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?”