service agents soon sauntered out the front door of the cafe to the wide sidewalk that rings The Embarcadero—a broad yet hectic boulevard where electric trains clatter across tracks and tourists and locals race their automobiles from one red light to the next. The agents calmly adjusted their earphones, donned sunglasses and checked their watches.
Ms. Mohan took a deep breath, turned and, hand hiding her lips, quietly shared some news with a waitress: “Bill Clinton is coming to lunch!” she whispered, nodding her head in quiet confirmation.
A buff young Chicano in a double-breasted suit occupied a bar stool nearby, jacket unbuttoned as he nibbled on a crab leg and sipped a beer. Having overheard the announcement, he raised his eyebrows and, with feigned indifference, glanced over his shoulder at the agents outside, nodding his head as if he had solved a puzzle. Licking his fingers clean he poked the screen of his cell phone and selected the number of an important client.
It didn’t take long for his business associate to arrive, a companion in tow. The owner of a famous Mexican restaurant and his guest drew up barstools and ordered shots of tequila, crab cakes, fresh oysters, tortilla chips and guacamole. In an anxious prelude not unlike that before kickoff at a Super Bowl party, the restaurateur held up a shot of tequila and declared with authority: “This is the only liquor on the market that is not a depressant!”
At the other end of the bar two middle-aged Anglos, having picked up on the vibe and pried the news from their waitress, muttered jokes about Slick Willie, Hillary, and Monica Lewinsky. They tipped back shots of blended whiskey and beer chasers, pausing to turn their heads whenever there was a shadow or any movement at the front door. Despite their apparent animosity for the former president, as they waited for him to arrive, they were as anxious as groupies at a rock concert.
BILL CLINTON flew to San Francisco earlier that day to deliver a motivational speech at a Cow Palace luncheon, the first one this former president made as a civilian—and a very profitable endeavor, too, earning him a cool $100,000.
Yet soon after completing the address Bill Clinton slipped out of The Cow Palace, jumped into a limo and made a beeline to Pier 23.
Dressed in an elegant suit, hair full and silver, face ruddy, from the minute Clinton arrived at Pier 23 he made the rounds of the bar with the confidence and familiarity of a regular. The former president paused and shared a moment with everyone he met as if he had all the time in the world.
The men who made off-color jokes about Hillary and Bill continued to pound down shots of tequila, though they did their best to play it cool; they kept a discreet eye on the former president as he moved through the crowd. “He’s still on the campaign trail,” one said cynically, though his voice betrayed his excitement. And later, when it came their turn to shake Bill’s hand they could barely move, their faces red, their looks abashed.
Everyone gathered there was clearly captivated by the former president as he made the rounds, intoxicated by the allure of his charisma, trapped as they were in the force field of a superstar.
There appeared to be only one holdout: A middle-aged white man stood alone at the far end of the bar and paid no mind to the crowd or the former president. Dressed in faded Levi jeans and a denim shirt, hair slicked back like a Teamster business agent, he focused on a baseball game broadcast on the bar TV.
After greeting every other person in the room, Clinton, having noticed the holdout, made his way to end of the bar where the teamster sipped his beer. “How you doin?” Bill asked approaching him with enthusiasm.
The teamster tipped his head in recognition and both smiled as they shook hands.
“I’m okay. How are you?”
The former president smiled broadly. “Just fine, thanks!”
The teamster cocked his head to the side, one eye squinting, and said, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?” With genuine enthusiasm and in his famous Arkansas drawl, Bill Clinton said, “No, go right a-head!”
“Well, you know how they give folks exams before they can teach, or practice law, or enter most professions?”
Bill Clinton nodded his head YES with delight, as if actually eager to hear more.
“Well, what do you think about having a test for potential presidential candidates to make sure they are qualified to run for office?”
“You should ask George BUSH about that,” Clinton said, tilting his head back as he laughed.
It wasn’t long before a fresh-faced young Black man in a pressed wool suit approached the table, anxious to establish eye contact with the former president. Clinton soon acknowledged his presence, turned to the teamster and with an expression suggesting regret explained he’d been “summoned.” With reluctance he reached for the teamster’s hand and wished him luck and success.
The former president followed the young aide to the open-air deck out back, one with a spectacular view of the bay. Waitresses, outfitted in tight black T-shirts bearing the image of the Pier 23 logo, became absolutely giddy at the sight of him, though they did their best to conceal it.
The Clinton party, which had waited patiently for him to join them, gathered beneath a broad canopy sheltering the breezy deck of the wharf from the sun, seated around linen-draped tables like office workers out to lunch with the boss. Young, elegantly dressed women sat with their hands in their laps as if trying to remember the manners their mothers had taught them. The men, in contrast, were relaxed and made no effort to hide their awe for the former commander-in-chief.
Colleen Finby waited on the former president, delighted to take his order: a hamburger, French fries, and an iced tea.
Those who lunched with Clinton did not eat much and said nary a word, so focused were they on the former president and every phrase he uttered. And he spoke nonstop, pausing only to take blue collar-sized bites of his burger, to lick his fingers and draw diagrams in the ionized air. Clinton’s court smiled when he smiled, shook their heads in consternation when he appeared to express concern, and nodded up and down so often that for time it appeared that the tide was coming in.
