Top US security guards are surprisingly large. I mean surprisingly large. It was like being hemmed in by two suspicious Hummers – but I am getting ahead of myself.
A long, long time ago in a country far, far away, I worked for an elite catering company, co-ordinating events. One of our most prestigious regulars was the US Embassy and the owner of the company was very chuffed when we were booked for a particularly high-profile cocktail party at the Embassy. It would be huge – 600 guests – and security was even tighter than usual. Dinner would also be required in an upstairs room for a small party of VIVIPs. We were to submit ID numbers for all 25 participating staff for security checks and a few of us – the owner, the chef, two serving staff, me – would need top level clearance.
Two weeks before the event the owner was whisked into hospital for major brain surgery. There was no way he’d be back in the saddle in time, but after an emergency meeting the Embassy decided they would go ahead anyway rather than start the whole security thing again with another caterer.
A frisson of excitement ran through the entire company when we realized President Bill Clinton was visiting SA at the same time. So that was why the security was so much stricter! The Embassy cagily confirmed the President’s party would be the dinner guests and our Austrian chef Albert threw himself into an orgy of preparation. I even booked my daughter, then 14, as one of the general waitresses looking after the cocktail party – come on, the President of the USA? She’d worked functions before, would never have forgiven me if I hadn’t included her, and at least I knew she wasn’t a security risk.
It was a roaring success. With the main rush over Albert and I retreated for a brief celebratory smoke break. He wanted to shake hands, but I’d been caught that way before – the man was a handshake sadist with a grip like a mangle – so we settled for high-fives, then noticed a security guard pointing us out to a worried-looking man. Uh-oh. He came over to say the President was also to meet a group of 60 prominent American businesspeople, but the caterers had let them down. The President, he said, would take it as a personal favour if we could help out.
We said promptly that we’d be delighted, when was it? The worried man looked even more worried. The party, he said, was starting now –
For security reasons no-one is allowed to leave any event before the Presidential party does, so you may imagine the looks the tiny task team got as we were escorted out by by security guards. My daughter looked particularly dumbfounded and said afterwards she assumed we’d been caught doing something horrendous and she’d never see me again.
We raced back to the kitchen and while Albert and Thandi started performing miracles assembling canapés and finger snacks from anything they could find in a kitchen all but stripped for the big event, Bheka the driver and I put together the most basic bar in the world from stock left over from previous functions – half a bottle of gin here, a third of whisky there, anything measuring more than four fingers went into the crates. I’d take my own car so I could stop to buy ice and bags of crisps and peanuts en route, and we had a fair assortment of wines, beers and mixers. Last to be packed into the van went the glasses, still steaming from the glass washer. From the time of the request at the Embassy to the van’s arrival in Market Street was an hour and fourteen minutes – probably record-breaking for us, a very long wait indeed for 60 hungry, thirsty and extremely disgruntled guests. I arrived first, in the car, and opted to wait outside until the van arrived rather than walk into that angry room carrying only three big bags of ice and some crisps ….
Our welcome was, you can imagine, ferocious. Finger sandwiches and hastily-garnished crackers were grabbed by the fistful by the starving guests, still-warm egg halves were wolfed down. Olives, cocktail sausages, ham cornets, crisps with dips, even the crudité went as fast as we could put trays out. Thandi got mobbed every time she started out to circulate with a tray of snacks and settled for rushing them out to scattered tables, hotly pursued, then running back to get the next, looking scared. With only two bottle-openers we simply couldn’t open bottles fast enough, but I knew I had more openers in the car – I always carried a Boy Scout backup kit – so left mine with Albert and slipped out to get another. I didn’t bother to dig for it, just grabbed the whole bag. As I rushed back in two huge security guards stopped me and wanted to go through the bag. They agreed to let the bottle openers be handed through to Thandi, who was hopping from foot to foot just inside the door, but wanted to know exactly why I was trying to smuggle in carving and boning knives? Before I could explain, the Presidential cavalcade arrived and I was pushed up against the outside wall by those human Hummers while the party went through. Only when they left again, twenty minutes later – and I could see by the way Bill Clinton was massaging his fingers that he’d shaken hands with Albert and the others – was I released.
The owner said afterwards, quite rightly, we should have refused rather than risk a sub-standard performance, but I’m pretty sure if he’d been there he wouldn’t have refused the US President a personal favour.
I’m not as sure that the President personally rubber-stamped the letters of thanks sent to Albert and me, but I’m still pretty proud of mine.