Bernhard Goetz for Mayor: Subway Shooter as Candidate
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.
"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?
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."
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