That Time I Saw Bill Clinton In A Parking Garage

In the last post in this series I wrote about the kinds of opportunities on offer at an American campus. When I studied at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire my semester coincided with the 2012 presidential election. It was awesome to have Vice President Joe Biden come to campus and to attend his campaign speech for free. As the semester went on, the weather got more and more bitter and so too did the election.

On October 31st Bill Clinton was visiting Eau Claire to campaign for Barack Obama. How could I turn down the opportunity to see such an iconic figure? It was a Wednesday, and on every Wednesday I had my senior class- a 3 hour creative writing workshop. It was my favorite class with my favorite professor. As I walked down the hill to lower campus, I started to wonder if I could really be arsed to see Clinton. Back then I was extremely anxious about going to places and trying things without someone to do it with me, which sounds crazy when I had already come all the way to another country by myself and was doing just fine. Not only was I anxious, but I was a lazy son-of-a-gun to boot. I wondered if I would be able to motivate myself to walk downtown and see this speech all on my own. I didn’t like the idea that laziness and anxiety would get in the way of a chance to see a former President, and I continued this warring dialogue in my head as I approached Hibbard. It would be so easy to just say “ah, heck with it” and walk back to the warmth and comfort of the dorms, and resume binging Breaking Bad and eating pizza with Aaron. I wished he were here so we could go together.

I got into class, sat myself down, and a thought occurred to me. In my Making More Friends in the USA post I introduced my friend Calvin, who sat near me in that creative writing class. Only two days prior, he had asked if I wanted to get coffee on my birthday. I was busy chillin’ with Aaron, Zeke and Jimmy in Towers North at the time, but had promised him we would hang out. Calvin had a friend, a girl that sat with us, called…let’s call her Briony. As we unpacked our notepads and pens, she said, “Hey, isn’t Bill Clinton in town today?”

Class commenced as per usual, and when it ended it was late in the afternoon. Calvin looked at me and said, “So, how about that coffee? You busy?”

I said I was interested in going to see Clinton, and perhaps we could go together. He smiled and looked back at Briony and asked if she was interested. Swell!

We left the campus and headed toward Briony’s house where we planned to leave our bags. I remember being interested to see what a given student house looked like. We walked through big sylvan streets with little traffic. The houses all had large lawns. They were often made of white-painted wood and all had spacious porches which contained locked bicycles, inflated donuts for tubing the Chippewa River, hookah pipes, and the evidence of many a party; beer bottles and red solo cups strewn about the front steps and lining the porch railing. There were also dogs and families in some of the houses. A thick canopy covered every street, and everything was shadowed and sleepy. The front yards were adorned with whirligigs, flower patches, American flags, abandoned couches, empty lawn chairs, tricycles, and discarded stacks of cardboard.

We arrived at the house where Briony lived and it fascinated me. Briony and her roommate rented the upper half of the house, and so there was a stairway on the exterior of the building that took them up to their front door. I remember Briony apologizing for how messy her apartment was and it struck me as representing the carefree existence of student living. We found her roommate sitting cross-legged on the floor and the girl smiled up at us and said hi, promising to look after our bags.

“Just throw them on the floor anywhere you like,” she said, as Briony went into another room to fetch her jacket.

We started then towards downtown Eau Claire and the light was starting to leave the sky. It was at that point in the day when the streetlights are coming on and glow faintly amber against a sky the dullest shade of white. The speech was taking place at the Ramada Convention Center. By the time we arrived, the line was so big that it stretched around the whole block. We instantly grew apprehensive about whether we would make it.

I can be a pretty impatient person sometimes and one thing I’m not good at is simply standing still. I’ve always hated waiting in line, especially at airports and the like. As the day grew later and the line (“queue” in British English) trudged forward at the pace of a spilt flow of porridge, I began to realize just how naïve I was to the weather in Wisconsin. I’ve always had this tendency to put on less layers than I need out of a fear of being too hot. I hate being out and about with too many layers on and feeling sweaty, and back then I figured it was better to be too cold rather than too hot. Almost as soon as we got in line, I started complaining I was cold. I knew right away I had made a grave error. I was dressed in a thin, white vintage cabana shirt with black, office pants. I looked like I ought to be drinking Cubanitos in Havana or smoking outside a café in Sidi Bou Said. Aside from being about forty years out of date, I attracted all kinds of bemused stares at my lack of preparedness. With the kind of shirt I was wearing I was practically topless for all the protection it offered. To quote Joey from Friends: my nipples could cut glass.

