From the Archives: Reverend Billy–The Revolution Is My Hot Neighborhood

2010 November 4
by Reverend Billy

Reverend Billy testifying against the rumored opening of a new Starbucks on Bedford Avenue, summer 2001

[Editor’s note: With Duane Reade’s new 24-hour store opening any day now on Bedford Avenue, it seemed appropriate to re-publish the following excerpt from the Reverend’s 2003 book, What Should I Do If Reverend Billy is in My Store? which we originally published in a 2002 print edition. The pictures here were also published then–taken during an anti-Starbucks demonstration, when it was rumored that the company was opening a new outlet at the site of what is now Fabiane’s. Times have certainly changed in WB–and yet again we hear rumors of an imminent Bedford Ave Starbucks, now across from the new Duane Reade. Viva la revolution?]

We’ve been malled and chain-stored so thoroughly that, if a neighborhood is healthy, roaring with humans – with, can I say it, a special Oddness – this is now politically radical. And evidence that a neighborhood is happening comes out mostly in the hot talk. The seed of a neighborhood is the unsupervised talk of a particular kind, by three people on a corner.

That sounds simple; it isn’t. It’s complex and that is the point. For instance, you can’t plan this, you can only get out of the way. You don’t need Disney’s planned town of Celebration, Florida to prove that real neighborhoods cannot be made by policies (read corporations). The phrase “planned community” is oxymoronic. Do I have a witness?


We’ve seen 3 talkers on the corner, and we’ve heard them too.

You can tell when the talking and listening is intense; even if it’s lazy and a hot day, there is a jumpiness, an edge. If anyone is

Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir, N5th & Bedford. Ten minutes into the sermon, the police arrived, giving them 15 minutes to finish--that or be arrested.

touching anyone else, that’s a good sign, whether it is chest or shoulder slapping or touches on the hands. If one person listens with disbelief or exaggerated dismay on their face, if the group seems to exchange comic smiling masks, that’s it. If the three seem to be in suspension while a story is acted out, and suddenly burst with abandoned laughter, that’s the revolution right there.

I remember one time I was riding through Richmond, California, on the east end of the weird San Rafael bridge, and this was a Sunday. A gray windy Sunday, and we were driving through by a church where a funeral had taken place. There were three African American mothers in Sunday dresses and great hats — brims that went way out. And each of them had a white hanky, and with the wind shaking their dresses and hats ready to fly off they each tended with their hanky to the face eyes and cheeks and nose of the lady to the left, each dabbing the one to the left, each of them talking and listening as they did it, joined together in that circle.

Original individuals originate more original individuals that generate a neighborhood that has that mix of comfort and surprise. Like our three talkers on the corner, originating people trade their stories artfully, but without the designation of an art form or the sponsorship of a corporation. The stories, and I mean to include shorter forms like jokes, memories, gossip, lies, insults and even grunts — they all have an agreed-upon drama. There is a presence of no planning, of, I-created-this-right-now, of, at the climax of the tale, an unknown. In my neighborhood, the talk is hot because it is constantly unfinished, created-now, aching towards but subject to all the forces that the rest of us might push into it.

Tensions mounted as cries of “Kill the Pigs!” issued from the gathered multitudes, but the Choir’s joyful rendition of “Just Stop Shopping” both calmed and uplifted our spirits…

Paranoid police and transnational capital outlets share the message: “Move along.” A chain store creates a hush. In a verbal culture like New York, chain stores, full of awkwardness and muzak, have no place in their place.


My suspicion that the neighborhood is the last worthy opponent of the transnationals comes first of all from how corporations act like sexually crazed adolescents around us.

Picture the Starbucks scouts coming into a neighborhood and listening for the laughter, sneaking up on a diner and staring at us. The arriviste corporate folks tear apart neighborhoods every day with chain stores and malls, but the entire source of their aesthetic for the new anti-neighborhoods is what they just destroyed. Very love/hate, I’d say. They just crave happy people. They do expensive smile research. Then they broadcast smiles back at us until we’re depressed. Exactly like the jilted lover who finally ends up banging you over the head with the roses. In a typical K-mart, nobody in the aisles is smiling, but the walls are covered with huge high-resolution smilers.

