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Beware Strategizing Painters Bearing Gifts

Sure, the world was turned upside down by COVID. But as we gladly return more and more to museums and galleries and “normal,” we still gotta take the bad with the good.

Case in point: the six paintings recently gifted by Georg Baselitz to the Metropolitan Museum. For business reasons — collectors love that institutional cachet — we can guess why Baselitz gave them away. But the real question is, why did the Met accept these bland, enervating canvases?

First, some boilerplate from the Met’s website about this clumsy body of work: “Made in 1969, they are among the first works in which Georg Baselitz (b. 1938) employed the strategy of inversion, an approach that continues to be of interest to him. The paintings mark a critical moment in the artist’s career as he sought to expunge narrative content and expression — elements present in his earlier work — in order to focus on painting itself.”

Indeed, judging by the sludgy paint handling, wan colors, flabby limbs, and doughy faces on view here, Baselitz successfully jettisoned engaging “content and expression” — his “strategy” of presenting topsy-turvy figures conveys little interest in his sitters. By 1969, painting for painting’s sake was far from revelatory, and there is precious little abstract dynamism or formal innovation to be found here.

Excepting of course … he turned his figures upside down.

Maybe Baselitz should’ve taken a page from Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St. Peter and portrayed his figures at an angle. A viewer would be hard-pressed not to commune with Peter as he contemplates the spike driven through his left hand, the weight of his powerful torso beginning to bear on pierced flesh, the executioners’ faces obscured by their own heaving limbs — shadowy lackeys of murderous empire — all of their separate agonies beautifully frozen within the composition’s wrenching equipoise.

But I forget that Baselitz was not painting sitters who were actually upside down, he was painting portraits in which they appear in that position. Such a distinction may or may not flutter the conceptual pulse, but after the artist achieved his goal of expunging “narrative content and expression,” he left viewers with … what, exactly?

And to be fair, comparison to practically any of Caravaggio’s tableaux — every bit as dramatic as his compeer in the Baroque zeitgeist, Shakespeare — is a tall order for even the greatest of painters. So here’s an experiment you can perform yourself at the Met — something that wasn’t so easy to do when Baselitz’s blunt innovations were first hung: Take a cell phone shot of one of these clunkers and then rotate the image on your screen. Is it, at least, a compelling figure? A captivating portrait?

Only if you like desiccated paint surfaces, deflated patterns, and lazily proportioned figures. It doesn’t matter if Baselitz is a righty or a southpaw because he could not be more cack-handed.

But you’re at the Met, so don’t let the day go completely awry. In a nearby gallery you will find a portrait of Saint Ambrose (1465–70) by Giovanni di Paolo.

Go ahead: Click. Flip.

Whoa. No doubt this Quattrocento master had his problems — like Baselitz — with hands and faces. But he had compositional chops to spare. Start with that bowed white trim encircling his robe, bisected by the surreal knuckle-like knots of his flail, which, doing a 180, rise like bony smoke, the totality revealing an underlying awareness of the abstract marrow necessary to give any painted image a sense of life.

But perhaps it is still an unfair comparison — too many props and too much gold leaf. Well then, another gallery or two along and we come to El Greco at his most splendiferously mundane: Portrait of an Old Man (ca. 1595–1600). Do that 21st-century-phone whirl and here’s what you get:

El Greco’s “Portrait of an Old Man” given a new look

Just the racing flourishes of that ruffled collar spanning burnished wedges — a swooping matrix reminiscent of one of Ed Clark’s abstract helixes — is worth the price of admission.

But if a skeptic out there thinks this is a case of comparing Old Master apples to post-war oranges, truck on over to the Alice Neel show, which is up until August 1. After all, it was Baselitz who not long ago proclaimed that women can’t paint, so go ahead and pick one of Neel’s paintings, whip out your phone, take your shot, and hit the rotate icon. You’ve got nothing to lose.   ❖

Georg Baselitz: Pivotal Turn
The Met Fifth Avenue
Through July 18

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Rudy’s Ties to a Terror Sheikh

Three weeks after 9/11, when the roar of fighter jets still haunted the city’s skyline, the emir of gas-rich Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifah al-Thani, toured Ground Zero. Although a member of the emir’s own royal family had harbored the man who would later be identified as the mastermind of the attack—a man named Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, often referred to in intelligence circles by his initials, KSM—al-Thani rushed to New York in its aftermath, offering to make a $3 million donation, principally to the families of its victims. Rudy Giuliani, apparently unaware of what the FBI and CIA had long known about Qatari links to Al Qaeda, appeared on CNN with al-Thani that night and vouched for the emir when Larry King asked the mayor: “You are a friend of his, are you not?”

“We had a very good meeting yesterday. Very good,” said Giuliani, adding that he was “very, very grateful” for al-Thani’s generosity. It was no cinch, of course, that Giuliani would take the money: A week later, he famously rejected a $10 million donation from a Saudi prince who advised America that it should “adopt a more balanced stand toward the Palestinian cause.” (Giuliani continues to congratulate himself for that snub on the campaign trail.) Al-Thani waited a month before expressing essentially the same feelings when he returned to New York for a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly and stressed how important it was to “distinguish” between the “phenomenon” of 9/11 and “the legitimate struggles” of the Palestinians “to get rid of the yoke of illegitimate occupation and subjugation.” Al-Thani then accused Israel of “state terrorism” against the Palestinians.

But there was another reason to think twice about accepting al-Thani’s generosity that Giuliani had to have been aware of, even as he heaped praise on the emir. Al Jazeera, the Arabic news network based in Qatar (pronounced “Cutter”), had been all but created by al-Thani, who was its largest shareholder. The Bush administration was so upset with the coverage of Osama bin Laden’s pronouncements and the U.S. threats to bomb Afghanistan that Secretary of State Colin Powell met the emir just hours before Giuliani’s on-air endorsement and asked him to tone down the state-subsidized channel’s Islamist footage and rhetoric. The six-foot-eight, 350-pound al-Thani, who was pumping about $30 million a year into Al Jazeera at the time, refused Powell’s request, citing the need for “a free and credible media.” The administration’s burgeoning distaste for what it would later brand “Terror TV” was already so palpable that King — hardly a newsman — asked the emir if he would help “spread the word” that the U.S. was “not targeting the average Afghan citizen.” Al-Thani ignored the question — right before Giuliani rushed in to praise him again.

In retrospect, Giuliani’s embrace of the emir appears peculiar. But it was only a sign of bigger things to come: the launching of a cozy business relationship with terrorist-tolerant Qatar that is inconsistent with the core message of Giuliani’s current presidential campaign, namely that his experience and toughness uniquely equip him to protect America from what he tauntingly calls “Islamic terrorists” — an enemy that he always portrays himself as ready to confront, and the Democrats as ready to accommodate.

The contradictory and stunning reality is that Giuliani Partners, the consulting company that has made Giuliani rich, feasts at the Qatar trough, doing business with the ministry run by the very member of the royal family identified in news and government reports as having concealed KSM—the terrorist mastermind who wired funds from Qatar to his nephew Ramzi Yousef prior to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and who also sold the idea of a plane attack on the towers to Osama bin Laden—on his Qatar farm in the mid-1990s.

This royal family member is Abdallah bin Khalid al-Thani, Qatar’s minister of Islamic affairs at the time, who was later installed at the interior ministry in January 2001 and reappointed by the emir during a government shake-up earlier this year. Abdallah al-Thani is also said to have welcomed Osama bin Laden on two visits to the farm, a charge repeated as recently as October 10, 2007, in a Congressional Research Service study. Abdallah al-Thani’s interior ministry or the state-owned company it helps oversee, Qatar Petroleum, has worked with Giuliani Security & Safety LLC, a subsidiary of Giuliani Partners, on an undisclosed number of contracts, the value of which neither the government nor the company will release. But there’s little question that a security agreement with Qatar’s government, or with Qatar Petroleum, would put a company like Giuliani’s in direct contact with the ministry run by Abdallah al-Thani: The website of Qatar’s government, and the interior ministry’s press office, as well as numerous press stories, all confirm that the ministry controls a 2,500-member police force, the General Administration of Public Security, and the Mubahathat, or secret police. The ministry’s charge under law is to “create and institute security in this country.” Hassan Sidibe, a public-relations officer for the ministry, says that “a company that does security work, they have to get permission from the interior ministry.”

What’s most shocking is that Abdallah al-Thani has been widely accused of helping to spirit KSM out of Qatar in 1996, just as the FBI was closing in on him. Robert Baer, a former CIA supervisor in the region, contends in a 2003 memoir that the emir himself actually sanctioned tipping KSM. The staff of the 9/11 Commission, meanwhile, noted that the FBI and CIA “were reluctant to seek help from the Qatari government” in the arrest of KSM, “fearing that he might be tipped off.” When Qatar’s emir was finally “asked for his help” in January 1996, Qatari authorities “first reported that KSM was under surveillance,” then “asked for an alternative plan that would conceal their aid to Americans,” and finally “reported that KSM had disappeared.”


Giuliani’s lifelong friend Louis Freeh, the FBI head who talked to Giuliani periodically about terrorist threats during Giuliani’s mayoral years and has endorsed him for president, was so outraged that he wrote a formal letter to Qatar’s foreign minister complaining that he’d received “disturbing information” that KSM “has again escaped the surveillance of your Security Services and that he appears to be aware of FBI interest in him.”

Abdallah al-Thani remains a named defendant in the 9/11 lawsuits that are still proceeding in Manhattan federal court, but his Washington lawyers declined to address the charges that he shielded KSM, insisting only that he never “supported” any “terrorist acts.” Asked if Abdallah al-Thani ever supported any terrorists rather than their acts, his lawyer David Nachman declined to comment further. The Congressional Research Service report summarized the evidence against him: “According to the 9/11 Commission Report and former U.S. government officials, royal family member and current Qatari Interior Minister, Sheikh Abdullah (Abdallah) bin Khalid Al Thani, provided safe harbor and assistance to Al Qaeda leaders during the 1990s,” including KSM. While numerous accounts have named Abdallah as the KSM tipster, the report simply says that “a high ranking member of the Qatari government” is believed to have “alerted” KSM “to the impending raid.”

Freeh’s letter in 1996 highlighted the consequences of this government-orchestrated escape with a prophetic declaration, saying that the “failure to apprehend KSM would allow him and other associates to continue to conduct terrorist operations.” Indeed, had KSM, who was even then focused on the use of hijacked planes as weapons, been captured in 1996, 9/11 might well have never happened.

In other words, as incredible as it might seem, Rudy Giuliani—whose presidential candidacy is steeped in 9/11 iconography—has been doing business with a government agency run by the very man who made the attacks on 9/11 possible.


This startling revelation is not a sudden disclosure from new sources. It has, in fact, been staring us in the face for many months.

The Wall Street Journal reported on November 7 that one Giuliani Partners client the former mayor hadn’t previously disclosed was, in fact, the government of Qatar. Quoting the recently retired Bush envoy to Qatar, Chase Untermeyer, the Journal reported that state-run Qatar Petroleum had signed a contract with Giuliani Security “around 2005” and that the firm (of which Giuliani has a 30 percent equity stake) is offering security advice to a giant natural-gas processing facility called Ras Laffan. While the interior ministry wouldn’t confirm individual contracts, it did tell the Voice that Qatar Petroleum and security “purchasing” are part of its portfolio.

(The Journal story was followed by a similar piece in the Chicago Tribune last week, which revealed that Giuliani’s firm has also represented a complex casino partnership seeking to build a $3.5 billion Singapore resort. The partnership included “the family of a controversial Hong Kong billionaire who has ties to the regime of North Korea’s Kim Jong II and has been linked to international organized crime by the U.S. government.”)

The Journal story, however, didn’t go into detail about the unsavory connections that Giuliani had made in the Middle East. The Journal wrote that it learned about the Qatar contract after reading a speech that Untermeyer gave in 2006, when he said that Giuliani’s firm had “important contracts” in Qatar. In fact, Untermeyer—who returned to Texas when he stepped down as ambassador to join a real-estate firm partnered with the National Bank of Qatar—told the Houston Forum that Giuliani’s “security company” has “several” contracts in Qatar, and that Giuliani himself “comes to Doha [Qatar’s capital] twice a year.” Untermeyer’s wife Diana spoke at the same event about their daughter Elly, who she said “makes friends with all she meets—other kids, generals, sheikhs, and even our famous American visitors like former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whom she deems ‘cool.’ ”

While it is true that Giuliani hasn’t disclosed the particulars of his Qatar business, he and others at the firm have been bragging about it for years, presumably on the assumption that mentioning good-paying clients is the best way to generate more of the same. Giuliani told South Africa’s Business Times in June 2006, for example, that he’d “recently helped Qatar” to transform Doha in preparation for the Asian Games, an Olympics- sanctioned, 45-country competition that occurred last December. He was in Johannesburg in part to offer to do the same before South Africa hosts the 2010 World Cup. “They had the same concerns as you,” he said at the Global Leaders Africa summit, “and I helped them pull things together. You can see not only how they pulled together physical things that were necessary, such as stadiums, but how they used the plan to improve their security.”

Richard Bradshaw, a consulting-services manager for an Australian security firm that played a two-and-a-half-year role in planning the Asian Games, says that “the ministry of the interior is essentially the chief ministry in charge of internal security”—for the games and other matters. Bradshaw says that he “heard the name of Giuliani Partners quoted in this town,” but that he knew nothing directly about their Asian Games involvement, adding that “maybe they just dealt with high levels in the government.” But Hassan Sidibe, the interior ministry’s press officer, says that a special organizing committee handled contracts for the Asian Games and that “the minister of interior was part of that committee.”


In addition to specific references to the natural-gas and Asian Games deals, Giuliani Partners has hinted at broader ties to Qatar. A New York Post story in January that was filled with quotes about Giuliani Partners’ clients from Michael Hess, a managing partner at the firm, reported that Giuliani himself “has given advice from Qatar to Spain.” Another Post story in May reported that Giuliani had made lucrative speeches in 30 countries—which he does in addition to his Giuliani Partners business—and named Qatar as one of those locations. A New York Times story in January, also laced with Hess quotes, reported that Pasquale J. D’Amuro, the ex-FBI chief who replaced Bernard Kerik as the head of Giuliani’s security division, “has traveled to meet with executives in Japan, Qatar, and other nations, often focusing on clients who seek the firm out for advice on how to protect against a terrorist attack.” Any of these dealings in Qatar that involved security would necessarily connect the firm with the interior ministry run by Abdallah al-Thani.

Peter Boyer, whose New Yorker profile of Giuliani appeared this August, quoted D’Amuro and Giuliani about the expertise and work of Ali Soufan, an Arabic-speaking Lebanese-American who also left the FBI to become the international director of Giuliani Security. Both D’Amuro and Giuliani said that Soufan, the lead investigator in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, had been spending “most of his time” in a Persian Gulf country that is a Giuliani client. Boyer didn’t identify the country, but another source familiar with Soufan’s assignment has confirmed that Soufan has, until recently, been based in Qatar. “The firm has helped the country with training, and with a revamping of its security infrastructure,” Boyer wrote. “The locale is an ideal listening post for someone whose expertise is unraveling the tangle of international terror.” Soufan was the firm’s point man with the royal family, according to another former FBI operative, even providing security advice for Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, the emir’s favorite of his three wives.

Gulf States Newsletter, a respected news publication in the region, used similar language this October to describe the firm’s business in Qatar. Closing a lengthy piece of boosterism that assessed who was getting security contracts in Qatar, the newsletter cited a sole example “in the field of high-end consultancy,” namely what it called “well-partnered players like Giuliani Associates.” It said the firm had, “through a combination of luck and good positioning, become trusted partners” of the Qatari government. The “key lesson for any security sector incomer,” concluded the newsletter, is that “in Qatar it is necessary but not sufficient to be technically competent. As ever, it may be who you know, not what you know, that wins the day.”

Despite this ample supply of evidence, Sunny Mindel, the firm’s spokeswoman, denied in a November 11 Post story that Giuliani Partners “had any ties to Qatar Petroleum.” Mindel may have meant that the company’s business in Qatar had come to an end, parsing her verbs carefully, or she may have been denying that the contract came directly from the petroleum entity, suggesting that the government itself paid for this security advice. Mindel’s elusive answers are consistent with other efforts by the company to conceal the Qatar deals, even as Giuliani and others have occasionally talked openly about them. These efforts suggest that Giuliani is aware the association could prove disquieting, even without the embarrassing connection to the notorious KSM.

The best example of how Giuliani’s Qatar ties could prove disastrous for his presidential candidacy occurred a year ago, at the opening of the Asian Games on December 1, 2006, eleven days after Giuliani registered his presidential exploratory committee. Ben Smith, then of the Daily News and now with Politico.com, obtained a detailed internal memo from the Giuliani campaign in January, and it contained a travel schedule. Smith wrote that “Giuliani spent the first weekend in December in Doha, Qatar, at the Qatari-government sponsored Asian Games, on which he had reportedly worked as a consultant.” Giuliani’s calendar indicates that he arrived in Qatar on December 2 and left on December 3, heading to Las Vegas to address the state’s GOP. The Qatari government spent $2.8 billion to host the games, building a massive sports complex with security very much in mind. “We have 8,000 well-trained security members and the latest technology that were used in the Olympics,” said a security spokesman.

