Summer of Hillary

By Keelin 


After I finished my junior year of college in Paris, I packed up the English-language books I bought at W.H. Smith, my new flea market jewelry and the ten pounds I gained eating pastry every day and went back to New York City. I moved in to a rent-controlled apartment with my boyfriend at the time, who had graduated the previous year and was still vaguely trying to forge ahead with a career in the "arts." This amounted to taking occasional television production jobs, writing soap opera scripts on spec (ask me how many episodes of the now-defunct "Guiding Light" I've seen), and keeping up a nocturnal schedule of chain-smoking and brooding. I had two jobs. The first was an unpaid internship at a well-known magazine. The second was a work-study job on campus, checking tapes against transcripts for an audio archive my college library was compiling on September 11th. We were broke.

Friends encouraged my boyfriend, John (not his real name -- obviously), to take a temp position, a Wall Street job, wait tables -- basically, anything that might bring in some regular income and possibly offer health insurance. He dismissed these suggestions. For one, a "real job" might prevent him from getting his big break. Artists don't spend their time filling out Excel spreadsheets or something. He also slept from 8 AM to 4 PM, which severely limited his opportunities to find the kind of cubicle-based employment that keeps most people elbow-deep in lattes and khaki pants. So no office job.

This didn't leave a lot of other options for money-making. John occasionally tried to earn a little playing poker, but his skills were mediocre at best and he smoked so much while playing that any winnings went directly to Philip Morris. (The fact that he had a gambling-addicted millionaire best friend did not help things. The best friend's favorite story to tell was of when he brought the family Monet to school for show-and-tell without his mother's permission. No joke.) Every now and then, John would sell off something of moderate value on eBay -- some books, a piece of unused audio-video equipment. He once noted wistfully that his family owned some valuable artwork, but that it was tied up in a legal dispute between his father and his aunt and uncle. (It was a Max Beckmann painting. I saw it once, in Los Angeles. Sometimes I still wonder what happened to it.)

One early summer day I came home from my internship in Times' Square to find John smoking and typing with purpose while reading an article on the New York Times website. It was the middle of June in 2003, oppressively hot, three months into the war in Iraq, half way through the Bush administration. Everyone in Manhattan was wearing those awful mesh slippers from Chinatown and acrylic ponchos. What a time for the world.

"We should buy a bunch of Hillary's books and get them signed and then sell them on eBay," he said.


"Like, tomorrow. She's signing downtown. We can go to Huntington on Saturday too."

"Where's that?"

"Long Island."

Hillary Clinton’s memoir came out on June 9, 2003. She was then the junior senator from New York and the majority of her book signings were scattered throughout the state’s most populous, electorally-friendly corners. The book was, in publishing-speak, “hotly anticipated” and there were questions about whether it could sell enough copies to recoup the eight million dollar advance Senator Clinton received. (It did and it did: the book sold over 2 million copies and made a lot of money.)

“Why?” I asked.

“I looked into this,” he insisted. “Thirty bucks a book. Then we sell them for two or three hundred each.”

“What if you can’t sell them?”

“They’ll sell.”

“What if you buy the books and you can’t get her to sign them.”

“It’s easy to get. We just need to wait in line.”

“Can’t you go yourself?”

“One book per person.”

I didn’t want to wait in line. Summer days in New York City regularly top 90 degrees, not to mention the fact that I was perpetually sleep deprived because John’s bizarre schedule kept me awake most nights. But I wanted to be supportive. (He was constantly accusing me of not understanding his “adult” problems because I was still in school.) And besides, we did need the money.


Our first book signing was in Manhattan. We arrived two hours ahead of Hillary’s appointed arrival time and crowded into a line of Westchester matrons and young moms corralling ice-cream smeared kids. John had convinced his friend Sam to tag along and provide another book-bearing body. I couldn’t believe someone else was willing to stand in the sun for hours just to spend five seconds exchanging banalities with Hillary Clinton (and he wasn’t even going to get to keep his book!).

