My companion and I are shown to our table by a young waiter--a real waiter, who actually works there. He explains that this is celebrity-waiter night, and we act surprised. "You can meet Joe Arpaio, America's toughest sheriff," the kid tells us.
"Sounds good," I answer, more sincerely than he knows.
This is my first visit to Che Bella, Denny's being my usual eatery of choice. But my companion is a child of the California bourgeoisie, and it shows in her bearing. She's comfortable, though far from happy, when surrounded by right wingers. As Arpaio waits another table, she jokingly snaps her fingers and says, "Bring it on, Joe." She's dressed for the occasion, and looks like a Young Republican slut, her black dress showing plenty of flesh. Arpaio's going to love her.
Trouble is, he isn't our assigned waiter. Instead we get Tom Dillon, a sports broadcaster.
While we wait for our food to arrive, we're approached by the Phoenix Suns dance team, showing plenty of midriff. My companion introduces me as Lucius, her brother-in-law who's here on vacation from Scotland. The girls offer to sell me an autographed picture of them. How can I refuse? They sign it, "To Lucius . . ."
Joe Arpaio is a fascinating politician to watch, just because he's so low-class. He's one step from the trailer park. His ill-fitting shirts squeeze his flab into such odd shapes that in profile he looks slightly deformed. His beery red nose shines like the light on top of a cop car. And his hair looks as though he cut it himself during a spectacular drunk.
As my companion and I watch him bumble from table to table, talking about himself, I point to him and tell her, "That thing is going to be governor. He'll be responsible for education, taxes . . ."
And that's why I'm here tonight. I know Arpaio's planning to run for governor. I'd have to be missing a chromosome not to know it. The next election for sheriff is three years away, and yet, on October 25, he had a fund raiser at which he hinted to Governor Jane Hull that he might run against her. Rumor had it that he'd planned to announce his intentions that night, but chickened out because of Hull's presence.
The reason he keeps denying that he wants to be governor might be that, as soon as he announces his candidacy, he'll have to quit as sheriff. He'd lose his bully pulpit, and that would be hard on his ego.
Not that he denies it when New Times asks him. Although he constantly boasts that he fears no journalist, he hasn't returned our calls in more than a year. So I'm here tonight incognito to see if I can get him to come clean about his political plans for the future.
He keeps disappearing and coming back. Judging from his ruddy face and shiny eyes, it's not too hard to figure out where he's gone. That guess turns out to be right when he goes out and doesn't come back and my companion asks Dillon, "Has the sheriff left?"
"Maybe. But I think he's just in the bar, trying to get more people to come in." The place is packed, so it's doubtful as to whether that's strictly necessary. "I'll go and get him for you."
Arpaio struts over to our table about 10 minutes later. I turn on the tape recorder in my pocket. My companion shows him a combination of smile and cleavage. "Hi, sheriff!" she greets him. "Let me introduce you to my brother-in-law, Lucius. He's here on vacation from Scotland, and he's a big admirer of yours . . ."
I shake Arpaio's hand, but, before I can open my mouth to tell him just how much I admire him, he's manically talking about himself.
"Yeah, Scotland. I'm famous over there. Got the front page of the paper." He raises a clenched fist in triumph. "They wrote about the female chain gangs." He cackles.
"I was at your fund raiser the other night," I tell him. (The column I wrote about it hasn't yet appeared.)
"You were? Really? How did you know about it?"
"Oh, I read about it somewhere. It was great."
"I don't remember seeing you."
"Well, I could see you were busy, so I didn't want to disturb you. I just hung back. It was enough just to be there, and see all those people pay tribute to you."