On December 1, the day before Giuliani arrived, the emir’s special guests at the lavish opening, attended by 55,000, were Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Palestinian prime minister Ismail Haniyeh and Syrian president Bashar Assad, all of whom are Qatar allies and were pictured sitting together on television. Giuliani’s presence that weekend wasn’t noted in news coverage at the time, even though his firm had apparently provided security advice for an event that included Ahmadinejad, whose country Giuliani has since promised to “set back five years” should it pursue its nuclear program. Ahmadinejad was later assailed by opponents in his own country for watching a female song-and-dance show that was part of the opening extravaganza. The presence of Hamas’s Haniyeh, who attended private meetings with the emir while Giuliani was in Qatar, might also have been embarrassing to Giuliani, since Qatar agreed to pay $22.5 million a month to cover the salaries of 40,000 Palestinian teachers, as well as to create a bank in the territories with a $50 million initial deposit. This break in the boycott against Hamas orchestrated by the U.S. and Israel prompted a stern rebuke from the State Department on December 5.


While Qatar’s emir has allowed the U.S. to locate its central command and other strategic facilities in the country, including the largest pre-positioning base in the region, his government was also the only member of the U.N. Security Council to oppose the July 2006 resolution that called on Iran to suspend all nuclear research and development activities. Indeed, Iran and Qatar share the North Field/South Pars natural-gas deposit off the Qatari coast, the very one that includes the Giuliani-advised Ras Laffan project. Similarly, the emir praised the Hezbollah resistance in Lebanon during the 2006 war with Israel, calling it “the first Arab victory, something we had longed for,” and he visited southern Lebanon after the war, meeting with families and giving away $250 million to rebuild destroyed homes. While Qatar had allowed Israel to open a small trade mission in Doha amid much fanfare in the mid-’90s, it had virtually shut down the office by 2000, and the last of the Israeli envoys left in 2003.

Also, Saddam Hussein’s wife, Sajida Khayrallah Tilfa, lives in Qatar, in defiance of an Interpol arrest warrant and her appearance on the Iraqi government’s 2006 most-wanted list for allegedly providing financial support to Iraqi insurgents, according to an October 2007 report by the Congressional Research Service. Invited with her daughter to Qatar by the deputy prime minister, she has not returned to Iraq despite an extradition demand issued months before Giuliani’s December visit.

Another potentially uncomfortable Giuliani visit to Doha also stayed under the radar. On January 16, 2006, Giuliani visited the Aspire Academy for Sports Excellence and the Aspire Zone, the largest sports dome in the world, built for the Asian Games as well as future international events (including the Olympic Games, which Qatar hopes to host someday). Giuliani praised the academy, which he called “a fantastic achievement,” adding that he was “looking forward to seeing it develop in the coming years.” Aspire’s communications director says that Giuliani “spent more than an hour and a half” touring its facilities, adding that the former mayor “spoke very eloquently.” But even putting his stamp of approval on such apparently benign facilities could come back to bite Giuliani: The academy, a $1.3 billion facility designed to move Qatar into the top ranks of international soccer, has been denounced in unusually blunt terms by Sepp Blatter, the head of world football’s governing body, FIFA. Blatter called Qatar’s “establishment of recruitment networks”—using 6,000 staff members to assess a half-million young footballers in seven African countries and then moving the best to Qatar—”a good example of exploitation.”

The Aspire facilities were part of the Asian Games security preparations that Giuliani told the Business Times his firm had participated in planning, since the dome allowed 10 sports to be staged simultaneously under one roof. But even the notice of Giuliani’s January appearance, which was posted on the website of an English newspaper there, made no mention of his consulting work for the government. The ex-FBI source says that Giuliani’s secretive security work in Qatar—which also includes vulnerability assessments on port facilities in Doha and pipeline security—would necessarily have involved the interior ministry.


A case officer in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations for nearly 19 years, Robert Baer—who calls Qatar “the center of intrigue in the Gulf”—laid out the KSM escape story in his 2003 book,
Sleeping with the Devil. His source was Hamad bin Jasim bin Hamad al-Thani, a close relative of the emir who was once the finance minister and chief of police. (An exile living in Beirut in 1997 when Baer began a relationship with him, Hamad al-Thani has since been captured by Qatar and is serving a life sentence for attempting to overthrow the emir.) Hamad told Baer that Abdallah al-Thani, whom he described as “a fanatic Wahhabi,” had taken KSM “under his wing” and that the emir had ordered Hamad to help Abdallah. He gave 20 blank Qatari passports to Abdallah, who he said gave them to KSM. “As soon as the FBI showed up in Doha” in 1996, the emir, according to Hamad, ordered Abdallah to move KSM out of his apartment to his beach estate, and eventually out of the country. “Flew the coop. Sayonara,” Hamad concluded.

Baer’s account of how KSM got away is the most far-reaching, implicating the emir himself. Since KSM “moved his family to Qatar at the suggestion” of Abdallah al-Thani, according to the 9/11 Commission, and held a job at the Ministry of Electricity and Water, Baer’s account is hardly implausible. The commission even found that Abdallah ah-Thani “underwrote a 1995 trip KSM took to join the Bosnia jihad.” Bill Gertz, the Washington Times reporter whose ties to the Bush White House are well established, affirmed Baer’s version in his 2002 book, Breakdown. Another CIA agent, Melissa Boyle Mahle, who was assigned to the KSM probe in Qatar in 1995, said that she tried to convince the FBI to do a snatch operation rather than taking the diplomatic approach, concerned about “certain Qatari officials known for their sympathies for Islamic extremists.” Instead, “Muhammad disappeared immediately after the request to the government was made,” making it “obvious to me what had happened.” Louis Freeh’s book says simply: “We believe he was tipped off; but however he got away, it was a slipup with tragic consequences.” Neither Mahle nor Freeh named names.


Counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke so mistrusted the Qataris that he plotted an extraordinary rendition, but the FBI, CIA, and Defense Department said they couldn’t pull it off. Then he asked the ambassador to “obtain the Emir’s approval for a snatch, without the word getting to anyone else.” Despite assurances that “only a few senior officials knew about our plan, KSM learned of it and fled the country ahead of the FBI’s arrest team’s arrival,” Clarke concluded in his book, Against All Enemies. “We were of course outraged at Qatari security and assumed the leak came from within the palace.” Clarke noted that “one report” indicated that KSM had evaporated on a passport supplied by Abdallah al-Thani’s Islamic-affairs ministry. When Clarke was told by the Los Angeles Times in 2003 that Abdallah had been elevated to interior minister, he said: “I’m shocked to hear that. You’re telling me that al-Thani is in charge of security inside Qatar. I hope that’s not true.” Having just left the Bush administration, Clarke added that Abdallah “had great sympathy for bin Laden, great sympathy for terrorist groups, [and] was using his personal money and ministry money to transfer to al Qaeda front groups that were allegedly charities.” The Los Angeles Times quoted “several U.S. officials involved in the hunt” for KSM who fingered Abdallah as “the one who learned of the imminent FBI dragnet and tipped off Muhammad.”

Even earlier than the Los Angeles Times report, ABC News’ Brian Ross reported that Abdallah had warned KSM, citing American intelligence officials, and added that KSM had left Qatar “with a passport provided by that country’s government.” Ross didn’t limit his broadside to Abdallah, saying that “there were others in the Qatari royal family who were sympathetic and provided safe havens for Al Qaeda.” A New York Times story in 2003 said that Abdallah “harbored as many as 100 Arab extremists on his farm.” The story also quoted Freeh as saying that KSM had “over 20 false passports at his disposal” and cited American officials who suspected Abdallah of tipping him off. However, the Times story also quoted a Qatari official who claimed that Abdallah “always provided support for Islamic extremists with the knowledge and acceptance of Qatar’s emir.”

Indeed, the Times reported in another 2003 story that after 9/11, KSM was said by Saudi intelligence officials to have “spent two weeks hiding in Qatar, with the help of prominent patrons.” Abdul Karim al-Thani, a royal family member who did not hold a government post, was also accused in the story of operating a safe house for Abu Massab al-Zarqawi, who later became the face of the early Iraqi insurgency but was depicted then as an Al Qaeda operative moving from Baghdad to Afghanistan. Abdul al-Thani, according to a senior coalition official, provided Qatari passports and a million-dollar bank account to finance the network.

Other connections between Qatar and terrorism have been reported in the press. Newsweek identified an Iraqi living in Doha and working at Abdallah’s Islamic-affairs ministry as being detained by Qatar police because of the ties he had to 9/11 hijackers—yet he was released even though phone records linked him as well to the 1993 bombers and the so-called “Bojinka” plot hatched in Manila to blow up civilian airlines. A Chechen terrorist financier harbored in Qatar was assassinated there by a Russian hit squad in 2004. Yousef Qardawi, a cleric with a talk show on Al Jazeera and ties to the emir, issued a fatwa against Americans the same year. An engineer at Qatar Petroleum carried out a suicide bomb attack at a theater popular with Westerners in early 2005, killing one and wounding 12.

Finally, the long-smoldering question of whether Osama bin Laden played a role in the 1996 bombing of the American barracks at Khobar Towers—funneling 20 tons of C-4 explosives into Saudi Arabia through Qatar—resurfaced in a story based intelligence reports and endorsed by none other than Dick Cheney. In 2003, Steven Hayes of The Weekly Standard wrote a celebrated story based on a 16-page Defense Department intelligence assessment. The thrust of the story was to advance the administration’s thesis about Al Qaeda’s ties to Iraq, but Hayes also found that in a January 1996 visit to Qatar, Osama bin Laden “discussed the successful movement of explosives into Saudi Arabia, and operations targeted against U.S. interests” in Khobar and two other locations, “using clandestine al Qaeda cells in Saudi Arabia.” The 2007 CRS study says that it is “unclear” if those conversations were “related to the preparations for the June 1996 attack” that killed 19 servicemen, but that the “Qatari individual” who reportedly hosted bin Laden for these discussions was none other than Abdallah al-Thani. Bill Gertz and others have been writing for years that the path to the carnage at Khobar led through Doha.

The Khobar attack closely followed an unsuccessful coup attempt against the emir on February 20, 1996, which Qatar officials, in later criminal prosecutions, formally accused Saudi Arabia of fomenting. Analysts in the region have suggested that any use of Qatar as a launching pad for the Khobar attack so soon after the coup attempt was likely to have been approved at the highest levels of the government. In October 1996, within months of both the KSM escape and the Khobar bombing, Abdallah al-Thani got his first major promotion, elevated by the emir to Minister of State for Interior Affairs, a cabinet position.

All of this evidence of Qatar’s role as a facilitator of terrorism—reaching even to the emir himself—was reported well before Giuliani Partners began its business there “around 2005.” Yet even the New York Times story, filled with quotes from Giuliani’s friend Freeh, didn’t deter him. Nor did the firm’s retention of D’Amuro and Soufan, two ex-FBI counterterrorism experts who certainly knew the terror landscape of Qatar.

Soufan, in fact, was the primary investigator who assembled the case against the terrorists who bombed American embassies in Africa in 1998. And the testimony in that 2001 trial established that the Qatar Charitable Society, a nongovernmental agency that is said to “draw much of its funding from official sources,” helped finance the attack. Daniel Pipes, a foreign-policy adviser to the Giuliani campaign, has branded the Qatar Charitable Society “one of bin Laden’s de facto banks.” Reached at home and asked about his work in Qatar, Soufan declined to comment.

Even the revelations about Khobar Towers didn’t slow Giuliani down, though he’s subsequently made the bombing a central feature in his stump-speech litany of the Clinton administration’s failings. Giuliani also ignored an official State Department report on terrorism for 2003—released in mid-2004, just before his firm began doing business in Qatar—which said that the country’s security services “monitored extremists passively,” and that “members of transnational terrorist groups and state sponsors of terror are present in Qatar.” The report added that Qatar’s government “remains cautious about taking any action that would cause embarrassment or public scrutiny” when nationals from the Gulf countries were involved. (Later reports issued by the new secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, moderated the department’s Qatar assessment.) Also in 2004, Michael Knights, an analyst at the Washington Institute who works with the Defense Department, wrote that a “Wahhabi clique” tied to extremists “is still in charge [in Qatar], and seeded the security establishment with personnel of their choosing.” But even this strong, specific warning didn’t deter Giuliani Partners’ interest in Qatar.

Presumably, Giuliani’s rationale for doing business there was that Qatar had become an American ally, hosting up to 40,000 troops. The CRS report put the complexity of the relationship well, noting that American concerns about Qatari support for terrorists “have been balanced over time by Qatar’s counterterrorism efforts and its broader, long-term commitment to host and support U.S. military forces.” In a footnote, the CRS report adds that the emir may finally be downplaying Abdallah al-Thani’s influence, even as he reappointed him this year. The U.S. government may have to be satisfied with that suggestion of progress; it does not have limitless military options in the Middle East. (The emir, for his part, once reportedly explained his willingness to host U.S. forces by saying: “The only way we can be sure the Americans will answer our 911 call is if we have the police at our own house.”)

Giuliani Partners, however, has a world of choices, quite literally. Some American companies who do business in Qatar, like Shell and ExxonMobil, have to chase the gas and oil wherever they are. But a consulting company with instant name recognition like Giuliani’s—and which claims to carefully vet its clients—can be both profitable and selective. Moreover, it’s the only American company known to be providing security advice to Qatar; the rest hail from Singapore, Australia, and France. A company headed by a man who has known that he would make this presidential run for years—and with 9/11 as its rationale—could have chosen to make his millions elsewhere. Especially a candidate who divides the world into good guys and bad guys, claims that this war is a “divine” mission, and shuns complexity. For that kind of a candidate, Qatar may become one Giuliani contradiction too many.

 

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CITY HALL ARCHIVES From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NEWS News 2021 NYC ARCHIVES

NYC Is About To Have Its Biggest Election In A Decade. Will New Yorkers Show Up?

June 22 is a big day for New York City: In primary elections for the largest government turnover in a decade, roughly two-thirds of the City Council is up for grabs, along with the comptroller, four borough presidents, district attorneys, and, of course, the next mayor.

But if this year is anything like previous years, few New Yorkers will show up and vote. As data makes clear, the New Yawk brand of loud and opinionated hasn’t quite translated to high voter turnout. In fact, New York consistently ranks among states with the worst turnout rates in the country. Combined with debates over its new ranked-choice voting system — which may turn off some voters even more — this year could see the low turnout trend continue, meaning the next mayor and other elected positions could be selected by just a sliver of the city’s population.

City Hall and local organizations are combining efforts to educate, engage, and, hopefully, persuade New Yorkers to vote in greater numbers this year. In April, the mayor’s office announced a $15 million voter outreach initiative under DemocracyNYC, the city’s civic engagement arm, to encourage New Yorkers to head to the polls. A portion of that has gone to educating constituents, including launching an interactive app, available in 16 languages, that helps voters practice ranked-choice voting on pretend ballots to decide designations like “favorite NYC landmark” and view how votes are tallied.

“The reality is a lot of New Yorkers just have so much else on their minds that they haven’t really focused on [ranked-choice voting] and the fact that this important election is coming up,” said Laura Wood, New York City’s Chief Democracy Officer. “Our mission is to make sure … New Yorkers have that information going into the June primary.” 

New York City’s Poor Voter Turnout

In 2016, there were 4.9 million registered voters in New York City. In the following year’s general election, Mayor Bill de Blasio clinched his second term with just 726,361 votes. That means only 14 percent of people who could vote, voted for de Blasio (it’s maybe part of why he’s so unpopular despite having been made mayor twice).

Last year, with a highly consequential presidential election at stake, the city saw a slight bump in voter turnout compared to 2016. According to a voter analysis report by the Campaign Finance Board, nearly 62 percent of city voters turned out in November with the biggest overall increase among younger voters ages 18 to 29. 

But voting tends to nose-dive after national elections and that could happen in the upcoming primaries. There’s no single reason behind New York’s underwhelming turnout numbers, but one that everyone seems to agree on is the state’s outdated voting laws which, intentionally or not, affect voting accessibility. And the harder it is for people to vote, the less likely they will. 

“Up until a couple of years ago, it was kind of hard to vote,” said Jan Combopiano, senior policy director at the Brooklyn Voters Alliance, an independent organization that works on voting access. New York did not allow early voting until recently (it was passed into law in 2019) and technically still doesn’t allow no-excuse absentee ballots (which have been temporarily allowed during the pandemic). Rigid rules around designated poll sites and online voter registration are other issues that Combopiano says can make voters less likely to participate. “We’ve never had a municipal election under these circumstances before where we did have early voting, where we did have easier access to an absentee ballot,” she said. “So we’re hoping to see a change in this election.”

Omar Suárez, director of partnerships and outreach for NYCVotes, says it’s all about messaging. “We don’t give local government the same sense of urgency that we do when it comes to national politics,” said Suárez, noting drop-off levels after presidential elections. “Something that is a constant focus of ours is, how can we retain those voters?” 

BVA volunteer Madeleine registering a voter in East Flatbush

As the Campaign Finance Board’s voter outreach initiative, NYCVotes is allocating $2 million to its get-out-the-vote efforts this year which includes town halls and voter training sessions. Additionally, a board spokesperson confirmed a portion of the $15 million from the mayor’s office will go towards amplifying NYCVotes’s ads and translating educational materials, but did not specify how much.

New York’s New System: Ranked-Choice Voting

With New York in pandemic recovery and with so many important city-level jobs on the line, this year’s local elections are a huge deal. The city’s primaries, in particular, are considered to hold more weight than the general elections given that 3,376,341 of active voters are registered Democrats (by contrast, just 501,848 are registered Republicans). 

But this year’s outreach campaigns have another challenge: educating New Yorkers about the new ranked-choice voting system, which was voted into law through a 2019 ballot referendum. Using this new system, voters can rank up to five candidates in a number of races, including for mayor, comptroller, borough presidents, city council, and public advocate. If no candidate achieves a majority of votes, the candidate with the lowest tally is eliminated. But those votes won’t go to waste; instead, in the next round of counting, citizens whose number one choice has been eliminated will have their votes counted towards their second-ranked candidate. The cycle continues until a clear majority winner is determined. 

