The Devil and Michael Alig

Busting the King of Club Kids
By William Bastone and Jennifer Gonnerman

In the final deluded days before his arrest, Michad Alig had convinced himself that he could trade Peter Gatien’s scalp for Angel Melendez’s torso. For the 31-year-old club kid, this surely seemed like a fair barter: in the debauched demimonde he once ruled, the only thing worse than being dead is being dull. 

Holed up with his 22-year-old boyfriend in a Toms River, New Jersey, motel, Alig had become the pawn of Drug Enforcement Administration agents Man Germanowski and Bob Gagne, who were using him as an informant to fortify their drug-trafficking case against Gatien, New York’s night­club king. Simultaneously, Alig was the prey of another pair of investigators. 

Working from a secret Soho office — upstairs from an art gallery and just south of Commes des Garçons on Wooster Street — Miguel Rodriguez and Walter Alexander, investigators with the Manhattan district attorney’s office, were preparing to nab Alig for the March murder of Melendez, a nightclub habitué and low-level drug dealer.

Played out against the backdrop of these two competing criminal probes, Alig’s frantic last weeks took on an added urgency, with him mistakenly believing that his DEA cooperation would somehow provide immunity from a homicide charge. This misguided notion probably reflects less on Alig’s grasp of the criminal justice system than it does in the accused killer’s value system.

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As he passed on damaging information about Gatien to the DEA, Alig became more certain that he would never be charged with Melendez’s murder. At one point in October — before Melendez’s body had been ID’d by the city medical examiner — Alig telephoned his friend Rachel Cain and poked fun at the homicide probe. Pretending he was Rodriguez, Alig demanded that Cain immediately come to the D.A.’s office for an interview, she told the Voice Sunday. 

Known as “Screaming Rachel,” Cain is a tireless self-promoter (she kicked off a conversation about Melendez’s murder by plugging a Geraldo appearance and her fledgling record label) who was the first Alig friend to publicly confirm that the club kid had spoken of murdering Melendez. As it turned out, Cain’s version — provided to the Voice in June — dovetailed with details of the bludgeoning and dismemberment that investigators believe occurred in Apartment 3K at the Riverbank West skyscraper on West 43rd Street.

Cain told the Voice that, during two lengthy interviews with Rodriguez, she recounted Alig’s statements about the Melendez killing. Cain’s recitation apparently was used by prosecutors last week to buttress murder charges filed against Alig and Robert Riggs, a 28-year-old club denizen known as “Freeze.”

The felony complaints open by referring to statements made by Alig days after the mid­-March slaying. The account is attributed in the complaints to a D.A.’s informant; Cain conced­ed it was a “possibility” she was the unnamed source. Cain also admitted that, like Alig, she has been cooperating with DEA agents and federal prosecutors in a continuing grand jury probe of drug activity at Gatien’s nightspots. For her help, Cain has received witness fees, per diem allowances, and a small lump-sum payment

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Alig had originally been a target of the DEA’s probe, which began about a year ago and resulted in the May indictment of Gatien and a score of other defendants on drug-trafficking and conspiracy charges. Wiretap affidavits ob­tained by the Voice show that Alig, who has not been charged in the federal case, was suspected of involvement in “various schemes to distribute large amounts” of the hallucinogen Ecstasy. 

Cain apparently was not the only Alig asso­ciate to whom the club kid provided details of Melendez’s death. One Voice source recalled that a “very agitated, very upset” Alig approached him in March and asked, “Do you have a car?” The acquaintance was immediately suspicious, recalling in an interview Saturday that “I knew he didn’t want to take a ride. I know Mike. Mike’s crazy.”

The source said Alig then proceeded to describe how he and Riggs killed Melendez and how “he had a dead body in his apartment” and needed to move it. Days later, in an encounter at the Limelight nightclub, the source said Alig commented, “We got rid of the body.” Despite the charges against Alig, the source added that he was “not a bad person.” Like Cain, a reluctant witness who was doggedly pursued by Rodriguez, the Voice source never thought to contact police about Alig’s confession.

One law enforcement source said that Melendez’s body sat in Alig’s bathtub for several days before the club kid and Riggs dismembered it and stuffed it into a box. They then carried the large package downstairs, flagged down a taxicab, and headed to the Hudson River, where they dumped it. 

In the face of a murder investigation, the reluctance of Alig’s associates to assist probers vexed Rodriguez and others in the D.A.’s office, sources said. From the outset, investigators suspected that Alig’s confession was no hoax, but needed a body before they could contemplate a murder prosecution. Investigators believed they had found Melendez’s body in September when a mutilated corpse was fished out of the water off Manhattan’s northern shore.

But while that body turned out to be just another unidentified casualty, press reports at the time struck a chord with police assigned to Staten Island’s 122nd Precinct. On April 12, Detective Ralph Gengo had responded to a call at Oakwood Beach, a scruffy spit of sand just north of Great Kills Park, where locals fish for flounder and teenagers build fires on the weekend. There, a group of children had stumbled across a box containing a legless body. A subsequent autopsy by Dr. Jonathan Arden of the medical examiner’s office determined that victim had died of asphyxia after being struck three time on the head with a blunt object.

Using dental records, Staten Island police and D.A. investigators in late October identified the corpse as that of Melendez. Investigators broke the news to Melendez’s family, adding that they expected to make arrests in the case during the first week of December. The only suspects were Alig and Riggs.

Police arrested Alig in New Jersey at 3 a.m. last Thursday. They picked up Riggs later that morning and “invited him to come down and answer a few questions.” The 28-year-old could have refused, but instead rode with Rodriguez and Alexander to Wooster Street, where the D.A.’s official corruption unit is headquartered. The Soho office, which has unlisted phone numbers and is not included in a building directory, handles police corruption cases and other sensitive matters.

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As D.A. representatives pressed him for de­tails of Melendez’s disappearance, Riggs — who did not ask for a lawyer — surprised investigators by admitting his and Alig’s role in the murder. Along with a written confession, Riggs was videotaped describing the killing, the hacking off of Melendez’s legs, and the disposal of the body. In contrast, when Alig was arrested, probers were not allowed to question him about the killing since Alig had previously hired an attorney. That retainer was made in connec­tion with Alig’s cooperation with the DEA and Brooklyn federal prosecutors. 

When a Voice reporter visited Riggs Saturday at Rikers Island, he was dressed in a slate gray, short-sleeved jumpsuit with Velcro closures up the front. He wore slip-on sandals and white tube socks. Gone were the high-top Nikes, blue and green parachute pants, and shimmery parka he wore the prior day at his arraignment. Riggs refused to discuss his role in the Melendez murder, speaking only about his journey to New York from Florida 10 years ago to work as a milliner. Riggs added that he had recently been designing stage props and costumes for movies and Broadway productions. 

Alig declined Sunday to see a Voice reporter who tried to visit him at Rikers’s Anna M. Kross Center, where Riggs is also housed. While being arraigned Friday afternoon, Alig fidgeted nervously, bit his nails, and scanned the courtroom for familiar faces. As he stood in the dock, with his striped boxers peeking out from the back of his baggy, khaki-colored pants, Alig seemed to be reeling. 

He had spent the prior few months trying to salvage his career in the face of whispers that he was a murderer. At times, to escape the scrutiny and the rumors, he would head to the Garden State to be with 22-year-old Brian McCauley who sells Tommy Hilfiger clothing at the Toms River Macy’s. For Alig, the sleepy town surely must have been a comedown. It was inhabited by tunnel people, who, along with their bridge counterparts, filled up Gatien’s clubs on many of the nights Alig promoted parties. They were the ones who paid at the door and were never palmed a drink ticket. 

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Closeted in the Riverwatch Inn & Irish Pub, a few doors down from the Catholic Charities office, Alig left his room only for trips across the street to the 7-Eleven. With his canary yellow hair and effeminate manner, he quickly caught the eye of the locals. “Oh, it’s the fag!” clerk Robin Simone laughed Saturday when asked about Alig. “He was always patting his boyfriend’s butt. I thought they were gonna get it on right in here.” The Riverwatch owner also had a wisecrack ready, claiming that Alig and his young companion had stayed in “Room 69” at the 50-room motel. 

The slurs were ugly, but it was hard to feel sorry for Alig since he was the one quoted in October’s Details magazine calling Melendez a “scum-of-the-earth drug dealer,” virtually implying he got what was coming to him. But this slight was no surprise. Alig sat at the center of a firmament of cynical, low-rent “stars” whose lives usually revolved around drug use and other assorted excesses.

Until his arrest last week, Alig’s life had been filled with flashes from a camera strobe, disco balls, and spotlights. But as he was driven away from the Riverwatch early Thursday, he was illuminated by only the whirling cherry top on a Dover Township police cruiser. As the cop car headed down Water Street, the last glimpse of neon Michael Alig may see came from a Budweiser sign in the shape of a shamrock, hanging in the window of a musty Jersey dive. 

Additional reporting by J.A. Lobbia and Thomas Goetz

Inside Alig’s Brain: Drugs, Genius, Pedophilia
By Frank Owen

Add prostituting an underage runaway and having sex with minors to Michael Alig’s grow­ing list of alleged criminal activities. In the wake of the arrest of the former king of the club kids for the murder of drug dealer Angel Melendez, a disturbing portrait of Alig as a predatory pedophile and sometime pimp is beginning to emerge. 

According to close friends — both current and former — in 1991 Alig dressed a homeless 12-year-old boy in drag (to look like Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby) and took him to Edel­weiss, a notorious hustler joint then located on West 29th Street. Here the boy sold his backside to get food and drug money for him­self and Alig. “A menace to young boys” is how one former confidant describes Alig. Others, however, insist that any sexual activity was entirely consensual, albeit thoroughly illegal. “Michael was getting sex and money, these boys were getting the time of their young lives,” says one of Alig’s pals.

Previously, according to the same people, Alig had visited Germany following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, where he photographed and took phone numbers from a string of East German hustlers whom he attempted to sell as houseboys to rich New York patrons. “The scheme never really got off the ground,” says one insider. “Michaell was too disorganized.”

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Alig has made a habit of flaunting the law. Whether walking through the lobby of his posh apartment building holding a crack pipe, or doing drugs in public while helping the DEA build its drug conspiracy case against his former boss Peter Gatien, or boasting to friends about murdering Melendez, Alig has long felt the rules governing the rest of society don’t apply to him. He’s so brazen he even repeated the story of the 12-year-old and the East German houseboys to numerous friends on many occasions.

Alig has openly admitted that he’s a pedophile, and used to keep a stack of kiddie porn maga­zines in his apartment. Before his arrest, he was usually seen with a posse of young boys in tow. According to writer Stephen Saban, who lives down the hall from Alig’s former pad, “He [Alig] was giving young boys [the date rape drug] Rohypnol so he could have sex with them. I would see young kids coming to his apartment all the time.” 

Not that these young hustlers and run­aways were angels, insists Saban. If Alig was an exploiter — “a get-over queen,” in Saban’s phrase — he also allowed himself to be exploit­ed. “Inevitably Michael would be so fucked up he could hardly walk, so these kids would prop him up and walk him out into the street and get into a cab with him so that they could get into the clubs for free.” 

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How did the energetic upstart who single-handedly launched his own youth sub­culture in the ’80s turn into the messed­-up sociopath and accused murderer of today? How did the twisted creativity of the original club-kid scene tip over into outright evil? 

Alig’s nightclub career began in the early ’80s, when — fresh from South Bend, Indiana — the 18-year-old started working at Danceteria as a bus boy. People remember him from those days as a nerdy but cute gay boy conventionally attired in blue jeans and white T-shirt who didn’t look old enough to be in the club in the first place. The green hair and extravagant out­fits would come later. 

The club kids were widely ridiculed as brattish outsiders by older trendies when they first appeared. The original Details magazine dis­missed Alig and his crew as “little boys in bean­ies.” Yet Alig ended up revitalizing Downtown (first at Danceteria and the Tunnel, later at Club USA and Disco 2000) at a time when the rapidly aging scene was in desperate need of an injection of young blood. 

“Michael’s genius was in recognizing that the only thing separating the fabulous person from the non fabulous person was somebody’s saying so,” says writer-filmmaker Fenton Bailey, who caught the novice Alig how to throw par­ties. “He saw that he didn’t need to work his way into the established elite of Downtown nightlife. Instead, he gathered around him a whole bunch of friends, inspired them, and transformed them visually, and created his own scene of which he was the king. Like Andy Warhol, he realized that stardom was nothing more than a fantastic act of self-invention.” 

Michael not only reinvented himself, he also made over his friends. Before he met Alig, the self-styled “Superstar DJ” Keoki was a hum­ble flight attendant at TWA. The same thing happened to Robert Riggs, who has confessed to participating with Alig in the murder of Angel. Riggs, whose nom de disco is “Freeze,” was a high-­end hat designer who dressed conservatively before falling under Alig’s charismatic spell.

