For over a decade, performance artist Bill Talen has preached against the evils of unsustainable consumption as “Reverend Billy,” leader of the so-called Church of Stop Shopping. Talen began staging “retail interventions” in Times Square Disney, Gap and Nike stores and although the act has gone from a one-man show to a 35-singer choir with a seven-member band, Talen’s character, complete with bleached coif, preacher’s collar and resounding hallelujahs, has become a poster child for anti-corporate activism and a plague for WalMart, Starbucks, shopping malls and big box stores of all ilk. From the streets of Helsinki to the studios of CNN, the Reverend and his choir pound the proverbial pulpit, exorcise cash registers, and beseech citizens to reject the temptations of consumption by parking their shopping carts at the curb. With scores of original songs, a rip-roaring stage show and a major motion picture entitled “What Would Jesus Buy,” the sustainable sermons advocate across multiple media platforms for local economies and sustainable consumerism. The “Church” has married 41 couples, baptized 114 children, buried people, toured Europe, Africa, and North and South America, and convinced Starbucks to recognize Ethiopian coffee trademarks. Talen has been jailed more than 50 times. We wondered how the Reverend and his wife Savitri D fuel all that hellfire and brimstone and dropped in on the Windsor Terrace apartment to find out.
We’re at the center of a community of people called the Church of Stop Shopping and the thing that brings us all together is eating. Sure we perform, do actions together, risk arrest, travel in busses in icy weather, but the real fellowship happens when we eat together. We often get called to towns by people resisting a WalMart or a mall. They don’t have a budget to bring us, so we say put us in your homes and we’ll come pray with you and do an action-protest with you. They arrange breakfast potlucks and they bring food and we sit with these people. We were in Ithaca recently and they made gift bags for each of us with local food: maple syrup, beer and dried beans. They were Quakers who just needed some energy.
While we were there we did a shoplifting retail intervention with students at a Starbucks near the campus. Unbelievably enough Nina Simone was on the soundtrack. I hate the way Starbucks steals early Dylan, but Nina Simone is great in any setting. There must have been 20 of us and everyone chose an object, some people chose entire tables, and we started together, slowly lifting our object. It’s a kind of action meditation, a study in imagining. You visualize the object in its whole journey to that spot, but in reverse: the dolley going backward to the truck, the person who grew the beans putting berries back in the tree. Did this strip of wood come across the ocean so I could stir my coffee? The practice of telling those stories is the heart of our work. Do that enough times and it starts to affect everything. You go, “Oh my gosh, do I really need raspberries from Chile? No, I don’t; I can wait until they’re at least from this country.” That’s the basis of our whole philosophy, to understand that story—who grew it, how did it get to you, will it decompose? It’s hard to be a normal American consumer when you start to discover where food comes from. It changes everything. If we could work out our food issues it would take care of a lot of the other stuff.
You’re obviously not big spenders. Do you always eat in?
We’ve held Friday night dinners here for over a year now. In New York you don’t get to be in people’s homes so much. You’re always out. You never get that intimacy that you get at home, so I’ve been trying to force that into our life. You have to push people to get them to come out to Brooklyn but after four hours together… I’d be happy to never eat in a restaurant again.
Do you avoid restaurants altogether?
About twice a week we eat at the family table at Laura’s Bistro on Prospect Avenue near the Fort Hamilton Parkway F station. Laura and Sal Leone are the proprietors. They’re our neighborhood Sicilian storytelling, singing, knockdown, dragout—the characters that appear in the doorway sing as they enter. We just love that place. It’s like a psychic menu. We tell them what kind of day we had, and they start talking to each other in Sicilian Italian and invariably we get food that’s perfect for us. And we bring them really original problems, like “I was exorcising a cash register and I got stuck in the Tombs.” They don’t necessarily have our political beliefs, but you start eating together and everything can change. I’ve gone fishing with Sal, we sailed out past Coney Island and caught all these sea bass he cooked six different ways. It doesn’t feel like a restaurant. I’ve grown quite sick of the pretensions of who’s waiting on whom.
