The whole bizarre incident started, as usual, in front of the Caffe Mediterraneum—center of the universe, where a tall man who resembles Jay Leno had attracted a crowd.
Saying, "never trust a man in white shoes," he carried on like a Southern Baptist preacher, a white-suited version of Johnny Cash, as a Berkeley Poet Laureate, Julia Vinograd, later symbolized him for her next poem.
For the past forty years Berkeley has hosted scores of entertaining street performers, such as Moon Man (selling lots on the moon), Polka Dot Man, Ricky Starr, Stoney Burke, Bubble Lady, the Nude Duo, Naked Man, and Hate Man.
Reverend Billy, as he bills himself, is Billy Talen, a "comic preacher," performance artist, and anti-consumerist activist, famous in the big apple, and beyond. He has been a guest of Steven Colbert, and was arrested at Goldman Sachs last year, in an Occupy action organized by Cornell West.
In Berkeley for a conference at the university, Billy wasted no time, Saturday afternoon, mounting an Occupy protest against Bank of America, whom he accused of being one of the worst threats to the world's survival, ecology-wise, and financially-wise.
In less than an hour, he had worked up a group of passersby and a core of supporters recruited through social networking to march on the Bank of America at Telegraph and Durant—a bank so damaged by a quarter century of window-breaking protests, it now resembles a walled fortress against the world.
Less than an hour was needed to mobilize more than thirty-five "congregants" to take aggressive action against the bank, while Occupy Berkeley, reduced to a rabble, continues its Hamlet-quibbles downtown.
With the goal of "invading BA's secret vaults" to see the people's money, and striking a blow "to their genitals, their tender spot" Rev. Billy led his ecstatic congregation, northward—to BA, stopping briefly in front of Pappy's Pub, for more exhorting.
The idea was to be worked, up, as in ecstatic religious fervor. Moans of ecstasy and angst reverberated on Telegraph, a street with a history of both.
After going to the wrong BA door, thinking the exit, locked from inside, was an entrance—a mistake made even by locals, Billy steered his congregation around the corner to the entranceway leading to the "secret vault."
And, of course, the bank's golden balls.
Billy commanded his followers to enter the bank in groups of no more than four. It was then one hour before BA's weekend closing. Although the first wave of occupiers got inside the bank, the door was soon locked, locking them in.
After getting some pictures I wanted from inside, I and four others, were asked, by the branch manager to exit through the side exit we had thought was a way in. This would have been a great opportunity for sitting-in, while the fevered congregation banged mightily on the bank's glass doorway from outside.
But I took my last photos, and rejoined the group outside. The bank closed, 45 minutes before its usual closing.
Billy, a veteran street performer, went to plan B—assaulting the ATM stations on the Telegraph side of the BA fortress. There were no police anywhere on the avenue.
But the assaults to the ATMs, while gnashing, and forceful, were not destructive.
Crossed forearms, a signal adopted by Occupy to block an idea or proposal, were used to angrily block BA and its policies. But the secret vaults, and, of course, the gold balls, were unscathed—although they took a pretty-good metaphorical beating.
It was then back to the Med, and Billy was hungry.
Seated with his fans, and dining on a big salad, a burrito—cappuccino in hand—Billy told the wondrous story of his mid-life transformation from play-producer at Fort Mason in the eighties to street performer on Times Square, performing as Rev. Billy across the street from the Disney store, and a block and a half from the New York Times.
At first New Yorkers "thought I was really a preacher, and wanted to know my denomination ("Church of Stop Shopping," if you want to know)," Billy said. He had fielded just such questions on Telegraph.
He told us that he owes his success to a now ninety-year old man, related to
Tennessee Williams on the Lanier side of the family. "I talk to Sydney everyday," Billy said. It was Sydney, who goaded Billy to give up his job, wife, and SF ways for the big apple.
Billy soon made the leap from street performing a block and a half from the New York Times, to the front page of its Sunday Magazine. His audience world-wide is in the millions.
Quite a success story in big-apple-town, which may have more street-talkers than Berkeley. His seat-of-the-pants protests ain't too shabby, either.
Ted Friedman reports for the Planet from South side, stories center of the universe.