I once read an interview with a Taoist farmer in New Age Journal. In the spring he’d throw some rice grains on the ground as he walked around his land, then forget them. Around August he’d notice plants growing. One day, he’d pick the grains. Later, someone visiting his house would offer him money for them. “Years go by and I forget I’m a farmer,” he said.
I run for president the same way. Every few weeks, I go to St. Mark’s Church (a half block from my house), mimeograph leaflets, and stick some in my attache case. Whenever it comes up in a conversation that I’m running for president, I take one out.
If I become president this way, I’ll know it was fate.
Today the first article on my presidential campaign came out in the New York Press, a local free newspaper:
Sparrow, the East Village poet and wiseacre, has announced his candidacy for president and has been advertising for a vice presidential running mate. He promises he’d be “a president with balls, and even better, a president with a dick.”
To apply for the v.p. slot (include photo) write to 322 E. 11th St., Apt. 23, NYC 10003.
It was particularly gratifying in its resemblance to a personal ad.
Benjamin Harrison said, “The presidency tastes like shrimp; a delicate gray taste.” Ulysses Grant said, “The presidency is like working in a laundry; it’s hot and everyone swears.” While John Quincy Adams compared it to an elderly woman: “For me, it was one long feebleness.”
My campaign manager, Hal Sirowitz, and I campaigned yesterday, for the first time, at St. Mark’s Place and 2nd Avenue — the center of the East Village. We brought along a questionnaire, to gauge the electorate:
- Why do you think Sparrow is the best candidate for president?
- Why is Sparrow so virtuous?
- Do you like doing the dishes?
Immediately, two homeless men asked if I’d let them sell things on the street if I were president. Hal said yes.
“Well,” I added, “I don’t like people selling stolen property. And sometimes peddlers block the sidewalk.”
God, I thought, I’m starting to sound like a politician.
We administered our questionnaire to them. To the third question, the homeless men gave touching answers. “Yes, if I get something to eat,” the first one said. “But if I’m hungry, no, I don’t like to do dishes.”
The second one said simply (with a mysterious smile), “Yes, I love it. It does something to my hands.”
The dishwashing question elicited many domestic confessions. A fortyish man named Ed said, “I never do them, except on pain of divorce,” but it turned out he was getting a divorce.
“Because of the dishes?” I asked.
“That and several hundred other things.”
A musician covered with tattoos said, “No, I hate doing them. That’s why I’m married ten and a half years.”
A graying man with a beard admitted, “It’s the primary cause of marital difficulties in my home. We never argue about money and sex. We argue only about dishes.”
I received many flattering comments in answer to the first question (“Why do you think Sparrow is the best candidate for president?”):
“He’s cool enough to be standing on a street corner.”
“He’s not associated with the CIA.”
The answers to the second question (“Why is Sparrow so virtuous?”) were a bit more vague:
“He was brought up well.”
“I have no idea.”
Mostly I tried to hand out small books of my poems, while Hal shouted, “Here he is! A living presidential candidate! You don’t have to turn on the television set to see him! You can save energy!”
We met a Dan Rather Conspiracy Theorist, who believes Rather’s famous interview with George Bush during the 1988 campaign — where Bush stood up manfully to him — had been rehearsed.
Presidents do not eat well. They eat at banquets, where the Brussels sprouts arrive deflated, in inauspicious white sauce. (This is because the best chefs cannot pass the loyalty test — they have all had some Communist dalliance — so the White House must hire mediocre, patriotic cooks.)
The president’s dogs eat well, though.
Presidents also dress poorly. Come to think of it, their clothing, too, lacks piquancy. As one can’t imagine a president eating curry, one can’t picture him in a flowered vest.
The White House itself is dowdy, like a big antique shop. Every First Lady — or every other First Lady — attempts to redecorate it, but it remains Early American Ugly, to use a phrase of my parents.
Friends, too, are lacking in the White House. A president never has a best friend. (Nixon thought he had a best friend.) Presidents have advisors, who are smart but cruel — the sort of people who managed Elvis.