If a real neighborhood still exists somewhere, say in the community garden near your home, or a half a ghost town still there

Again we hear rumors of Starbucks' plans to colonize Bedford Avenue

along Route 66, or a street corner in Washington Heights, or little towns up the Hudson or up the Pacific Coast from San Francisco along the water east of Mobile, and say that you live in one of these places and someone tells you a story and you start grinning, be careful — a camera will find you. See it there in the window of that touristic SUV? …see that hip location specialist for ads? Smiles, the facial contortion they cut and paste from the neighborhood, sell. Smiles sell.

can I tell my story now?

Now — back to the emporium of bad soft-porn that is my own neigborhood, because with who I am, children, I always have to return there. It’s my neighborhood. Can someone help me? Keep it hot. Amen. In Noho, just uptown from Soho, like much of this part of New York, we are suffering from “development;” — new buildings whose edifices come straight down to the sidewalks and don’t afford a place to lean and talk. They want to keep us moving. Fewer stoops or steps for human words.

We have rubble from demolition, and towering models sulking with sex quandaries rising from the vacant lots. The chain stores are coming in, although high-end ones, with the falsely bright light and the hush of styled posing and no hot talk. The minimum wage sales people are unhappy and disconnected from the products on their shelves, which are covered with — you guessed? — smiles.

The high-end shops are essentially the same as the chains, maybe the light isn’t in fluorescent tubes on the ceiling, but they are hushed too; commodification leaves the neighborhood strewn with silent boxes of stylish air. The rents are so high that there’s centrifugal spinning here, and lots of us fly off to outer Queens. Me? I’m starting to get dizzy, but am curious to see how long I can stay. (In the time following this writing, I moved to Brooklyn, then back to Tribeca, then Nyack, then back to Brooklyn, spinning, looking for my hot neighborhood.) The people who are selected out to stay here are very, well, they are tall white people. Their clothes are flown in from the same runways. Chinatown to the south is still a neighborhood; but all the Italian talkers that used to be around here have been sucked up into Scorcese films and haven’t been seen since.


That’s the thing that makes us suspect that the Devil is in our midst, children. That flattening of natural hot chatter into white noise and big ads. That’s Evil…. When you walk into the Starbucks at Astor Place there is no recognition, no-one shouts YO or calls our your name. This is Evil. There is a narrowing of the kinds of language that is shared in public, a regularization of gestures. It happens so gradually as a neighborhood dies, that people only notice an untraceable emptiness, a certain dullness.

Can we say this? Whatever God du jour you are hanging with, don’t go shopping. God wouldn’t be in a chain store I don’t think. In fact, let’s just say: GOD IS THE ABSENCE OF GENTRIFICATION. Let’s add this to our beliefs next week. Someone give me an Amen. Because god really has to be interesting, or, let’s make it rhyme for effect: GOD GOTTA BE ODD.


You must have noticed children that I’ve been whipping ordinary living with words like “odd” and “hot”. I’ve been circling around it, poking it, calling it lots of things. But three people talking on a corner, at least this should be, just every day life. So how did ordinary life become colonized? Lots of people have discussed with greater skill than I about how the corporations conquered the last frontier, ordinary living. Please study the words of the Saints: Tom Frank, Naomi Klein, Jean Baudrillard, Kalle Lasn, Benjamin Barber… we have the anti-consumerist brilliant writers. They explain how in much of the world we talk after, and never before, we accept the brand.

Oh we can talk, go ahead, but let Cindy Crawford in on the dance, have those logos everywhere. They are your platform for your subsidiary creativity, and, yes, go ahead and do your own things, but the logos are a vast swarm of purchasing commands protected by a psychic vacuum of graphics and shilling celebs. These writers have labored to explain a decisive phenomenon, brandufacturing, where a company persuades us a whole way of life is indicated by the sacred acceptance of a running shoe, a cup of burned coffee, a smiling rat. These writers are, children — Saints in the Church of Stop Shopping.


