A senior staffer makes a phone call as Billy's retinue huddles beneath the building's overhang. "I don't think we've ever had a mayor who's avidly read the New York Review of Books," Billy boasts, tucking a copy into his bag. The staffer hangs up and announces that the man who has agreed to lend the meeting space, a supporter, forgot about the meeting. He was just on his way out to dinner.
The man comes downstairs, unlocks the door, and leads those present down a hallway and then a flight of stairs. The underground political movement is literally meeting underground. The hallway looks like an un-tiled subway corridor; a door at the back opens onto a nearly posh basement lounge, complete with a bar and a stage. "Oh, this is nice," Billy says, sounding slightly surprised. This is the campaign's second meeting, its first in this space. Chairs and tables are stacked against the wall, and the staff begins setting them up.
Billy paces the room, whistling. He takes off his coat, revealing a vest beneath a wrinkled black suit jacket. After trying on several mayoral outfits, he jokes, he settled on the "rumpled mortician look." More people show up and chat around the tables. About 16 people are there before the meeting begins, some women and older people but mostly men who appear to be in their late 20s or early 30s. Carrots, grapes and flatbreads are passed around. A Green Party representative—Billy is running on the Green Party ticket—plops a golden-arches paper bag on the table in front of her. "I'm sorry if I'm offending anyone with the McDonald's," she says. "I was hungry." Bringing McDonald's to a Rev. Billy meeting—a convocation of the anti-corporate—is like bringing a BLT to a mosque.
"We're all sinners," a man shouts reassuringly from the other end of the room.
One night in the late 90s, when Bill Talen was still a struggling artist and activist working in restaurants, he waited on a table that included then-Mayor Giuliani. A decade later, he's gunning for Rudy's old job.
But Talen isn't running as himself—not exactly. He's running in costume, in the guise of his trademark character, The Reverend Billy, whom he describes as a "manipulation of a myth, of an American icon" with "rightwing threads and a leftwing mouth." If you live in New York—hell, even if you've only visited—you should have seen him by now, flanked by his choir, preaching in Times Square or invading a Starbucks, urging us all to Stop Shopping. (His organization was formerly known as The Church of Stop Shopping; it's now called The Church of Life After Shopping, as the message has broadened from one of anti-consumerism to one of general social justice.)
The character didn't come easy. Throughout the 90s, it evolved with difficulty, he says, in stops and starts. He tried doing "Billy" as a comedy show, as a cable program, as a theater piece, as Internet radio, but none of it quite worked. It wasn't until he started preaching in front of the Disney Store in Times Square, around 1997, that something clicked. The Rev. Billy became performance art, guerilla street theater.
9/11 gave the character purpose. The terrorist attacks freed the character, Billy says—he was no longer just political parody. Billy began to take the pastoring aspect of his character seriously, something that hadn't been on his mind in the 90s. The Reverend preaches to crowds but then he meets with individuals: he hugs, he walks, he listens, he offers solace. "Politics works when it comes from high-stakes humanity," Billy tells me on a recent afternoon in his second-floor Windsor Terrace apartment.
He and his partner, Savitri Durkee—also the director of the Church, and a senior member of his mayoral campaign—have lived in the neighborhood for almost seven years now; it's one of the last "safe neighborhoods—from real criminality," Billy tells me. "No chain stores, luxury condos, class-A office buildings: Bloomberg's idea of progress." Windsor Terrace, they say in a joint interview, operates on a localized economy, which they want to expand to the entire city; it's the crux of the campaign, not just talk or think tank theory: they are living participants. (Billy insists his campaign is a community: he, Savitri, the choir, and anyone else; he doesn't like the "lonely hero aspect of American politics," the "lonely guy on a horse candidacy tradition.")
"Here's our Bible," Billy says, lifting a copy of Jane Jacobs' The Life and Death of Great American Cities from the couple's dining room table, on which also rest two MacBook Pros.
The city had set up a large lifeguard's chair in a sandbox at the focal point of Union Square South to advertise jobs that would be available on New York's beaches this summer. Around churchgoing time on a Sunday in March—a particularly frigid morning—Rev. Billy climbs it, toting a long, white, acoustic megaphone.
"I want to pool you all out of Mike Bloomberg's bullshit. You're drowning," Billy shouts, through his cheerleader cone, toward 14th Street. "Amen?"
