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The Untold Story of the Tompkins Square Murder

Blood Simple

Daniel Rakowitz moved in with Sylvia and Shawn on July 7, bringing his scrawny brown rooster and three cats with him. “The rooster’s name was Rooster,” remembers Sylvia, a pale 27-year-­old nursing assistant with long brown hair and a striking red-and-­blue tattoo on her right arm. “All night it would cackle and crow. I told Daniel one night, ‘Daniel, I can’t listen to this rooster anymore.’ So he took a sock, and he put it over the roost­er’s bead. And the rooster would lie on its back with its legs up. And after 10 hours I said, ‘Daniel, the rooster — it looks like he’s dead.’ And he says, ‘No, he’s in a trance.’ He’d take the sock off — the rooster was fine. But you put the sock on, and the rooster just lay on its back with its legs up in the air.”

Sylvia and her boyfriend Shawn, both from Morris Plains, New Jersey, had been living together in a cramped two­-bedroom apartment at 700 East 9th Street for a couple months. “When I first met Daniel a year and half ago, he sold me pot in Washington Square Park,” says Sylvia. ”I didn’t really get to know him until be moved into the apartment.” Rakowitz, a 28-year-old part-time cook and marijuana dealer who was sleeping in Tompkins Square Park at the time, agreed to cover half of the apartment’s $500-a-month rent. “I saw a change in Daniel: he felt like he was a normal per­son,” explains Sylvia. “He had a home, he could take a shower, he had a big TV.” In fact, Rakowitz developed a fixation for television. He’d watch until dawn, saying “C’mon Sylvia, watch TV — just one more show, there’s something good coming on!”

Despite a gaping hole in the wall oppo­site the stove, the kitchen was another plus: Rakowitz would often wake up in the morning and head for Key Food on Fourth and B. Hanging out by the front door, he asked people for donations. Strangers shopping at the store would buy him just what he asked for: chicken, potatoes, butter, bread, vegetables. He would return to the apartment with 30 or 40 pounds of food, cook it all up, bring it to Tompkins Square, and feed the home­less there. “He prepared a lot of chicken mainly,” says Jerry the Peddler, a local squatter and community leader. “He’d feed people a couple or three times a week.”

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Sometimes he showed up with break­fast. “He’d make stacks of pancakes for everyone,” says Shawn, a dark, muscular, 25-year-old electrician. “And he even used to get the syrup from the people in the street — he never paid for any of this. We cooked up everything. It was fun. And it was good. He had consideration for other people. He knew what it was like because he had been homeless.”

But life with Rakowitz was not a con­stant picnic: his incessant babbling would have driven almost any roommate mad. “When he used to go off on his trips,” recalls Sylvia, “I’d say ‘Daniel, you have your beliefs, and I have mine. I don’t impose them on you, so please don’t im­pose yours on me.’ And he’d respect that. And he’d stop saying, ‘I am the Lord of the Lords,’ and ‘By 1996, I’m gonna be president,’ and ‘By 1992, my followers are gonna take over,’ and ‘If they think Hit­ler was something, they haven’t seen any­thing yet.’ ”

“He was a classic nut,” says the Ped­dler. “He had all the symptoms: he had sudden fits of rage, he had delusions of grandeur, he didn’t like touching people, he had fantasy followers. Once, we were walking down Avenue B and we found a couple of pages of pornography on the street. He takes a handkerchief out of his pocket, and he lays it across the paper and then picks it up by the edges. And he looks at the women’s pictures for a min­ute and he finally folds it up very neat­ly — never touches it — and puts it in his back pocket.” The Peddler also saw Rakowitz try to pick up the real thing: “He was constantly going up to women — ­constantly. He’d stop right in the middle of a conversation and run over to talk to a single woman alone in the street or in the park. I saw him do that all the time. He never seemed to pick up that many.”

Soon after Rakowitz moved in, Sylvia and Shawn experienced problems in their three-year relationship; around July 20, they broke up and Shawn moved out. Sylvia, fed up with the city, decided to move shortly afterwards, leaving the apartment to Rakowitz. But he couldn’t support the place himself; when the lease changed hands, the rent would rise to $605. And Rakowitz — a skinny, bearded, long-haired drifter — was not exactly what the average landlord considers an ideal tenant. So the search began for a new roommate. “Daniel needed someone to share the rent,” says Shawn, “but he also felt threatened that we were going to kick him out — that I was going to kick him out — so he wanted the lease put in his new friend’s name. Daniel, I guess, didn’t want his name on anything.”

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About two weeks later, according to the police, Rakowitz met Monika Beerle, a 26-year-old modern dancer, in Tompkins Square Park. Beerle, a slender, dirty blond-haired girl from St. Gallen, Swit­zerland, had earned a teaching and chore­ography certificate from the Sigurd Leeder School and had recently studied at the Martha Graham School. Though she had a reputation for dating adventur­ously, one friend says, “She was a pretty smart girl. She seemed pretty profession­al, had a good head on her shoulders. The girl wasn’t stupid and she wasn’t crazy.”

In late April, Monika had moved from 93 Orchard Street to 171 Avenue B but was already looking for another place to live when she met Rakowitz. He took her home and made his pitch. When she ac­cepted, the two of them toasted their future with a couple of joints from Rakowitz’s stash.

Sylvia first met Monika before the lease had changed hands. That night, Rakowitz had been slow to answer her knock, and when the door swung open, he was zipping up his fly. “He never had women up there,” says Sylvia. “I’d never even seen him with a woman. So I’m saying to myself, ‘All right, Daniel, I know that you’re just trying to goof on me and make me think that you just went with this woman. So I went in there and he introduced me to her, and he says, ‘Yeah, she’s gonna move in and she’s gonna take over the lease.’ ”

Monika and her belongings arrived in the first week of August. “Daniel had cleaned up this place so immaculate be­fore she moved in, just for her,” Sylvia says. “I asked her the next day-because I thought Daniel was playing a joke-I said, ‘Daniel told me that he went with you.’ And she goes, ‘He did,’ point-blank in answer to me.”

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Something about the arrangement bothered Sylvia. “I told Daniel ‘This girl wants just the apartment.'” she recalls. “He kept saying, ‘No, but she cares about me, and she wants to live with me, and she wants to be my roommate.’ And I said, ‘Daniel, she wants the apartment. And she’s gonna take the apartment right from underneath you. She’s gonna have the lease in her name, and once it’s in her name she’s gonna throw you out. And I ain’t gonna be here anymore, and there’s nothing I can say when the lease is changed over. So if she throws you out, you’re out — and you’re homeless again.'”

But Rakowitz wouldn’t listen. “He’d say ‘I love her, I love her.’ I’d never seen him go out with a girl, much less say that,” Sylvia recalls. “But it was ‘Oh Monika, do you want this?’ Or ‘Monika, you want me to make you something to eat.’ I mean, he was just ‘Monika’ everything.”

“She treated him like shit,” adds Shawn.

Lynn, a vivacious 18-year-old girl who often sold Rakowitz sheets of blotter acid, tells an entirely different story: “I remember when the girl first moved into his apartment. It was early one morning, and Daniel was saying, ‘Oh yeah, there’s this girl.’ He said she’d moved in, and she was really stupid, and she had paid off his back rent so he wouldn’t get thrown out of his apartment. He was just using her; that was the whole thing.”

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Monika broke off the romance almost immediately, and she began bringing oth­er men to the apartment. One evening, she invited a Rastafarian to stay the night and Rakowitz inadvertently sur­prised them. Later, he confided in Sylvia: “He said to me, ‘Sylvia, she has a black man in there.’ And he looked hurt, and he looked mad, because that’s one of the people he hated — gays and blacks — to him, that was the worst insult you could give him. I said, ‘Daniel, what do you want me to do about it?'”

Monika’s friends, alarmed by Rakowitz’s ravings, urged her to throw him out. In mid-August, about a week after moving in, she took their advice, telling Rakowitz that she wanted him out in two weeks. Rakowitz pleaded, “Please, Sylvia, don’t let her throw me out. I have nowhere to go.”

“I said, ‘Daniel, I told you this was gonna happen, ‘ ” remembers Sylvia. “And it kinda freaked him out, you know? He was pleading every way he could to make some type of arrangement.” But Moni­ka’s mind was made up.

