President Bush blew into town two weeks ago, glad-handing the disenfranchised for a grand total of 13 minutes. That's hardly enough time for even the bare-minimum baby-kissing and soup-ladling.
On the nightly news, he was seen at St. Augustine's hunger center in Tremont, seated beside a dimpled African American grandmother. On her careworn, crinkled face, she mustered a sliver of smile.
Grinning glassily into the camera, Bush said little and looked positively reptilian, as if his tongue might suddenly flicker forth in pursuit of a passing fly.
The whole scene seemed like the desperate maneuvering of a Man of the People who's never worked an honest day in his life. His long-term tax plan would have made each end of the economic spectrum, taken collectively, $28 billion richer. Except that there are 4,500 very large estates on the rich end and 140 million people on the poor end.
Bush had his people round up some human props here, similar to the multicultural showpieces they'd corralled for his "compassionate conservative" shtick. True to more recent form, he picked a Catholic church to stage the photo op. Lately, he's been hanging with the cardinals to court the coveted rosary bloc.
But sometimes even props don't oblige. At the hunger center, the excitement factor of Bush's visit ranked just below the excitement factor of Brussels sprouts. St. Augustine's usually serves lunch to upward of 100 people a day. But Bush's aides apparently had trouble filling the 32 places set for his appearance.
"There were quite a few empty seats," says Allen Allen, a former bus driver who was laid off from his last job. "It was kind of embarrassing for him, having to scrape up people to sit with him." Allen says he "just happened to be around that day," and a nun asked him to be a stand-in.
"I basically done it for the love of the sister," he confesses. "Nobody really wanted to be there."
Contrary to reports that the visit was off-the-cuff, St. Augustine's actually had about a week's notice, says Sister Corita Ambro, who runs the hunger center. She'd asked the clients in advance if they'd like to attend. "Some felt better not to, some felt they would like it. Some said they were gonna come and didn't show up."
To Ambro, Bush's brief visit didn't seem like a rush job. "I was very impressed with how he talked with the men. They talked about alcoholism, Vietnam, some of the things that caused people to be on the streets."
He didn't quite sell her on the faith-based initiative, though. "I have a little lack of trust in those things," she says. "For instance, how do you access that particular funding? That has not been worked out yet." But she's glad it's raising awareness that "the church has been taking care of people for years and years."
The hunger center receives almost no government money, though many of its clients are ex-U.S. military. "A lot of people we take care of here are Vietnam vets," Ambro says. "That's true all over the city. Many, many, many of the homeless today are vets. That's how devastating Vietnam was. It's unbelievable. A lot of people don't recognize that.
"My heart aches for these men. Some of them suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. They live in very poor ways. Their minds have been hurt by the whole experience. They cannot keep a job, cannot concentrate properly. I feel very deeply for them. [This country is] responsible for them."
A Vietnam vet who's worked as a critical-care nurse, Reignbeaux Bersin usually has lunch at St. Augustine's. But she skipped Bush's visit in favor of fixing the transmission wires on the beaten gold station wagon that's been her home for five months.
"I didn't vote for that a-hole," says Bersin of Bush. "He can kiss my bare, copper-bronze ass. He doesn't give two hoots about the poor. He cheated his way into office. That election was a farce."
Wearing a moccasin on one foot, a cast on the other, the bone-thin Bersin carries a weighty Native American history book under one arm. Tucked inside the book is her Street Card, a list of all the shelters and soup kitchens in Cleveland. In her car, her three cats nap, curled up on stacks of clothes and bedding. To keep things clean and freshly scented, she hauls around a litter box and a jumbo container of Tidy Cat.
Sarge is another familiar face around the red-brick church hall. A Vietnam vet who voted for Gore in the last election, he had to be satisfied with waving at Bush's motorcade from across the street, where about 500 protesters stood. He says he signed up to meet Bush, but was crossed off the list at the last minute.
Bush's people didn't like him, he reasons. "I'm a very vocal person. They didn't want me to bring up no questions."
The upbeat Ambro, who wasn't born yesterday, tells a slightly different tale. "That was my decision," she asserts. "Sarge has a big mouth. He will say and do things sometimes that are inappropriate, and I didn't want to do anything that would embarrass the President."
Bush was seated with Mary Gardner, the dimpled grandmother, because she's known as a kind soul. Though she's poor and lives in subsidized housing, Gardner has taken in homeless people, says Ambro. Gardner even became homeless once herself, because by giving someone shelter, she broke public-housing rules.
"You'll find that, with a lot of the poor, they'll help each other out," says Ambro. "They know what it's like to be hard up."
Around Bush, Gardner "got a little bit shy," says Ambro. "I was telling him of her goodness."
So the TV lied. Bush wasn't just grinning -- he was listening. Hey, maybe he deserves credit for not being as hardhearted in person as he is in policy. Even though he'd pollute the afterlife if he could, and would gladly slash $200 million in federal funds for after-school day care, he's a real pal.
After he boarded Air Force One and flew off, the memory of his visit became a dot on the horizon. As for the props, they're still sopping up their chicken with brown gravy, regular as rain.
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