We got the news on a Tuesday.
I came to work at noon and was stopped in the doorway by my store manager, Tony.
“You know those display changes I told you about?” he asked in his slight Texas drawl.
“Yeah, what about ‘em?”
“I want you to put that all on hold for a coupla weeks,” he said. “We got somethin’ much bigger to work on now.”
I looked at him, anticipating the news, and he motioned for me to follow him to the managers’ office. While I followed, I tried to imagine what could be “much bigger” than completely rearranging three full sections of the store.
“Sit down,” he said.
I complied, then watched him smirk for a few seconds before I gave in. “Tony, what is it?” I asked.
He smiled for a moment more, then came out with it: “Bill Clinton,” he said.
"...is coming to our store?”
"...is coming to our store.”
“Of this month?”
“Of this month.”
I was back on my feet by that time. “No WAY,” I protested, a full smile taking over the bottom half of my face.
He took in my reaction for a moment, seeming to enjoy my bubbling-over-ness.
“Way,” he nodded.
And that’s how it started.
Just under a week later, there were customers lined up outside the front doors to be the first to purchase Clinton’s memoir, My Life.
The press (and, hence, the public) had gotten wind of our news five days earlier, and all the days in between had been spent—more than anything else—answering phone calls about the event.
We were given little information, but that didn’t stop customers from asking any possible question you could (never) dream up and expecting not only answers, but the answers they wanted to hear:
“I live in Missouri, and so I can’t make it to the signing. But is there any way you could send me a signed copy of the book?” Sure thing, Ma’am. In addition to the 1,000 books he signs that day for customers who will have been camping out for upwards of 35 hours, eating nothing but 7-11 food and pooping in Porta Potties, as well as the 1,000 he signs earlier that day for customers at another bookstore in Berkeley, we’ll make sure he signs just 1 more—specially—for the woman in Missouri who couldn’t make it.
“If I get my book signed, but then I read it and don’t like it, may I still return it?” This woman had never heard of eBay(?) And another thing: does that mean she always reads through books first and returns them if she "doesn't like them?" How cheap and shifty is that?!
An interesting phenomenon occurred. It seemed that, when it came to an event like this, people had never been more proud to be handicapped. All of a sudden, everyone was an invalid:
“I just had a surgery [no mention of what type of surgery; it could have been oral surgery for all we knew]. Will there be a special line for me?”
And not only that, bona fide handicapped people became a precious commodity:
“My Mom’s in a wheelchair, and I have to push it. Can we get in the front of the line?”
But the worst was the man who came out with this one after his 45 minutes of attempting to finagle special treatment proved fruitless:
“Well, my 9-year old son had cancer before. Will there be a special line for him?”
“You say he had cancer before?” I asked. “We...I mean...can he stand in a line? Can he stand?”
“Well, yes. But, I mean, he’s still...you know, I mean, he’s kind of sick.”
People will stop at nothing. Just when that kid thought he’d defeated cancer, just when he was trying to put the near-death experience behind him, his dad jumped at the chance to (if this is at all possible) relapse him himself. Cheesh.
But aside from all the phone calls (which were actually kind of fun to answer when the callers were excited and not trying to convince us they were special), there was a lot of work to be done.
A lot of work.
There were walls to be painted, carpets to be cleaned, displays to be merchandized, shelves to be dusted, books to be shelved, café items to be ordered, and everything to be everythinged.
It’s not that we feared Bill Clinton would run his forefinger over our dusty shelves, clicking his tongue and vowing never to come back to our filthy store. But having a former president as a guest tends to attract, well, everybody. All of a sudden we had managers from all over the district pledging their “help” for the big day. And the bigwigs…the bigwigs were coming out of the woodwork. With all those Suits on the way, the store had to be at what our manager—who’s sometimes given to hyperbole—called, officially, 112½ %.
And so we painted and we cleaned and we merchandized and we dusted and we shelved and we ordered and we everythinged.
Twice, for good measure.
As the Big Day came closer, our collective nerves grew shorter. We all wanted to delete the words “line,” “book,” and “sorry Sir, one-legged people still have to stand in the initial line for a wristband, just like everybody else” from our vocabularies.