“She was stupid to fuck with him,” says Lynn. “He told her he was gonna kill her. She said that he had told her that.”

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“Daniel would go through this all day long,” remembers Sylvia. “He’d say ‘I’m gonna kill her.’ And five minutes later, he’d say, ‘No, I love her, I’m not gonna kill her.” This continued for three days. Neither Shawn nor Sylvia took him seri­ously — partly because of all the wild things he’d said in the past, partly be­cause neither of them had ever seen Dan­iel become violent. He talked a crazy streak, but he behaved himself. “Around August 12, I told Monika that ‘Daniel said he’s gonna kill you,’ ” says Sylvia. “And she just, kind of, laughed. And she went up to Daniel in front of me and said to Daniel, ‘I’ll kill you first.'”

On the evening of Thursday, August 17, Rakowitz walked Sylvia to the PATH train. As they shared a joint, he told Sylvia that he couldn’t take Monika any­more, he’d had enough. He said be planned to kill her the next day, and he asked Sylvia to come back and help him get rid of the body. “I said ‘Daniel, what are you, crazy? I ain’t gonna help you with anything.’ ” recalls Sylvia. “And he was really nervous. He was terrified. He was so terrified of being homeless.”

“I didn’t go there Friday,” she contin­ues. “I didn’t think about: ‘It’s Friday — is Daniel killing Monika?’ On Saturday night, I could see from the street that the apartment was dark, and I knew some­thing was wrong. But I went up there anyway. I was coming up the stairs and I heard Daniel’s TV, and it was really loud. And I opened the door, and his TV was in the kitchen, and it was very dim. I went back to my room to make sure my stuff was okay, ’cause I told him I was leaving it there for awhile till I got it all out. And Monika’s door was closed, and I went and knocked on Monika’s door, and nobody answered. So I went to the kitchen. And on the stove there was a pot. And in the pot was Monika’s head. She was all burnt-up, and her eyes were closed.”

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“I was born on Christmas Eve 12/24/60, which equals 96,” Daniel Rakowitz said to me in an interview this June. “And I have 18 letters to my name. I was born in the 21st Hour, which is 9:02 p.m., which they say signifies the coming of the Lord Jesus, according to what the Bible says.”

Rakowitz’s father, Tony, was a deputy in the small South Texas town of Rock­port. Tony’s boss, Sheriff Robert Hewes, told Newsday that Rakowitz’s father “was a straight-laced fellow, a real disci­plinarian.” According to Fred, who knew Rakowitz in New York for about two years, Rakowitz’s mother “died of a heart attack right in front of him. It happened when he was a kid, and when that hap­pens, people feel very very helpless.”

Rakowitz became aware of his divinity in 1966, when he was five years old. “Three Lords looking like Jesus floated out of the wall one at a time, one wearing a purple, one wearing a yellow, and one wearing a blue robe.” Rakowitz told Syl­via and Shawn that his parents had re­peatedly put him in psychiatric wards (when phoned, Tony Rakowitz refused to answer any questions about his son). “From the age of nine to 11 they forced me to take Ritalin [a drug prescribed for hyperactive children],” Rakowitz said in his June interview. “The other students decided to hit on me and spit on me. And if I defended myself, I got paddled. And I was the slowest runner in the school, too.”

“He told me they gave him shock treat­ments when he was 14,” says Sylvia. “I think he was the way he was from what had happened to him in the past — what people had done, the drugs they had giv­en him, his family committing him to psychiatric hospitals. He was committed. And he was very bitter about that.”

The tension between Rakowitz and his father peaked when the deputy found marijuana in his teenage son’s room. Rakowitz’s father took him to the Rock­port station and booked him for possession.

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At 19, Rakowitz enlisted in the army. He became an expert rifleman and spent 14 weeks in army law-enforcement school. After his discharge, he applied for a job as deputy alongside his father. He was turned down. (Rakowitz later spoke of taking over Texas: “I want to do every­thing as a Texas sheriff and I’m going to have many counties where a lot of people that smoke marijuana can come.”)

“On April 3, 1983, I made a prayer that I would have a dream to learn future events,” Rakowitz said. “Six days later, I did indeed have the dream and it told me I would come into total possession of a 14-year-old girl who two weeks later be­came my wife. And before we got mar­ried, I said, ‘According to the dream, you’re gonna leave me and I will go to New York and find a blond-haired woman and get married. Some day I come back and, according to the dream, you come back to me but you have another man’s child.'”

Police confirm that Rakowitz was mar­ried in Texas. “He told me his wife was Mexican,” says Martha, who befriended Rakowitz in New York. “She was really young. He was very upset when they split up and, I think he hoped at first — when I met him in 1985 — that they would get back together.”

No one is sure when Rakowitz first came to New York but police say he had not been back to his home state since 1981. “He was living at the Palace Hotel on the Bowery when I met him,” remem­bers Martha, who sold him quarter-­pounds of pot for resale. “He was always paranoid about visitors. And the police had questioned him before, you know. He told me how he had to sit down and tell them about his constituents, you know, how he had a constituency, how he had, you know, followers in his church, and how he had land in Colorado. He told me he had land in Colorado where he was gonna build his church and grow marijua­na there. I can’t remember the name of the man that he bought his land from but he would make payments on his land. I kept telling him, ‘Danny, it’s a sham, the man just took your money.’ ”

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Almost everyone on the Lower East Side knew Rakowitz:

“He’s a whacko,” says Clayton Patterson, a hat-store owner and the famed videotaper of last year’s riot in Tompkin’s Square. “All he ever talked about was killing; it amazed me that he talked about killing as much as he did. Daniel wasn’t a great marijuana salesman. Daniel was, you know, a slow learner. He was kind of a jovial-looking guy, but he was isolated, lonely; Danny-boy was always standing around by himself.”

“The man had charisma,” claims Jerry the Peddler. “It took people a couple of minutes to realize he was a kook, but he always managed to get them to stop and listen to him. Most people didn’t think of the guy as really being a nut. I used to talk to people about him. And they’d go, ‘Oh, no, he’s harmless.’ I used to tell them ‘Someday he’d gonna kill somebody.’ I swear I did.”

Jerry had reason to make his prediction: “Daniel liked to kill animals,” he remembers. “He killed his pets constant­ly. I saw him go through a lot of cats — a lot of cats. He had, like, three dogs that he’s killed. Everybody knew the white English terrier he had. He didn’t kill it, although he did kind of starve it quite a bit. He finally sold it.”

Dana Beal, Yipster-in-residence at 9 Bleecker Street, disagrees with the Ped­dler on at least one count: “He would have had a cult, and would have had a cult following, if he’d had charisma. You have to realize, it wasn’t that this guy didn’t go out and proselytize every day to win converts. It was that nobody would convert. It was a cult of one, you under­stand what I’m saying?”

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“I was gonna squat with him once,” says Lynn. “We opened a building on Suffolk Street one night, a whole group of us. He had some really cool ideas for what he wanted to do with the building: he wanted to make the first two floors housing for handicapped people. And it just didn’t go off. We thought he was pretty crazy for wanting to do that. He used to say that he wanted to, like, mur­der the cops and give their money to the poor. And he was gonna start this cult and have five children with each of 25 women, so that he could create his ‘mas­ter race.’

“Daniel used to burn incredible amounts of pot,” she continues. “That’s why I hung out with Daniel. That’s why everyone hung out with Daniel. And when you get stoned, and you listen to him ranting and raving, and it gets really hysterical. I mean, he was just amazing to listen to when you were stoned. So there was one day, and he had the grass on a table, and his rooster jumped up and scattered the pot. So he starts, like, beat­ing the shit out of this rooster. Someone jumps on Daniel and pulls him off, and everyone’s grabbing the rooster. Every­body was always, like, ‘Liberate the rooster!’ ‘Liberate the rooster!’ because Daniel used to carry it around in this bag, and it never saw the light of day.

“Some people said he had some kind of charisma,” Lynn concludes. “I never thought so, but a lot of girls thought he had some kind of weird charisma. I never thought there was anything interesting about him at all.”

Fred has a different perspective: “He hated women. He used to speak about how he was going to control women.”

