Bernhard Goetz for Mayor: Subway Shooter as Candidate

Written by Andrey Slivka on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.


What
are these progressive ideas, Bernie? Nervous enthusiasm: "Well, okay,
there’s a number."

That’s
Bernie–as in legendary subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz–over there folding
his lean body into his chair amidst the shadows of a 14th St. apartment. Postwar
tan brick building, one of those middle-class lux jobs on a still-dingy block,
a stretch that sweats and moils on a torpid early summer afternoon. Outside, crowds
slop around in front of the bargain storefronts and it’s possible to feel
that old urban nausea and loneliness, to feel like you’re out of time. It’s
as if the block belongs to the old, violent, degraded city that coughed Bernhard
Goetz up into notoriety back in the fearful 1980s, almost as a death reflex before
the wretched town shuddered one last time during the incredible slaughter of the
Dinkins years and finally, mercifully, died to be reborn. This is a tan brick
apartment complex of the sort they used to build in the 60s and 70s. Institutional
hallways smell of food, and the lobby mirrors intensify the brown, grainy light.
It’s the type of building that evokes the forlorn urban place and time you
see in Cassavetes movies, a place and a time that now seem an eternity away.

 

But
first, before all that, you meet Bernie in front of the building.

There he is, the famous man in the flesh. He’s slim, and tall, and looks
at least a decade younger than his 52 years, pale blond like you remember him
from the thousand newspaper photographs you looked at all those years ago, when
you saw that wispy, lean guy walking sheepish through the media gauntlet, and
you thought–him?

"Hi,
hi," he’s saying, and–breathily, gesturing down the street–"let’s…"
He wants to take you somewhere.

Leads
you across 14th St. and up 6th Ave., pulling you along on some mission that’s
still vaguely defined.

"Um,
are you a vegetarian?" he asks brightly. You’re making swift progress
up the avenue, you’re following his rapid splay-footed gait.

Then
you’re inside Village Yogurt, where a middle-aged Asian woman smirks behind
the counter, as if she’s been pickled into a state of suppressed hilarity
by the air conditioning. Gangly and cheerful Bernie approaches. The woman leans
near her juicer like a soldier near his howitzer, confident and self-contained.

Bernie’s
talking nutrition. "You know that drinking the juice of a vegetable is far
more nutritious than the vegetable itself…" He holds out his hands in a
crushing motion. "The violence of the machine breaks down the cell walls…"

Goetz
is a pleasant guy. His pale eyes are constantly taking in everything around him.
Now, as he stands here in the fluorescent light that decays downward in a million
bits–linoleum diner light, the ragged light of the old Taxi Driver city,
which Bernie Goetz put in the sights of his handgun one December night in 1984
and tried to blow away–he’s soaking in the tantalizing sight of fresh
nutritious veggies.

"One
for him," Bernie’s chirping at the Asian woman, ordering me a cup of
juice. "I want him to see everything that goes in."

Each
vegetable’s a little shell for the woman’s mortar. She starts stuffing
them down and in, an ornery look on her face as she mashes, mashes, mashes, mashes.
Bernie gestures with his finger, bopping, getting off on the progress of the edible
plants through the machine.

Pointing,
bopping.

"Now
look at this. A beet, that’s a little beet." Machine masticates beet.
Juice dribbles down spigot. Cellulose by-product (the violence of the machine,
you see, breaks down the cell walls) sprays out the machine’s refuse tube
and into a trash pail.

Celery
stick, down the hatch.

"Okay,"
Bernie’s saying, "now a couple of carrots."

His
eyes widen. Woman shoves down a carrot, which ratchets through the gears. Bernie’s
a little breathless now, enumerating vegetables–"carrot! a small beet!"–and
finally a tasty cup of wholesome vegetable juice materializes in my hand.

Awww,
Bernie, you didn’t have to do that. Because, see, it’s on Bernie. Bernie’s
like that.

"In
my building is the first vegetarian diner in the city, and this place does a much
better job of peeling their vegetables," he enthuses. "When you don’t
peel your cucumbers right, you get a–a bitter taste."

The
juice is toothsome, luscious, absolutely A-okay. And no doubt very nutritious.

