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The Public Advocate’s Speech
One of us (Mark) wrote a whole novel a few years ago about a freshfaced City Council staffer’s journey through Hurricane Sandy-era NYC politics, even as he (the staffer), falls in love with his mysterious new roommate Tiffany. Since that novel is enjoying early retirement just like de Blasio, we thought we’d pull out a little section in which the staffer meets Bill up close. The time is 2012, the office (for Bill) is public advocate, and the scene is a little civic association meeting where politicians since time immemorial have gone to work their magic.
We’re taking a summer break for the July edition of this newsletter so that Mark can finish his book “The Fabulist” about lying Congressman George Santos. (More on that soon, but you can preorder here.) See you in August, and happy politicking.
The councilman had a nick on his neck from being freshly shaved, so I knew even before he told me that he was going out with his mistress that evening.
Do me a solid, he said, leaning over my computer. You busy tonight? Could you do the Marine Park Civic? It’s pretty far out of the district and you’re from near there originally right? You just have to thank people, park is a gem of the borough, glad Council could appropriate blah blah blah.
Oh—I said. For sure. Let’s do it.
It would be my first speech. I felt warm and antsy and glowing.
I texted Tiffany because who else would I want to see it. Then I wished I could take it back. But she had already responded.
Super free, she wrote.
She was always free, or she always dropped everything, or she was indefatigable, this was one of the wonderful things about her, you got the sense that if the question had been are you up for a North Pole expedition she would’ve asked where to buy boots. Gonna be great, she texted. What train?
It was the Q train all the way down the line, or almost all the way, and by the time we got to Newkirk I was sweating. I fingered the notecards in my pocket with the excuse I was supposed to give to explain the councilman’s absence—one-night youth orchestra production featuring his son back in Bay Ridge (SOME concert was happening, the councilman would never be that loose with his facts). There was the general stump material I had pruned, the beauty of the civic center, newly created with state legislative funds (thank you Sen. Golden, a member of the forever-Republican majority up there in Albany). I’d pulled something about the history and specifications of the park from the internet and the Parks Department website, and on the last card I had the flourish I wanted for the end—“And the councilman can’t wait to be with you for the opening day of Joe Torre Baseball—and the regeneration of spring.” Now that I was running over that line with Tiffany’s eyes on me, I felt a sudden dip of despair. She rocked a little in my direction, shouldered my shoulder.
You’ll be great, she said. I can’t wait.
It was crowded when we arrived, and we were the youngest people there by several decades. I had never been inside the building. Its shape, an octagon, was confusing. It felt as if there was no front, even though the chairs full of all those senior citizens were indeed facing in the same direction. I felt like I was at some front anyway, people glancing my way. Some old man in a tucked-in polo shirt swanned over with glittering eyes that got disappointed when he learned I was there to speak, not just attend.
We’ve been trying to attract the youth, the man said.
But I’m here, said Tiffany. Her mane of hair bounced. She added drily: I’ve heard this is the site of only exquisite rhetoric.
She was joking and laying it on thick but her turning smile towards me just made everything worse. I had wanted to impress. I should have practiced more.
Fantastic, said the old man. Your friend will be up first then, after announcements. Let me go get it started.
Tiffany squeezed my arm and went to take a seat with the seniors. The touch burned through my ratty sweater. It steadied me more than her words, or the passage of time as the honcho at the front talked through some formalities (“and don’t forget our annual holiday party will…”). I was still focused on the touch when a very tall man slid into the seat next to mine along the wall.
He folded his body over itself to get his legs under the little chair that looked like a kindergartner’s stool perched below him, then he straightened up impressively. How you doing brother, he whispered in my direction before pulling out a flip phone. The voice of the old civic association man at the front swung in my direction again:
And the public advocate is here, Bill de Blasio everybody, thanks for dropping in Mr. Public Advocate, you know I think to be perfectly honest with you as a human being one man to another I think I forgot to send you an invitation this time around but really nice of you to come out and join us and a round of applause for the public advocate.