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Ranked-choice voting was used for the first time in New York City in February, during a special election to fill seats for City Council Districts 24 and 31, the latter formerly occupied by Queens Borough President Donovan Richards (he is seeking reelection against four other Democratic candidates in June). To educate constituents on ranked-choice voting, his office created a Civic Engagement Committee made up of members from community organizations, civic associations, and individual volunteers. 

The committee, one of the lead partners with DemocracyNYC, is now using lessons from their previous ranked-choice outreach efforts ahead of June, focusing on in-person campaigns to push voter turnout in neighborhoods like Flushing, Jackson Heights, Jamaica, and Far Rockaway.

BVA volunteer Gilda registering a new voter at a pop-up event on Atlantic Ave

“We know it’s important that we have communities of color, other marginalized communities, who oftentimes are not coming out to vote at the rate we’d like to see,” said Franck D. Joseph III, Richards’s chief of staff who oversees the committee. “We want to make sure we’re going into those communities and actively ensuring that folks understand what ranked-choice voting is, and they know how to fill out their ballot.” 

Research shows clear benefits to ranked-choice voting: low-visibility candidates have more chances of staying in the race while voters don’t have their votes wasted. But the new system has faced opposition, with some lawmakers questioning the city’s readiness for it and an impending lawsuit to halt the use of ranked-choice voting altogether. 

Anecdotally, some voters have shown disinterest in ranked-choice voting and many still don’t get how ranked-choice voting works. “One of the things we hear is people trying to game the system,” Combopiano shared, citing her organization’s weekly public trainings. “‘Oh, I don’t want this candidate to win. Should I mark them fifth?’ And we’re like — No! If you don’t want them to win, don’t put them on the ballot.”

Despite challenges, a survey from the special elections shows a promising response from voters toward ranked-choice voting. Of 635 surveyed voters who participated in that election, over 95 percent found filling out the ranked-choice voting ballot to be either very or somewhat simple. About 61 percent chose to rank multiple candidates on their ballots with 31 percent ranking up to the maximum five candidates. Joseph III views arguments around ranked-choice voting as a normal response to a new tool. For him, it reflects a lack of understanding about ranked-choice voting more than voter apathy. 

“I think once they get past the confusion, it really opens up the scope,” he said, “because we all know there’s no one perfect candidate for any office.”    ❖

Note: Early voting runs from June 12 to June 20.

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Sean Combs’ New Doc Has a Deeper ‘Story To Tell’ About Biggie Smalls

Now streaming on Netflix, Emmett Malloy’s new documentary, Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell, is a hip-hop doc about the artist who created his own sound and became a staple of the genre. Much like Christopher Wallace himself, the film is a shot of adrenaline, humor, and personality.

The film reflects the rapper’s work thanks to a wealth of archival footage from the Wallace family, to which Malloy and producer Sean Combs were granted full access. It gives us a chance to see B.I.G. before he was big, to relive the days when he was, “the opposite of a winner, a born sinner,” who ate sardines for dinner.

While other documentaries about Biggie have chronicled his glory days, what’s refreshing about this one is the way it explores his modest, humble beginnings. Raised by a single mother — a Jamaican immigrant, who worked as a school teacher — Biggie spent most of his time as a boy hanging out on a few blocks in Brooklyn, including a street run by drug dealers. While he and his friends were selling crack, he was also working on his music, honing a lyrical flow that was unlike anything anyone had ever heard before.

For Biggie, the music came before everything. He wasn’t just a rapper, but as jazz great Donald Harrison says in an interview, a “poet” of the streets, a musician who could turn everyday life into a song. A large portion of the film is dedicated to his life on Fulton street, writing rhymes and winning rap battles, and each song he performs is a tribute to the different elements of his upbringing.

Made up of archival footage and interviews with those closest to the hip hop star, and laid over with beats from his debut album Ready to Die, the film follows a standard documentary format. The vibe is chill, heartfelt and filled with great rap stories. Although it seems like Malloy and Combs want to gloss over the darker moments for a good chunk here, it’s because they’re actually saving them for last.

After his charisma is demonstrated in archival footage of concerts, recordings, and radio freestyles, Biggie’s death hits like a freight train at the end. He was gunned down in Los Angeles at the age of 24, just three weeks before his second album, Life After Death, was to be released. It’s easy to think about what could have been if he had survived, but Malloy’s doc is about his life, not his death. It’s about celebrating what he did while he was here, which is what Biggie’s brash, braggadocious, semi-autobiographical music was all about.  ❖

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A Review and a Poem: Remembering Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who died on February 22, outlived the century he helped define. In 1955, he began publishing the Pocket Poets Series of books, out of the City Lights bookstore, in San Francisco. His own verse appeared in Number One, titled Pictures of the Gone World, but it was Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems (1956), which was fourth in the series, that landed Ferlinghetti, wearing his publisher’s hat, in court. The American Civil Liberties Union had assured Ferlinghetti that they would defend him should any objections to the drug use and sexual acts depicted in Howl arise. Ferlinghetti, who once described himself as “the last of the bohemians rather than the first of the Beats,” had been prescient that Ginsberg’s trip through the demimonde would rile Eisenhower-era mores. With the ACLU’s help, he won the case, and, according to a Village Voice review of a reading he gave a few years later, it didn’t affect his sense of humor: “The audience really laughed at his witticisms, which are admirably woven into the fabric.”

That complete 1959 review of Ferlinghetti reading to a full house at the Living Theater — a classic example of newspapers being the first draft of history — is below, followed by the full text of his poem “After the Cries of the Birds,” which appeared in the December 22, 1966, issue of the Voice.  —R.C. Baker

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 1919 – 2021

 

Love and Death and Ferlinghetti
By Howard Hart
October 14, 1959

Lawrence Ferlinghetti gave a poetry reading at the Living Theatre last Monday night, October 5. The house was full.

He came energetically onstage in a lumber-jack shirt and corduroys, sat gingerly on a stool, and informally announced that he wanted to read new and unpublished work, but would begin with some things from “A Coney Island of the Mind.”

The world of painting serves as a backdrop for many of Ferlinghetti’s pieces, but his themes seem to be sex and death. It would be wrong to say that he confuses sex and love, for there was very little of love in anything he read. I can’t recall one instance.

He is able to beat home his beauties of sexual orgasm with an ominous (but actual) rhythmic splaying of words. That is to say, the words leave their place, from a language point of view, and are individually enunciated in what seems horribly like baby talk. (When you first catch this baby-talk thing you can hardly believe your ears. As a technique of verse reading it is, of course, an appropriation from Klee in the world of painting. Ferlinghetti is very imbued with painting, and he had more pieces about painters to read the other night than about anything else. I liked the recently written one on Morris Graves best.)

Behind sex there comes the theme of death clanking along like a can tied to a dog’s tail. The writer’s voice itself is somewhat deathlike, and for me there was a second of terror the first time he said “death” because he seemed to croak it from a place underground.

Terror and pity: Ferlinghetti stirs up a pity for his sincere nervousness, or nervous sincerity, in quite confessional work.

And humor: the audience really laughed at his witticisms, which are admirably woven into the fabric. Maybe they seem more admirable to me than they would to someone else, since I didn’t respond to them — and I am not trying to be funny in saying this.   ❖

 

 

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From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES News 2021 NYC ARCHIVES

Does New York Need a New La Guardia?

On the afternoon of October 2, 1935, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, a silver-plated shovel in hand, dug into the Midwood soil. He had some difficulty with the task, barely getting the shovel into the topsoil as police fought to keep excited students at bay. 

In just a short amount of time, the students of Brooklyn College would have their own campus to rival the gems of the Ivy League. Situated on a leafy stretch of land that had, at various times, been home to a golf course, a farm, a football field, and a staging area for the Barnum & Bailey circus, the $5.5 million project was one of the most expensive of any — education-related at least — attempted in the United States at the time. “Whenever there is a new government construction,” La Guardia said that day, “there is always opposition to the site. You cannot have two sites for one public building, but the real estate people have not learned this yet.” 

It was a remarkable expansion of a system that would come to be called the City University of New York, each school tuition-free. A year later, President Franklin Roosevelt arrived in a motorcade to lay the cornerstone for Brooklyn College’s gymnasium. The accomplishment belonged to both men: city and federal funds had built the college, with its landmark clocktower, state-of-the-art laboratories, and bucolic quadrangle

Though the Great Depression had brought the nation to the brink of economic collapse, it also represented the birth of a social democracy that remains with us to this day. Social security, unemployment insurance, and a wide array of public works came to be. 

New York City was no exception: It was here many dreams of the New Deal were at least partially realized, where new libraries, parks, hospitals, colleges, and hundreds of thousands of units of public housing burst from the ground in the 1930s and 1940s. 

“New York had an unusually expansive conception of the role of the state — in this case the municipal government, in some ways, fulfilled the promises and vision of FDR late in his life that on the federal level never got fulfilled,” says Joshua Freeman, a labor historian at the CUNY Graduate Center. 

The boom continued after World War II, with new funding for public hospitals, public schools, and public and subsidized housing. Welfare benefits increased under the liberal Mayor John Lindsay in the 1960s, as did job protections for the newly organized public sector unions. Though the banking and real estate titans of the era retained substantial clout, they could not curtail the generous social spending that had become, for New Yorkers, routine. But by the mid-1970s, fiscal mismanagement and a collapsing manufacturing base — the garment industry and others fled to cheaper, non-union states and eventually overseas — drove the city to near-insolvency, opening the door for new theories to dominate the old. 

Neoliberalism — prioritizing lower taxes, reduced spending on the poor, and subsidies for large businesses — came into vogue, and never really left, as New York City mayors, Republican and Democratic alike, strove to ensure that real estate developers and financiers would find the city attractive for investment and profit. Michael Bloomberg, one of the richest men in the world, called New York a “luxury product.” Bill de Blasio, a self-identified progressive who backed Bernie Sanders for president, spent the end of his first term and the beginning of his second fighting to bring a taxpayer-subsidized Amazon headquarters to Queens. One of the most dominant companies on Earth was slated to receive several billion in tax breaks, though Amazon was worth as much as a trillion dollars. A broad coalition of local opposition sank the deal.

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This year’s mayoral race, which will be effectively decided in the June 22nd Democratic primary, may represent the first opportunity in a half-century to change course. The city’s Democratic electorate is more liberal than it has ever been, and groups such as the Democratic Socialists of America are ascendant in Brooklyn and Queens. Weary from the coronavirus pandemic, voters appear ready for change, sending a host of left-wing lawmakers to Albany and Washington last June.

The top candidates, in some sense, speak the new language. Scott Stringer, the city comptroller, promised that his mayoralty would “end the crushing cycle of speculation, eviction, and displacement — no more giving away the store to developers.” Andrew Yang wants to be the “anti-poverty” mayor, pitching a public bank and a cash-transfer program for some of the city’s poorest residents. Maya Wiley, who served as de Blasio’s counsel, has said she’d spend $10 billion to put 100,000 New Yorkers back to work. And others are pitching innovative answers, like former Obama and Bloomberg cabinet official Shaun Donovan’s plan to give every New Yorker a $1,000 “equity bond” at birth that could be worth $50,000, and accessed, upon high school graduation. 

Yet the horizons, overall, remain somewhat diminished. Most debate continues to hover around returning New York to whatever pre-pandemic glory it enjoyed in 2019 — not radically advancing it in new directions. 

Few candidates have proposed a policy as singularly compelling and feasible as what de Blasio touted when he first ran for mayor: a universal prekindergarten program, to be paid for by a tax on the rich. Though Governor Andrew Cuomo blocked the tax hike, de Blasio won state funding for the initiative, and by most metrics, it has been a lasting success: at least 70,000 students are enrolled in pre-K, up from 9,000 in 2013, Bloomberg’s final year. The program has become a national model, offering quality education and saving working-class families tens of thousands of dollars annually. 

Pre-K was also the first major expansion of the city’s social state since the 1970s, argues Kim Phillips-Fein, author of Fear City, one of the definitive accounts of the fiscal crisis. “Much of what we value in New York is the result of public spending,” she says.

The great challenge NYC mayors have faced in modern times is how much their enormous city’s destiny is charted by the state and federal governments. State law forbids the city from raising its own income taxes without the legislature and the governor’s approval. Federal money, for decades now, has been relatively scarce, nothing like the largesse La Guardia enjoyed under Roosevelt. 

The view from Four Freedoms Park, on Roosevelt Island: No Amazon HQ, but the Pepsi sign still reigns over Queens

Out of that period came the New York City Housing Authority — underfunded, mismanaged, and maligned today, but still a striking achievement. While most of the nation has razed its public housing, 400,000 poor and working-class New Yorkers still live there, safeguarded from unsustainable rent hikes. 

Almost all of the mayoral candidates have promised to win more money for NYCHA, which has capital needs in the tens of billions, but they have been vague about their plans. There has been little talk of demanding that Joe Biden fund another New Deal for New York City, like La Guardia once did of the patrician Roosevelt, who initially had no inclination to create a public housing program for the five boroughs. No one has articulated a coherent strategy for whipping the votes of the city’s large House delegation and forcing them to make the implicit pro-city arguments that draw far fewer retweets than do broadsides against Ted Cruz and Marjorie Taylor Greene

Healthcare is a federal issue, but no mayoral candidate has spoken extensively about creating a single-payer municipal healthcare system, or even the universal access to healthcare that uninsured people in San Francisco enjoy. Corey Johnson, the city council speaker, briefly floated the idea in 2018, but he is not running for mayor. In the depths of the Great Depression, La Guardia created a city-run health insurance plan for its own workers, one that still exists today as part of Emblem Health. 

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La Guardia’s blind spot was race: NYCHA was segregated in its early years, and the Little Flower viciously targeted Japanese-Americans during World War II. Subsequent mayors were less retrograde, culminating with Lindsay, who had a large following in Black neighborhoods and, under pressure from gay activists, banned city agencies from discriminating against job candidates based on sexual orientation. 

“If progressivism is a moving target, real leaders move the target,” says Joseph Viteritti, a public policy professor at Hunter College and the author of books on de Blasio and Lindsay

On housing, the most progressive policy minds are still unconvinced that the mayoral candidates are campaigning effectively on solving the most fundamental problem: how to make the city affordable for renters and homebuyers, as it used to be for many decades of the 20th century. 

A dramatic expansion of NYCHA occurred in tandem with major housing developments under the auspices of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, then a mutual nonprofit, which in the 1930s and 1940s built Parkchester in the Bronx and Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village in Manhattan. At first segregated — virulent racism undercut New York’s social democratic golden period — Parkchester was forced to open its doors after the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and remains a racially diverse haven for the middle class to this day. (Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village were initially segregated as well.)

The Mitchell-Lama program, created in 1955, allowed low and middle-income New Yorkers to own their apartments, offering artificially low prices after state-subsidized developers seized land through eminent domain. Unions built affordable, attractive social housing for their members, including the famed co-ops in the Bronx and Electchester in Queens. Meanwhile, the rent-control and rent-stabilization programs expanded, capping annual increases on the rents of millions of apartments. 

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“The housing movement has grown strong enough to get city politicians to say what we want them to say, but not strong enough to get them to do what we want them to do,” says Samuel Stein, a housing policy analyst at the Community Service Society and the author of Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State. “There is a real lack of middle-level analysis [from the candidates]: there’s very little idea how to get from here to there.”

On the surface, none of the mayoral candidates lack ambition when it comes to housing. In all new developments with ten or more units, Stringer would require a quarter to be permanently “low-income affordable” housing, and has advanced plans for building units on vacant city-owned land. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, another front-runner, has said the city must “rapidly build new affordable housing.” Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive who has cultivated a following among progressives, is calling for a universal rent-stabilization program and the expansion of community land trusts and banks. 

But none have campaigned on reimagining programs like Mitchell-Lama on a far larger scale, so New Yorkers don’t have to sit on decades-long waiting lists to buy an apartment. Stein believes that the mayoral candidates need to start “thinking about housing not just as a market function the city is there to fix when there’s a market failure, but as a core part of what city government is there to do.”

The big opportunity the next mayor might have is to start buying out large, overleveraged landlords who have taken on too much debt and are no longer seeing a rapid escalation of their property values due to the pandemic. Tenant and nonprofit community groups, with the city and state’s help, could buy the properties and convert them into low-income social housing. 

The City Council and State Legislature can pass laws that give tenants and community-based organizations a first opportunity at buying buildings when they’re put up for sale. When banks are ready to put an apartment building into foreclosure, they could first offer the debt in question to nonprofits at a discount. What’s still being determined is how many of these buildings are overleveraged—numbers are still being crunched—but housing analysts believe there are enough for a wide-scale conversion from predatory, for-profit housing into what many New Yorkers enjoyed at midcentury. 

In addition, the next mayor could do a far better job of enlisting nonprofit developers to build housing affordable to the working class and poor, instead of chasing set targets that simply lead to the creation of more luxury housing, argues Ismene Speliotis, executive director of the Mutual Housing Association of New York. “You have to remove or diminish the profit motivator.” 

Other than Morales, who is still a long-shot to win, all of the candidates have shied away from criticizing Cuomo, the Democratic governor who is probably the single biggest impediment to far-reaching social housing policy in New York. Cuomo, who has raised more than $12 million from the real estate industry since taking office, has opposed or been indifferent to strengthening tenant protections in the past, and has refused to consider canceling rent or bailing out tenants during the pandemic. He has opposed tax hikes on the wealthy that could raise revenue for city services.