Walking
in the street, I kept waiting for people to recognize famous subway shooter Bernhard
Goetz, cultural icon. I kept waiting for the construction workers to give him
a thumbs-up, the ol’ fuckin’ ay Bernie Goetz! Or, conversely,
for the middle-aged white women who run Greenwich Village to get in his face with
their fingers, to call him a fascist and scream that they wished he were dead,
that they could shoot him. But none of that happened. It was hot out and
people had other things on their minds, and the world has turned, and the city’s
changed, in some ways beyond recognition. No one’s scared anymore, at least
not where Bernie lives, or you live, or I live, not as a general rule. But there
was a time in this city–wasn’t there?–back in the dreary day when
everything was screwed, and fear was a constant thing. (That, by the way, was
when you heard a lot of bitter joking about how Bernhard Goetz should run for
mayor.)

We’re
back in the apartment building now. Rent-controlled old dames prop open their
doors to reveal their batty packrat scenes. You step through a door into someone’s
darkened apartment–not Bernie’s, it’s his friend’s, he seems
to have borrowed it for the interview. You sit there in the dark amidst the glowing
lacquered black and blood-red Oriental decor, and the air conditioner roars in
the vastness, and a snow-white cat is a smudge in the distance, camouflaging itself
against the wall. Bernie takes off his espadrilles and folds himself into a chair,
crosses his thin legs.

He’s
running for mayor of the City of New York, by the way.

So
tell me, Bernie, what are these progressive ideas of yours?

A
lean mantis in the dark, he says: "Well, okay, there’s a number."

 

"I
think if people–if society–solves the problem

of getting rid of pythons in Florida, that they can also maybe find a solution
for killer bees."

Goetz
exudes, believe it or not, a Zen calm. Sit in a darkened room with him on a hot
afternoon when the air conditioning’s humming, and you might feel yourself
drifting off into a sleepy torpor. You might be lulled by the man’s gentle
voice. It’s an amazing voice for a man associated with such huge violence
to have.

"There
are judgments in life," he’s saying into the darkness. "And I’m
not one of these people who says we have to respect all life. I believe that you
want to get rid of mosquitoes, you want to get rid of pestilences. I think it’s
perfectly all right to get rid of reticulated pythons in Florida, and mosquitoes
and killer bees. Et cetera."

I’m
with you about the reticulated pythons, Bernie. The cat skulks soundless and the
air conditioner hummmmmms.

"This
fellow was feeding a live chicken to his reticulated python. The python is a machine
that is designed to kill a mammal. You may have an 80-pound snake, and people
have to realize how dangerous that animal is. When that animal latches on you,
it can wrap itself around you in one second. And the snake killed him."

He
blinks like a happy cat. "I do not like snake people," he adds. The
contemplative tone leaves his voice now and he becomes impish. "By the way,
in the pet stores–because I spend a lot of time in the pet stores–I
generally find that the snake owners are, for lack of a better word, lower people.
For example, they have more tattoos, they speak more coarsely, they’re crasser
people." Beat. "You’re much more closely related to a squirrel
than you are to a snake."

You
oughtta meet my mother-in-law, Bernie, har har har…sleepy…that lulling, measured,
precise voice…

Goetz,
who makes his living buying and selling industrial electronics, says his candidacy–on
which he plans to spend no more than $2000–is motivated by a desire to perpetuate
the Giuliani administration. Goetz’s plan is to get himself elected, then
hire Rudy Giuliani as deputy mayor and entrust significant duties to him.

"I’m
not interested in living in Gracie Mansion or marching in parades or doing a lot
of ceremonial functions. I’d be willing to do some ceremonial functions…
I would actually be the legal mayor, but the first deputy would live in Gracie
Mansion."

"I
would talk to him," Goetz says of the mayor. "I would let him, again,
decide in what capacity, if any, he’d like to serve. Basically, the way you
approach people in a situation like that is you tell them–" He breaks
off. "Um, I’d rather not say." He smiles. "You don’t
tell them they can write their own ticket, but you work with them…"

Still,
Goetz wants to augment the Giuliani program with some of his own ideas. He calls
these "some of the most progressive ideas of our time."

So
what are these progressive ideas, Bernie?

"Well,
okay, there’s a number. The first one, for me–and I’m not going
to press this–I agree with what Albert Einstein said…he said, the most–um,
let me try to remember his exact phrase–the–oh, yes. There is nothing
that will further the course–hold on. There is nothing that will–let’s
see, that will–oh yes, here it is: There is nothing that will increase the
chances for human survival on Earth more than the evolution to a vegetarian diet."

Now
he’s caught a rhetorical groove, and he calms himself and folds his body
back into his chair.

