Everyone has that moment when they realize they are destined to end up in New York City. Mine came on a snow-swept day in my sleepy hometown of Burlington, Vermont, as I was dropping off my suit to get that one lapel button polished and the dandruff blasted off. I had done this countless times before — my wife sometimes refuses to be seen with me at the Trader Joe’s until my suit has been buffed and de-druffed. But somehow this time was different: As I paid up, I had a vision of myself in ten years, standing in that same spot, dropping off that same sad suit, handing over that same crumpled bill (actually, since it was ten years into the future, the $10 bill had a woman on it — I want to say it was Emma Goldman.)
It’s not that I became aware, just then, of the banality of small-town existence. (All the opposite: Burlington happens to have a fantastic art-house cinema that plays all the food-justice documentaries and has Moxie Blue Cream soda on tap.) It’s just that, at that moment, my campaign manager called to say, “Bernie, we need to go to New York. It’s rich with delegates."
I was on the next Volvo out of Vermont, and the truth is, I never looked back. Okay, I looked back once, when the guy behind me started furiously blowing his horn at my Reelect Franklin Delano Roosevelt bumper sticker. People love that thing, but all the honking can be dangerous on the interstate highway system. I’ve been meaning to take it off, but Jane and I have been a little bit busy lately.
I can still remember pulling into New York City. I remember the first moment the Brooklyn Bridge came into view and I thought to myself, “So, they finally finished it.” Truth is, I had been to New York before — as a child, when I played punchball in the streets of Brooklyn. (Punchball is a sport very much like baseball, except instead of swinging a bat, you punch someone’s balls and then run into a corner and eat a pickle.)
I’m not going to lie: Things were hard when I first came to New York, as they often are for those tired, those poor, those huddled masses yearning to breathe free. I believe they’re called mole people.
Bob Dylan once said, “New York was a city where you could be frozen to death in the midst of a busy street and nobody would notice.” As always, he was right. But apparently, New York is also the city where Donald Trump could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and not lose voters. So I thought, maybe I’ve got a chance. Especially since my campaign manager had come up with a clever slogan: “I’m Still Bernie From the Block.” He told me it was a Jell-O reference. I’m not sure what gelatin had to do with anything, but okay.
When I finally made it to New York, I spent entire days walking the streets, avenues, and particularly Martin Luther King Boulevard, giddily exploring all the places I had only read about. It didn’t matter that they had changed immensely since I first saw pictures of them in the pages of Cream (my favorite magazine about egg creams). I was too naïve to realize that the townhouse that had been blown up by the Weather Underground was no longer cool, and hadn’t been for years. I went into the frozen yogurt store on the first floor and asked the proprietor: “Weather Underground?” He responded: “I don’t know. Probably ten degrees cooler than it is up here.” I couldn’t quite hear what he was saying, and a “Who’s On First” routine ensued. (Another “Who’s On First” routine ensued when my wife tried to get an Uber to pick me up on First Avenue, but that’s another story.)
People say that creativity is dead in New York — that the days of Pete Seeger plucking the banjo and crooning Dust Bowl ballads inside of union halls are long gone. Well, that would be incorrect. The moment I arrived, I discovered the city’s creative underbelly — or, at least, some very creative pork belly at a restaurant called, I don’t know, my wife would have to tell you the name. We went there before Hamilton.
But, anyway, I had no trouble sniffing out the city’s still-thriving underground — especially with my 14-year-old social media manager telling me things like, “Vampire Weekend is trending on Spotify.” I told her, “Dear, I don’t understand a word of what you just said, but go ahead and book them. Just make sure their cabaret cards are in order.” Then she said something about TV on the Radio. Television ads on the radio? Clearly, this young woman was going places.
My next days in New York were a whirlwind — thousands chanted my name at rallies. I joined a picket line and took Verizon to task for greedily screwing its employees while simultaneously spending billions instituting “wireless” telephone service. Have you ever used your phone and thought, “Gee, I wish this was wireless?” No, because you do not live in a mansion like some oligarch, where you need to roam from room to room to room. Even if you did, you would just get a longer wire.
At some point, however, all the late-night canvassing and the block parties and the cable-show appearances and the driving from rally to rally began to take a toll — a $20 toll at the Verrazano Bridge, to be exact. I began to wonder: Why did they only collect the toll in one direction? They could be bringing in $600 million more every year if they just closed that loophole. It was shameful.
Clearly, the city was starting to lose its luster. One day, I escaped to Vatican City and remembered what it was like to breathe fresh air — it was so quiet there that the only thing you could hear at night was the sound of choir boys being corporally punished with rolled-up reassignment papers. I began to wonder why I was spending the last good year of my 70s in a city mired in filth and capitalist greed. (Have you seen the price of a Nathan’s hot dog? It’s now in the triple digits.) Not to mention those Wall Street fat cats. Or maybe those were rats I saw on Wall Street. That’s what my wife said they were. But no way were those rats. Unless they had eaten a bunch of other rats?
When I got back to New York, something had died. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. My campaign manager clarified that it was my chances of winning the state.
As he said it, a cab drove through a puddle and splashed hot garbage juice onto my suit and spectacles, just as a Daily News photographer snapped a damning cover photo and said “Ha-ha.” I had had it. It was time to leave the city I had once loved.
I knew exactly what I needed to do. I would return to the great state of Vermont, to that same dry cleaner, and hand over my garbage-soaked suit to that same lady behind the counter — home at last. Except when I suggested this to my campaign manager, he said, “Absolutely not. We are going to California. We have a lot lined up there. The Red Hot Chili Peppers are expecting you.”
And so it was that I said goodbye to all that. “Give me a token,” I said. “We’re getting on the subway and going to Los Angeles.” There were migrant chili-pepper pickers out there, ready for a revolution.