And some people began to show rabid enthusiasm. I heard from Tim—a self-proclaimed loyal customer who is apparently at our store “all the time” (though I’d never seen him)—no less than 5 times in the days leading up to the event. I think he figured a personal relationship with a manager would earn him the necessary ins.
And then, of course, there was Babette.
My mistake with Babette was to happen to be the manager on duty the first time she called. “This is Kisa, how may I help you?” I’d asked.
“Hi Kisa. My name is Babette and I just got out of the hospital. I got out 1 day earlier than I was supposed to, actually, just so I could make it to the Bill Clinton signing.”
‘Great,’ I thought, ‘here we go.’
But it turned out Babette wasn’t asking for special treatment. She was just sharing this particular detail of her life in the same way she would eventually share many particular details of her life with me during her bi-hourly cell phone update calls from the road.
Babette, you see, was driving up from Texas.
I’d given many verbal sets of directions to the store that week, but directions to the store from Texas?
“I’m just outside of L.A.,” she said, during a phone call Saturday afternoon. “Is there a line yet?” (Note here, the event wasn’t to happen until Tuesday night).
“No, Babette. There’s still no line.”
“Yes, but have you overheard anybody talking about camping out?”
“Well, yes. I know some people plan to.”
“Well, are they there yet?”
“Uh, no. There’s no line yet.”
“Do you know when they’re planning to begin camping out?”
“No, I really don’t know for sure.”
“Well, I’ll get there some time tomorrow morning. I’m going to get a hotel outside of San José. Or do you think I should get one near you? I mean, is there one with windows that overlook your store so I’ll be able to know the second the line starts to form?”
And on, and on.
She was asking for me by name when she called thereafter. “There’s my favorite bookseller,” she’d say, when I picked up the phone.
“Hi, Babette,” I’d choke out.
“I’ve talked to you so many times,” she said. “I can’t wait to meet you.”
The magic phone call came late Sunday night, and shockingly, it wasn’t from Babette.
“Hi,” a young man’s voice said. “My name’s Rick, and, uh, my friends and I are a few hours outside of San José right now. Is there a line yet?”
“No,” I said. “Not yet.”
“Well, do you mind if we camp out?”
“Go for it,” I said. “It looks like you’ll be Mr. Line Starter Man.”
“Cool,” he said. “We’ll be there soon.”
And so Rick came.
And shortly thereafter, Babette came.
And after that, they just kept coming.
The morning of the event, I spent an inexcusable amount time getting dressed. I wasn’t exactly banking on meeting Mr. Clinton, but just in case, just in case…did I think he’d like the black slacks and jacket or the dark blue with pin stripes? Or should I wear a dress?
For the record, it was the dark blue with pin stripes.
When I arrived at work at 11:30 in the morning, there were people lined up all the way around the back of the parking lot. This was—by all accounts—a significant change from earlier in the morning, when the line had formed an entire loop around the store, continuing all the way down the street neighboring it, stopping somewhere near the freeway underpass.
Those people had changed their minds about standing in line and were now inside the store, forming mini-mob scenes around each individual manager, screaming like mental patients who’d just found out Soylent Green was (indeed) people.
I should have known the day wasn’t going well when the first thing I said to my boss was, “nice bullhorn.”
From all accounts I could gather, some kind of mayhem had broken out around 4:00 a.m., and all the commotion was a bit much for our rent-a-cops to deal with it. Somehow, people jumped over a fence and cut in line and all these people who thought getting there at 2:00 a.m. would be plenty to ensure them a signing, got—ultimately—swept out of the line.
And they were pissed.
There was a smallish coup, during which some people returned their Bill Clinton books and cheered each other as they did so. I don’t know that I was particularly affected by these people, who must not have been huge fans of the former president if they had no interest in his book beyond his signing it. But it was stressful, nevertheless.
And I understood their frustration. Some of them were very polite and pleaded their cases in civilized manners that made sense.
But there were the others who just wanted to yell at somebody, and for them, it was hard to muster sympathy.
Some people truly seemed to think meeting Mr. Clinton was not a privilege, but a right, which I found very confusing. How could he have possibly signed the books of all the people who thought he was cool? There just wasn’t enough time in the day.
