For me, the most exciting part of a recent holiday in New York City was scoring two tickets for the Oct. 18 taping of the popular political satire television program The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
I couldn't wait to see Stewart and his band of "fake news correspondents" in action, and I was curious as to who Stewart might have as his interview guest on our taping day. So I was gobsmacked when I checked the show website a couple of days before the taping. Listed as the Oct. 18 guest was Barack Obama.
Yes, THAT Barack Obama. The president of the United States, face and eyes into a long and bitter re-election campaign.
My husband and I arrived early on Oct. 18 at The Daily Show's studio in Hell's Kitchen, and joined a queue of hopeful audience members snaking around the building.
We may have been waiting to take part in a television show taping, but quite a show was already unfolding.
Clusters of uniformed New York police officers were gathering on all four points of the intersection in front of us. A man in a bulletproof vest led a German shepherd dog on a careful sniffing expedition through a small park across the street. Tall, clean-shaven men in well-made suits walked back and forth past the audience lineup, talking into earpieces. Secret Service agents look just like they do in the movies.
Finally a woman brandishing a clipboard passed out blue, numbered paper tickets. We were in!
But these were standby tickets. Clipboard Lady first had to admit all the VIPs and guaranteed guests with pink tickets.
Waiting in suspense
More nail-biting waiting ensued. Audience members at the front of the line were swiped with security wands, just like at airports, under the watchful eyes of the Secret Service.
A row of city sanitation trucks pulled up and parked end-to-end in front of the studio, serving as a barrier for anyone inclined to drive a carload of explosives into the building.
Then more sharp-dressed men in suits, staffers with The Daily Show, briefed us in the lineup about studio procedures once we got in the front door. Hello, Mr. President!
Alas, with about 30 people ahead of us, a staffer said, "Sorry, we're at capacity."
A second glimpse
We reluctantly left the area and our new friends in suits, and walked east about a kilometre to Rockefeller Center, to console ourselves with a late lunch and a bit of souvenir shopping.
A couple of hours later, we were still at Rockefeller Center. Suddenly, uniformed police officers sprung out of nowhere, metal barricades materialized along the edges of 50th Street, and crowds started to gather, smartphones poised for action.
Within minutes, a mini-parade fast-forwarded by: police motorcycles in a pyramid formation, police cruisers, black sedans, then a large black SUV in which we could see the back of Obama's head as he waved to the crowd on the opposite side of the street.
More black sedans, police cars, motorcycles, maybe even an ambulance, whipped by after the president's vehicle.
Within a couple of minutes, it was all over, barricades and police officers gone, and pedestrians milling about Rockefeller Plaza as if nothing had happened.
It must have been a busy day for the Secret Service and the New York City police. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was also in town. That evening, both candidates had to attend some sort of charity roast at a swank hotel, where, bizarrely, they were to crack a bunch of jokes at the other's expense.
If Obama and Romney are ensnarled in a high-security, marathon competition for votes, our federal and provincial elections, by comparison, seem like a 100-metre sprint across a deserted soccer pitch.
When we're covering our own elections, sometimes it seems like a five-week campaign — and all the travel, security, and hot air that comes with it — will never end.
But in the United States, that strange afternoon I had in Obama's shadow has been going on for months. That's because they know when their elections will happen. It's a fixed date, the first Tuesday in November every four years.
It makes me wonder how much of that time and money spent on campaigning and security in the United States would be better spent actually running the country.
And although I only caught a glimpse of Obama as his motorcade whipped by, I sure hope he got time for a nap before launching into his stand-up routine at the roast.