The Church of the Divine Heckleby Reverend Billy
The first debate, Bloomberg and Thompson. We had discussed many scenarios, including hurling a shoe at Bloomberg while he stood at his podium. I was not invited to be part of the debate, but as the Green Party candidate I wanted to be there, if only for a moment. So I waited in line at the door of El Museo del Barrio, amidst the elite who actually had been invited: hundreds of real estate speculators and Wall Street bankers, city agency heads and big donors, all of them dressed to the teeth.
This first debate was a benchmark for this political/financial class of New Yorkers. Their gold-plated preening seemed to say, “If we get through this debate, we’ll have just enough democracy style points, just enough to take another four years.” The power people embraced each other with a frightening, erotic intensity. They would be rich again.
My heart was racing and with my fibrillating history, that worried me. I put my three fingers up under my jaw-bone and my artery was hitting the high hat. Then I noticed my mouth was open. I frowned at my mouth. Was I was losing it? I must be very obvious. I was in the fifth row. Bloomberg’s podium was on the four-foot high stage about eight feet in from the stage’s edge. The teleprompter and journalists’ table with mikes and wires faced the 600-person crowd. There were security people watching this moat between the audience and stage, but they were against the wall to the right and left, at least for now. I could go straight up the center walking on the arm rests like Roberto Benigni at the Oscars. The trouble with my plan was that Mayor Koch, about to turn 85 years old, was directly in my path.
“And now Mayor Bloomberg, drawing straws, you have the first opening statement.” Then Bloomberg began. God that voice, that stolid, whiny, arrogant voice. I was standing now. I must do this in his first sentence. I’m up on the arm rests now. They’re old solid ones, but they’re dark and I’m peering at them to set my feet accurately to miss the elbows and—but I’m already through three rows and how to finesse old mayor Koch? No, I’ve slipped, I’m falling, I’m down in a lady’s lap, down in a lady’s lap, I’m up, back up, forget the arm rests—get to the center aisle, the police are shouting now.
I manage to glance at the stage as I bump across the knees of the seated dignitaries in the 2nd row, craning my neck around. There they are, the four journalists at a long table on the right, and Bloomberg and Thompson standing erect at their microphones. All six figures are stock still, frozen— they look like figures in a video game. I am in the aisle now facing them, planting my right leg in a deep bend for the leap. THANKS. Bloomberg is saying thanks, and I’m inside the sound of that long nasal “A” in his thanks, and it feels like a lie I can leap in.
I land on my knees and roll into the back of the chair of the news anchor, the guy from NY1 named Dominic, and he lets out a WHA? And I wonder—where are the police? I feel very ungrabbed. I start running straight into a smiling-in-terror Brian Lehrer—oh wrong way—then turn and face Bloomberg with my hands in the air—gospel-style—to show that I have no weapons. I walk quickly to the center of the stage to get in front of Bloomberg before they can kill the live sound feed. I’m in his staring face now and I’m shouting, the sound coming up on its own like I asked for it to be delivered; this is the voice of New Yorkers coming up through me now. Bloomberg has stopped and looks with his Iguana-like face and here it comes: MIKE, WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE? WE VOTED FOR TERM LIMITS!
And I am tackled and down. I try one last scream of Democracy! and a hand clamps my face shut. I’m in a pile-up of cops and by now the sound feed is off and maybe the visuals too have gone to technical difficulty. And soon I’m sitting in a chair in cuffs panting backstage, ready for the Tombs, but feeling very good, feeling that my campaign for mayor finally broke through the barrier to third parties. And I didn’t care if I was vilified in the media, at least New Yorkers would know that I was their bullhorn. I did what all radical Americans who have needed change in this country have always done—I was willing to risk my life.
Now, in the 24-hour news cycle of world events, this is not a big deal. But I feel a wave of satisfaction. For a hot minute, I interrupted the $100 million campaign—the re-coronation of the king of the corporatized city. In the first sentence of Bloomberg’s opening, I broke through the heavy gray corruption of our politics, this thing that drifts our great city inexorably toward an empty triumphalism, a kind of suburban silence, and such a mimicry and betrayal of the half-century of true greatness that New York City showed the world following World War II. Now it’s as if invention, newness—all the scintillating possibilities—just don’t matter anymore. Even if we have devolved into an Italian city-state, with one Medici ruling, couldn’t the Charlie Parkers and Susan Sontags and Andy Warhols live here now? Couldn’t they find food and shelter and couldn’t we find them?
Then I notice that I’m completely alone. I’m backstage, back in the shadows behind the long drapes. I stand up and there is terrible commotion, distant sirens, shouting. I pull back the edge of the curtain and look into the blast of light on the stage. Between the two podiums, a televangelist is face-down in a pool of blood. I was shot and killed before I was able to say anything. Mayor Bloomberg is gone, hustled into a black SUV that was idling in readiness out on 5th Avenue.
I have not served the cause of Democracy. I have made the idea of change once again the pre-occupation of unreliable crazies. I have sealed my legacy. A joke death with a snarky epitaph.
Reverend Billy Talen was a sometime playwright who cast himself as a televangelist, like the Naked Cowboy, in shiny suits reading Marx/had a 40-voice choir of radicals and musicians/known for comic exorcisms inside big box stores/the Brooklyn resident shot dead tonight from a misunderstood prank at the mayor’s debate at El Museo del Barrio.
My heart is racing. Well, I got to the 5th row, anyway—that’s pretty close! Amazing in fact—that they would let me sit here, with my glowing suit and the dyed blond Elvis do. You could see by their faces that the election officials wanted me to leave but seemed flummoxed by the fact that I actually had a ticket. My heart is… God this is taking forever. Can I rise to the biggest sermon of my life? Can I be loud enough to get into their live feed on the stage microphones? My heart is absolutely jerking. Mike begins: “I want to thank NY1 for sponsoring...”
NOW. Stand up. Inhale deeply. Pull in the oxygen, pull in the air-power through my feet, my back, my chest, my scalp. Now vibrate absolutely every part of the body, Billy—like a human woofer. MIKE, WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE? It’s working. From the 5th row, I’m close enough and loud enough. Everyone on stage has stopped talking, paralyzed with the preacher blast. A second big gulp of air. All right. Let it fly. WE VOTED FOR TERM LIMITS! Oh here it is—the hands across my mouth, half-nelson under the arm, yanked to the side aisle, through the exit. There are two others being pulled out with me, young women with signs.
The door slams behind us and the debate is gone. I’m in an alleyway with two remarkably relaxed 20-something activists by my side. One of my fellow ejectees says, flashing her youthful white teeth, “We saw you sitting there so we got in behind you. We knew you’d do something.” The three of us were surrounded by a circle of obese cops. The head guy looked like a younger version of Ray Kelly or Jimmy Cagney, straight from central casting. Feet wide, arms folded, he said, “Your tickets are no longer operative. If you have any more tickets on your person, you must surrender them.” Behind his crew-cut the noir lighting caught the wrought iron filigree of an old fire escape perfectly. But I was feeling high from all this. I did what I do. I preached. And we could tell already they wouldn’t jail us. I’m ready with my cross and nails, I joked. The young lefty ladies laughed.
And I didn’t get shot, that’s good. But I suppose I’ll always wonder if I should have been more bold, jumped up there. No change ever happened in America without some of us risking our lives. I couldn’t do it here, not tonight. I’m going to be a father soon. The heart attacks and bullets need to give me some time. I lost this election, but I’ll have another chance to have the power to interrupt power. Won’t I?