Unable to control myself, I started shivering like crazy. Wisconsinites are polite and yet direct. They’re too polite to criticize my choice of clothing but nonetheless direct enough to ask where my jacket was. A woman in front of us couldn’t stand to hear my teeth chattering any longer, and said that while she didn’t have a spare sweater for me, she could offer me these little things that might warm my hands. Out of her handbag she produced these two things that looked like teabags.

“Rub them together in your hands. It’ll warm you up,” she said. “But whatever ya do, don’t open or tear them. That would be painful.”

The line snaked around these two massive buildings and we were stood there for an hour or more, with me cursing my stupidity the whole time. It was nice to hang out with Calvin and Briony some more, but I was starting to think I should have taken them up on their initial suggestion of coffee. I imagined we would have gone to a place in the campus student center Davies called The Cabin. I never actually went to The Cabin during my exchange, but I remember thinking of it as a nest of hipsters in flannel shirts and beanies, discussing Bon Iver over their Caribou Coffee. I was super-paranoid about being associated with hipsters back then. I’m not sure what my fear was exactly, but I avoided them like they were linked to Spanish Flu. But all my insecurities about being a closeted hipster went out the window when I was on the sidewalk that day feeling my crown jewels shrivel up into my body in a desperate attempt to preserve heat. At that moment The Cabin looked like the warmest, coziest place in the world.

This better be worth it, I thought to myself. We were so close to the convention center now. As we edged closer, coming off of the street and under the massive concrete parking garage attached to the side of the building, we began to talk excitedly about the comfy chairs and central heating ahead of us. It was fully dark by now. The stars were out and the hardy Wisconsinites breathed clouds of condensed water vapor. Then all of a sudden the line came to a stop and didn’t start moving again. A crowd began to form outside the hotel and a woman came along and announced that the seats were all full and that she was very sorry but could we kindly piss off.

An audible groan rang out and the crowd didn’t move. A barricade was erected to keep us from getting any closer and to make room for Clinton’s motorcade. We waited for the shiny black cars to arrive so that we might catch a glimpse of him. At worst we could brag at having seen one of his secret service agents. The only thing I remember from this part of the story is a crushing sense of disappointment. Finally, however, as if knowing that I had come all this way from Bristol, England, the woman returned and announced to the sizable crowd that Bill Clinton was going to come out and give a mini-speech to us, so that we didn’t go home with nothing. What an amazing fellow, I thought.

Then, sure enough, Bill Clinton’s motorcade turned up and he got out of the car. He looked exactly as he did on TV. His hair was brilliantly white though- whiter and thicker than Biden’s. He had a really distinctive look to him, I thought. Someone handed him a megaphone and he addressed the shivering crowd of Wisconsinites clad in green and yellow coats. It was quite a scene, I thought. Even though we didn’t get to see the actual campaign speech, this little spontaneous moment in the parking garage felt somehow more special. Everyone seemed to be wearing some form of Green Bay Packer attire, and we all felt touched by Clinton’s coming out to us in the cold.

The fact that I didn’t bring my camera felt like an even bigger mistake than my choice of clothes. Sometimes in today’s world of social media, it feels like if you don’t have a picture to mark an event, then it didn’t happen. So I don’t have a photo of my own to accompany this post. However, I did find this image online of Clinton speaking to us in the parking garage-if you look really hard you can even see half of my face, at the back of the crowd on the right of the image.

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Photo credit: Jeff McCabe, click here to see original image

When the speech was over everyone cheered and we hurried back to Briony’s house as quickly as we could. And so ends the memory and today’s blog post. Thanks for reading! If you’re enjoying this study abroad series, then consider giving me a Like or let me know what you think in the comments. Make sure to subscribe to keep yourself up to date, because I have plenty of stories left from that fall semester in 2012.

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