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Alig had shown perverse tendencies from an early age. While other kids were content with watching horror and slasher movies, the 15-year-old Alig ordered hardcore snuff movies through the mail. But in the early ’90s, his perversity started to slip over into outright depravity as the glitzy drag queens and fashion victims that provided him with his initial following were replaced by a younger, rougher, druggier crowd. His parties became less creative and increasingly sordid. Witness the “Emergency Room” and gore parties that were so characteristic of the last days of Disco 2000. His character changed completely under the influ­ence of so many drugs — especially heroin, which he started using in the early ’90s. Alig took on the traits of a manic depressive, euphoric one minute, suicidal the next. It was also at this time that he caught hepatitis and a large tumor appeared on his upper spine — the result of years of indiscriminate drug use. He got sicker and sicker in every way — physically, emotionally, and mentally. 

“His life, especially in the last two years, has been a suicide mission,” says Gatien publicist Ron Allen, a childhood friend of Alig’s. “Even before he was arrested, he talked about suicide constantly. Everybody I know thinks Michael will take his own life rather than serve out a long jail term. Up to now, he’s always had a way out — whether another pill to pop or another party to promote. He’s cornered; I fear death is his only way out.” 

Another friend isn’t so sure: “Michael is too much of a narcissist to take his own life.” 

He may get some help, though: on Monday he was reportedly severely beaten in jail by four other inmates. ❖ 

The View From Clubland
By Michael Musto

The Michael Alig arrest hasn’t had much impact on nightlife, as it turns out, because nothing can stop a party in motion, because a lot of clubbies don’t read, and mainly because the effects of Alig’s plight had set in way before the handcuffs snapped shut.

Most club crawlers I talked to in the wake of the arrest either had no idea of recent events or were so plugged in to the situation that they barely flinched, but either way it wasn’t intruding on whatever nightly rituals are left to be scraped up in the Giuliani era. Last Friday at Twilo, where club kids use to mix liberally with the civilian crowd, the long line of revelers waiting to get in was inordinately low on vinyl, fake fur, and war paint. “The Alig situation has already had its effect for a while, and that’s why we’re seeing the crowd we’re seeing,” said doorperson Kate Harwood. “It’s a lot less colorful. Not that I was a fan of the club kid scene, because it was getting nasty already. We knew there were too many drug combinations going on.” Her co-doorperson, Lincoln Palsgrove III, agreed: Alig’s kids haven’t been a potent night force for some time. “Michael was trying to achieve Sodom and Gomorrah,” he said, “but it became too decadent and there was no glamour to it anymore. There was no sense of responsibility like at studio 54.”

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Over at Peter Gatien’s Tunnel, where Alig once ruled, the medium-sparkly crowd seemed oblivious to current events, though in the bathroom, a leggy, blond drag queen named Eva Love did appear mildly alarmed. “Its going to be a wake-up call on the  scene,” she said, defiantly downing a swig of Poland Spring water — a far cry from the Ecstasy-Special K combos of the Alig era. Outside, a door guard was emitting even more sobering tones. “The papers keep running that picture of Michael with Peter Gatien,” he lamented, and I understood the concern. Gatien — who’s being investigated for alleged drug trafficking at his nightspots — doesn’t want any lingering connection with the troubled club kid, even though they were bound at the hip-cool-trendoid for years. In fact, Gatien’s publicist took pains to remind me last week that the murder happened after Peter dumped Alig — though my calendar seems to note that the firing and the ru­mors all surfaced in the same few weeks.

As the breaking blind item I ran in April becomes an eye-opening reality, everyone’s putting in his two cents (except the folks at Mi­rage, where Michael threw his most recent par­ties; when I called for comment, they simply laughed hysterically). Cornered at a restaurant, club staple JoJo Americo choked on  his sand­wich, then declared, “Give him the chair!” But drag performer Lady Bunny said, “Michael al­ways gave me the feeling that he was looking out for me,” though she then claimed he did once slip her a beverage she later learned was tinged with his urine — “when he had hepatitis.”

The most typical debate had the aforementioned flack telling club observer Stephen Sa­ban, “It’s horrible what drugs did to Michael,” and Saban replying, “But it’s not the drugs. I’ve known millions of drug users who’ve never killed anyone.” Let alone cut off their legs. Alas, the Giulianis of the world would probably love us to think that nightlife is exclusively populated with druggies and killers, and that the two are inexorably intertwined. He doesn’t go out as much as I do. As longtime promoter Susanne Bartsch told me, “This has nothing to do with nightlife. [Michael’s condition] was a pattern of not liking yourself. Going to a club is not a drug addiction.” And a drug addiction can’t create barbaric impulses that aren’t there. This is an isolated incident, like the hideous eradication of Eigil Vesti after he was picked up at a club in the ’80s. The Angel saga doesn’t convince me that all club impresarios are treacherous any more than O.J. makes me run from athletes faster than I already do.

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My take on Alig was always that he was brilliant, but a potential wreck waiting to happen, that his sense of fun too often hinged on pro­voking people in ways that made them uncom­fortable and angry. At a club, he’d grab you and pull you down a stairway and into a pool. He’d stand there with a friend and openly make fun of you. But you’d forgive him because he threw wickedly amusing, exuberantly envelope­-pushing parties — because the tinge of danger could take on a liberating edge — and he could be warm and effusive too. “Michael’s a human being like everybody else,” says Kenny Kenny, Michael’s old drag doorman. “Nobody’s all good or all bad.”

The way Alig shook up bourgeois notions was a welcome kick in the butt, until he’d go too far and I’d have to start apologizing for knowing him. In an ’88 Voice cover story, I described some of his bigger outrages, like the party he threw to which only HIV-negatives were invit­ed — his idea of a joke — or his Child Pornography Ring soiree, at which people used play money to buy dates with 16-year-olds, Alig pay­ing the kids real cash to go through with it. Alig couldn’t praise the mood-altering drug Ecstasy enough, but typically told me about crack, “It’s dirty and gross and only gross Puerto Ricans do it.” And when he started getting in touch with late-’80s activism, Alig’s ideology was, “People arc so blasé and lazy. They don’t want to go out and pillage and bum police cars anymore.” I bet he’d like to burn some police cars now.

You can chart the progression from ’86 Area to ’96 Mirage, but it was still the same Alig — except that every time he developed more presence on the scene, he’d lose touch with a few more behavioral boundaries. One of his ex-sidekicks, James St. James, recently moved to L.A. as a result of all the goings-on. “I love Michael dearly, but I can’t be around any of this,” St. James told me last week. “It’s totally destroyed my entire view of what we were doing. I thought the club kid movement was about breaking the rules and seeing how far you could push things. Now I realize that isn’t a good thing because absolute power corrupts absolutely. He had too much and thought he could get away with anything, which is not to say that he’s guilty or innocent. But it’s to say that he could get away with murder if he wanted to.”

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On the scene, club kids can’t get away with much of anything anymore. Ex-Gatien em­ployee Steve Lewis is opening a club called Life that Kenny Kenny, who’ll do the door, said will play host to an older, more modely crowd. And over at B Bar (formerly Bowery Bar), which al­ready has that crowd, the disgraced Alig is obvi­ously no longer swinging in with friends for lav­ish dinners. Did he used to pay? “Probably not too frequently — maybe in little pieces,” co-owner Eric Goode said, then philosophically added, “Life is certainly stranger than fiction.”

It’s especially bizarre if you believe the new hearsay filtering in: that Alig skipped town at one point because he was afraid Gatien would get him; that an ex of Alig’s was privy to the crime; that a girl who drove Alig cross-country after the murder could be in trouble for aiding and abetting; that Alig’s been going through withdrawal at Rikers and will be moved to a nicer joint because he’s the star witness in the case against Gatien; and that a prominent TV personality is paying Alig’s bail and legal fees. Also, though confessed cohort Robert “Freeze” Riggs (who’s suddenly a noted hat designer in the press) told the cops that Angel owed Alig rent, I hear the dealer didn’t officially live with Alig at all, he just frequently stayed over.

Amid the daisy chain of finger-pointing — Riggs ratting on Alig ratting on Gatien — speculation is so frenzied that some feel Michael may even be enjoying his public-enemy status be­cause it’s his most famous achievement yet (there are people on the scene who’d apparently kill for publicity). That’s doubtful, but in any case, the intrigue to come promises to be the sickest, most elaborate Alig party ever. Gushes St. James, “The trial will be absolutely beauti­ful, with [club regular] Amanda LaPore in a big hat and all the drag queens parading. It’ll be a fabulous image.” ❖


Stages of Recovery

Listen up! Hello! We’re starting the show!” Bob shouts at his actors, and they drift slowly into place. It is 9:30 on a Tuesday evening, six nights before his play is set to open. The only place he had found to rehearse was a second-floor dance studio near Union Square. The room is stuffy and the overhead fans squeak, but tonight nobody is complaining.

Theater groups rehearse every night of the week in New York City, but there’s no other group quite like this one. Nearly half of the 25-person cast are former alcoholics and drug addicts. They don’t have head shots or acting coaches; they just have memories of their own near-destruction to guide them. Most go only by their first names, as prescribed by 12-step programs.

In 1991, Bob, then 40, decided to write a play. He’d been working at an auto-parts factory for 21 years, and during breaks at his job he began to pen vignettes about subjects he knew well—drinking, drugs, and hitting bottom. Those short scenes, 20 in all, became Visions, which has been performed around New York and New Jersey for 15 years—in halfway houses, homeless shelters, churches, jails, and treatment programs.

This week, for the first time, Bob and his volunteer troupe are premiering in a real theater. Visions has a six-day run at the Hudson Guild Theatre on West 26th Street. But first, the cast needs to rehearse. Somebody tapes a poster to the wall listing the play’s 20 scenes, another person pushes a button on a CD player, and the run-through begins.

Every scene in Visions is a variation on a theme: addicts hitting bottom. A husband rifles through his wife’s pocketbook to steal money for drugs. An alcoholic winds up in jail, where other inmates attack him. Another alcoholic gets d.t.’s and writhes around, trying to fight off invisible bugs. A young woman staggers down the street with a belt tight around her arm, then collapses and dies.

One scene features a married couple. “What, no beer again?” the husband shouts. “And where’s my damn supper? Hah? I’m tired of breaking my ass and all you do is pop pills all day long!”

The husband screams, shoves his wife, grabs her by the hair. She cries and pleads. Their son jumps in between the two. By the end of the scene, the wife is alone onstage, clutching a pill bottle, crying.

“I can’t take it no more,” she says. “I can’t take it no more.”

The scene’s energy emanates not just from its violence or its volume, but from the couple’s authenticity. “I don’t think of it as acting,” says Jane, who plays the wife. For her, the scene is a familiar one; she says her first husband was an abusive alcoholic. “When he was sober, he was a wonderful man,” she says. “When he was drunk, he was a monster.”

Jane herself was drunk when she went to her first 12-step meeting; she had been gulping Southern Comfort before walking in. But she was sober for the second meeting and has been clean now for 14 years. She met Bob in recovery and he invited her to join the cast in 1992. Ever since, she’s been playing the role of Abused Wife.

These days, Jane, 57, owns a beauty salon in New Jersey and has a new husband, Bruce, who she met during her drinking days. They got sober together, and now he has the part of her abuser in Visions. (“In real life, he’s totally opposite,” she says.)

Bruce, 59, was once an aspiring actor living on the Upper East Side. He played a waiter on a soap opera and starred in a television commercial. But his acting career never quite flourished, and alcohol and heroin took over his life. He drank seven pints of wine a day, and when he could scrounge up the money he stayed at a flophouse on the Bowery. Other nights, he slept outdoors. “I’ve slept in every park in New York City,” he says.

Every time Jane and Bruce perform, they get a strong response. “Even doctors have cried over that scene,” Jane says. In 2001, when they performed at a homeless shelter on Wards Island, men came up to them afterward, tears in their eyes, and said they could identify with Bruce’s part. For Jane, the most memorable performance took place at a women’s shelter in Paterson, New Jersey. After the show, a young woman approached and requested her autograph.

“Why do you want my autograph?” Jane asked.

“I want to remember the person who might’ve helped change my life,” she said.

For years, the criteria for someone to get a part in Visions was that: (1) they knew Bob, and (2) they didn’t mind working for free. For this show there are still no paychecks, but the troupe has expanded. To recruit volunteers, Bob placed ads in Back Stage and on Craigslist. Still, there are enough original members in the room to remind everyone of the group’s roots.