New York City requires an activist, incredibly aggressive state government to build on the social democracy it once had. The state barely contributes to the upkeep of NYCHA and does not offer funding commensurate with the tax revenue the city generates. Additionally, the Big Apple has sent nearly $27 billion more in taxes annually to the federal government than it has gotten back in federal spending; independent analyses have found that the city is a healthy net contributor to the state’s finances as well. New York City is not merely a cultural crown jewel; it is the beating heart of a state that could not exist without it. “Whatever Washington does, it will not be adequate,” Viteritti says. “Albany cannot allow this period to pass without increasing taxes on people who can well afford it.”  ❖

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Thugs in Blue

THE BEAT GOES ON … AND ON
Once Again, Police Pummel a Plan for Reform

Last Wednesday, an enormous mob surged out of control, menaced citizens, pushed through police lines onto city hall steps, and blocked traffic on Broadway and the Brooklyn Bridge. But uniformed cops stood by, smiling—for the maraud­ers were fellow cops, thousands of them. Yelling profanities and racist slurs, they rocked and dented cars; some kicked a New York Times reporter in the stomach, others chanted “asshole, asshole” at a be­wildered photographer and at stalled driv­ers who talked with journalists. One such driver, Virginia Santana, was near tears at the blockade; she was trying to get her kid to the hospital for chemotherapy. Vicky Cohen, standing beside her car, was en­raged. “All they care about is them­selves,” she said. Two cops, looking like frat pranksters, shimmied up the bridge exit sign to suspend a banner declaring: “Support US in Blue not the ACLU.”

Over on Murray Street, Rudy Giuliani addressed another police crowd. “The New York Police Department is the very finest in the United States,” he declared, then went after David Dinkins for being anti-police. He criticized the idea of creat­ing an all-civilian complaint review board. “In the words of my good friend, Guy Molinari, BULLSHIT.” The crowd roared.

Next was introduced Molinari’s daugh­ter Susan, a congresswoman from Staten Island, a big police booster, and a single woman. “Homo,” yelled one cop.

Over at city hall, chief David Scott had tried to urge the cops to clear out, since they had no permit to be there. He was met by a sea of flying middle fingers. “Retire! Retire!” chanted the crowd, many of whom were openly drinking alcohol.

This week, New York City launched yet another effort to bridge the precipitous gap between police and public with a proposal for a new, fully independent Civilian Com­plaint Review Board. Police replied with a Bronx cheer, turning out for one of their largest protests in years. Doubtless tons of time, money, and ink will be devoted to the slugfest, and it’ll be tough to beat the pow­erful Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which has already launched a radio blitz targeting the mayor.

The argument for an all-civilian CCRB is politically sexy; it sounds like a good anti­dote to reams of stories of police abuse. But a closer look suggests the proposal on the table is well-meaning but inadequate—for instance, it still leaves the police commis­sioner with the power to decide what, if any, discipline out-of-control cops should get.

Indeed, some reformers doubt that this is even the right battle to wage. Brutality ex­perts warn that the most efficient and fair ex-post-facto investigations of errant cops won’t remedy a more deep-seated problem. To do that requires a fundamental recali­brating of the police department: how it chooses officers, trains them, and what it tells them about their responsibility to the public.

Best solution or not, the CCRB proposal got new life after policeman Michael O’Keefe killed Jose Garcia in Washington Heights last July. Although a grand jury cleared O’Keefe and concluded he acted in self-defense, Garcia’s death galvanized the Latino community, which often finds itself on the business end of a nightstick. But it’s not just minorities who feel the police oper­ate with impunity—as Jeffrey Wassen and Jeffrey Bergida found out.

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CHELSEA: THE JEWS

It was 1:50 a.m. on December 20, 1989, when Jeffrey Wassen’s car hit a taxi near 23rd Street and 8th Avenue; he and his passenger, Jeffrey Bergida, suffered head injuries. Police officers Steven Cruz and Timothy Vandenberg arrived on the scene and asked Wassen if he’d been drinking. Wassen replied that he wanted the advice of Bergida, his friend and lawyer.

That’s when the officers got nasty, ac­cording to a sworn deposition from Dean Burney, the emergency medical technician on the scene. Besides arresting Bergida for interference, they disparaged “Jew law­yers” (Bergida wore a chai) and repeatedly declared, “Maybe Hitler was right after all.” They also taunted: “I don’t think much of Jewish men, but I like Jewish women, they take it up the ass real good,” and “This is what happens when Jews have too much money and they don’t know what to do with it.” They called the two men “fag” and “Jew fag.” Later, when Bergida’s head had been bandaged, officers joked that with the red hospital markings, Ber­gida looked like a character from the TV series Alien Nation.

That episode was kids’ stuff compared with the pain of a fellow in Washington Square Park who was bitten in the testicles by a police dog. Or when cops doused an accused fare beater, Fernando Huerta, with ammonia—then held a lit match close to his head.

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JUST ANOTHER STATISTIC

No one would dispute that policing is a stressful, dangerous profession or that good cops deserve esteem. But with the power, the gun, and the nightstick goes a heavy responsibility which is too often shunted, and when it comes to malevolent, dis­turbed, or violent cops. New York City has a case of terminal denial. Virtually no poli­tician or powerful figure will publicly acknowledge what many privately maintain: that police brutality and abuse in New York City are much more than a blip on an otherwise placid screen.

“The police are given incredible leeway to do whatever they want when faced with a street encounter,” says Legal Aid attorney Scott Ciment. “There is absolutely no gov­ernment oversight to rein in police abuse.” For Ciment and his colleagues, brutality is common as potholes.

Nobody actually knows how many people are threatened, insulted, intimidated, or groundlessly whacked by cops every day. That’s because the system designed to track brutality is hobbled by fear, disillusion­ment, and the self-interest of the data col­lectors. Oddly, in a field in which statistics are churned out like buttermilk, the NYPD won’t release figures for the number of offi­cers disciplined for brutality, the number dismissed, or even which precinct has the most repeat offenders.

All we have to go on are the figures recorded by the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which is staffed entirely by Police Department employees: From January to June of this year, 1854 complaints were filed, surpassing the number filed during that time last year, 1557. Since 1987, the numbers have generally declined, which the New York Civil Liberties Union says does not necessarily mean there’s less police abuse; just that fewer people are filing complaints.

James Fyfe, a noted criminologist and former NYC cop, says no matter how thoroughly most citizens’ complaints are in­vestigated, the majority are fated to be found unsubstantiated. The reason: They come down to swearing contests between cops and citizens. Of all complaints received in New York, only 3 percent are substantiated, far lower than other cities.

As Koch did before him, Dinkins down­plays the possibility of a systemic problem; Lee Brown, by many standards a progres­sive cop, did too. However, with more offi­cers than any other city, New York is unique: Even if 90 percent of the local cops did not engage in misconduct, that would still leave a staggering 3000 abusive cops. That group alone would constitute one of the largest police forces in America. And specialists say 10 percent is a conservative guess.

Polls may be a more accurate measure of the scope of the problem: In 1991, Gallup found that 43 percent of New Yorkers think the police department uses too much force, a big jump from the 29 percent who said so in 1989. Even the tepid CCRB, in a 1990 report, worried: “If the willingness to resort to unwarranted violence demonstrat­ed at Tompkins Square … is a reflection of the altitudes of the members of the police service, there is reason for concern about what is occurring when police supervisors, journalists, and other citizens are not present.”

Public attitudes sometimes exacerbate the problem. “A lot of people in this city believe cops should be able to kick a little ass,” says Dan Johnston, an attorney and ex-CCRB member. “I believe it’s very harmful to the city and to public safety for the police to treat people in a way [that] they lose respect for the law. But many believe the way to police is by fear.”

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QUEENS: THE POLE 

“Why they attacked these kids I don’t know,” says Joseph Karpinski, whose son spent his 18th birthday being beaten by city police. Karpinski makes an interesting ag­grieved party, since he’s a retired NYC cop.

On the night of February 22, 1989, Abi­gail Mullins happened to glance out her window as she waited for her daughter to come home. Just then, she saw a small group of teens standing in front of her house. One reached to light a cigarette for another, and missed. Both friends fell. Their companions were reaching to pull them out of this Keystone Kops predica­ment when a sedan squealed around the corner, nearly hitting the youths. Then, says Mullins, the car’s two occupants attacked the youths. Immediately, a different car ar­rived from the opposite direction, and its occupants, too, ran over and began beating the group. Mullins didn’t realize the at­tackers were police—in fact she thought she was witnessing a mugging—and called 911.

One of the four, a young woman, screamed, and an officer grabbed her, an­other grabbed her boyfriend, a third grabbed Chris Karpinski, and a fourth knocked down Steve Devaney. The young woman says she and her boyfriend spotted a shield around one man’s neck, and, real­izing they were police, stopped struggling. The officers warned them away—”get outta here”—and concentrated on Karpinski and Devaney. Another witness says that after the plainclothes officers had pummeled Karpinski, they threw him on a car, and he rolled over unconscious. While his body lay on the ground, the witness says, a uni­formed cop arrived and started kicking him. They also smacked the youths with their flashlights and radios. Chris lost one tooth; two to three others were cracked, and his face was seriously lacerated above his eye. He now suffers from severe jaw problems. (His father took snapshots; the offi­cial photos, according to the family, disappeared.)

The incident set off a domino chain of litigation; ultimately, criminal charges against Karpinski were thrown out and civ­il suits on both sides dropped. As for the CCRB, it decided there was no evidence to warrant disciplining the officers. Yet, since a judge decided Karpinski hadn’t prompted the attack by assaulting cops, as police al­leged, who was responsible for his injuries seen in the photographs?

In suing the cops, the Karpinskis were hardly alone. A report by Comptroller Eliz­abeth Holtzman shows that in 1991, 659 people filed civil actions against the cops for misconduct, a 25 percent increase from four years earlier. During that time, the city paid out $44 million to victims of police brutality.

Faced now with mounting demand that something be done, the city council last Thursday began discussing a bill to grant independence to the NYPD-controlled Ci­vilian Complaint Review Board, in hopes it will more aggressively investigate police abuses. An angry Mayor Dinkins, still reel­ing from the cop “Mutiny” the day before, reasserted his strong support for Intro 549, sponsored by Ronnie Eldridge, Virginia Fields, and Victor Robles, along with 15 cosponsors, and endorsed by 17 communi­ty boards.

Although revamping the CCRB to give it real power would be a step toward restoring some public confidence, it won’t even begin to address the underlying issues. Councilmember Sal Albanese of Brooklyn who, perhaps more than any other council mem­ber, knows police issues, calls it “a red herring. It doesn’t address the real issues.” The department, he feels, must require that cops be city residents, do better training, and upgrade detection systems to get rid of bad cops early on.

“The screening mechanism is not good enough, there are some white cops who never came into contact with the minority commu­nity before enlisting,” Albanese says.

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THE BOYS DOWN AT THE PBA

Nobody is more attentive to the police bru­tality debate—and no one takes it more personally—than the PBA, which stands ready to battle any reform.

“I want to welcome you to Fort Scape­goat,” PBA president Phil Caruso told a crowd of cops demonstrating in Brooklyn against “unfair treatment of police offi­cers.” Caruso is the Mary Matalin of police reps—always on the offensive for his mem­bers. Caruso groused: “There’s a pattern emerging in this city where the police offi­cers are getting scapegoated and the crimi­nals are getting royal treatment.”

Not so, says Dan Johnston, the ex-­CCRBer. Reviewing complaints was like listening to a broken record: Time and again, police had overreacted when a citi­zen challenged their authority. Johnston re­calls: “They would allow things to escalate instead of trying to keep the peace.”

That habitual overreaction may be in part because officers are so disconnected from the city and people they guard. After the Tompkins Square melee in 1988 in which police pummeled scores, Police Commissioner Ben Ward complained that many of the demonstrators at Tompkins Square were from outside the city—but so were the police. In fact, 40 percent of NYC cops live outside the city, and many others live in “cop neighborhoods” in Staten Is­land and other outer boroughs, often with­drawing into all-cop social lives that only emphasize the “us-versus-them” mentality.

PBA spokesman Joseph Mancini dis­agrees: “Most cops still live in the city. Even those who live outside the city were born here. Once they started earning decent incomes and raising families, they decided they wanted to be in a suburban setting. It doesn’t make them less committed to the city.”

But it’s indisputable that city cops suffer culture shock when they go from their ho­mogenous communities into unfamiliar ter­ritory. Fyfe, the former NYPD officer, grew up in “lily white” Bay Ridge, then found himself plopped into downtown Brooklyn, with its heavy concentration of blacks and Latinos. Fyfe might as well have been in Kathmandu. He learned how to deal with these cultures, but too late: “For a Hispanic man, looking an authority figure in the eye is a sign of disrespect,” he says. “For an Anglo, it’s the opposite. So I’d get angry at a Puerto Rican guy who didn’t look me in the eye, and start yelling at him.” And, too often, from small misunderstandings come larger consequences.

For cops, racial and ethnic strife begin at home—right inside the precinct house. The heads of the black and Latino officers’ asso­ciations say that intolerance permeates the department. “If you expect police to be equitable with people on the street, you won’t get it until they treat their own ranks properly,” says Detective Walter Alicea, head of the Hispanic Officers Association of the NYPD.

Detective Robert Rivers Jr., president of the Guardians Association, the black offi­cers’ group, has had his own brushes with the issue, outside of work. Once when off duty, he tried to speak with a uniformed officer. “I called out and he immediately reached for his gun. What did he see? A bald-headed black man.”

Margaret Fung of the Asian American Legal Defense Fund says her group has seen a large increase in abusive cops. Language is a key difficulty—many Asian immigrants can’t understand police orders and few offi­cers speak their languages. And though Asians make up 7 percent of the city’s population, they make up less than 1 percent of the police force.

Cyril Nishimoto of Japanese American Social Services was pleased when the Mid­town South precinct invited him to come in and offer some “Sensitivity Training.” But Nishimoto says he came away feeling angry because officers ignored his presentation, actually turning their backs on him as he spoke.

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MIDTOWN: THE ITALIAN

According to the CCRB, the most common complaints—40 percent of those regis­tered—concern excessive force, with “dis­courtesy” second at 30 percent. The re­maining complaints are classified as “abuse of authority” (20 percent of grievances), and “ethnic slurs” (5 percent to 8 percent).

Depending on how you look at it, Greg­ory Garguilo drove into at least two and maybe three of these categories as he head­ed home from his job as a parking atten­dant on March 28 of this year.

It was 1 a.m and Garguilo, 28, was sitting at a light on Tenth Avenue, his car pointed north, he recalls. Another sedan, crawling along 59th Street, turned south on Tenth. Then, suddenly, it screeched a U and roared up behind the bewildered Garguilo. Mysterious men came running at his car, one with a gun drawn, yelling “get the fuck out of the car.” Garguilo recalls. The terri­fied Garguilo immediately complied. The men, who still had not identified them­selves, demanded, “Where the fuck did you steal the car?” “Asshole” and “fuck” he says, were part of every sentence. “They were very angry. I kept saying I was the owner. The one holding the gun said if I opened my mouth again he was going to bash it in.”

Garguilo says the plainclothes cops false­ly accused him of running a red light, and he mentioned so in the complaint he filed at the police station. Yet when a revised version of his report was mailed back to him, his claim had been deleted. Garguilo, a clean-cut, serious young man who drives into Manhattan every day from his home in Tappan (where many cops live), can only guess why the police even stopped him. “The cops had a hunch,” he says with a shrug, “and their adrenaline gets going.”

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SPARRING PARTNERS

When citizens complain about cops, PBA lawyers know how to counter. Legal Aid attorney Scott Ciment says when a citizen is charged with assaulting a police officer, its a good bet in many cases that police are covering up their own abuses. “Often as­sault will be the only charge,” Ciment says. “Why were they arrested in the first place? Not that many people go around assaulting cops.” Indeed, many people who have brought civil brutality suits say that when they filed a complaint, the police filed a cross suit, alleging assault. Attorneys famil­iar with such cases say the strategy is com­mon to defuse the original suit, hoping both parties will agree to drop charges.

Sometimes, cops move to protect them­selves well before anyone’s day in court. Another Legal Aid attorney, David Roun­tree, was at the Transit District 3 precinct last year, inside the subway station at 145th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, waiting for a lineup. An officer brought in a hand­cuffed suspect with a badly bloodied face. Rountree alleges that the desk sergeant, who appeared to know the suspect, re­marked to him that he “must have fallen down the stairs.” The officers present chuckled. After they’d locked him up, the arresting officer came out, and, according to Rountree, the sergeant said, “What do you think you’re doing? I don’t think we can send that guy downtown looking like that.” Then, the EMS arrived and stitched him up.

On a separate occasion, Rountree repre­sented a man who’d been arrested with one or two vials of crack and a small amount of marijuana—misdemeanors—in Times Square. At his arraignment, the man—who had no prior arrests, lived with his parents and worked in a music instrument store—sported a classic shiner. When the judge inquired where it came from, Rountree ex­plained that his client had been thrown to the ground by a rookie officer and kicked in the face with a boot. The D.A. then inter­jected, in an on-the-record comment, that he had been prepared to charge the defen­dant with a noncriminal violation, but based on these allegations of police brutal­ity, he would not make that offer.

Ciment says the D.A. will interview someone who makes allegations of police brutality, but can turn those statements against the defendant at his trial. Further­more, he says that even if defendants are acquitted, confirming that they were indeed victims of brutality, the D.A. will frequent­ly drop all interest in the brutality charge.

Most people won’t sue. If they do any­thing, they will seek redress from the CCRB. But brutality cases slip through like fine grains in a large-bore sieve. Even in the coarsest, most publicized cases, the com­plainants are rarely satisfied. For the enor­mous number of people who feel they’ve been unjustly insulted, humiliated, slurred, intimidated, terrorized, beaten, etc., the bottom line is low indeed: almost no cop is ever meted “serious justice” when citizens charge them with abuse. (The police depart­ment’s Internal Affairs Division simply doesn’t deal with most abuse situations.) “Even when officers are found guilty of using excessive force,” Newsday found in 1991, “the penalty many receive is a one­-week suspension—the same punishment given to an officer who accepts two free doughnuts from a restaurant, wears a turtle­neck while in uniform, or is discourteous to a supervisor.”

