Did you hear about Bernie,” he asked. Bernie? As in Bernie Sanders the presidential candidate? As in the man who just had a heart attack? After he went to the hospital, I blocked him from my mind and looked at America with the jaundiced air of a hospice nurse. Maybe Biden will sing the national anthem as we flee climate change?
“No…” I said. “Never heard of him.”
“Stop it,” my friend said. “Seriously, he’s back and going strong!” He giddily told me of the October 19 rally in Queens. “I heard about this amazing moment. Bernie had everyone look at each other and asked ‘will you fight for them?’”
I stopped pacing my apartment and listened to his voice; it overflowed with hope. I imagined strangers turning to each other, warm open smiles, seeing a new future right there in front of them. Bernie has that effect. He tells you what he has believed for nearly all his life and it lets you believe it to. Hope. Class struggle. Not me. Us. A Green New Deal.
My friends talk about Bernie as if they saw Jesus preaching in the park. A galvanizing faith jumps ear to ear like gospel. I know why we feel the “Bern.” A hunger exists to believe our humanity is stronger than hate, that we can repair the Earth before it is unlivable. The longer he talked, the more obvious it was that this was not just a political revolution, it was a spiritual movement.
It was dark, cold and quiet. New York before dawn is a ghost town. I left to pick up my son and played a video of the rally. The cellphone showed a massive gathering that lifted Bernie signs like ocean waves. “Let me … let me begin,” he started but they cheered and cheered. Bernie smiled and said, “When I look at this YUGE crowd … I have no doubt that the political revolution is going to sweep this county.”
I paused it and entered the bodega to get a coffee and sandwich; Muhammad the owner asked what I was listening to. Bernie, I told him. Bernie? Yeah, Bernie, the presidential candidate. He shrugged.
“Muhammad,” I took my coffee. “Did you vote in 2016?”
“Aww no, I don’t bother … I just,” his mouth puckered. “I just work.”
“Muhammad, that’s how we got Trump,” I pointed at him and smiled angrily. “Ah ha!”
“Ah ha,” he pointed back.
I left and thought, Muhammad is exactly who Bernie wants to vote for him. And so are the Jamaican men unloading food into the deli. And so are the Caribbean nurses and Mexican day workers at the bus stop. And so are the Yemeni bodega owners. And so are the women going to schools. We wake up early for the city, to drive its trains, to clean it, to teach its children, to prep its food and make it run.
I waited at the bus stop and looked back at the bodega. During Obama’s campaigns his sunrise logo was on the window. No Bernie logo. I get it. Bernie, the son of Jewish immigrants whose extended family was murdered by the Nazis, is “white.” He is a senator from a very white state and comes up through the white left. The racial gap prevents some from realizing that he picks up where the Civil Rights Movement ended. And if that was known. And if that was felt. Maybe the political revolution could have a chance.
The bus was late. I called up Jesse Jackson’s 1988 Democratic Convention speech to play alongside Bernie’s 2019 rally. Here were two men, separated by 31 years but connected by the same “dream” that drove Martin Luther King, Jr. to lead a movement against segregation, the Vietnam War and poverty. It is not enough to integrate America. America must be transformed into the “beloved community” MLK spoke of toward the end of his life. Not just for racial minorities. Not just for gays. Not just for women. But for the poor. And workers.
I toggled between Sanders and Jackson. “For 45 years,” Bernie said. “There has been a class war waged against the working families of this country by the billionaire class and corporate elite.” I played Jackson’s speech. “What’s the moral challenge of our day? We have public accommodations. We have the right to vote. We have open housing. What’s the fundamental challenge? Economic violence.”
The bus came and I got on. So did my neighbors, exhausted parents with their exhausted kids, workers with paint-splattered pants, sleepy security guards with backpacks. All slumped in the seats. Here was the daily grind. We lost a bit of ourselves every day. We lost things we could never get back.
I stopped the videos. The bright fluorescents cast our reflections on the windows. It was dark outside. And cold. We were too tired to look up and see what the future was. I played Bernie again.
“We’re going to bring our people together,” he said. “Black and white, Latino, Asian American and Native American … gay or straight, male or female, young or old.” The crowd cheered and cheered. On the bus, faces blinked in and out of sleep. Everyone was dreaming their own dreams. He was trying to get us to see his.
The Faith of a Mustard Seed
“Harris ended her campaign,” I texted my co-parent.
“Yea Cop-mala Harris is out,” she replied. I knew we were both smiling. Neither of us were feeling her. Neither of us knew anyone who did. Harris, like Cory Booker, like Julian Castro and like Deval Patrick, seemed like an Obama clone 3-D printed in some identity politician factory deep in the bowels of the Democratic Party.
The great winnowing has begun. Who’s next? Buttigieg? Booker? Klobuchar? With each one that falls to the wayside, it’s easier to believe that Bernie can win. Maybe. Just maybe. I wanted to text her these thoughts but our son slept in the carrier on my chest. He was going to day care. I was going to work.
So what if Bernie won? What would that mean? I would feel seen as a worker. I need that. Every day in ways small and great, I’m addressed as a man, as a man of color, as straight, as a consumer, as almost anything except what I spend most of my days and nights doing: working. In the morning and in the evening, every single person in my life works. We work and work and work and are too tired to see the future. We need better.
My son sighed in his sleep, as if blowing a dream out. I kissed the top of his head. Funny, how life-changing events start so small. It’s like the Biblical parable of the mustard seed, in which a tiny thing takes root and grows. It needs rich soil. Maybe all of us tired, run-down and running around workers in New York, in America, in the world are that soil?
Bernie thinks so. He planted his heart like a mustard seed in the people. And it grows. Like a baby. Like a tree. Like faith.
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