We’re not big on stuff, but we do have some.
It’s our child. I kind of miss it when we go away. It’s our only pet. We’re on the road so much we can’t have animals. Amen!
We’re so happy to finally have a compost system. We’ve always lived in little apartments and what are you gonna do? We were talking to a community garden but they wouldn’t commit, and our friends were leaving and we were so thrilled to inherit this. It’s remarkable how alive it is. That’s a wonderful change in our lives.
Behind Closed Doors
We have nothing in our freezer at all sweetie, but we can’t turn it off. I feel bad about it.
These are the most amazing thing, I actually dream about them. They have almost no salt and almost no brine. I try not to eat all of them.
These are some little spoons we got in Africa. I’ve never know what to do with them, because we don’t have a baby. Maybe they’d be good olive spoons.
Sign of the Times
This is from the Jones Diner that used to be on the corner of Great Jones and Lafayette. It was there since 1939 and it was the last place in NoHo where you could get a $6 meal. Owner George and his nephew Alex came in from Astoria before dawn at dark-thirty and made the special for the day. We tried to save it from development. It was a human economy in there, outrageous conversations, all kinds of people. But we lost the battle. We went the whole route, city council, community board, I preached in there, we sang on the sidewalk, meeting after meeting after meeting. And you know what it is right now? It’s an iPod billboard. We lost the last good cheap meal and got a billboard. It’s sad. We love those guys and we miss them. They went back to Queens. Alex probably became a cop, he’ll probably arrest me at a Starbucks someday.
We got it as a wedding present. Last year at the Globesity Festival we fasted with a bunch of other artists and rediscovered our juicer. Aw, man, I’ll juice anything. Parsley’s sort of my favorite juice flavor. Parsley and grapefruit? Yum. I fast twice a year. I believe in huger art. Fasting is powerful.
Apple Cider Vinegar
I drink that in the morning with water. It makes me feel better. I think some people have a different pH. I’m brighter and healthier when I have a little vinegar and kombucha.
I don’t have a single cookbook. When I need a recipe I look online. We don’t have a cookbook but we have the Kama Sutra and Bill McKibben.
I gave that toaster to Billy for Valentine’s Day in 2001. Now it seems a little bit big but at the time I thought it was wonderfully manly.
This seltzer bottle was given to us by a guy who runs a junk shop up the street. We have a gift economy.
We always keep a little bit of tequila.
You know what’s funny, I don’t know the name of this, but one of our choir members brought it to us because I had a laptop and hers broke and I said she could use my old one. She came and picked it up and this is what I got in exchange.
We’re coffee activists and coffee addicts so we have a big silo of a coffee maker. It was given to us by our Egyptian friend who drinks tea, not coffee. Right now we’re having Equal Exchange Guatemalan coffee from Prospect Perk.
We have occasionally used that flask, yes, I’m not gonna lie to you.
I really don’t buy anything. I’ve bought almost nothing in this whole kitchen. We use discarded candle containers for glasses. It turns out that when you yell “Stop Shopping” at people for 10 years, it makes it really hard to buy stuff.
When I was 16 my mom gave me this cast iron pan. It’s lived in six states. I cook in it every day. Sauce, eggs, grilled cheese sandwiches, fish, potatoes. I really cook everything in it. We’re pretty simple in terms of our culinary tools.
Daikon Radish Seeds
These were given to us by our friend Severine. Billy met her when she was like 15.
The table is imbued with magic! I was looking on Craigslist for a giant table—the ad said “will seat legions.” We went over to this woman’s house in Park Slope on Prospect Park West, she herself had gotten the table out of the trash. It wouldn’t fit in our vehicle and we couldn’t figure out our schedules. We were standing in her doorway for less than 60 seconds, and she said, “Here’s the key, come in and get it tomorrow, when you’re done leave the key in the slot.” In all our preaching about the gift economy, it’s still just goosebump-making excitement when the trust happens on that level. And it’s the first time we’ve had a really big table.
The trash can came out of the trash.