Before I went to Memphis for our September 2009 cover story on Shelby County, Tennessee, Mayor A C Wharton Jr., at least two people had told me where I could find him -- the Starbucks on Union Avenue in Midtown.
Wharton drops by every day for a cup of coffee, a glance at The New York Times, perhaps a briefing from a county staffer and the chance to meet and greet a few of his constituents. Everyone knows if they want to see him, he's perfectly accessible there. "For $1.50, you can have a cup of coffee and a meeting with the mayor," says John Moore, president of the Greater Memphis Chamber.
Sometimes, it won't even cost you that much. Wharton is known as a soft touch. The day I was there with him, a woman hit him up for a free drink. Wharton waved at the counter help and gestured that her drink was on him. He sat back down but kept an eye over toward the register, wondering what she was going to order. "I get the cheapest drink in here," he said, cupping his $1.65 small (or I should say "tall") coffee, "and sometimes they get one of those $4 drinks."
Not every politician is as regular in his habits as Wharton. Several years ago when I was out doing a story on Bill Richardson in Santa Fe, I can remember him getting some criticism from the local papers because he would send state troopers in to pick up his Starbucks for him.
But whether it's a small capital like Santa Fe or a big city like Memphis, the political world always seems to be a village unto itself. People go to the same restaurants and run into each other, passing on a quick word when they have to. Like the "young lovers" in "The King and I," "they meet, not really by chance."
The Washington Post just ran a big story on Tosca , reportedly the new "in" restaurant for some of Washington's most famous and expensive lobbyists. Tom Daschle eats at Table 26, while his son Nathan, head of the Democratic Governors Association, apparently sits at the bar.
Lunch can cost $100 for two people at Tosca, before wine. That's why it's nice that Wharton hangs out at Starbucks, encouraging the fellow who's been been coming in to work on his movie for a couple of years (it had its premiere while I was out there) and saying hello to the middle-aged-to-old guys who pull up a couple of tables and sit down to talk and solve the world's problems.
You don't need $100 to schmooze him. In fact, if you're tight, Wharton will even stand you to one of those $4 adult milkshakes.
The only people who aren't accommodating there, in fact, are the employees. At least, not to a reporter. When I went to that Starbucks without Wharton to check out the scene, I wanted to ask the manager about him. Someone had told me that the people who work there all love him, so I figured I would suss this out and maybe get a quote.
When I identified myself, though, the manager immediately said, "We have a corporate media office and you'll have to call them," then walked away.
I haven't called corporate in Seattle to find out what they think about the mayor being such a known regular at Location 1361, or whatever it is. Maybe I should do that.
Photo by David Kidd