Today let us ask this question: How do we retake our life, how do we take back our neighborhoods. Let’s talk practical politics. How do we revalue (or even notice) ourcommonest gestures and exclamations. And as I’ve been saying from this pulpit — remember our memories, our personal ones and our public ones. So much of resisting trans-national corporations is remembering things that we’ve been told to forget. As in: what is oddly scary about each of us as individuals who bellow and coo in public space without any particular sanction, i.e. what is not a consumer in me. What story do I have that isn’t a part of a product’s language? When my neighborhood’s working, those are the stories that come up.

The Revolution is just a neighborhood. Three talkers on a corner. Amen.

the pastor wants to fess up

Amen. Can I tell my story? Can I take my time? Alright, I’m going back to my neighborhood now. I’m walking into the Jones Diner.

The Jones Diner has been there for 65 years, since 1938. The Olmstead development company is building multi-million dollar luxury apartments on all sides and is in court trying to break the Jones lease. David Bowie moved in next to the Puck Building. The supermodels are waiting in the limos in front of Balthazar and Pravda But so far, George and Alex are still there in the Jones. They come in every morning from Astoria at 5 AM.

The diner is at Lafayette and Great Jones, near my home, down in the soft-porn canyon. So here’s my story. I walk in to have the stuffed pepper special. I sit down. Now — there is an advertising campaign that put bright purple signs everywhere. Fairly small signs, featuring a single phrase in quotes, like someone is saying something. As I eat I have to read these things. I have about six of the purple signs in my field of vision. They have a friendly look, a very Smith Corona-ish old font — friendlier than email fonts. The print is cheerily reversed out, white language on a purple background.

surrounded by chummy purple signage

The messages of these six signs add up to what I call a “loneliness campaign.” The signs’ text reads like the off-hand remarks of a close friend. In that tradition, some of the phrases seem almost aimless, like the way a buddy talks. So, this one day I’m sitting there in the Jones and I’m reading one of these signs. It says: “You mean she actually went up to your apartment?” That’s it. Just that phrase, hanging there in the window while I’m having lunch. “You mean she actually went up to your apartment?” And so I’m thinking, and saying– maybe my lips are moving — I’m saying, “Yeah she did. Unbelievable.”

Now you may say that’s harmless, most ads taken alone are harmless. But my point: the people I was with in the diner were exactly the best friends that would have said this very phrase, to me, in my real life. Alex and George , who are right here, now, without the advertising, they would crow, after my kvetching about a relationship for weeks — “You mean she actually went up to your apartment?”

So, while I’m eating Today’s Special, the afore-mentioned stuffed pepper with the boiled carrots, delicious actually and only six bucks… while I’m sitting there chewing Alex notices that I’m staring at this sign. He’s looks out the window at what I’m seeing, maybe he sees the furtive arch of the eyebrow and small interior speech when I cooperate with the sign and have a full-blown memory of the disastrous visit by this young Parker Posey cum Audrey Hepburn figure to my 5th floor pig sty, and then maybe Alex remembers me bringing her into the diner also, to a sort of general held breath. Maybe he’s seeing all this in a flash and he’s ready to intervene.

I’m stunned daydreaming now, watching a full scale movie of this visit that I’m projecting through the awful coffee steam, and Alex slaps me non-injuriously across my lost face. He’s shouting, “Well what WAS she thinking? I know I wouldn’t ever go up to your place. First, what are the diseases? They’ve never been seen in this country, your diseases. I mean we might read about your diseases in the news but they haven’t been seen around this neighborhood for years, what you got…” George then comes over with.. “And then there’s the insurance question. The rates for going up to your room would have to be worse than collision coverage in Jersey. What was she thinking? Send her over here so we can counsel the poor girl. I mean she has no idea! ”

Before long others in the Diner, the usual motley human comedy, they are assisting this routine with well-placed wisecracks. My ex-accountant is one of them, and a guy who runs a small furniture store nearby, Bob, he chimes in too, although he always talks to me through the Reverend Billy persona. “Reverend you’re depressed again!!” And of course, I am in the sing-along myself, “Well she, in fact, had very little idea, up to that point she had done no meaningful research, on what might happen, going up to my room.” Around the diner people where shaking their heads slowly to empathize with what she must have experienced, like they were remembering what a great gal she was and how she was last seen with me, and to be in my arms is some vast maw of purgatory.

