Our editor sent us to the Bernie Sanders rally at Washington Square Park, largely on a mission to find celebrities.
But in the process, we learned that waiting in line for three hours and standing through an additional two hours of speeches and performances is basically an extreme sport and that we are in terrible physical shape. We stared deep into the abyss and Rosario Dawson told us to vote.
We discovered these deep truths about ourselves in the company of thousands of New Yorkers (and at least four Vermonters, and one guy from Toronto, Canada), Vampire Weekend, an a cappella group from Columbia University, Rosario Dawson, Tim Robbins, Spike Lee, whatever celebrities were hidden in the crowd we did not see or recognize and, of course, Bernie Sanders.
2:30 p.m.: The calm before the storm
The rally was not scheduled to start until 7 p.m. But at 2:30 p.m., we heard word that some enterprising Bernie supporters had already begun lining up. People were obviously excited, so we embarked on the day's journey a little earlier than planned.
We knew that some waiting would be involved, so we each bought a fancy salad with tempeh and kale, a bottle of water, and an additional snack. (Danielle: Fig bars and nuts. Katie: Protein bar.)
Still, we should have taken notice when a heavily made-up girl, with slick short hair, a faux leopard jacket, and chandelier earrings, voiced her concern about the gathering crowds. “I want to go to the Bernie Sanders rally,” she told a friend, “but I’m so tired and I have laundry.”
The writing was on the wall, but we didn’t read it.
3:15 p.m.: A very rude awakening
Salads in hand and a bounce in our step from the weather on this crisp spring day in New York, we headed toward the south entrance of Washington Square Park.
The reality of the situation—that what we had mistaken for a casual assignment was actually an endurance test that neither of us were properly prepared for—set in quickly.
We wanted to stroll into the park. We wanted to meet Tim Robbins. We wanted it to be 70 degrees and for people to be dressed in festival attire and toss frisbees. Danielle had not been to a political rally in years and was, in retrospect, confused about what a political rally entailed.
Instead of the seamless entrance of dreams, we were fed into a line that we would spend the next 3 hours and 15 minutes waiting in. Hours that would test us mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Hours that would test our bladders and our layering choices.
Here is where we spent most of the evening.
3:30–4:30 p.m.: Here to make friends
While we were immediately and deeply crushed by the size and scope of the line, the people around us seemed chill as hell about it. Excited, even.
Behind us, a real estate agent chatted animatedly with a woman in town from Vermont with her 16-year-old son. A few minutes in, the woman’s son left her in line to wander around Greenwich Village. (Ed note: Teens.) Nearby, a comedian struggled to fit a bald cap onto his head and fussed with a rumpled suit. “How can I have the most votes and the fewest delegates?” he asked, in a thick Brooklyn accent, of no one in particular.
He placed his other belongings—a sign, a backpack, an iPad—on a pile of garbage overflowing from a trash can on the corner. A woman offered to hold them for him, but he refused. In the trash they went. Our hopes for a pleasant evening would soon follow.
He held up his sign about delegates, but he had spelled it "delagates." The people in line pointed this out. “Good point,” he shrugged. At the comedian's request, a woman from the line raised an iPad to capture his routine. "How can I have—" he began. "You might want to wait for me to hit record," the stranger told him. "Good point," he said again.
We were, frankly, mesmerized.
It turned out that the real estate agent behind us was a bit of a detective, albeit a not very good one. He wanted to get to the bottom of when we were finally going to be let into the park.
"How long do we have to wait?" he asked volunteers.
"How long do we have to wait?" he asked stressed out NYU staffers trying to clear a path for NYU students leaving and entering the Skirball Center.
"How long do we have to wait?" he asked aloud, to the sky, and to God, who did not respond, as far as we could tell.
Our detective found out what everyone knew, which was: nothing. They knew nothing.
4:30–6:00 p.m.: Out of the frying pan, into the fire
Around this time, we were ushered from the sidewalk and onto the street, which had been cleared of cars for the occasion. While the line had been moving, if slowly, this was a essentially a holding cell, outside the jurisdiction of law (and lines): We found ourselves far outpaced by the real estate man. One of the women who had been attempting to help out the bedraggled Bernie impersonator was somehow split off from her friends.
“I lost my people,” she said, crestfallen. “We’re kind of all your people,” a man said back to her.
It was touching.
We ended up standing beside a group of three elderly (but very sprightly) New Yorkers who used the time to reminisce about the bands they’d seen at the Fillmore East (Jefferson Airplane, The Who) and cutting high school classes. A man behind us held a docile dachshund. A family spoke rapidly in French, and we wondered why they were here. We do not speak French, but could decipher the words “Spike Lee,” which were repeated several times. Katie thought she saw Jason Bateman and Jim Carrey, but they were just men with beards.
Over the course of about 90 minutes, we move one half block.
As we neared the final barrier, people pressed closer and closer together. We, the beleaguered troops (in support of Bernie Sanders, in support of assignments from editors to find celebrities in support of Bernie Sanders), were packed tighter and tighter, but we clung to what remaining humanity and dignity we had left. Danielle started imagining, aloud, escape routes. We marked our minimal progress through the crowd by tracking the movement of a man in a french fry costume ahead of us. When we saw him in a mass of people snaking around the block to our left, we realized the dark truth about our holding cell: treachery.
