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Sanford finds real S.C. at Rock Hill diner

Gov. Mark Sanford, soon to be unemployed, arrived at Anna J's diner in Rock Hill on Tuesday around 9 a.m. to the applause of fellow Republicans. David Uong, owner of the restaurant, missed the arrival - the governor's first stop on a statewide swing to show his face one last time to the South Carolina that had elected him twice, and the South Carolina that turned red as Sanford's career imploded when he skipped the state and country to meet a lady.

Uong, who escaped Vietnamese communists aboard a little boat in 1980, was in the back cooking over a hot grill. He had been there since 4:45 a.m.

Uong rang the little bell, signaling an order was up. "Over easy," said Uong. "I want the governor to eat if he wants. Maybe he likes eggs. I will make them special for him."

The over-easy eggs are the only thing easy for this guy. He works seven days a week, every week of his life.

Donna Plyler, a waitress with four kids who comes to work six days a week between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m., rushed to get the plate and get it delivered. Plyler, three years working for Uong, whose whole livelihood depends on the tips she makes for being the fastest and nicest waitress she can be, juggled plates like a circus performer. So did Danielle Garcia, another waitress with a kid, and Angel Mikles with two kids, and Donna Johnson with a kid to support. Speed means tips, tips mean kids get new shoes.

Unlike politics, where the money comes from others, that is what working in a diner is.

Uong's wife, Celia, missed the governor's arrival, too. A mushroom omelette for a table in the back took priority. A customer who waits for an omelette usually does not come back. Celia's mother, Loan, whose only English word is "work," buttered toast in the back kitchen, slice after slice after slice.

"We work hard here," Uong said. He hit the bell. Another order was ready.

Behind them all in the kitchen moved dishwasher Andrew Castro, 30. His hands were red from the scalding water and countless knives and forks and plates. He's been in the back for more than two years, cleaning the plates.

"I help any way I can in my job," Castro said.

In the dining room there were a few speeches from Republican officeholders who praised Sanford for his support of law enforcement and other achievements. Sanford spoke of trying to change the culture of politics, but his real legacy is being a cheapskate governor who tried to cut any program he came in contact with. He ran as a miser and that is what we got.

During his administration, the closest geographical word to around here, "Lancaster," was uttered, and Sanford's first response was to offer to cut the University of South Carolina-Lancaster campus.

That is the place where many of the working class and the poor get their start at college and hope to get rich like a governor.

People who might include David Uong's children, ages 11 and 14, who are straight "A" students. Uong said over the cooking eggs he expects them to go to college, be successful in life.

"They are very smart, they work hard," he said.

What no one mentioned Tuesday in the kitchen or dining room was how a year and a half ago Sanford went missing, lied to his staff that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail, and was caught returning from Argentina, where he had company that was no legislator. Sanford went that week from potential presidential contender as the thrifty, spend-no-money tea party Republicans started to gain momentum, to a guy whose wife moved out, divorced him and took his kids. To make matters worse, she wrote a best-selling book about it.

Nobody brought that up Tuesday because all knew it, and all were embarrassed for the guy.

"He's good lookin', I will give him that," said one lady who ate eggs and grits.

A man who lost just about everything, but was, and is, a good guy. Just a rich guy, though, is the difference. Sanford is like old European royalty. Traveling the world, rushing around with the rich, that is just what people such as Sanford who have been in Congress and have money and then become governor do. Governing was never exciting to him, but we knew that when we elected him. Sanford needed something in his life more fun than budget meetings and bickering with legislators. He needed excitement.

He got it, and the scandal cost Sanford his political future. It did not cost him his job, although some wanted to impeach him. He was able to finish his second term, which ends next week.

As a rich guy Sanford does not have to fret that a few days after he stops getting a paycheck the banks will show up and take his house for nonpayment. He doesn't have to juggle the rent and the light bill and the insurance, as do waitresses and dishwashers and immigrant diner owners. He owns a plantation, which he calls a farm, near the coast where the real big money is.

Plyler dropped off eggs and grits to two tables, Garcia refilled three coffee cups, and Johnson carried out more toast.

"I would like an autograph, though," said Plyler. "My kids wanted to skip school and see him today. He is the governor."

That is the allure of Sanford. He is the governor, for another week after eight years. The top guy, and he was here in front of a lady struggling to clothe four kids on tips. Still he was affable and decent, quick with a handshake, and he smiled at Plyler and she smiled right back.

Sanford made the rounds after the quick speeches, and he posed for pictures with anybody who wanted one in the restaurant. Johnson the waitress had her picture made with him, and she smiled brightly. So did Garcia the waitress, and Plyler the waitress with the four kids who got her autograph, too.

"A nice man," she said.

Castro, the dishwasher, came out from the kitchen and wanted a picture but was too shy to ask.

"He's your governor, too," I told Castro. "Go up there."

Castro posed with the governor and looked like he had won the lottery.

"Never met a governor before," he said.

Castro walked away, gathering dirty plates as headed back to the kitchen.

Sanford was gracious, as he always has been in meeting people. He shook hands and thanked people and it was clear he meant it. He remembered people - part of his success is his sharp memory - but he looked tired.

Finally, Sanford readied to leave for the next of several stops around the state. David Uong lurked near the cash register of his restaurant, with a camera. He wanted a picture. The governor was told, and Sanford said he would be happy to make a picture with this man.

Uong, wearing an apron with his days work smeared over it, took off that apron and motioned for his wife, and her mother, and they posed with Gov. Mark Sanford. They smiled so big and so proudly, as they should, because that family of hard work is what America is all about.

Then the waitresses cleared tables and picked up the tips that are their livelihoods. Castro washed a thousand dishes that buy his daughter school clothes. David Uong and Celia Nguyen went back into the kitchen to make the food that pays their rent and will send their kids to colleges.

"An honor for him to come to my restaurant," said Uong, and he meant it. "A nice man."

Sanford slipped out quietly. He does not have to wash dishes, nor cook eggs, nor hustle for tips. But those people who do will have jobs next week if they continue to rise before dawn to do it, and do it well. Sanford did not eat Tuesday. He left no tip and nobody cared that he didn't.

He left people wondering, though, what might have been for such a nice man.

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