Bubba Onboard 

Photos by Ted Soqui

The hundreds of people who descended on Eso Won Bookstore on La Brea Avenue last Saturday for the Bill Clinton book signing had to endure many things, beginning with the sun. By 9 a.m., a full hour before Clinton’s scheduled arrival, the coastal fog had vanished and things were heating up. Those who were lucky enough to land some shade standing in one of many lines that wound around the store seemed markedly more patient than those who stood exposed to the elements.

A woman who called herself Tutankhamen said she had been calling Eso Won since midnight trying to score a ticket, with no luck. She was willing to buy one off a scalper for up to $100, explaining that she had turned her house into something called a museum of mentors, and was determined to get an autographed book for her collection. “I want to talk to Clinton about my place,” she said, somewhat irately.

Rampant confusion about how and where to buy the 1,500 tickets allotted by Eso Won made for short tempers; two women in a notably unshaded stretch of line argued so fiercely about who had the right to be in front of whom, they nearly came to blows. “You oughta move your white ass!” one hissed at the other — odd, considering both were African-American, albeit different shades of brown. If anybody needed proof that race is still the most compelling metaphor for privilege around, here it was.

At least it was equal-opportunity suffering — thanks to the former president’s enormous appeal, people of all classes and colors had trekked to Eso Won this morning from all corners of the county, and beyond. There were black people, of course — Eso Won’s customer base here in the Crenshaw district, and Clinton’s most faithful constituency. But there were also plenty of whites, Asians, Latinos, old folks and young, centrist, progressive, neo-progressive. All came on a kind of pilgrimage to meet a political celebrity and the last head of state who, in light of all the dreadful things that have happened since 9/11 and are still happening, could be said to have presided over an era in which blissful ignorance of government felt like a viable option. Anti-Republican sentiment ran high. People armed with clipboards scurried about registering new voters. A man in a hideously grinning Bush mask wore a sign that said, “Stop Me!” while conservative gadfly “Melrose” Larry Green showed up wearing a “Bush ’04” T-shirt and toting a counter-sign that read, “Clinton Should Be in Prison.”

A few in the line were annoyed at Green’s message, but a group of young white and Latina women who had been at Eso Won since 3:30 that morning were resolutely upbeat, and not only because they had the hefty books in hand. “We saw Fahrenheit 9/11 last night, we’re seeing Bill Clinton today — it’s a Democratic weekend,” one of them said cheerfully. “The fact there are so many people out here today is a really good indicator that the tide is turning in this country. If we get a new president in November, we’ll be happy.”

And then he arrived. All bad feeling rolled away like so much cloud cover and a great, uniform cheer went up as a black SUV came into view. Clinton waved from the open window like he was waving from his front porch, exuding the ease with crowds that had been his trademark before the Monica Lewinsky affair made it something else. Even amid the Secret Service, CHPs, LAPD and assorted security/publicity personnel, he stood out as he strode toward the entrance of the bookstore — tall and trim in a navy suit and yellow tie, his silver hair cropped fashionably close. The cheer got lustier.

Inside Eso Won, where autograph seekers were allowed in only 10 at a time, Clinton removed his jacket and took up his post in a kind of pop-art bunker constructed of stacks upon stacks of his books. Eso Won owners James Fugate and Tom Hamilton had enlisted some extra help of their own, including actress C.C.H. Pounder, whose job it was to smile and usher away people who might otherwise have lingered once they got what they came for. Everybody would have, given the chance.

To the strains of Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye playing over the sound system, Clinton doled out Southern-style greetings (“How y’all doing today?”), handshakes and that twinkly, perfectly sincere smile without breaking a sweat. He did bend the rules a bit, letting several delighted women hug him and calling back one who had sneaked in a photograph for him to sign. He was larger than life and just like us, a rock star and a fallen country rube who was rising again, right in our midst.

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