Also, for some reason, presidents are forbidden to wear hats. Lincoln did, but he was the tallest president and wore the tallest hat, so he was an exception. JFK wore a hat once, but after his inauguration went hatless. Along with friends, spicy food, and silly clothes, one loses, as chief executive, the right to wear a hat.
One might compile a portrait of the anti-president: she is a black woman in a floppy hat, eating lamb curry among numerous friends in a small but tastefully decorated house.
This we have denied ourselves in the presidency. Let us cough in shame.
As I write this, my baby is being born. My wife is in the first stage of labor; at the moment, yawning on the toilet.
This baby (as yet unnamed) is the animus of my campaign. This presidential race is my rehearsal for being a father.
The baby my wife had yesterday, Sylvia Mae, is suckling at her breast, as it rains, on a Friday. Sylvia is already work — she must pee on all of our feather pillows and challenge us to remember, if we ever knew, how to clean a feather pillow. And she shits deep black shits she has saved since the Persian Gulf War, inside Violet’s womb. Oh, Sylvia, I am still running for president, don’t fear; I will fashion a world for you where dogs wander humorously into rooms, and are invited into every conversation, where the opera is finally conducted honestly — no diva upstages another — and newspapers have short stories, as they did in 1961, stories which help one understand the life of Palestinians and the beauty of Islam. Sylvia, together we will make a world where silence is loved, where doormen need not cringe, where something greater than a rainbow comes, something so large it will not fit into all our mouths at once.
Hal and I went campaigning again. Soon after we reached our corner, Havok stopped by. Havok is a young man who, after knowing me thirty seconds, looked me in the eye and said with a wild smile, “You can do it. You can really be president.” He asked how one gets on the ballot.
“It’s real hard,” Hal said. “You have to get thousands of signatures, and they have to be checked out by the Board of Elections, because everyone has to be a registered voter.”
“I can do it,” he said. “I go to a lot of parties. I can get everyone to sign.”
He was the first to sign our petition:
We, the undersigned, support the removal of blue from the American flag, and the inclusion of chartreuse, as well as lowering the price of milk and unbuttoning the vice-president’s shirt.
He wrote, under Comments, “You have my unconditional support.”
“Do you mind if I campaign for you?” Havok asked.
“No. Go ahead.”
“This man is the next president of the United States!” he shouted to passersby. “He will be the first honest president!”
“How do you know I’m honest?” I asked.
“I can tell by looking at you,” he said. “By your beard.”
After a while he said, “I have to go and study.” I didn’t have the nerve to ask what he studied. “But get me those petitions and I’ll fill them out,” he said, sincerely.
He paused a moment. “When you become president, can I have a position in your administration?” he asked.
“Sure. A very high position.”
I began to worry when his giddy smile returned.
“Are you a good person?” I asked him.
“Of course. Sure,” he said. And left.
Soon after, a policeman told us to leave the corner. “You can only stand on a street corner ten minutes,” he explained. “Otherwise, it’s loitering.”
“But the First Amendment gives us freedom of assembly,” I pointed out.
“Yeah, but after ten minutes you have to move to a new corner.”
This is the New World Order Constitution, I suppose.
We moved to the opposite corner, next to a Gap clothing store, where we met an artist and her boyfriend. “I got your leaflet last week and I really liked it,” she said. “I showed it to all my friends.”
They read our petition. The boyfriend disagreed with the part about unbuttoning the vice-president’s shirt. “What if he doesn’t want to unbutton his shirt?” he said.
“We’re not forcing him to do it,” I pointed out. “We just support it.”
“Maybe he’d be able to breathe more freely,” his girlfriend suggested.
“He does seem awfully buttoned-up,” I agreed.
Finally, the boyfriend found a way to endorse the petition. “I’ll write that they should add buttons to the vice-president’s shirt, so that he can unbutton them and still have the same number of buttons he started with.” He wrote “ADD BUTTONS TO VICE PRES. SHIRT” next to his signature.
By then, we had spent ten minutes on the Gap corner, and could return to our original corner.