"Amen!" someone shouts back.
The Rev. Billy campaign is about to begin in earnest with an official announcement of candidacy. Men with cameras mill about, as do a few reporters clutching notebooks, looking anachronistic. Some pedestrians pause to investigate, though most don't stay long.
After posing for photographs, Billy alights from his perch. He is wearing his five-dollar clergyman's collar, a black shirt and a Blue Man Group-blue-colored suit. His pompadour stands firm in the breeze.
He goes off to join his choir—The Life After Shopping Gospel Choir—huddled together beneath the equestrian statue of George Washington, warming up their voices by running through scales. Dressed in green robes, like St. Patrick's Day graduates, the female-dominated, multicultural group is impressive in its polyphony and professionalism; they lend Billy a bit of legitimacy. "I'm hot!" Billy tells some choristers once the warm-ups had finished. "But I'm freezing." It has started flurrying.
About five minutes after noon, the choir kicks off the rally with an anthem called "Democracy is Not for Sale". The crowd has grown to a few dozen. "There's justice in my vote," the choirmaster shouts. "And I want you to vote for Rev. Billy." Gloria Mattera, the erstwhile Green Party candidate for Brooklyn borough president (and a member of Billy's campaign), gives the reverend a proper introduction, citing his commitment to social and economic justice, to equitable and sustainable development.
"Can I preach now?" Billy asks when she's through. Mattera sounds like a high school principal in comparison; Billy is eloquent, impassioned and catch phrase-prone in his sermons-more Jeremiah Wright than Barack Obama. "We're surrounded by the logo-infested Bermuda Triangle of retail!" Billy says. "We feel the attack of the consumerized palaces all around us... The Demon Monoculture here at Union Square," he calls it. "A tsunami of monoculture."
He invokes legendary New Yorkers, from jazz musicians and Jane Jacobs to the Statue of Liberty—"she's the leader of the Green Party, amen?"—and references the "Theme from New York, New York": "it's up to you, New York. It's up to us New York!" (In the following months, with reworked lyrics, this will become the campaign's theme song.) He rails against Bloomberg, accusing him of spinning off neighborhoods because they are unprofitable, of treating the city as a corporation and dubbing himself the chief executive. He talks about the importance of neighborhoods, and refers several times to Jacobs, Robert Moses' famous pro-pedestrian foe. "Neighborhoods are hip!" he announces to great applause. "I just came up with that!"
"Gentrification is the absence of God," he adds, generating a few lusty amens. "Loveallujah, let's win this election."
The choir ends with its call-and-response gospel rendition of the First Amendment. Afterwards, Billy goes into the crowd, shaking hands, posing for photographs. An impromptu press conference begins, which Billy relishes until his press secretary pulls him away. He ends with a joke about debating Bloomberg on his private jet, so they could share his carbon footprint.
Back near the Washington statue, Billy idles with staffers and chorines. "This is when I think of all the things I wanted to say. I was supposed to make people cry," he tells me. "Some of these people don't have gospel backgrounds."
Billy's own background is decidedly not gospel—it's Midwestern Calvinist, which Billy describes as "virulent Protestantism whose god resembles an aging Republican C.E.O.," a god who can decide to send you to Heaven or Hell before you're even born. But there's an "upside to the torture," he says: Lincoln was a Calvinist. So was John Brown. Many Calvinists grow up to become social justice advocates because they're trying so hard to get into Heaven, Billy suggests. He has four sisters: one is a filmmaker, another a nurse, another an activist, another a yoga instructor.
They were raised in Minnesota and South Dakota; Talen's father was a banker at The Farmer's Bank and Trust. "Basically, he lent money to farmers," Billy says. And his mother? "My mother was a mother." A therapist once told him he began his career shouting at statues of Mickey Mouse "because Mickey Mouse is my father," Billy tells me, before laughing heartily and breaking into an anti-Disney rant. He slips into character so easily it's hard to tell if a dividing line exists.
Billy was swept out of his conservative upbringing by the upheaval of the 60s; he left home at around 16 years old and moved to Madison, Wis.—the Midwest's equivalent of New York, in terms of an urban refuge for young people trying to find themselves. He never felt totally at home in any generation, and considered himself a "beatnik-hippie-punk," borrowing a little from each cultural movement.