Seated in front of the makeshift stage is the show’s lighting director, who calls himself Telephone Tom. He first saw Visions performed in a church in Fort Lee, New Jersey, in 1992. “I was touched,” he says. “I stayed after and asked if they needed help.” He has been with the group ever since.

Telephone Tom, 47, is a former crack addict and alcoholic who now works in construction, though he is missing half his right leg. “I lost it, so if you find it let me know,” he says. “I lost it in ’99. Bad circulation. I like to say standing in bars too long, but I was a heavy smoker.” During live performances, he adjusts the lights by hopping up and down a ladder.

He’s seen the show so many times by now that he can recite every line, but still he gets choked up, especially during the scene where an addict learns she is HIV-positive. “After 13 years, it still has that effect,” says Tom, who is HIV-positive. “I’ll start crying.”

The run-through lasts a little longer than an hour. While only one or two people flub their lines, the scenes do not always flow smoothly; Bob has to prod the actors to enter or exit on cue. After the rehearsal ends, someone removes a few chairs from the stage and another person rips the scene list off the wall. It is past 11 p.m. when Bob and the last actors straggle out the door.

Opening night was less than a week away. The theater has 100 seats, and so far Bob had sold only 150 of the 800 total tickets. But he wasn’t concerned. His goal was never to make money; it was to reach what he calls “our audience”—other people in recovery. And so he had given away 250 tickets to treatment centers and shelters. “With 250 people coming from all these organizations, it’s a success now,” he says. “If I never sold another ticket, it doesn’t matter.”


Over the Edge

On the morning of March 10, Sidney Hatchett lay in a pale-blue coffin at the Vanella’s Funeral Chapel on the Lower East Side. A slew of gifts surrounded him—a Yankees hat, three teddy bears, a white stuffed rabbit, a bundle of silk flowers. Sidney had told his mother he wanted an Akademiks denim outfit for Easter this year, so that’s what she had bought for him to be buried in. There was no sign of how Sidney had died, except that his face was slightly puffy. He’d spent two days in the East River before police divers found his body. He was 14.

One week earlier, on the last day of his life, Sidney Hatchett woke up at 6:45 a.m. and started getting ready for school. Most mornings he didn’t spend too much time worrying about how he looked, but on this day he pulled out his favorite sweater—the navy one with red stripes—and he ironed his cargo pants. It was 23 degrees outside, so to keep warm he put a pair of blue jeans on underneath his cargo pants. He walked his eight-year-old brother Shaquelle to his bus stop, waited with him for the bus to arrive, then headed home, stopping at a bodega to get a snack for his sister to eat later that day.

As the oldest child, Sidney regularly helped his siblings get off to school, even on those days when he didn’t go himself. Sidney, who was in ninth grade, had already missed about 30 days of school this year. While he’d once been an honor roll student, he had announced recently that he didn’t like school anymore. His mother didn’t argue with him; instead she let him stay home. Sidney’s school notified the city’s Administration for Children’s Services about his absences, and later today an ACS caseworker was scheduled to come to the apartment to investigate.

Now Sidney had no choice but to go back to school. He kissed two fingers and pressed them against his mother’s cheek—his usual goodbye gesture—then left with his six-year-old sister Shakeema. The family lived on the Lower East Side on a short street called Rutgers Slip, just north of the Manhattan Bridge.

There was no need to walk toward the water—Shakeema’s school was in the other direction—but Sidney headed that way, darting across South Street. When they reached the promenade, he took off his parka and handed it to his sister. “Bye, Keema,” he said. “I’m going to jump in the water.”

“No, please don’t,” she cried.

But Sidney had already made up his mind. He climbed over the barricade and hurled himself into the freezing river.

Seventeen days after Sidney’s death, his mother, Keisha Davis, sits on a sofa in her living room and talks about him for more than two hours. Keisha does not use the word “suicide” to describe Sidney’s death. Instead she says “my son passed,” or she speaks about “the day Sidney went in the water.” She doesn’t deny that Sidney leapt into the East River; she just can’t seem to accept the fact that he ended his own life. He did not leave a note; he’d never attempted suicide before; and he wasn’t preoccupied with death, at least not as far as she knew.

Keisha Davis, 30, describes her son variously as a “goofball” and “a little dad” because he helped out so much with his younger siblings. “If I had a bad day, Sidney was going to do something to take my mind off it,” she says. He’d move around the apartment, practicing a dance he called the Shake, wiggling his upper body while his hands hung at his sides. And he was a perpetual prankster, stealing her spoon when she went off to the bathroom in the middle of a meal, then giggling when she returned and couldn’t find it.

When Sidney was in eighth grade, he used to come home brimming with stories about what had happened at school that day. The next year, after he entered University Neighborhood High School—which was started a few years ago in collaboration with NYU—these conversations stopped. “Did you have a good day?” his mother would ask. “Yeah,” he’d say. “What did you do?” she’d ask. “Nothing,” he’d reply.

Keisha began getting calls from a guidance counselor, who, she says, accused Sidney of starting fights in school. As these calls became more frequent, Keisha got angry; she didn’t believe her son was a troublemaker. (The guidance counselor and school principal did not return calls for this story; ACS is continuing to investigate Keisha, since she has two children at home.) According to Keisha, the guidance counselor
encouraged her to have Sidney “evaluated.” Keisha wasn’t sure what this meant, but Sidney didn’t want to participate. Keisha sided with Sidney.


When Sidney said he didn’t want to go to school at all, Keisha let him stay home.
Mother and son would hang out together, get lunch, go to the barbershop. “I was letting him know that I understand, I’m not angry with you,” she says. “Because I know it’s not a situation where you don’t want to learn, or you don’t want to go to school. It’s a situation where you’re stressed out, and I was trying to relieve some of that stress.”

After Sidney’s death, Keisha heard stories that helped explain why he’d been so adamant about not going to school: Other kids told her he’d been regularly taunted and beaten. One instance involved his cell phone. Sidney had told Keisha that it disappeared when someone took it from his pocket; after his death, she heard that kids at school had attacked him and stolen the phone. “It’s not something he’d come home and tell me,” she says. “He was very protective. And you know how 14-year-old boys are—he was probably ashamed.” About his decision to jump in the river, she says flatly, “He was bullied to death.”

It is one explanation for Sidney’s suicide, but it may not be the whole explanation.

Sidney Hatchett on the day of his eighth-grade graduation, 2005.
photo: courtesy of Keisha Davis

Keisha Davis gave birth to Sidney when she was 16 years old, then dropped out of high school. When Sidney was four, they entered the city’s homeless shelter system. That first night, they stayed at the Emergency Assistance Unit in the Bronx, where she slept in a chair and he slept on her lap. It was the beginning of an odyssey through the shelter system that lasted more than a year. Keisha recalls that she and Sidney spent about seven months in a welfare hotel near Kennedy Airport, then transferred to a shelter in Bushwick.

Eventually, they moved into apart-ment 19L, the two-bedroom 19th-floor place on Rutgers Slip. Keisha had grown up in the Mitchel Houses, a housing project in Mott Haven, and the fact that she was now raising her son somewhere other than the projects was a point of pride. (About the Bronx project where she grew up, she says: “I hated it; it was violent; it was nasty; it always smelled.”)

Their apartment on Rutgers Slip is down the street from two projects—the La Guardia Houses and the Rutgers Houses—and it felt like a step up. It is a mixed-income building with a doorman, laundry machines in the lobby, and a community center on the first floor. Section 8, the federal voucher program, subsidizes her rent, and she pays $326 a month. Still, it’s a stretch for Keisha to make the rent; she works as a cashier at Pathmark earning seven dollars an hour.

Inside apartment 19L, Sidney shared a small bedroom with his two siblings. The closet door leans off its hinges, the result of a wrestling match between him and his brother. Inside is an empty box for a Game Boy Advance SP—the Christmas present that was in his pocket when he jumped in the water. There are no bookshelves, but beneath a broken TV set are well-worn copies of two of his favorite books, 145th Street: Short Stories and Handbook for Boys: A Novel, both by Walter Dean Myers.

The day before he killed himself, Sidney visited the apartment of Steven Neville,
his cousin and best friend, who lives upstairs on the 20th floor. The two played the video game NBA Live 2006, and Steven says he didn’t notice anything amiss: “He seemed all right to me.” Steven and Sidney had been friends since they were seven. When the weather was warmer, they played basketball together in the park across the street. If anyone tried to bother Sidney, who was smaller than other kids his age, Steven would intervene.

When Steven heard that Sidney had jumped into the East River, he was stunned. Asked why he thought Sidney took his life, Steven does not have an answer. The boys attended different high schools, and Steven
says Sidney never told him he was being harassed or bullied at school. “He kept that secret,” he says. “He didn’t tell nobody.”

Every month, Sidney got his hair cut by George Rosario, a barber who works at a shop on Madison Street. “He was real quiet, sadness in his eyes. Just a regular ghetto kid. Just like all of us,” says George, 34, who grew up in the neighborhood. George ran into Sidney on the street all the time; the two would greet each other by slapping palms. While seated in George’s chair, Sidney sometimes talked about the fights he got into at school. To George, the tales sounded familiar; he was not overly concerned. “Who doesn’t go through that in the ‘hood?” he says.


Sidney’s parents started dating when his mother was 13 and his father was a few years older. His father, also named Sidney, was the youngest of seven siblings; his family called him Peanut. The two lived across the street from each other in the Bronx. “I thought I was in love,” Keisha says. “I thought he was going to save me and we were going to be together forever.” The fairy tale faded quickly; she and Peanut split after four years. While in the shelter system, she met another man, whom she has been with for nearly 10 years. They are not married, but she refers to him as “Sidney’s stepfather”; he is the father of her two younger children.

Over the years, Sidney stayed connected to his father’s family through the efforts of his paternal grandmother, Victoria Felton. On Friday afternoons, she’d send someone to get him so he could come up to the Bronx to hang out for the weekend. She gave him a nickname—Jazz—and when he was in elementary school, he announced that he wanted to live with her. Keisha agreed, and Sidney moved to the Bronx for almost a year before deciding to return home.

Victoria Felton died in 2000, and afterward Sidney saw his father far less often. Peanut had always been a drinker, and he had suffered brain damage after being hit in the head with a bat on a Bronx street. In the months following his mother’s death, Peanut spent days inside her apartment, surrounded by empty 40-ounce bottles of St. Ides. “Peanut got lost in the head,” his sister Gina Felton says. “He’d sit in the apartment all day drinking, watching TV, listening to the radio.” Peanut stopped paying rent and lost the apartment. Eventually he too entered the shelter system.

The last time Peanut’s siblings saw him was in August, when he showed up at a family barbecue. Besides drinking too much, Peanut suffers from chronic seizures. In October, Gina brought his photo to the Fort Washington Armory, the shelter in Washington Heights where he had been staying. She says she found a few men who recognized Peanut, and that one of them told her they’d last seen him leaving the shelter in an ambulance. She contacted the police and called around to local hospitals, but has not been able to find him.

Relations between Sidney’s parents had been strained for a long time. Keisha says the last time she saw Peanut he promised to show up for Sidney’s sixth-grade graduation, but never did. A week before Sidney jumped in the river, one of Peanut’s sisters called apartment 19L and talked to him about his father. Keisha remembers the call coming into the apartment, but she says she only learned that Sidney’s father had disappeared after Sidney died.

Among Peanut’s relatives, Sidney’s suicide stirred up memories of two other tragic deaths. Peanut’s father—Sidney’s
grandfather, also named Sidney Hatchett— died about 20 years ago when he fell from a
tenement building in the Bronx. Nobody knew for certain whether he jumped or was pushed.
According to Gina Felton, little Sidney’s great-grandfather died in a similar way, leaping from a building. In his case, she says, the family had little doubt that it was a suicide.

Sidney’s funeral was scheduled to start at 10 a.m., and by then nearly every seat was filled. About 60 people showed up—friends, relatives, classmates. Just before 10, Keisha Davis walked to the front and gazed down at her son. She placed her head inside the casket, leaned her cheek against his, pressed her lips to his face. Eventually she turned around and took a seat in the front row. The funeral lasted only a few minutes—it included one reading from the Bible but no speeches or songs—and then everyone filed past the coffin to say goodbye.

By 10:25 a.m. Sidney’s casket was in the back of a silver hearse, traveling down Madison Street. As the motorcade headed off to a cemetery in New Jersey, most of the funeral-goers remained on the sidewalk, clustered in small groups, whispering to one another. It was an exceptionally warm day—the temperature was almost 70 degrees—and everyone was trying to find an answer to the same question, trying to figure out why Sidney Hatchett had thrown himself in the river.