The line we were now standing in did not feed directly into the park, but into a whole other line. Losing hope, we somberly ate more salad.
6:00–6:45 p.m.: A better line
Now we were in a better, shorter, faster moving line. We watched NYU students squeeze through the throngs, escorted by police officers, and a woman dressed like a vampire yell at a man in a suit. “He’s not a Bernie supporter!” she told people around her, but they didn’t seem to care. Things were better.
6:45–7:00 p.m.: The promise land?
We finally made it to the security tents and passed through the metal detectors without incident. (We are rule followers, and had dutifully left our bags at the office, per the event directions.)
We looked at each other—smiling, almost giddy—as we walk-jogged toward the middle of the park. After more than three hours of largely standing in place, legs fatigued, bodies tensed against the cold, the simple act of walking felt kind of euphoric.
We cruised past an already-long line for the two porta potties set up near the park’s western edge. After our brief taste of freedom, consenting to another line seemed like true insanity.
There were already hundreds of people filling in the empty space nearest to the arches of the Washington Monument, the area where the performers and speakers were set up. Basically impenetrable. So we staked out a bench and sat on it.
This will be good to stand on later, we assured each other, rubbing our legs, trying to stay warm, and contemplating the hours still ahead.
We reasoned, unrealistically, that this would be a good spot to scope out and photographs celebrities who slid incognito through the masses. We saw none of these.
7:00–8:45 p.m.: It begins
The rally started promptly at 7:00 p.m., a pleasant surprise. We stood on our bench and waited patiently as a campaign staffer spoke about the importance of voting, and Ali Najmi, a city council candidate for New York City’s 23 district, said he’s voting for Bernie even though Bill Clinton helped rescue his sister-in-law from North Korea.
Soon after, Vampire Weekend and The Dirty Projectors (and the Columbia Metrotones) came on. They played “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” “A-Punk,” and some others and we swayed along on the limited space bench space we had. The movements warmed us a little.
After that, we heard a number of remarks from local officials and union leaders. Representatives from the Transit Workers Union and the Communications Workers of America, 40,000 of whom had walked out on their Verizon jobs to protest the company earlier that day, spoke in favor of a Bernie Sanders presidency. The range of intricacy of New York accents on display was sensational and warming in its own way.
But we had been sent on a mission, a celebrity-driven mission, and so we only perked our numb ears for celebrity speakers.
We squinted to see them. We bounced from one leg to the other, both to keep warm and to adjust our line of vision. Nothing worked. Over a vast crowd of heads and signs, there was nothing to see but a tiny, blurred figure we were meant to understand was Tim Robbins.
“We have all been fed a steady stream of propaganda that furthers the establishment’s narrative that Hillary is the presumptive nominee," said the tiny, blurry man (presumably Tim Robbins) in the distance. Everyone booed at Hillary's name. Tiny Tim Robbins asked us to encourage Hillary supporters whose hearts are with Bernie to dream big. He started a Bernie chant and walked off stage.
The park erupted as Rosario Dawson approached the podium.
“We have an opportunity with our vote this coming Tuesday to make sure that we recognize the invisible… too many people have died already because of the policies of some of the people who are running. Do we reward that with the White House?” she asked. The crowd erupted again.
Finally, Spike Lee appeared. A surprise.
“You look so beautiful out here!”
At this point in the evening, Katie had wrapped her scarf around her face in a fruitless attempt to stay warm. Our hands were grey with cold. We hadn't peed in four hours. We did not feel beautiful.
“Is Brooklyn in the house?” Brooklyn was in the house. The crowd lost it.
Also lost: The French, but we imagined them whooping.
“Are you tired of being jerked around? Are you tired of being led astray? Run amok? Hijinked?” We winced. Lee's characterization of the political establishment also described our experience in the line we were forced to stand in for hours. Too fresh.
Another Bernie chant.
Then he left.
At 8:30 p.m., Bernie finally approached the podium, and the cheers got even louder. This was the moment they had been awaiting for hours, in cold, cramped, bathroom-less conditions. They seemed rapt by Bernie’s raspy voice, and his rousing—if familiar—message.
And we left.
Our legs hurt, and our toes were numb. Our texts to each other had devolved into ominous emoji.
We’ll just head toward the exit of the park, we told each other. We’ll just stand there so we can make our getaway quickly, when this is all over, we said.
Then, a little farther from the stage, we assured each other we could hear the speech from the streets beyond the park. Surely, it would be alright to start making our exit.
Once outside the security fence, we stopped pretending we were straining to listen to Sanders’ distant, echo-y voice. The walk was warming. We quickened our pace.
8:45–9:00 p.m.: The end
We rushed back into our office. The once mundane setting—desks covered in papers, the quiet hum of traffic outside, bathrooms, heat—felt like an oasis. We warmed ourselves and snacked heavily. It had been six, celeb-less hours. But it was over. We headed back into the dark night.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.
Katie McDonough covers politics for Fusion. She lives in Brooklyn.