Photo by Ted Soqui
What better setting for a rendezvous with a prophet, even the semisatirical sort, than in the shadow of the Babylon Gate? Alas, the prophet does not appear. He is elsewhere, and in chains! Nonetheless, his flock has gathered faithfully, here on a sunny Saturday morning at the far end of Hollywood and Highland’s Babylon Courtyard, just across from Starbucks. But for the fact that he was sentenced to three days in jail last Friday for obstructing the flow of commerce at a Reseda Boulevard Starbucks, the blond, pompadoured Bill Talen, known to the world as Reverend Billy, chief and only minister of the Church of Stop Shopping, would be here too, primed to preach to the unconverted and the profoundly unconcerned.
“We haven’t heard from Bill since we dropped him off at the courthouse in Santa Clarita,” laments Tony Perucci, a young, goateed and sideburned professor of performance at Cal State Northridge. So today’s planned “retail interventions,” as the good Reverend calls them, will have to proceed without the good Reverend.
On the phone last week, Talen, who acted in mainstream theater for years before taking on the Reverend Billy role in 1997, explains the purpose of an intervention: “It’s an attempt to manipulate narratives. We have to break down the wall that separates people from the products they buy. People are radically depoliticized. Maybe that sounds too academic, maybe I have to come up with another phrase: Stupid.”
Starbucks has been a special target of Talen’s theatrical assaults, and not just because of the child labor in the coffee fields, the prison labor in the packing plants, the aggressive anti-union tactics at home — or the mysteriously missing nipples on the mermaid icon. The company has become for him a perfect symbol of the corporate takeover of the American unconscious — all that creeping sameness, the viral conquest of the commercial landscape, the replacement of eccentricity and grit with sanitized mediocrity and “fake bohemianism.” So Talen dons his Reverend Billy supersuit (off-white suit and black T-shirt with clerical collar) and storms into Starbucks across the land, throwing his hands in the air and praising “The God-That-Is-Not-a-Product.”
Starbucks, predictably, has fought back, not just with the criminal charges that landed Talen in Twin Towers, but with an April court order that forbids him to come within 750 feet of any Starbucks franchise in California. Talen says he has no intention of obeying the company’s injunction, but on this day he is otherwise incarcerated, so his flock will act without him.
Perucci, nine students from his “Performance and Social Change” class, and Savitri Durkee, Talen’s wife and creative co-conspirator, stroll across the Hollywood and Highland courtyard. They cross the boulevard to the Disney Store and begin circling the aisles, talking into their cell phones and fondling the merch: Peter Pan action figures, Buzz Lightyear sweats, child-size pink negligees. Perucci paces and loudly acts out one end of an argument into his phone, “Right, I understand, but if it’s made in Thailand, it’s made in a sweatshop. If you can tell me one thing here that’s not made in a sweatshop, I’ll buy it!” Two students fake a fight: “This store is like a devil and you know that,” says one. “They should put chains on Tigger, just like the kids that made him!”
The staff looks confused. The security guard stands by the door, oblivious. At last, a salesperson named Candace tells Perucci he’s disturbing the other customers. He apologizes, but sticks to the script and asks if there’s any product in the store not made in the Philippines, China or El Salvador. “Not that I know,” Candace says. “I have no idea.” She promises to call “guest services” to check, but instead consults the guard.
Normally at this point, with the store suitably prepped, Reverend Billy would step onto the retail stage and begin sermonizing. In his absence, Durkee raises her hands and announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a sweatshop company. Many of these products were made by children!”
The guard escorts Durkee to the sidewalk. A pack of preschoolers mobs a display of The Incredibles figurines. A shopper looks up briefly from a table of T-shirts and declares her creed: “Whatever.”
The Starbucks down the street at McCadden Place is next. The students loiter by the counter and talk among themselves about the corporation’s various sins. The manager is on her guard (in 2002, Starbucks distributed a memo to all its franchises titled, “What should I do if Reverend Billy is in my store?”), and within a minute asks Ryan Howard, a tall, soft-spoken young man in a knit cap who has been quietly debating the merits of child labor, to leave. He does. She phones security nonetheless, and soon enough two burly Hollywood Entertainment District guards amble in. Seeing nothing amiss, they amble back out. About half the customers go with them. Perucci and a student named Matt Mugar, both playing Reverend Billy in white blazers with priests’ collars affixed to their T-shirts, rush into the store. Perucci leaps about, red-faced, hollering something about the money and the children, and sending the money to the children. All but one of the few remaining customers flee.
“You can leave!” Perucci yells, as the manager shoves him to the door. “You can leave! You can send the money back to the children!”
He leaves. The manager shuts the door behind him. A blond woman peels the paper from a straw for her iced latte. Asked what just happened, she shakes her head and laughs: “Some man was yelling about something.”
The Mourning After
Gabby, a relentlessly bubbly, party-prone type and perfect dresser, never fails to lift my spirits in uncertain times. It doesn’t hurt our relationship that Gabby is the owner of Bleu on La Brea, my favorite casual-chic boutique north of the 10 freeway — a high-ceilinged urban outpost of pricey but irresistible fashions that is a world of its own, a bubble where time stops and the reigning concern is whether the pants you’re trying on “make your butt look insane,” in Gabby’s inimitable words. As it happens, Gabby has also badmouthed George Bush and backed John Kerry all year with the same gaiety and fierce conviction she expresses about the fabulousness of her merchandise. “Honey, George Bush is going down!” she’d declared to me over the summer more than once as I browsed among sale racks. “When he does, I’m having a margarita party. November 3. Be here.”