He lived in San Francisco, Philadelphia, New Hampshire, Los Angeles and New York, among other places. He did a lot of hitchhiking, a lot of moving around, a lot of "vibrating" between California and New York. It wasn't until he came to the city in the early 90s that he decided to stay for good. What was different that time? "It might have been Reverend Billy," he tells me. "I felt like something was up. This was the right place for it."
The Vote Rev. Billy campaign's opening ceremony for its official headquarters, a proper storefront office on Lafayette Street, takes place on an unseasonably warm day in early spring. Outside, a couple passes, chatting about the reverend while bemoaning a general culture of political inaction.
Only "REV. BILLY," painted in orange block letters on the transom window, identifies the space. Inside, a puny disco ball, as disco balls go, hangs from the ceiling. The party was scheduled to start at six, but a little past they're still setting up. Billy isn't even there. His press secretary, Michael O'Neill, sporting an "I Heart NY" t-shirt under a pinstripe blazer, sweeps the floor while talking to a potential volunteer about third-party viability. It's hard to imagine Bloomberg's press officer with a broom. He uses a "Vote Rev. Billy" flier as a dustpan.
Others fiddle with light fixtures or clear crushed light bulb packages off the tabletops. Chairs line most of the freshly painted walls; a table in front holds campaign literature, a table in back sports several bottles of local wine. Behind it is a keg of Kelso beer—also local—cooling in a plastic bucket filled with ice. Several bikes take up the heart of the room.
"Isn't this cool?" one woman asks her daughter, who stops in. A man on a ladder clicks a light onto the disco ball, which refracts it into splinters around the room. An older man in a jean jacket and sweatpants reads the Village Voice. A gray-haired punk wears a hand-painted t-shirt: "Stop Queen Bloomberg" on the front, "911 Inside Job No War 4 Oil Stop Wall $.T. Crook$" on the back. By 6:30, most of the campaign brass is present-but still no Billy.
Two thirty-something women pop in and pull me over to ask questions about the campaign. "Does he support gay marriage?" "Now call me crazy, but Bloomberg's running for a third term, right?" Conspicuously, they seem to have stopped in only to pilfer free wine, like college kids at an art opening. After a few minutes, one says, "Ok, c'mon, we've got more shopping to do!" They collect their TOPSHOP paper bags and exit the headquarters of the leader of the former Church of Stop Shopping, clicking their heels, wine glasses in hand.
Outside, a woman in a summer dress hands out Jell-O shots to those who have spilled on to the sidewalk. Alex, a filmmaker, tells me he supports the campaign because "it invigorates democracy with the Holy Spirit. No party machines, no billionaire's clubs in backrooms with cigars..."
But my attention drifts because at seven, Billy arrives alone, toting, as he often does, his lectern on his shoulder—his cross to bear—his bullhorn in his hand. Followers flock around him, and the room is electrified as he enters: flashbulbs snap, attendees applaud, shout, laugh. "I like it," Billy says. "Hardwood floors." And he breaks into a soft-shoe shuffle. He stands by the door like a sovereign; passers by are like foreign dignitaries, shaking hands, making quick conversation before moving along.
"Open for business! Patronage!" he shouts. "Who wants a job?"
Outside, a woman on a cellphone passes. "It's Reverend Billy," she says. "Oh my God, I'm at Reverend Billy's office!" She hangs up and starts snapping pictures with her iPhone. "He's insanely fabulous," she tells a few supporters congregating outside.
Two young women, who must be on the brink of drinking age, pass. "Reverend Billy?" one says. "For may-or?" Billy makes his way outside and chats with them. "You're welcome to"-he motions inside. "We have wine, if you like." They walk away instead. Two separate fratty jocks pass by and ask, with a tinge of hostility, "what's this about?"
By 7:30, the chairs are filled, the booze is being consumed as supporters mingle, nibbling on grapes. Billy, though, has wandered across the street to meet his new neighbors: Ladder Company 20, Engine Company 13. He's received politely, if a little bemusedly.
"So you're running for mayor?" Captain Weldon asks.
"Yeah, on the Green Party ticket," Billy says.
They discuss curbside idling, and Billy delivers a critical diatribe against Bloomberg's environmental policies.
