We were in the spacious dining room at the top of the Waldorf Towers, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.'s residence, looking down at the place settings on the table. Good-looking china made especially for the State Department: richly blue-ringed plates and glassware eblazoned with an eagle.
I stood off to the side in my tuxedo, a mercenary waiter. One of the U.S. Mission's protocol people had called me the night before. "Please, I hope you can do it. I'm so sorry for such short notice, but it's a real emergency; I'm not supposed to say, but it's for our head of state."
We'd be filling in for the trusted White House stewards who couldn't make it up to New York. I would have to get out of the other job I had booked for Saturday night.
Bush would be on the far side of the table, smack in the middle. Musharraf across from him. I went around the table reading the cards done in calligraphy -- the written names radiating in proxy the power of the men yet to arrive.
General Haq, Pakistan's secretary of state, His Excellency General Pervez Musharraf, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Ambassador Negroponte ...
Generals, honorable officials and potentates on both sides, each matched like a neat game of cards by the other country's counterpart.
Two color guard Marines walked in and were sent toward the entrance. Suit-wearing Secret Service men with wires in their ears came and went.
"You guys should wear these on your lapels," said one of them handing each of us a small clip with an R for Residence on it.
"Who do you usually serve first?" I asked another waiter.
"We should start with the presidents, right?"
"We should definitely serve the two presidents first, but then the ambassador will be the last to get his dinner."
"Well isn't that what the host does?" asked the White House aide in the blue dress. "The ambassador may be your first priority usually, but he's not the highest rank here tonight, not even second for that matter. The secretary of state is a higher rank, you have to serve him before ..."
I picked up one of the menus. The front had an embossed seal of a golden eagle holding an arrow and looking toward the olive branch, circled by a ring of golden stars. It clasped a banner inscribed "E Pluribus Unum" in its mouth.
Mixed Green Salad
Goat Cheese and Herb Vinaigrette
Fillet of beef with rosemary au jus
Whipped Idaho Potatoes
Georgia Sweet Potato Tartlet
Georgia and Idaho: an all-American meal. Someone said that Bush had asked for good old American steak. According to Muslim custom the Pakistanis would have to have Halal beef.
"That means it's blessed, right?" I asked Norman, the Residence cook.
"Yeah, they blessed it."
"The Pakistanis coming tonight?"
He shot me a look. "Who I bought it from."
"Oh, you bought it from a Pakistani butcher shop?"
"Are we going to be able to get ice from downstairs? I mean, we can't just bring it up from down there, can we? They could do anything to it," wondered one of the other waiters aloud.
On my way into the lobby I'd been told to unzip my bag and leave it on the floor so a wild-looking longhaired German Shepherd could sniff it for bombs. The beautiful dog threw his muzzle around in it for a few moments; I was sure he was going to leave drool all over my tuxedo.
Secret Service agents were everywhere -- tight, polished guys with short hair and serious faces. Outside, black sedans lined Park Avenue.
Suited agents studied us as we waited for the elevators to the towers.
I wondered if they thought I had explosives. My green bag had no markings on it and looked a bit worn. I was making myself nervous.
When we got to the top, the Waldorf's security man had us take all the metal objects out of our pockets, present picture I.D., then stand in the hall with our arms wide while he ran a metal detector over our bodies.
"Lift up your pant legs one at a time."
Our bags were laid on the floor with a few feet between each one while another dog, this one small and trim with a neat little vest on, sniffed through them again.
"Thanks for doing that," one of the Secret Service agents said to the hotel guard.
"No problem, I've been out of practice."
"Let me see you operate that," a blond agent said to me as I took my cellphone out of my jacket. A device in a cellphone, I thought to myself, now that would be slick.
In the dining room policy debate continued.
"Protocol says we start with the ambassador ..."
"Left, to the right, back to the left again ..."
"Last week he didn't go by protocol; he said to serve the lady before him, because it was a woman, you know, so he's doin' it different," Beatrice from Barbados who runs the Residence kitchen shook her head as she spoke.
The ambassador's wife came into the room: "Bigger water glasses, and change these glasses for the juice; they're not big enough." And she likes the napkins done a certain way; Beatrice had seen to it. And the menus placed just so.
The ambassador's wife went out.
Beatrice complained quietly, "She wants ice in the glasses, but you know, the White House might not do it like that; what she wants don't go tonight -- it's not her dinner. I'm not stupid, I told her the White House may want something different."
Bush's aide, a well-managed woman in a brown dress, spoke to someone about the candles or the glasses or the position of the menus as she swept through the room: "The president won't even notice; you'll see, he doesn't care about that stuff -- he's no frills."
Earlier, as we put on our tuxedos in the back bedroom, we watched Bush on CNN with President Musharraf speaking to the nation from a few floors below us. It was strange to think that moments later we'd be seeing him for dinner. He wouldn't make it to the table, though, before the TV pundits would be dissecting his performance.
The sweet lady aides asked me to stand near the front door and hold the blackboard with the name cards.
