"Hello hello hello," restaurateur Dominique D'Ermo called from his vantage point atop a stepladder over the crowd, "this will be a day of fun. Do not fight. Do not push one another. And drink some champagne when you are done . . . "
With that the cork popped on a Jeroboam of bubbly and the waiters and waitresses were off, more than 100, mostly from the Washington area, each balancing a tray with a split of champagne and two empty glasses.
Dominique's Yourth annual Bastille Day waiters race down Pennsylvannia Avenue to the White House and back was under way.
At a race-side table comedian Mark Russell sat behind sunglasses smoking a cigar. "I never had a waiter in my life who worked that fast." he said.
Seven minutes and 38 seconds later it was over, the winner William Wilkinson, a waiter at the Foundry in Georgetown, and a paralegal student at Georgetown University. And incidentally, a marathoner in the Marine Reserves who does 10 miles a day - without tray. Wilkinson was barely winded as he glided to the tape, where he paused and took one careful step to a champagne bucket full of Eisenhower silver dollars.
Wilkinson barely broke a sweat. "A fast walk - it's like you always keep one foot on the ground, and exagerated walk." Wilkinson practiced for two nights earlier in the week by marching around the Kennedy Center carrying a water bottle but his immediate plans were for work at The Foundry last night.
More immediately, Jorge Camacho was startling Dominique's customers with a gruff, "What do you want?" The abrupt Bolivian has just finished third as the favorite-son entry, but now he was tending bars as the party moved on to the real business of the day - the chatter and drinking Dominique's regular customers were carrying on at the sidewalk tables along Pennsylvania Avenue.
At one table Russell was holding court under the Cinzano awning. "I propose a toast to Marie Antoinette," he said. "There was someone who knew how to keep a low profile." But how Russell could lift his glass a waiter at an adjoining table opened yet another bottle of champagne, and the cork arced through the air and landed in Russell's glass with a slight plop.
His drinking companion, and another steady customer, David Waters, hoisted his own glass and said reverently, "I think Dominique's a genius - he's figured out how to close every other restaurant downtown for two hours." With that Walters lapsed into his impersonation of the French ambassador. "Did you know the key to the Bastille was out at Mount Vernon?" he asked. "The French gave it to George Washington, you know." Dominique himself rushed around, oblivious to the cheers that had switched from "Viva la France" to "Viva Dominique".
"No, no, no," he scolded a waiter, "give the band only one glass of champagne apiece, not one bottle!" His dizzying pace caught up with him and he collapsed into a chair at one of the tables.
"Did you see the people - all the way to the White House," he exclaimed. "I wish it could be like this there would be no more war or revolution, no more 1789."
Dominique gestured toward the bagpipers, seemingly out of place in their kilts and with their skirling music. "That's why I have the Irish band here," Dominique said, apparently forgetting for the nonce that the bagpipe is a Scottish instrument, "to teach the Irish love and fun, how not to make war."
The excitement down on Pennsylvcannia provided a distinct contrast to the sedate affair up at the elegant chateau-like French embassy, where Ambassador Francois de Laboulaye was giving a party for more than 700 French citizens. De Laboulaye made a short speech, punctuated by the popping of corks, and the crowd sang a quiet "Marseillaise", but then the champagne poured and the party swung into gear.
"I was born here," noted De Laboulaye, the son of a former ambassador, "and these celebrations never change. They just get bigger."
He stepped out of the way of a strolling accordionist, who had incited several partygoers into impromptu jigs. Knots of Americans stood under the trees to the side, eating Popsicles and drinking the Coca-Cola that had been thoroughly provided, the peals of laughter at Gallic jokes for the most part escaping them.
"I can stay only for a short while," De Laboulaye said. He was preparing for the ball last night at the Mayflower thrown by the French war veterens. "I will go only for a short time," the ambassador laughed. "I am very busy, even on Bastille Day. But at least I do not have to make a speech."