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On November 9, 1988, WCBS-TV re­porter Mike Taibbi went looking for the Devil on the Lower East Side, found his man, and failed to recognize him. “I think we spent, probably, a total of four hours with Daniel,” says Taibbi, who was intent on proving that the noise band Missing Foundation had inspired the Tompkins Square Park riot. “We inter­viewed him for probably 30 minutes. Well, if you’ve heard his rap, you probably know all about this. We shot the whole thing, when he was going through his rap. We reviewed the logs, and one of the things he said was that — I don’t have the logs in front of me — but he did say that he was going to dismember his girl­friends. If they got pregnant and had an abortion, he was going to dismember them.”

“He asked Daniel all kinds of ques­tions,” says the Peddler, who sat next to Rakowitz on a Tompkins Square Park bench during the interview. “Basically, Taibbi just kept playing on Daniel’s weird rap about 966. He was mainly interested in making the Missing Foundation link; Missing Foundation was the whole point of the interview.” Amazingly, Rakowitz bought Taibbi’s premise that Missing Foundation was a Satanic cult rather than a band with a devoted following of anarchists. For some time afterwards, Rakowitz paced the park, telling people, “You think Missing Foundation are big Satanists? I’m going to be the biggest Satanist of all, wait and see.”

“We used just a bit of it,” says Taibbi, “as it related to a story we were doing.” Asked if he is now upset at having thrown away the rest of the footage, Taibbi answers sharply: “Not necessarily.”

While interviewing Rakowitz, Taibbi questioned him about the Temple of the True Inner Light, a storefront on East Ninth Street that houses five young men and women who worship psychedelics. At that point, Rakowitz was barely aware of the place. Within weeks, however, he was knocking at tbe temple’s door.

“I believe we were the only people that briefly — and I’m talking about real brief — got Dan in touch with his conscience,” says temple member Mary, a woman with spectacular red hair. “Dan was not hopeless. He had a lot of prob­lems — a lot of spiritual, mental prob­lems — and anyone that talked to Dan for five minutes could see this. Dan had started telling me that he felt guilty about all the animals he’d killed. He started telling me, ‘Oh, I had this many chickens, this many dogs, this many cats, this many rabbits,’ — he named a whole bunch of animals.”

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The temple members were so spooked by Rakowitz, they actually took him out­side to search him for weapons — the first such incident in over five years. “He was telling us he couldn’t leave this bag that he had,” says Mary. “And I started thinking that he had weapons in it, but then be pulled out Hitler’s book. He definitely had severe, severe problems.”

Rakowitz’s obsession with Adolf Hitler alienated everyone, especially those who hung around the Square, not a place where right-wing, fascist ideology is fash­ionable: “About a year ago,” says Aron Kay, the infamous pieman of the late ’70s and a fixture on the Lower East Side. “I found out that Daniel was into admiring Hitler’s Mein Kampf. And I asked him why doesn’t he give it up or burn it, but he kept defending it. He said that he loved and literally worshipped the book. My parents are Holocaust survivors. I couldn’t take it anymore. That pushed my buttons. I literally floored him on Avenue A.”

Rakowitz was infatuated with his German edition of Mein Kampf because he believed the book to contain “evidence of the supernatural,” facing page 696. The evidence had nothing to do with the text itself; rather, it was in a simple diagram rendered by a blue felt-tip pen on a small piece of paper slipped between the book’s pages: a blotch of ink in the center, a ‘9’ to the left of it, a ‘6’ to the right. Rakowitz believed this diagram signified that he was the Second Coming of Christ.

As Daniel explained in June, when he looked at the diagram he saw a cow’s head with two horns rising toward him through the ink. Rotating the diagram 90 degrees, “it turns into my entire image­ — my face, my hair, my beard, my shirt, my coat, my pants.” The Daniel in the pic­ture has dog’s paws instead of feet. (He later told Sylvia he could evade arrest for Monika’s murder because he was able to turn into a dog at will.) Off to one side, he saw “a blond-haired woman looking at me coming toward her.”

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Shawn reaches out to hold Sylvia’s hand as she continues recounting her nightmarish walk through the darkened apartment. After the shock of seeing Monika’s blackened head in a pot on the stove, Sylvia walked toward the bath­ room. “I walked to the very tip of the bathroom — I didn’t go in. And I saw in the bathtub what was, like, a ribcage, with everything off — just the bones, just the ribs. And it was full of blood. And there was, like, guts. So I left, and I couldn’t even lock the door I was shaking so bad. But I locked the door ’cause I thought, ‘Jesus, if anybody sees this … ‘

“I went to a phone booth on Avenue A and I called up Daniel’s beeper number. And I said, ‘Daniel, you did it?’ And he said, ‘You saw it, Sylvia?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he goes, ‘I’m sorry you had to see it, but I had to do it.’ And he said, ‘Come up to the apartment and smoke a joint with me.’ And I said, ‘Daniel, meet me in Tompkins Square. I’m not going to the apartment.’ So he met me in the park. And he was apologizing. ‘Sylvia, I’m sorry, I had to do it, I had to do it.’ And he started telling me what happened.”

Rakowitz told her he was not alone when it happened — he said he was with a friend from a Satanic church in Brook­lyn. That evening, according to Rakowitz, Monika told him, “You have to leave by tomorrow, and if you don’t get out, my friend with a pit bull is gonna come and get you out.” Then she went into her bedroom. His friend said, “What, you haven’t killed her yet?” Monika came out and started yelling at his friend. His friend said, “Why are you yelling at me? You don’t know me.” “But I know Dan­iel,” she replied, “and you’re his friend.”

“So I guess maybe that had set Daniel off, I don’t know,” says Sylvia. “But he told me that he had an extension cord and he went up, she was walking away, heading toward the two bedrooms, and he put the extension cord around her neck. She said, ‘What are you doing, Daniel?’ And then he strangled her with his hands,” Sylvia says. “He told me, ‘When I strangled her, she scratched me.’ And he pulled his sleeve up, and he had long scratch marks down his arm.

“He had choked her to death. And when she was dead, he said he stomped on her head 10 times and stabbed her over 30. He told me that he used her chest as a carving board.”

“He cut off her head,” Shawn inter­jects. “He took her arms and legs off her, and he used her chest to cut the bones, and everything, off. And he cut all this up and did this all in the bathtub.”

“He told me he had eaten the brains and that his friend had eaten a part of her too,” says Sylvia. “I told all this to the detectives and the D.A., too.”

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Rakowitz said he had spent over $80 in a hardware store on tools with which to kill Monika, cut her up, and clean the apartment. “Less than two weeks before he killed this girl he was in a store and he was trying on these work gloves,” remem­bers Lynn, “and I asked him why he had the work gloves. He was like, ‘I’m gonna make some fertilizer and I need these.‘ He really freaked me out, I was really scared of him at that point.”

“He had a 13-inch carving knife,” reports Shawn. “And he used a metal pole — a solid-steel pole — to break her bones.” Sylvia continues: “And be boiled her. And he was still cutting her up — he hadn’t finished yet. He was cutting her up into little pieces, he told me — over a thousand — and he flushed it down the toilet. And he was afraid. But he looked to me like, in a way, that he was free, and that this was gone, this fear.

“And I told him to stop, because I couldn’t hear it; I didn’t want to hear it. It just totally blew me away. I didn’t believe it till he got locked up, until I saw him on the news. Then it hit me.”

A few days later, Sylvia saw Rakowitz in Tompkins Square Park, and Daniel said to her, “Sylvia, it’s starting to smell up there.” She said “Daniel, they’re gonna find out, and they’re gonna lock you up, and they’re gonna put you in a psychiatric hospital, and I don’t want to see that happen to you. I think you’ve had enough.”

“Oh, I’m gonna clean it,” he replied. “I’m gonna clean it all up so that you can come up there.” Sylvia said, “Well, when it’s clean … let me know.”

A day or two later, Rakowitz told her it was okay to drop by. Monika’s skull was still in the apartment. “He boiled it and peeled the skin off it,” says Shawn.

“He bad it to where it was all just bones and a skull,” continues Sylvia. “And he’d get angry at Monika, he told me. And he’d say, ‘I spit on Monika’s skull.’ He told her, ‘Well, hey, bitch, at least you’ll always have a home.’ And he told me that ‘she looks more beautiful now than she ever did.’ ”

“This was her skull,” notes Shawn.

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Rakowitz had thoroughly cleaned the apartment and had taken a bucket con­taining the skull and bones to a storage facility at 43rd Street and 11th Avenue, later moving the bucket to the baggage check facility at Port Authority.

