Politics & Policy

Bowery Bums

Saturday night with Reverend Billy and friends.

It was Saturday night. Despite the killjoy sign–”No drugs, weapons or alcohol”–the killjoy heat, the killjoy humidity, the killjoy rabble, and the killjoy location (a church!), I went in through the door. Left-wing agitators, maybe even anarchists, were in town and someone (an assignment our killjoy editor had rather discouragingly told the New York Times was the “short straw“) had to keep an eye on them. But, in my Gomorrah, the city I call home, the city of Pinch Sulzberger, Al Sharpton, Susan Sarandon, and the ever-degenerate George Costanza, where to begin?

After detailed research–several minutes at least on the Internet–a meeting hosted by the Reverend Billy and his First Amendment Revival Church & Gospel Choir seemed like a good place to start. The venue, St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery, is often described, ominously, as a center for arts in the East Village, and nothing good, we know, can come from the bohemians who choose to live down there. As for Reverend Billy’s topic (“prepare for nonviolent dramatic civil disobedience”), it seemed promisingly, suitably, wickedly subversive. Yes, yes, necessary disclaimer, of course such folks are not part of the Democratic mainstream, but they are, ask Howard Dean, increasingly the source of much of the party’s energy, inspiration, and verve.

Needless to say, the sight inside the old church (built, interestingly, on the foundations of the chapel where Peter Stuyvesant once worshiped) was not pretty. But not for the reasons you might think. Blasphemy? It’s been done before. Piercings? Who cares? Tattoos? Whatever. The glimpses of post-apocalyptic tailoring? Just local color, normal for the East Village. Worrying about those Mad Max shreds and tatters would make as much sense as going to France and being bothered by berets. Even the occasional, horrifying glimpse of Birkenstock was no great difficulty for me, a veteran of the fashion disaster that was Britain in the 1970s.

No, the problem in that room was the stink of self-righteousness, a smug fug of self-congratulation, stupidity, sanctimony, and bile. Republicans were bad, bad, bad. Ashcroft was evil, and America’s rights were under siege. The Patriot Act, hiss, and the Sedition Act, boo, were two centuries apart but one and the same in their iniquity. On the Reverend’s word, we raised our hands in the air, each of us clutching a little scrap of paper on which someone had typed that magic, marvelous First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Fine sentiments indeed, even if I wasn’t completely convinced that all those present wanted to allow Republicans their right peaceably to assemble in a city that has, we have been told again and again, no time for them, their opinions, or their yahoo red-state sensibilities.

And as for the blonde-dyed, caustic, sarcastic Reverend Billy, he’s a star (see his congregation quiver), a celebrity, a snide counterculture darling, a mall-rat Savonarola, a critic of consumerism, a parodist, a prankster, a preacher–but not, I’m afraid, a parson. Dressing up as a vic is just Billy’s shtick, a pantomime pastiche as bogus as his logic is faulty, his politics are ludicrous, and his gospel choir is hot.

But if Billy was silly, he was Reverend Rationality compared with the freak show unfolding in the darkness outside. Making my way through the churchyard, over the flagstones that mark the last resting places of poor David Jones (died 1823) and lucky John Wilson (managed to hang on until 1826), past the bust of an outraged Peter Stuyvesant (if a head made of copper could scream, it would, that evening, have been screaming), past the pile of provisions and cooking utensils being assembled for the drama to come, past downtown Kropotkins and trust-fund communards, past suburban shamans and, rare authenticity, a few genuine Bowery bums, I find a large circle of people gathered around two women, shrill of voice, strident of opinion, silver of face makeup, and, well, confusing of message. These ladies’ hopes of “magic action in the streets” were clear enough, sort of, but, as we all turned round and round on their shouted instructions, our hands reaching imploringly for the night sky, the “action in the center of the magic of the web” began to seem very, very murky.

And that was before someone told us that we were trees. Yes we were! The trees were rooted in the energy of the earth. We were rooted in the energy of the earth. Trees had branches. We were branches. We had to feel the energy, or something, from the Earth. The Earth, earth! An element, yes, yes, I got it. At last. Others came later. Fire, two sparklers, fizzing and spitting flame into the center of our circle and then, yes, you guessed it, water, poured and re-poured between two plastic glasses (recyclable, I’m sure). The crowd watched on, impressed, enthralled, captivated. Twelve hours later they would be marching through Manhattan because, you know, George W. Bush is, like, dumb.

The irony, I suspect, would have been lost on them.

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