NEW YORK — The police had warned them to stand behind the metal barricades and to stay on the sidewalks so traffic could pass by. But the instant Bill Clinton got out of his limousine Tuesday in front of a Harlem bookstore, the crowd broke through, chanting his name.
"There he is!" cried Florence Reynolds, an elementary school teacher, who along with several hundred others mobbed the former president on the first day of his national book tour.
Reynolds clutched a copy of the newly published autobiography, then held it up in the air, hoping Clinton might somehow see her. But even if he didn't, the Harlem resident said: "It was important for me to be here and show support to him. He's a great American president and this is a big moment for him."
It was Day One of the "Bubba bombardment," as one tabloid termed it, and Clinton spent several hours signing copies of "My Life" at the Hue-Man Bookstore near his office. Earlier in the day, he signed 1,000 copies at a Midtown Barnes & Noble -- where people snaked around the block, waiting many hours to see him.
Some had gone to great lengths to get there. Kathleen Miller, a Pennsylvania activist, awoke after midnight Tuesday, drove three hours into Manhattan and lined up outside the store in the early morning darkness, hours before rain began to fall.
"Do you think a little bit of rain is going to stop someone like me?" Miller asked as she huddled under a small umbrella and kept her copy of Clinton's 957-page book from getting soaked. "People like me are here on a mission."
Few cared about the book's negative reviews, and fans in the Manhattan store applauded when Clinton said: "It's up to the people to decide," adding: "I'm glad it's finally happening. I've been living with this for two years."
Clinton's autobiography, for which he was paid a record $10-million advance, had shot to the top of several national bestseller lists by the time it went on sale Tuesday, based on pre-orders. Publisher Alfred A. Knopf announced a first printing of 1.5 million copies, and some industry insiders speculated that sales of "My Life" could exceed those of "Living History" -- the book by his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), which sold 1.8 million copies.
To best her total, he must generate "great, sustained excitement" in the first days after publication, said veteran New York publicist Lynn Goldberg. Judging by the frenzied reaction to his Big Apple appearances, he may be on his way.
In Harlem, people shouted, "We love you, Bill!" when they caught a glimpse of him. Back in Manhattan, many in line nervously rehearsed what they might say to Clinton during a five- to 10-second interaction. Plucky fans stranded at the end of a line voiced hope that they too would get a chance to see the former president.
"I got it! I got it!" exclaimed one customer, holding an autographed copy aloft as she left the store and made her way up the street. "I'll never sell this on EBay!"
Publicists at Knopf are betting that these scenes will be repeated across the country, but they caution that it will be at least 24 hours before the first day's sales figures have been compiled by the company -- a crucial indicator of how well a book will do.
But on Tuesday, Clinton's face to face with thousands of customers provided some positive early reviews.
"Wow, how often do you get to see a real ex-president?" asked stockbroker Larry Zimmerman, standing under a stranger's umbrella. "After the death of Ronald Reagan, something like this takes on a bigger meaning. And I guess I'm a big fan of Bill Clinton.... I like the way he reached out to a younger generation."
There was more than nostalgia, however, at play in the book line: Activists wearing "Beat Bush" buttons roamed through the crowd, seeking signatures on petitions protesting the president's policies. And there were animated political conversations.
"How do we get rid of this guy?" asked Stella Ross, a Cupertino, Calif., resident, voicing displeasure with President Bush. "How do we get Clinton back into the White House?" asked her husband, Ken. "How do we let the good times roll again?"
For others, Clinton's celebrity was enough to bring them out on a rainy day. Christine Mattingly, vacationing from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said the chance to see the former president up close "was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you just don't pass up. I mean, this is my moment. What else have I got to do today?"
Like others in line, she said Clinton was a good president, even though he was a flawed human being. These flaws, she said, made him all the more interesting, "because it means he wasn't made of plastic."
Asked what she would say to Clinton if she got the chance, Mattingly grinned slyly: "I'd go up to him and ask, very simply: 'What were you thinking?' "
Others, however, said the sex scandal involving Monica S. Lewinsky would not frame their memories of Clinton. As he watched the former president disappear into the Hue-Man Bookstore, airline crew chief Paul Mozeak said he would remember the day Clinton came to the neighborhood, and he added that there was a special reason why so many in Harlem had turned out.
"This man is a member of the black community," he said, straining for a last look. "He is welcome here, and I think people here want to give him a fair shake. We'll read his book, and we don't care what all the critics say. We'll make up our own minds."