from Huizache #5

The Presidents at Table

Alia Volz

In my twenty-seven years in this country, I’ve met every sitting President, with the sorry exception of Mr. Obama. They didn’t always meet me, but I met them.

“Can I take the plate now, Mr. Bush?”

“More water, Mr. Clinton?”

Depending on the shift, I was a food runner or busboy, sometimes both. I tried to address each man by name, to feel those powerful syllables crackle in my mouth. Clin-ton. Ray-gun. I tried to act natural, though always with perfect respect.

Mr. Reagan came during my first year at the San Francisco Hilton. We got everything ready—the dining room empty of guests, flatware polished, fresh flowers on every table. The front desk manager rang up to say it was showtime. Seconds later, a guy in a black suit and sunglasses strode into the dining room and spoke in hushed tones with our manager, Rodolfo Cruz. Rodolfo’s face turned red and serious. He rushed around, gathering all the personnel who didn’t have papers—which was like 85–90% of us—and herded us into dry storage. The housekeepers and bellhops from the floor, too.

Cállense,” he said. “Ni pío.” Shut up. Don’t make a peep. He locked us in from the outside. It was a tiny room, about six-feet wide and eight-feet deep, floor to ceiling shelves. Maybe thirty people with nowhere to sit besides a couple boxes of to-go containers and one ladder. With all those bodies, it got warm. I happened to be carrying a pitcher of ice water when Rodolfo grabbed me, so I handed out ice cubes for everyone to suck on. Then before we passed the pitcher around. After a while, people had to pee, which wasn’t an option, unless they wanted to do it in front of everybody. This one housekeeper, Maria Elena, couldn’t wait because she was pregnant. Some of the other girls hid her behind a tablecloth while she peed into a styrofoam container for soup to-go. One pendejo laughed, but the rest of us averted our eyes and bit our tongues, and the sound and smell of her urine filled the room.

The situation seemed funny at the beginning when we were shushing each other like school kids playing al escondite; then it was funny again later, like the next day. In the middle, when we were sweaty and uncomfortable and touching in ways we didn’t want to touch, it didn’t seem funny. Out of respect, no one complained against the President, but ugly things were whispered about our manager Rodolfo that day. Not by me, of course, because I understood: If you get an order from Secret Service, you do as you’re told.

After we were released, I cleared the dirty dishes. The President had eaten fettuccine Alfredo with chicken and wild mushrooms, and I believe he enjoyed it. All that remained were traces of sauce in a circular design, as if he’d scraped his fork around the empty plate.

As I was leaving work that night, still wearing my uniform, I spotted Mr. Reagan in the hotel lobby surrounded by a clutch of Secret Service men. He moved slowly, taking small steps, by that time very frail. One of the sunglassed men flagged me down and gestured for a drink of water. I knew it should be served by someone with papers, but I didn’t want them to wait, so I ran to fill a glass and returned with quiet steps.

“Your water, Mr. Reagan.”

He nodded, drank, and handed back the half-empty glass. I carried it into the kitchen. When no one was looking, I took a sip. I’m not proud of that part, but it’s true. I wanted to drink the same water.

Back home, I was an engineer, a good one, responsible for retrofitting a major section of the sewer in Guanajuato. You might say, here’s a guy who could have taught at UNAM, who might have achieved stature had he not chucked it out the window for a hotel busboy job. Mira, one cannot eat stature. There’s plenty of money in Mexico, but to get it, you have to be a corrupt man willing to steal from other corrupt men. Which can get you beheaded. Hands, too. And your pinga. One minute you’re at the top of your game, next you’re headless, handless and dickless—my kids like having a father.

My Americanized family is poor, but it’s a luxurious kind of poverty.

Nice clothes, video games, Japanese minivan. It’s all on plastic and we’re always against the wall, but my kids don’t know that. They think they’re big shots. Me, I’m no one—a nobody who’s met four Presidents, three Vice Presidents and two First Ladies.

The day Mr. Bush came in—the first one, el papá—our manager Rodolfo was having his gallbladder removed. Mr. Bush just showed up in the dining room with his entourage, no warning. They came at four in the afternoon when the restaurant was technically closed and we were doing side-work to prepare for the dinner shift.

The President wanted a cheeseburger. Chef was out buying mushrooms, but we had three line cooks working on a wedding banquet for the next day. The whole staff gathered in the kitchen to decide who would prepare the cheeseburger. For me, it had to be Checo, no doubt. He had less seniority than Berto or Salas, but I knew he’d do it right. Everyone argued, like ten of us yelling about who should have the honor to flip the President’s burger. Finally, we agreed that all three cooks would prepare burgers, and the one that looked most like the ideal burger would go to the table.

Eggs were cracked, spices added, meat molded into round patties. I’m sure it took too long. We all hovered around the grill, until Berto yelled at us to back the fuck up so we wouldn’t get our pinche breath on the meat.

In the end, Checo’s was the superior burger, thick and glistening. I took pleasure in telling everyone they should’ve listened to me—but they were already divvying the remaining burgers amongst themselves. No one protested when I grabbed the plate to run it out myself.

