The Reverend Billy mayoral campaign is locked out of its own meeting. It’s a rainy spring night, and four members of the campaign team, including the candidate himself, are standing outside of an unremarkable building just south of Houston Street. The Reverend is almost unrecognizable; his trademark, platinum blond-streaked coif is hidden beneath a knit cap. In slacks, shoes and a dark waist-length coat, he looks more like a Midwestern preacher than the ersatz televangelist type he plays on the streets of New York City, proselytizing against the evils of corporatism and consumerism.
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.