I was browsing the merchandise in a strange little shop—the kind of place you find in small towns on California’s central coast, in the hills where the local industry is limited to oil pumps discretely camouflaged in cul de sac little valleys, vineyards and tourists attracted to their companion tasting rooms. The little store occupied most of the space of the first floor of a small wooden building that, in the early 20th century was a modest home. The walls, floor and ceiling held the rich, warm color of varnished wood, darker on the walls on which were hung small oil paintings—landscapes that looked like places you are likely to see around this kind of town, hills redolent with fragrant, tall sweet grass, picturesque oaks carved out of blue skies in twisted shapes, crows and ravens. The merchandise was most curious by dint of its modest array—there was very little. A wooden counter at the back wall held a few dark books, there were a few things on book shelves on the walls and wooden fixtures, which with three easy chairs and small tables, a couple bar stools before the counter and a lamp or three, furnished the room.
Two thin young men, dressed in similarly casual gabardine slacks and collegiate shirts, worked quietly—one behind the counter and the other coming in and out periodically with merchandise, sometimes quietly exchanging a few words. The man behind the counter acknowledged me as I entered, glancing briefly at my face, with a small but sincere smile and then politely leaving me to my private investigations. I felt he was being kind, implying a promise to allow me the privacy of an incognito visit. The hills around the towns north of Santa Barbara are laden with celebrity personalities.
Shortly, I found two things of interest to me: one a large folio, the leaves of which were made of stiff cardboard on which had been printed, mainly with a dark mauve and green ink, with black lines, motives reminiscent of 1930 Vienna and each page was inset, in a random pattern with slots holding five inch music disks, printed in the same design. The other item was a finely made, old rosewood humidor—the kind you would find on a desk or a table in the sitting room of a 19th century parlor. Inside this box, I found some fresh cigars, a couple dozen maduras, wrapped in soft and exquisitely aromatic tobacco. They had no ring but lifting one to my nose, I recognized the Cuban pedigree. I considered buying one with guilt and desire, imagining a suitable rationalization and as I stood by the counter, holding the cigar in my hand, in this internal confliction, a man, dressed in a suit came in the door behind me and greeted the counter clerk, who returned his greeting with the familiarity of regular acquaintance. The suit he wore was obviously expensive, made of light and supple, black Italian wool—no tie, and the collar of the white shirt beneath the stylish lapels was open at the throat. He looked at me and smiled before returning his attention to the young man, who still showed no interest in my activities.
As I continued to sniff and mentally weigh the pros and cons, I was getting no closer to a decision, when the man in the suit, who now sat on one of the barstools, turned to me and said, “would you like to smoke it?” I felt a little ashamed about it but I nodded, “yes”.
“Romeo,” he said. I looked at it and whispered, “and Juliet.” He laughed, gently. “Go ahead, light it up.” Hesitating, I looked into the dark eyes of the counter clerk, who seemed like he was watching a familiar scene in a movie. “Would you like to use a cutter?” the clerk asked.
“How much is it?”
The gentleman on the barstool, who I then noticed looked like Morgan Freeman, leaned toward me to pick up the rosewood box, which he held out for the counter clerk to take from his hands. “Do you mind,” he said to me, “I’ll pay for it.”
“That’s very kind of you but…” I started to protest this generosity from a stranger but there was something so familiar and friendly about his face and voice, I felt more ashamed about refusing him.
“No, really, that’s ok,” he said, “don’t mention it. You can have the box. Enjoy!”
“Shall I wrap it?” The clerk asked him, not me.
“Sure,” he said to the clerk and swiveling on the stool back to me, he said, “Is there anything more? Really. Anything?”
“Anything,” he said, with the confident, sweet smile and flashing eyes that reminded me so much of Morgan, and Gene Wilder, too, a little.
“My name is…”
“I know who you are,” he cut me off. “No introductions are necessary. Just tell me what you want.”
“Oh. Right. Of course. Thank you. For the cigar—cigars.” I felt stupid saying that. “God, I felt stupid saying that,” I said, “but still, thank you.”
“As my Scandinavian friends say, “not to worry, it was too little. But really, you can always have anything—that I can give you.”
“Anything? OK. How about a new president?”
“Of the United States?” He laughed. “You go right for it, don’t you.” Shaking his head, he looked down at his shiny black dressy loafers. I imagined him wiggling his toes. “Well, I guess that’s appropriate. But, why?”
“I don’t know, I’m tired of all the bullshit.”
“Aren’t we all. But isn’t it the nature of the job? Does it matter who does it?”
“It did. It used to.”
“I understand,” he said, sympathetically, “what you want and why.”
“But you can’t give that to me?”
“Sort of…but you’ll have to clarify or I can’t give you what you want.”
“I’m tired of apologies. Instead of taking care of things, all we get is apologies. Really.”
“I thought that’s the purpose of having a president, to apologize. That’s the job, isn’t it? The fuss about Clinton was because he was unapologetic about his blowjob. He apologized for failing to deliver universal healthcare and that was completely acceptable. Nixon was made president after he apologized in tears for taking a house in Beverly Hills in return for political favors. I understand his apology for Watergate is considered epic. Among world leaders, George Bush was outstandingly stupid but his whining voice was constantly apologizing and he got away with murder and larceny on a scale never seen before. Clearly, apologetic is the most significant quality that distinguishes popular politicians in general but especially those who “fill” the office of president. Apology is to Washington, D.C. as horseshit is to the Aegean stables.”
“Since you put it that way, how about a house in the country?”
“Now, that’s what I’m talking about.”