Okay, this happened years ago, but I have occasion to remember it. And by occasion, I mean I was riding the bus up Lenox Avenue near my apt in Harlem this week and the memory came gushing in.
I’m going back a few years here; 2004 to be exact.
Yep, that was the year I met Bill Clinton.
At the time I was a junior editor at Viking, a very prestigious imprint of Penguin Books and my salary was so low as to be nearly criminal. To make ends meet, I took a weekend job at Hue-Man Bookstore, right off of 125th Street and a short walk to my cozy dump of an apartment.
My shift was easy. Eleven in the morning until four in the afternoon, every Saturday and Sunday. I liked that I had my mornings to myself and still got off early enough to go out on the weekends before night fell and entertainment in the city got fancier and too expensive for my shallow pockets.
Anyway, the bookstore was a cool set-up. Lots of famous people rolled through during my time there, and I always made sure I worked — sometimes taking an extra shift — when my favorite authors came to read and sign books.
When Toni Morrison, for example, showed up to promote her 2003 novel Love, I stayed silent but stood as close to her as possible without being creepy. I wanted to breath the same air she was breathing.
I have excitedly recounted my conversation with her to anyone who’ll listen to me.
“Are those all the books, dear?” she asked me as she signed bookplates in the stockroom right before leaving the store.
“Yes, ma’am, that’s all of them,” I replied hopefully. I wanted her to ask me something more and keep our dialogue going.
Then there was the time I immediately recognized Maya Angelou’s voice as a caller looking for a self-help book by Judge Glenda Hackett. I looked through the inventory on a computer and saw available copies, but I wanted to see the book with my own eyes. Sometimes inventory showed copies as available when they were really stolen or shelved incorrectly and impossible to find.
I spotted a copy, grabbed it, and came back to the phone.
“Let me ask you,” she began. “How many copies do you have in right now?”
“We have six. Would you like me to hold one for you?” Oh my God, I’m talking to Maya Angelou!
“I’m not sure if you recognize my voice but–”
“Dr. Angelou,” I whispered cheerfully. “I absolutely know your voice. I just didn’t wanna blow up your spot. Thought you might wanna be private about it.”
She let out a belly laugh. “Oh, darling, you are so sweet!”
If grinning had words, mine would still be talking all these years later.
So, yes, lots of folks came through the bookstore. But nobody — and I mean nobody — was a bigger deal than President Bill Clinton promoting his memoir, My Life. The line of people wanting their books signed was around several blocks. Secret Service agents, publicists, handlers, and television crews were everywhere. Passersby stretched their necks to get a better look.
Then there were the folks at the very back of the long line, complaining about their place in it. People had started to line up so early and were so close together that cliques started to form. So did rumors. The biggest one was that Clinton would only be signing books until a certain time, as he had another event to get to.
There were two thousand people in line. Folks at the back of it easily did the math and worried that they wouldn’t get their books signed — and that they wouldn’t get to shake the president’s hand.
It was my job to reassure them and make sure everybody stayed calm and upbeat as they waited. That part wasn’t that hard. We were all excited. And as I went back and forth from the inside of the bookstore where the president was signing and then to the back of the line to fill customers in with updates, I made sure I spread a reassuring message: “Y’all, he insists that he’s going to sign the book of everyone who’s here. Period.”
That’s when the nature of the questions changed.
“What’s he look like?” “Is he tall?” “What’s he saying to people?” “Is he taking pictures?” “Will he sign other stuff too? I want him to sign something for my mama.”
The answers were simple.
Yes, he looks the same. Taller than average. Not much; just thanks and a firm handshake. No pictures. Absolutely no signing other stuff.
The fact that I had concrete answers quieted down my previously rowdy section. It also helped that the line steadily inched towards the entrance. They began to anticipate what their own experiences would be like. I took that as my opportunity to head back inside to get a closer peek at the president for myself. I’d stayed along the perimeter until then, too nervous and scared of the security detail to nudge any closer.
But when I did. Oh when I did!
The man was…how can I put it? I’ll say this. I finally understood what Monica was thinking.
He was an older cat then, pushing up on sixty. But the man’s easy energy and charisma was undeniable. No doubt. The kicker for me was watching Clinton’s interaction with one man in particular. With every other person, Clinton smiled, signed the book with his left hand and shook hands with his right. He did this over and over again with a mechanical precision, but with nary a crack in his look of genuine warmth to be there with the people. His people.
Anyway, this black guy had his turn with the president. He looked to be late thirties, early forties maybe, and he looked like he’d had a hard life for a long time.
The man got out maybe four or five words before Clinton stepped from behind the table in front of him and embraced the man in a tight bear hug. The two men stood like that — strongly, quietly, chest to chest, arms wrapped around one another — for several long moments.
Everyone looked on and then exchanged looks with each other in confusion. Who was this guy? Nobody knew. But Clinton did.
Neither man spoke a word. They just stood their hugging with their fists clenched. Clearly these two men meant something to each other. And the fact that their lives couldn’t have looked more dissimilar made the moment I witnessed all the more poignant. I won’t lie. My eyes watered. It was one of those moments, ya know, and I suddenly felt a little embarrassed to be standing there. I quickly shuffled my behind back outside.
The crowd at the end of the line grew even more excited when I told them what had happened. “I knew he was about the people.” “I knew he was one of us,” was the consensus.
I’ve seen Bill Clinton on television a hundred times since then of course. But when it’s all said and done, the most lasting image I’ll ever have of him is the one I saw that day. He was hawking a book on tour, but it mostly felt like he was long-lost cousin coming home to visit family.