"We are the biggest, blackest things here, let's be honest," said Calvin, a 26-year-old, 6-foot-4-inch bouncer at the Manhattan club Bar None. Calvin and his fellow bouncer Benjamin, who was 6 feet 6 inches and 300-odd pounds, had arrived at the Rockefeller Center Barnes & Noble at 4:30 a.m. to get in line to have copies of Bill Clinton's book "My Life" signed by the former president. They were about 200 people from the front of the line, but they were cheerful. "I think it's an honor to meet someone who led us so greatly for eight years," said Benjamin, who remembered a campaigning Clinton coming to his neighborhood in Queens and talking to an elderly woman in a diner about the importance of healthcare. "He was in touch with the people's needs," said Benjamin, who was wearing a T-shirt that said "God is a DJ." When asked how they felt about Clinton's personal indiscretions, Benjamin said, "We got people losing heads, and they were worried about someone getting head? Come on!"
While they were in fact the biggest people immediately visible in a line that stretched for more than six blocks of Manhattan sidewalk, Benjamin and Calvin were not the blackest, or the youngest, or the oldest people present. There was no making sense of the crowd of people who had been waiting patiently since the middle of the night in a clammy rain for a president who had yet to show up, even though his signing was supposed to have started 10 minutes earlier.
They stood placidly as security yelled at them to open their bags, dispose of their cameras, keep their copies of "My Life" opened to the title page, where Clinton would -- at some point -- be signing them. They answered questions from an international press corps that was feeding on the line like a brunch buffet. "We've talked to so many reporters that we're already famous in Eastern Europe," said Richard, a 54-year-old collector of signed books who was standing about 250 people from the front of the line. "And Mexico," sighed Jean Paul, the 34-year-old manager next to him.
Over walkie-talkies, the Barnes & Noble staff were getting tense. It was pouring outside, all over a grumpy press pen and the snaking line of people who had just shelled out $35 for a book that they weren't eager to see drenched. As the crowds pressed cold, wet noses against the outside glass, employees had been steadily emptying the store of regular customers for about 90 minutes preceding Clinton's scheduled arrival time. The velvet ropes protecting the tiny niche where the former president would sit and sign and sign and sign were multiplying like rabbits, pushing curious "shoppers" into an ever-shrinking space at the front of the store.
Two brightly dressed young women, 25 and 29, eyed a nook that was swarming with Secret Service. But no sooner had the women been spotted than a guard pulled two bookcases together, cutting off their view, and the women were asked to clear out of the aisle in which they were standing. "It's all the inconveniences of shopping at a Barnes & Noble, with none of the conveniences," said one of the women, who both declined to be named since they work for an event-planning firm that did not plan this event. Neither had bought Clinton's book. They just wanted to catch a glimpse of the gadabout in chief. "Yes, I thought he was sexy," said the 29-year-old, before anyone had asked her any such thing.
Fari Falaki craned her neck to catch a glimpse of her 14-year-old son waiting somewhere outside. "We got here at 9," said Falaki. "He had to already go five or six or 10 blocks to get on line." Falaki and her husband came to the United States from Iran as students in 1975, and now live in Columbus, Ohio. They were all visiting New York this week while her husband was on business, and she and her son had decided to try their luck at the signing. "I'd like to get a picture with him," said Falaki of Clinton. It would be a half-hour before booming announcements informed her that no picture taking would be allowed, except by the hordes of television press who had passes. "I can see he's a very nice person," Falaki said of Clinton. "And I heard he can speak with different dialects to different people."
Kimberly Tillipman, who works at UBS bank and had driven into the city from Elizabeth, N.J., arrived in line at about 3:30 a.m. With her was one of her triplet sisters, with whom she will turn 33 on Thursday, and four other friends. "I thought he was a good president," said Tillipman, "and I thought he was good-looking." She said that she'd made friends in her eight hours in line. "We've shared water and ponchos and umbrellas and chairs," she said. Sort of like a Dead concert, with a lot more Secret Service and a lot less weed.
Next to the bouncers Benjamin and Calvin was the comparatively Lilliputian actor Kim Jonathan Mills, 50. He was at the signing on a break from shooting the new Nicole Kidman movie, "The Interpreter," in which he plays a U.N. delegate from Norway. Mills, who has been with the New York City Opera and had bit parts in "Moonstruck" and Woody Allen's "Celebrity," said that Clinton would be the second president he's met. "I did see JFK in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1960," he said. When asked what he wanted to say to the 40th president, Mills said, "I am going to plead with him to please run for mayor of New York City."
"Once you are in the next zone, you may not leave the line for any reason!" hollered one of the guards to the people in the unmoving line who honestly didn't look any closer to the "next zone" than they had been a half hour ago.
