[published: January 14, 2009]
Or how I moved to New York and met a president.
Next Tuesday, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States—the first African-American to ever hold the highest office. Shortly before that happens, the 43rd president will leave the White House as one of the most reviled leaders we’ve ever had.
The 43rd had, at one point, a rabid following not completely unlike the one enjoyed by our soon-to-be 44th. To some extent the 43rd still has that following, only it’s much smaller here at the end than it was at the beginning.
The reasons for his evaporated support seem endless. For one, he placed a bad $600 billion bet—and counting—on the promise that our military would go into Iraq and find weapons capable of causing untold destruction against the world. He also appointed a former horse trader as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He nominated his own personal attorney to the highest court in the land. I could go on.
Our 43rd president is the son of the 41st president of the United States. Our 41st president was an unremarkable one-term leader who, partly because his son is so reviled, has come to be admired a little more in his retirement. Our 41st president also served as vice president to the 40th president of this country.
The 40th president of the United States starred as Professor Peter Boyd in the 1951 comedy Bedtime for Bonzo. His co-stars included the actress Diana Lynn, and a chimpanzee. His admirers describe his two terms in office as a revolution.
America is a weird place.
But this is the story of how I arrived in New York City. It’s about how dreams of what you hope things will be often collapse under the weight of what things really end up being. It’s about how one day, several years ago, right before a lot of people in the city began to lose their jobs during a recession, I met the 42nd president of the United States—a man who had sex, or something close to it, while in office.
This is that story.
On September 13, 2001 much of Lower Manhattan was closed off to the public. People walked around, they gathered, but no one really had anywhere to go. No one really had anywhere they could go. In the air, you could still smell the financial center smoldering.
I had moved to Brooklyn from Boston about a month earlier, on Aug. 1. I had scored a “temp-to-perm” job at a major publishing house on Hudson Street in Manhattan. Temp-to-perm means exactly that: You start out as a temp, you do your work and kiss the right asses, and then you are given the job on a permanent basis.
As a reader and writer, or someone who aspires to be both, it seemed like the most romantic thing in the world to me. I still vividly remember walking around Manhattan one day while reading The New York Times classified section and stopping in the middle of a sidewalk to call the temp agency about its listing for work available at a “major publishing house.”
I was told to come in the next day, and by the end of that day, I had the job. I couldn’t believe it. I had moved to New York and was now going to be working in publishing. Certainly this meant I would be writing a novel in no time at all.
But let me back track: For the last several months that I lived in Boston I had worked various temp jobs around the city to save up money for my impending move to New York. Before that I had worked at a newspaper that was bought out and shutdown by the Boston Herald. I was offered a job at one of the Herald’s smaller newspapers, but declined, having already made up my mind to move to New York.
Although the recession of 2001 officially started in March of that year, we were still enjoying the rotting fruits from the New Economy. This meant, among other things, that companies still had it in their budgets to hire temps quite regularly. So regularly, in fact, that somewhere in my mind I began leaning towards making a career of sorts out of this. You know, to work only temporarily every year.
That’s because temping during an economically stable time is like a dream. You get paid pretty well, you are asked for no loyalty to a company, and as soon as you are really tired of the work, you are moving on to the next job. You can even take a week off after one job is completed, and enjoy a little freedom before moving on to the next one.
But the publishing gig was different. I wanted to permanently work there. I wanted to get paid to live a life of books.
This was before I realized how miserable it mostly is to work in the publishing industry. Or how almost all the people I worked with hated their jobs. And how little it pays. And how when you think about working in publishing you think about working with the Beats, you think about Greenwich Village in the ‘40s, you think about destitute writers bleeding out life-changing prose, and what you actually get are authors writing self-help books about how to build your nest egg, or spy novels ready-made for the movies, or what you get are celebrity cookbooks.
On Sept. 12, 2001, I was told not to come into work. Most of Lower Manhattan had been shutdown, and the police were not allowing anyone on the streets that didn’t live there. A couple of weeks later I would again be told not to come into work, only this time it was permanent. The dream of working in publishing officially died, a few weeks after I had already killed it in my head.
The next day I decided to venture out to Union Square. On any normal day, Union Square in Manhattan is like a small village of restless activity. In some ways, it reflects the city itself. Commerce, protest, homelessness, music, food, burnout, it’s all there.
On this day, the square was mainly filled with mourners and protestors. Large posters were being covered with messages to the dead. Many who signed their names included the floor they had worked on at the World Trade Center.
People got into shouting matches over American foreign policy. The entire country was on the brink of breaking apart, and in Union Square you could already see it cracking.