Even in well-publicized, outrageous cases like Judith Regan’s, getting justice is not easy. In 1990, Regan, a pregnant Simon & Schuster editor, told officers to stop taunt­ing her cab driver. She was yanked from the vehicle, thrown against the side, hand­cuffed and taken to a police station. There, she was held—still manacled tightly—for five hours and barraged with threats and lewd and anti-Semitic remarks. Cops asked Regan, an Irish-Italian Catholic, what her name was. “Judith,” she replied. No, said a cop, “Jew bitch.” The rough treatment threatened Regan’s pregnancy; she suffered internal bleeding.

“The CCRB, which is one of the biggest jokes in the world, cleared them of any wrongdoing,” she recalls. The D.A.’s office wasn’t much better. “They have to get along with the police. It’s all political. They issued a press release saying basically that they did not have enough evidence to pros­ecute me so they were dropping the charges, implying that I must have done something wrong. The D.A. didn’t want to help me, they wanted me to go away.”

“I was a very bad example: a mother, in a nice outfit, in a nice job. They couldn’t call me a menace, or a drug addict.” Regan says she was harassed afterwards for a long time; a retired officer even called her husband, thinking he was an ex-husband, digging for dirt.

Regan sued, and the city recently paid her a six-figure amount in settlement. How­ever, not a single officer was publicly disciplined.

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CCRB: CIVILIAN COMPLAINT REJECTION BOARD?

Judith Regan’s “joke,” the Civilian Com­plaint Review Board, is made up of six civilians appointed by the mayor, and six NYPD civilian staffers. A majority of its investigators are uniformed cops. William Kuntz, a CCRB appointed member from 1987 until he resigned five months ago, found the coziness troubling. For example, he didn’t much like the board relying on legal opinions from NYPD attorneys, or its deference to the department.

The Tompkins Square report shows the rift between civilian and police members of the CCRB. “You should have seen the Tompkins Square report before I got my hands on it,” says Kuntz, now a Wall Street lawyer. “If I and some other civilian mem­bers of the board hadn’t been as forceful in putting out that what happened in Tomp­kins Square Park was disgraceful, it would have been very different.”

The most devastating evidence of CCRB’s failure came in a 1990 report on the Tompkins Square “Incident,” issued by the New York Civil Liberties Union. NYCLU reviewed the cases of several bystanders who were shown on videotape be­ing bludgeoned by police: fewer than one dozen were charged. but not one was convicted.

Of 143 allegations of abuse and brutality in the park. CCRB substantiated 29, but was unable to identify the cops involved. One reason: the NYPD refuses to take pro­file shots of its officers. After the Tompkins Square report came out, the CCRB recom­mended that the department snap full fron­tal, left and right profile shots of all officers. The NYPD, however, rejected the advice, arguing that the shots would essen­tially treat cops like criminals. (Another proposal, that I.D. numbers be painted on riot helmets, was accepted.)

Worse, though the board recommends, the police commissioner chooses the pun­ishment. Of 143 allegations, only one offi­cer received internal discipline by the de­partment of more than 30 days suspension. To boot, on that rare occasion when the CCRB dared whimper, the cops simply ignored it: Commissioner Ward let her off with a one-year suspension, instead of fir­ing her, as the board recommended. The board’s sleuths themselves leave something to be desired when it comes to investigating their buddies’ behavior. One Legal Aid at­torney recalls an interview between CCRB investigators and her client: “They sounded more like they were grilling a suspect than taking a report.”

Johnston, a former CCRB commissioner and ex-Des Moines district attorney now in private practice in Manhattan, agrees there’s a problem: “There’s nothing about being a street police officer that qualifies anyone to be an investigator.”

Under mounting pressure, the review board has begun to make wheezy, but slightly discernible adjustments. Only two months ago did it publish a brochure in Spanish. And members are for the first time starting to emerge from their cocoon to attend community board meetings.

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LIFE IN THE BLUE BUBBLE

Nothing moves a cop into high gear like a Code 1013 call, Officer Needs Assistance. But mutual support extends to what many call the Blue Wall of Silence, the unwilling­ness to rat on a fellow officer. Some equate it to the Mafia’s omerta, a blood oath.

Based on his trial experiences, attorney Meyerson breaks the bulk of officers into three groups: Those who don’t see what they see, others who tell a half-truth, and still others who outright lie about what they see. “Any police officer’s word is no more intrinsically credible than anybody else’s word,” says Meyerson. “Police officers will lie as readily as anybody else.”

“Coupled with the 10 percent of cops [who may be regularly abusive], you have an excruciatingly difficult problem that can’t be resolved by the most progressive police commissioner,” says Meyerson.

Cops are encouraged to see themselves as different from everyone else. “Because of the aura assigned to police officers by American society, officers have trouble un­derstanding police work is a job, not a way to spend an entire life,” says Guy Seymour, chief psychologist for the city of Atlanta, which is noted for its progressive policing. Seymour, an expert on police behavior, says cops often have trouble separating the rest of their existence from their work.

”People say, ‘I’m a police officer 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,'” notes Sey­mour. “But that’s not true, it’s just that society sees them that way. If we could get police to look at their work more dispas­sionately, the way a good carpenter looks at his handiwork, I think we’d have a lot few­er problems.”

Anger and aggression, which build when cops feel they’re not accorded all the re­spect they deserve, spill over from their work to their personal lives, spawning a pattern of divorce and domestic violence.

“It comes from being accustomed to having people do what you say, and living your life so that you always want to be in control,” Seymour says.

Interestingly, much of the aggression takes place after a suspect has been sub­dued, suggesting that cops are not trained to deal with the adrenaline rush that comes from the chase. Andrew Vachss, who had broad experience with police as chief of a maximum security institution for violent youth and as a probation officer, cites the Rodney King case, in which King was im­mobilized before cops beat him. Vachss says that whenever cops have a confronta­tion involving physical injury to either par­ty, cops are always treated for ‘trauma.’ “That’s an attempt to decompress them.”

Seymour believes police need to learn how to be negotiators and mediators—the opposite of the police academy, where the emphasis is on getting and maintaining control at all costs.

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PBA: POLICE BREASTBEATERS ALLIANCE?

Besides better training, Seymour says police need closer supervision—by bosses who are not their buddies. Supervisors and line cops are both members of the PBA, which vocif­erously opposes independent controls. PBA successfully waged a fear campaign in 1966 that transformed the newly created CCRB from an all-civilian to an all-cop board. David Garth, the consultant who co-chaired the pro-civilian side, recalls the onslaught.

“We had everybody from the entire es­tablishment, but it didn’t make much dif­ference,” he says. “We got killed.”

Attorney Meyerson, who handles police abuse cases, blames outfits like the PBA, and its head, Phil Caruso, for an ostrich act that debilitates New York. “The greatest disservice Caruso does is to his member­ship, because Phil Caruso should be talking about the investment of great deals of mon­ey into psych services in this department, into new recruitment structures, into early intervention and warning systems.”

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ROLE MODELS, NOT ROBOCOP

Solutions and reforms worth trying are in no short supply. To broaden the fairly nar­row, white, working-class base of the NYPD, Adam Walinsky, who served on the state’s Commission of Investigation, pro­poses funding college educations for those willing to commit to four years service as a cop. The goal: a more representative slice of the population, including people who don’t intend to stay on the force forever, and therefore view the job differently.

Alicea of the Hispanic officers associa­tion calls for more aggressive recruitment among Hispanics from within city limits and notes that the so-called recruitment unit has just one Latino doing outreach.

Since the late ’60s, when NYPD was a leader in developing risk management and stress reduction, the city has lagged badly. It might look to Atlanta’s computerized ‘early warning’ system, which ties in dispa­rate sources of information within the po­lice department—internal affairs records, personnel information and field perfor­mance reviews—to warn of officers headed for trouble.

As for diligently tracking complaints, Johnston believes the city ought to be de­veloping a comprehensive career path for civilian investigators that would cover all city agencies, not the limited number the current Department of Investigation over­sees. And he advocates using undercover monitors to help identify abusive officers.

That’s just a slice of the advice pie. But nothing changes unless it comes from on high. “Ultimately,” says Johnston, “the question is: Do you have the right chief, the right commissioner, the right mayor? If people feel the police are out of control, they must let the mayor know that’s going to be an issue in the election.” ❖

Research: Renuka Parthasarathi 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

Wild in the Clubs: Sex Makes a Comeback

THREE YEARS AGO, the fabulous 5000 woke up to invites beckoning them to Palladium paja­ma parties (bring your own teddy bear), Area science fiction salutes, and Limelight “Down­town Divas” musical re­vues of cabaret singers and chanteuses singing songs like “Since I Fell for You” and “It’s Only Make Believe.” Today, they’re warmly in­vited to stripathons, fetish balls, “All-­Male Emporiums of Flesh and Fantasy” (with “realistic streetcorner action!”), and Lady Hennessy Brown squirting milk from her capacious ta-tas.

A slight change of mood? Tell me about it. Was it only two years ago that fools in little black dresses started lining up at Nell’s for the privilege of being snubbed by other fools in slightly more expensive little black dresses? Now the air is so charged with sexual shock that Karen Finley’s “Ooh, and I never touch her snatch ’cause she’s my granny”  — so em­barrassing to some in ’85 — is just a narra­tive slice-of-life, about as scandalous as a Shari Lewis and Lambchop routine.

All through the clubs, the air is tingling with a raunchiness that’s exciting as a subliminal force, but can turn creepy at the drop of a trou. The yearning masses who can’t have the sex they want because of AIDS come together at night and com­bust in a mood of horny suggestiveness, releasing all that frustrated energy in the ways that spring to mind through a vod­ka haze.

The club crowd — a young, creative mix of gays and straights with varying degrees of racial and cultural crossover — is start­ing to rebel against repression with little explosions of drunken, guilt-free pleasure. Compared to the wildness of past eras — ­like the revolutionary risk-taking of ’70s hedonism — the current stuff may seem tepid, since it’s usually trapped within late ’80s limitations of health and hygiene. But bubbling out from a funda­mentally traumatized club scene that as­sumed AIDS would end sex forever, it’s a rude reawakening.

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AIDS initially made all sex seem lethal, or at best joyless, and among many gays a kind of trench-warfare mentality set in­ — keep your head down till it’s over. Now that it’s been accepted that AIDS isn’t going to be over any time soon, some sort of sex is inevitably making a comeback. This comeback is fueled by the fact that a lot of straights are — not advisedly — convinced AIDS is staying within certain high-risk groups, so they can have any sex any way. With both safe and unsafe sex on the rise, ’89 promises to be the biggest year for libido in ages.

In this spirit, Rudolf’s new version of Danceteria, probably called Mars, opens this month to cater to unruly energy, and Frank Roccio’s Lift Up Your Skirt and Fly will soon surface as a nouveau plea­sure dome. “The AIDS epidemic really damaged people’s perception of not only sexuality, but sensuality,” Roccio, co­-owner of the World, told the Times re­cently, “and this will be a place where we can express that again, where you can come with your girlfriend or date or with whomever you feel safe.” The skirts are already lifted — it’s takeoff time.

Roccio talks as if AIDS were a thing of the past. But what he says reflects peo­ple’s sense — accurate or not — that the threat seems measurable now and not total. This point of view can be air-head­ed and grossly selfish (what, me worry?), but being “sex-positive” — pro-sex, as long as it’s safe — is something few AIDS activists would oppose (though they might argue with Roccio’s failure to put condom dispensers in the World’s bathrooms). As both straights and gays change their sexual attitudes, they’re fur­ther blurring the lines of gender and pref­erence: all kinds cheer for male and fe­male strippers with typical pansexuality. September’s ACT UP benefit at the World had porn star Robin Byrd present­ing semi-nudes of both sexes even though the audience was predominantly gay. Horniness is a great leveler.

It’s also a big draw. Susanne Bartsch’s Wednesday night club at Bentley’s is a tacky, ’70s disco version of a Berlin caba­ret, with acts like Lady Hennessy Brown; a troupe of obese sadomasochists; or Chi Chi, who blows smoke rings out of her vagina, titillating a crowd that’s always wearing either far too much or far too little. Larry Tee’s Celebrity Club, which took place every Wednesday at the Tun­nel and will probably resume at Mars, had a wet T-shirt contest that invariably resulted in some kind of lynch mob-style sexual assault, often provoked and en­joyed. Dean Johnson’s Rock’n’Roll Fag Bar at the World on Tuesdays not only has those BVD’d go-go boys strutting, posing, and playfully interacting onstage, there’s a new “Testosteroom” for J/O ac­tion if the boys get customers so hot and bothered they need a quick release.

Sometimes these scenes are hot and uninhibited and oh-so-playfully naïve. But there can be darker elements as well — undercurrents of rage and despair. And, whether charming or alarming, what we have here is inchoate rebellion. The return of wildness to the clubs is a reaction against repression.

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In America ’88, practically everyone to the left of Donald Trump feels a little helpless, with Bush’s election seeming to ratify the repression and malign neglect of the last eight years. Whether we drown in acid rain or shrivel under the newly cancerous rays shining through that gap­ing hole in the ozone layer, the boys at the top are too busy playing with $500 million fighter planes to pay much atten­tion to either problem. No one in charge is doing much about AIDS either, though a lot of homophobes are seizing on it as a chance to gay-bash. (Witness the rants of such disparate horse’s asses as radio “personality” Howard Stern, alleged po­litical columnist Patrick Buchanan, and supposed comedian Sam Kinison.)

Faced with the bleakness of the future, Americans seem willing to settle for tem­porary promises and inevitable long-­range dismay. Selling their tomorrows down the river translates into a subterra­nean anxiety that festers more and more scarily as each nightmare comes true. With everything going to hell, an “I’m gonna get mine while I can” mentality has come out in people — and the Repub­lican regime caters to this by promising to institutionalize selfishness, both do­mestically and internationally. In the process, they’ve institutionalized some­thing else — hypocrisy. We’ve had eight years of “Just say no” from people who don’t seem to have said no to anything in their lives (the possibility of putting Dan “Buy it for me, Daddy” Quayle in charge of the so-called war on drugs epitomized this).

It’s in the face of such hypocrisy that frustration has evolved into overt anger. A couple of enthusiastic partiers recently paid tribute to El Morocco — which is courting a younger crowd now, but is still a symbol of old society — by swinging from the chandelier and hurling a heavy, standing ashtray down the stairs. They were tossed out the door just as rudely as they’d flung the ashtray, but they’ll make it back — one of them had a burn-victim mask on and was unrecognizable. Of course, a mild trashing of El Morocco has its metaphorical possibilities — a gesture against elitism, a refusal to be wooed by tradition. But occasionally, things get a lot uglier. Unshaped by any coherent pur­pose (or, sometimes, even the most basic info), rebellion can turn into the thing it’s rebelling against.

THE SCENE NOW is one of club kids who don’t even have a “fuck the rules” men­tality — they don’t know any rules to fuck. Bursting with ignorant energy, willing to try anything in the name of a good time, they traipse around in their BVDs (the girls) or bras (the boys), squirting each other with Silly String, pathologically in search of fun. They manage to combine a youthful, energetic wholesomeness with a jaded sense of decadence, as typified by their major domo, 22-year-old Michael Alig. Alig’s birthday party last April at Tunnel featured a Mickey Mouse “moon­walk” — a giant trampoline-like air mat­tress — on which scores of kids gleefully bounced as if in Disneyland. But one of his other prize events was a Child Por­nography Ring party. He’s a walking par­adox of glad-handing hostility — giving you a big hello as part of his networking agenda, then pulling you down a stairway into a pool that just happens to be there.

Like him, the club kids are defiant, but mostly against whatever stands in the way of a fun evening or some free publici­ty. They’re also largely unconcerned with sexual definition. If many of them are gay, that’s partly for lack of the gay-disco scene young people came out into 10 years ago; today they enter the mixed world of clubs, where eccentricity is king, regardless of gender or sexual leanings. Their mentors are pleasure-seeking, mid­dle-aged entrepreneurs juggling 17-year­-old glamour-babe girlfriends and, when the kids complain about having to pay $5 to get into an AIDS benefit, ultimately deciding it’s wise to “pamper” (i.e., comp) them, because they’re just so “fabulous,” moral flaws and all.

The kids come from everywhere, from Soviet Georgia to Atlanta, Georgia, many living with their parents — or “backers,” as they like to call them — others living in apartments they pay for themselves by throwing parties for other club kids (owners pay fees of $500 to $1200 a night for this). Asked what they want to be when they grow up, they all answer, “Famous,” and they consider clubs cabaret show­cases by which to get there.

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For all the charged-up atmosphere, the kids are more likely to be narcissistic voyeurs and exhibitionists than ’60s-style orgiasts. Wearing Plexiglas hats that an­nounce their names in shiny letters, they’ve been described as being too “fab­ulous” to have sex — even if it weren’t for AIDS, there’s the equally debilitating threat that it might mess their makeup. But voyeurism isn’t messy, and so sex has become a public spectacle, self-consciously devoured by masses who are afraid to join in and not just because of stage fright. A scarce commodity, it’s gone from something people go to clubs to find to something people go to clubs to see. There’s so little sex to go around now, that whenever anyone has the nerve to have it, it makes sense to share it with hundreds.