“I still understood Daniel,” insists Syl­via. “And I really wasn’t … I was a little frightened of him, but I wasn’t that frightened. I was more concerned of what was gonna happen to him. I told Daniel that I would never tell on him, and I never went forward and said anything, and a lot of people are gonna think that’s a very shitty thing for me to do. Maybe if they understand anything that I have said — and really take it to heart — and maybe if they realize what kind of person Daniel was and what he wasn’t, because of what was done to him, they might understand why I didn’t want to say any­thing. Because I didn’t want him hurt anymore.

“People say, well, he could go out and do it again, but I stayed up there a few times. I slept in that apartment with Daniel. He was in the other room. After he’d killed her. And the detectives know this. Everything I’m telling you is what they know, and I told them exactly what I’m telling you. And the reason why is that Daniel has been in a prison most of his life — in his own mind. And you’re not trying to help him by locking, him behind bars. If you want to help this man, you get him some real psychiatric and psy­chological help.”

On Tuesday, August 22, Shawn stopped by the apartment to buy some reefer from Rakowitz. He told Shawn that he and Monika had fought Friday night and that he had broken her nose. During his visit Shawn saw meat in the frying pan and in the freezer. “He ate this woman,” Shawn believes. “He didn’t eat the whole thing, but he ate human meat.”

“He told me be had,” remembers Syl­via. “I believe it.”

“He also said that he was gonna feed Monika to the homeless people in the park,” says Shawn.

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Shawn returned to the apartment on Saturday, August 26 — after Sylvia had finally told him of Monika’s murder. “Daniel had cleaned up everything al­ready,” says Shawn, “but there was a smell in the apartment. I told him that I could smell death, and he’s going, ‘Real­ly? Can you smell it? Can you tell?’ And I go, ‘Yeah.’ I wasn’t lying.”

Meanwhile, Rakowitz was bragging about the murder to anyone who would listen. “Daniel told everyone before he did it; he told everyone when he did it; he told everyone after he did it,” says Lynn. “He told all my friends. Everyone who he saw, he told them. He chopped her up in little pieces, and then he asked my fiance if he would help him get rid of the arms. He felt bad about killing her, apparently. He was scared, and he didn’t know what to do. He wanted to turn himself in, but he was scared — that’s what he told my fiancé.”

The rumors around Tompkins Square grew increasingly bizarre. “It’s the kind of joke that people would make: ‘Oh yeah, he fed her to the homeless,’ ” says Hank, who lives on East 5th Street. “A few days after it happened, before it hit the pa­pers, while the rumors started spreading around the Village, the homeless in the park were going, ‘Yeah, Dan did give us soup yesterday.’ They were goofing on it but they were pretty much grossed out. They were goofing in a way that acknowl­edged they had definitely gotten soup from this guy in the period directly after the incident happened.”

Rakowitz lived in the apartment alone for a week or two following the murder. But Sylvia urged him to move, warning him that sooner or later the cops would be coming by. Daniel finally took her advice. “He left the apartment to move in with another girl, uptown,” says Shawn. “And after I heard that, I thought that he killed her for nothing — that Monika just died for no reason at all. I mean, she died for a reason in the beginning — and there’s no right reason for anyone to die. But then he moved out, and everything was gone out of the apartment, and all we saw was Monika’s stuff laying all over.”

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So Shawn spilled the story to the build­ing superintendant who told the detec­tives. They came up to the apartment to question Shawn and to search for evi­dence. On the door of the apartment, they saw grafitti written in black magic marker: “IS IT SOUP YET?” and “WELCOME TO CHARLIE GEIN’S SPAUN RANCH EAST.” (Charlie Gein is a conflation of Charles Manson and Ed Gein, the serial killer on whom Psycho‘s Norman Bates was based; the Spahn Ranch — misspelled on the door — was the home of the Manson family.) On a steam pipe in the bathroom was scribbled “Broken [hearted] about you.” (The “hearted” was actually a heart with a jagged line running through it). Yet they found no evidence of a murder.

Initially, neither the super nor the de­tectives believed a word of Shawn’s story. But they paged Rakowitz on his beeper and he came to the 9th Precinct to an­swer their questions. He didn’t admit that he had killed Monika Beerle, but be didn’t deny it either. In fact, he said something along the lines of, “If I’d have killed her, I would have cut her up into lots of pieces and flushed her down the toilet.”

“After he made that statement,” Sylvia says, “that Sunday [September 17] they ripped the toilet apart. But they didn’t find anything. They told me the only good thing I had in the apartment was the plumbing.” Shawn told the police that Rakowitz kept a storage bin near the Port Authority bus station.

On Monday, the detectives came back to the apartment and found Sylvia there. They told her they had written state­ments implicating Rakowitz from both Shawn and Laurie Arnold, a woman who lived across the hall. But this was untrue. “I was tricked into it,” says Sylvia sadly. “I was told that they were gonna lock him up anyway and that they already knew what had happened. And I believed it. So I told them. And five hours later, they picked up Daniel. He confessed. He had no choice.

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“He asked for help when they arrested him. He said it to a detective, and the detective told me that he said, ‘I need some help.’ So it must have really dawned on Daniel that he did wrong, because when I talked to him after that, he was, like, he was free. His soul was free.” After his arrest, Rakowitz led the de­tectives to the Port Authority baggage storage room where he produced a claim check for an Army duffel bag. Inside the bag was a white plastic bucket, and inside the bucket were a skull and bones.

One expects the police to be extremely interested to find Daniel’s friend from the Satanic church in Brooklyn. While interrogating Shawn and Sylvia, the cops mentioned several Satanic churches by name, but none of them were familiar to the couple. As far as Shawn and Sylvia know, they never met any of Daniel’s Satanic friends, but they believe the church exists: “This is a for-real church,” says Shawn, and Sylvia agrees.

Just as likely, the police believe, is that Daniel’s Satanic friend was imaginary, egging bim on from the inside. When told there was a report that another man was present at the murder, an officer familiar with the case replied, “I don’t believe that for a second.”

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Although the police say the skull in the bucket has been positively identified as belonging to Monika Beerle, Sylvia’s testimony will certainly be crucial to the prosecution’s case. She has been wres­tling with this for well over a month now. She’s pale and somewhat faded, well aware that her behavior during the course of these events seems bizarre by any­body’s standards. “People are gonna think I’m crazy,” she says softly. “You know what? To me it doesn’t matter, be­cause I’m not crazy. I’m not crazy. But I’m a person who has a lot of feeling, and I feel for Daniel. I feel for Monika’s parents, but I feel for Daniel cause I knew him. And I knew what he was going through, and I feel very, very bad.

“See, people are gonna read this and they’re gonna say the same thing that you just said: ‘Wow.’ You know what I hope they’re saying ‘wow’ about? ‘Wow, this guy had a rough childhood and never really had a chance.’ Daniel did what Daniel did because of what society had done to Daniel. And that is my opinion, and people may think I’m crazy. But I lived with this person, and this person did not kill me. If he was the crazy luna­tic murderer of Tompkins Square, he would have killed me. Daniel moved into the apartment because he was homeless and he killed Monika because he felt threatened.

“If anything comes out of this story, I hope it opens people’s eyes, for one thing, to homelessness — for another thing, to realize and understand the kind of person he was and what really happened and the fear that people have of being homeless, especially when they do have some type of mental illness. I still don’t blame Dan­iel for that, and as far as I’m concerned Daniel will always be my friend.” ■

Some names in this story — although not those of the principal characters, Syluia and Shawn — have been changed. 

1989_Village Voice article on a bizarre murder near Tompkins Square involving cannibalism

1989_Village Voice article on a bizarre murder near Tompkins Square involving cannibalism

1989_Village Voice article on a bizarre murder near Tompkins Square involving cannibalism

1989_Village Voice article on a bizarre murder near Tompkins Square involving cannibalism

1989_Village Voice article on a bizarre murder near Tompkins Square involving cannibalism

1989_Village Voice article on a bizarre murder near Tompkins Square involving cannibalism

1989_Village Voice article on a bizarre murder near Tompkins Square involving cannibalism

Categories
CITY HALL ARCHIVES From The Archives Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Stanley Friedman’s Banana Republic

The Bronx as One Man’s Land

They are businessmen who demand that others call them “political leaders.” To them la Colonia of El Bronx is a busi­ness and allegiance to the business is more important than loyalty to any par­ty. They are mostly Democrats but they do business with Republicans. A few of them are Republicans but do business with Democrats. They are lawyers; they own pieces of construction firms; they control cable television companies; they are consultants. These are the business­men who control the colony of the Bronx.