Tonight at Six: Professor Alvarado

The show is scheduled to start at 6 p.m. and the Professor is right on time. His two assistants—his wife and son—arrive a few minutes later, pulling a shopping cart with equipment and a suitcase full of dolls. The Professor, 76, takes off his coat and drapes it over the cart, while his 16-year-old son Joshua prepares the stage: setting up the Yamaha keyboard on a stand; hanging a banner with the Professor’s name; laying down two hats; putting out the dolls.

At night when he’s sleeping, the Professor dreams of playing at Carnegie Hall. During the daytime, he performs on a less prestigious stage: the mezzanine of the Union Square subway station. This evening, he is booked from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. near the Q, R, N, and W trains, between two billboard ads for Head & Shoulders shampoo. The temperature outside is 25 degrees; every few minutes a bitter wind tears through the station.

After four years of playing in subway stations, Professor Eduardo Alvarado is one of the city’s most recognizable performers, with his stooped shoulders, his gleaming white hair, and most notably, his four battery-operated dolls. Two male dolls—a trumpeter and sax player—stand atop his key- board; a boy with a violin and a cowboy hat is on the concrete floor; a blonde girl in shiny purple pants is poised on a speaker.

As the dolls begin to gyrate, the Professor places his fingers on the keys and starts the show.

Soon a small crowd gathers. The doll that attracts the most attention is the blonde girl in the middle, wiggling back and forth in a shirt too short to cover her plastic tummy, red lights blinking on her wrists. The Professor keeps playing: tangos, rumbas, Russian music, Beethoven’s “F Elise.” Nothing seems to deter him—not the half-audible squawk of the intercom nor the rumble of trains below.

Every minute or two, some- one drops a dollar in the Professor’s hat, prompting him to smile and wave. A small boy walks up to the Professor and stands next to him, mesmerized by his moving hands. “I always see this man here,” says Florence Evans, the boy’s mother. “I love him. This man is good. It’s Russian music, but he’s Spanish.”

“He’s an old man doing what he has to do to survive,” says a guy who calls himself Kilo. He stands next to Florence, watching the steady stream of people making donations. “If he sits here long enough, he’ll clock $100.” Florence walks up and drops a dollar in the Professor’s hat.

Two wooden benches flank this makeshift stage. Eti Pino, 58, sits on one of them, tapping her boot in time to the beat. She met Eduardo Alvarado in 1964, when she was a 16-year-old student and he was a 33-year-old professor at a music conservatory in Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador. Today the Professor and Eti live together on West 136th Street. They’ve been married for 37 years.

She moved to New York City in 1990, and he arrived soon after. Both of them work as music teachers, giving private piano lessons. He teaches several other instruments, too, including guitar and accordion. They have four children and five grandchildren. One son works as a lawyer in Ecuador. A daughter runs a music school in Queens. Their youngest child, Joshua, is a high school student.

Eti admits that at first she felt “a little strange” about her husband performing in subway stations, but now she’s filled with pride. “His passion is music and expanding the culture of music to other people,” she says. To her, the Professor’s subway shows are an extension of the work he did in Ecuador, which included conducting a 60-piece orchestra in Guayaquil and bringing concerts to local parks and schools.

Their son Joshua is more in-terested in basketball than music. But when the hats on the floor fill with money, he empties them. At precisely 8 p.m., he motions to his father that it’s break time. The

Professor wanders off to find a bathroom outside, maybe at McDonald’s or Starbucks, while Joshua and Eti get to work. She flattens the bills and counts them. Joshua picks up the dancing girl, turns her upside down, pushes up one of her pant legs, and changes the battery.

Twenty minutes later, the Professor returns and sits back down at his keyboard.

In 2002, the Professor applied to join Music Under New York, the program at the MTA that sched- ules subway performances. Two hundred people also sent in appli-cations, including video or audio tapes. The Professor and 64 others were invited to audition at Grand Central Terminal. The Professor
brought his keyboard and performed before a panel of judges, but they rejected him.

Two years later, he applied again. By then he had added another element to his act: the dancing dolls. This time he made the cut. Now he brings three or four dolls with him almost every time he performs. “I adore the dolls like my own children,” he says. “The ballerina is my daughter. The sax player and the trumpet player—they are my sons.”

As a sanctioned performer with Music Under New York, he is able to perform regularly at some of the city’s best underground locations. Twice a month, he receives a schedule card in the mail. It usually assigns him to play three days a week, three hours at a time. His regular spots are Times Square, Union Square, and the 74th Street station in Jackson Heights.

The Professor won’t talk about how much money he earns, but he appears to make more than most subway musicians. For him, the most lucrative spot is Times Square, on the mezzanine near the S train. Fortunately, tonight Union Square is busy, and there are no other performers undermining the Professor’s cash flow. No breakdancers with huge speakers drown out his music; no mimes painted silver pose nearby.

As rush hour passes the foot traffic slows, and the temperature in the station drops even more. Eti pulls on a pair of gloves and zips her parka all the way up. The Professor plays until precisely 9 p.m., when he gets up from behind his keyboard.

While Joshua packs the equipment, the Professor relaxes on a bench. He slips on his coat, which is miss- ing a couple buttons, and pulls a snack from his pocket, a hunk of orange cheese in a plastic wrapper.

Despite playing in the cold for nearly three hours, he does not seem worn out. He grins to passersby and fields questions from a fan he has just met. If he were still living in Ecuador, he says he’d likely be miserable, just passing the days waiting to die. Now, with his job performing in New York City’s subway system, he says, “I plan to retire when I’m 100.”


Jerry’s City of Ghosts

The letter arrived via certified mail one day last October, and as soon as Jerry Rice opened it, he called his friend Steve Helfer. “Please help me,” Jerry said.

Jerry, 68, was diagnosed with AIDS in the mid 1980s, and in recent years he’d suffered a heart attack, a stroke, and the loss of sight in one eye. Now, with his one good eye, he scanned the typewritten words in front of him, then relayed the bad news to Steve: The State University of New York, which had recently bought his apartment building, planned to evict him.

Jerry had moved into his apartment—a rent-controlled one-bedroom at 119 East 54th Street, between Park and Lexington Avenues—in 1970. Ever since, the rent had remained the same: $237 a month. But now that a state institution owned the building, it was exempt from the city’s rent regulations. In mid January, a notice arrived from SUNY ordering Jerry to vacate his apartment by February 28.

For eight years, beginning in the late 1970s, Steve lived in this apartment with Jerry. The two men have been close friends since 1976 and were lovers for 15 years. Steve has AIDS, too, but he’s nine years younger and his health is better, so he’s the one who’s been calling local politicians to plead for help. To anybody who will listen, Steve explains that Jerry can’t afford to lose his apartment because he lives on Social Security disability, which pays $1,042 a month.

Steve’s efforts to help Jerry are about more than holding on to a rent-controlled apartment—they are also about trying to hold on to the past, to the history both men share and the memories neither wants to forget. Beginning in the late 1970s—when AIDS had yet to be named—the two men started losing friends. Over the next two decades, AIDS killed more than 100 people they knew.

“At this point, Jerry is my partner in life,” Steve says. “He’s really the only friend I have left from those days—and vice versa. Everybody died. And for some reason, we’re both still here. . . . I love him, I care for him, and I can’t bear to see him put out on the street.”

Jerry was 32 years old when he lucked into the third-floor apartment on East 54th Street. A friend had moved out, and Jerry convinced the landlord to let him move in. He was so excited, he says, “I went outside on the street and twirled.” Then he ran off to Bloomingdale’s. He quickly maxed out his credit cards, buying carpets, two Barcelona lounge chairs, a four-poster bed, and a $3,000 coffee table with steel legs and a thick glass top. “I had an apartment in the East Fifties,” he says. “It had to be fabulous.”

Jerry met Steve in the summer of 1976, though Jerry’s recollections of their first encounters are fuzzy. “We met on Fire Island many times,” Steve says. “He just didn’t notice me. I was really after him all summer.” One night they both happened to be at the Ice Palace, the island’s legendary disco. “He was standing alone, and I went right across that big dance floor, heading right towards him,” Steve says. “This was it—this was my chance.”

When he got four feet away, another man walked over and handed Jerry a drink. Steve stopped. “I made an about-face and covered myself like you would not believe,” he says. “One tries not to make an ass of oneself when they can help it.”

A few months later, in October, both men found themselves on the deck of a ship departing from Manhattan for a one-night gay cruise. They spent that evening together—and the rest of the weekend. On Monday, Steve called Jerry at work. “Will you have dinner with me tonight?” he asked. Jerry agreed. The relationship, he says, “was sealed right then and there.”

Jerry quit his job as a magazine editor and started pouring all his energies into Fancy From Delancey, the store that Steve owned on Fire Island, just off the ferry dock in Cherry Grove. Jerry hung a mirrored ball from the ceiling and acted as the store DJ, compiling tapes with disco hits. When “Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight came on, the whole staff—and sometimes all the customers too—would sing backup.

The store sold shorts, T-shirts, bathing suits, flip-flops—plus stuffed animals, gay history books, sex toys, and raunchy greeting cards. According to Jerry and Steve, their shoppers included Calvin Klein, Bess Myerson, Mel Brooks, and Anne Bancroft. Tommy Tune bought tank tops; Twiggy checked out the bikinis; Colleen Dewhurst loved their cotton slacks.

The staff never said, “Can I help you?” Instead, the store protocol was to greet every customer with a compliment, like, “You’ve got a great tan” or “Your hair is beautiful.” If a customer was particularly difficult, an employee would shout, “Nurse! Nurse!”—the signal for another staff member to swoop in. “What we were selling was fun,” Jerry says, “but that fun made the cash registers full.”


One day in the early 1980s, an employee came in with a blotch on his nose. Nobody knew what it was. “You better go to the doctor tomorrow,” they told him. As it turned out, it was Kaposi’s sarcoma, caused by the illness that became known as AIDS. In the years that followed, Jerry and Steve hung a huge basket of free condoms at the front of the store. They put a can on the counter to collect money for God’s Love We Deliver. And they had volunteers seated at a table out front, distributing pamphlets about AIDS.

In 1996, after 20 years in business, Fancy From Delancey closed. By then Steve and Jerry were too sick to run the shop anymore.

Steve Helfer left, Jerry Rice right
photo: Courtesy Steve Helfer

Today Jerry’s apartment does not at all resemble the showplace he created in the 1970s. There is no Barcelona lounge chair, no pricey coffee table, no carpet, no four-poster bed. Jerry has about 20,000 records—he used to DJ at Les Mouches and other clubs—but the metal shelves that hold them are sagging. The bedroom ceiling collapsed about 10 years ago, when water from the upstairs apartment broke through. The shelves in one corner were destroyed and never repaired; now they’re covered by brown water stains and peeling paint.

A small black leather address book rests on the table next to Jerry’s bed. Inside are the names of 90 men he once knew, three or four per page. “There’s at least two on every page that’s no longer here,” he says, flipping through the book. “I’d call up one of these guys and his mother would answer and say, ‘Mark is no longer with us.’ But I didn’t cross their names out because I wanted them to go on living in my head.”

Jerry has a ritual he practices, to ensure he doesn’t forget anyone: He recites the names of his friends who’ve died. It’s something he used to do when he took his daily walks on the beaches at Fire Island. Now he says the names silently on his daily trip to the deli, as he slowly makes his way along the sidewalk with his one good eye. “I say the names of as many people as I can think of. Sometimes I’ll do 30, sometimes 10,” he says. “Then I’ll go and buy my tuna fish sandwich and think of five more on my way back.”

Steve taught special ed in the city’s schools until 2002, when he, too, started collecting Social Security disability. One day, about four years ago, he walked into Jerry’s apartment and found him sprawled on the floor, his pants soaked. Jerry did not wake up until he was in the intensive care unit at St. Vincent’s. He’d had a heart attack; Steve had saved his life. These days, Steve and Jerry see each other three or four times a week, and some nights Jerry stays at Steve’s place.

A few years ago, the owner of Jerry’s building—which was then TIAA-CREF, the pension fund for teachers—tried to evict him. With help from Steve, Jerry paid a lawyer $14,803 to fight back. It was the equivalent of five years’ rent, but the investment worked. Jerry won. “It’s over! Congratulations,” the lawyer wrote to him in January 2004. Jerry was relieved. “I thought I would have a home until I died.”

But then, in 2005, SUNY bought the buildings at 119 and 121 East 54th Street, and sent letters to the four tenants telling them they’d have to leave. SUNY plans to open a center for corporate executives and graduate students called the Levin Institute, named after Neil Levin, the executive director of the Port Authority who perished on 9-11. For the properties that included Jerry’s building, SUNY paid $21.5 million. “The building is going to be put to good use,” a spokesman says.