Bush's voice was the first I heard from the foyer.
"My father lived here in '71."
He stopped to shake the hand of the waiter holding the door while the other diners waited deferentially just behind him. Then he walked right up to me and looked me straight in the face.
"All right, the doormen. How you doing? It's nice to see you."
An unflinching confidence and the requisite swagger, a swell in a literal sense as he walked in looking ready and robust in a blue suit. The air was immediately supercharged; the prez was in the house.
"How are you. It's nice to see you, too."
Powell, Musharraf, they went calmly past, each one pausing to scan the board at my chest.
Bush kept the dinner light; people laughed. He talked about his family, his dogs.
"You can bring me more of that cider, but I'd really love it if you brought me a beer," said Bush.
We brought him a non-alcoholic O'Doul's.
We were in and out -- Secret Service men holding the doors to the kitchen for us sometimes. We are supposed to be quick and seen only when needed; we're the help after all. For these lunches and dinners, the ambassador keeps a little black buzzer at his place, which he can use to summon us from the kitchen when something is needed.
Water, cider, bread, salad, the beef, the courses were quick. Only an hourlong dinner; no time for seconds.
Dessert and coffee, and then they were gone. Pushed out chairs, rumpled napkins and abandoned tartlets in various states. We opened up the doors; some of us took off our jackets.
Suddenly there was a commotion in the kitchen. I walked in and there was President Bush in his trim blue suit standing in the middle of the small room, dirty glasses and plates all around him, surrounded by the waiters and kitchen staff -- nine of us in all.
He must have walked his guests of honor out, then doubled back by himself to come into the kitchen. Agents stood in the doorway.
It was as though helium had been released into the room, something that changed the actual composition of the air and suffused it with a rarefied, electric buzz. I've met and spoken to a number of famous people, but this was different, this was being a kid again, before we learned doubt and cynicism and cold reason. Political convictions, if you had any, fell away; judgment, bias, opinion -- these were not on the guest list.
It was the heart responding, not the head.
"How are you all? Wanted to thank you for your hard work tonight."
He had a black felt tip pen in his hand and was signing menus.
"What's your name, sweetheart?" he asked the Haitian kitchen help.
"Too many consonants in that," he quipped.
I found myself dashing back into the dining room to get a menu for him to sign.
"Can I shake your hand?" asked one of the ladies waiting.
"Let me give you a hug."
"Mr. President, this is Norman, the cook for the new ambassador."
"Good man, Norman, you're part of the war effort."
I held out my menu.
"What's your name?" he asked, looking me in the eyes.
"Cullen! That's a good Texas name. Thank you for your hard work."
He wrote, "To Cullen, Best Wishes, George Bush," on the front of the menu below the eagle.
"Mr. President, can you sign this for my Christian brother Mike? And this one for my mother. My Christian mother prays for you every night." One of the older waiters was wide-eyed, standing right next to him.
"You know, I'll tell you something, this entire country is praying right now and I can feel it; I really do; I feel lucky for that."
What Bush said suddenly reminded me of something. I was nervous, but I decided to say it out loud over the noise and excitement of the room. I barely got the words out of my twitching mouth.
"There's a line from Churchill where he says, 'The nation had the lion's heart, I had the luck to give the roar.'"
Bush was standing right in front of me, and he'd heard me.
"I like that, that's a great line. I put a bust of Churchill in the Oval Office, not because of that quote -- because I didn't know it -- but because I admire the man so much, what he did."
He was signing another menu.
"But remember, after the war he lost his bid for reelection." He was smiling and laughing, and so were we. "Time for politics later, though, we've got a war to win."
"And you're going to win it!" somebody called out.
"You better believe it," Bush said.
Suddenly I felt myself peering through the veil of all he represents, the leader of the free world, to see him as just a man, just a good-natured simple man of flesh and blood doing a hard job under enormous weight. Here he was in our dirty kitchen, sharing it all with us for a brief sweet moment.
After he had gone, we sat together at the ambassador's dining room table to eat the leftovers. I was a few chairs from where Bush had eaten. Intoxicated, we swapped stories.
"He shook my hand right when he came in," said one waiter incredulously.
"I told him, 'God bless you,' and he turned and said, 'God bless you too.'"
"Did you sneeze or something?"
"No, I just know he's a Christian."
"He kissed me on the lips. He's worse than Clinton, this one," said Beatrice happily. The Protocol ladies giggled excitedly.
"Maybe I won't wash my face for a while."
"You know what I liked about him? He's not afraid to say, 'Can you explain that; I don't understand what that is.' He said it a couple of times during dinner."
"Down to earth. Like Harry Truman. What he says isn't all flowered up; he just says it, and it means a lot, you know."
"I'll tell you what -- that guy is loose. No doubt about it."
I remember that I felt a surge of gratitude and sympathy in the last moments that Bush was in front of me. I had reached out to shake his hand before he left.
"Thank you, Sir, good luck." And I meant it completely.