The jefe of the colonialists, the man who makes most of the decisions affect­ing the Bronx from his Manhattan pent­house office, is Stanley Friedman, Demo­cratic county leader. He makes these decisions, which affect thousands of Lat­ins and Blacks, while making big profits for his own business ventures. This is possible because of Friedman’s control and influence over the Democratic Coun­ty Committee, the office of borough pres­ident, local planning boards, and “eco­nomic development” community agen­cies. He exploits them all.

Friedman’s friends and fellow colonial­ists include his famous law partner, right-­wing Republican Roy Cohn. His other associates, some of whom have been de­scribed by Norman Adler, political action director of District Council 37, as “the dobermans in Animal Farm,” include Paul Victor, law chairman for the Bronx Democratic County Committee, and two members of the Democratic County Committee of the Bronx, Murray Lewin­ter and Stanley Schlein.

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Along with these individuals there are State Senator John Calandra represent­ing the Republican Party, and last and perhaps least, the Bronx borough presi­dent, Stanley Simon. Excluding Calan­dra, these white males control the Bronx Democratic County Committee — its funds, appointments, nominations, and all its activities — despite the fact that the Bronx is over 70 per cent Black and Latino.

Unlike his predecessor Patrick Cun­ningham, who refused to understand that to maintain his power he had to “adjust” to changing times, Friedman does include some minority representation in his group. Friedman has found some natives who are most willing to support him in return for relatively small rewards.

Crazy Joe Gallo, famous underworld figure, who was known for his attempts to include Blacks and Latinos in “la Fami­lia,” understood that to keep his opera­tion strong in poor communitites, he had to change his strategy to fit new realities. Friedman has recognized the same changes in the Bronx and that they called for a similar strategy in his organization. He found individuals like South Bronx boss Ramon Velez and State Senator Jo­seph Galiber to legitimize his power in the Black and Latino communities of the Bronx. Velez and Galiber basically act as overseers to make sure that Blacks and Latins who challenge the power relation­ships in the “banana republic” do not obtain any power. For Friedman’s purposes, Velez and Galiber serve to create the illusion that power is shared in the Bronx.

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Recently, Friedman has also supported minority candidates such as Larry Sea­brook, who defeated incumbent Vincent Marchiselli this fall in the 82nd Assembly District. This kind of support is only giv­en, however, when the incumbent is anti­-Friedman and anti-machine, as Marchi­selli has always been, and when the challenger indicates a willingness and commitment to work with “County” and cooperate with Friedman.

As in a colony, the Bronx’s leadership positions are all held by outsiders (who are also white males), including the office of Democratic county leader, the borough presidency, the office of the district attorney, the Surrogate, and the majority of seats on the Democratic County Exec­utive Committee. El Jefe keeps it this way by running a well-organized, tight-knit group, exercising control over the office of borough president, controlling judgeships and maintaining an intimate relationship with Mayor Koch, who has provided the Democratic county leader with numerous city jobs. Through the use of patronage Friedman has developed a loyal group of followers and hundreds of others who are hoping to get something from the Democratic boss.

Friedman’s control over the office of Bronx borough president began with his early contributions to the first borough presidency campaign of Stanley Simon in 1979. Friedman, his law partners, and some of his clients made substantial loans to Bronx borough president Simon during this campaign. A 1979 Voice arti­cle detailed these loans and showed how Simon’s campaign was almost completely dependent for its initial financing on the Friedman/Cohn law firm, Saxe, Bacon and Bolan. In return, Friedman has been rewarded with patronage on the staff of the borough president, in the planning boards, and in agencies like the Bronx Development Corporation.

Friedman has used this patronage to find jobs for district leaders and other “community activists” who are key play­ers in minority communities. It is be­cause of this patronage that Friedman has been able to guarantee that the dis­trict leaders who elect the county leader continue to choose him. Although 11 out of 20 of the district leaders are minor­ities, Friedman was just recently reelect­ed by 19 of the 20.

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Friedman has also exercised his influ­ence in the borough president’s office to gather friendly votes at the Board of Es­timate. Friedman was influential in pro­viding support for Koch in 1981 and has been able to sway most minority politi­cians in the Bronx to his side. This, in turn, has helped Friedman get favorable votes for his “projects” on the Board of Estimate.

Referring to this control Friedman has over Simon, former Bronx borough presi­dent Herman Badillo stated, “Bronx bor­ough president Stanley Simon has al­lowed his office to be used, controlled, and dominated by the county leader. Si­mon has turned his powers over to Fried­man.” When asked to respond to this accusation and other charges in the arti­cle, Bronx borough president Simon as well as Democratic county leader Fried­man refused to comment.

Israel Ruiz, state senator and district leader in the South Bronx and often the sole dissenting voice in county meetings, has described Friedman as “a county leader who uses his position solely to fur­ther his business interests. Friedman forces anyone doing business in the Bronx, whether it be building highways, housing construction or developing mar­kets, to do business with his law firm or one of his ‘favored’ law firms.”

Describing the loyal support that mi­nority district leaders have lavished on Friedman, Norman Adler stated, “Stan­ley Friedman is like a corpse being car­ried around by vampires. He is like a dead man who is being propped up.”

Saxe, Bacon and Bolan’s Bronx clients include: the New York Bus Express Ser­vice Company, that allows the white mid­dle class of the Bronx to avoid mingling with the poorer nonwhite residents of the South Bronx; the New York Yankees; and the Metropolitan Taxi Board. Ac­cording to State Senator Ruiz, the firm recently acquired as a client the architec­tural design company of Daniel Mann, Johnson and Mendenhall, a group con­tracted to do a feasibility study for the new Bronx prison.

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Ruiz has documented a whole history of shady dealings involving Mann, John­son and Mendenhall. According to this documentation, the firm was convicted and fined by a Massachusetts state court for paying bribes for contracts. The firm has also had construction and design problems in Baltimore, New Orleans, and Niagara. Despite this track record the State Office of General Services awarded this firm a design contract for the pro­posed Metro North Prison.

Talking Turkey, a new progressive newspaper in the city, recently revealed that Friedman is the largest stockholder in a company which was awarded the contract to produce and maintain a new system called Summons Issuance Device of New York, hand-held computers to be used by parking enforcement agents to find out if a ticketed car belongs to a scofflaw. This contract, unanimously granted by the Board of Estimate to a brand new company with no significant resources, netted Stanley Friedman, as largest stockholder, a capital gain of $1.3 million dollars. Among those companies rejected by the Board of Estimate were Motorola Corporation and a subsidiary of McDonnell Douglass Corporation.

In the most recent edition of Talking Turkey Friedman denies that his compa­ny received any special treatment from the Board of Estimate.

Friedman’s law firm itself is an excel­lent example of how colonialistas of the major political parties unite around prof­it. Saxe, Bacon and Bolan includes, in addition to Roy Cohn, Tom Bolan, a leading force in the Conservative Party. Both Cohn and Bolan have done legal work for the Catholic Archdiocese and have ties to conservative Archbishop John J. O’Connor. This same type of col­lusion between Democrats and Republi­cans is reflected in la colonia’s politics.

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South Bronx powerbroker Ramon Ve­lez supported Ronald Reagan in his re­election bid. Not only did Velez’s com­munity programs like Bronx Venture receive federal money before this en­dorsement, but so did an economic devel­opment agency called Bronx Develop­ment Corporation, an organization directly controlled by Bronx boss Stanley Friedman and Borough President Stan­ley Simon.

Last month State Senator Galiber, a strong Friedman ally who at all times makes himself available to help divide Blacks and Latinos and reelect whites, was indicted with Secretary of Labor Ray Donovan, a Reagan appointee. Joseph Galiber, until last week the ranking mi­nority member of the State Senate’s Eth­ics Committee, was indicted for grand larceny in the second degree and falsify­ing business records in the first degree. He has also been linked to William Mas­selli, a well-known mobster; they were co-­owners of JoPel Contracting and Truck­ing, a firm which frequently did business with Donovan’s company, Schiavone Construction Company.

