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Merry Prankster

Performance artist Vermin Supreme lives to mock the political system, sometimes by running for the office of tyrant or mayor of the United States.

Vermin Supreme, a 43-year-old activist and street-theater performer, swaggers toward Faneuil Hall to take on the Democratic groupies. Inside the building on this November night, eight presidential candidates will debate live on CNN. Vermin Supreme plans to stay outside, where the TV trucks splash spotlights onto the cobblestones. A tribe of John Kerry people wave blue signs and scream in unison: "Ker-REEE, Ker-REEE." Many wear that mob-zombie expression on their faces, the glassy look of people who have been yelling one word for so long that it has turned into nonsense.

Vermin Supreme pushes his way toward the Kerry-ites. A few of them have to hop backward in order to avoid the pointy wingtips of the eagle lashed to his torso. He hoists his megaphone, conferring upon himself the electronic voice of authority. "Where does John Kerry stand on mandatory tooth brushing?" he demands. "Is he soft on plaque?" A few college kids break off to listen to the tirade. You can see it in their faces; suddenly, they're no longer members of the Kerry gang. They're just their ordinary selves again, exchanging glances with one another: Who is this guy?

As he passes through the crowd, Supreme spreads that kind of puzzlement. He has spent years figuring out how to transform a group-thinking throng back into a bunch of individuals. This is his art form.

"Vote for me," he tells a gray-haired woman, peering at her from under the rubber boot stuck on his head, the toe of which points at the sky. "I'm running for . . . something." In fact, in the past 15 years, he has set his sights on a number of political offices, all of them fictional: tyrant, mayor of the United States, emperor of the new millennium.

He seems to be a flamboyant-yet-sane hippie who is making a point about civil rights. With his wife, Becky (she asks that her last name be withheld), he roams the country to present his own brand of performance art at antiwar rallies and Republican pancake breakfasts. The couple fund their peripatetic activism by paying as little rent as possible and working odd jobs. But it's not as simple as that: When this husband goes home -- to a shack in the woods of eastern Massachusetts -- he's still named Vermin Supreme. He's Vermin Supreme 24 hours a day, every day, no vacations.

The Pony

Last year, I ran into Vermin Supreme at an antiwar march. Instead of a Visigoth costume, he had shown up in his Weirdo Lite ensemble -- a Satan mask, megaphone, and sensible shoes. His job that day, as he saw it, was to boost the morale of the marchers, to be a sort of Bob Hope of the revolutionary army. People swarmed around us, chanting, beating drums. Some guy screamed, "What do we want?"

"Peace," the crowd answered.

"What do we want?" the guy screamed again.

"Peace!" Now the river of people roared the word. The sound boomed through my chest. No one was laughing.

"What do we want?" the guy demanded again.

And this time, Supreme pointed his megaphone at the sky. "A pony!" he screamed, his amplified voice rising over the roar.

Next time around, pretty much everyone in the crowd had defected to Supreme's chant. "What do we want?" "A pony," hundreds of people hooted. Some young women near me bobbed up and down. "A pony, a pony," they squealed.

Vermin Supreme has spent years working for peace, but what he really wants is a pony. He wants cotton candy and a fun-house mirror. He wants to topple the politicians from their pedestals and replace them with plastic chickens. He wants us all to live in a constant state of participatory democracy.

We're bound to disappoint him.

The Name

It's legal. "SUPREME, Vermin Love," reads the government-issue driver's license. He took the name in 1986, when he was booking bands for a grungy rock club. "All booking agents are vermin, right? So I decided to be the most supreme vermin," he says. "I schmoozed people in character as Vermin Supreme, wearing a tacky suit and chomping a cigar." When the job ended, he could not let go of the character. He decided to run for mayor of Baltimore in his plaid leisure suit. If all politicians are vermin, he reasoned, why shouldn't citizens vote for the best vermin available?

And Vermin Supreme -- the name as well as the passion for cartoonish gestures -- began to leak into his private life. His wife has been calling him Vermin for so long that the word rolls off her tongue like any other endearment, honey or darling or sweetie. At this point, even his mom calls him Vermin.

The Boot

Often, when Vermin Supreme shows up at a political event, it's the boot that causes trouble. Security guards usually confer on their walkie-talkies and decide that the rubber galosh on his head has to go.

"What's the problem with the boot? Why is it so subversive?" Supreme wants to know, though the answers are obvious. The boot makes him the tallest person in the room. The boot gathers an audience. It draws cameras and microphones.

"That boot is like Wonder Woman's tiara," according to Darren Garnick, the producer of two PBS documentaries about fringe candidates for the presidency. "If Vermin hadn't worn that boot on his head, I never would have noticed him. There were plenty of other guys who share the same values, but they don't have boots on their head, so no one listens. Maybe the boot is an indictment of the media."

Indeed. Journalists will follow a guy with a boot the way a trout will go after a shiny plastic worm. The boot promises a good story. Vermin Supreme knows this. He has packaged himself as a made-to-order wacky sidebar for newspapers to run during campaign season. Like the politicians whom he mocks, Supreme presents one version of himself, and it's nearly impossible to see the real guy underneath.