The club scene is one of girls who­ — when they’re not wearing retro undies, garter belts, and other archaic sexwear that’s a bondage-freak’s delight — lie top­less on tables for photographer Stephan Lupino, who three years ago had to promise his firstborn to get people to strip, but now merely holds up his camera and waits for the C-cups to fly. It’s one of a 40-year-old store clerk succumbing to the club-kid spell, suddenly flouncing around VIP rooms in a Frederick’s of Hollywood G-string with an elephant trunk sprouting from the crotch. It’s one of a boy who recently ran through the World wearing next-to-nothing and screaming, “Look at me.” When a pro­moter approached him with an offer to get paddled onstage for $50, the kid jumped at the chance — a big break!

Meanwhile, the new sobriety continues to be just a hype, at least in clubland. The drug of choice is Ecstasy (MDMA), a euphoric, mild hallucinogen related to the MDA of the ’60s. “Every single person is doing Ecstasy,” says Alig, only a bit hy­perbolically. “The little kids are scraping every penny to find $20 to get it. It’s really aggravating when a club like Blood­bath has to close because all those kids are so cheap, but I see them inside buying eight hits of Ecstasy off whoever.”

The kids don’t do much coke — it’s ex­pensive, and besides, says Alig, “It brings Ecstasy down, so you want to stay away from that evil scourge.” They don’t do crack, either, Alig explains with his typi­cal elegance of thought and expression, “because it’s dirty and gross and only gross Puerto Ricans do it. It’s not fabu­lous. Ecstasy — even the name sounds fabulous. People don’t go around saying, ‘Eew, you’re an Ecstasy addict.’ ” But they do Essence, a new form of Ecstasy that costs two dollars more and is there­fore two dollars more desirable. Someone not on drugs walking into Save the Ro­bots can’t help feeling a bit like the only person not in on the punchline of a gigan­tic, communal joke.

The clubs wisely not only tolerate this sex-and-substance-charged frenzy, they throw events that cater to it. Two clubs have had Ecstasy parties recently, at one of which the kids lined up and demanded the promised goods, screaming “Ex, ex, ex!” like deranged halftime cheerleaders.

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But mostly it’s the libido being catered to with innovative eagerness. Practically every night at the World seems designed to capitalize on unfulfilled sex drives. A dirty dancing contest had a cigarette girl cavorting onstage with three boys be­tween her legs and one shamelessly work­ing the rest of her body. She won. More was being suggested here than actually happened, but occasionally real, caution-­to-the-winds sex breaks out in the middle of the scene anyway, because people real­ly are starved for it.

The club’s Lust party — a Sunday night gay fete which was only supposed to fea­ture two paid strippers posing onstage — ­turned into a wet dream come true as one stripper spontaneously started sucking the other one’s cock during a photo ses­sion in the club office. Within millisec­onds, there was a drooling audience, not to mention a Playguy magazine photogra­pher already in place with full lighting equipment. This was not going to be just a two-character production, though. A feisty, male Anita Baker lookalike promptly got naked and joined in the festivities whether they wanted him to or not, acting like a suckerfish with any­thing he could get his mouth on. A hunched-over guy near the heat of the action, meanwhile, was anxiously scruti­nizing this scene and panting with voy­euristic delight. “Get in there,” someone said jokingly, and, amazingly, he stripped down without so much as a second’s thought and did just that. From then on, you merely had to say “next” to attract a new customer and “timber” to watch an old one tumble. Overwhelmed and over­worked, the Anita Baker guy fell over and passed out, but someone threw a lame blanket over him — he may have been dead for all they knew, but hell, the show must go on.

True, it almost didn’t; it was a panicky moment when all the spontaneous com­bustion was spent and the sofa/stage emptied out, devoid of a second act. But Barnum — or at least Al Goldstein­ — would have been proud as the promoter and company coaxed a couple of pretty boy lovers standing around to start in by promising them free drinks and club star­dom. Another opening, another show.

And such performers they were! Lover one blew lover two, who hid his face with his hand, before all coyness went out the window and he started doing other things with his hand. When he came — outside his partner’s mouth — it got another hand (the crowd applauded). Anita Baker, somehow, was up and (after having apparently peed all over the lamé) getting a blow job in another corner of the room, but few noticed. All eyes were on another climax — a gay activist who was jerking off as the entire room counted down his blast-off, cheering the big moment as if it were the popping of a champagne cork on the stroke of New Year’s. “That was al­ways my fantasy,” he said, on leaving. “I have no regrets.”

Stuff like this, of course, used to hap­pen nightly in discos and in backrooms — ­darkened, pre-health-crisis clubs, where gays forged a new sexuality with commu­nal abandon. At the Mine Shaft in the ’70s, dozens gathered around the infa­mous sling to watch people get fist­fucked. In the balcony of the Saint, they push, push, pushed on the beat into ev­erything the disco song instructed them to. But except for a few hidden bastions of anonymous sex, that scene now exists only in transmogrified form in the safe sex clubs, the gay community’s conscious effort to resolve the need for sex with the need to survive. The rules at such places are the same as in the ’70s, except one­ — keep it safe.

The orgy may have broken the rules­ — whether oral sex is high- or low-risk is the subject of, well, hot debate. No one came in anyone’s mouth, and the big no-­no, unprotected anal sex, didn’t even come close to happening. But someone could probably deliver a sermon on the perils of pre-cum and gingivitis. When the rules break, it’s for any number of reasons: people are uneducated; they don’t buy the rules; they feel invulnera­ble; they feel doomed; they feel the risk is worth it; or the world is going to end anyway (the place, not the club). Ratio­nality and the pleasure principle have little to do with one another. Pushed down, tucked away, sex is popping back in brightly lit public places where it’s not supposed to be happening, out of the sheer force of inevitability; it’s Freud’s return of the repressed.

The Lust party, thrown by promoter Chip Duckett, was the second of a series of Seven Deadly Sin events (Brecht and Weill, anyone?). The series also included Gluttony, at which madcap partiers nib­bled and toyed with hundreds of obscene­ly sweet Sno-Balls, and Greed, at which a thousand dollars in singles was thrown from the balcony to a frantic crowd of money-worshippers. “You want food, sex, and money?” these parties seem to say. “Well, we’ll give them to you — but you’ve got to crawl for them.” Downtowners will eagerly do this as a spoof on Gekko-era greed — plus they need the money.

The Susanne Bartsch approach is less participatory and more esoteric — her au­dience doesn’t squirt milk, her star at­traction does — but it’s still very much a group experience, a shared exercise in pushing the limits. Instead of the straightforward musical talent of a few years ago, Bartsch is proud to present Lady Hennessy Brown with her legs wrapped behind her ears, stroking her thighs and privates with fiery torches (don’t try this at home, kids), and shoot­ing milk out of her tits at the clubbies, as if they were so many hungry kittens. (“A lot of men are offended when I squirt them in the face,” says Hennessy, “but most people love it.”)

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A trained dancer, Brown changed ca­reer course several years ago because “the nightclub crowd wasn’t receptive to the modern dancing technique. I had to make the switch to exotic.” The Bentley’s crowd is very receptive to exotic. Bartsch sets the mood with her blinding array of temporary tattoos, her Bo-Peep-gone­-berserk plethora of extensions, her mad­deningly loud whistle, and her scantily clad young boyfriend Ty Bassett, who’s the ultimate attention-getting accessory. (“When I first met him in Coney Island, I thought, ‘He’s a girl,'” she says, admit­ting she later changed her mind.)

The 37-year-old Swiss miss made the consoling leap into nightlife when she fell out with the backers of her Soho bou­tique — a marble marvel in which she showcased the work of Leigh Bowery, Bodymap, and her other favorite up-and­-coming British designers. Bartsch went from throwing Tuesdays at Savage — a retro disco, mirrored balls and all — to throwing Wednesdays at Bentley’s — a ret­ro disco with mirrored balls and a Bentley — always making a point of excess and exuberance, the opposite of the pseudo­-Victorian constipation that was threaten­ing to stifle New York nightlife. Being cool at Nell’s and M.K. had an all too literal meaning — no sex, please, we’re skittish (even on M.K.’s canopied bed). In Bartsch’s clubs, people are encouraged to scream, dance, rub each other, and make utter idiots of themselves in the pursuit of laughs. (Nell, never one to miss a trend, has lately taken to wearing Bartsch-style bodices and Voguing on tables.)

Regular folk who just happen to have an affinity for form-fitting attire, Bartsch and Bassett, like the club kids, combine wholesome warmth with sleazebag razzle­dazzle. Their employees and customers suit them well. Sequined and boa’d drag queens, oiled bodybuilders, and other col­orful, poised-on-the-brink, painted side­show escapees are the core crowd (and made for a dazzling, but totally redun­dant, Bartsch Halloween party at another sprawling disco, Emerald City). A fun-­loving bunch of young, often foreign de­signers, DJs, fashion victims, and lip-sync artists, they attract a large crowd of colorless but open-minded yups and bridge-and-tunnelers who revel in their manic style. Many of the Bentley’s core crowd are filled with anxiety about their place in the body politic, but even more don’t seem aware that there’s anything to be anxious about. The unaware ones just want to party to the max, seeing that it’s the frantic, fashionable thing to do. The others party harder with the sense that in America ’88, they’re being pushed off the map, and every moment brings them closer to the edge. But as with Bartsch, their trashiness is a surface display; in­stead of doing It, the crowd watches It, cheers It, and wears It, making themselves as sexually extreme-looking as pos­sible, either to-die-for or drop-dead ab­surd.

“I think I’m wholesome,” says Bartsch. “I just love letting go, it’s an important form of relaxation. I loved at the Copa [where Bartsch throws last-Thursday-of-­every-month parties] when Anthony Haden-Guest was go-go dancing forever on the go-go box, and Richard Johnson was dancing all night — he told me he hadn’t danced for 20 years. They let their hair down, and I’m so happy that I’m the place where they can do that.” She’s brought stripping to her clubs, she says, because, “I go to the Gaiety sometimes, and it’s so sleazy — you have to watch some old wanker jerk off, and it’s such a shame. It’s good to take sex out of the sleazy surroundings and put it in a trendy place where it’s also about watching bod­ies, but not for you to have a wank. Of course watching has become more impor­tant because doing has to be much more thought-out now. But that’s not the rea­son I brought stripping. I did it because some of these strippers are just so genius. I admire their courage to take off their clothes and say, ‘Look at my gorgeous cock, or ass.’ It’s an art form.”

Hennessy herself is, for all her shock value, supremely wholesome, the very im­age of nourishment. She told me she couldn’t show her mother my column de­scribing her act because the word dick was in another paragraph. The woman­ — a six-foot-one black Amazon goddess — is an endless fount. “I’ve lactated for 19 years,” she claims. “My well never dries up. It diminishes sometimes — like I’m not going to have a full supply to squirt tonight because I’ve been doing doubles [playing two clubs a night]. But I’ve just continued to flow all these years.” The mini-interview comes to an end when Hennessy asks, “Is there pay in this?” “No,” I say, “but it’s a big story.” “It would be even bigger if there was pay in it,” she seethes.

While Bartsch is play-acting as a dress-­up-and-explode club kid, the other sex-­cabaret ringmaster, Alig, is the real deal. Bartsch, for all her surface wildness, is a diplomatic businesswoman who frets whenever she thinks she may have acci­dentally hurt someone’s feelings. But Alig and the kids would be mad if they didn’t offend someone. They bring to the sur­face everything Bartsch is too good-na­tured to acknowledge — anxiety, fear, and hostility. Self-conscious, alienated voy­eurs, their constant freaking-out state cancels out any possible innocence. Let’s face it: with an unsafe-sex guillotine hanging over your head at all times, truly instinctive or childlike behavior isn’t a possibility, no matter how young you are. Sexual repression has fast-forwarded the club kids into adulthood, and they’ve re­sponded by turning it into a three-ring circus of escapist sexual entertainment.

Alig, who got his club start stripping for dollars and went on to throw Dirty Mouth contests, where the filthiest talk­ers won cash prizes, looks fondly back on that Child Pornography Ring party at the old Danceteria (he plans to recreate it at the new one, where he’ll be assistant di­rector). “You’ve seen them around, now you can buy them real cheap,” read the invite, which featured Alig tied up with five kids. “Yes, folks, where else but New York City can you place a price-tag on human beings? These fine, healthy, YOUNG souls will be auctioned off to the highest bidder to do with as you please.” At the party, people were able to buy dates with 16-year-olds with play money, the kids getting $50 from Alig to go through with the dates. “There was noth­ing illegal about it,” he says. “I was pay­ing the kids to go out with somebody else — that’s not prostitution. Of course I got paid by the club for throwing the event.” Alig is a master exploiter, but no more so than Ronald Reagan, whose ad­ministration relentlessly whittled away at various forms of aid to dependent chil­dren (there haven’t been so many home­less kids since the Depression), while cranking up public hysteria over their sexual exploitation. Alig, in his own jaded way, is trying to make fun of hypocrisy rule while desperately trying just to make fun.

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He was also one of the people behind Celebrity Club, which almost always went out of control, to the delight of many. The feeling in the air was always of a bored restlessness that the crowd would take to any extreme for some kicks. One night, Eve Teitelbaum, a poet, asked if she could just step across the stage for a second. They were the sorriest words she’d ever said, as the heat of the mo­ment sparked a pointless cat fight with the emcee, which turned even nastier as Teitelbaum was thrown to her knees and people flung shoes and other sharp things at her while Alig doused her with water. “She deserved it” was the popular consensus as Teitelbaum ran, sobbing, out of the club. “I can’t believe something like this would happen in the civilized world,” she said later, still burned.

The ugliest Celebrity Club came one night during the proverbial wet T-shirt contest — the peak of the evening, during which practically everyone seems willing to show his or her privates at the drop of a fly, and all the energy combust into a big boom. This time, a girl went from being pleasantly exhibitionistic to almost mass-violated. On the sweltering stage, in the glare of disco lights and hundreds of eyes, she started dancing and shimmying to the repetitive throb of house music, encouraged by the salivating crowd. “She was some dumb Jersey girl,” says Alig, “in tapered jeans with feathered, gross, brown hair. She got up onstage and people got carried away — she got carried away, literally. A lot of guys were grabbing at her until it wasn’t fun for her anymore. She started to say, ‘No, no, no’ over and over again. Of course that’s when everybody got interested and joined in. A few guys tried to fuck her in front of everybody. That’s when her boyfriend grabbed her and took her up the stairs naked.” This scene — like something out of The Accused — happened without any supervisor to put up even a feeble “No.” What about Alig? “I watched in horror,” he says. “I ran to get the security guards.” He’s joking. “Actually, I probably helped — not rape her, but push people away so they could get to her.”

On another night, Alig presented a T-­shirt winner with a bottle of cham­pagne — actually someone’s piss (he says it came from the drag duo Fashion Patrol; they say it was his) mixed with soda water for fizz. On yet another dazzling evening, one of the Fashion Patrol laid out a cat food buffet spread that everyone there assumed was paté, because, “There are a lot of illiterate people who will take for granted that they know what they’re eating.” This is the same pair that sang “Teenage Enema Nurse” and enacted the birthing process for their pre-Labor Day party. They’re also known for regularly mock-penetrating themselves with blunt objects, and recently caused quite a scene when they stole a bassinet with a type­writer in it from a street vendor, who ran after them with a chain screaming, “I’m going to get you fuckers.” In an upcoming movie called Strung City, one of them­ — Brandywine — gets chased by an old man wielding a huge wax dildo. “You have to create your own excitement,” explains Brenda A-Go-Go, the other one. “Club-­goers are coming there for a show anyway. I wouldn’t want to go somewhere and not see some sort of decadence — it helps the night go by.”

AMAZINGLY, and not a moment too soon, the clubbies are developing some sense of outrage, if not exactly what you could call a social conscience. What it is, in a historical sense, is nihilism. An edi­torial in the new issue of Project X, a club handout, reflects a kind of hyperreal paranoia that’s both mocking and grimly sincere. Politically, if not grammatically, correct, it laments that “Everything will move backwards very fast from now on, and you, wether you think it’s cool or not, you are going to be envolved.” The edito­rial notes that in the future, “Secret po­licemen, Undercover Agents, CIA min­ions and Neo-Guardian Angels may forcefully O-D undesirable people to in­crease drug-hysteria in the american press.”

Another editorial, by Alig, urges the kids to fight for their right to party and be different. To him, the fight is another act of spitting in the face of authority, done because it’ll help keep the party going. Alig was in the mass of people trying to break down the Christodora Building entrance during the Tompkins Square Park fracas last summer. But though he admits “it was a fun scene,” that’s not the only reason he got in­volved. “I’m all for the freaks,” he ex­plains. “I didn’t like the idea that the rich people were moving in and making the freaks leave. Those are the people who go to my clubs.”

Alig smirks that he wants to throw events at the new Danceteria where he’ll show partiers films of the police harass­ing gays and other minorities, “and then set them free in the streets to do vio­lence.” Though he once threw a party to which only HIV-negative people were in­vited (just his little joke, ha-ha), Alig has recently made noises in the direction of gay activism. It seems he was verbally abused by homophobic cops at a Tunnel raid, an event that startled him into an apotheosis he related to two daily papers.

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“People are so blasé and lazy,” he whines. “They don’t want to go out and pillage and burn police cars anymore.” Nostalgia for a more political time — or just for bigger and better thrills? Can the club kids tell the difference? Only know­ing the new craziness, they imagine that it was even wilder in the past. “That went on at Studio 54, didn’t it?” says Alig, meaning constant stripping and groping. No, dear, it didn’t. The ’70s sensuality was much more affluent and ap­proved, more of an anything-goes-be­cause-it-can than because-it-can’t. People didn’t wear underwear at all then; it just got in the way of the fun. Parts of the decor dropped hydraulically around them; they didn’t have to throw them down stairs. The only milk squirted was into a glass of Kahlua. The champagne was actually champagne.