Politicians like Congressman Robert Garcia who cooperate with Friedman and local Bronx Republicans are often given the Republican line while leading conser­vative Republicans like John Calandra go unchallenged by Friedman’s County Committee. Calandra remains unchal­lenged by the Bronx Democrats although Democratic members in the state senate have identified him as one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the state senate. It was Calandra who helped give Koch the GOP line in the 1981 mayoralty race, and who is already lobbying for the Republicans to give Koch the line in 1985. In return for his support, Calandra, the leading Republican in the Bronx, wins such rewards as the $1 million he received in the April 1984 supplementary budget for programs in his area. While Calandra obtained his million, in com­parison, areas like the South Bronx got crumbs.

Stanley Simon, Roy Cohn, John Calandra, Ramon Velez, Freddy Ferrer, Rafel Castaneira Colon, Joseph Galiber, Stanley Schlein

The Bronx colonialistas not only do business with “opposing” political par­ties, but have provided legal representa­tion to underworld figures who feed from the same field.

Friedman’s law partner, Roy Cohn, has represented reputed mobsters like Vin­cent DiNapoli, one of the most powerful builders in the Bronx. DiNapoli was con­victed in 1982 for extortion and labor racketeering. Before sentencing DiNapoli received letters of support both from As­semblyman Jose Rivera and from State Senator Calandra, who described DiNa­poli as “an individual who has always responded to community needs.”

Friedman’s ally State Senator Joseph Galiber not only was joint owner of Jo­Pel Trucking with underworld figure William Masselli, who is now serving sev­en years in prison on federal hijacking charges, but has also politically support­ed Louis Moscatiello, widely reputed to be the “son” of Vincent DiNapoli. It was DiNapoli who began Plasterers Local 530, the union of which Moscatiello be­came president.

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Moscatiello, whose mob ties have been detailed in previous Voice articles, is now on the payroll of State Senator John Ca­landra. It was Moscatiello who inspired the recent civil court judge candidacy of Richard Gugliotta, the candidate Stanley Friedman tried to ram down the throats of Bronx voters. Gugliotta’s background includes once having been a serious scoff­law, a tax dodger, and a man whose clos­est allies have been people like Louis Moscatiello.

Friedman pulled out all the stops to try to get Gugliotta elected. Although Gugli­otta lost the primary, Friedman attempt­ed to get him placed on the ballot through the nomination of the Democrat­ic County Committee. Most of the dis­trict leaders went along with Friedman, and if Vincent Marchiselli hadn’t filed a successsful lawsuit, Gugliotta would have been on the Democratic line.

Other members of the Democratic County Executive Committee have done business with reputed mobsters. In 1982 the Voice revealed that Paul Victor, law chairman of the Bronx Democratic Coun­ty Committee and parliamentarian of the Executive Committee, represented Sonny Guippone on major narcotics selling charges. Guippone was known to federal authorities as a drug dealer responsible for moving millions of dollars of heroin throughout the Bronx, especially the South Bronx. He was convicted for nar­cotics trafficking and sentenced to 30 years.

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Friedman and his friends have been very successful in creating a total monop­oly of political power in the Bronx. Un­like Brooklyn and Manhattan where there are real battles between regulars, reformers, and Black and Brown political movements, the Bronx, even now, has no organized antimachine group. Reformers in the Bronx are few, unorganized, and in recent years most willing to make deals with Boss Friedman.

The big loser is the Bronx Democratic Party. “Since Friedman and his cohorts are only interested in doing business, we have a weak party with little connection to the concerns and problems of the Bronx,” explained State Senator Ruiz in  a recent interview.

The Democratic Party in the Bronx is not concerned with registering new voters who could create a challenge to the status quo. As long as there are few voters and low voter turnouts, the candidates the Bronx Party supports — who offer the voters so little — can continue to be re-­elected, thus perpetuating the power held by Friedman and his associates.

Generally, politicians who have been opponents of the machine, like Al Vann, Major Owens, Basil Patterson, and Her­man Badillo, have tended to be more pro­gressive and more responsive to their communities.

Politicians like Joseph Galiber, Rafael Castaneira Colon, Hector Diaz, or Enoch Williams, all sponsored by the machine, have tended to be weaklings with very little interest in empowering their com­munities. It is therefore very important how a minority politician comes to pow­er — whether through the efforts of orga­nized community people or simply as the machine’s choice.

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The one-party rule in El Bronx will be doing business as usual in the 1985 elec­tion for Bronx borough president and for City Council. In return for the machine supporting Latino incumbents, it is ex­pected that councilmen Rafael Casta­neira Colon and Freddy Ferrer, along with Ramon Velez and Joseph Galiber, will support the reelection of Stanley Si­mon for borough president and Ed Koch for mayor. The 1985 election in the Bronx may in fact be a referendum on one-party rule in the Bronx.

Most recently in the Bronx there have been some independent stirrings in the Black and Latino community. Surely the campaign of Jesse Jackson, pitted against the machine and Latino politicians who supported Mondale, began to produce the elements needed for an emergency rescue mission.

The 1985 opposition to Friedman will come from the activists of the Jackson campaign, from the reformers who were successful in electing Alexander Delle Cese to civil court judge and from unex­pected sources like Assemblyman Jose Serrano, who recently broke away from Koch, Friedman, and Simon, and an­nounced his support for Herman Badillo along with his own candidacy for Bronx borough president.

Signs of what is coming were seen in this past election year; independent forces began opposing the incumbents who are loyal to Friedman. In the North Bronx, young Black activist David Brush initiated a campaign to capture the 82nd Assembly District. Although knocked off the ballot (with a little help from Fried­man) he certainly intends to run again. In this same area, Black activist Alice Tor­riente will be running against Friedman ally Councilman Jerry Crispino.

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In the Fordham Road/Kingsbridge area of the Bronx, a number of progres­sive Blacks and Latinos supported the candidacy of Reuben Franco against As­semblyman George Friedman. Although Franco was defeated with room to spare, these Blacks and Latinos are now devel­oping their own independent political club. It is expected that this club will identify a serious challenger to run against Councilman Freddie Ferrer.

In the South Bronx, Soundview, and Parchester areas of the Bronx, a group of Black and Latino community organizers have developed the Bronx Rainbow Club. This group is emphasizing the importance of Black and Latino unity in de­feating Friedman’s machine and is plan­ning to run progressive candidates this year. It appears that Roberto Marrero, longtime tenant activist, will be their candidate against Councilman Rafael Castaneira-Colon.

There are many other independent ef­forts now being planned in the Bronx. Some of these emerging movements are guided by new progressive ideas while others simply seek to replace Friedman or one of his friends in order to seize power and use it in the Friedman/South Bronx tradition.

It is important to note that Black and Latino independents, reformers, and pro­gressives have yet to develop a long-range strategy for the seizure of power in the Bronx. Too many have been co-opted by the immediate crumbs. Both short and long-range strategies are needed. As long as these kinds of plans are neglected, Friedman’s power will indeed be secure.

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Herman Badillo has suggested that the prime strategy of all reformers, indepen­dents and progressives in 1985 should be to replace Bronx borough president Stan­ley Simon. “We cannot have a borough president who allows his position, his staff, and his vote on the Board of Esti­mate to be used by party powerbrokers that are only interested in enriching their legal practices,” says Badillo. Simon re­fused to comment.

“We must get rid of Stanley Simon,” said Badillo, “and instead elect a borough president who will be independent.” Oth­ers have agreed with Badillo that if Friedman loses control of the office of Bronx borough president he will lose con­trol of significant patronage, of the vote at the Board of Estimate, and access to information for business dealings.

If Serrano can unite with a Black/ Puerto Rican/Labor/Liberal citywide ef­fort to support Herman Badillo, and then link up with serious challengers like Tor­riente and Marrero, the Friedman ma­chine may indeed face its first serious challenge.

Friedman’s colonial machine is clearly prepared for such challenges. If a Puerto Rican runs for Bronx borough president the machine will find a Black like Joe Galiber, in hopes that he will divide the vote. If a Black runs, South Bronx caudi­llo Ramon Velez will certainly help them find a Puerto Rican to divide the vote. They will use all the power they have with the Board of Elections to make sure that any challenger is knocked off the ballot. They will call in Paul Victor, Stanley Schlein, and Murray Lewinter to represent incumbents and to pose legal challenges to the independent candi­dates. Friedman appoints the commis­sioner on the Board of Elections from the Bronx, so you can expect the board will cooperate with the machine.