He was waving, unfurling his gigantic body out of the little chair again and then he was standing towering over and a nasally cranky voice that didn’t match his smiling—Thank you, thanks everyone, oh please, brothers and sisters—even though there wasn’t really that much clapping. He was gesturing towards the front and then towards himself like he was pulling a rope that was moving him inexorably in a forward direction—should I, he said to the civic man, should I come up now, or later? Alright sure now’s great—and he abandoned my side at the wall and loped to the middle and took the microphone out of the old man’s hand.
Can everybody hear me in here? I know I’m tall but I wanna make sure my voice projects, the reality is if you can’t hear me from here then I’d have to come up closer to you and tell you a second time, ok?
He was grinning.
I didn’t know much about the public advocate other than that he and the councilman hated each other, came from different factions of the Brooklyn political machine. He was talking, very quickly, about fundamental realities:
The fundamental reality is that you people are the heart and the bones of our democracy right in here tonight, I just want to tell you that and I want to thank you for everything you do on a day in day out basis. My wife Chirlane and I say to each other sometimes, what’s the reason that we’re doing the things that we’re doing. And fundamentally it’s a deep understanding that you have to make life better for working people in the neighbahoods across New York City. And I don’t think that starts on Wall Street. I don’t think that starts at JP Morgan. We all know that it comes from us working together every night and every day at places just like this.
He was speaking without notes and it seemed to me that he had a strange frenetic energy about him, something to do with how long his arms were, an effect that was magnified by his rolled-up sleeves. He did not fit in with the trim and carefully dressed retirees in the crowd, men who had served in Korea or even Vietnam, certainly in the precincts and firehouses and courts of New York City. People who’d been my coaches and neighbors and who I’d, quite frankly, wanted to leave behind. The public advocate on the other hand had a thick and goofy beard wrapped around his face, shiny blue (tailored?) suit jacket pants that glowed a little in the fluorescent light. Quite frankly he had a little paunch. He reminded me of the newish tenured professors in college who still thought they were hip to the kids these days. It was an unusual delivery.
You know what I think, he was saying, (and suddenly I was struck by an impression of Obama’s cadence, perhaps the public advocate was as susceptible as the rest of us) I think we need a millionaire’s tax in this state, and what do we do with that millionaire’s tax? We get childcare, early education, free pre-k and maybe even 3-K, more money kicked in for our MTA bus system, all the things that make this city go round and help working people get to work.
The room was already shifting, people murmuring in their seats, Tiffany even must have noticed it. I knew these people—they were not the kinds of people who wanted to hear about taxing and Wall Street. These were people who would rather, as my parents did, avoid taxes and just move south. The public advocate began speaking more quickly, his office was always open, here’s his staff contact information, he was driving around all over the city trying to get to events in every council district this year and he wasn’t even up for reelection, ha ha ha. The civic association leader with his tucked in polo shirt looked at his watch.
Since you’re here, the civic association leader said, we might as well do some questions?
There was another murmuring and I sat back and prepared for the deluge. The public advocate displayed his teeth maniacally, folded his hands around the microphone.
A man stood up and said there was one thing he was very concerned about, and it was the idea that our police were going to be handicapped, literally arms behind their back, by these activists (the word came out like spit) who have a problem with good old-fashioned police work, you stop a shifty-looking character and talk to him, see what he’s got on him, that’s how we got guns off the street for a decade while I was on the job (7-8 precinct, retired on disability, the man added) and I just want to hear what your position on the issue is and what you think of these activists (the spit again) that have no respect for our police.
The man did not sit down, and his arms were at his side but not in his pockets, like he was on duty. I knew what the public advocate’s position on this issue was. He was anti-stop and frisk. I had seen him on the steps of City Hall gripping the music-stand podium his staff carries around for him, railing about our black and brown brothers and sisters who are just trying to get to school and church and they’re being harassed multiple times a week, sometimes multiple times a day. One morning I had been late to a City Council hearing that I was supposed to monitor, Tiffany had been slow in the bathroom and of course I didn’t rush her, but when I rolled into chambers sweaty and a little out of breath it was all just getting started, the public advocate, turns out, had been late too, and he was asking pointed questions of the NYPD’s chief of patrol over there on the side of the room staring back at the public advocate with the kind of hate and anger that only comes, I’m sure, with having shown up on time and having been made to wait by civilian politicians. De Blasio’s position on the issue was clear.