In the last years of the Weimar Repub­lic, as the Nazis rose to power and a sense of panic and doom spread through the ranks of the socially marginal, a frenzied, anxious hedonism took over as well. To­day, society has its disposables, too, the multiracial, multisexual nonrich, who have no choice but to alternately fight for their lives and to go wild, to party out of control in a pressure cooker of fear and hostility. This mood is being nicely helped along by hate-mongers like Kini­son, who’s not all that different from Joel Grey dancing with the girl in the gorilla suit (yes, I studied at the Liza Minnelli school of German history).

The late-Weimar comparison may be stretching it — among other things, our economic mess is quite different from theirs — but closet alarmists like me are finding it hard to resist some parallels: a deceptive prosperity based on foreign funds; the rise of repression and censor­ship; the proliferation of teen suicides; the ostentatious flaunting of wealth by a handful of people as large numbers spiral toward poverty; the persecution of cer­tain minorities, who take the blame for all sorts of social woes. According to Pe­ter Gay’s Weimar Culture: The Outsider As Insider, the republic was also charac­terized by

excitement, in part from exuberant cre­ativity and experimentation, but much of it was anxiety, fear, a rising sense of doom … It was a precarious glory, a dance on the edge of a volcano. Weimar culture was the creation of outsiders, pro­pelled by history into the inside for a short, dizzying, fragile moment. 

Categories
CRIME ARCHIVES From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

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.” ❖

Categories
FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Oh God, It’s Christmas: Yule Laugh, Yule Cry

A White Christmas
BY FRANK OWEN

It was a Christmas that only Sid and Nancy could have loved. Two newlyweds — one a British music critic, the other an aspiring model from Detroit — were shacked up in a former welfare hotel indulging a bohemian fantasy of Yuletide spent without any of the traditional trappings (families, gifts, religion), but with plenty of drugs.

The year was 1988. The place was Hotel 17, the Stuyvesant Square boardinghouse for trendy transients. Around the turn of the cen­tury, when the place was originally built as a res­idence for a few wealthy families, Christmas must have been celebrated on a grand scale here. Our Christmas, however, was a far more inti­mate occasion, observed in one dingy, cell-like room lined with designer clothes and books of obscure French theory.

The word room hardly does justice to the eight-by-10 stained brown box we were paying $30 a night for. In keeping with the tan color scheme, the taps coughed up diarrhea-colored water. The whitest thing in the room, including the sheets on the bed, was the neat pile of crys­talline powder glinting on the beat-up dresser. That, and the waxy squares of paper that lay crumpled on the threadbare carpet.

We’d been up for three days taking cocaine and crystal meth, grinding our teeth and talking shit about the true meaning of the season. In our deluded euphoric state, we decided that festive excess was what it was all about. Christmas is an opportunity for the casual drug-user, a time when the discipline of work and the normal restrictions on hedonistic behavior are relaxed. So it was easy to convince ourselves that staying up all night dancing and drugging was more in tune with the pagan roots of Christmas than the homogenized and domesticated rituals taking place in the world around us.

Personally, I loathe family Christmases, so I was, initially at least, more than happy to spend the holiday season snorting my brains out. But as as the drug supply began to run low, an edgy gloom set in, a mood amplified by the melancholic sounds of an old man muttering to himself in the hallway, a leftover from the day before the influx of drag queens and club brats, when Hotel 17 was a place where the elderly, the ill, and the drug-addicted came to die.

1995 collection of Village Voice memoirs by various authors

Like latter-day postmodern Scrooges, my wife and I thought we were immune to the re­lentless commercial propaganda of the season. Who did we think we were kidding? The reli­gious significance of Christmas may be often ob­scured by the gaudy displays of advertisers and shopkeepers, but as a holiday it retains a tremendous power to evoke communal and family feel­ing. It’s a spirit that can rarely be ignored with­out emotional cost, as we began to find out.

It was Christmas day. For the first time in my life, I was feeling homesick. There was no telephone in the room, so neither my wife nor I could call our parents. There was no television set, so we couldn’t watch It’s a Wonderful Life to get us in the requisite mood. We finally decided to venture out into the stinging cold to try and forage for a turkey dinner. All we could find open was a Korean deli with a salad bar, so our Christmas repast that year consisted not of roast beast with all the trimmings, but of a wilted col­lection of freezing vegetables. We weren’t that hungry anyway.

By now it was evening, time to get dressed, take more drugs, and make the nocturnal rounds. The supply of cocaine seemed unlimited that season. Speeding us across town to a friend’s loft, even the taxi driver offered us a hit. Once at our friend’s apartment, we played with his kids under the Christmas tree, then retired to a side room to do yet more lines. Then it was off to the clubs; every time we walked through a new door, someone would whisk us off to the bathroom.

“Next year, we’re gonna have a giving Christmas, not a taking Christmas,” my wife in­formed me before we finally fell asleep that night, our nostrils encrusted with powdery sed­iment. There was no need to elaborate. After all, there are only so many white Christmases a marriage can take.

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Open Season
BY ANN POWERS

Whatever sentimental phrase signals authentic Christmasness to you­ — sleigh bells jinglin’, angels heard on high, Jack Frost roasting on an open fire — in the down-and-dirty business of consumerism the only one that matters is the one reading OPEN LATE. And for procrastinators, even brighter is the rare sign that flashes OPEN 365 DAYS A YEAR. The record store where I worked a dozen years ago considered that sign a talisman and a creed. And so, while most people stuffed their faces and watched Rudolph or the 49ers, we per­formed the act of charity that meant the most to the late-running and the lonely. We cranked up the cash register and sold.

Working on Christmas may seem like a nightmare of Dickensian proportions, but the employees of Sell-More Discs actually competed for yule shifts. Record retail de­mands more love than ambi­tion — at just over minimum wage, few of us had savings accounts or truly habitable apartments. But we got to spend all day and night neck­ deep in the records we loved more than money, more than status, more than anything. On my crew, there was Terry, a hip­pie-maned-jazzboe who drove a hack for extra cash and ate macrobiotic; Korean Rastaman Lester; Southern gentleman-goth, Charles; Max, an avant-garde axman who actually had record bins set up in his house; punk speed-freak lovebirds Timmy and Corrine; folkie­-turned-performance artist Jade, a Wyoming transplant living in her van; and my best buddy, Penelope, a Roxy Music fanatic versatile enough to attend the symphony with one coworker and a Run-D.M.C. show with another. Me, I was a new-wave kid studying poetry and the blues, swiping all the records the simpatico security guard would allow, learning fast.

We were freaks; by choice or destiny, no one really knew. But what else are freaks going to do on Christmas but hang out at the shrine to all that makes them freaky? Many of us either had no parent figures or weren’t currently phon­ing home, so we volunteered for double shifts to earn triple overtime, and broke out the brandy and eggnog under the counter. But it was Bill, our night manager, who engineered the Sell-More Discs freak feast.

Bill and his brother Theo were Guamanian muscle-guys loyal to the company but in love with the employees. For the yule, Bill and Theo or­ganized a potluck, but this wasn’t just your usu­al banana bread-and-pretzels affair: Max made a vat of German potato salad, Lester cooked up some Caribbean bean stew, Terry provided soy cheesecake, and Pen baked a raisin-apple pie just like her mom always did. Even the speed kids managed to buy an Entenmenn’s pie. Best of all, Bill and Theo, generous and subversive to the end, set up a barbecue right by the back vent and smoked a  whole salmon, island-style.

We chowed between cash register shifts and blasted A Reggae Christmas as stragglers and lonely hearts wandered the store’s aisles. Some­body put up a poster of Wham! and started a darts game. A friend or two from outside dropped by for a glass of cheer and a shopping spree, receiving an extra-special holiday discount our bosses would never know about. And as always the local TV news crews showed up with their cameras and their question so off-the­-mark. “Isn’t it awful to work on Christmas?” the perky reporter said, scrunching his nose as we frantically hid our bottle of champagne behind the Yanni tapes. We made some joke or nasty comment — “well, you’re doing it, aren’t you?” — ­and got rid of them so we could get back to our party. It would have been too hard to explain what we knew: Ours was a family by choice, each member a misfit struggling to build some kinship that felt not just comfortable, but real. Sell-More Discs had given us a chance to do that. The truth was, we weren’t working this Christ­mas. We were spending the day at home.

Some of the names in this article have been changed.

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Black Santa
BY KWELI I. WRIGHT

My brother and I knew from whence our dirt bikes, Christie dolls (black Barbies), Star Wars action figures, and Easy Bake Ovens came. From our parents, of course. After all, didn’t we give them carefully prepared Christmas lists, show them the pictures of the toys in the Toys “R” Us catalog? Couldn’t we see the rolls of wrapping paper hidden (not very well) in the closet?

Our parents liked ro keep it real. “Me and Daddy buy the toys, Santa just delivers them,” is how Mom explained the whole Saint Nick phenomenon. In 1979, while feeling the spirit a little more than usual, she decided to take our celebration to another level: she would hire a Santa to come to our building, ride up the ele­vator, and march straight to our apartment with a delivery of gifts. She found a Santa through a newspaper ad, and then she gave us details. He would come around 11 p.m. Christmas Eve and stay for dessert, so we might want to rest up. If I remember correctly, the whole deal with San­ta visiting is that you don’t see him, but that was beside the point to her: he was already paid. My brother Kareem and I had no questions or reser­vations about the fantasy-reality mix. We weren’t about to miss this.

So we left a glass of milk and a chunk of Entemann’s chocolate cake on the dining room table and waited at the top of the stairs for Santa to push through the unlocked door. As we crept down the steps we heard him frantically unpacking, knocking collectibles off the coffee table. Then we saw him.

This wasn’t any Santa — this Santa was as black and beautiful as my grandpa, only taller and younger. Back then I was eight, and I didn’t realize how important it was for me to see a black Santa. The thought never crossed my mind that this was probably the last one I’d see. It was my parents’ idea that Santa can be claimed by peo­ple of any color — black, white, Hispanic, Asian — because what he really represents is an extension of your family. She told me the other day that her goal was not to prove there was one real Santa, but to make sure we knew this gift-­giving guy belonged in our home.

When he heard two kids approaching, our guest freaked and ran to hide in the bedroom, emerging only after Kareem and I assured him that he was expected. We sat on the living-room floor with our legs crossed, grinning from ear to ear as our very own black Santa chuckled “Ho, ho, ho!” and laid exactly the presents we’d asked for under the tree.

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A Kwanzaa Carol
BY EVETTE PORTER

“I’m celebrating Kwanzaa this year,” my I nephew announced, a bit self-satisfied, when I asked him a few weeks ago what he wanted for Christmas. I assumed it was just another phase he was going through, like the time I want­ed to be called Balaniké, refusing to answer to anything else. My nephew, Daevon, is seven, and the oldest of my brother’s three children. And in years past, he’s enjoyed the kind of Christmas largesse that comes with being the first and, un­til recently, only child in the family. So for him to disavow Christmas would be a big deal.

“So, does that mean you don’t want any­thing for Christmas?” I asked, hoping I might be off the hook for gifts this year. “No! What are you, crazy?!” (Kids always speak in exclama­tions.) “Well, exactly what are you celebrating, Christmas or Kwanzaa?” I said, trying to force the issue. “Both, of course.”

Of course.

I grew up in the ’60s, before Kwanzaa’s sudden emergence as a major black holiday­ — now more popular than Juneteenth or Black History Month. Beginning the day after Christ­mas, Kwanzaa is a week-long celebration of fam­ily and spirituality. It’s thriving for the same rea­son black parents look for books with black faces or buy Shani dolls — it’s something they can use to build a “positive self-image” for their kids. Given the scarcity of black Santas, Kwanzaa makes the holiday season a bit more culturally correct. To me, the “tradition” sometimes seem a bit forced — but to Daevon, it’s clearly an ex­citing, if confusing, part of a burgeoning cultural identity. “So how do you celebrate Kwanzaa?” “On each day [sigh], you do different things with your family. But you have to read from the Kwanzaa book.”

“The Kwanzaa book?”

“Yeah, the Kwanzaa book. Everyone has the same words.”

“You read something out of a book?”

“No! You read from the book and then you do something with your family. But you don’t have to do exactly what’s in the book.”

“Okay.”

“Well, hmmmm … Aunt Muffy, could you hold on just one second?”

There’s a long pause.

At this point, I’m not so sure Daevon really understands what Kwanzaa is all about. He hasn’t mentioned the traditional candle-lighting ceremony or the seven principles (nguzo saba) of Kwanzaa — unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.

“I’m back. I was looking for my Kwanzaa book.”

“Tell me what you do each day to celebrate Kwanzaa.”

“Every day you and your family do some­thing together [another sigh]. Like on one of the days, all the money you save up … no, uh. One of the days, right, you make like a little piggy bank?’

“Uh-huh.”

“And you save up money, and put it in that bank. And then, and then the next coming Kwanzaa, that’s when you buy something BIG, for saving up all that money.”

“Okay, so the money you save up, do you buy something the next day or do you buy something the next year?”

“You buy something whenever you have enough money to buy something big.”

“Do you still celebrate Christmas?”

“Yes, you can still celebrate Christmas. But on the seventh day of Kwanzaa, that’s when you’re supposed to open all your gifts. The next Monday [a week from Christmas].”

“Are you having a Christmas play at school.”

“Yeah, I’m in it. It’s all the second graders.”

“And what are you doing in it?”

“Oh, I’m singing a song. It’s not like a play, it’s a presentation. Every second-grade class is singing a song, one song. Like ‘Little Drummer Boy,’ ‘Must See Santa,’ and ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas.’ We’re doing songs like that. And there is a Kwanzaa song.”

“What’s the Kwanzaa song?”

“l really don’t know all the words. Hold on, I have to think this through.” (Barely audi­ble mumbling as my nephew tries to remember the verse.)

“While you’re thinking, tell me what you want for Christmas, I mean Kwanzaa.”

“Oh, I know some of the words — ‘Children learn their history.’ ”

“Children learn their history?”

“Huh-huh. Yeah. I know half of the song.”

“Do you know when Kwanzaa began? Where it came from?”

“It came from Africa.”

“No, it didn’t. In 1966, a guy named Ron Karenga, a black man, decided to create a holiday that was more nationalistic, more Afrocentric. But it’s based on African traditions. There’s a harvest celebration in Africa that’s similar to it, but it’s not the same thing. It actually began here in the U.S. Did you know that?”

“No. I did not know that.”

Well, I’ve done my bit for black history.

“Do you want different gifts for Kwanzaa than you want for Christmas?”

“Yeah, totally different.”

“What do you want for Kwanzaa?”

“Like African American things.”

“What?”

“I don’t know … like scarves that have …”

“Kente cloth?”

“Yeah, and, like, stuff that has the colors of Kwanzaa and other colors. And in the middle of it, it has ’95. That’s the year I got it.”

“If ’95 is in the middle, what’s going to be on the outside?

“Around 1995, I want the border to be red, black, and green.”

“Okay.”

“I think that’s it for Kwanzaa.”

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The Worst Noel
BY ELIZABETH ZIMMER

“Bubbe-meises,” my New York Jewish mother snapped whenever the subject of Christmas came up. Lies and superstitions, all of it: the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Birth. A lot of nonsense. She’d get cross and impatient. We never had trees; we exchanged modest gifts at Hanukkah; when we got older there were no gifts at all, just her gen­erous check “for your birthday, really,” which followed in January.

Then a guy proposed to me; a sculptor, sweet and shy, a lapsed Lutheran from the out­skirts of Buffalo whose terrific homemaker mom announced, when she first met me, that her best friends were Jewish. It was 1969, and the no­tion of getting married seemed as bizarre as everything else in the zeitgeist, but at the same time made sense; we’d create a safe haven for each other amid the prevailing sexual and political chaos. I became a legal member of his Chris­tian family (albeit in a Jewish ceremony). Dodg­ing his draft board, we’d emigrated to Nova Scotia, miles from everyone we knew, to teach at an art college in an officially Christian country. I embraced Christmas as impetuously as I’d entered marriage. That year, I participated enthusiastically, readying the tree in the picture win­dow, crafting elaborate ornaments and baking spicy German cookies like his mother’s. Hand­ made presents winged toward us; we scrambled to reciprocate on our entry-level paychecks. He made oyster stew on Christmas Eve, as his clan had always done; we spent the holidays cook­ing and welcoming new acquaintances.

1995 collection of Village Voice memoirs by various authors

By the next Christmas we knew he was about to lose his job, but we kept shopping, cooking, entertaining. The Christmas after that, he was unemployed. The one after that, he was, I guess you’d say, self-employed, experimenting in our cellar with prototypes of furniture he hoped to manufacture and sell, filling the air with chem­ical smells and the sound of a ripsaw. I was earn­ing all our money, still cobbling together cele­brations, frightened and anxious and tired.

Something had to change. Never marry anybody you wouldn’t hire, I found myself mut­tering under my breath. The next Christmas we got a tree, but all I felt like hanging on it was food: popcorn, cookies, foil-wrapped chocolates on golden strings from the vast sweets empori­um down the road. That year he gave me a steam iron and a pair of ice skates. I don’t remember what I gave him. But on Boxing Day I began eat­ing the ornaments, one Santa after another, until the boughs were bare. Then I started packing. I walked the mile to work every morning, took a dance class every night. Three months later I quit my job and moved across the country, alone.

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Holiday on Ice Cream
BY MICHAEL MUSTO

I’m probably the only nondysfunctional Christmas guy in the entire metropolitan area. Home for the holidays to my parents’ kitsch-laden house in Bensonhurst, I return to the awe-inspiring decor that, in its own magi­cally garish way, spells love. Crocheted flowers, stickpin owls, and dolls of many nations blind­ingly adorn the joint, and most eye-catchingly of all, half the fridge door is done as a homage to Jesus Christ, while the other half is covered with pictures of my parents’ other idol, me (their on­ly child, after all). Everything’s equal here — not only am I aligned with the Christ figure, but beautiful clocks equal 99-Cent Store Pierrot heads — and the Christmassy doodads add even more festive layers that further steamroll every­thing to the same lovely level.