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If a reformer is able to survive the chal­lenges from the Friedman forces, he or she will then face an election day in which all the poll watchers and personnel at the polling sites are part of the Fried­man machine. Irregularities will flourish. In a very recent race for district leader where a young Puerto Rican named Jose Rivera (unrelated to the assemblyman) ran against the incumbent in the 78th A.D., numerous illegal practices were cited in a lawsuit challenging the results.

Attorneys for Rivera, provided by State Senator Israel Ruiz, found that many inspectors were not members of ei­ther party, in clear violation of the law; in many of the election districts there were no inspectors at all; Republicans were al­lowed to vote in a Democratic primary, and unregistered voters were allowed to vote.

The Friedman colonialistas will do ev­erything and anything to remain in pow­er. They are businessmen first, second, and always, but they prefer to be called “political leaders.” Every day they obtain new Bronx clients and begin new con­struction companies, housing manage­ment corporations, consultant groups, and other types of enterprises. They do business with Republicans, reputed mob­sters, and “cooperative” Blacks and La­tinos. They successfully run a one-party state, ready to take on those who seek the independence of the Bronx.

But natives are beginning to stir. One small group after another is forming and the word is being spread: “Stanley Simon must go, and then, Stanley Friedman.” As the independent movement begins to develop, as they begin to unite, as re­formers begin to realize they must work with independent Blacks and Latinos, Stanley Friedman will go the way of all colonialistas, and independencia will soon arrive in the Bronx … ■

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES

Blowin’ in the Wind: A Folk-Music Revolt

On the frontier of every art form guerilla bands of prophets and crackpots are nourishing the orthodoxies and fashions of tomorrow.

A decade ago the frontier outlaws were men like Miles Davis, Paul Goodman, and Norman Mailer. Bereft of followers, holed up in private Sierra Maestras, they scrounged for economic survival. Today every branch of culture has its own tribe of far-out revolutionaries, pushing imagination to new limits of possibility. There are William Burroughs, Jack Gelber, Lenny Bruce, LeRoi Jones, John Coltrane, and Jonas Mekas. And they are no longer struggling merely for survival: they represent the organized revolt of one generation against the limitations of the preceding one.

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Folk music is one of the battlegrounds where the hegemony of the established canons and values is being challenged by a creative cadre of insurgents, all city intellectuals and almost all in their early or mid 20s, who write and sing topical songs characterized by radicalism, wit, immediacy, and poetry.

Their leader up to until now has been the mumbling, ragamuffin genius Bob Dylan, as much the symbol of this generation as James Dean was of his. Dean was a rebel without a cause, but Dylan has been the rebel of a dozen causes.

Then there’s Buffy Sainte-Marie, who writes of her fellow Indians and their brutalization; or Phil Ochs, one of whose songs was inspired by a Louis Aragon poem; Gil Turner, the ideologue of the topical movement; Tom Paxton, who wrote his most famous song between sets in that cavernous crucible, the Gaslight; Len Chandler, who has a M.A. from Columbia but who is broke because, instead of staying in the coffee house circuit, he spent last summer working free for SNCC; Billy Edd Wheeler, chronicler in song of the stricken coal country; and at least a dozen more who carry the seed of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly.

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The songs they write are not just traditional protests against war, poverty, and injustice, though even on those themes they are less mawkish and more corrosive than many of the songs of the ’30’s. Some of the songs are intensely personal statements like Buffy Sainte-Marie’s hypnotic warning against codeine addiction. Others glow with sardonic wit like Paxton’s “Daily News.” Others muse on the meaning of tragedy like Och’s “The Thresher” or Dylan’s “Who Killed Davey Moore?” Still others take a try at levels of meaning and Brechtian overtone, like Chandler’s “Roll, Turn, Spin.” Others come out of the jails and churches of the South, given shape by both white and Negro song writers, like “Ain’t Gonna Let Segregation Turn Us Around” and “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus.” And finally, there are songs like Dylan’s “Hard Rain,” a surrealist, post-Bomb view of the world, with such images as “a black branch with blood that kept dripping,” and “I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken.”

Most afficionados mark the birth of the topical song movement with the publication in February, 1962 in New York of the magazine Broadside (though the seeds of the movement go far back into the ’50s), put together by Pete Seeger, the selfless patron of the movement, Sis Cunningham, its chronicler, and Gil Turner, its talent scout. The first issue contained five songs, including “Talking John Birch Blues” by a 20-year-old named Bob Dylan. Fifty-five issues and 500 songs later, Broadside is the mimeographed bible of the topical song apostles and their disciples, stretching from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters.

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And after those three years the new-wave song writers are on the verge of dominating folk music. While threadbare tunes like “If I Had a Hammer” or “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” are now the property of the most commercial folk-singers and the most imaginative rock ‘n’ rollers, the repertoire of the most popular folk-singers — Seeger, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, or Peter, Paul, and Mary — is based on topical songs that a decade ago would have been blacklisted by every record company and radio station in the land. Even nightclub performers like Lena Horne and Bobby Darin have begun to incorporate topical songs into their acts.

In spite or their growing popu­larity and influence, though, the topical writers haven’t escaped some criticism along the line. Much of it comes from within their ranks, from established folk-singers who feel that all of them write too fast and lack the willingness to polish their songs. Here and there around the folk circuit there are also occasional mumblings that some topical writers are opportunist‚ that they only hopped on the political song bandwagon because they saw it was heading for success. Whatever private opinion might be, though, the songwriters are getting unprecedented attention. Says New York Times folk critic Robert Shelton, “There have always been periods of stepped-up activity in topical song writing during periods of American crisis. In this case it’s so pronounced you can’t really understand what college-age Americans are thinking today without paying a good deal of attention to it. It’s the cultural-philosophical expression from a whole new generation — an expression that should be studied and respected alongside the writings in literary quarterlies or beside slogans on picket signs.”

Next to Bob Dylan, whose work more and more is turning toward the mystical and symbolist, the most gifted of these writers — or certainly the most prolific — seems to be 23-year-old Phil Ochs, who fled journalism school at Ohio State in 1961 when he realized few papers would print his views undiluted.

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Today Ochs’ “agnostic Marxism,” sweetened by simple, often lyric melodies, is reaching more people than all the bloodless prose of all his classmates who stayed to master the inverted pyramid, a skill designed to dry up all creative juices.

Ochs is now in the position of a ballplayer who hit .285 his rookie year, or a dramatist who has written an impressive one-act play: everyone is predicting he is on he verge of a major breakthrough, that his meager $3000 earnings of 1963 will be 10 times that in 1965.

Lunch with a mutual friend and an hour interview illuminated only Ochs’ most obvious characteristics: his clear headed-ness, his candor, his wit, his left-wing politics. His pilgrimage to his current plateau parallels that of most of his contemporaries: at first, a wall of rejection from the established folk-singers upon his arrival in the Village in the autumn of 1961; then meeting Dylan and Turner and the coalescing of a faction around Broadside; “passing the basket” in the Third Side Cafe for six months; the first put-downs by major record companies; dates at the Gaslight Cafe and concerts; finally, cutting an album for Elektra Records and now editing the tapes for his second one to be released in February — “a militant, no bull shit record.”

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“I’m not a conventional folk-singer,” says Ochs when asked to define his talent. “I just use folk music to comment on the issues. My stuff is more an editorial than a song. I learned to play the guitar after I wrote a few songs.

“What we’re trying to do,” he explained, “is to give life to something that has been static for 20 years. We have had to overcome the bad reputation of those silly pop ditties of the ’50s. The major record companies are afraid of our material because it is so strong. They can’t believe a topical song can have any pertinence two weeks after it’s written.”

Then Ochs, the old journalism student, smiled and said: “Yes, pertinence, that’s the key word about us — put it in the article.”

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As the topical song writers grew from a fraction to a move­ment, their fans, many of them teenagers, began to invest them with a halo of heroism that bothers Ochs.

“There’s nothing noble about what I’m doing. I’m writing to make money. I write about Cuba and Mississippi out of an inner need for expression, not to change the world. The roots of my songs are psychological, not political.”