Maki Tomikawa, a civil servant in her 30s who had taken the day off from work, didn't care about any zones, or about having been on her feet since 4 a.m. "I am going to ask him to come to Japan," she said excitedly. Tomikawa, who had moved to New York from Osaka in May, looked as if she were in line to meet Justin Timberlake or something. "I love him because he is smart and he's a great person and he's handsome," she said, smiling. Her two male companions laughed at her and she blushed. Clutching her copy of "My Life," Tomikawa was unembarrassed to admit that she was going straight for the dirty -- or not so dirty -- bits. "I want to read about the scandal!" she said. "I know it's not his fault. He is a human being. Nobody can stop loving somebody," she said. Loving -- is that what they're calling it these days?
Behind her was a 14-year-old in braces who was grasping her copy of "My Life" with almost as much enthusiasm as Tomikawa and wearing a button that said "Play It Again, Bill: World Book Tour 2004." It featured a photograph of Clinton blowing the sax. The 14-year-old, whose father, George, asked that she not be named, said that though she had been 11 when Clinton left office, she grew up knowing "that he was one of the greatest presidents we'd seen in a long time." The girl said she'd been too young to really understand the ins and outs of Clinton's impeachment, and her father said: "We did our best to edit at home, which was hard when every other word for six months was" -- and here he covered his daughter's ears -- "oral sex." George, an engineer from New Jersey, had to take the day off work. "But I think if she wanted to come, that's important," he said, looking fondly at his daughter. "He was a good example. And moments like this can inspire a kid."
Mary Jane Dodge, a 53-year-old consultant, was counting on inspiration of a different sort. "I heard how charismatic and sexy he was and I wanted to see if it was true," she said, waggling her eyebrows. "I waited four hours once to see that woman who sings 'New York, New York.' What is her name? Liza Minnelli. Right. Well, I waited four hours to see Liza Minnelli, but this is going to turn out to be eight hours. I can't think of anyone I'd wait eight hours to see except for Bill Clinton. Not even Bob Dylan. But he'd be next on the list. Though he's not supposed to be sexy, so maybe not."
Shane Kagen, 27, said he had made the trek from South Plainfield, N.J., because he is a high school history teacher. "My perspective is that he had a very distinguishable presidency and as a person of history he will be remembered, good or bad," said Kagen, who, after that ringing endorsement, unsurprisingly admitted that he is politically undecided. Kagen was speculating about whether a President Bush book signing would draw as big a crowd when Mark Materka, a 40-year-old computer technician from Brooklyn, interrupted. "Yeah, to burn his books," he said with a little bitterness and a deep Polish accent. Materka, who assured me that he is "not fixed on celebrities," said that he once did get an autograph from Johnny Mathis, but that that was only because he walked by the Mathis signing and, also, because he "really really loves Johnny Mathis." Materka was wearing a Kerry button, but said that the only man he would ever wait in line for was Clinton. "This man is very special for my life," he said, adding that when he got to his hero, "I will try not to say anything, so I don't make a fool of myself."
And then there was Matt Lloyd-Thomas, who said he was 13, though he was really 10, because the lady at the door had said that the age limit for kids to get signatures was 12. His younger sister, Sophia, who was really 7 and a half, was posing as 12.
"We've just been passing the time, reading," said Lloyd-Thomas, whose skin was brown with suntan and a couple of freckles. "My sister's been bugging me the past few hours. Once the rain started there wasn't much we could do because it was really quite wet and you couldn't sit down." They'd had to wake up at 4, which Matt admitted was hard. But the whole trip had been his idea. "I was listening to NPR one afternoon and they said that President Clinton would be signing books in midtown Manhattan, so I said that's pretty close, why don't we go in?" So Matt, Sophia and their mother, Beth -- all from Westport, Conn. -- came to New York last night and stayed at an uncle's place. "I think it's pretty cool to have a book signed by a former president," said Matt of his reason for marshaling his family into action.
But then, Matt is also a kid who a year ago persuaded his whole third-grade class -- some of them Republicans -- to send letters to President Bush asking him not to send troops into Iraq. His mother said that lately he's taken to giving PowerPoint presentations on the benefits of voting for Kerry over Bush. "You know, his father and I are both Democrats but not that involved," she said, shaking her head slightly. "Matt is very much his own thinker.
What did he think of the president he was about to meet -- a man who was first elected before he was even born? "Well," began Matt thoughtfully, "not in his personal decisions but politically, I think Clinton was a very good president, especially since he was interested in what was going on in this country more than in foreign affairs." But what about those pesky personal decisions? "Well, I was only 6 at the time, and I didn't really enjoy politics," he said. "But I think that lying about a personal affair is one thing. Lying about weapons of mass destruction or lying about connections between Iraq and al-Qaida -- which affects a lot more people -- is a lot worse."
"My sister thinks I'm a news junkie," confided Matt, who said he skims the Times but mostly relies on NPR's "Morning Edition" for his news. Sophia, in a Nantucket lifeguarding sweatshirt and looking very, very, very bored, nodded silently.
"We're going to the American Girl Cafe after this," said their mother. "So that they both get something they like out of this trip."