The stress of another eviction threat was more than Jerry could bear. His weight plunged from 170 pounds to 145. Steve did everything he could to help: He convinced Jerry’s state assemblyman, state senator, and city councilman to write letters on his behalf; he studied the Levin Institute’s website and called some of its board members; he brought Jerry packaged dinners from Fairway to help him gain weight.


At press time, Jerry has received no reprieve from SUNY, no promise of another apartment or a large payment. He has been trying to stay calm by listening to his disco records. But of course, he can’t stop thinking about his future. “They’re not going to say, ‘All right, Mr. Rice, it’s time to leave,’ ” he says, seated atop his bed on a recent afternoon, his voice growing louder and more insistent. “I will be in the apartment and will handcuff myself to the radiator. They’re not going to get me out of here.”


Tuesdays With Judy

For the opening of this year’s art show, Judith Raskin-Rosenthal was determined to make her classroom look like a real gallery. Her room was number 300, so she’d taped a sign on the door: “Gallery 300.” She picked out 61 of her students’ artworks and hung them on the walls. And she covered one table with a blue tablecloth, then laid out hors d’oeuvres on plastic plates.

The 13 artists in the show are all clients at The Bridge, Inc., a mental-health agency on West 108th Street. They call themselves the Bridge
Group Artists. At the show’s opening, on the afternoon of October 18, it is easy to pick them out. Each wears a carnation corsage.

Within 10 minutes, 70 people have crowded into the room. “Where are you, Scott?” one man asks.

The Coffee Cup
by Scott Zwiren

“I’m over here,” Scott Zwiren says, gesturing to three paintings and two drawings. His hope today is to sell at least one of his works.

Scott, 40, needs the money. He receives an SSI check every month, but the bulk of it goes to The Bridge, which provides him with a room, utilities, and most of his meals. Subtract the money needed to buy clothes and other necessities, and he’s often left with $3 a day.

This wasn’t the future he’d imagined for himself when he was a 16-year-old
freshman at Colgate University or later when he studied film at NYU. Back then he aspired to make animated movies and write books. But that was before bipolar disorder derailed his dreams, before he was haunted by suicidal thoughts, before he jumped in front of a No. 2 train and lost his right arm and half his right leg.

Over the years he had to learn to do everything with his left hand, including
draw and paint. But the story of his personal struggle is not part of the marketing pitch at this art show. While each of the Bridge Group Artists has a serious mental illness, their diagnoses are not mentioned on the walls. The text beneath each artwork lists only the title and the artist’s name.

Snarling Foxes

by Glenn Grancio

A tall stranger approaches Scott. “Are
you the artist?” he asks. “I just bought this one.” He points toward an acrylic painting
titled The Coffee Cup, which costs $150.

“It’s going to Amsterdam.I’m going to give it to the chairman of our
hospital.” As it turns out, the buyer works as a psychiatric social worker in the Netherlands and heard about the show from a friend.

The show has been open only 20 minutes, and The Coffee Cup is the first work to sell. Judy walks over and sticks a red dot on the bottom of Scott’s painting. He appears stunned; it takes a few moments before he can respond. “I’m blown away,” he finally says. “Thank you very much.”

In a lifetime defined by rapid mood cycles�by crushing depressions and dangerous highs�this is one of those rare moments when Scott Zwiren felt truly great.

A Room With a View

by Jill Friedman

A quick glance at the walls of Gallery 300
and it’s apparent that each artist has a distinctive style. Amburse White draws cartoon faces, one right next to another, each slightly different in size and shape; Judy calls them “claustrophobic faces.” Francisco Ortiz paints renditions of Noah’s ark,
with pairs of animals ready to board. Chris Gaskin’s drawings hark back to his days as a graffiti artist spray-painting the city’s trains. And James Sneed’s style recalls the eminent painter Jacob Lawrence, whom Sneed describes as his mentor in the early 1960s, when he was a young artist living in Harlem.

Judy started the Bridge Group Artists in 1988, shortly after The Bridge hired her to run art therapy classes. She picked out the most talented students, created a class just for them, and began organizing art shows. The annual shows gave everyone something to work toward, and over the years the level of expertise rose. Today the group has five women and eight men, ranging in age from 30 to 67. Most of the artists have little in common other than a love of art and a diagnosis of mental illness (usually schizophrenia or bipolar disorder).

The artists’ backgrounds vary as much as their artistic styles. Jennifer Gilliam grew up in Europe and has two master’s degrees. Chris Gaskin, a former car thief from Queens, has made five trips to state prison. Jill Friedman went to Barnard and once had a job with the city parks department. Amburse White worked as a buyer for a supermarket chain before he started smoking crack and sleeping in Morningside Park. Almost all of the artists now live in apartments owned by The Bridge.


The artists who have been with the group the longest�Scott Zwiren and James Sneed�joined in the late 1980s, soon after the group started, while the newest member, Chris Gaskin, used to sell his art to fellow prisoners for packs of Newports, until he was freed 16 months ago.

Recovery I

by Chris Gaskin

On a Tuesday afternoon in mid November, four weeks after the show, the artists are in room 300, hunched over their latest projects. The art show remains on the walls, albeit with large blank spaces left by the pieces that sold. The smell of freshly sharpened pencils fills the room. Strewn across the tables are the supplies: watercolors, acrylics, colored pencils, magic markers, oil pastels, pens, paper.

The Bridge Group Artists gather here to work every Tuesday afternoon. On this day, they are all preparing for the next show, 11 months away. Everyone, that is, except a heavyset 38-year-old named Ira Brewer. Ira isn’t sure what to do next. He sifts through the stack of catalogs and old magazines that Judy keeps for inspiration, hoping to find a photo of a crocodile. Eventually he gives up, picks up a green pencil, and tries to draw one from memory.

Ira’s portfolio contains 12 years of colored-pencil drawings, many inspired by the months he was homeless and living in the Bellevue shelter. There’s a greyhound chasing a fake rabbit (“I used to hang out every day at OTB”); a brain with a chain around it, next to a liquor bottle; Richard Nixon on a $3 bill (“because he’s a phony”); characters from The Simpsons; several igloos (“because sometimes I feel isolated”); and a girl in glasses, one eye bigger than the other (“This is a girl I used to go with. She has a bigger gambling problem than me; she plays a lot of scratch tickets”).

Ira did many of these drawings in Judy’s art therapy class, which is held in the morning. There, students draw quietly for half an hour, then Judy tapes their works to the wall. “Who would like to speak about their work?” she asks, and Ira’s hand usually shoots up. The focus in art therapy is not on creating great, salable works, but on the art process and the emotions it conjures. When Ira and other students sit back down after talking about their pieces, everyone claps.

Unlike art therapy class, the point at the Tuesday afternoon sessions is to work�not spend hours talking about everyone’s feelings. Nevertheless, after the art show every year, Judy devotes an entire class to what she calls “processing”�listening to how everyone feels and giving a pep talk to those who need it. “Just because you didn’t sell doesn’t mean you’re not any good,” she says, then offers up Vincent van Gogh as an example.

Mostly, though, room 300 is quiet on Tuesday afternoons. The only noise is the sound of pencils scratching. “The art room is like heaven,” says Francisco Ortiz. James Sneed adds: “There are few things I enjoy as much as I enjoy this class.” James, 67, started drawing at age five and gave up painting three times over the years, but not since joining Judy’s class. “I think Judy is a gem,” he says. “She cares about the artists. She really does the very best for us. People who really care about the artist�you don’t run into them often.”

Three Women Waiting
by Ira Brewer

Not just anybody can get into the Bridge Group Artists. Students in art therapy class who draw the same things for five or 10 years�circles, squares, ducks, birds�do not qualify. Judy only invites people to join who demonstrate both talent and drive. Six years ago, Sergu�� Lanquetot, then 38, wanted nothing more than to join the group.
He talked about it frequently during art therapy. “Why aren’t my pictures in the show?” he’d say. “I feel badly I’m not in the group.”

Sergu�� grew up in the neighborhood, on West 106th Street near Riverside Drive, in the apartment where his parents still live. He eats
lunch there every day, and when they found out he was upset about not being in the show, his mother fired off a letter to The Bridge. Still, Judy refused to let Sergu�� in the show. The problem, Judy says, was simple: “Sergu�� could not complete a picture . . . and at the same time he felt totally frustrated and angry because he wasn’t in the group.”


One of Judy’s rules for herself is that she never picks up a paintbrush and adds a few strokes to a student’s work. When she was a child, her mother, who was an artist, used to touch up her drawings for her; she never forgot how horrible she felt afterward, knowing the achievement was not truly hers. “It’s a terrible thing to do,” she says.

Sergu�� was certainly a challenge, but
Judy was not going to bend her rules for him. “I really had to figure out how I could get him
to complete,” she says. “He’s scared to try anything new. . . . So I came up with the idea of a collage.” She bought gold paper, rhinestones,
sequins, beads. With lots of coaxing�but no hands-on assistance�Sergu�� created a collage of a jewel box. Judy included it in the next show, and Sergu�� was elated. Everyone saw his artwork on the wall, alongside the rest of the artists’. The only problem was that no one wanted to buy it.

After the show, the piece eventually sold. Sergu�� beamed with joy when he heard the news, until Judy told him who the buyers were: his parents. The turn of events triggered a lengthy class discussion. The topic: Do parents have the right to buy their child’s art? Judy thought this was OK, but Sergu�� said he would have preferred if a stranger bought his work.

Anybody who came to the art show this past October would have been surprised to learn that until recently Sergu�� couldn’t finish a picture. This year, he had seven works for sale. The most impressive was a large collage he called Sergu�� Africa, featuring dozens of tiny animals: fish, birds, giraffes, zebras, warthogs, monkeys, frogs. Sergu�� had meticulously drawn them with colored pencils, and used a pair of tiny scissors to cut each one out. Then he painted a background and glued them on.

At the art show, he urged everyone who stopped by his collage to look closely. “The faces are my specialty,” he said. Some of the animals were smiling, he explained, while others were angry. Pointing to the pack of zebras, he said, “They’re all looking out for themselves, and they’re happy to be by the water.”

The collage sold in seven hours. Priced at $175, it likely could have drawn five or 10 times that much in a real art gallery. Within two days, six of Sergu�� works sold�and none were purchased by his parents.


by Jennifer Gilliam

By December, the total earnings for the Bridge
Groups Artists’ show had reached $4,090. Thirty of the 61 works sold, including at least one piece by each artist. Unlike other galleries, The Bridge gives their artists 100 percent of the proceeds. It was the most successful art show they had ever had.

Over the prior year, Scott Zwiren had earned more money from art sales than the
group’s other members. A painting he’d been working on for more than a decade, titled The Snailman and the Mermaid, had sold for $1,000. The money didn’t last long, how
ever. One of the common effects of bipolar disorder is a tendency to overspend. As Scott puts it, “I went on a hypomanic spree.”

The money bought him the chance to sit for hours at neighborhood spots like Sip and the Hungarian Pastry Shop. “I spent a lot of time drinking $3 sodas,” he says. “I was smoking at the time, so it was packs of cigarettes, coffee, cabs. And it was an impoverished kind of overspending: Going to the ATM machine and pulling out $20 every day.”

Scott started at The Bridge in 1988, soon after Judy arrived. Back then, he was trying to adjust to life without his right arm and with a prosthesis attached to his right leg. While he had enjoyed sketching throughout high school and college, now he had to learn to draw with his left hand. “He went through all types of emotions with me�gratitude, anger. It was an emotional kaleidoscope,” Judy says.

Scott agrees. “There were times I came in depressed, argumentative . . . feeling like I wasn’t getting enough attention, feeling like I was getting too much attention,” he says. There was a five-year period in the 1990s when he stopped coming altogether and instead took illustration classes elsewhere. But in recent years he’s been a steady presence in room 300, working quietly on his art every Tuesday afternoon.


Since his suicide attempt 19 years ago, Scott has accumulated an impressive list of creative accomplishments: He played one-handed bass in a band, performing gigs in the West Village; he wrote numerous short stories; he published God Head, a novel based on his own life; and he sold more than 25 works of art.

Still, his battle with bipolar disorder continues, and some weekends he feels so depressed he can’t even bring himself to get out of bed. Painting and drawing are what keep him going, along with the expectation that he show up every week for Judy’s class and continue to work. “I feel more at home on a Tuesday afternoon than anywhere else,” he says.

Judith Raskin-Rosenthal, an art therapist, started the Bridge Group Artists in 1988.
Photograph by Robin Holland

Sergu�� Lanquetot started plotting his next collage soon after the art show opening. On a recent afternoon in room 300, a pencil sketch for the new collage lies on the table in front of him. It is another African landscape. Next to it is an envelope stuffed with dozens of tiny, hand-drawn zebras. Each is an inch or two long, with black stripes, pink ears, and a pink mouth.

