Talk of the Town - Lunch with the Gipper June 17 2004

A presidential reminiscence

Ronald Reagan and I got together every year during his administration. He'd be in a bomb-resistant limousine that owned the streets of New York while I was out on my lunch hour, trapped in a security dragnet that paralyzed all traffic.

The Gipper waved and I waved back, although it always took a few minutes to find him. Because presidential motorcades have two big flag-waving limos in the procession, presumably to fuddle a would-be assassin. It says something about my catlike powers of observation that I was always duped by the extra limo trick.

Even when you thought you were hailing the chief, you could never be sure. It looked like him through the bulletproof sliver of landau roof, but for all I know, it was a back-projected Reagan hologram.

Our exchange of waves became an annual tradition. I imagined the president looking over to the first lady and wondering, "Nancy, isn't that same doofus here every year?"

Occasion for these tete-a-tetes was the annual convocation of the U.N. General Assembly, a body that the 40th president dutifully addressed, even though he probably had about as much regard for the waffling, worldview United Nations as Knute Rockne did for sissy, quitter hypochondriacs.

My office in those days was right across the way, a fine venue if you enjoyed going on sudden holiday. Because the global organization attracted many disgruntled crackpots, who would gather en masse along Manhattan's First Avenue to hoot and jeer at the many disgruntled crackpot dictators gliding by in their glistening stretches.

On sunny days you hoped for a major donnybrook — the latest Haitian strongman was always good for an afternoon off — because the cops would tell us to close early on the chance our plate-glass window would be transformed into jagged-edge stardust.

But when the president of the United States came to town, things really clamped down. One year, several of us gathered at an office window to see if we could sneak a peek at Reagan's arrival. We cracked open a casemate to look across the avenue — straight into the binoculars of an agitated man in a black suit and shades, hollering into a walkie-talkie. Police arrived to shoo us from the window, forthwith.

But that was nothing compared to the Hunan Chicken Incident.

The product of a wondrous Chinese beanery near where I worked, it was as breathtakingly simple as it was magnificent in taste. After a decade in the Southland, I have yet to find its equal hereabouts.

Even now, my taste buds rumba in recollection: succulent slices of white meat in generous supply, topped by a spicy brown sauce, interspersed with tender shards of red peppers and crisp broccoli florets, married to a pint of white rice stickier than a county sheriff's digits.

There aren't many things worth shedding blood for, but back then I'd mess you up good if you got in the way of my Hunan chicken. It was something I could only afford on payday — a fortnightly occurrence that ranked as a minor religious experience during my days as a slightly impoverished boulevardier.

On this particular occasion, the eagle screamed when Reagan was in town. Experience taught that the lunch order would have to be called in for early delivery, before a presidential paramilitary cordon fell upon the neighborhood.

But as high noon came and went, I feared for the fate of my meal. A rolling blockade heralded Reagan regnant, but there was no call from the reception desk heralding any chicken. This spelled disaster. Not only was I lunchless, there was no way to get out and find another repast while the heat was on.

It was about 1:45 p.m. when the receptionist rang to say, "You, uh, better come down here."

I adjourned to the lobby to find a Secret Serviceman, a New York City detective, two patrolmen and an anxious Chinese deliveryman who was the focus of their undivided attention. Not to mention several pointed questions.

What was he doing on the block after it had been sealed? Who was he coming to see? Oh yeah, and what was in the bag?

What little English the man knew deserted him in the face of such official bonhomie. A Chinese-American colleague was found to interpret; turned out the intrepid deliverer was already on the street when the gendarmes sealed it. He was just going from one office building within the block to another — mine — at the time he came to the attention of law enforcement.

The lunch was taken out for public inspection, although fears that Secret Service agents would wrestle my chicken to the ground proved groundless. Later that afternoon, I went out and waved goodbye to the Gipper. But something was missing.

One of those cops took my fortune cookie.


Glen Slattery, who lives in Alpharetta, advises us that this column has no MSG.