The woman in the sombrero waiting to board the No. 2 express train at 96th Street was heading downtown to an anti-Bush party with friends. She was with a young man in a matching sombrero that bore a roughly scrawled note in red advising the president to "Go back to Texas!" The young woman was wearing a black slip dress and on its back, written in masking tape, was this pronouncement: "Bush is a lier!"
As she stood on the platform, two helpful bystanders pointed out that she had misspelled liar. "It's spelled with an 'a,' " they explained. By the time the train arrived and the partygoer and her friend had stepped on board, the message on her dress had been reworked: "Bush is a liear!"
And so a call went out aboard the subway car as it sped underneath the city's West Side: "How do you spell liar?" None of the New Yorkers, sympathetic to her cause, had the heart to suggest that before hurling an insult at the president, perhaps it's helpful to know how to spell it. In this most Democratic of cities, folks are willing to make allowances for all manner of protesters. Even those who may not own a dictionary.
Over the last three days, there have been protesters in pink lingerie: "Pink slip Bush!" There was a protester covered in leaves and hopping about like a woodland nymph for reasons understandable only to him. There was a guy dressed like a rocket to protest the war in Iraq. There were supposed to be Buddhist protesters in Bryant Park on Monday showing their disapproval of the current administration by sitting quietly. But we couldn't find them, so maybe they didn't show up, which maybe means that they were really, really mad. Hip-hop artists were supposed to march over the weekend -- but they had to go to the Video Music Awards in Miami.
It's all in the name of running the Republicans out of office.
Run 'em out; vote 'em out; shock 'em out. On Sunday, self-described radical queer activists had a kiss-off at Seventh Avenue and West 46th Street. They marched through the Theater District -- crossing paths with protesters carrying a banner that read "U.S. out of North America." This is the kind of proclamation that prompts the question: Do you own an atlas? The gay marchers chanted, "We're here, we're queer. We're fabulous." The rest of their poetry cannot be repeated verbatim in this publication, but it can be summed up as a general warning: Do not get them riled up. The group of protesters looked bedraggled, as if they'd burned off a few pounds through the sheer intensity of their anger. Their T-shirts and cargo pants hung off them. One woman had nothing left covering her upper body but a pair of pasties.
"The Republicans represent the opposite of everything I believe in. They're super pro-capitalists. I don't believe in the war. We have a responsibility to register our disagreement," said Nadya Rosen of Brooklyn, who was modestly attired in a tank top.
About an hour after most of the Republican delegates had settled into their "Salute to Broadway" seats -- they'd been given tickets to some of the city's longest-running musicals -- the activists outside began smooching. Anyone wearing a "Kiss Me" sticker was fair game. There were passionate kisses, dramatic lip locks and casual hookups. An appreciative crowd cheered them all.
New Yorkers love the Billionaires for Bush with their sharp sarcasm, their highbrow irony and their splendid costuming. With full-blown, righteous self-indulgence, the Billionaires spit out lines such as "Here's to the workers of America for lining my pockets. Huzzah!" They chant "Four More Wars!" and "No Justice: No Problem!" They made their RNC debut Sunday morning on the Great Lawn in Central Park, where they played badminton and croquet.
Their interpretation of the modern billionaire is along the lines of Thurston and Lovey Howell of "Gilligan's Island," rather than Texas oilmen, midwestern real estate tycoons or West Coast technology entrepreneurs. They favor captain's hats, white gloves, top hats and tiaras. They sprinkle their conversations with "dahling," and they have monikers such as Uma D. Consumer and Noah Countability.
And when they are first sighted, there is always that brief moment when confusion clouds the eyes of onlookers and they wonder: Are they serious? Should we give them what for? That is part of their charm. "We're intelligent people having fun," says Tom Kee, an actor and history professor, whose Billionaire alias is B.J. McBribe. "There is an educated populace that believes that democracy should not be for sale."
"I am a conservative Democrat who believes whoever is in office should operate with oversight," he says. "Right now, there's no one watching."
On Saturday, witches gathered in the cemetery next to St. Mark's Church in the East Village. Against the reflected fluorescent glow of a Ray's pizzeria, they danced to the beat of bongos and the jangle of tambourines and tiny bells. There was a cowgirl witch in a brown fringed jacket and shiny black pants, and there was a witch wearing no pants at all -- only a floral blouse that partially camouflaged her black bikini briefs. Women and men were spinning and gyrating, and it would be no exaggeration to say that in some instances there was writhing accompanied by wayward howls.