Six other artists work silently, but Sergu�� is too anxious to sit. “Judy, I can’t do any painting!” he says. “There’s only turquoise in the set!” Judy, busy with someone else, tells Sergu�� to wait.

A few minutes later, he starts again. “I don’t want to use turquoise blue. I want to use Mediterranean blue. I want to use cobalt blue. Do you have any cobalt blue?”

Judy walks over and begins unpacking the tubes of watercolors. “I’m not doing this for you,” she says, “but this is how you do it.” She unscrews one top and squeezes a little paint onto a plastic plate. “You have to start working professionally,” she says.

Sergu�� leaves the room, returns with a cup of water, pours a little on the plate, and mixes it with the paint. He dips a large brush in and makes a few broad strokes across the top of the paper, creating a sky.

“Judy, can you tell me if you like it?” he asks.

“No, I can’t,” she says.

He continues working, and after two hours the paper has three colors, representing water, sky, and ground. Painting the collage’s background�maybe 30 strokes in all�has taken him two hours.

Out of earshot, Judy explains: “Sergu�� is dying for me to come over and do the work for him. It’s not going to happen. Look at how he keeps calling me over and asking my approval. This is the first time he put the sky in, he put the grass in, and all at once without me hanging over his shoulder. Without me saying, ‘Try it this way and see if it works. Try it that way.’ ”

By the end of class, Sergu�� painting is still wet, lying flat on a table. “Take good care of it,” he calls to Judy. Then he walks out.

The Bridge Group Artists include Ira Brewer, Patricia Doherty, Jill Friedman, Chris Gaskin, Jennifer Gilliam, Glenn Grancio, Sergu�� Lanquetot, Francisco Ortiz, James Sneed, Amburse White, and Scott Zwiren.


Meet the Artists

Scott Zwiren

Scott lost his right arm and part of his right leg when he jumped in front of a subway train in 1986. Today he draws and paints with his left arm. He came to The Bridge in 1988.

Serguéï Lanquetot

Serguéï specialty is collages with animals. His largest work to date, Serguéï Africa (left), was one of the first pieces to sell at the group’s show last fall.

Glenn Grancio

Glenn, 30, is the youngest member of the group. He started creating art when he was a child growing up on Long Island.

Ira Brewer

Before coming to The Bridge, Ira Brewer was homeless and living at the Bellevue shelter. He has been a member of the group for 12 years.

Jill Friedman

Jill went to Barnard College and used to work for the city parks department. She joined the group in 1997.

Chris Gaskin

Chris was a graffiti artist spray-painting subway trains when he was a teenager. A former car thief and crack addict, he joined the group after he was released from prison in 2004.

Jennifer Gilliam

Jennifer grew up in a military family stationed in Germany, France, and Italy. She started drawing at age three.

James Sneed

At 67, James is the oldest member of the group. He grew up in Harlem and was influenced by the painter Jacob Lawrence, whom he describes as his mentor.


Banned From the Barbershop

On the day that Rosa Parks’s casket was on display in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building, here in New York City the body of another battler for civil rights lay in the city morgue. Nobody seemed to notice that Marc LaCloche had died; 12 days after his death, his body was still unclaimed.

Marc never inspired a boycott or sparked a movement, but he fought for a precious, and seemingly simple, right: to work as a barber. The prison system had trained him to cut hair while he was locked up for first-degree robbery, and he’d worked in prison barbershops for years. But after his release in 2001, the state refused to allow him to work as a barber.

Few ex-prisoners who are rejected for a barber’s license fight back. Marc did. An administrative law judge reversed the state’s decision, and Marc worked in a midtown barbershop for three months until the state appealed his case and took away his license. He found a lawyer and brought his cause to State Supreme Court in 2003.

Marc’s court battle attracted the attention of the local media. Few people knew that the state was training prisoners to perform a job they couldn’t legally do once they were freed. The judge ordered the state to hold a hearing about Marc’s application. At the hearing, he’d have to prove he had “good moral character.”

Marc collected glowing letters from two barbershops that wanted to employ him, but the hearing officer still denied him a barber’s license, insisting he “tried to minimize his guilt” when asked about his crime. (Marc’s friend had killed a woman at the scene of the robbery, and over the years he had flip-flopped about whether he was in the room.)

At the same time that Marc was fighting for a barber’s license, he was waging another battle, this one against AIDS. Very few people knew he was sick; one of the few who did was Ezell Turner (whom Marc called by his last name). The two men were unlikely friends. They’d met in 2001, when Turner was a caseworker at the city’s Division of AIDS Services and Marc was his client.

Over the years, they had grown close. Marc phoned Turner once a week, to give an update on his life or ask for help. By mid October, when Turner hadn’t heard from Marc in three weeks, he started to worry. He called Marc’s new caseworker, and she told him the news.

Now, it seemed, Marc needed one last favor. His body would be buried in potter’s field on Hart Island, unless Turner could find money for a funeral.

The first glimpse Ezell Turner caught of Marc LaCloche was through a Plexiglas window at a welfare office near Penn Station. “Marc had a briefcase with his barber’s shop equipment and his important papers in it,” Turner says. “Most of the people are nodding or cursing or fighting, but he was just a cool guy. He really stood out. He was very polite.”

Turner helped him sign up for Medicaid, cash assistance, and food stamps. And he found him a room in an SRO hotel. Eventually, Marc moved to a basement apartment in the Bronx. He put a barber’s chair in a side room, transforming it into a makeshift barbershop. Whenever he was broke, he called his friend. “Turner, don’t you need a haircut?” he’d say. He charged $10 or $15 for a cut, but Turner always gave him $20. “He was fast and good,” Turner says.

Over the years, Marc revealed bits of information about his past. His parents had abandoned him at the hospital when he was born, and he’d grown up in the city’s foster care system. At one point, he’d had to fight off an adult’s attempts to molest him. He aged out of foster care at 18 and started selling drugs to support himself. By 24, he was on his way to state prison. He stayed there until he was 35.

In prison he learned that he was HIV-positive, and after his release, he dated only HIV-positive women, most of whom he met on the Internet. Turner knew many HIV-positive men who had unprotected sex, but Marc was more ethical. “He was a very nice-looking guy,” Turner says. “He could’ve just not even told the women he had it, but he wouldn’t do that.”

Even without a barber’s license, Marc continued to cut hair in at least two Manhattan barbershops. Still, he desperately wanted the certificate other barbers display on the wall by their chairs. He needed a license not only to cut hair legally, but also to pursue his entrepreneurial dream. His goal was to use his haircutting abilities to help other young people stay out of trouble.

“All he wanted was to open his barbershop and to have contracts with foster homes and cut the little kids’ hair,” Turner says, “and they wouldn’t let him do it.”

After Turner quit his job and began working at the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center earlier this year, Marc continued to rely on him. By then, Marc’s biggest complaint was his apartment. The heat never seemed to go on, neighbors stole his electricity (sending his Con Ed bill soaring), and rats crawled over him when he tried to sleep.

By this point, four years after leaving prison, many people would have already given up. It would’ve been easy for Marc to sell drugs again—and make enough money to move—but he was determined not to. Eventually, with Turner’s help, he managed to find another subsidized apartment.

He continued to battle for a barber’s license and found a lawyer to file a suit. And he kept searching for work, preparing yet another résumé and cover letter this past spring:

To Whom It May Concern,

My name is Marc LaCloche and I am desperately seeking employment. And I have been seeking employment for some time . . .

When I was released [from prison] I found that New York State would not issue me an official barber’s license due to my incarceration. I spent years developing this skill so that when I came out I would have a marketable skill and would be able to be employed so that I could support myself, legally.

I have not let this legal snafu discourage me and while I am disappointed that I have not been able to capitalize on my training, I am still determined to be gainfully employed.

I have enclosed my resume for your consideration. If you have any employment that you feel I can be considered for, please contact me . . .

Marc turned 40 years old on September 14, and by then he seemed despondent. One day, Turner checked his voice mail and heard Marc sobbing into his machine. Turner thought he might be suicidal, and he dialed the police. “I don’t think he was taking the medicine,” Turner says. “I think he had started giving up.” He had lost so much weight, Turner says, “he was a toothpick.”

After Marc died, Turner found a funeral home in Harlem that would cremate his body for $700. The only problem was that Turner didn’t have $700. He called a mutual friend named Fire, who cuts hair at a barbershop on West 38th Street. Fire passed the news of Marc’s death along to the other barbers who knew him. The news stunned them all; Marc had never told them he had AIDS.

Turner didn’t ask the barbers for money, and nobody offered any. He figured one of Marc’s old girlfriends might be able to come up with the $700, but he didn’t know any of their names. And he didn’t think Marc had any other close friends. The city morgue usually holds bodies for two weeks, and—barring some sort of miracle—Marc’s corpse will soon be on its way to Hart Island.

There, the men who dig his grave will be wearing the same uniform he once wore: the forest-green pants and jacket of the city jail system. Marc’s body will be placed in a pine box and buried in a ditch with 149 others. There will be no gravestone with his name, nothing to indicate that he spent the last four years fighting for the right to cut hair.


The Miseducation of Elaine Bartlett

February 15, 2000

By the time the sheriff’s van lurched into the parking lot, she no longer cared if anyone noticed her wet cheeks and swollen eyes. Tears had been rolling down Elaine Bartlett’s face for two hours—the entire drive from Albany to Westchester County—and she struggled to wipe them away with handcuffed hands. Locked up for the last four months in an Albany jail, Elaine had heard plenty of horror stories about her new home, ugly rumors that swirled through her head. The women at Bedford Hills will attack you, rape you, steal all your stuff.

Elaine stumbled out of the van, her leg irons scraping the pavement as she joined the line of new arrivals. The brick buildings of Bedford Hills Correctional Facility surrounded her, and its residents shouted their welcome:

“Hey, look at the fresh meat!”

“Move up here so I can take care of you!”

“I’m going to make you my woman!”

She shuffled into the building designated “Reception,” slumped in a chair, and waited for her new life to begin. First on the authorities’ to-do list was a shower with lice-killing disinfectant. Elaine surveyed the row of stalls with no curtains and the female guards milling around. “Get in the shower!” an officer shouted.

Elaine folded her arms across her chest and refused to move. Okay, she had posed for an ID photo and given them her fingerprints. But allow strangers to watch her strip down and shower naked? No way. “This isn’t no fashion show,” Elaine told the guard. “You’re not going to be looking at my body. The judge sentenced me to 20 years. He didn’t say I had to be subjected to all this.”

“We’ve got a real live one over here,” the officer announced, then turned to Elaine. “You’re at Bedford Hills now. This is a maximum-security prison. You’re going to do things the way we tell you to!” Elaine glared and didn’t budge. She kept up her one-woman rebellion for hours—it felt like eight or nine—before she finally uncrossed her arms and trudged to the shower.

What else could she do? She had been arrested for selling coke, gone to trial, and lost. Her punishment: a prison sentence of 20 years to life. For the moment, Elaine tried not to dwell on the fact that she was only 26 years old, that she had left behind four young kids, that she would be middle-aged by the time she walked out of here.

All she could think to do was keep an angry pout on her face, a mask to hide her fears. A guard handed Elaine her new state-issued wardrobe: one zipper-back green jumper dress, two pairs of green pants, two green shirts, three white cotton panties, three white cotton bras, a pair of white canvas tennis sneakers. No blue, black, gray, or orange—those colors belonged to the guards. Elaine slipped on her uniform shirt and noticed her new identity on the tag glued to her chest: #84G0068. As soon as she moved into her cell block, she found an iron and melted off her number.

An Easy $2500
November 8, 1983

She grabbed the package wrapped in brown paper, shoved it down the front of her jeans, and marched out of her East Harlem housing project. Elaine knew she was taking a huge risk—after all, the bulge in her pants hid four ounces of cocaine—but she also knew she needed cash. Her welfare checks didn’t cover her $127-a-month rent plus the costs of raising her four kids—Apache, 9; Jamel, 6; Satara, 2; and Danae, 1. Elaine earned extra cash working as a beautician, braiding hair and manicuring nails at a salon on 125th Street. Her financial woes never seemed to ebb, though, and one day a customer promised a solution. If she carried just one package of cocaine to Albany, he would pay $2500.

His name was George Deets, but Elaine didn’t know much more about him. He was a clean-cut white guy, maybe a numbers runner, she thought. She’d bumped into George at a few parties, seen him around the salon. For months, he’d pushed her to do this job for him. “It doesn’t feel right,” Nathan Brooks, Elaine’s boyfriend, told her. Nate, 24, worked as a late-night custodian shampooing rugs in midtown offices, but he also knew something about the drug business. In recent years, he’d done two eight-month stints on Rikers Island for selling coke.