But the real celebration is in the food; to quote the well-spoken duck in Babe, Christmas means carnage. A gigantic lasagna or baked ziti could easily serve as the main course in any other home in the world, but in this place it’s a mere hint of a shred of an appetizer. It’s followed by voluminous amounts of meatballs, sausages, and other gravy meats, all covered with blizzards of parmesan cheese and tomato sauce. Then, if you’re still alive, come the entrées: wildly delicious chicken and ham dishes, plus an array of sides — namely sal­ads, candied yams, mushrooms, and a quiche made with artichoke hearts. Just when you’re sure your stomach is about to blow apart, out come the insanely large tubs of sherbet and ice cream, plus the donuts, pastries, cakes, and pies, with Reddi Wip, Cool Whip, and La Creme standing by for good measure. Say no to any of this and you’re driving a knife through my mother’s heart. These loving if artery-clogging offerings say she cares. To accept them means you care back.

The mood is generally warm, the company familiar. But some­how, amid the threat of all that happiness and satiation, semidysfunctions do tend to crop up. In this setting, my attempts at dark humor — so delightful elsewhere — can be misinterpreted as cruel; other family members’ politically incorrect comments drive my friends into the bathroom crying (there, they can enjoy mom’s doll-shaped toilet paper coverings); and, as everyone jockeys for attention, merriment sometimes leads, at the drop of a meatball, to hurt feelings, none of them directed by Jodie Foster. But in the wake of all this, mom has the best response of all: “Come on, have some more ice cream!”

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Manger? Mangia!
BY FRANK RUSCITTI

My family is extremely Italian. You want proof? We come from a small town called Cansano in the mountain ranges of Abruzzi that had one road in and one road out. We immigrated to the States in 1955 (making the front page of Il Progresso in a “just off the boat” photo) and settled on that most Brooklyn of all Brooklyn street corners, 33rd and Third. We got guys named Mario and Antonio in our family, but thank heaven no one wears gold chains. Like all good Italians (southern Italy, at least; anything north of Milan is Ger­many anyway), we celebrate every Christmas Eve with the biggest seafood dinner this side of Jesus and that loaves-of-bread episode. The funny thing is most Italians don’t know why we party this way; phone calls to organizations such as the Italian Cultural Institute and the Italian Heritage and Cultural Commission were met with the verbal equivalent of shrugged shoul­ders. Words like history and tradition are thrown around, but the only fact that seems to count is that a minimum of dishes must be served (ac­cording to one coworker nine, my sister eight, my mother 12). No one seems to know why we do what we do every year without fail.

But ours is not to question why, ours is just to eat, eat, eat. Not, however, until everyone is ready. My sisters bring out plate after heaping plate, only to yell, “GET YOUR HANDS OFF OF THAT!” with all the love they can muster if anyone moves too soon. It’s friggin’ torture. Picture Red Lobster, except the fish is real and cooked by humans. Homemade pasta with calamari. Baked clams. Salmon steaks. Breaded scallops. Octopus salad. Baccala. Stuffed squid. Shrimp scampi. Shrimp cocktails. And that’s just for starters.

More than once, I’ve fasted before the feast, making penance for my sins and drooling thanks while fantasizing about the greatest meal of the year. Talk about tripping! Some years were classics, like the one when 11 main courses were served (the record!), or the one when we were invaded by non-English speaking Danish students. Everyone is welcome at the table as long as they can endure my family’s penchant for demanding they sing Christmas carols for their supper; even faked lyrics bring a loud roar of approval. It’s an offer guests can’t refuse, because even the feeblest attempt brings a non-stop embarrassment of riches in the form of lobster, breaded shrimp, mussels, seared tuna, raw clams, and more. Christmas day is almost an afterthought, because year after year Christmas Eve kicks its butt hands down.

Recently, a faction of American-born offspring has started a separate “kids’ meal.” A pasta with meatballs dish is served to children who won’t eat fish. Of course, certain family members (including me) grumble that if they aren’ going to eat seafood they should starve. Why? It’s tradition!

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God Bless Us, Every One
BY MARIAH CORRIGAN

It was Christmas 1974 at the Immaculate Conception Children’s Home, and Suprima, Ineeda, and I had already planned all the things we were going to make in our Easy Bake Ovens. We were nine, and the nine-year-old girls always got ovens; it was a tradition. How else would we learn to cook? Certainly not from Sister Mary (their middle names were always Mary) Bougofawa, the home’s head cook, who didn’t make anything if it wasn’t white and boiled beyond recognition. The ovens were handed out at the home’s yearly holiday extravaganza. That day, we set our hair, dug out our good dresses and church shoes, and filed down to the gym in anticipation of an unrecognizable dinner and Christmas presents.

But this year things just didn’t look right. The tree wasn’t as large as I’d remembered it; the head table, reserved for the community sponsors of this shindig, was nearly empty. Where was Mr. Harold? He was town supervi­sor and always the Christmas party organizer. And what about his good friend Mr. Vinny? He took care of all the construction needs around the Children’s Home for free, and in return thee older boys went to work for him. The nuns tried to be tight-lipped about it; only after a good bit of badgering did Sister Mary Josephine (whom I’d recently witnessed executing karate moves on a wayward boy) offer that Mr. Harold was in jail. I don’t remember exactly what for, bribery or embezzlement, but it must have had something to do with Mr. Vinny, because he seemed to be making himself pretty scarce, too.

Everything seemed dimmer. Even the local football ream, whose B-string usually put in a two-minute appearance to have their pictures taken with us orphan children, barely stayed one minute, and in the time it took me to run down the hall to go to the bathroom, they’d all been and gone, leaving behind some sort of apolo­getic team manager. (We once met O.J., but we had to be bused to a location more convenient for him — an awards dinner where we were trot­ted out for a group photo with the man himself. Later, we were each awarded a tiny plastic auto­graphed football for our well-behaved perfor­mance as the grateful needy.)

But the worst was yet to come. The party ended, and we were commanded to say our thank yous, gather up our gifts, and, in an or­derly line, follow the nun in charge of our re­spective groups back to our playrooms. Ineeda and I were already suspicious. All our boxes seemed small — hell, all mine seemed to be the same size. Could they possibly contain an Easy Bake Oven? Maybe they packed it in parts­— how ingenious and surprising! We sat on the in­door/outdoor carpet, our presents arrayed in front of us, waiting impatiently for Sister Mary Luciose to give us the go-ahead. She counted: five, four, three, two, one … We went mad. When all the wrapping was cleared away, I had two crib toys, recommended for children ages 0-3, and seven identical boxes of Shrinky Dink Make-it-Yourself Christmas ornaments, which, to my horror, I needed an oven to make.

As I turned in dismay to Sister Mary Lu­ciose, I saw her wrinkly 60-year-old face flush. Her eyes began to bulge from behind her brown cat-eyed glasses. Uh-oh. I thought her head might explode — I thought she would lose that veil, so I would know once and for all if that shock of hair on her forehead was indeed the imitation hairpiece I had once wagered it was. Sister Mary launched into a lecture on material­ism and the beast it would turn me into, how I would never get to heaven with that attitude, missy. She feared for my soul. I didn’t care. Even as she marched me off for the special emergency confession she had arranged with Father Walter the next morning, all I could think about was … I want an Easy Bake Oven, goddammit.

I wasn’t really an orphan — I had a mother, though she had shed her worldly trappings to live as a hermit in the Genesee River Valley. And I had a father. When he arrived to collect me for my allotted holiday visit on Christmas Eve (appar­ently having passed the Breathalyzer test Sister Mary Rosanne reserved specially for him) I was still hellbent on some decent presents. I had no illusions about who Santa was. As he deposited me with my two retired, never-married school­teacher aunts, I dispatched my guilt-ridden fa­ther to the mall to retrieve an Easy Bake Oven.

As the evening wore on, I began to fear that perhaps he couldn’t find me anything. The aunts were dazed and unsure of what to do with me. My yammering about the Easy Bake Oven sent one aunt running to the kitchen for a bourbon straight up, while the other slipped in and out of the living room to refill her glass with an amber liquid she said was apple cider, but which my watchful eyes knew was beer. When I quieted down, the aunts whispered to each other that he’d probably gone oven shopping at Jo-J’s Bar & Grill. I occupied myself with reruns of Hawaii Five-O and slowly began to surrender my dreams of being a chef I was ready for bed when I heard his familiar staggering steps on the front porch. Aunt Jean flipped on the porch light, and there was Dad — squinting and disheveled in the sud­den illumination, but holding a box. I could tell instantly what the abused wrapping concealed, because I knew the shape by heart — here, at last, was my Easy Bake Oven.

Some of the names in this article have been changed.

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Bah Humdrum
BY COREY SABOURIN

This is going to be a shitty Christmas. John is going upstate. Ditto David. Ditto Bob.

Darrin’s found a lover. Lucky him. They’ll want privacy as they model their new His & His flannel robes.

Devra … Michigan. Jeff … Fresno. Blaine? Maybe — or no, isn’t he going to India?

My roommate is working coatcheck again, regrets, though it will be fun opening gifts at 5 a.m.

Out of everyone, I’ll be missing Liz the most. She’s the woman I’d go straight for if such a thing were possible. A soulmate since the 12th grade (she might peg the date further back, to Mr. Compton’s Exploratory Reading class at Petalunia Junior High, but hopefully that argu­ment’s settled), Liz came east with photos of her handsome fiancé in ’92, and left just before Christmas. In ’93 the pair returned, married, but at Rumbul’s on Christopher Street the first of many heart-to-hearts began. In ’94, she was divorced, depressed, but nowhere near the lump of coal she thinks she was. For ’95 she’s staying put in California. Can I blame her?

If it’s me and my cat sharing a can of tuna on Christmas Day, it’s my fault. Mom and Dad needle me to hop a plane. But the sour taste of predictable yule traditions still lingers and besides, I hate to fly. I have to improvise. One year, it was lasagna and a Georgy Girl video. Another, it was the Monster Bar employee dinner: Miss Shari, the drag queen, presided, and Lady Aaron, the 70-plus bookkeeper, gave us tiaras and white taffeta.

This year? Glenn might be down from Provincetown, and Michael will surely throw a pre-Christmas shindig, although nude Polaroids are usually involved, and I vowed never to end up in that scandal shoebox. Then there’s Nesha, Liz’s and my friend, who, bless her heart, has ex­tended an invitation to dinner “if you don’t have anything else to do.”

Will I? The 11th hour is the moment great things happen in this town. Like Christmas Eve ’92, when Hunter, Scott, and I drifted into the chapel of the Theological Seminary in Chelsea, where the burnt-out Church of the Holy Cross congregation was holding services. “I’m an athe­ist,” Hunter protested in the cold, reluctant to go inside. “Do you know what this means?” So? I was a lapsed Lutheran, and Scott was Jewish. Inside we shared a pew with another group of spectator-worshipers dressed more like they prayed at the altar of Barneys.

But then the Episcopalian pastor delivered a message of antidiscrimination, which he ex­tended to sexuality and health. And the female chorus members sang She in place of He during the Nicene Creed. That stole any grinch left in­side me; even my atheist friend smiled. Sud­denly I was terrifically glad to be there, and nowhere else.

Here’s hoping.

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Window Pain
BY LYNN YAEGER

I’m Jewish. This wasn’t my idea ro begin with, so imagine how I felt at the age of three when I discovered that there was an upcoming holiday full of twinkly lights, candy canes, and piles of presents, the centerpiece of which was a tiny doll lying in a toy cradle sur­rounded by its mommy and daddy (well, he cer­tainly seemed like the daddy … ) and a lot of cute little animals. Oh yes, my mother conced­ed. She knew all about this holiday, she rold me brightly. But it’s not for us! We don’t have it!

Quite frankly, I have never gotten over this revelation. I have spent the last three decades trying to effect a working compromise: Do I send out cards but draw the line at lights? Go for the lights but eschew the tree? Once I actually did drag a tree up six flights of stairs (did I know you need a tree stand? Did I know there would still be pine needles sticking out of the carpet on the fourth of July?). I even tried to avoid the festivities altogether by fleeing to Eu­rope, but like death in Samarra, Christmas was waiting for me when I got off the plane.

I burst into tears a lot at Christmas time. Mr. Magoo induces spasms of sobbing. I can’t watch Meet Me in St. Louis without practically having to call an ambulance. So why do I undertake my methodical investigation of each and every store’s holiday windows each and every year? Same rea­son some people hang out at the Vault, I guess.

My first srop is usually Bloomingdale’s, a store I always think of as Jewish anyway. (Saks and Bloomingdalc’s are Jewish. Lord & Taylor and Bergdorf’s are not.) This year’s display con­sists of 12 trees decorated by Robert Isabell, the hot society florist recently employed for the gar­ish wedding of one of the so-called fabulous Miller sisters. The trees are hung variously with grocery produce (strawberries and zucchinis­ — or maybe they’re cucumbers?), glitzy jewelry (the contents of a morning sweep at the 26th Street flea market?), candy, roses, crystals, Vic­torian toys, and sheaves of wheat. They’re beautiful, but not particularly snivel-inducing. Far more enticing is the small mannequin in a side window: she’s bright red, holds a green garland wound with black and white Chanel ribbons, and she’s sprouting a little tree where her head should be.

Two blocks over, the witty, vaguely cyni­cal windows at Barneys make no reference to the imminent festivities at all. They’re like the senior project of a prestigious graduate school design seminar: Dada-esque tableaux, in beige and pewter (Barneys’s version of red and green), illustrating proverbs like “many hands make light work” (disembodied digits holding lightbulbs). I can see they’re clever, but instead of inducing yuletide longing they make me feel like I’m standing outside a nightclub while the doorperson is telling me I’m not on the list.

My next stop is positively homey by com­parison: Tiffany & Co., where the tiny jewel­box windows reflect the tasteful treasures with­in. The conceit here is ornithologic: faintly Disney-esque penguins with party hats (hey, this is 57th Street) celebrate New Year’s Eve; the P. Johns family (get it?), a nuclear unit dressed in 1940s outfits, nestle in a tree house; Santa rides in a sled pulled by green parakeets, etc. The on­ly jewelry in evidence is around the neck of a woodpecker — he’s wearing a stunning cabo­chon ruby and diamond cross. (A woodpecker gets to wear a cross and I don’t?)

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I’m still dry-eyed, though I have a weak moment when the Salvation Army girl lets loose with a heartbreaking rendition of “Hark the Her­ald Angels Sing.” I have to grit my teeth and think about the plot of Guys and Dolls (I hum the Fugue for Tinhorns to distract myself) as I march down Fifth Avenue to Saks. On the way I pass Henri Bendel, where the vitrines show leering, huge­-eared automata-elves done up like doormen brandishing merchandise from their out-stretched palms. (Do Bendel’s shoppers really need this unsubtle reminder that it’s tipping time again?)

At Saks, I’m confronted with my first real­ly traditional windows of the season — a series of mechanical tableaux depicting the story of Margie and Nick and the little snowman they befriend. I won’t bore you with the details, but Nick and Margie make friends with Santa, who takes everyone to the Rainbow Room for “mu­sic, dancing, cakes and cookies. It was swell.” Suddenly I’m all choked up: I’m dying to go to the Rainbow Room on Christmas Eve too, and I ain’t ordering cookies either. After a few min­utes wallowing in my sad fate, it dawns on me: isn’t it a little fishy that Marge and Nick and even the snowman are spending Christmas Eve at the Rainbow Room instead of midnight mass?

Thus cheered, I proceed to that bastion of Christian gentility, Lord & Taylor. This is year the windows feature an old-fashioned version of Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas. There are mechanical pyrotechnics here as well — Santa’s big tummy heaves as if he’s about to have a heart attack, reindeer jog in place, and there are winsome little mice scuttling over the rafters — very charming unless you have lived on the Lower East Side where little mice still scut­tle across the rafters. (Once a mouse got trapped in my toaster oven. You don’t want to know.) The scenes are sentimental and touching and perfectly serviceable, if not terribly original.

In the corner window, there’s a poignant display of one of those Dickens Christmas vil­lages full of miniature 19th-century houses, skating ponds, dwarf trees, and surgical-cotton snow. For some reason, this little town gets to me far more than the main display. I’m starting to feel really sorry for myself (it’s easy! try it!) when I see a bunch of bedraggled second graders on a field trip being whipped along by a sullen teacher’s aide. They’ve been forced to wear big cardboard signs with their names and addresses, and although a few are facing their fate with false hilarity, many others are sunk in the pro­found existential misery I remember so well.

Nothing lifts the spirit quicker than the agony of others, and suddenly I’m so light­hearted that I fairly skip to Macy’s, a store over­loaded with Christmas mirth. I try to affect a stance as hard-bitten as the six-year-old Natalie Wood’s in Miracle on 34th Street, but it’s not really necessary: these circus-themed dioramas (a plate twirler, a clumsy acrobat) leave me al­most entirely unmoved. The coup de grace is a couple of clowns cavorting around a Volkswa­gen piled high with presents like TV sets and CD players. (A Volkswagen is supposed to make me feel nostalgic about Christmas? In my fam­ily, you re not even allowed to buy a comb that’s stamped Germany.)

The last window I look at holds two huge elephants flanking a slinky brunette mannequin in an evening gown. It’s an uncanny homage to Dovima, and I have a funny feeling that the fel­las in the display department snuck it right over the heads of Macy’s executives. But maybe they didn’t! Maybe the bureaucrats at Macy’s simply worship Avedon! Strangely buoyant, I descend the steps to the BMT, ready to go home, string up my dalmatian-and-fire-hydrant lights, and face the difficult days ahead. ❖