We were acting out any insecurities I might have had, a neighborhood full-court crowing contest, a giving back the clown his catharsis. We were our own best audience, laughing to show how much we’re liking our own wit but also laughing how you do when collateral understandings, forgivenesses, encouragements, must be told by a parallel eye-winking and friendly pat.

Then the odd, the unknown rose up. Alex, a Greek-American from Astoria who probably voted for Rudy Giuliani, drops to his knees and shouts, “But will you come up and see my etchings sometime? You’ve never been to my apartment.” I’m taken aback. He’s either laughing with or at gay culture, but I don’t think if he knows what gay culture is. But we’re all laughing, and it’s probably because he is a male male and I’m a sort of gay heterosexual, to him, a college-educated slummer who nonetheless is liked. But everyone in the long narrow diner took trajectories to be here, everyone is suspect and grounds for a good-hearted suspicion of closets of some kind.

I’m saying, “Well I understand you have etchings featuring scenes of a famous diner.” And he said, ” Yes different scenes, one with snow, one with just regular garbage everywhere…”

And Alex starts singing, crooning, like Vic Damone… “I etched my etchings in a night course at Cooper Union, just for you… ” George was vibrato-ing with his thick fingers an air violin on his arm and starts singing in his heavy Greek accent “I have diners on my walls just for you… ” And I’m thinking, where is this going? And then suddenly a German tourist family appeared in the door, all smiles, and we abruptly stopped the bit. Alex and George were instantly gracious and helped them to a table.

A curious thing happened. I noticed it later as I was walking home with my to-go bag. The labyrinth of joshing had saved me from the six purple signs in the windows. The comic serenade of Alex and George– I could feel the signs shrink away. In fact, here’s an important detail: I can’t even remember what those signs were selling. Amen!

what would it take

The hope for freedom starts in the body, in the psychic body. And in the configuration of “3 talkers” — as with Alex, George and me circled by purple signs trying to pass themselves off as confidants, we can leverage our way to freedom from the incoming seduction with the home-grown Oddness of our own conversation.

When you start with the hoped-for revolution, you keep wandering into military metaphors. But our revolution would not so much be an attack outward, because our opponent is not standing there in one place like the Berlin Wall. I understand our resistance as a neighborhood-claiming, a re-honoring, strengthening, of what we already do. Our opponent is everywhere and nowhere; does not have to retreat or advance. They melt into air. And then they re-appear; as they did that day. It was suddenly clear to me that their experts had been studying my loneliness. I would have been distracted for sure, lost in it, and sharing confidences with six purple signs, except, I wasn’t in a chain store, I was in the hot, odd part of my neighborhood – and thank god.

I can’t say that in the Jones, that our guy rumble of cracking wise, shoving each other and acting desperate, that it completes some general strategy. But I suspect that anything I ever say about saving ourselves could be folded back into what happened that day in the diner. I know that the signs shrank away. And I know that somehow this comedy routine is the seed, the 3-on-the-corner, the revolution, my neighborhood.

oh, we three on the corner

We have something in us that ad departments have an intense need for, but which we ourselves have undervalued. They know that their seduction must find a way to interrupt Alex and George and me. Those purple signs nearly did. They came pretty close. The ad departments need to know exacty where the vast interior of the individual joins up with the mysterious souls of the other talkers. How do we instantly create these bonds? How do we do it without products? Where do our stories come from anyway; they just seem to rise out of us magically. Wait a minute, was that a completely new word? Oh yes, the logo-driven must harness our brilliant banter, and this is as clear to them as placing a dam on a river for power.

The extraordinary is in the ordinary. The odd pleasure rises through the trusting teasing that we off-handedly tend to together. In its ho-hum way we build a sneaky buoyancy in the room. A counted-on psychological-gravitational pull. We have to claim that in a more forthright way now, because they see it as a market. We have to claim it. We don’t have to give them our power.

Thus ends today’s message. Let us pray.

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