Elaine had snorted cocaine at parties, but she’d never sold drugs or worked as a mule. In fact, she’d never even been out of New York City. But, she figured, if she delivered drugs for George just once, well, how much trouble could she really get into? Outside the Wagner Houses, Elaine raised her arm to flag a cab and saw Nate come running down the street. Left behind in her fifth-floor apartment, Nate had decided he was too anxious to relax, too worried to let his girlfriend go to Albany alone.


George picked up Elaine and Nate at the train station in Albany and brought them to nearby Latham, where he had rented room 224 at the Monte Mario Motel. Elaine dropped the bag of cocaine in George’s hands, then curled up with Nate to take a nap. George lay on the other bed, working the phone. Close to an hour later, strangers’ voices woke Elaine, and she rubbed the sleep out of her eyes to see three people walking into the room. The only one she recognized was Richard Zagorski. A few days earlier, Richard and George had come to her home, freebased cocaine in her kitchen, and tried to talk her into making this trip. It was the only time she’d met Richard and the only time George had come into her apartment.

“Elaine, this is my friend Ken, and Sue,” George said, gesturing to the two strangers. “And Ken and Sue, this is Elaine and Nathan.” Elaine glanced around and realized she and Nate were the only African Americans in the room, a fact that did not make her comfortable. And she noticed that someone had placed the sack of cocaine on a scale, which she didn’t remember seeing before she fell asleep.

Quickly, the conversation turned to the question of price. Ken and Sue, the buyers, were reluctant to pay more than $2000 an ounce, but finally compromised. They settled on $2200 an ounce for a total of $8800. Sue left the room, then returned with a stack of cash. Ten seconds later, a pack of shotgun-wielding state troopers burst in.

The First Lesson
January 26, 1984

Nate squeezed Elaine’s hand as the judge’s words rang through his chambers: “I now pronounce you man and wife.” The phrase sounded familiar, but nothing else about this moment made it feel like a wedding. There was no elegant dress, no crisp corsage, no three-layer cake, no Electric Slide. Elaine wore her son Apache’s jeans—the same ones she’d had on when she got arrested. They now hung low on her hips; the stress of 11 weeks in jail had proved to be the ultimate weight-loss program. Instead of a tux, Nate wore dungarees, too, with a sweatshirt.

Elaine and Nate had been dating for six years and had two daughters, but they’d had no wedding plans and certainly never imagined marrying in Albany. That was before the arrest, before everything changed and they realized they now had only each other.

The prosecutor had offered Nate and Elaine the same deal: Plead guilty, work as an informant, and your prison sentence will be five years to life. Joseph Teresi, Elaine’s public defender, met with her once in jail. He advised her to cop a plea, warning her about the harsh sentence she’d get if she lost at trial. But Elaine couldn’t imagine returning to her neighborhood wearing a wire and setting up people she knew. After all, New York City was her home. If she snitched on her friends and acquaintances, where would she go?

She decided to go to trial and persuaded Nate to take the same gamble. “Everything is going to be all right,” she said. “They don’t have anything on us.” Elaine, like Nate, had never made it past the 10th grade. She didn’t know much about the legal system, but she did know that she’d been set up. George had nagged her to come to Albany, arranged the cocaine drop-off at her apartment, rented the motel room, brought the scale, negotiated the price, and found the buyers. Surely, she figured, the jurors would see that George had entrapped her, that she hardly fit the profile of a drug kingpin. After all, when the cops arrested her, the only money in her pocket was a $5 bill.

Elaine got a crash course in how cops and prosecutors fight the drug war during her two-day trial. George turned out to be an informant, and so was Richard. The would-be buyers, Ken and Sue, were actually state police officers. George and Richard had been arrested on drug charges in the past, and they had a long history of helping cops arrest unsuspecting acquaintances. By working as snitches, they earned a little money and avoided prison.

The jury took only 40 minutes to decide Nate and Elaine were guilty of selling four ounces of cocaine. Because they were convicted under New York’s Rockefeller drug laws, which are among the nation’s strictest, Elaine and Nate faced a minimum prison sentence of 15 years.


Elaine had never heard of the Rockefeller drug laws before her arrest. She didn’t know that New York governor Nelson Rockefeller had started the nation’s War on Drugs with this 1973 legislation, which established the first mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. She had no idea that these laws had led to an explosion in the state’s inmate population and a prison-building boom. And Elaine had no way of knowing that African Americans and Latinos would eventually make up more than 94 percent of New York State’s drug prisoners.

She also didn’t know that law enforcement officials routinely lured people from New York City to Albany because of the capital’s reputation for tough-on-drugs judges. She didn’t realize that the local district attorney considered her a big catch, though four ounces of cocaine might not seem like that much to a Manhattan prosecutor. If she had been arrested in New York City, she likely would have received a plea offer of three or four years in prison without having to snitch.

Standing next to the judge at Elaine and Nate’s wedding was Thomas Neidl, the chief drug prosecutor for Albany County, who had convinced a jury to convict the couple. Neidl saw a beautiful, statuesque woman whom he knew would not hug her husband again until she was past 40. What a shame, he thought. He wished Elaine had accepted his plea offer and spared him from trying her case. The evidence was so strong—two police officers had testified that she’d helped negotiate the sale—that Neidl figured even his eight-year-old son could have prosecuted this case and gotten a conviction.

Judge John Clyne asked the bride and groom if they had any last-minute words before he sentenced them. “I still say that I’m not guilty and I did not make a first-degree sale, a felony,” Elaine told the judge. “I feel that I am being railroaded and doing someone else’s time. . . . George Deets . . . [is] the one that should have sat in this court and been tried for this matter, not me or Nathan Brooks.”

Inside the Albany County courthouse, Elaine’s judge was known as “Maximum” John Clyne, and today he lived up to his nickname. The Rockefeller drug laws required Judge Clyne to send the newlyweds to prison for at least 15 years. For reasons he did not bother to explain, the judge tacked an extra five years onto Elaine’s sentence. He hit Nate even harder, handing him a prison sentence of 25 years to life. For their honeymoon, Nate and Elaine went to the visiting room of the Albany County jail, where they spent an hour talking on a phone, separated by a thick pane of glass.

The Only Hope
September 16, 1995

Elaine tried to hide her shock when she walked into the visiting room at Bedford Hills and saw her mother. Diabetes had long afflicted her mother, Yvonne. In recent years, Yvonne’s kidneys started failing, she became wheelchair-bound, and doctors amputated half her foot. Yvonne had always been a big woman, six feet three inches and 450 pounds. Now she was only 78 pounds.

Like her daughter, Yvonne was fiercely proud. She didn’t let people see her cry, and she never talked about her problems. “It’s going to be all right,” she’d say. “Don’t worry. Keep your head up.” But today, Elaine could see tears in her mother’s eyes. Yvonne rolled up her sleeve and showed Elaine the scars her dialysis treatments had left.

“You still look pretty,” Elaine told her. “You still look good to me.”

“Stop lying,” Yvonne said. “I look like shit. I wish somebody would take care of me. I wish you were home to take care of me.”

Yvonne had always taken care of everybody. When Elaine went to prison, her four children moved in with their grandmother. For nearly 10 years, Yvonne had brought the kids to prison every weekend to see Elaine. And when she became too sick to ride the train, Yvonne would pay a friend with a livery cab $70 to drive to Bedford Hills and wait while she and the children visited.

Of Yvonne’s seven children, Elaine was the eldest daughter. Elaine had been only eight years old when her father died, and she became a sort of second mom in the house. She would take her younger siblings to school and to the doctor’s office, and also to Coney Island and the Bronx Zoo. Elaine tried to keep playing this role even after she went to prison. When her mother’s health began deteriorating, Elaine researched medications in the prison library, phoned Yvonne’s doctors, and berated her sisters for not taking better care of their mother.


Despite Elaine’s efforts, her family was falling apart. All four of her brothers were now dead or caught up in the prison system. Ronnie, 34, died of AIDS in 1992. A few months later, Frankie, 36, was fatally stabbed on his way home from delivering pianos. Kenneth joined a Boston drug gang as an enforcer and got sent to prison for murder. And Don Juan had recently finished a 10-year prison term for robbery. Elaine’s sister Sabrina had begun smoking crack after she lost a baby to crib death. And now Michelle, the youngest sister, was raising her five children as well as Sabrina’s four kids.

As the years rolled by, there always seemed to be more bad news. The number of secrets everybody was keeping grew, creating walls so high that sometimes Elaine felt as though she didn’t even know her own family. At times, she thought, all their relationships seemed to be built entirely on a single, reassuring phrase: “Everything’s all right.” Things would go awry—her mother would go to the hospital, a brother would get arrested again—and nobody wanted to tell Elaine. She already felt completely helpless, they thought, why make her feel any worse?

Elaine, too, had a stash of secrets she couldn’t share. She no longer ironed off her inmate number, but she never got used to the fights, the frisking, the way officers spoke down to her. She never got used to the the ritual that followed every trip to the visiting room, when she would have to strip off her clothes, press her palms against the wall, and spread her legs. And depending on the guard’s mood, Elaine might also have to cough and squat, to prove that she wasn’t hiding drugs.

Every morning, Elaine stared in her cell mirror and wondered, “Is it me that’s going crazy, or is it everyone else around me?” She heard about other women swallowing safety pins, eating glass, dragging razor blades across their wrists. One day, she watched an inmate climb onto the hospital roof. A guard grabbed her foot, but she unlaced her shoe and jumped, landing on a mattress and barely surviving.

Sometimes, Elaine felt as though she was surrounded by zombies, women taking Thorazine who seemed only half alive. She knew inmates who lied about hearing voices to get drugs, but she didn’t want to do her time in a haze. She wanted to go home. In the recreation yard, she would watch cars whiz along the highway nearby and fantasize about scaling the fence.

Nights were the hardest. As she lay on her prison cot in the dark, the demons she struggled to silence all day would take over. Guilt consumed her as she thought about how Nate was doing 25 to life because of her, how her mother had 15 kids living in her three-bedroom apartment, how her children were raising themselves, how Danae kept begging her to come to her school graduation, how Satara talked about running away from home, how Apache had given up a basketball scholarship to college to care for his sisters.

Elaine watched herself grow more bitter and more defeated, and she worried she was becoming somebody she no longer recognized, somebody she did not want to be. Surviving inside Bedford Hills required so much energy—biting her tongue, hiding her fears, watching her back—that she felt she might never relax again, might never be able to peel off all the masks she now wore.

Rubbing lotion on her mother’s skinny arms, Elaine decided she had to do something or her worst nightmare would come true: Her mother would die while she was stuck in prison. She didn’t think she could survive losing her mother. She didn’t think she could stay sane inside Bedford Hills without her greatest source of strength. If only she could get home, Elaine thought, she could prolong her 64-year-old mother’s life. She wanted to put some joy in Yvonne’s final months, to begin to pay her back for raising Apache, Danae, Satara, and Jamel all these years. She would do whatever she had to do. She knew New York’s governor traditionally commutes a few prison sentences every Christmas, and so she decided to send a letter.

Mom Behind Bars
December 24, 1997

Apache, Satara, and Danae came to Bedford Hills to spend Christmas Eve with their mother, but nobody was in a festive mood. They had already celebrated too many holidays in this dingy, fluorescent-lit room with pale pink pillars, nine vending machines, and the lingering smell of microwave popcorn. By now, Elaine was supposed to be home.

Elaine had applied for clemency in 1995. Months passed before she learned that she would get an audience with a special parole board. When the clemency bureau rejected Elaine in 1996, her children were stunned. They thought she was coming home soon because state investigators had come to their apartment and interviewed them about their mother. As for Elaine, the memory of her parole meeting haunted her. What had she done wrong? Did she not answer the questions the way the parole board wanted? Was she too straightforward? Should she have lied?


Suddenly, a prisoner’s cheers echoed through the visiting room. Elaine Lord, the superintendent of Bedford Hills, had just delivered some good news. Governor George Pataki had commuted the sentence of Angela Thompson, 27, a first-time offender who had served eight years for selling two ounces of coke to an undercover cop. A retired judge had spearheaded Angela’s clemency campaign and convinced a New York Times columnist to champion her cause.

Apache, Danae, and Satara knew Angela and her son. The children had watched each other grow up in the visiting room at Bedford Hills. For one week each summer, Elaine’s children came to see her during the day and stayed nights with a host family nearby. When they were younger, Elaine’s kids had been content to show her the latest dance moves, splash in the plastic pool on the prison patio, pose for Polaroids. Apache would perform raps he had written, while Satara would beg her mother to give her braids. Elaine tried to keep these prison visits happy, but it wasn’t easy. When visiting hours ended, Jamel cried and clung so tightly to her leg that the guards would have to pull him off.