"I
think that that would have a lot of impact. I don’t mean New York, but the
whole society. And so what I’d like to see is that in all public-funded food
facilities with a standard menu, that a vegetarian menu would be offered in addition.
And that’s something that should cost no additional money…

"By
the way, in the jails they say, well, you do have the right to a vegetarian
menu, but that’s not really–but that can be misleading… In practice
you don’t really have it… You know, when you first come into jail you only
fill in a few forms. One of the forms says, are you taking any medication, are
you allergic to anything. And then you check off one of three diets, and that’s
if you want to have a standard menu, or if you want a kosher menu, or if you want
a Muslim meal. And I just want a vegetarian menu added to the standard one."

How
long has Goetz been a vegetarian?

"Twelve
years."

So
when you were on Rikers, Bernie, you weren’t yet a vegetarian?

He
shoots me a cold look, and says: "No, I wasn’t."

Goetz,
despite his admiration for Giuliani, advocates relaxing drug-law enforcement,
and he’s in favor of rent stabilization. Another goal he’d like to accomplish
as mayor is to bring Rudy Crew back as schools chancellor. Doing so, he says,
would be "the best thing we could do for education." Even if he can’t
convince Crew to return, he’d like to "get his advice on how to run
the school system."

"And
before I go into details on that," he announces, "I want to go into
the history, so that your readers will understand. I’d like to say that I
think Chancellor Levy is an intelligent and dedicated man, but my own personal
opinion is that he’s going about things the wrong way. I’d like to see
him stay in city government, I think he has a lot to contribute, but I think if
he stays being the schools chancellor, then in two or three years he’s going
to be very unpopular and even deeply resented. I think the present system, where
they’re mandating performance on what they call the New York State Regents
exam–"

The
phone chirps into life across the room.

"–Wait,
wait, turn your machine off, kill that machine–"

I
turn off the tape recorder, and we listen as Bernie’s friend’s phone
message kicks in. A series of ominous beeps and phone-hums floats through the
dark. Bernie sits forward in his seat and cocks his head, listening. But it’s
nothing, and the tension passes.

The
schools, I remind him–we were talking about the schools. You can lure Crew
back? You can pull that off?

"I
might be able to," he ruminates. "I might be able to pull that off…"

One
of the troubles with this election is that some pretty unlikely candidates are
running.

"There’s
a lot of silly candidates that get on the ballot…" Bernie says, amusement
edging his quiet voice. "Grandpa Munster–he has no issues. Basically
he has very little issues, he’s not a serious candidate, he’s probably
gonna be on the ballot, or the head of the Marijuana Party. Then there’s
all these other little insignificant parties…"

Goetz
has bigger plans.

"I
personally am registered with the Independence Party," he explains. "I
wanted that nomination, and I still do. I hope that Bloomberg drops out, actually.
And if he drops out, there’s a good chance that I’ll get the nomination
of the Independence Party. That’ll get me on the ballot, and that way I can
avoid running as an Independent, which would save me a lot of work."

What
about the possibility of people saying the same thing about Bernie Goetz that
he’s saying about Lewis?

"Well,
prior to my incident I was one of the main community activists in this area. Yes,
I have a lot of name recognition from it. As a result of my name recognition,
most of the public in New York knows that I’m an honest person that can be
trusted. I do not consider that I am exploiting that incident. Those incidents–if
they’re exploited, they’re exploited mostly by some people in the media,
some lawyers, some politicians."

Goetz
thinks he has a chance.

"If
I can get on the ballot, I think I will win. That’s if I can get on
the ballot. WPIX did a survey [on June 4], and they did an interview with me,
and then they had on some comments from the public. They asked as their question
of the night to the public, where people could log on the Internet: after seeing
this, do you want Bernie Goetz to run for mayor? I was shocked at the results.
Eighty-one percent of the people responding–and that’s of over 900 responses–said
that I should run for mayor. That doesn’t mean that they’d vote for
me. But they said I should run for mayor."

 

It’s
no surprise that Bernhard Goetz

should be concerned with the way racial issues play in New York. "I’m
disgusted with how race is being used. The police department is not racist.
You have a police department which has between 30 and 40 thousand people on the
streets, and they have a gun. And when you have 30 or 40 thousand people on the
streets with a gun, not only will you have accidents, but you will also have misconduct.
It’s a fact of life, just like if you have 30 or 40 thousand people with
driver’s licenses… [S]ome people are going to make mistakes, and there
will also be some misconduct and you just have to accept it."