At the set hour, a black town car pulled up to the curb and disgorged the senator, who was hustled in through a back entrance and handed a pile of Sharpies. She had a blue pashmina around her shoulders to keep off the over-air-conditioned chill. (Oh, I’d see that scarf again.) All at once the line leaned forward like the wind bending a blade of grass, one smooth, straight movement. Hillary waved and pushed her sunglasses off her eyes.

The rules of the signing were specific and hilarious. Hillary would only sign the title page. Hillary would only inscribe your name if you wrote it on an index card first. Hillary was very busy, so please move away as soon as she hands your book back to you. (One time, John asked her to sign her "full, complete name." She scrawled out Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton over two lines. That book sold for an extra $50.)

Slowly – so slowly – the line snaked forward. After twenty minutes, we were in the door. After another ten, we were close enough to hug her secret service contingency. As we stepped forward, one of these stalwart agents asked us to open our book and flip the pages (to prove we weren’t concealing who knows what) and then keep the book open to the pre-approved, soon-to-be-signed title page. Then, at last, Mecca.

She said hello. I said hello. Her nearest secret service looked straight ahead. I’ve never had very strong feelings about Hillary Clinton (though I’ve become more of an admirer in the last two years), but meeting her was more exciting than I would have thought, mostly because the pulse-thumping of my fellow autograph seekers was so apparent and overwhelming. (I think some of them would genuinely have stoned us if they knew we were there for purely commercial motives.) These people – women, mostly – loved Hillary, saw something of their own destiny in her college transcripts and her hairdos and now her ubiquitous (and ubiquitously noted) pantsuits. She handed back my book and thanked me for my support.

I waited a few feet away for John, who was behind me, to finish up.

“Let’s get back in line,” he said.

“Is that allowed?”

“Yes, I just asked. Hurry. Careful with the book, too.”

We didn’t make it back to Hillary a second time, but we did at the signings on Long Island and Harlem, where the crowds were thinner and things moved at a weekend pace. On each occasion, John invited as many friends as he could and an astonishing number of people good-naturedly joined us in line and then surrendered their books after their audience with Hillary. Once, John’s former roommate and a half-dozen of his dental school classmates came with us to a signing far up town and talked about tooth decay during the long subway rides back and forth.

I probably had about eight encounters with Hillary over the course of that summer. Each time I'd search her face for a sign of recognition. I never found any. Politicians meet thousands of people, shake a million clammy hands. It can't be easy to distinguish after a while. Then again, maybe she did know. We can’t have been the only opportunists she saw, cycling through the lines, polite but not passionate. In a word, impostors.

A month later we weren’t broke anymore.


One August afternoon I came home to find a note on the stove – “Gone to Foxwoods with Pedro” (the rich best friend; Foxwoods is an Indian casino in Connecticut). I was rarely alone in the apartment and I felt, for a moment, the solitude of the place and of that hour of the day and that time of the year. Outside a child on a tricycle shrieked and pedaled a furious escape from his nanny. Before long, the street lights of the Upper West Side went on and the kids were all in bed.

Around midnight, the syncopated honking of a car brought me back to the window. Below John and Pedro sat in an idling red convertible, a disconsolate half-moon hanging overhead. I grabbed my keys and went downstairs.

“Where’d you get the car?” I asked.

“Rented it,” Pedro said.

I reached for the door handle, but John put his palm over it.

“We need you to look up where the nearest gas station is,” he said.


“Can you go in and google the nearest gas station?”

I went back upstairs and looked up the gas stations on the Upper West Side, then shouted down my findings from our third story apartment. (This was before the era of smart phones; in fact, I don’t think I even owned a cell phone.) I saw a light go on in a building across the street and ducked away before the neighbor could tell me to keep it down. Out of sight the convertible revved and disappeared into the night.

In the morning, when I woke up, John was sleeping beside me and the red convertible was back in the rental lot. We broke up at the beginning of the next summer. I never got to ride in the red convertible. I never met Hillary Clinton again.



  2. I love this too!!! That's such a great story!!!! I want to be a professional autograph-obtainer now!!!!!

  3. This sounds a lot like one of MY scams, except it apparently worked. Excellent story!

  4. keelin, this is great. i'm sorry you never got to ride in the convertible!

  5. I loved this! This is easily in my top 5 OYIT posts. Four of those five are by me!


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