They called it a press conference, but when Bill Cosby dropped by Ben's Chili Bowl at 12th and U streets NW yesterday, the scene was more like a riotous love-in than your average Washington photo opportunity.
Outside, the sidewalk was packed. Inside, pressed into the corner of a booth, a couple of chili-dogs growing cold and shiny before him, Cosby stared into a wall of adoring faces. Cheeks were proffered for kisses, fingers stretched toward handshakes. "I love you, Bill!" one woman after another called out, and a high-pitched din filled the tiny restaurant. Ben Ali (as in Ben's Chili Bowl) stood at the door, admitting a steady stream of kids who rushed toward Cosby, giggling frantically, dragging their backpacks, pressing drawings and compositions toward him for an autograph and then running, skipping and nearly flying back outside, their eyes glazed with delight.
Cosby lives with this kind of thing every day, so he got to the restaurant early and managed to down three dogs and a Coke in relative peace. Then, for several hours, he talked and signed and kissed and kidded -- and occasionally disciplined.
"WE'RE TRYING TO DO SOMETHING HERE, SO WHOEVER IS YELLING, PLEASE STOP IT!" he bellowed in his best stern-father-who-expects-to-be-listened-to-or-else voice when he could no longer hear the questions being asked. "If you've come in for a sandwich, we've got four people to help you. If you came to watch this, you've got to be quiet because that's part of the ball game. All right?"
A Chili-Bowlful of voices rang back, "All right!" and the impressive, if temporary, silence was greeted with applause.
Cosby has been eating at Ben's for more than 20 years, grabbing a half-smoke there after performing at local clubs and bringing his wife-to-be Camille for dates. "We used to sneak out because her parents didn't want us meeting -- they used to know because of the onions on her breath," he said.
Ben, who like his wife and three sons wore a T-shirt advertising "The Finest Hot Dogs and Chili Served With a Touch of Class," said of Cosby, "He comes here all the time. His mother-in-law lives in Washington and whenever she visits him, she always comes and takes 25 or 35 half-smokes for him. Ben's Chili Bowl became famous for the special reason that people who were at Howard would take a date out to the Lincoln Theater, then they'd come here, have a chili-dog, which cost 15 cents, and a soda, which was a nickel. Now, a soda and a chili-dog is like a dollar fifty. That's not so bad."
Cosby was in town to perform in last night's "Evening With Bill Cosby," a benefit for the National Council of Negro Women, where he was scheduled to join the audience in watching the season's first episode of NBC's "The Cosby Show."
"The most important thing for us is the image we put across in America," he said about his show as his factotums attempted to stem the flood of napkins, newspapers and passports thrust forward for autographs. "People are starved to see the love of husband and wife. They're starved to see genuine respect children have for their parents and parents for their children."
He is not bothered, he said, by the new situation comedies based on what their creators see as the "Cosby" formula. "It is the fact that these people are not creative," he said.
"I don't think they want -- and I'm talking about producers and networks -- I don't think they want to go up in intelligence. They just think, 'Family situations are back. Why don't we get a couple and some children . . . ' I don't think they really care."
But the crowd, which couldn't hear these words, was interested in other things.
"Hey Bill!" one man called out, pushing a woman towards Cosby's booth. "Shake my wife's hand."
"I'm not your wife!" the woman yelled. Cosby stared at the man, his face an exaggerated mask of pained disbelief.
"Why would you lie to me?" he asked to the laughter of an appreciative crowd.
Then there was a set of twins, maybe 7 years old, clutching some drawings.
"Who did this coloring?" Cosby roared. "You went all outside the lines!"
"You act crazy!" Twin No. 1 bubbled.
"No, you act crazy!" Cosby grinned.
"I saw you on TV!" Twin No. 2 yelled.
"Where?" Cosby asked.
"ON 'THE BILL COSBY SHOW'!" Twin No. 1 boomed with glee as Cosby, all his attention focused on the boys, smiled and the room seemed empty but for the three of them.
Later, Cosby traded his sweat suit for double-breasted black wool, and the Chili Bowl for the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall, where more than 1,500 guests -- the house was about two-thirds full -- who had paid from $10 to $5,000 watched "The Cosby Show" about 30 minutes after the rest of the city had seen it. The audience got to see the show without any commercials, and Cosby got to open for himself.
Cosby came out on the stage. Cosby told a joke. Cosby told another one. Cosby told jokes for almost two hours. When a child in the audience gurgled, he engaged it in serious repartee. When he noticed the stage was draped with institutional-looking blue cloth, he pulled the curtains open, peered inside and asked, "Is someone voting in there?"
And as Hurricane Gloria sent in a few early warning gusts and showers, Cosby took a cue: "This building is made of glass and marble and cement and steel, so you don't know what's going on out there. Some of your homes are now pressed against it. I hope some of you enjoy a water view . . . "
There followed a meditation on Life as Cosby Sees It.
On marital arguments: "I can go an hour and a half on 'THAT'S NOT WHAT I'M SAYING!' My wife can go two hours on 'WELL, WHAT IS YOUR POINT?' "
On progeny: "My wife and I have five children. Two years ago, we found a summer camp that would accept our children. We were supposed to mail the check to them. We drove the check to them . . . Our last child is 9 years old and I love this child more than I love any child we have because it's the last. I know she's the last child because when she was born, I operated on myself."
On parents: "They'll lie through their teeth for you. They'll say, 'We always knew he had it.' "
On sons: "I asked God to give me a son to carry on the family name, and I found out God has a sense of humor. I have asked this son many times not to tell anyone who he is."
And when was all over, one winded audience member emerging into the birth pangs of the hurricane said he couldn't have survived laughing much longer. He sank into a taxi and went home to sleep it all off.