Downtown Los Angeles. Dan Quayle is appearing at the dedication of a Skid Row shelter for the homeless. Besides Quayle, there is: Governor Deukmejian of California; Mayor Bradley, looking smart in a turtleneck sweater; Marilyn Quayle, wearing a leopardskin pillbox hat; TV crews, security agents, reporters; and those ubiquitous homeless people. Plus "George Fenneman, Time Magazine." I quickly find Fred Burgee, my pal.
He looks at my press badge.
"Did you get the private funding information? A local savings bank put up the seed money."
I don't know what he's talking about, so I change the subject.
"Is Quayle friendly with Zeppo?"
I point out the Governor, who is beginning to speak. I always confuse him with the famous fourth banana.
"Vice President Quayle, Mrs. Quayle..."
Deukmejian's nasal monotone and lack of personality makes it seem like his microphone is switched off. Instead, he's drowned out by "Puff, the Magic Dragon" sung by the Doodletown Pipers. The odd juxtaposition creates an eerie, anticipatory mood that has me thinking something strange is about to happen.
"Fenneman?" someone behind me asks. "David Beckwith."
We shake hands.
"From here we're going to Watts for some ribs. Come on along – all the malt liquor you can drink!"
He laughs at his little racial slur. I go back to zoning out on Zeppo, to the theme from the movie "Exodus." He's followed by Mayor Bradley, who discusses the fabulous weekend rates at Budget Rent-a-Car. And then – the main attraction – our Vice President.
"What a great day for the homeless," Quayle begins, almost enviously. "You know, when I was about nine years old I used to sneak outside late at night – my parents were sound asleep – and I'd go across the front lawn and all the way around to the other side of the house, and I'd tiptoe into the garage through a back door and pull out this neat clubhouse one of the gardeners had made for me out of a cardboard box. I'd set it up on the patio, or near the pool, and stay in that box and sleep there overnight. So I think I know a little something about that sort of thing."
The crowd applauds, out of shock. But the mood changes as "Lady of Spain" starts up, featuring a smiling Marilyn Quayle on the accordion. It's the big finale, and it gets us all herded into vans headed for Watts.
Soon I find myself seated in the crowded rear booth of Lee's Ribs, at the corner of 103rd and Jefferson. Directly across from me is the Vice President of the United States. A waitress is placing large trays full of ribs on the table. Everybody digs in.
The ribs are delicious. But heavy. I can barely finish one of them. But not Quayle. He can't get enough. As long as he's eating he doesn't have to answer questions, exposing his Achilles brain. I turn to Beckwith, who's working on a malt liquor.
"What's his problem?"
"He's nervous," Beckwith explains. "Off the record, the only contact he's had with black people is on the golf course – when it's his turn to tip the caddies."
The proprietor of Lee's comes over to shake the Veep's hand and dump some more ribs on the table. Pictures are taken as Quayle continues to eat and ignore the press.
Beckwith shakes his head.
"He's gonna be sick as a dog."
"Does this happen often?"
"Only when he's nervous. At his first cabinet meeting he ate thirty-six pork rinds."
"How come he isn't fat?"
"Gets a lot of exercise. Burns it off."
Quayle is in an eating trance, pausing only to breathe. The strategy is working. The reporters forget about asking any questions and go straight to the free food.
v "It's funny," Beckwith continues. "He's scared of a lot of things – thunder, lightning, large crowds, small spaces – "
"Minorities," I add.
A young girl comes over and asks him for his autograph. He obliges, finger-painting his name in barbecue sauce.
I look at Quayle. He's beginning to turn green. The stupid grin is fading. He's holding a rib in front of his face, pretending to gnaw at it. I figure it's the best time to ask a question.
"Are you for or against vivisection?"
Quayle just stares back at me. I'm not even sure he heard the question.
Suddenly, he stands up and drops the rib from his hand.
"Alka Seltzer to the rescue," Beckwith sings.
Quayle looks like Mount Saint Helens ready to blow. With several photographers trained on him, he discreetly turns and walks out the back door. Since I'm sitting on the end, I'm the first one up and part of the group giving chase.
We follow him out into the alley behind Lee's. It's gotten dark. I can barely see him, let alone the garbage cans he's weaving his way through. He cuts and darts around them like O.J. Simpson, and I'm struggling to keep up. I look back and notice I'm the only one still in pursuit. And I'm not sure why.
Quayle slows down. He bends over and clenches his stomach. As he does, a door opens nearby. Several tough-looking youths emerge. They don't recognize him.
"Hey, man – you been shot?" one asks.
"He's just a little under the weather," I say on his behalf.
"Who are you?" another kid asks.
"I'm the President of the United States. And this is the Vice President."
They don't exactly laugh. Instead, they walk away. Seconds later, Quayle throws up all over everything.
"Sorry if my question upset you," I apologize. "It was just that, well – the way you were operating on those ribs – it made me think of vivisection. Sorry if that made you nauseous."
He looks up and stares at me. He's angry.
"You're not Fenneman. You're an impostor."
Quayle makes a move towards me, like he wants to strangle me. I start to run. All of a sudden there's this loud crunching sound. The ground starts to shake. Buildings sway, glass is breaking. It's an earthquake – a big one! I look around for Quayle, but he's gone. The spot where he was standing is now an open ditch with steam coming out of it. He had fallen through a crack in the earth!
(This originally appeared in The Realist.)