When I asked to follow him around on a "typical day" -- that is, to watch him cope with the exigencies of being Vermin Supreme on the job and at the supermarket -- he only laughed. He made it clear that if he had any typical days, he would not offer them up for inspection. He requested that I keep his hometown a secret. And he refused to specify what kind of blue-collar job pays his bills, although I know, because I've snooped around, that he has worked construction in the past.

But it wasn't just his edicts that kept me from learning more about the private Vermin. During several hours of interviewing, he regaled me with anecdotes that had a prepackaged quality, as if he'd told them many times. When I probed for deeper insight -- Why does he use the name Vermin in his private life? When did he feel his first twinge of political consciousness? -- his words simply ran out. He didn't have answers about his own motives. He didn't seem to know what made him tick. In that way, too, he reminded me of a career politician. He's a pro at hiding his private self.

Peace

Back in 1986, Vermin Supreme lived in Baltimore, a down-and-out art boy. One day, he heard that the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament would pass through town, a cross-country parade of walkers opposed to worldwide military buildup. "I went to Memorial Stadium to check it out, and I was floored," Supreme remembers. He surveyed a parking lot that had been transformed, overnight, into a town. "It was an amazing mobile community. They had porta-potty trucks. They had kitchen trucks. They even had schools for the kids. It was so impressive."

A week before, in the Two Greeks Restaurant, he had announced to his friends a new performance-art venture: He would run for mayor of Baltimore as Vermin Supreme. Now, as he surveyed that parking lot, his prank took on deeper meaning. He would align it, somehow, with this massive, mobile outcry for peace.

"I went to the thrift store and bought a sleeping bag and T-shirt, and I joined that march," he says. After that, he signed up with Seeds of Peace, a group that drove around the country in a convoy to furnish demonstrators with food and sanitation. And he found a role for himself among the peace activists: sideshow. Wherever the group landed, Vermin Supreme ran for office. "My character came from the far right, with policies reminiscent of Jonathan Swift's `A Modest Proposal,' " he says. He had turned himself into a walking essay.

And he watched as too many peace marches devolved into violence -- either because people in the crowd did something stupid, like throwing trash at the police, or because the riot police lost their cool. So he decided that he would show up at some demonstrations as a clown rather than a candidate, helping to keep the peace. At such events, "I'm a little bit MC, a little bit town crier, a little bit 10-watt radio journalist, and a little bit Tokyo Rose" -- whatever it takes to keep everyone in a good mood. Especially the cops.

Whenever a line of police approaches in full riot gear, he whips out his bullhorn and broadcasts reassuring messages to them: "There is no problem here. You are in no danger." Sometimes, he uses his megaphone to lead the police through meditations inspired by new age relaxation tapes: "I'm going to ask you to seize on your happiest childhood memory. You can feel your breath inside your gas mask."

Or he'll resort to pratfalls. "In D.C. recently, I had a foam tube that looked like a nightstick, and I started whacking myself on the head in front of the police, who had their own nightsticks. Whack. Ouch. Whack. Ouch. A lot of them were laughing at me."

Though he has aligned himself with the antiwar movement, Vermin Supreme's true allegiance is to The Prank. And it's this -- the anarchism of comedy -- that leads him to exploits that seem awfully strange for a man of peace. He recites his attacks on politicians as if he's reading from a resume: "Sometime in the '80s, I bit Jesse Jackson's hand. Also, Jerry Falwell -- I jammed a big wad of phlegm onto my palm, and then I shook his hand. I chased Paul Tsongas down the sidewalk, and my friends and I swung an enema bag in his face."

It's this side of Vermin Supreme that makes me uncomfortable -- he seems to have forgotten that even though politicians market themselves as products, even though their hair seems to be made of extruded plastic, they're still human.

Garnick agrees. "I'd call myself a fan of Vermin's, but there are things I wish he wouldn't do. He'll say all these clever things, and then he'll go and bite somebody."

Vermin Is Our Future

In October, while I was clicking through cable stations, I stumbled across a show called Who Wants to Be Governor of California? It asked a collection of real-life fringe candidates to spin a glittery wheel and then talk about whatever issue came up. In the past few years, our country has turned a corner. The political sideshow has moved to center stage. Characters like Jesse "The Body" Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger might be called fringe candidates, except that they're winning elections. And, in 2004, the most vibrant conversations about democracy will probably happen on the streets; activists predict that this month's New Hampshire presidential primary will be upstaged by hordes of guerrilla-theater performers.

"Political disaffection is very high -- data show Americans are more disaffected from government than at any time since the polls started recording such numbers," according to Ron Hayduk, an assistant professor of political science at Borough of Manhattan Community College. Such alienation, he says, will help to fuel protest candidates, stunts, and spectacles. Politics is going to get weird. Very weird. It seems only a matter of time before some cable station creates an "I want to be president" reality TV show or a guy in a hot-dog suit becomes governor of New York.

What do we want?

Peace.

What will we probably get instead?

A pony.

Pagan Kennedy is a freelance writer living in Somerville.

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