I
ask Goetz what it’s like for him on the streets of New York. You’ve
got to figure that, even if he’s a folk hero to a lot of New Yorkers, to
many others he’s an almost demonic entity. Again, you imagine what it’s
like for him to encounter the old-line Greenwich Village matrons–racist!
fascist! pig! In the grim midst of New York’s Koch-and-Dinkins-era suicide
attempt, in a city the political discourse of which was still defined by racialist
cant and the rhetoric of permanent black victimhood, Goetz pulled his handgun
in the subway and made himself perhaps the most controversial human being of his
era. Who even came close? Al Sharpton? Ivan Boesky?

"It
varies," he says of his public reception. "I don’t get unfriendly
responses. Oh sure, people still recognize me. This case–how old were you
at the time? But you lived in the city at the time? Okay, in the city it was a
super-hot political issue. The city had major problems, and I think on a deep
psychological level the incident made a lot of people–made people more–how
would I phrase it? The incident made people somewhat more aware of what was going
on in this society."

What
was going on appeared to be a spectacular social breakdown.

"Absolutely!
You had the city under Koch–Koch refused to talk about crime, to press the
issue of crime, he had no idea what to do about it. The city was accepting this
social deterioration…" He says, "Fifteen years ago there was a lot
of thugs on the street, just intimidating people and threatening people and doing
violence on people, and that’s almost unknown [now]."

And
it’s an indication of how much the world has changed that Goetz can these
days say with a shrug, "I think the subway system is a wonderful thing."

 

Yes,
but Bernie–why are you doing this?

Why are you running for mayor?

"If
you want a real progressive cause…" he’s explaining, "one of
the best ideas that I’ve heard is something similar to what the Romans used
to do. The Romans used to say, give people bread and circuses. That wasn’t
cynical, as you might think. Today people don’t need circuses. But in terms
of bread…you could actually give people bread, or you could give them surplus
government food, free.

"What
I advocate is a mediocre sandwich," he continues. "Something with basic
nutrition. The reason I advocate a mediocre sandwich is, it would be unfair
to compete with all the food businesses out there to provide food of the same
tasty level that the delicatessens and restaurants provide. All that animals need–and
human beings are animals–to survive are two things… You need food and shelter.
You don’t even need clothing. People can find that one way or another…
People should have access to food every day. So if there could be spots in the
city, perhaps the government could pay a small fee to the supermarkets so that
there could be a refrigerated counter where a sandwich, where surplus food, could
be made available for free to the public. Again, it would be mediocre quality,
but it would be continuously available and free…"

Goetz
bends his head to the side, and a feline self-satisfaction plays across his face.

"For
hundreds of millions of years–for billions of years on this planet–all
creatures were either hunters or prey… Not only were you hunter or prey, but
even if you were one of the hunters, even then you lived in fear of being prey.
People can break away from that cycle, because we’re the top animal
on the planet… We do our killing today in the supermarket, we do it while sitting
in a restaurant. When you sit there and order anything–chicken or fish or
steak or anything–you have the power of life and death over an animal. You
don’t have to kill it anymore with your bare hands, or with a weapon. You
kill with the power of your money.

"I
don’t have a problem with food anymore," he observes. "…[Y]es,
I think that eating less meat, or more vegetarianism, is very important to helping
advance civilization. In fact, I personally think if people would stop eating
meat it would solve–and I know this is going to sound outrageous to a lot
of people–but I think it would solve, just to give a rough figure, a third
of the problems on the planet…

"We
all know what we do," he almost whispers. "Whether at night in our dreams
or when we’re conscious, but we know. And for me personally–a rather
funny thing–prior to becoming a vegetarian, when I was looking into a mirror,
I couldn’t look into my eyes for any period of time, and now I have no problem
doing that. You know what you are. People tend to know what goes on."

 

Days
later, a follow-up conversation over the phone,

and Goetz is adding something to the record ("This is not a major issue at
all, in fact it’s a very minor thing"):

"I
think it would be a good idea, in a small city department, to allow napping. You
know, a nap on the job, and that people shouldn’t feel intimidated if they
take a nap. When I worked for Westinghouse, oh, that was about 30 years ago, there
were two things you could be fired for immediately. One was sleeping on the job
and the other was making a pass at a woman. I think that people function more
effectively if they’re allowed to take a nap… I think people will function
better if they’re allowed to take naps…

"Eisenhower
used to say, the trend of civilization is inexorably upward."

www.bernieformayor.com

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