1998 was the year the White House went insane. After what had been a relatively successful second term as POTUS, Bill Clinton was suddenly blindsided by damning revelations concerning an extramarital affair he’d been conducting with former staff intern Monica Lewinsky. Clinton was, at the time, defending himself against another lawsuit leveled by a woman named Paula Jones, who also had conducted an affair with the President. During his testimony for Jones case, Clinton apparently lied under oath about his relationship with Lewinsky. When Linda Tripp, another White House aide, handed over phone recordings of Clinton discussing oral sex with Lewinsky, further adding credence to a perjury charge, the scandal snowballed into a case of impeachment on behalf of the House of Representatives, making Mr. Clinton the second President in the history of the United States of America to be impeached (Andrew Johnson was the first).
The young writer
I was a young writer fresh out of writing school at the time. I’d been one of those rare lucky stiffs who’d managed to nail a big book deal right out of the starting gate with my novels The Innocent and Godchild. Along with the success came the usual party-like-a-rock-star marathon drinking and carousing sessions in New York City with my then agent and editor. We were young, and stupid, and on top of the world in the greatest city on the planet and we had the publisher’s money (and corporate American Express) in our pockets to burn.
Fast forward to early winter, 1998. A huge Nor’easter was making its way up the coast. It was snowstorm like no one had seen in years. A once in a generation snowstorm, in fact. I found myself in Penn Station at mid- morning, sitting on the floor nursing a hangover, back pressed up against the metal support beam, waiting for the announcement of my train which would carry me north to Albany. The place was packed tighter than a drum due to people who’d either missed their flights, or whose flights were cancelled. When the train platform was announced, I got up, and barreled my way through the throngs of people, down the stairs, until I made it to my car. Luckily, I’d purchased a ticket in Business Class earlier or there was a good chance I wouldn’t have secured a place on the train.
Nathan’s hotdogs and Monica Lewinsky
Seated in the car, I could breathe easy and finally enjoy the late breakfast I’d purchased earlier, which consisted of two Nathan’s hotdogs, smothered with the works. Hangovers invite the munchies, so naturally Nathan’s was particularly enticing that morning. With no one as of yet seated beside me, I started in on the first dog, chomping into the tangy, meaty goodness like a man who’d been deprived of sustenance not for hours but days or weeks. But then suddenly, I notice a man standing beside me in the car aisle. He bore the blue uniform and officer-like cap of the train conductor.
He excused himself and asked me if anyone had claimed the empty seat. No one’s claimed it as of yet, I told him, my mouth and cheeks filled with hotdog and relish. The conductor turned then, and waved someone over. It wasn’t just someone. Nor was it just one person. It was two women, one late middle-aged and the other young. Maybe a few years younger than me. Maybe my brain had been reduced to so much mush from a night on the town, but I recognized the younger one right away. It was Monica Lewinsky.
An awkward moment
The mom smiled, nervously, and asked if I minded if she took the seat. Slowly, awkwardly, I set the cardboard container of hotdogs down onto the floor and shoved it under my seat. I told her I didn’t mind getting up so that she could have both seats for she and her daughter. My heart was racing. I didn’t smell so good from not having showered and no doubt my breath was anything but pleasant having filled my face with Nathans hotdog.
“You sure I can’t give you my seat as well?” I pushed.
But the woman’s face became distraught and tense. The car was filled with men and women reading the New York Times, the headline of which went something like this: Clinton Impeached! People were starting to stare. The train car, not to mention the world, had taken a turn for the surreal.
“Please,” she said, in what I can only describe as a screaming whisper. “Just let me sit down.”
Secret not-so-secret discussions about Bill and the blonde peril
I nodded, smiled and she took the empty seat while Monica sat down on the empty floor beside us. Moments later, the train pulled out of the station. Monica and her mom were talking to one another over the seat back. The name Linda came up several times in a bitter tone. Linda, as in Linda Tripp no doubt. There was also the name Bill, and then there was “that woman.” The blonde peril. Hillary. The two seemed to speak in code, not exactly coming out with anything of substance, such as the specifics behind what it must have been like to have sex with the POTUS for instance. Sex inside the oval office. But the two knew one another as well as any mother and daughter can, and there was real love there, and understanding.