After lunch Clinton shared a private moment with everyone at the table, signed autographs, posed for photos then wandered off to take a self-guided tour around Pier 23. He paused to speak with every single person there: He shook the hands of the waitress staff, careful not to be too friendly; he paused for more photographs, signed autographs, then wandered into the kitchen where he posed with busboys, kitchen staff, and cooks who instantly stepped away from the stove and wiped their hands on their aprons so they could shake his hand.
Even the men at the bar who had been so critical earlier, now bedazzled by his presence, stared at him in awe.
The teamster watched the scene unfold. “He sure knows how to work a crowd,” he said out loud though he was alone. And as Clinton moved from table to table, the teamster laughed. Wow, he is a great fucking politician! he thought. And as he watched the expressions of the people who Bill Clinton touched, how their eyes opened wide, astonished by His Presence, he scowled, knitted his brows and began to recount all the reasons he never voted for a man he considered a disaster for the nation and a Class Enemy. And as he watched the crowd of mostly working people salute and tip their drinks to the 38th president, he could not help but shake his head in bitterness.
Funny, he thought: none of you look like you actually might benefit from Clinton’s two terms as president. Well, then again maybe one or two of ya might. But most of you are gonna be hating life.
He paused to try to make sense of what he saw.
Yeah, I get it, he thought: it wasn’t fair that Clinton should be impeached for lying about a blowjob given all the really serious shit that politicians do. But the fact is that unless you’re a banker or have a helluva lot of money in the stock market, you all almost certainly got righteously screwed by this guy.
He took a swig of beer, and muttered to himself. “Did you know Clinton helped pass a bill to deregulate the banks so they can invest in more risky ventures, like if they were suffering or something? I mean when has a bank ever done anything for you but charge a whole bunch of bullshit fees for paying yer bill one day late? And what about his so-called ‘welfare reform?’ Well, you might think that was good, cutting off people with kids cuz they don’t have a job. Jesus! Have you ever been to South Central LA, or Scranton, Illinois? There are no jobs there, people! Man, that’s a bill that even Ronald Reagan couldn’t get through Congress! Then there was NAFTA, and JESUS even worse, the WTO! THAT’S gonna hurt you folks in a powerful way! The big corporations are already making plans to move to Mexico and China where they can get workers on the cheap!”
The teamster watched and listened as the Clinton love fest began to gain steam, a growing din of voices rising up like a crowd cheering before a crucial at-bat at the World Series. But the rave-like celebration was suddenly drowned out by a huge commotion out front.
The roar of a half dozen Harley Davidsons rolled over the curb outside and across the wide sidewalk—large customized motorcycles aggressively pulling up front of the restaurant, bikers racing their engines. It appeared for a moment they were going roll right on inside the bar, a possibility that did not escape the attention of the secret service agents. But the motorcycle club—bearded men in black leather jackets and wrap around shades—killed their motors. Nearly in unison they climbed down from their bikes and engaged their kickstands, the thud of boots on the sidewalk trailed by a cloud of blue smoke.
Clinton took a look outside to see what was causing all the commotion. When he saw what was happening, he grinned from ear to ear, bobbing his head in excitement. After saying goodbye to the entire kitchen staff, he ambled out front and welcomed the bikers as if they were old friends. When they asked him for a group photo, Clinton quickly agreed, slipping on a pair of sunglasses and joining them as they stood proudly in front of their rides.
The teamster watched the entire performance with a cynical eye. But when he saw Clinton posing with the kitchen staff then the bikers, something clicked in his brain. He could see the pure joy in the faces of working folks who, for a moment, perhaps the first time in their lives, felt they actually mattered. And when the bikers, seeming rebels on the run, stood beside the former president of the United States with unbridled pride, he could hardly believe his eyes.
He turned back to the bar and reached for what remained of his beer. Still shaking his head in wonder, he could feel something happening behind him—a subtle yet growing heat and the soft touch one feels when being watched. And he turned to see what was up.
Just outside Pier 23, a limo idled, three secret servicemen waiting close by. But Bill Clinton was striding across the hardwood floor of Pier 23 toward the back bar, much to the agents’ consternation.
Somewhat bemused, the teamster watched the whole thing go down in slow motion. And before he knew it, he was face to face with the former President of the United States.
Clinton tipped his head forward ever so slightly so that he could look directly into the teamster’s eyes. “Don’t forget to send me a copy of your presidential test,” Clinton said, his head turned sideways like a schoolteacher reminding a student about their homework.
“I sure will,” the teamster replied with unrestrained enthusiasm.
Clinton smiled with satisfaction then made his way across the century old wooden floor, back toward The Embarcadero where his limo sat idling. He climbed in, waved off the agents with a grateful nod, closed the door himself and leaned out the window.
A large enthusiastic crowd gathered out front of the restaurant waving, cheering, shouting words of support and love to Bill Clinton as if he were a war hero heading back into battle.
From his spot all alone in the bar at Pier 23, the teamster shook his head. “I’ll be damned,” he said.