As part of the evening's ritual, the witches -- or more formally the practitioners of Wicca -- formed a circle "to keep what we want in and what we want out, out." In this case, those metaphorically banished from the circle were the Republicans, although it is hard to imagine that any of the delegates would have wandered this far from midtown, all the way down to East 10th Street and Second Avenue.
There were welcoming gestures to the elements of nature -- to fire, water. "Say yes to this Earth!" And then they began to construct a web overhead by tossing balls of yarn and twine from one person to another until they created a tangled mass that looked like a giant knitting project gone terribly wrong. "When we go into the streets, we want to go with this web of connections," announced one of the witches from somewhere inside the web. And they were all dancing and chanting: "Weaving is the center of the magic of the web."
At this stage, some explanation for the layman was required. Along the outskirts of the web there were two choices for guidance. There was a blond, ponytailed woman in a flowing orange floral caftan. She was covered in silver dust and holding a small black . . . poodle. Would a black cat have been too much of a cliche? The other choice was a curly-haired woman in jeans and a T-shirt. One couldn't help but be drawn to this woman, who looked as though she knows her way around minivans and soccer fields. Pardon, please. What does this all mean?
"This is protection and empowerment. I'm part of the pagan cluster, and people all over the world are sending us energy to protest the RNC and Bush. I've got a right to speak up. I'm a citizen and a voter. This is how we manifest our disapproval, with gentleness and loving kindness."
The web? "It's a manifestation of power and energy."
And you are? "Nyx."
She is from Chicago and she goes by one name for no other reason than "because I can do it."
Nyx smiled pleasantly, raised her hands in the air and joined the chant: "This is how our work begins," she sang, "Take a dream and make it real."
A voice called out from the dark in back of St. Mark's Church: "If anyone can help with the dishes, that would be great." No one appeared to move. That's the downside of touchy-feely, hand-holding, grass-roots, vegan-menu-option protesting. No caterer.
Inside St. Mark's Church, where if one had a thermometer the temperature would surely have read 5,000 degrees, men and women stood sweaty shoulder to sticky torso waiting for the arrival of Reverend Billy. Most often his congregation is known as the Church of Stop Shopping, but at least for this week it is the First Amendment Revival Church. Everywhere one looked there were folks dripping sweat and waving makeshift fans, giving the whole place the feeling of a Saturday night tent revival in some steamy Delta town. Reminding one that this is the East Village and not Greenwood, Miss., were the abundance of body piercings, half-naked men and white kids with strawberry blond dreadlocks.
Members of the gospel choir emerged from their fellowship room and began to weave through the crowd, their saffron yellow robes clinging to their damp bodies. Two choir members knelt, bits of blue electrical tape in their hands, to mask the offending Converse All-Star logos on a reporter's sneakers. "Sorry, we're going to have to cover up those logos. This is a 'no logo zone,' " one said.
And then the choir marched forth, its membership marked by one clean-headed gentleman wearing a white brocade suit with diamante buttons -- very Oleg Cassini circa 1968 -- in lieu of the regulation robe. The choir rocked and shouted and reached way down to pull out the full gospel rumble that ordinarily would be reserved for shouting that the good Lord has risen from his grave. But in this case it was a loud, "Thank you! Thank you!" for not shopping, for steering clear of Starbucks, for not being a bad, bad capitalist. The big sweaty finish included swaying, stomping and more jazz fingers than Bob Fosse could bear. Oh, how one longed for an icy Starbucks frappuccino.
Then Reverend Billy arrived in his signature white suit and his frosted Las Vegas hair. He preached for a bit -- over a sound system that crackled as though it were short-circuiting from all the sweat in the air -- about not shopping, about the right of free speech and about how the Patriot Act is "the devil's work." He looked a bit like Jimmy Swaggart, but Reverend Billy was settling into the more rhythmic school of hermeneutics favored by black Baptist preachers and, right on cue, a voice from the back cried out: "Preach!" But in this city filled with eccentrics and oddballs, it had a world-weary, sarcastic tone that was more Chelsea queen than Harlem church lady.