It all began when the police department started getting calls about the Charlie Brown–size Christmas trees planted in the middle of the road. Burlington, Vermont, had left winter and mud season behind. The potholes, however, remained, as they did every year. The streets were pockmarked with them, turning the city into a Super Mario Kart course, although no one knew what that was, because it was 1986. Then, one day, the masked man came and filled them in himself — not with pavement, but with miniature evergreens.
“Never seen anything like that moment,” says Bill LaWare, police lieutenant at the time. For days, the rogue urban landscaping continued, until it ended with a denouement as odd as the pothole plants that prompted it: The Mayor of Burlington, who would run for president 30 years later, met with Burlington’s own Johnny Asphalt-seed man to declare a truce. Bernie Sanders wore the same glasses and haircut he’s been sporting for decades and a blue dress shirt with a pen in the pocket; his adversary wore sunglasses, a cowboy hat, and a bandanna. The Pothole Bandit, as he was memorialized in a massive amount of national news coverage prompted by his late-night gardening, promised to stop planting if Bernie Sanders vowed to fix the potholes.
“This is too much,” local writer Erik Esckilsen says now, thinking back to that weird moment in his city’s history. “Burlington already looks like a comic book town, now we have our own superhero. How quaint is that?”
Of course, the Pothole Bandit wasn’t rescuing anyone; potholes filled with 3-foot-tall trees need to be swerved around just as much as the empty ones. The vigilante activist was simply reminding the local government that the gaps in the pavement were large enough to support wildlife at that point, and that maybe someone should do something about it. "I'm taking vengeance against potholes,” he told the local radio station in one of his many call-ins. “I'm tired of seeing cars wrecked."
No one knew who the Pothole Bandit was at first; LaWare joked at the time to the Burlington Free Press that he “may be camouflaged as a tree.” But after entertaining the city for a few days, the shrubbery Banksy unwisely set up an interview at his parents’ house. A local reporter uncovered his identity — prompting 28-year-old cab driver Bruce Ploof to publicly reveal that he was responsible for turning the roads into pocket-sized parks.
Instead of punishment, he received an official pardon from the city. A month after Ploof planted his first pothole evergreen, he clinked champagne glasses with Sanders at an official absolution ceremony on Winooski Bridge. If Ploof promised to "refrain from ‘Bandit Activities’ for the duration of the agreement” (since the official Pardon was mostly joke-quotes “official,” it seems unlikely that it got into the specifics of how long the agreement would endure), Sanders promised he would devote $1 million to fixing the potholes that summer. “We believe in coalition politics,” Sanders said at the event, proving that the future presidential candidate has always been skilled at tying even the strangest political situations back to his overarching political narrative. “We’re delighted to form alliances with any and all citizens who want to improve the quality of life.”
“And then the pothole bandit ceased operations,” LaWare says. The Pothole Bandit promised to take his services to other places in New England as needed.
“People should have a dream,” Ploof told the Burlington Free Press. “It doesn’t matter what it is.”
Thirty years later, Sanders is the one getting called a superhero — he even has a guy who owns a comic-book store on his campaign staff — but many people watching his presidential run from back in Burlington remember that moment when he was but a mediator for those seeking justice in the most unorthodox ways. Not because the Pothole Bandit had any great effect on Vermont; Sanders, whose mayoral tenure was marked by Cory Booker–level care for government services, and the rest of the city management were already scheming up a way to fix the potholes long before they were turned into planters. “He didn’t really have that much of an impact,” Steve Goodkind, who worked for the Public Works Department for decades and ran for mayor himself last year, says of the tree vandal who carried a branch in his holster. “We were working on a plan to fund things anyway. He definitely gave the issue more publicity, though.”
The potholes weren’t any worse than usual when the Bandit struck, either; the cold weather had wreaked as much havoc as it always does up north. The reason everyone remembers the Pothole Bandit is because the situation was ridiculous — and because Bernie Sanders laughed along with the whole thing.
“It was one of the few times I remember Bernie exhibiting a sense of humor,” says LaWare, who retired from the police force. "It’s nice to have one of those days of levity when you’re dealing with so many bad things. Especially since [Sanders] always takes things pretty seriously.”
Esckilsen, who wrote an essay about the Pothole Bandit for Burlington’s alt-weekly last year, remembers when he was covering a public arts gala for Vermont Public Television, and managed to get Sanders in front of the camera. “One of my greatest journalistic achievements was getting Bernie Sanders to smile.”
The pardoned Pothole Bandit, who has been followed by a few copycats over the years (a Pothole Robin Hood hit Jackson, Mississippi, three years ago), is still sort of trying to fulfill his original mission. After zigzagging across the country, he returned to Burlington and now works for the Public Works Department. He says that the legend lives on — his and Bernie’s. “I was down at JP’s getting a beer last week,” Ploof says, “trying to get a shot from the guy behind the bar — he owed me one.” The gambit failed, and he walked away, only to get grabbed by someone else. “‘Hey, I remember you,' he says. ‘You’re the pothole bandit! Let me buy you a drink.’ That happened only a week ago!”
The Pothole Bandit says that to this day, the pardoning ceremony was one of the best moments in his life. “My parents were there on the bridge,” Ploof says, “and they were proud of me.”
He’s also clearly proud of Bernie, and thinks that if the rest of the country saw all the things Sanders has done at the local level, maybe he’d actually make it to the White House. “I was at a bus stop in Winooski yesterday, and I saw a plaque with his name on it,” he says. “I was looking at something he did for us. Man’s got the fight in him. If everyone knew his history, the things he’s done for us, I think he’d have a better chance.”
As for where Ploof got the trees: “All I can say is, they weren’t stolen. I won’t tell you who gave them to me.”