“I refuse to be intimidated by anyone, except the police!” I shouted as we returned. The new policeman on the corner smiled.
After our outing, Hal and I retired to San Loco, the city’s cheapest taco stand, to discuss strategy.
Hal mentioned that he’s planning to vote for me for president.
“Really?” I said.
“Well, I figure it would be hypocritical for me to campaign for you and not vote for you.”
“But I don’t want you to.”
“Don’t you tell people to vote for you?”
“No, I just say I’m running. I think people should vote for the Democrat, to defeat Bush.”
Hal agreed that in a close election he would vote for the Democrat.
I wonder if I’m the first presidential candidate who doesn’t want anyone to vote for him.
It’s discouraging to think that the Age of Great Presidents is over. The national memorials are for the Ancient Ones: the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial.
A Harding Memorial sounds ridiculous, though not a Harding Memorial High School. Recently dead presidents become high schools — where they are vaguely resented — rather than dollar bills, for which all men yearn.
The best they can do is to become a four-cent stamp.
No matter how great I am as prez, I’ll never have a shrine, or a five-dollar bill. Alexander Hamilton’s on a major bill, and he wasn’t even president! Not only that, but he died in a duel!
We took a survey — our first scientific study of the American people. Here are the results:
- I support the policies of George Bush.
Yes: 0% No: 86% Maybe: 14%
- I often eat clams.
Yes: 28% No: 58% Sometimes: 14%
- I support Sparrow for President.
Yes: 38% Hell No: 12% Maybe: 50%
- I live near trees.
Yes: 63% No: 25% Maybe: 12%
- More people should listen to Tony Bennett.
Yes: 0% No: 28% Maybe: 58% Why Not: 14%
This was a particularly valid survey because it included people from Atlanta and Yellow Springs, Ohio. (There was a sample of eight.)
“I refuse to take campaign contributions, no matter how small!” I shouted.
There’s a man in prison I’ve corresponded with since 1978. He’s doing a seventeen-year sentence in Virginia for murder.
In the last six months, he’s been allowed to make phone calls. Yesterday, he told me he’s promoting my presidential campaign among the prisoners of Virginia. “You’re gonna have prisoners all over voting for you,” he said.
The thought of a wave of prisoners supporting my candidacy filled me with hope.
“What is your program?” he asked, as an afterthought.
“I don’t really know. It’s all in my poems,” I said.
“You’re a really special person,” he said.
I feel, deep down, that if I write the best poems, I will become president.
Atlas held up the world, in ancient times, and on this continent, a turtle was believed to carry the earth. Now we know the earth stands unsupported in infinity. Why believe, then, that a president is needed to support our nation? We fear this final break with history. Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Chief Sitting Bull — we need a name to place our nation under. Someone must sign the checks, we believe. And that will be me. I will sign the checks, I will pretend to support America, though America floats in a universe of emptiness. I will be the phony Atlas whose rippling muscles convince children they are safe. A president is like Santa Claus — past a certain age one no longer believes in him, then suddenly, one becomes him.
Yesterday, Bush collapsed in his own vomit at a banquet in Tokyo, while begging for economic support.
No one realizes that America’s decline can be a boon. A civilization’s autumn can have the same virtues as retirement. It’s a time to relearn chess, to listen to Dixieland jazz. I’d be the perfect president of a declining America, as I’ve been in retirement since 1973, when I flunked out of Cornell.
I fill each day with an array of personal whims. I stock the bird feeder, visit lobbies of famous hotels, read New Yorkers I find in the garbage, call my friend Sheila.
I spend three dollars a day, and my life is plentiful.
I can teach this to America.
All this talk of the United States increasing its productivity is wrong. We should do less, not more. Our goal should be to have enough time to make birthday cards for each other.
Bush, with his relentless quest for the Win, is the worst possible leader for us.
We need someone like me, who has developed the art of losing.
Of course, I’ll lose this election, too.
