Feel the Bern
Every Vermonter has a Bernie Sanders story.
This is mine.
It begins when I was in elementary school. Bernie was visiting our classroom to warn us of the coming climate catastrophe. Heavy stuff for a seven-year-old girl. “Let me be clear,” he said in that gravelly baritone of his, “the future of the planet is in your hands. Now is not the time for thinking small.”
I glanced over at the sleepy-eyed boy next to me who was spooning paste from a jar into his cakehole like it was a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. If the future depended on kids like Brandon, the planet was screwed. Luckily for Mother Nature, I made a silent but solemn vow to pick up the slack. I could already tell that life was going to be just another group project, one where I would be stuck doing most of the work.
Years would pass before I could let Bernie know how much his visit influenced my decision to go into politics. By the time I volunteered on his presidential campaigns, he’d become a big deal. Suddenly, everybody wanted to “feel the Bern.” It wasn’t until grad school that I found myself in the same room with him again.
At twenty-three, I was one of the younger students in Georgetown’s poli-sci program. Second-year students are required to complete a semester-long congressional internship, and the Sanders office was at the top of my list. And not just for the home-state connection. Unlike most internships in town, Bernie’s actually paid a living wage. If I got into the program, I could take a much-needed break from Lincoln’s Chinstrap, the DC dive I bartended at part-time. Playing therapist for sloshed, emotionally wounded older men is less fun than it sounds.
Some congressional offices swiped right on anyone with a pulse. Not the Sanders office. Everyone I knew in my grad program was applying there, even the lone Young Republican (bless his tiny bow tie). With such a large applicant pool, Bernie could afford to be selective. Only the best of the best made it into the program; only the best of the best of the best made it through the program. It was said that if you could survive a semester interning in the Sanders office, you could survive anything—even a Cancún vacation with Ted Cruz. Prospective employers knew this. A letter of recommendation from his office could get your foot in any door in town . . . except for the Sanders office, ironically. Bernie already had his ride-or-die squad. The chances of getting a full-time job with him after the internship were about as good as the chances of Elon Musk getting to Mars.
When I learned that I’d secured an in-person interview with the senator, I thought, Of course I did
. Not to brag, but my CV game was strong: Dean’s List, Honor Roll, you name it. Grades had never been a problem for me. Still, this town was stacked with straight-A students (excluding members of Congress, of course).
Now that I’d made the cut, I needed to do something to distance myself from the pack. Something bold. Something that would make Bernie remember the name “Crash Robertson.” And not just because I was the only girl named “Crash” on the planet. Like Alexander Hamilton, I needed to shoot my shot.
As luck would have it, I knew Bernie’s one and only weakness.
Most people think he’s nothing more than a political machine, a man whose only hobby is fighting for the working class. While there’s some truth to that, even political machines need fuel. A little birdie told me on good authority that the senator was a sucker for Vermont maple syrup. The little birdie was my mother, who managed the general store back in my hometown of Eagle Creek, Vermont (“New England’s #1 Leaf-Peeping Destination!” according to a press release put out by the Eagle Creek Chamber of Commerce). Grade A Golden
, my mother texted me. The lighter the better.
She also asked if I would invite Bernie to be the grand marshal of our town’s harvest festival parade. Outside of maple syrup, Champ Days is, like, the one thing people in my hometown are proud of. It’s all so cringe. Let me get the job first,
I’d texted back.
Okay, so Alexander Hamilton never thanked anyone for their time with a bottle of syrup. Nobody quashes political beef with duels anymore, either. They just duke it out on Twitter.
Bernie’s chief of staff met me in the waiting area of the Sanders office. It was a typically sauna-like afternoon in mid-August and Lana O’Malley was dressed head-to-toe in black. Either she was immune to the heat, or she actually enjoyed it.
Lana ushered me into a windowless conference room without a word. Bernie, seated at the table in a rumpled baby-blue button-down shirt, looked like he’d just been roused from a nap. He might well have been—the Senate was in summer recess, and Bernie was still in DC interviewing a parade of fanboys.
He reached across the table to shake my hand. “Bernie Sanders,” he said with that famously gruff voice, the one that made him sound like he was on a Brooklyn street corner hawking newspapers announcing an end to the Great War.
“Crash Robertson,” I said, shaking his hand. As I was taking a seat, I spied half a dozen bottles of syrup pushed to the far end of the table, all presumably left behind by my competition. My heart sank. The half-pint of artisanal syrup in my handbag had cost me a week’s worth of tips at Lincoln’s Chinstrap. If I didn’t get the internship, I would be eating ramen for the next month. And not the good stuff from the food trucks near campus.
“You want to be a campaign manager,” Lana said, reading off my application.
“I volunteered on both of the senator’s presidential campaigns,” I said. “The energy was off the charts. There’s something about being in a room with so many people, all working toward one goal. It all seems so unpredictable and exciting and amazing and now I’m rambling, aren’t I?”
“Take a breath, you’re fine,” Lana said. “To be clear, though, this internship is a desk job. We don’t have campaign staff at the moment. The senator has a few years before he’s up for reelection.”
“Don’t remind me,” Bernie mumbled.
What I was after was experience, I told Lana. A chance to learn the ropes from the best of the best. “I’ve heard this office is where coal is turned into diamonds,” I said.
Bernie’s frown deepened. “We support clean energy here.”
Throughout the rest of the interview—correction: interrogation
—I kept waiting for Bernie to jump in with a question of his own. Even mentioning how inspirational his elementary school visit had been failed to get a reaction out of him.
My ten minutes flew by. Either that, or Lana was showing me mercy by cutting the interview short. There were more victims waiting in the lobby. “Do you have any questions for us?” she asked absently, scrolling through messages on her Apple Watch.
I was ready to take the loss when my eyes fell again on the cluster of maple syrup bottles. Several were corporate brands cut with cheap corn syrup, easily distinguishable by their garish labels and faux-homestyle names such as “Maplewood Springs” and “Canadian Gold.” Someone had even brought Bernie an old bottle of Aunt Jemima’s, which had been discontinued when Quaker Oats realized nobody wanted their pancakes with a side of racism. The bottles lined up in a row all had one thing in common, though: they were all as dark and thick as used motor oil. There wasn’t a single bottle of light syrup on the table.
Screw it. I reached into my handbag for my bottle. As I whipped it out, Lana reached out to intercept it like a Secret Service agent throwing herself in front of the president.
Bernie muscled it away from her. “Doc McGilliam’s Barrel-Aged Golden Reserve Batch,” he said, reading the label in quiet reverence. “Holy moly.”
Mom had said I couldn’t go wrong with Doc’s. He was a local eccentric who produced some of the finest artisanal syrup in the state. The only trouble was finding it. It had been a tough season for sugarmakers in Vermont. Another abnormally warm spring. The early harvest—the source of all light, golden-hued syrup— had been hit the hardest. Stores had sold out of what little was produced months ago. Thankfully, that’s why they’d invented the internet.