My favorite customer was one who brought his walker in to illustrate the extent to which he was not qualified to stand in line. And he wasn’t among the fortunate to receive the necessary wristband. He was chewing out a completely innocent employee whom we’d borrowed from a nearby store, and he wouldn’t let up.
“Excuse me, Sir, may I help you with something?”
“Yeah. Are you a manager?”
“Well, I just want you to know that this is a black eye on the face of Barnes & Noble. And this is just the beginning. It’s going to get much, much worse.” He stared at me unblinkingly, waiting for me to react in shock and horror and a million ass-kissing apologies.
I guess my, “I’m sorry you weren’t able to get a wristband, sir, and I thank you for your feedback” wasn’t really what he was looking for, so he went on:
“And you should know that my son works for ABC news, channel 7.”
And he just kept staring at me. I had to excuse myself after a few rounds of this because there was a fire to put out at a cash register. He came over there after a few minutes and interrupted a conversation I was having with another customer.
“This is a bad, bad thing you’ve done for San José," he said, shaking his head dramatically. "A bad, bad thing.”
“Okay, thank you sir. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“And just so you know, my son is Michael Something, ABC news, channel 7. Okay?!”
“Okay. And yeah, I actually heard you when you said that earlier.”
I had to wonder how many times this man had been unhappy in the past and thrown around the name of his son, as if his son were just around every corner, waiting for somebody to screw his dad over and ready to launch a full-scale investigation.
The man shuffled off with his walker, in search (I can only imagine) of another person in a suit to whom he could drop Michael Something’s name.
Shortly after that I was called to the café for reasons I can’t remember. At the counter stood an elderly female customer in a huge, aqua-colored muumuu with big, tropical purple flowers on it. She looked at me, read my name tag, and said, “You’re Kisa?!”
“Yes,” I said. “And you must be Babette.”
“How’d you know?”
“I don’t know. Just a guess.”
“I got my wristband,” she said, shaking her fist in the air and beaming the happiest smile I’d seen all day.
“Congratulations,” I said, and truly meant it. And for the first time since my arrival hours earlier, I felt good.
There were, following, about 5 hours of relative calm. I took the opportunity to walk around outside and meet—among others— Rick, Mr. Line Starter Man, a friendly young guy who got his 15 minutes of fame on all four local news shows, including the Spanish station.
At that point, the fans were as mellow as people who’ve been sitting in the sun for two days should be, reading and eating and playing guitar and cards and Gameboy, and talking. They brought their lawn chairs, their umbrellas, their water bottles, their children, and—most of all—their Anti-Bush t-shirts. There was a like-minded happiness hovering in the air and, below that layer, a nervous sort of anticipation that can only come when people are about to experience one of the most memorable moments of their lives.
The feeling was there for me, too. I know I’ll never forget the trickle of unknown liquids dripping down my leg as Kenneth (a fellow manager) and I carried bags and bags of heaping garbage to the dumpsters around the corner of the store. “It builds character,” he said, when a woman nearby made a comment about the yuckiness of the work in which he and I were engaged.
‘Amen,’ I thought—a little manual labor is good for the soul.
About four hours before Mr. Clinton’s scheduled arrival, the Secret Service arrived. They looked just exactly like you’d imagine they’d look, wearing near-identical grayish-brown suits and, yes (some of them), sunglasses (they were standing outside for much of the time). They all looked to be in their early thirties, handsome, capable, and the most serious bunch of dudes you’ve ever seen.
They walked the perimeter, peeked under things, set up barriers, chatted with us, and mostly stood around looking like the bad asses they were.
The SJPD brought in the German shepherds in the early evening, and they sniffed every sniffable thing in the entire store. We watched, and ate, and watched, and waited.
At 8:00 p.m., I took to my post, an area near some shelves that had been cleared away for the placement of bags. People would have to check in their belongings, be wanded by the Secret Service, and go forth to meet Mr. Clinton with nothing in their hands but their soon-to-be-very-valuable copies of his memoir.
We weren’t sure which entrance he’d chose, so my cohorts, Beum, Traci, and I, tried to relax and chat while watching for a glimpse of the familiar gray hair and feeling around for a tiny waft of the air of presidential-ness.
A loud cheering coming from the customers in the café, who were seated a good bit higher than the floor level and could see better, alerted us that the moment had arrived. Our District Manager, Greg, walked by and said, “guys...we’re rolling.” And he gave a definitive nod at the end.
