My Kind-of Brush with Kind-of Greatness

My boss from last summer’s project called me about three weeks ago and told me, in tones quite mysterious for her, that she had “a big surprise” for me on December 14 and that I ought to keep this afternoon free to receive it. I knew I’d have to go to San Rafael, over in Marin, to get it, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out whether it was going to be a bonus or if I was going to be shanghaied and wake up far out at sea. Judy picked me up in the city and we drove over to Marin, and along the way she lightly asked me which famous people I’d like to meet someday. I never know how to answer these fucking questions but I probably came somewhere near the truth when I mentioned Altman and Dylan. “What about politicians?” she said. I knew for a fact that Joe Lieberman isn’t on that fucking list, but beyond that I couldn’t think of anyone still living except the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, a man who showed some personal heroism during the Civil Rights Movement (what dat?), and for all I know even Shuttlesworth is dead. “What about Bill Clinton?” asked Judy. “Yeah,” I said, bobbing my head from side to side, “Clinton’d be fun to kill a couple beers with, I guess.” “What about Jimmy Carter?” “Well, Carter, I…” At this point I was beginning to think Judy was on heroin or something. “Carter,” I finally finished, “yeah, sure, why the hell not meet Jimmy Carter?”

As it turned out, Carter’s just written a new book, a volume slimmer even than he is, called Sharing Good Times, and he was doing a book-signing in a chain bookstore at a San Rafael mall this evening, and Judy had gone out of her way to get me a pass granting me brief access to the physical space surrounding Mr. Camp David Accord. This was indeed a “surprise” to me, in the purest sense of the word, for I promise you, I could’ve stayed up every night for a year trying guess what was coming, and I would’ve guessed that Judy had somehow arranged for me to witness a Martian cat delivering a litter of kittens before I would’ve guessed this. “Gosh, Judy, what made you think of me?” I asked her, trying as I spoke the words to avoid any inflection that’d make it sound like they really meant, “What are you, off your fucking meds?” But Judy then reminded me of a conversation we once had in which I allegedly called Carter “the most maligned politician of our time” and apparently went even farther, alluding to him in the awe-struck terms one usually reserves for the Great Men of History. “Wow, I don’t remember that at all,” I said. “When did we have this conversation?” “We were sitting at your kitchen table on Green Street,” Judy replied. “I remember it distinctly.” Two things must be noted here: 1) when I lived on Green Street the year was 1986, and 2) I was drinking so much and showing such little discrimination in those days I probably made similar adoring pronouncements about a great many public figures, leaving me in fear that someday some other well-meaning friend is going to “surprise” me with a visit to George Wendt or Mark Knopfler.

The mall parking-lot was jam-packed with holiday-shoppers and hundreds of other people who had mystifyingly left the comfort of their homes to come see Jimmy Carter. Because my little pass bore a bold C I was allowed to bypass practically all of them and go almost to the head of the line. And there sat The Great Man at a folding table, looking tan and happy and healthy, surrounded by a trio of very bored-looking Secret Service agents. A handful of the bookstore’s employees had formed a little assembly-line which efficiently flapped the book (kindly supplied by Judy, or else this evening really would’ve ended in ruins) to the page that Carter would sign and then passed it along at a rate to match my progress towards the table, presumably to foil the old anthrax-at-the-book-signing scheme that’s so popular nowadays. Carter had just gotten done signing about a dozen copies of the book all brought in by a single woman, who the fuck knows why, and I noticed that none of his fans seemed to be making small-talk with him. And indeed, he was barely looking up at them. Anyway, my moment was almost upon me, and I began trying to think of something to say to him if for no other reason you get to talk to a president, ex- or no, how many times in your life? It’s true that in ’76 I had desperately wanted him to win, and felt sure that his election would herald a permanent return to honesty and commonsense in American politics. (I was a kid, okay? Get off my case.) Carter’s reelection campaign was a cause for dismay, though, as he not only was outfronted, outflanked, and out-everything elsed by Ronald Reagan, but tried to win over voters with a series of incredibly hawkish ads and promises that posited him as the exact opposite of everything he’d stood for in his winning campaign. So when it came time to think of something to say to him, all I could think of was, “There you go again,” but I didn’t want Judy to see me being escorted out of the place with one arm twisted behind my back. Suddenly an employee was hissing at me, “Go! Go! Go!,” I saw my book being thrust into Carter’s veiny old mitts, and as I walked up to him I managed to think of one true thing I could say to him. He scribbled something frightfully fast onto the book’s title-page, and as he did I told him: “You did the right thing with Panama.” Now how many people tell him that nowadays? Hell, I thought he’d be happy to have someone in the room who’s almost as old as he is, and that he’d say something gracious in return, something showing the humble Georgian way he’s famous for. Instead Mr. Reagan Revolution pushed the book across to me, shot a flinty look at me that lasted perhaps 1/1000th of a second, and barked, “I know it!” To top things off when I got back to the car and pulled out the book to inspect his signature, I saw that it’d been signed by someone named “J. Catc.”

Ah, fuck it. It really was nice of Judy – I’m sure she remembers that long-ago conversation correctly, and besides she took me out for a great dinner of Indian food afterwards. I took the ferry back into the city, and drifted off to near-sleep during the trip. I awoke just as we were passing the Alcatraz lighthouse, and when the boat was perhaps three hundred yards from docking I strolled out onto the aft deck to get the blood back into my legs. It suddenly occurred to me I couldn’t remember ever riding the ferry at night, and certainly not around Christmastime, and the lit up city looked like a huge tiered and candled cake, with the Embarcadero Buildings especially resplendent, four large presents wrapped in black velvet and staggered against each other. Hey, I’m glad I did it.

*

 I saw the Scott Peterson verdict come in yesterday because I was waiting for a return phone call and to kill the time turned the tube on just a couple minutes before the announcement, and I am here to tell you that that was one truly fucked-up crowd. A million people with cell-phones doing that self-conscious wave at the camera when they’d see it light on them, one guy in a knit-cap (and on a cell-phone) who followed the cameras around and smiled delightedly as he pushed his face up into them, the grins and swaggering that went down when the verdict was announced, these insane fucking mothers who dragged their kids down to the courthouse, a woman who said that Peterson ought to die “because Laci was an angel,” and the especially repellent dolt who said she was there because she wanted to “witness history.” It was a convention of Rupert Pupkins, a demonstration of people who’ve had their consciousnesses knitted together from years of watching bad television. I’m never surprised by what these media circuses say about people, or about Americans, but I am always a little surprised that the participants’ bloodlust and celebrity-chasing can be so unabashed without their – or the media, or the American public overall – ever being finally revolted by the atmosphere of unadorned necrophilia. If Dennis Eckersley could realize it was time to sober up after seeing a videotape of himself acting the drunken buffoon at a family Fourth of July gathering, it’d be nice if these folks could just for once see themselves as the ugly mob they are. It also always takes me aback that almost no description of these scenes, no matter how cartoonish, ever seems to exaggerate them, and I suspect the same unwarranted sense of disbelief hovered over Mencken’s pieces about the Scopes trial and contemporary accounts of Bruno Hauptmann’s trial. At least O.J.’s trial brought out some real issues in American life and its proceedings were riddled with some stunningly pertinent archetypes (Kato Kaelin, Faye Resnick, Mark Fuhrman, Johnnie Cochran). Scott Peterson, on the other hand, is just an idiot who committed an idiot’s crime.

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