It’s 3:15 a.m. There is no traffic at the village crossroads.
Montgomery (whom the disrespectful call “the dog from hell") did not raise an eyebrow from his cozy dog bed when I left the house. His most likely groggy thought, “She’s off on another crazy adventure.”
Next stop, Bethesda, to pick up daughter, Gaines, who reluctantly agreed two weeks ago to join me in pursuit of a personally signed copy of Bill Clinton’s book, “My Life.” Our destination was a Washington, D.C., Barnes and Noble book store, 12th and G streets Northwest.
Let me tell you, this is a real learning experience, starting with a Beltway nearly devoid of traffic and a drive all the way downtown sans a crush of minivans, cars, buses or pedestrians.
Planning ahead, I called PMI in search of all-night parking and found their 24-hour garage on 13th Street Northwest, only two blocks from our destination. For $20, it was a deal.
Arriving at 4:10 a.m. in the middle of Washington, parking in a garage and hauling chairs, umbrellas, snacks and two “My Life” books (we were allowed only one signed book each), up from the bowels of down under, onto the city streets, where we knew not what was lurking in any crevice, we felt the power of explorers in search of the unknown.
We both carried our umbrellas at the ready for any person or thing even daring to glance in our direction. “You keep the keys ready, Mom. Poke ’em in the eye, if necessary,” were my instructions. Fortified with such knowledge, we safely trekked the two blocks to where the action was, or rather inaction.
MORE THAN 400 hearty souls were camped out up and down 12th Street. We were directed to Pennsylvania Avenue, two blocks down and around the corner, by the old Washington Star building.
4:20 a.m. “You must have a number and a wristband,” a chirpy voice advised us as we were corralled between lines of barricades. This cheery Barnes and Noble staff member gave no sign of being out all night. She continued with information — only 1,000 wristbands will be distributed, you must have a wristband and a book in your possession prior to entering the store, and there is no guarantee your book will be signed.
That was the bad news. The good news was she told us we were 450 and 451 in line.
It doesn‘t take long to become friendly with your neighbors. We soon learned why “Chip” from Arlington was there. “My dad is 84 years old and has every president’s book signed since Truman. I just had to do this for him.”
For the most part, everyone is friendly, courteous and thoughtful. However, there is always the itinerant smoker blowing foul smoke in your face and the cellphone users who think they must yell to be heard. It’s amazing the number of people willing to chat on the phone at 6 a.m. Folks all around us were yakking away.
It is just two hours into our wait. Gaines discovered a Starbucks two blocks away. Judging from the line at the port-a-potties on the corner (Barnes and Noble really did their best!), others have also discovered the coffee shop.
6:45 a.m. My cellphone is ringing! Daughter Lyne is calling from Poolesville. “I just saw your line on TV. What are your numbers?” she asks. When advised, she says, “You’re in. He is going to do a thousand signings today.”
All of a sudden we are being moved. We advanced enough to put us directly under a tree. This is great. It will provide shade when the predicted 90-degree heat arrives. Unfortunately, thunderstorms are also in the forecast.
7:15 a.m. Gaines has dozed off in her chair. I am engrossed in The Washington Post, having found a bundle of same in front of a yet-to-open store. (Amazingly, all of the news boxes still have yesterday’s papers.) Yes, I put my 35 cents on the pile after I pulled one copy free.
8:45 a.m. A big cheer goes up. From our vantage point, so far, we can just see the top of a vendor’s head. We are told, of all things, he is offering ice cream, water and soft drinks. However, they are not nearly as welcome as what the Barnes and Noble staffers are now offering. Those Oh-So-Important yellow wristbands are being installed, and I mean installed. They are locked on like a hospital identification. No bandee, no signee!
10:05 A.M. Gaines is chatting with some neighbors. One delightful young lady, a government employee, admitted she called in sick to her office. I told her we were all sick or we wouldn’t be here. “I just had to. He was my president when I was in high school,” she said.
It was time for me to once again survey the crowd (it now snaked around Pennsylvania Avenue to 11th Street) and take advantage of Barnes and Noble's hospitality. Surprisingly, very few people were in the air-conditioned store. Everyone seems to be sticking to their places in line like homesteaders staking out property.
One lady had a chocolate Lab with her, which made me wonder how she will get it inside when we have been told we can’t even take a pocketbook up to the signing. (I later learned it was a guide dog, in training, and, yes, it was allowed.)
Another family consisted of two preschool boys. They were in the process of packing up pillows, blankets and toys in a shopping cart and moving off. They wore wristbands, but unless they had a buddy holding their space, they would have to go to the end of the line. One neighbor, who went home to bathe, predicted rain. She returned with a shower curtain.
11:15 a.m. Nearly everyone has settled in with books, magazines and papers. It is getting quite warm, but we of hardy stock, seven hours into our vigil, are quite comfortable under our tree.
1:10 p.m. Our new-found best friends, one a third-grade teacher from Fairfax, have agreed to hold our place while we go in search of food. We will reciprocate. We walked a few blocks to the National Press Club for lunch, looking bedraggled, but very much working press. (Okay, so that’s a stretch.) We did run into former Gazette editor Koko Wittenberg, who was lunching with an old high-school friend who was in town for the Daughters of the American Revolution convention.
3 p.m. Our friends returned from their lunch just in time to hear another rousing cheer. We are told to advance, losing our tree in the process. We move … 10 feet. Security moves our barriers. A good sign. It is also beginning to get a little breezy.
3:20 P.M. Out come the umbrellas, and the neighbor’s shower curtain. Down comes the rain. That’s not bad, it’s holding the umbrella with the lightning flashes that I don’t like. “Look at it this way, Mom. There is much higher metal right above us.” Great!
3:50 p.m. Police sirens are wailing, as their cars speed up Pennsylvania Avenue. “He must be coming,” someone in the crowd guesses. “No, he is always late,” another advises. (As it turned out, both are wrong. We later learned there was a bomb scare up Pennsylvania Avenue.) A black Suburban goes through traffic up 12th Street. The crowd cheers. Obviously they are restless. Action is needed.
4:15 p.m. The sky really opens up. We are moved around the corner to 12th Street. Things must be happening. Clinton was scheduled to start at 4 p.m.
4:25 p.m. The rain has stopped. Humidity has soared.
4:45 p.m. We enter Barnes and Noble’s front door and are welcomed with a friendly “Hello,” followed by a pocketbook search-and-seize, and body check. Our chairs and all other equipment are tagged and lined up on the sidewalk. Even our water is confiscated.
4:55 p.m. “Hello. Thanks for coming,” President Bill Clinton tells Gaines, while shaking her hand. In less than five seconds, she’s on her way. “Hello, Mr. President,” I say. “How is your Boggle game?” I ask. He looks up. “I love to Boggle. They don’t make the big board any more, though. That was my favorite,” he calls to me with a big smile on his face, as I am whisked through the line and down the steps to retrieve my belongings.
It has taken more than 14 hours from the time I left home until my 10-second audience with the former president. Would I do it again? Absolutely.
When a stranger asks Gaines if she was there to meet the president or to collect the autographed book, her response is even better. “Neither,” she said. “I am here because I love my mother!”
Can’t beat that!