The words never sounded less cheesy and more crucial than they did at that moment.
Oh my God, we’re rolling. Whatever that means, guys, we’re doing it. Here we go…
The line started moving from the front, and then all of a sudden, they were there: the fans, already done with the experience and ready to collect their bags.
Bill Clinton, you see, is a very fast book signer.
But the people didn’t seem to mind at all. They emerged flushed and joyful and some of them in tears. The women swooned. The men were proud. The kids had no idea what the hell was going on, but they were excited, too.
I kept trying to catch a peek in between two curtains that would separate every now and then. But there were hoards of people standing in the store behind me (behind rope barriers) trying to do the same thing, so the Secret Service man and woman standing in front of the curtains repeatedly drew them shut.
Then, he did it. The Secret Service man looked at me and gave a little wave. “Come here,” it said.
I walked over to him.
“You wanna see?” he asked.
I felt like an adolescent boy who’d just been offered a gander at his friend’s sister’s boobies.
“Yeah,” I said, my face—I’m sure—glowing all kinds of pure, Technicolor girliness.
He drew back the curtain a little. “Go ahead,” he said, and smiled a smile that said this was one of his favorite parts of the job: helping make a person feel that kind of yay.
In front of a black curtain, underneath bright semi-spotlights, stood my president, the one I’d voted for the year I was first eligible, the one I hadn’t quite let go of yet.
He was smiling and handsome and attentive, never looking up from the people immediately in front of him, whose books he was signing and whose hands he shook.
It was so hard not to gawk, but I pulled myself away; there were, after all, bags to be put away and then retrieved. But a moment later, I had another go.
A Secret Service man came out from behind the curtain and asked a nearby co-worker, Ellen, whether there was “anything we could do about the music?”
“What do you mean?” she asked. “He wants it turned down?”
“No,” he said, sounding offended at the idea. "He wants it turned up. We’re rocking back here.”
She looked at me.
“Well,” I said, “there’s a volume control, but it’s in the manager’s office. I’d turn it up for you, but I’m not allowed back there.”
“I’ll take you back there,” he said. And there was that same Secret Service man smile. Like he just knew he was making my night.
We walked behind the curtain and I tried to maintain conversation with him while thinking, ‘I’m in the same [albeit large and sprawling] room with Bill Clinton.’
I know this sounds silly, but it’s difficult to describe the level of energy and excitement in the room. It was more than I’d ever imagined it would be.
“He loves Motown,” the Secret Service man (Cory) said.
“Oh, you mean he chose this mix?”
“Absolutely. It’s his favorite.”
Which just endeared him to me even more.
Once the music was turned up, the mood in the store went from jovial to ecstatic. Everyone was laughing and dancing and singing (because everybody knows the words to Motown hits). I laughed when I had to go retrieve bags, which were collected in the area near where the Secret Service men searched people; it was funny to see these Most Serious Men in the Whole World barking orders like “spread your arms!,” and “turn around!,” and “put that down!” with this super jumping Motown music in the background. I don’t know where they find people like that, but I’m glad they do, because somebody has to keep a straight face when the rest of us are feeling silly and there are people to be searched. I mean, I’m sure that comes in handy.
We went through this routine for about an hour and a half: get the bag, give it a number, set it on the shelf, oh! here comes the person, “how’d it go? was it worth it?,” “yes, it was amazing,” get the number, grab the bag, give it back, see ya later.
There was an impatient mob of people outside who had the idea they might get their books signed if Mr. Clinton decided to stick around after the first 1,000 people had passed through. At one point they started chanting, “Please sign our books, please sign our books!!!” with so much force, it ended up sounding like the rudest polite request ever made, rhythmically, to the beat of angry fists. Those chanters put a bit of a damper on the moods of those leaving (otherwise) happy—the lucky ones. I thought they were going to get violent until the bullhorn came out again, asking them to shut the hell up and leave us all in peace...only, you know, in a more diplomatic way. Surprisingly, they mostly complied.
And when the last few customers trickled through the line and collected their things, a quiet settled in among us.
