“Can everyone please move forward a bit? We’re expecting a lot of people, so just tighten up as much as possible.”
An employee of the Strand bookstore in Manhattan strolled up Broadway between 12th and 13th streets, imploring the growing line of people snaking up the block to squeeze in closer to their neighbors. It was a miserably gray and windy April day, and Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, who published a memoir, A Fighting Chance, in 2014, was slated to speak in the bookstore’s third-floor Rare Book Room in less than an hour. The people in line were shivering — in anticipation of Warren’s talk, sure, but mostly because the wind had turned what should have been a perfectly fine spring day into a trauma-inducing winter flashback.
Still, the crowd was upbeat. A mix of young and old, the people in line largely refrained from stuffing their headphones in their ears and tuning out. It was a social group: People chatted about teachers unions, internet comments, Governor Cuomo. At noon, a Strand staffer walked up and down the queue, handing out pens and squares of white paper for people to write down questions for the senator.
“I think everyone should write down, ‘Why aren’t you running?’ ” suggested Mary Simon, a 60-year-old Manhattan resident who sported thick-framed glasses and a purple jacket. This was the question of the hour for Warren, or indeed the year — no, make that the past four years. Elizabeth Warren has fended off suggestions that she’s making a bid for president in 2016 ever since a video emerged in the fall of 2011, while Warren was campaigning for her Senate seat, in which the left-wing hero declared at a fundraiser that “there’s nobody in this country who got rich on his own.”
“I know she’s not gonna run for president,” Simon said, resigned.
Brook Gay, 28, who wore a blue “Run, Warren, Run” T-shirt under his coat, overheard and pointed out, “This is a hell of a lot of a media blitz for just selling books.”
Around 12:30 p.m., a man with thinning white hair, glasses, and a brown leather jacket with a pin on the lapel declaring “War Is Terrorism” approached the line and began to orate:
“Now, folks, it’s not good enough to have a better society,” he said to no one in particular. “We need to have a more cooperative society. Now, people say we need to take money out of the system. But that’s not good enough! That doesn’t change anything. We’re all still at odds with each other.”
A volunteer from the progressive advocacy group MoveOn turned around and gently pointed out that he was filming testimonials from eager Warren supporters directly behind where the guy was yelling, and asked him to move down the line so he wouldn’t disrupt. The man quieted down immediately, and moved down the sidewalk. “Aww, man,” he said, after a few minutes. “What’s the use? What’s the use? I’m trying to speak my heart out, and you’re doing your best to ignore me.”
“I’m listening!” yelled Gay.
Encouraged, the man continued. “When I come along and say, OK, you’ve won the game, but we’re gonna tax those earnings away, do you think that’s the basis for a cooperative society?”
“What do you suggest?” Gay called out.
“Have the machines free us up, rather than having the machines putting us out of work and putting us on welfare!”
“Give us an example!” another man in line yelled. Three Strand staffers, gathered near the building to oversee the line, smiled at each other.
Finally, about twenty minutes before the talk was scheduled to begin, the Strand employees began to usher people into the store and up to the third floor, a big, open space with musty books lining the walls. There was a small podium set up at the back, on top of a raised platform. The space was noticeably lacking chairs. “We waited in line for two hours and there’s not any chairs?” one woman griped.
By 2 p.m., the place was packed with around 250 people. When Senator Warren finally emerged from the door stamped “Employees Only,” wearing a bright teal jacket affixed with a small microphone, the crowd went berserk. She stepped up on the platform, smiling, waving, and ignoring the podium. “Can you hear me in the back OK?” People rushed to take pictures; one young woman with a ring in her septum and black hair shaved on one side of her head sketched a portrait of Warren in a notebook.
For the next 45 minutes, Warren had the audience transfixed. She read excerpts from her book, stopping to hammer home a specific point culled from her life experiences. In the book, a faulty toaster oven becomes a stepping-stone to consumer financial protection agencies. “I do love that transition,” Warren said when she arrived at that section. The audience laughed. “You just gotta take ’em where you can.”
The theme of her discussion: the investments America made for future generations between the 1930s and the 1980s, and how the government is failing to make those investments today. In fact, variations on the word “invest” popped up no fewer than 27 times during her talk. “We made big investments in education,” she said. “We invested heavily in the G.I. Bill. We invested in our public schools. We invested in our public universities.” She’s skilled at the art of finishing an emphatic sentence by speeding up her words and ending with a determined clap, at which point the crowd would inevitably follow their cue and cheer.
It was indicative of the audience demographics — people who live in New York, want to hear what Elizabeth Warren has to say, and have three hours in the middle of a weekday to spare — that Warren’s first big applause came when she mentioned pot. “A kid gets caught with a few ounces of pot and gets arrested and can go to jail, but the biggest financial institutions in this country can launder drug money and end up paying a fine and nobody, nobody — ” At this point, the clapping and cheering drowned out her words.
Chants of “Run, Liz, run!” punctuated her talk, but Warren was careful to say, “I’m not running for president.” When the talk was finished, Warren disappeared behind the “Employees Only” door, and people lined up to buy signed copies of A Fighting Chance. A woman turned to her friend and remarked, “I respect her decision.” She paused, then added, “Just because she’s not running in a year and a half doesn’t mean she won’t ever run.”