It’s late on a Sunday night in October. A tall skinny guy with a Cubs cap pulled down low slinks into my diner with a yellow legal pad in his hand. He leans over the counter and whispers, “It’s me. I snuck out. Don’t tell the Secret Service.”
“My lips are sealed,” I say, and we both laugh. Presidents do not sneak out. An hour ago, five agents had marched in, politely asked my customers to leave, frisked me good, scanned the joint for bombs, and set up a perimeter. An Air Force major with the nuclear launch codes hid in the ladies’ room, just in case, and the Presidential Food Safety Team set up in my kitchen to taste the doughnuts, also just in case.
He slaps his pad down on the counter and takes out a pen. I lock the front door and flip the sign to “CLOSED” before I bring him coffee, two glazed doughnuts and an ashtray.
He looks at the ashtray. “Really?” he says.
“Thanks,” he says, putting down his pen. He lights up, takes a puff, and lets it out slow. “Say, for the coffee, you got half-and-half? ‘Cause I’m the half-and-half president!” We both laugh again. He’s very funny when he’s not being ultra-careful, which is anytime anywhere except in here.
“Long day?” I ask.
“Could be worse, like if I ran an all-night diner.”
“Trade ya,” I say.
“You wouldn’t want it,” he says, “and anyway, I can’t cook. But I sure wish you could write this speech.”
“You’ve got a speechwriter.”
“I’ve got three speechwriters, one joke writer, and an intern. Sent them all home to get some sleep.”
“Sounds like you’re the one who needs sleep. Lemme see that pad.” He slides it over.
“I can’t read this left-handed crap,” I say. “What’s it about, world peace? Restarting the economy?”
“Farm policy. Ethanol,” he says. “Like who cares?”
“Oh, America cares about ethanol,” I say. I reach under the counter and pull out a bottle of bourbon and two juice glasses, but then the food tasters sprint out and say they’d better try it first. When they give back the bottle half-empty, I pour a round for the two of us and raise my glass. “Here’s to ethanol,” I say.
“Ethanol,” he says, raising his glass. “Drink It, Don’t Burn It.” He pauses to write that on his legal pad. “I wonder what gasoline tastes like.”
One of the food tasters leans out of the kitchen door looking alarmed. “Just a joke,” I say. “But see that pot of chili on the stove? You better get to tasting it, just in case,” and that’s the last we see of them for the night. My friend looks so tired.
“You know,” he says, “win or lose, I’ll be the youngest ex-president since Teddy Roosevelt.”
“What then?” I ask.
“He went on two safaris and wrote two more books.”
“Not Teddy, I meant you, what then for you?
“No time to think about it. Got any suggestions?”
“You know what they’re saying. Back to the Senate. Supreme Court. President of Harvard.”
“Nah. Probably write books. Definitely no safaris. Maybe move back to Chicago.”
“No, thanks,” he said, stubbing out his cigarette and getting up to leave. I bring him the check. I wouldn’t, but it’s some kind of Federal offense to let him eat free. “I’d miss you,” I say.
“Oh, I’d be back. This is the only place in America I’m allowed to smoke. See you next time. But don’t tell the Secret Service.”
And we both laugh.