The new Hamptons
After a time, the woman turned back around in her seat and stared out the window along with me. The snowy, Hudson River Valley flew past. The trees were bare and looked like ice-covered sculpture and the river was thick and swift moving and gray, and when we passed by Sing Sing Prison, she whispered, “I hear the Hudson Valley is the new Hamptons.” I admitted I’d never hear that before, but for sure I was aware that a lot of wealthy New York City natives were buying estates in the region. My heart was still pounding. I could feel Monica behind me. I could smell her perfume, and I could hear her humming a tune to a song I did not recognize. She had long dark hair, and her eyes were big and brown and her skin smooth. Her body was shapely if not on the larger side, but in a voluptuous way. I almost hated to admit it, but I could definitely see what Slick Willy saw in her. She was an attractive vivacious young woman.
After a short time, Monica got up to use the Lady’s room. And when she made her way down the narrow, never steady aisle, I thought for sure the jig was up and that she would be recognized. But the passengers continued to read their papers without so much as giving Monica a sideways glance. Either they were oblivious to her, or were acting purely out of respect for her rather fragile situation. Maybe it was a combination of both. It was at this time, I too decided to get up to use the bathroom. When I came back out, I once more asked Monica’s mom if she would like to use my seat for her daughter and she once more insisted it wasn’t necessary, which when translated meant, if Monica sits here, the whole world will be on her like flies on you know what. Rather than take my seat back, I decided to do something else. I sat on the floor beside Monica.
Chatting it up with Monica. Or not…
My heart was still pounding. I had no idea how much longer she’d be on the train, but I could bet dollars to donuts she wouldn’t be riding it all the way up to Albany. My guess is she would be getting off soon. I was a writer. A novelist, but also a journalist. I was sitting only inches away from her. Our shoulders were practically touching. We hadn’t said much to one another other than, Hi how’s it going? One of those stupid nothings young people say to one another when they either have nothing else to say or are too embarrassed to say anything else. But I could sense that she might want to engage in conversation. But what the hell was I going to say? How’s Bill?
There was also an opportunity here. If I were half the writer then that I am now, I might have slipped her one of my cards. I might have offered to ghost write her life story. I might have offered to take her testimony and write the article of the decade. Maybe if I could have convinced her to work with me, I could have gotten her to open up about her time in the White House, her time with the Clintons, her time with Bill in the Oval Office. She would have told me everything. How long he’d courted her, how often he called her, what were the specific circumstances that led to the tell-tale DNA stains on the infamous blue dress.
Monica and I alone
But it was not to be. When the train stopped in Rhinecliff, Monica and her mother got up. They grabbed their bags and buttoned their coats. Even then, no one else in the car bothered to give the two ladies a second glance. I stood up and asked them if they needed help getting off the train. The mother smiled, thanked me for my kindness and said that it wouldn’t be necessary. She turned and made for the now open door on the opposite side of the coupling. That left me and Monica alone for the briefest of moments. I told her it was nice meeting her. The pleasures mine, she said. At least, that’s what I think she said. Then she smiled, and for the briefest of moments, I felt the urge to say, “Hey, would you like to grab a coffee? Would you like to talk?” But she turned quick, and made her way to the door and disappeared in the newly fallen snow.
Mothers and daughters
I took my seat back and as the train slowly pulled out of the station, I peered out the window at the mother and daughter as they made their way across the platform towards the station. It felt a little strange knowing the part they were playing in the history of the United States of America, that the name Monica Lewinsky would forever live in infamy. But as the train picked up speed and they went to enter the station, they just looked like any other mother and daughter spending their day together in the cold and the snow of the Hudson Valley.
Nathans hot dogs and dreams
Reaching under my seat, I grabbed hold of my breakfast, set it onto my lap. The hotdogs were cold by then, but they tasted good anyway. When I was finished, I took a long nap and was woken up by the conductor warning that Albany, the end of the line, was coming up in ten minutes. My first thoughts were of Monica Lewinsky. Had I truly hung out with she and her mother? Or had I dreamt it all? Was it all just a figment of my overly active fiction imagination? I smiled and shook my head. It had happened and damn if I didn’t whiff the opportunity of lifetime by not asking her if I could write her story. Damn if I missed my chance to become a part of sordid Presidential history.