- The Handbasket
- Schmear campaign: A bagel crawl across George Santos’ district
Schmear campaign: A bagel crawl across George Santos’ district
A hole-y journey for one Long Island native.
To understand George Santos, you must first understand Long Island.
You must understand that the character he created is an amalgamation of the qualities he understood to be most valued in the district he now represents in congress: A wealthy, Jewish, former college athlete and finance titan, who’s sharply dressed, drives a Mercedes, rescues animals and whose mother survived 9/11. As the world knows now, it was all a lie, but the people he was performing for—the people who helped get him elected—are very real.
As Santos continues to dominate headlines each day, I realized that a cultural understanding of his domain is paramount to understanding his rise and eventual fall. And as a native of his district, I knew I could provide a nice snapshot of the situation by traveling to the social center of so many of the communities Santos represents: the bagel place.
After polling Twitter and readers of this newsletter, combined with my own discretion and knowledge, I chose five bagel purveyors spread out across the district that includes the North Shore of Long Island’s Nassau County and a portion of northern Queens. With my parents’ home in Jericho as home base, I fanned out Tuesday to spots in Levittown, Plainview, Mineola, Port Washington and Whitestone, to eat, of course, but mainly to chat with patrons who love their island as much as they love bagels, and undoubtedly would have thoughts about their new congressman. I just hoped I wouldn’t spoil their appetites.
Around 9:30 I walk into Heavenly Bagels in Levittown, a town in the southeastern portion of the district that I had a feeling would turn up more Republicans. I get in line to order next to a handful of small booths that line the length of the small shop. There’s a “CASH ONLY” sign, which jibes with the old school feel, and luckily I have a few bucks on me. Ambient music plays, and the people ahead of me shout their orders. I go with a cinnamon raisin and plain cream cheese, not toasted, and a medium iced coffee, and post up in the booth furthest from the door, watching the crowd ebb and flow. Then came Bill.
After fixing his hot coffee, I catch Bill’s eye and ask if I can talk to him about George Santos. He reluctantly says ok, and I invite him to sit down in my makeshift booth office. The 65-year-old Republican voted for Santos, he says, but didn’t really know much about him beforehand and was a straight-ticket voter—but he, like a number of people I’d talk to throughout the day, is generally disillusioned with politics.
“The whole political system is kind of screwed up right now,” he says. “And that just goes to show, it’s not Democrats or Republicans. Our system is just off. None of them are doing anything for the people; they’re doing it for themselves.”
After Bill grabs his bagel and departs, I ask a middle-aged woman who walked in if she lives in the area and if I could ask her about Santos. She says she doesn’t, and then re: Santos mouths “asshole.”
Next I ask a guy named John if he voted for Santos and he replies, “I don’t even wanna say. I’m embarrassed.” Then after a brief pause says, “Yes, I did.” He, too, seems frustrated with the system overall, despite Santos being a very specifically Republican failure. John, 70, says we need a “different vetting process to be put into place where it’s incumbent upon leadership of the party, no matter what party, to vet their candidates.” The party seems pretty important in this case, but I don’t say that to John. I toss the rest of my bagel and head out.
I continue on to the original location of Bagel Boss on S. Oyster Bay Road in Plainview (ok, it’s technically Hicksville, but it’s right on the border, and in my bagel-addled brain, it will always be Plainview.) It’s been a Long Island institution since 1976, serving up certified kosher smoked fish galore. While waiting by the counter for my sesame bagel with scallion cream cheese, I overhear a guy tell his friend that Aspen is great for flying in a private plane. A young woman points to another guy’s order and asks what it is. “A flagel,” he replies, Long Island parlance for a flattened bagel.
Back in the dining area I stumble upon the coffee klatch of my dreams: a group of friends in their 80s and 90s catching up over bagels and coffee. Walter, Stuart, Martin and Bert graciously let me pull up a chair to chat about their congressman.
“I think anybody that doesn’t think he’s gonna go is a moron!” Bert declares right off the bat.