I told Hal about the disturbing op-ed piece I read in the New York Times yesterday. A television producer received a summons because she’d thrown a letter into a public wastebasket. (In small print on every NYC wastebasket is a sign: NO HOUSEHOLD OR BUSINESS TRASH.) She had been walking down the street, reading her mail, and dropped the envelope in the trash.
A public organization — the Sanitation Police — sifts through trash cans and issues summonses for forty-five dollars to names they find on envelopes. “We must oppose this practice!” I told Hal. “We’ll make it part of our campaign!”
Then we went out, with two posters — OUR PRESIDENT IS VOMITING IN ASIA and AMERICANS NEED AMERICAN VOMIT — and a petition:
We, the undersigned, feel our president is vomiting in Asia when he should be vomiting on the American people. Bring the president’s vomit home! And we support Sparrow for prez!
On St. Mark’s Place, a woman with long gray hair signed her name “Jo Mama” and told us, “You should call CBS News. You could be famous.”
“Really? It doesn’t seem like a good enough idea,” I said.
“It is. You just need larger signs.”
She herself had been briefly famous, in 1967 — having appeared on the cover of Look magazine and on “What’s My Line?” — for being a body painter at the Electric Circus, the first hippie nightclub in New York.
“I liked it,” she said, of fame. “I had a lot of fun with it.”
Just then, she called to a passing friend, “Hey, Mark, come sign this petition!”
He was a tall, unshaven man, reading History And Utopia.
I explained that I was running for president, and read him the petition.
“I don’t want the president vomiting on me!” he replied. “Is that your whole platform?”
“No, I have another plank. I’m against the Sanitation Police.” I explained the op-ed piece in the Times.
“So, you’re kind of a libertarian?” he inferred.
“Wait!” I said. “I have another issue. Do you realize September, October, November, and December are all misnamed? September isn’t the seventh month, October isn’t the eighth month, November isn’t the ninth month, and December isn’t the tenth month!”
“But isn’t there a kind of poetic license? . . .” he suggested.
“And July and August are named for two fascists, Julius and Augustus! And do you know what April means?”
“No,” he said.
“It means ‘next.’ It’s the next month after March! All our months are named for emperors, worthless Roman gods, inaccurate numbers, or the word ‘next’! The French Revolution tried to change the names of the months!”
“And look what happened to them!” he said.
“They didn’t go far enough!” I rebutted.
“That’s right,” Hal agreed.
Still he wouldn’t sign.
After he left, Jo Mama told us, “That man writes the ethics column for E — magazine.” (I am forbidden to mention the name here.)
Hal and I continued to shout.
“There’s a balance-of-vomit deficit!” I explained. “We’re throwing up on the Japanese, but they’re not throwing up on us!”
We filled our petition (eight names), and left.
When Violet and I were married, my friend Claude gave us a bird feeder. I put it on the fire escape, and birds come daily. First, a family of finches came, but the sparrows drove them out, and now it’s a spa for sparrows, with an occasional mourning dove.
For fifty cents a week, I support scores of birds. I am their Welfare State.
I protect them from an aggressor, too — our cat, Gum, who crouches by the window, hoping to eat them. I am their Department of Defense.
As I contemplate my nation — I, the president of sparrows — I confess I dislike my people. I find sparrows boring and nervous. They seem motivated entirely by gluttony and the worst kind of hustling sociality. The noble mourning doves, on the other hand, sit quietly on the railing, as if they read Shakespeare.
So I am no better than my political enemies. I’m a lover of the elite, a despiser of the Common Bird.
What I hate most about sparrows, of course, is that I share their name.
My infant, Sylvia, is learning to raise her fist, thrust it toward the light, and smile. Thus we must all do. We must raise our fists, thrust them toward the light, stare at them, and smile. We must feel, as a nation, there is power in our hands. In a fist one may hold a dime, or a note with the words “I love you, Violet” — but a fist can’t hold a novel. If we could see our fists, and others’, upraised, in the light, we might lose our fear. A fist can’t hold a gun. A fist can hold a candy, or a slice of tangerine. I am the first presidential contender to raise his fist, smile, and like Sylvia, place it in my mouth.