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The Man Who Came to Dinner 

Tom Ammiano

Wednesday, Mar 8 2000

Back in December our little mayoral write-in runoff prompted some local speculation. Could America's first openly gay almost-mayor actually be an in-the-closet ... vegetarian?

On behalf of the public's right to know, and in hopes of bolstering Tommy's chances next time around, I went undercover to uncover the candidate's true position on this key political issue. Does he merely press the flesh? Or ingest?

Tom had invited me to meet him at It's Tops, the circa-1930s Market Street diner. Joining us were two of his longtime friends, Diane and Judith, who were visiting from out of town; after the introductions were made we all squeezed into a small booth on the raised platform beside the old-time counter. Tom looked very President of the Board-ish in a corduroy jacket, black slacks, and colorful tie.

I've always appreciated It's Tops for its genuine, tabletop-jukeboxes atmosphere and late-night, hangover-averting chow. But I take great exception to the "SF's Best Hotcakes" sign permanently displayed above the entrance. To It's Tops' credit, on a good day, the hotcakes are good. But I'm afraid Boogaloos is the clear and rightful heir to the "SF's Best" honor.

Nonetheless, I went for the Touchdown (two eggs, two strips of bacon, two sausages, and two blueberry hotcakes). As I ordered I eyed Tom closely to see if my pork rations might elicit a wince or a nervous look of uncertainty.


Instead, the skillful politician maintained his perfect poker face while Judith and Diane ordered their meals. As the waitress rounded the table toward Tom he debated between the liver, onions, and bacon, and the No. 7, aka the Pig Burger. "But wait," I thought: "Could this be some textbook politician's ploy? Dangle two attractive options in front of the constituents, before sticking it to them with a last-minute substitution? The ol' bacon and switch?"

The moment of truth had arrived. The waitress slowly lowered her pen to her pad. What's it gonna be, Supervisor?

"I'll have the California Pig Burger," he announced. "And an Anchor Steam, if you have it."

In one fell swoop my faith in our modern political system was fully restored.

"So, you come here a lot?" I asked.

"Yes. When I can," answered Tom. "During the campaign in particular I had an affection for the Pig Burger. We worked up big appetites putting in 18- to 20-hour days."

With my first order of business put to rest, I turned my attention to the ladies, fishing for some inside dirt on the would-be ruler of our little burg.

"Judith has a lot to tell about Tom," Diane said.

"But she doesn't," answered Judith. "Which is why she's still such a good friend." Tom and Judith met back in college, as counselors at a summer camp for disabled kids.

"We've been friends ever since," said Tom. After school all three of them headed to Southeast Asia, where Tom spent two years in Vietnam volunteering for a Peace Corps-like organization.

Suddenly our little table was covered with enormous plates of food. My Touchdown overflowed with hotcakes and hash browns, and meat and more meat, all glistening under pools of lip-smacking grease. Oh boy. As I started to make a dent, Tom dug into the Pig, heavy with avocado, bacon, and cheese. On the side was a healthy pile of long, natural-cut fries.

Our meal was briefly interrupted by a colleague of Tom's, the producer of his TCI Cable show, Ammiano Reports, who stopped by to introduce his three children. "They all go to public school," he said proudly.

"Good. Which one?" asked Tom.

"Hoover," the kids cheered in unison.

"Ah, Hoover. Is it still freezing?" asked Tom. "The boiler was broken."

"Thank you for making it such a great six months," said the children's father. "You're such a courageous man."

He was so excited, he almost forgot to pay his check.

"Give it to Mr. Ammiano," joked Tom. "That was part of my platform."

"A pancake on every table?" I asked.

"No, latkes," he answered.

That helped introduce the subject of dessert. "See if you can get her eye," asked Tom. Our waitress stopped by to rattle off a long list of choices, leading to a round of halfhearted dietary denials -- "Oh, no. I couldn't" -- all around the table.

"If you get it, you'll eat it," she told us. "You see, I'm not really a waitress. I'm an observer of human behavior."

We went with one slice of pecan pie. And one slice of pumpkin.

As we all clashed forks over the whipped cream-covered desserts, I asked Tom for some more information on his illustrious comedy career. "It was very, very difficult," he answered. "I didn't get started till I was 40. And being gay -- openly gay -- those were two challenges, in addition to the challenges of any career. It's a very difficult field for anyone." Particularly on the road, he said, many audiences (and fellow comics) were homophobic. "I used to tell my partner to wait in the car. And keep the engine running.

"And I knew Ellen DeGeneres," he added. "Everybody knew she was a dyke. Not publicly, of course. I remember seeing her at Comedy in the Park and she said, "I'm leaving. I'm leaving for L.A., today.' And she did. She got in her Volkswagen after her set and left for L.A. And I thought, "Oh, yeah. She'll be back.'"

He joked, "Here I'm out for 25 years and I'm still doing gigs at the comedy corner in the Port Authority bus terminal men's room. Ellen's out for 20 seconds, and ... but I'm not bitter."

During the election national news coverage split between the gay issue and Ammiano's amazing write-in success. "All the papers would identify me as Tom Ammiano, gay comic," he said. "And they'd use "comic' in the pejorative, as a put-down. But I think it's a compliment. It's a tough job. You need to know how to work a room, how to think on your feet. Skills that a lot of elected officials don't possess."

Locally, of course, an inordinate amount of the mainstream media coverage focused on the highly relevant issue of the candidate's voice. It was a fine waste of everyone's time, and an insult to a community that prides itself on a conscientious and progressive political history. When it was over, the dailies termed Tom's 40/60 showing a "landslide" win for Willie Brown.

And how much did Willie spend? Do a per-vote ROI analysis on those numbers and it's pretty clear which one of these horses really defied the odds. "It's because they have an interest," explained Tom. "Here's what it really is: All the business taxes have to be rewritten. Do they want me as mayor when that happens? No, they want Willie in there.

"They never understand that yeah, you can have a break. But they want more than a break. So that's what a lot of this election was about." Meanwhile, he added, "Willie had Clinton calling in support. And Feinstein calling."

"Yeah, but you had Jesse Jackson," Judith interjected.

"No," corrected Tom. "Jesse Jackson called to tell me not to run.

"I always said that Willie Brown's campaign was about fear, and ours was about hope. Which is a nice little slogan. But it goes deeper. Even when the election was over he was still swiping at me. I mean, I've heard of sore losers, but he's the first sore winner."

"I think he's mad because you made him jump through hoops," Diane suggested.

"That's right," said Tom. "And still do."

Just then a particularly blue-collar-looking man, who'd been sitting quietly at the counter with two young children at his feet, leaned in purposefully to whisper, "Do it again. Next time win."

"You're on," Tom replied.

Out on the sidewalk I asked Tom about the somewhat controversial Gay and Lesbian Center building across the street. "That was another one of Willie's flip-flops," he answered. In a gruff Brown impersonation he added, ""I will definitely tear that building down.'

"Then, when he saw the tide wasn't there -- "Oh, I always said to leave it up.'"

As we said our goodbyes a young couple sped by in a car on Market Street. Sticking her head out the passenger side window the woman enthusiastically yelled, "We voted for you, Tom!"

"Thanks!" he shot back automatically.

By any logical assessment, Tom's unprecedented write-in victory, and strong grass-roots showing, was anything but a landslide. "And," I thought, "it looks like the grass is still growing."

Want to host The Man Who Came to Dinner? E-mail and tell us what's cookin'.

About The Author

Barry Levine

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