We weren’t sure what to do next, so we all began to congregate near the bag check and wait for some kind of sign. There we were, about 60 employees looking around at each other and the Secret Service men and hardly saying a word. I felt like I was in church, only some kind of newfangled, fun one where they blasted Motown music and the president popped in for a visit every now and then.
And then, even the music stopped.
“Okay,” Tony practically whispered, “let’s everyone get in a single-file line.”
We did so, still not quite sure what would happen next.
Then the curtains parted and we noiselessly filed into the room and took places on the media staging that had been set up directly in front of the signing table. Mr. Clinton didn’t look up at us then. He stood talking quietly with an older couple that seemed to be friends of his. We watched while they chatted, laughing every now and then like talking with the leader of the free world for eight years running was the most everyday thing they do.
And we still weren’t saying a thing, just watching as if through a two-way mirror, seeing something we weren’t supposed to see.
And then he shook hands with the couple, said “goodbye,” and turned to us.
“Is this the class portrait?” he asked.
We laughed nervously. He looked down at the place that had been cleared for him to sit, surrounded by young women, while the photographer took his light readings.
“Ladies,” he said, in his Arkansas twang, “I’m not sure you want to be seen with me like this,” he joked. And he sat.
One shot, two, three for good measure: we smiled the smiles of our lives.
The pictures done, he turned and began shaking hands. I couldn’t hear what anybody was saying to him, and I wasn’t sure I knew what to say myself.
When my moment came, I managed a simple, “thank you,” and tried to freeze-dry in my mind the two seconds when I held in my hand the hand of a man who’d held in his hand the hands of hundreds of country leaders and diplomats, the hands of millions of fellow Americans, the hand of John F. Kennedy himself.
When he was done shaking, he looked around. “I always thought I’d like to work in a bookstore,” he said. “Now, we’re in the children’s section? It’s huge. It’s real nice.” He walked around admiring the displays, and I thought of Sharon—the children’s department lead—all her hard work being taken in and appreciated by one of the most important figures of our century, indeed, our entire country’s history, and I was joyful.
The night didn’t end like that, though. There were René and Kelly, two women who had been working away and hadn’t even realized we were all posing for pictures and meeting Mr. President. And they were, of course, both in tears.
So that was terrible to witness...the loss of a moment that could never been regained or done over.
And there were all the displays to put back in order, the line posts to be carted off, the food to be cleared, the signing area to be disassembled, the receiving room to be rearranged, and the closing numbers to be run.
And then we’d go.
Except, not quite. Tony issued one final directive as he drove away from his 20-hour day, preparing to start all over again a mere 6 hours later. “Kenneth,” he said, “let’s get this trash in the parking lot taken care of.”
It didn’t sound so bad at first. When I heard, I told Kenneth I’d be out in a minute to help. And when I saw what awaited us there, I wanted to run back inside and hole myself up in the deepest, indeed even the creepiest (where nobody would look for me), darkest corner I could find.
Thousands of people sitting in the sun for two days, not wanting to visit a trash can and accidentally lose a place in line, produce staggering amounts of waste.
We both took our coats off, rounded up our fellow victims, grabbed trash bags and gloves, and set to stooping and sweeping and picking up between thumb and forefinger some of the nastiest who-knows-what type of remnants imaginable. There were diapers and Popsicle sticks and burger wrappers and newspapers and Coke cans and cigarette butts; everything was sticky, and everything stunk. It dripped on us and gooed on us and clung to us.
At one point I stopped and looked up. The lights in the parking lot were low, so all I could see were the silhouettes of my coworkers outlined as they performed a task I’m sure they never dreamed would be par for the course, working in a bookstore. But I felt—in that moment—immensely proud. We’d just been through, I think, the toughest week and a half ever experienced at our store. And here we were, still giddy enough from our encounter to hunker down and do some grunge work.
And I looked down at my hand. The hand that had so warmly welcomed that of an historic figure an hour earlier was now reaching into the deep recesses of garbage piles and emerging covered in filth.
And I thought, that’s just how life is.
It’s a precious and disgusting mix of real and fantastical, of discouraging and invigorating, of the things you have to get done, and the elevated experiences that make all of it worth it.
I went home and settled into the most satisfying bath of my life, and half an hour later I watched while the drain carried away the sweat and the grime, and the magic of the evening.