I stopped at a drugstore and bought a disposable camera to document the unraveling going on around me. I am somewhat ashamed to admit this, but as tragic and useless as the collapse of the World Trade Center was, it still felt like I had lived through my first “New York moment”—that exhilarating point when I actually felt like a New Yorker for the first time. In fact, I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
“Sept. 11, 9/11, became just like that,” Beverly Swerling wrote in The New York Times nearly a year after the attacks. “If you were here that day, if you placed your bet on the city before the attacks, you belong in a special way. You secured your place in a long line that stretches back hundreds of years.”
It was overly sentimental and misguided hyperbole perhaps, but there was something to it. New Yorkers tend to tell you how good New York used to be in terms of how bad New York used to be. This was a bad moment of my very own. And with a four-month unemployment stretch on the horizon for me, it was about to get worse.
It was strange to see New York that day, all of the empty streets. The full-throated consumerism that usually screams across Manhattan had been silenced.
Missing persons signs were posted on buildings, on stores, on bus stops, on anything you could tape a sign onto. The missing people had worked in the World Trade Center. They were all dead, not missing, and their deaths would be honored through t-shirts, buttons, ornaments, trinkets and two wars.
Days after the terrorist attacks, approval ratings for our 43rd president reached 90%, a record for the Gallup Poll. It’s astounding to think about now, not only because he leaves with his legacy in tatters, but also because that’s almost the entire country. Was America really once that enamored with the guy? Or was this a case of Americans putting brazen patriotism above all else, even common sense? And who were the 10% that disapproved of the president? Where did they live?
With police barriers blocking off most streets around Union Square, it was not difficult to spot the one street that was open. National Guardsmen stood at the entrance of University Place, but I could see they were letting everyone through the barrier.
Almost immediately after I began walking down University Place a man ran past me. And then another man. And then a woman. And then two National Guardsmen.
Two days earlier we had gathered in my boss’ office to watch the towers collapse in front of us. I was still a little tweaked. The people were running because something else had happened, I thought. It had happened up ahead, on University Place. Another attack. So I began running too.
To this day I still do not understand my thought process at that moment. I had decided that something—perhaps something catastrophic—was happening down the street so I ran toward whatever that was, instead of away from it. The only explanation I can give is that I still held onto that instinct one develops in school to always rush toward a fight, unable to resist the mesmerizing allure of violence.
Another man was running next to me.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“It’s Clinton,” he said.
My first thought was that it was Hillary, who had been elected senator of New York earlier that year. But as I neared the crowd of onlookers and media I saw him: the 42nd president of the United States. He apparently was being driven around the city with his daughter when he decided to make a stop in the middle of the street in order to, I guess, say hello.
A television reporter was interviewing him as I approached the crowd. People were leaning out of windows on either side of the street. Some people looked to be crying. “Please come back, Bill!” yelled one. “We need you, Bill!” yelled another.
People were waving American flags. It was crazy. It was like a hero had come home from war. Somehow, 90% of the country was in love with the current president. Here was where the other 10% lived. In the city hardest hit by terrorists two days earlier.
I shoved my way up front until I was at arms length from the first man I ever voted for on any level of government. I pulled out my disposable camera and snapped some pictures of him. As soon as he finished his interview, he turned around and was staring face-to-face with me. He put out his hand.
“Thank you,” he said.
I had no idea why he was thanking me. I had not even done anything.
“Your welcome, Mr. President,” I said, shaking his hand “It’s great to meet you.”
I pulled away from the crowd and took my phone out of my pocket. I decided to call my parents in Texas, the most loyal Clinton supporters you could ever meet. My mom, who would be dead two years later, answered.
I told her I had just shaken the president’s hand. Her president. I held the phone up so she could hear the crowd shower the man with praise, begging him to save the country. I wanted my parents to hear the love that these people were giving their president. I also wanted them to experience, in some way, the New York moment that I was experiencing. I don’t know why.
Not long before that encounter, I had read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the bestselling memoir Dave Eggers wrote about raising his little brother after both his parents had died. In the book he describes the excitement of a similar chance meeting with President Clinton, except this was outside of a restaurant in California.
I always found Eggers’ description of the president pretty funny. “A few randoms pour out and then this huge grey-haired man,” Eggers wrote. “Jesus Christ, he’s a big man. His face is so pink. What happened to his face that it’s so pink?”
And then: “Here he comes! Here he comes! Good lord his face is huge! Why so pink? Why so weirdly pink?”
And I realized as soon as I got next to Clinton that Eggers was right. The president was just so majestically pink.
Paul Menchaca is co-editor of Last Exit Magazine.
Copyright Last Exit 2009
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