As the children grew older, these visits became less frequent and less fun. Jamel stopped coming altogether, and Elaine could feel she was losing him to the streets of the Lower East Side, where Yvonne and the kids lived in a 13th-floor apartment inside the Lillian Wald Houses. Elaine would hear Jamel was hanging on the corner outside, getting into trouble for stealing cars and selling drugs. When she used her phone privileges to track him down at his girlfriend’s house, he would promise to come see her, but she knew he wouldn’t. Now he was 20 years old and in prison, too, serving a two-to-four-year sentence at Attica Correctional Facility for peddling drugs.

Elaine, Satara, Danae, and Apache listened to the whooping across the visiting room and watched as officers and prisoners congratulated Angela. Suddenly, Danae, 15, jumped up and began to rage at her mother. “Why did she get clemency and you didn’t?” Danae shouted. “What makes her need to go home any more than you? What are you really here for? Don’t lie to us! You couldn’t be in here for what you say you’re in here for. Who did you kill? You’ve been in here my whole life! When are you coming home?”

The Longest Walk
March 12, 1998

As the van barreled through Manhattan, Elaine closed her eyes and leaned back against her seat. The guards up front tried to chat, but she didn’t respond. She didn’t even want to look out the window. The van stopped on the Upper East Side, and the guards escorted Elaine into the lobby of Beth Israel Medical Center. Everyone stared. Who was this woman wearing shackles, handcuffs, and a chain around her waist?

Mothers pulled their children closer, as if she were Charles Manson or some other vicious criminal. But today, Elaine didn’t care what people thought. She had too much else to worry about. Her walk through the hospital corridors seemed to take forever; the chain between her legs permitted only baby steps. Elaine’s mother was dying, and she was afraid she wouldn’t reach her bedside in time to say goodbye.

What would happen to Apache, Danae, Satara, Jamel—and everybody else—when her mother, the family matriarch, was gone? Elaine didn’t even want to think about it. She hovered over her mother’s bed, trying to figure out how to hug with her wrists cuffed together. She rubbed her cheeks against her mother’s face and caressed her shrunken body. The two officers stood watching Elaine. They had refused to remove her chains.

After an hour, a guard said, “It’s time to go.” Elaine began interrogating the doctor, hoping to squeeze in a few extra minutes with her mother. Two days later, she learned that her mother had passed away.

Thirty-Eight Minute Grilling
December 19, 1999

Elaine decided to dress like she was going to a job interview. She picked out a silk shirt with gold buttons up the front, a state-issued green skirt, and magenta lipstick. At noon, Elaine strode into the conference room near the prison’s front entrance. A U.S. flag hung from a pole in one corner, and through the windows she could see a landscape of brick buildings and razor wire. Across the room sat her interrogators, the two parole commissioners who would decide her fate. Three years and two months had passed since her last trip before the parole board, and now Elaine was getting a second chance.


Elaine had not planned to apply for clemency again. In prison, the only thing worse than having no hope, Elaine had discovered, is to believe you are going home soon and then find out you are not. But Elaine’s children had convinced her to try again. Apache, Satara, and Danae had sent letters to Pataki begging him to release their mother. “My family is falling apart and times are hard,” Satara, 18, wrote. “Sometimes I feel like killing myself because my mother lefted me and know my grandmother is gone. She should of took me with her.”

Elaine watched as her interrogators flipped through her file, and she braced herself.

Do you really expect us to believe this was the first time you ever sold drugs?

Sometimes they like to play devil’s advocate, Elaine thought, to provoke prisoners into revealing how angry or unremorseful they are. Last time around, Elaine had launched into a bitter diatribe about being entrapped by George Deets. But today Elaine wasn’t going to take the bait. She wasn’t going to let any hostility creep into her voice.

“I don’t really expect you to believe anything,” she said. “But it’s the truth.”

When you reached the Albany train station, why didn’t you give him the package at that point?

Don’t get angry or annoyed, Elaine told herself. Stay cool. “I’ve asked myself that question every day for 16 years,” she said. “I don’t have an answer for you.”

Over the years, Elaine had become an expert on the Rockefeller drug laws, spending hours reading cases in the law library. She knew it cost taxpayers $32,000 a year to house one prisoner. If you multiplied that figure by the number of years she’d been in Bedford Hills, the bill for her prison stay exceeded $500,000. And she knew that Pataki had promised to reform the drug laws when he got elected, and then done next to nothing.

Elaine saw clemency as part of this political dance, a way for the governor to show concern about the injustices of these laws without actually changing them. She kept these thoughts to herself, though. She figured these weren’t the sorts of statements that would help her win over her audience.

Since your last appearance here, what program has changed you dramatically?

Elaine was confident she knew what the parole board wanted to hear. She also knew the truth. She figured they wanted her to say that Bedford Hills—and its many inmate programs—had reformed her. But Elaine had never thought she needed much rehabilitation in the first place. She hadn’t been an experienced drug dealer or an addict in need of rescuing. Maybe she deserved a few years in prison for working as a cocaine courier, but 16 years? That was way too much time.

Since she had come to Bedford Hills, Elaine had kept busy. She finished high school and two years of college. And she had participated in dozens of programs, from training seeing-eye dogs to working in the children’s center to teaching other inmates to read. By the time she met with the parole board in 1996, she already possessed a thick stack of certificates, diplomas, and glowing letters of recommendation. All that had changed over the last three years was that she’d figured out how to play the clemency game.

In 1997, after her first clemency rejection and before her mother died, Elaine walked into a coping-skills workshop and asked Lora Tucker, the teacher, for help. Lora saw a woman devoid of all hope, who had resigned herself to staying in prison until she was eligible for parole in 2004. She looks like she needs somebody on her side, Lora thought. She also looks like she could be my sister.

Lora had recently switched careers, quiting her job as an interior designer to work on criminal justice issues. Now she launched her first fight on behalf of a prisoner. Lora tracked down Governor Pataki at a political fundraiser and handed him a letter from Elaine. She persuaded more than 200 people—including critics of the Rockefeller drug laws and members of her church—to write letters on Elaine’s behalf. And she became a regular at the anti-Rockefeller drug law rallies sponsored by the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice. Holding a placard with a photo, Lora would tell Elaine’s story to every stranger who stopped.

Together, Lora and Elaine figured out how to work the media. Elaine got talk-show host Charles Grodin on her visiting list. She showed up in columns in the Daily News and The New York Times. Geraldo Rivera came to interview her. For these moments in the spotlight, Elaine purposely did not wear makeup so she wouldn’t look any better than she felt. And she didn’t mention Nate to reporters. Over the years, Elaine and Nate had traded letters, and they were permitted one phone call every six months. Since Elaine was a first-time offender, they knew she had a better shot at clemency. Nate was afraid his rap sheet would jeopardize her chances, so he told Elaine to push her case in the media and leave him in the background.


Elaine did not explain any of her strategies to the parole commissioners. Instead, she served up a few calm words. “Education and the death of my mother,” she said, when they asked what had changed her in the last few years. After her 38-minute interrogation ended, Elaine thanked the commissioners, smiled sweetly, and walked over to shake their hands.

Taste of Freedom
January 26, 2000

Elaine woke at 4 a.m. on her last morning in Bedford Hills. Exactly 16 years had passed since the day Judge Clyne had sentenced her to 20 years to life. Now she was 42 years old and had three grandchildren. (Jamel, Satara, and Apache each have one child.) George Deets was dead. Her former lawyer, Joseph Teresi, had the most high-profile judge’s job in the state, overseeing the Amadou Diallo trial. And her former prosecutor, Thomas Neidl, had become a critic of the Rockefeller drug laws.

Elaine flipped on 98.7 KISS-FM and began singing along. She had been in a great mood ever since December 23, 1999, when the governor granted her request for clemency. Pataki had commuted the sentences of three women, all of whom had spent at least a decade in Bedford Hills thanks to the Rockefeller drug laws.

For weeks, Elaine had been planning her exit. She gave away her hair dryer, lamp, rollers, sheets, and pajamas. She practiced what she’d say to the television cameras awaiting her release. She colored her hair at the prison beauty salon. And in her mind, she created a to-do list:

Spend time with Apache, Satara, and Danae

Visit Jamel on Rikers Island

Visit Nate at Green Haven Correctional Facility

Quit smoking

See parole officer

Go for seafood dinner with Lora


Buy gum

See The Hurricane

Find job

Stop cursing

Go back to college

Lobby for repeal of Rockefeller drug laws

The masks she had been wearing for years began crashing to the ground. When guards told Elaine to hurry in the hallways, she would just laugh. “Have your fun now,” she said. “I’m going home soon. Just try to tell me what to do on the other side of the fence.”

A few hours later, Elaine entered the building marked “Reception” and changed into civilian clothes. “I’m not stepping out in my greens,” she had said, and so Lora had bought her a new outfit. Elaine pulled on a black Victoria’s Secret bra, black panties, an electric purple pantsuit, and suede high-heel boots. Earlier, she’d painted her nails with purple glitter to match. Pinned to her new raincoat was a photo of her mother with a message: “Yvonne, I Carry You in My Soul.”

Elaine had waited for this day ever since she arrived at Bedford Hills. In the fantasy scene she liked to replay in her mind, three white doves flew up in the air at the moment of her release while Diana Ross sang, “I’m Coming Out.” At 9:54 a.m., Elaine heard a different sort of music. “We love you, Elaine!” shouted her fellow inmates. They filled the windows of the prison’s school building, waving hats, mittens, and scarves. “You go, girl!” Along the asphalt path to the front gate, Elaine stopped, spun around, and waved goodbye.


The Wrong Man

The scene has become a staple of the evening news: An innocent man walks out of prison and into the glare of television cameras, his family by his side. For Nicholas Yarris, that moment came shortly after 1 p.m. on January 16, 2004, when he was freed after spending more than two decades in solitary confinement on Pennsylvania’s death row.

After the news cameras disappeared, another struggle awaited him: the battle to create a new life for himself at age 42. The documentary After Innocence, which won a special jury prize at Sundance and opens at the Quad this week, chronicles his post-prison journey and that of six other wrongfully imprisoned men.

From his new home in England, Yarris spoke to the Voice about his first 630 days of freedom.

How did you feel in those very first hours after leaving prison? The strongest sensation was the assault on my senses from having lived 23 years in a controlled environment—being inundated with temperature change, barometric change, noise. I liken it to all those times you see a music video in which the central character stands in complete passivity while the world rushes around him.

How did you feel when your family touched you? The last contact visit that I was permitted while still on death row was in November of 1989. I did not touch another human being until December of 2003. I waited 14 years to be held by my family. When you’re not touched for that long and someone puts their hands on you, this surge of warbling energy goes through you and makes you aware of being in contact with something you never realized was gone until it was taken for a very prolonged time.

What kind of job did you get after leaving prison? Because I was not guilty, I was not entitled to any parole services. So I was not given any job training or job placement. I went to work scrubbing Budget shuttle buses at the Philadelphia airport for an ex-felon at $5 per bus. He was the only one that would hire me. So I worked beside a toothless heroin addict named Butch, and the two of us scrubbed these buses at $5 a bus in freezing-cold January weather.

Did you get any money from the state of Pennsylvania after your exoneration? When I was released from prison, I got $5.37 of my own money and was told goodbye.

How did you feel the first time you saw After Innocence? I cried. I cried for Mrs. Dedge [the mother of another exonerated man], who was sitting next to me. I know that woman waited 22 years for her son, and there isn’t anything different between her and my mother. I held her hand a lot, and I cried.

Nearly 650,000 people leave prisons across the country every year. How do you think your homecoming experience differed from theirs? It’s completely different. I’m one of only 14 human beings sentenced to death that have been exonerated by DNA testing. After I sought DNA testing in 1988, they deliberately tried to destroy the evidence that later on proved my innocence. It took me 15 years to get out. I am so different in so many different ways from the average person being released because the government tried to kill me. That’s what propels me to speak all over the world.

I heard that you recently married a woman you met while giving a speech in London about the death penalty. What are your days like now? I came out of prison after 23 years and realized I was a stranger in my own life, I was a stranger to the family who had lost me, and I was a stranger to everything around me. I gave up everything that was close to me—in terms of my family—for a family with Karen. She came along and gave me a whole world that removed me from everything that was going to tear me apart.

I remember they had me filling out documents in prison like, “What do you want us to do with the disposal of your remains?” Now I’ve got the gift of a child on the way. I’ve got one of the greatest lives you can imagine. I ride around on a motorcycle, I have pets, I have the love of a woman, and I’ve got a country that doesn’t want to kill me.

For more information about Nicholas Yarris, visit his website,