January 14, 2009

Starting Off At The Chili Bowl

U.S. President-elect Barack Obama (L) picks up his food order at the counter of Ben's Chili Bowl Restaurant in

In 2001, Ben and Virginia’s son commented on the changes: “You hear comments. Even the white customers. They want to think they’re the only whites who’d been hip enough to go to the Chili Bowl. Now they look around and there are a lot of other whites and they are not so happy about it.”

— From Ben’s Chili Bowl Wikipedia entry, the only business in the U Street corridor believed to have survived the ’68 riots as well as the building of the U Street/Cardozo Metro Station.

In this photograph provided by "Meet the Press", Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, second from left,  and moderator David Gregory, right,  listen to Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, left, and comedian and author Bill Cosby  speak about President Elect Barack Obama's visit to Ben's Chili Bowl during the taping of 'Meet the Press' at the NBC studios Sunday, Jan. 11, 2009 in Washington.    (AP Photo/Meet the Press, Brendan Smialowski)    ** NO SALES   NO ARCHIVE, MUST USE BEFORE SUNDAY, JAN. 18, 2009; MANDATORY CREDIT: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI,  "MEET THE PRESS" **


MR. GREGORY: I, I want–just yesterday, here at the famous Ben’s Chili Bowl–ever heard of it?

MR. COSBY: Oh, boy.


MR. GREGORY: Who was there, but our mayor with the president-elect. Now, they go inside. Hold on, hold on.

MR. COSBY: I’m out of here.

MR. GREGORY: No, no, no, no. Bill Cosby…

MR. COSBY: No, man.

MR. GREGORY: …listen to what happens inside. The president-elect goes inside and asks this question:

(Videotape, Saturday)

PRES.-ELECT OBAMA: What’s a half-smoke?

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: What is a half-smoke? He goes to Ben’s Chili Bowl and asks, “What’s a half-smoke?” Can you believe that?

MR. COSBY: I’m taking my vote back.

MR. GREGORY: Well, there’s something else you should know.

MR. COSBY: Well–uh-oh.

MR. GREGORY: There’s something else you should know.

MR. COSBY: You starting stuff, man.

MR. GREGORY: Yeah. Now, wait a second…

MAYOR FENTY: This is why…

MR. COSBY: You don’t look like this kind of person.

MR. GREGORY: In Ben’s Chili Bowl it says “Who eats for free at Ben’s? Bill Cosby and no one else.” But during the 2008 race they’ve changed it: “Who eats for free at Ben’s? Bill Cosby and the Obama family.” You’re not alone.

MAYOR FENTY: David, you know, he said backstage that Obama hadn’t earned it.

MR. COSBY: Not only, not only that, Mr. Loose Lips, I am saying also that the only–there are two people, Michelle and his mother-in-law. I don’t mind them. But he has not earned it. Got to come a long way, Jack, before you can have…

MAYOR FENTY: See, the president’s not big enough.

MR. COSBY: But, but the mayor brought him to try to boost his name and put it on the thing.


MR. GREGORY: Yeah. Unbelievable.

MR. COSBY: And his name, he’s a…

MAYOR FENTY: Cosby’s upset because I had the first half-smoke at the new baseball stadium, the first Ben’s Chili Bowl.

MR. COSBY: And you raised, you raised the half-smoke and said “I beat Bill Cosby.” That’s what you said.

— from ‘Meet the Press’ transcript / January. 11, 2009

U.S. President-elect Barack Obama (L) says goodbye to Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty after having lunch at Ben's Chili Bowl Restaurant in Washington January 10, 2009.    REUTERS/Jim Young   (UNITED STATES)
U.S. President-elect Barack Obama (2nd R) picks up his food order at the counter of Ben's Chili Bowl Restaurant during lunch with Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty (L) in Washington, January 10, 2009.     REUTERS/Jim Young    (UNITED STATES)

Hearing that the long time white customers disrespect the new wave of white customers at Washington’s famous Ben’s Chili Bowl, and that Obama didn’t even know what a half-smoke was, and Cosby didn’t feel Barack had earned the right to eat free at Ben’s, whereas Michelle and her mother had, I feel a lot more comfortable wondering about the Obama- Fenty handshake in front of the street named after the owners that fed black activists and police and firemen alike back in ’68 and thinking about what seems like a different posture and manner in the Mayor and the President-elect than how Obama looks when he’s hanging out, say, with Hillary Clinton.

And yes, I’m ready to assume my fate (according to The Atlantic‘s lead piece in its “State of the Union” special) as an uncool, culturally bereft white guy (even more an outlier writing from L.A., especially in this mid-January 80º Santa Ana weather), looking at the incoming Administration through the viewfinder of race while becoming comfortable just asking a lot of questions.

(images 1, 3 & 4: Jim Young/Reuters. Washington January 10, 2009. image 2: Brendan Smialowski/AP. Jan. 11, 2009. Washington)

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Michael Shaw
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