I ask if he voted for Santos, and he tells me he didn’t vote at all. “What we have in this country is a disgrace. Republicans and Democrats: What’re you voting for? You know what you’re voting for? You’re voting for me, because they’re interested in themselves. You’re voting for the party. And you know who’s third? The American public. That’s a fact.”
The others nod in agreement, and I ask if they always felt that way.
“Not years ago,” Bert says.
“They know this guy’s a phony, but they’re doing it because they need that extra vote in the House,” Walter says. “If the guy was a murderer, the Republicans would still keep him!”
After assuring them I wasn’t really from a collections agency, I said my goodbyes, and hopped on the Northern State Parkway to Long Island Bagel Cafe in Mineola where I pull up next to a car with a bumper sticker that says “Put Christ back in Christmas.” My mom suggested I go there because they have her favorite tuna salad and also requested half a pound.
When I walk in, the TV is blaring with local news, on top of music playing over the speakers. People are trickling in for an early lunch, some in business clothes, and a few people I ask don’t live or vote in the area. I ask a guy in his 20s who lives locally what he thinks of Santos, and he smiles and says he doesn’t really know much about the whole thing.
Then I ask a woman in her 60s on her way out if I could talk to her about George Santos. She frowns and says, “I just ate.” As she was out the door, she half turned to me and shouted, “get rid of him!” Her husband, who’s right behind her, calls Santos “reprehensible.”
Instead of sticking with my original route, I decide to skip ahead to the only Queens destination on my list, Utopia Bagels in Whitestone. So many people told me it was essential I go here. It’s the area where Santos has claimed to live, and a newer part of the district as of last year’s redistricting. Two-story apartment buildings are mixed in with gaudy single family homes, but as part of New York City, this corner of NY-03 is distinctly more urban.
Ahead of me in line is a little old lady with little patience. “Excuse me!” she yells with a thick Queens accent at the woman taking another group’s order, “Are you the only one working the counter?” After waiting another few seconds, she starts muttering “unbelievable” under her breath repeatedly.
I order a bacon, egg and cheese on pumpernickel, and then see the people from the group taking photos of a woman at the register wearing a bright pink Utopia Bagels beanie, presumably for Instagram. Clearly not camera-shy, I knew she’d love to chat. And when I tell her the subject, she’s happy to oblige.
At Utopia Bagels in Whitestone, Queens, I spoke to Katina Spellman who’s worked there for a number of years and lives in the district but isn’t an active voter.
I asked her if she could choose one word to describe how people there are feeling about Santos: “Disgusted.”
— . (@MarisaKabas)
Jan 24, 2023
I make one last stop back in Nassau County at Let There Be Bagels in Port Washington.
It’s after 2pm, which might as well be midnight at a bagel place, and there’s one lone seated patron eating his bagel while reading the paper and sipping a diet coke, plus one middle-aged woman waiting for her order. As I get closer, I see she’s eating while hovering over the counter. And once I’m even closer, I see what she’s shoveling into her mouth: the whites of five hard boiled eggs. I ask her what she thinks of George Santos, and she says she’s not into politics.
Then in walks Murray Singer, a 66-year-old Jewish Democrat. I ask him which of Santos’ lies trouble him most. “It’s hard to rate. And they’re still coming,” he says. I then ask specifically what about his claim to be Jewish? “The claim to be Jewish is not troublesome; claiming to be a descendant of Holocaust survivors is very troublesome…there was so much out there, and I didn’t need any additional reasons to find his story offensive.”
I panic-order half a pound of egg salad because I feel guilty loitering without buying anything, and hit the road with my purchase in tow.
As I’m driving back to my parents’ house, I think about the prevailing sentiment of the day—that the political system in this country is profoundly broken, and George Santos is just a symptom.
The people of his district seemed angry, but defeated. They didn’t think anyone was going to come rescue them, but they also didn’t blame anyone in particular. They all agreed that Santos must go, but what comes next? They couldn’t say.
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