WASHINGTON — After Steve Glickman, a 23-year-old Amherst native, sat down to enjoy the finger food at a recent White House Christmas party, a hulking, goateed African-American man joined him.
And suddenly, Glickman's table became the center of attention, as autograph seekers surrounded his new neighbor.
Later , Glickman found out why. He was sitting next to a television star: Wendell Pierce, who played Detective William "Bunk" Moreland on HBO's cop show "The Wire."
"I sat with the guy and I had no idea who he was," said Glickman. "People were coming up to him and saying: ‘I'm a big fan of yours.' It was only later that I found out who he was."
Such is the serendipity that accompanies the Christmas parties that clog the evening White House schedule every December — parties that, every year, draw a few Buffalonians lucky enough to get an invitation.
Glickman got invited because he now serves as executive director of the National Campus Leadership Forum, which brings together student government leaders to serve as a sounding board for White House staffers.
And like anyone attending a White House Christmas party for the first time, Glickman was very impressed.
"The food was great, there were lots of desserts and decorations everywhere," he said.
And what decorations. The Red Room, Blue Room and all the other ceremonial spaces are decked out with elaborately ornamented trees, and that's just the start. This year a 400-pound gingerbread replica of the White House, covered with white chocolate, stood out as a centerpiece.
And Bo, the first dog, was everywhere. There were Bo ornaments on the tree, for example, and Bo cookies on the table.
"Every room had a different replica of the dog," Glickman said.
If you think this is just the indulgence of a big-spending Democrat, think again.
Republicans and Democrats alike throw lavish Christmas parties, which traditionally have been paid for not by taxpayers but by the respective political parties.
No matter if a Democrat or a Republican is president, these tend to be among the classiest of Washington affairs, with luscious lamb chops competing for attention with the finest sushi at the center table, with all the fine wines and cocktails you can drink and sharply dressed Marines in dress uniform standing guard here and there.
It's a far cry from the quadrennial chaos of the White House inaugural balls, which feature cheap champagne in plastic cups, finger sandwiches you wouldn't want to touch and coat check rooms that are as orderly and organized as the men's room at Ralph Wilson Stadium in the fourth quarter.
The crowds at the events are similar, though. This year, President Obama hosted 12,000 people at the December White House parties. Members of Congress, leaders from across the country, Secret Service personnel, White House volunteers and members of the media all attended, said Brandon Lepow, a White House spokesman.
"There were a lot of familiar faces, but I wouldn't be able to tell you off the top of my head who they were," Glickman said. "They were people I've seen on TV."
Indeed, just about every prominent D. C.-based television journalist attends. But for others, the honor tends to occur more rarely.
Robert Odawi Porter got invited this year because he's president of the Seneca Nation of Indians.
"It's just really a spectacular event," said Porter, who attended with his wife, Odie.
After raving about the food and the decorations, Porter noted that the "crown jewel" of the evening came when attendees were called at a certain time to stand in a long line for a quick meet and greet with the president and first lady Michelle Obama.
"It was sort of like a conga line, because everybody was sort of happy," Porter reported.
Everybody, perhaps, but the president and first lady, who quite understandably might get tired at some point amid the shaking of 12,000 hands.
"It's very difficult for the president and first lady," said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who has attended the party in the past but chose not to this year. "They just have to stand there and have their picture taken all night long."
That, of course, is a good thing for the likes of Glickman and Porter, who both said they were thrilled to meet the first couple.
It made for an indelible memory, even if it was a fleeting moment.
"It was 15 seconds, max," Porter said. "Then I felt this man pushing my back, pushing me along."