The Morning I Handed Arnold Schwarzenegger a Napkin

It's one of those surreal experiences.

Yountville, CA, a little town just off of Highway 29, between Napa and St. Helena. A main strip lined by numerous high end boutiques and high end restaurants. It's a stopover town with a village feel, where wine enthusiasts pause for lunch or dinner before returning to their winery tours.

It can be snobbish. People can, if they want, ignore you, pretend you're not really real.

The town lies about eight miles from my house in Napa.

Sometimes, usually mornings, I'll go there, sit in my Jeep in the parking lot at the end of __ St., overlooking the kiddie's park. I'll usually read a book, or write in my journal, while behind me stretches the Yountville Graveyard.

Yesterday morning, I drove to Bouchon Bakery. Thomas Keller owns it. He owns Bouchon Restaurant, Ad Hoc, and also the most famous restaurant in America: The French Laundry. He's a nice guy. Tall. Jessette and I met him once after dinner at Ad Hoc last year. We didn't tell him the meal left much to be desired, as did his menu. I might have scolded him for missing his book-signing appointment at Copperfield's Books a couple months back. He signed a magazine for Jessette. That was nice of him.

Yesterday--a gray sky. Not too cold for mid-february: About 56F. I parked at Hurley's, walked over to the bakery, entered to a bliss forbidden to diabetics.  Like me.

It's a small space, just an L-shaped glass case full of freshly baked sweets, and a small counter for the register. The coffee menu is located to the left of the register, high up on the wall. The menu is in chalk. It always smells nice inside, sweet. all the things behind the case, macaroons, muffins, chocolate eclairs, all the things in the cubbies behind the register, french or sourdough or ciabbatta, are temptations I cannot yield to. My blood sugar that morning was 126. My endocrinologist, Dr. Lee, wants it below a hundred. If it gets above 200, consistently, she'll put me on insulin shots.

I haven't eaten breakfast. I'm here for a machiatto.

A double costs $3.00.

I am annoyed. An older couple cannot decide what they want.

I wait.

They lean into the glass case, their excitement leaking from them in little "oohs" and "aahs." Two girls enter behind me. One's a pasty faced bleached blonde, wearing a white tank top and pajama bottoms. Her friend, an asian girl is shorter than her, appropriately dressed in jeans and a jacket. She's not as pretty.

The older couple finalize their selection.

I wait.

The door opens. A voice says, "Are you in line?"

It's a voice instantly recognizable. I've heard it say other things, like "I'll be back," or "It's not a tumor."

That voice can't be here. Not here in Yountville of all places. I turn around and to my utter shock, "The ex-Governator."

It's one of those surreal moments in your life. Your mind doesn't believe what your eyes see. You take a double take. Here's Conan, the Kindergarten Cop, the Terminator, Dr. Freeze. Here's the same guy, standing inches away from you who you've watched run through a desert, half naked in a loin cloth. You've watched him give speeches at the State of the State address. You've watched his rise and fall and rise again. He's, if anything, tenacious. A bit wrinkled now, smaller than you imagined. And here he is. Also not as tall as you thought.

Arnold looks at you and gives you one of his trademark half-smiles, like just before he's about to deliver a witty line, "Get to the choppa!" or "Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women!" He knows that you know who he is. You can see it in his squint. He turns to the display cases and starts ogling the desserts. It seems like one of the stars has fallen out of the sky and crashed into Bouchon. It must be incredible to know one's presence has the power to alter one's speech, shift attitudes. His presence changes the quality of the air. Celebrity has the power to do that: alter the light, suck air from a room, enliven even the dullest experience, like getting a cup of coffee. 

I wait. 

"This is surreal," I say to the man beside him. He's an older guy, mid fifties, early sixties, dressed like a yuppie in blue khakis and a baby blue Brooks Brothers sweater. The man smiles and nods but says nothing. I say, "Try the eclairs, they're delicious." Maybe he'll get one, or a dozen? 

I turn back to Arnold and I stick out my hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you." He says nothing. His hands feel smaller than I imagined them. Soft. "You're a living legend," I say. He squints at me. He says nothing. I wait for wit. I smile and move away. 

I wait. 

After ordering, exchanging looks of shock and surprise with the girl at the register, I park myself before the condiments table: sugar, lids, stirrers, napkins. A quick glance at Arnold. He's stuffing his face with something sweet, a muffin or a macaroon. He approaches me with sticky fingers. I am blocking the napkin tray. I reach behind me and hand him a napkin. He doesn't thank me. He turns and moves back to his group. 

I wait. 

My machiatto arrives and I hurry out. I have never been star struck. I don't chase down celebrities for their autographs, or ask for pictures. Somehow it feels undignified. They're human, not gods. But still, I felt lucky somehow. 

I called Jessette and told her what had just happened. She seemed surprised but unimpressed. God, I love her. 

A few people took pictures with him and he obliges them, but not with pleasure. You see it in his face. He's sour. Posing for pictures is part of the role he's playing: Celebrity. Because when he's not "acting" or ruining California, he's a celebrity. People hugged him as he made his way back from Bouchon's restroom and all I kept thinking was if the young man standing near him was his illegitimate son?

"Let's try that antique shop," Arnold said. 

Wow, I thought, the Terminator likes antiques. 

After Arnold returned to his black SUV with his group and drove away, South towards HWY 29, Yountville seemed altered. People flitted by on the pavement with their dogs on leashes, or in pairs, entered and exited Bouchon, ignorant that Arnold S. had been there moments ago buying pastries.  

I sat outside the bakery and read my book, "Reflections in a Golden Eye." I wondered about missed opportunities and luck. What other things in life do we miss? What other chances? We arrive five minutes too early or too late and we fail to meet the person of our dreams. We miss the lottery jackpot by a couple of numbers. Despite preparation our words and gestures at that job interview betray us.  

There was no preparation meets opportunity dictum at work here. Meeting Arnold in Yountville was pure chance, an event that won't be repeated. I wondered how we could transform each moment into a strange and surreal event, where the very light seems to change. 
















  


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