Thank you brother, said the public advocate, nodding his head in the man’s direction before proceeding to ignore him. The public advocate had not relinquished the microphone to this man, a solid (I felt) tactical decision.
The way I think about this is very simple and it’s twofold, he began. I think that human beings have a right to not be harassed when they’re just going about their daily lives. I also think that any criminal in this city, anyone with a nefarious purpose, anyone who is trying to do harm or decrease the quality of life in a really objectively nice neighbahood like this one, he’s going to have to expect a talking to from a police officer. Now I can understand that that might not be a nice experience for this individual, but the fundamental reality and I want to repeat this because it’s very important, the fundamental reality is that we have to have respect for our law enforcement officers in our community and our neighbahoods, because they are the heart and soul of our communities. And we saw that on 9/11 and I was reminded at the anniversary memorial we had just last week talking to Commissioner Kelly about the incredible bravery of those first responders. But it’s something that New Yorkers don’t need reminding of because we see it every day. We see it when our first responders take a gun off the street as you suggested (here the public advocate turned back to the question asker and began ticking off on his fingers) we see it when they help a pregnant woman give birth on the B46 over on Flatbush (smiling—it had been a recent local story) we see it when they respond to a 911 call not knowing what they’re going to find but always there to help, as Commissioner Kelly puts it running towards the danger not away from it. (Now the public advocate was focusing entirely on the gentleman.) Frankly and I don’t need to tell you this, my friend, someone like you who has devoted their life, their life to this city, needs to receive and frankly deserves a modicum of respect. The fundamental reality is that we’ve gotta respect each other a little more on both sides if we’re going to make this city fairer, and a better place to live for working people in every neighbahood in every borough.
I was astonished. Partially because the man who had asked the question seemed satisfied. He nodded and said “I thank you” and slowly sank back to his seat. I wasn’t sure how the public advocate had done it, glossed over what was sure to be a fundamental disagreement between him and the crowd there by layering it over with a word salad of 9/11 respect Commissioner Kelly. Did he really even talk to the commissioner? It didn’t seem like a match made in heaven.
I felt an uneasiness as the room warmed to the public advocate, a citywide elected official who had made the time to come here to talk to these people in person, not sending some crappy staffer like me. This guy was from the ritzy part of Brooklyn that most of these people considered, I was sure, akin to Paris and perhaps had not even been to since Pete Hamill was writing for the Daily News. Yet the people were getting their satisfaction. The public advocate was familiar with arcane details about Marine Park precinct staffing, the difficulty in convincing the Parks Department to pave over some running track potholes (“Please follow up with my staffer on that—Wiley you hear that? Please take the information from this young lady here. I’m only going to tell you once.”) and he had the right answer when asked his opinion about the imminent closure of a firehouse on Gerritsen Avenue. (“Thank you brother, the answer is very simple. I’m against that and I’ve been against that and other firehouse closures since my first day in the City Council, it just doesn’t make sense in a city where the well-off are doing so well and everyone else is just trying to get ahead.”)
My misery was complete when the civic association head finally stood up to take the microphone back from the public advocate (“Just one more, do we have time for one more? No I’m not running for anything, no sir, but I will absolutely be back to visit you folks before the year’s out and we’ll talk about that firehouse and see if we can’t get anything done about the track situation.”)
Well Mr. Public Advocate, said the civic head, I think I can say for all of us that we’re a little surprised and very pleased that you took the time to come and talk to us tonight. We do politics a little differently down here in south Brooklyn but we appreciate the personal touch, we really do.
Thank you brother, I’m really glad to be here, I have to tell you, the public advocate said.
Ok, the civic head said. Do we have a representative for Councilman Renati here tonight? Some updates from the Parks committee, right?
He looked at me and all the heads in the room turned to me too, including Tiffany’s. Her expectant, curious eyes. Her unhesitating grin. It only faltered slightly before I got up and made the long walk to the microphone.
Halfway there, I heard the door flapping behind me as a fall breeze stirred the room. The public advocate was gone.
Mark Chiusano's story collection Marine Park was a PEN/Hemingway Award honorable mention. His writing and reporting has appeared in places like McSweeney's, Guernica, The Paris Review, Time, Newsday, and The Atlantic. He teaches writing at CUNY City Tech, and is currently working on a book about George Santos.