"Oh, I forget—that's your boss, right?" Billy says, feigning fear that security cameras are watching them.
"Do you do healings?" Weldon asks, changing the subject.
"Yeah," Billy answers enthusiastically.
"Cos I need healing," he says, smiling, "and this guy." Weldon looks to his left. "C'mere," he says coldly, as though calling a dog.
A tall, muscular and baby-faced firefighter appears, with a nametag that identifies him as Gallagher. He smiles awkwardly while Billy grabs his shoulder and asks the "mysterious creator" to heal this man so he can fight fires. A good sport, Gallagher continues to smile.
Afterwards, Billy makes to leave. "Thanks for letting us be your neighbor for seven months," he tells Weldon. "And don't forget," says Brennan Cavanaugh, the campaign's photographer, as Billy and his retinue makes its way back to HQ, "the mayor doesn't know who pulls the voting lever."
Back at headquarters, speakers pump jazz. Someone changes the keg. Most of the party has moved to the street. Roughly a dozen dancers have co-opted the parking space in front of the storefront, gyrating in the flashing siren lights of an FDNY van to the James Brown pumping out of portable speakers (which are strapped to a bicycle and powered by a car battery.)
"The streets belong to the people!" a supporter shouts at the reverend, raising his beer. Billy pauses and bends over. "I think I'm having an acid flashback!" he responds. (Later, the supporter tells a friend, "So I said, 'acid flashback'-that's not as bad as acid reflux!") James Brown hits a shrieking high note and the crowd howls.
A Times reporter cozies up next to me. "I can't believe the cops haven't come," she says. "All my life, I've never seen this. And right in front of the cops! Well, the FDNY."
Word makes it outside that the reverend is about to speak, so the crowd of about 100 tramps back inside. "Church is about to begin. Welcome to crazy mansion!" Billy says. "We will be in Gracie Mansion in just a few months."
"Just two terms," he adds, "I promise."
The Green Party first approached Billy with the idea of running for governor, which he and Savitri rejected. State politics isn't really their thing. But running for mayor? That was something they were interested in. Especially now, with their antipathy for Michael Bloomberg. "We felt someone had to" run, Savitri says, aside from a "sacrificial Democrat."
"And we had the skills, the tools, the flexibility and the stones," she adds. "The cajones!"
The couple had also begun to tire of pure activism, which Savitri called "insular". By running for mayor, the reverend is expanding his network of supporters; they currently have 1,000 volunteers working on the campaign. "The format and frame of a campaign inspires a certain type of person," Savitri said, who might not otherwise participate in activist politics.
Running for mayor was an idea they'd toyed with for a while, at least as an intellectual exercise: what would we do if we had the power? But politics is notably different from activism. As activists and artists, Savitri says, you're always marginal, you're an antagonist. In the interior world of politics, you're a protagonist; you're no longer simply oppositional—you need to have solutions to the problems. You need to think through all of your policy proposals in great detail.
Actually getting onto the ballot, treating the idea of running as more than hypothetical, required the help of experienced politicos—like Gloria Mattera—to help deal with the legal, procedural and bureaucratic obstacles to running for office, of which there are many.
Billy doesn't respond well to this sort of minutiae. At one meeting I attended, heavy on matters of housekeeping, procedure and fine points, Billy did stay alert, taking notes, but he jumped up every time a latecomer strolled in, fetching them a chair. "It got a little too fucking wonky for a minute there," he told me afterwards. "Sometimes you need a little inspiration. I guess that's my role."
Over the last several weeks—with the primaries over, and the form filing finished—it has been on to pure campaigning, where the reverend shines. He and the choir have been appearing, among other places, on subway lines, singing songs and handing out literature. And, as always, pastoring. (He is also the one who, in an act of civil disobedience, interrupted the mayoral debate, in which he was not invited to participate. "We voted for term limits!" he shouted to modest applause during Bloomberg's opening remarks. "Why are you here? Why are you here?") The campaign is based around serious issues of affordability, viability, gentrification, overdevelopment and consumerism, but gussied up in the trappings of raucous performance art.
"Politics is a very conservative, gestural play," Billy tells me over cider at his dining room table. Within those parameters, there are a limited number of moves to make, like kissing babies. "Why not break open the theater a little bit?" he asked me. "Why not?"