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.
Never mind that in his eight years Clinton had overseen the exponential growth of prisons and the widening of socioeconomic gaps aggravated by race; for black people, he was the first president since FDR who wasn’t afraid to look like he cared. That he had come to Eso Won today, conferring upon the respected but modest strip-mall black bookstore a status it had never had in its 15 years of business, was all that we needed to see. “He is gorgeous!” declared one black woman who had emerged from the store into the hot sun, clutching her book and whooping in triumph. “He gave me direct eye contact — I got what I wanted today.”
—Erin Aubry Kaplan
These aren’t ordinary humans. The more than 1,000 folks gathered at the Radisson Hotel near LAX last week are willing to wait hours on end, suffer through boring speeches and endure endless chanting — all for a hug. Not just any hug, mind you, but a sacred embrace from a small, heavyset holy woman from India named Sri Mata Amritanandamayi (“Mother of Immortal Bliss”). Her friends call her Amma, which translates to “Mother.” The 50-year-old guru claims to have given more than 21 million hugs.
I get in line at 6:30 p.m. A host asks me if I’ve ever received “darshan,” which is Amma-speak for a blessing in the form of a “tender, healing embrace.” Since I’m an Amma virgin, she hands me a fluorescent-orange, circle-shaped sticker. “Amma likes to know if this is your first time,” the host explains.
“Amma gives those with orange stickers extra-long hugs!” one hug junkie beamed. A woman wearing an orange adhesive admits that she’s been hugged before.
I can’t wait for my life-altering Amma hug, but I have to. Another line to pick up my “darshan token” awaits me. Mine reads, “351 to 400,” which means that after 350 people have pressed their bodies against Amma, it will be my group’s turn.
Every new religious movement needs a famous follower. Amma will have to settle for indie-rock guitar god J Mascis. Dinosaur Jr.’s front man is a hardcore Amma devotee, so much so that he schedules his tours to coincide with the holy woman’s itinerary. I don’t see Mascis anywhere, but I do catch a glimpse of record producer Rick Rubin.
Around the convention center, Amma volunteers have set up numerous merchandise tables to sell all things Amma — pens, magnets, calendars, T-shirts, window decals, dolls and 8-by-10s. (My favorite picture depicts a Photoshopped Amma hugging a blue baby Krishna.) One sign points to “the most fragrant way to donate.” For three bucks, you can purchase a coconut and carry it around all evening, only to eventually hand it back to Amma as a sacred offering. Or, for a mere $250, you can buy a pair of sandals, upon which Amma will personally place her feet. According to the saleswoman, Amma acolytes take home these sweat-dampened shoes and build an altar around them.
While I’m wondering if all the money goes to help the needy, as is claimed, the Holy One arrives. Amma wears a flowing, white cotton robe and sits cross-legged on a stage in front of a large, framed picture of herself while a bearded swami lays down some teachings. He tells the story of the materialistic man who’s so upset when a truck knocks the door off of his Lexus that he doesn’t even notice his arm is also missing; when this fact is pointed out to him, all he can think about is his lost Rolex. The easily amused crowd delights in this parable. I want my hug.
Next, there is much chanting and music. Amma violently swings her arms in the air as she sings through a headpiece microphone à la Britney Spears. The songs are pretty good, except that each one lasts about 20 minutes too long.
Around 10 p.m., high-ranking converts herd the first 100 embracers into a line. I watch a few folks receive the darshan. Many of them immediately pass their hug onto a nearby loved one. A few cry tears of joy. One just-hugged woman enthuses, “It really opened up my heart.”
Near midnight, I’m finally allowed to enter the darshan line. I’m forced to walk the last 10 yards toward Amma on my knees. Devotees manhandle me ever closer. A man tells me to remove my glasses. I never learn why.
I am now mere feet away from the goddess-like being. What’s going to happen? Will I experience everlasting peace and happiness? Will I wet myself?
Amma puts her arms around me,
positions her mouth next to my right ear ‰ and says something that sounds like, “ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma.” After about 10 seconds, a robed disciple shoves a flower petal and a Hershey’s Kiss in my hand. It’s over.
Disappointed that I waited five hours for that, I walk over to a friend of mine who received the hug two years ago.
“You don’t really feel it for a couple of days,” he informs me.
I hope he’s right, because right now I could really use a hug.
Appetite for Destruction
The world’s largest termite is 20 feet high and 60 feet long. At the Los Angeles Zoo last Thursday, during the final hours of the termite’s three-day L.A. tour, children ran into the big bug’s anus and scurried around inside its belly. They pitched baby termites into plastic cups with miniature catapults. And then, when they got bored, they left through the termite’s giant open mouth. Anus to mouth to anus to mouth. They ran in endless circles in the summer heat.
Of course, the Termidor termite is not an actual termite, but a yellow-and-brown inflatable one. On the road for several months now spreading the virtues of odor-free, liquid Termidor, it travels in its own purple truck with a roving flea circus of science exhibits, including a half-eaten Masonic Temple accounting book sandwiched in acrylic, a National Geographic magazine wormed through and through, and two live colonies blindly devouring two cardboard houses. Perched just outside the zoo entrance, beyond the meerkats and giraffes, the termite’s as big as a house and filled with hot, muggy air. Its head bobbed in the breeze. Its feet swayed. The greenhouse effect in the abdomen was intense. Doesn’t this bug come with air conditioning?
“So these are the little suckers that bit me,” said a sweaty woman in a white tank top, peering at a colony of termites under glass. “Don’t look like much, do they?”
White and mealy-looking, the termites appeared smaller than maggots, bigger than ants. A young, exhausted man in a purple Termidor T-shirt, sitting on a metal folding chair near the mouth, called out, “I’ve never known them to bite anyone, ma’am.”
“Eeeew!” cried the kids.
Meanwhile, the termites on display chewed their way through brown paper and burrowed through sand.