“Your cheeseburger, Mr. Bush.” I placed it before him.

“Thanks,” Mr. Bush said. Then he glanced up at me and his eyes narrowed. “Wait a second. Where’s Rick?”

I didn’t know what to say. We had no Rick.

The President turned to one of his entourage, “I don’t know this man from Adam.” He pointed at me with his thumb. “Someone dropped the ball here.”

Secret Service men whispered into their lapels and one sprinted off into the hotel. We all stood around, keeping our distance, watching. This Rick guy arrived five minutes later, snapping his collar. He had Mexican blood, but was American born, a Tejano (you could just tell). He chose Salas to show him around the kitchen. The rest of us had to make ourselves busy in the banquet room while Rick prepared the President’s cheeseburger.

Mr. Bush left about a third of his meal uneaten. Back in the kitchen, I peeled off the cold bun to see what was so special. The patty was cooked medium, topped with American cheese and smothered in ketchup. No other garnish or condiments. It looked ordinary. One thing I can tell you, I wouldn’t want to be President, under any circumstances, Dios me libre. I like eating cheeseburgers without fear.

The Clintons came through once together, Mrs. Clinton twice. That is one intelligent lady, I have to say. That is one woman I would obey. Mr. Clinton obeyed her completely. He was like a little boy, wandering around and waiting for her to tell him what to do. We hosted a great banquet and she knew all of the dignitaries by name. She knew their wives and children, too. Mr. Clinton had a little speaker in his ear and she had a microphone tucked into her collar, so she could brush him up throughout the night. She was all business, a fast walker, a woman who could spin the world on her finger.

She came once without her husband. We had a new chef then, and I think he got carried away, designing a banquet that would make you cry. Cracked Dungeness crab and spiced butter, tangerine smoked ribs, tidy rows of sushi, an array of French pastries. There was food from all over the world. The entire staff put in overtime. I don’t know who Chef thought would eat it all, but if Mrs. Clinton was hungry, she had options.

She barely touched it. She plucked a slice of honeydew and then sent a Secret Service man out to buy clam chowder in a bread bowl from a place on Fisherman’s Wharf—which was one thing Chef hadn’t thought of. Mrs. Clinton wolfed it down with an alarming appetite, and then consumed the bowl. We had a new manager by then, too, an asshole named Jason Cruz, who made us toss all that bounty in the garbage. He stood there and watched to make sure we didn’t eat or sneak any to-go boxes for our families. That one hurt.

Still, I would vote for Mrs. Clinton, if I could vote.

Vice President Al Gore was a serious and private man. He ate entirely alone in the dining room, neither reading nor talking to anyone. He ate thoughtfully, with his napkin squarely on his lap. Caesar salad with no dressing and carrot ginger soup. He seemed absorbed in a distant struggle. When I placed his salad on the table, he said, “Thank you,” without looking up; when I cleared his plate at the end he said, “Thank you,” without looking up. I believe that man carried mankind’s problems like boulders in his brain.

As I was walking away, he said, “Excuse me. Was that cumin in the soup?”

“Yes, Mr. Gore. Just a dash.”

The tiniest smile crossed his mouth.

The second Mr. Bush came to our restaurant only once, and he did not stay long. When the waiter, Elvis, approached with a menu, he dismissed it with a wave. “Bring me whatever you can get ready in thirty seconds. Sandwich or something. Diet Coke.” Elvis glanced at the Secret Service guys standing nearby, and I could tell he was hoping for more direction, but their faces were stone. So Elvis hurried into the kitchen. Chef sent out a crab salad sandwich, half of which the President ate while flipping through papers in a red folder. He seemed unaware of the flavor, as if eating were no more fun than clipping his fingernails. Then he was gone.

Quiet falls over the dining room after a President departs, even if the visit has gone poorly. It happens every time. We go about our business wordlessly, or if we do speak, it’s in a whisper. This lasts a couple hours, or at least until we’re slammed by a rush of regular customers. Yet something of that quiet stays with me for days. A wake of peace follows greatness, and I wonder if it is this essential quality that makes a man great: the ability to cause silence.

I injured my back early this year. Una estupidez: I lifted a half-full bus tub, like I’ve done ten thousand times, and felt a crack in my lower spine. I blame time, the big cabrón who really runs things. I haven’t worked in six months. Meanwhile, Mr. Obama has been to my hotel twice. It breaks my heart to have missed his visits.

I am an invisible man. Invisibly, I have brushed power with my bare fingers. I have thrown the sullied dishes of great men into a bus tub with all the others—to be spray-washed in an industrial dishwasher, and reused by ordinary people.  ◊


Alia Volz is a Spanish interpreter raised in San Francisco and educated in Havana. Her stories and essays are found in Tin House, Utne Reader, The Rumpus, Zyzzyva, Narratively, Nerve, Literary Orphans, The Writing Disorder’s Best of 2012, and elsewhere. She recently completed her first novel, a cowboy noir.

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