On the morning of November 3, however, I lay frozen in bed, not sure what good moving would do. The reality of four more years of war and bloodshed here and abroad, all hastened to their terrifying conclusions by an administration emboldened by victory to be even more heartless and heedless than it has been for the last four years, filled me with something like concrete. I began to wonder: What good have I ever done? What has it ever mattered to raise a voice of black conscience and reason when nobody’s really given a shit since the ’60s, and before that, since Reconstruction? How strange that I was even acting like this election mattered to me at all, since I’ve never really voted for anybody.
Instead, I’d been going to the polls religiously since I came of voting age in 1980 not to vote characters or morals or values — haven’t had that luxury yet — but to vote against the breakdown of the dam that, from where I sat, barely held back redneck, red-meat America. That dam was now groaning audibly against the weight of these red-state barbarians throwing themselves against it and inviting all the good, mostly white but universally gay-averse Christian folk to follow suit like lemmings trotting to their deaths and taking everybody else with them. I felt pained, then annoyed. I did not ask to go over that cliff. All I’d ever wanted or expected from my own punch of the awl during the last 24 years was a little resistance, the plugging up of a few leaks and then staying whatever wobbly course we were on until the next election cycle, when maybe, just maybe, I could vote my heart a little bit. I’d been stood up again, bigtime. I’m 42. This shit is getting old.
Well, then — fuck it. I would not think about this. I would not read the papers today, and I might choose to not read them ever again. I would leave writing and the whole dreary public-awareness jive behind and do something else. I would be an ugly American and concern myself with being beautiful in that leisurely L.A. sort of way, wear flip-flops and a T-shirt and fat diamond stud earrings, and stroll through supermarkets in the afternoon. I would consume and thereby be patriotic and self-serving at the same moment without having to think twice, or even once. I richly deserved the oblivion that the 59 million Bush lemmings took as their God-given right. It was time.
Of course, I needed new outfits for my new outlook. No longer invested in a ridiculously romantic notion of this nation one day becoming America, I headed to Bleu.
I figured there’d be no margaritas today, but there’d be Gabby, and things to buy, preferably at 50 percent off; that’s all I wanted now. I walked toward the back entrance and stopped abruptly. Gabby was sitting on a bench. Her thin shoulders were collapsed, and she was sobbing into a cell phone. She was perfectly dressed — jeans, chiffon tunic with ribbon tie, heels — and far more distraught than I had been hours earlier. Her face was slick with tears, and she looked somewhat older. She was trying to argue with someone about the election, blubbering things like “But how can you say that?” and “No, no, no, A does not equal B here!”
I took a seat on the bench to hear out her misery. I could see she wanted me to. I was astonished, and grateful. Here was someone for whom this country worked splendidly, who had no personal or historical quibbles with freedom and access and all the rest, whose (very successful) business it was to make people buy and abandon reason, and yet she needed me to get through this. In a way I had never imagined possible, we were equals. I stayed another half-hour before going on to work. It occurred to me later that it was the first time I’d gone to Bleu without actually going inside. But, as always, I got something that I didn’t even know I wanted until I saw all of its wondrous possibilities in a mirror, up close.
—Erin Aubry Kaplan
Four War Years
Get your kicks: Protesters Miguel and Charlie got the boot from
the LAPD.(Photo by Steven Mikulan)
Peace activists quickly followed Black Tuesday with a pair of demonstrations. Wednesday night’s, called by Not in Our Name, was an impromptu and defiant response to the Republican sweep. Eighty to 100 people circulated on the corners of the busy Hollywood and Highland intersection, and while the prevailing mood was outrage, there were comical moments. One protester, John Beecham, got a ticket for pushing a Target shopping cart with speakers on it. “Free the cart!” yelled some supporters who had gathered around the unlucky Beecham, his lawyer and the cops. “Whose cart? Our cart!” shouted others. On Saturday, the International Action Center’s “Bring the Troops Home” march drew between 1,000 and 1,500, and featured an unauthorized flag burning plus the familiar mix of hoodies, Latinarchists, pixies and grannies. They wound from Hollywood and Highland to Sunset and La Brea; there, a flatbed truck provided a stage across the street from a mini-mall housing an armed-forces recruitment office. The voices from the platform were angry, metallic and in need of a punch line — things that will have to change in a hurry if the peace movement is to survive the new political ice age. The LAPD committed a huge tactical blunder by not securing the mini-mall, which was quickly swarmed by a small army of black-clad youth yelling, “Fuck Bush, fuck Kerry! A revolution is necessary!” at the recruitment center. That changed soon enough, though, when the cops’ own black bloc arrived in quite a different kind of flatbed and proceeded to clear the mall. Miguel and Charlie, a young couple standing in front of Starbucks, weren’t able to leave the scene fast enough — Charlie told me she received a kick to her chest from one riot cop, while Miguel got a boot to his back. The next four years have yet to officially begin, but already it looks like a long, bumpy ride.