But because of his material, his life style, his friends, and his politics, Ochs has become an integral part of the Village Left, appearing at its parties, rallies, and in its magazines. Neverthe­less, he sees his political role as unromantically as he sees every­thing else, and subservient to his song writing.

One of the 130 songs he has written is called “A Knock on the Door,” a comment on the universality of totalitarianism. One of the verses recalls the Stalinist knock on the door.

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“Sure, some of my friends got upset at that verse and at a lot of others I’ve written. But they got over it. I know the dangers of letting politics dominate art, and I keep the two apart as much as I can … For example, I’m always getting asked to sing at this rally or that rally. I know I’m being used in the most callous way. But most of the time I go anyway, partly because it is good for my career, and partly because I see part of my job as a fund-raiser for SNCC.

”Another example is the new­est song I wrote, last week, about Mississippi letting those 19 men go free. It’s a hate song. It says Mississippi should get the hell out or the union. My friends in the Movement say I shouldn’t write a song like that but it rep­resents the hate I feel for Mississippi so I am going to add it to my new record, even though the tapes are already edited.”

Ochs’ rational view even ex­tends to his own talent. “I can tell I’m just beginning to write decent stuff,” he says. “I can feel the images and symbols coming more easily. And as I reach new levels, I can begin to fathom what Dylan’s songs are all about. What he does naturally, I still have to work at. But I’m getting there. I’m beginning to read poets like Brecht.”

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I asked him if he had read the Popularist poet Vachel Lindsay. He replied he had not, but asked me to write his name down and promised to buy some of his verse.

It is perhaps Ochs’ honesty and maverick spirit that are his biggest assets. The sense of outrage that fuels his pen is unencumbered by dogma. He knows how a party line can poison the wellsprings of creativity. So he goes on writing about the labor movement’s stains of racism, America’s folly in Vietnam, and songs like “The Ballad of Medgar Evers” and “I Ain’t Marching Any More,” the title of his new album. But he can also write a love song to America called “The Power and the Glory,” that con­cludes:

”Here is a land full of power and glory/ Beauty that words cannot recall/ Oh, her power shall rest on the strength of her freedom/ Her glory shall rest on us all/

“Yet she’s only as rich as the poorest of the poor/ Only as free as a padlocked prison door/ Only as strong as our love for this land/ Only as tall as we stand.” ■

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Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized Violence

Married to The Mob

The Wise Guy Wannabes

Editor’s Note: Before last week’s racial killing in Bensonhurst, reporters Mark Bauman and Samme Chittum spent sev­eral months in the neighborhood. Here is their report. Some of the names and iden­tifying characteristics in this story have been changed to protect the identity of the participants. 

NICO AND FRANK sit on a bench, waiting for some of the ass­holes from 86th Street to drive by. This is 81st Street, an important neighborhood bound­ary in Italian Bensonhurst, and guarding it is the righteous thing to do. The pavement is already littered with freshly broken bottles from a nearby garbage can recently dumped over an offending Tans Am that dared to cruise the border without an invita­tion. “For some reason I’m up all the time,” says Frank, a lanky 20-year-old with black hair and brown eyes who seems immensely likable when he doesn’t have a bat in his hand. “I just like to abuse people. That’s all.”

“That’s it,” intones Nico, satisfied that Frank has provided the best explanation for their nightly presence in the lot on the corner of 81st Street and 18th Ave­nue in Brooklyn. What looks like a bar­ren inner city park — a patch of asphalt dotted with a few trees and benches — is really a prized piece of real estate, an outpost on the edge of the largest Italian neighborhood in New York City. While Frank and Nico share their nightly com­munion of Bud tallboys in the park, their girlfriends play bingo at nearby St. Agnes.

Most of the guys on the comer spend their time pining after city jobs. But a few diehards like Frank strive for a posi­tion in “La Cosa Nostra,” one of New York’s oldest and most respected firms.

They are Bensonhurst’s hard-core. Some of them will eventually grow up to be wiseguys. Most of them won’t. None of them, however, will grow up untouched by the antiquated style and casual vio­lence foisted on them by almost a century of Mafia tradition. Seldom discussed ex­cept in oblique references, the Mafia presence still pervades Bensonhurst, cloaking the neighborhood in ostenta­tious secrecy, like the tinted windows of the stretch limousines that line 18th Avenue.

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To ingratiate himself with the local wiseguys, Frank has worked protection in Chinatown. He has also twice broken into a local video store directly across the street from the park where he and his friends hang out; both times, he was caught in the act. Frank has a local wise­guy sponsor who looks out for his inter­ests if Frank is arrested — or, worse, in­curs the wrath of another wiseguy. (Frank divorced his previous sponsor, who had recruited him to hit up the video store but didn’t follow through for Frank when he was arrested.)

Tall, athletic, and aggressive, with dark eyes and a lean sculpted face, Frank is the undisputed leader of the corner pack. Whereas Nico has grown weary of “feel­ing like a punching bag,” Frank still en­joys piling into a car with friends and, as he puts it, “going over to the the Village to beat up some yuppies.” Oddly, Frank’s toughness comes across not as mean or hardened, but as unbridled animal ener­gy. He is often sweetly charming and eager to make friends. He is also one of the first to fling a bag of garbage when a Hispanic passes by.

Thanks to an uncle in the union, Frank has worked part-time setting up props for soap operas. But he doesn’t like the idea of marking time nine to five. “A couple of years from now I’ll be in the Mafia,” he predicts, adding, “You know what I seri­ously figure: If I get shot in the head, I ain’t gonna’ feel it. That’s it. You’re dead.”

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IN SPITE OF THE VIOLENCE that lurks just beneath the surface, Bensonhurst ex­emplifies, in some ways, the stereotype of an urban Italian neighborhood popularized in such films as Saturday Night Fe­ver. Up and down 18th Avenue, girls in tight skirts and pants strut along in small groups, their long, lush hair sprayed to baroque heights. They pass bakeries full of sweet Italian pastries and block after block of stores specializing in wedding regalia. Happy brides and grooms, re­splendent in middle-class finery, beam from large gilt frames in photographers’ windows. Silver-haired men, speaking in the rhythmic cadences of their Southern Italian dialect, gather on the corners. Up and down the main drag, the kids cruise in big American-made cars, their win­dows tinted like real Mafiosi. In the dis­tance, a car horn sounds; in short, flat tones, it plays out the first 12 notes from “The Godfather” theme. On the side streets, immaculate, miniature front yards boast plaster statues of the Virgin Mary.

The same pacific image of the Virgin also adorns the burly right forearm of one neighborhood tough known as “Hard Jaw.” Tatooed on his other arm is an ornate red and green cross. It reads simply IN MEMORY OF AUGIE, a friend who was killed in a police chase several years ago.

Sudden death from less than natural causes is not unusual in Bensonhurst. Early last fall, Robert Napolitano, 19, of 1659 West 10th Street, went for a drive with his girlfriend, Lisa Ciullo. While they were parked, an unidentified man fired five shots through their windshield. Napolitano died instantly. His girlfriend survived with a wound in her left leg. A few weeks earlier, one of Napolitano’s best friends, Marco De Fina, 19, was also killed in an execution-style shooting. His body was dumped on a dirt road in an isolated industrial park in Coney Island. Neither case has been solved. The two fallen teens, however, left behind a cadre of Bensonhurst toughs ready to take their places on the street.

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Most of the guys who hang out at 81st Street and 18th Avenue are young and unemployed. Although few of them know more than a curse or two in Italian, they can all name the old towns in southern Italy from which their families came and for which most of the social clubs in the neighborhood are named. A few blocks from their corner is the old bakery where the “Pizza Connection” heroin busts were made. At 74th Street and 18th Avenue is the Caffe Giardino, allegedly owned by Giuseppe Gambino, nephew of Carlo, who served as ”boss of bosses” in New York until his death in 1976. In Decem­ber, Giuseppe and nine others were ar­rested at the cafe on suspicion of heroin and cocaine trafficking. Law enforcement agents appeared at the cafe, took the mi­crophone from a newly imported Italian singer, and reportedly announced that some of the guests had danced their last dance.

The Mafia gave up its aversion to deal­ing in drugs decades ago, but drug use in Bensonhurst is still largely forbidden. Nico describes how he saw Sal, a young enforcer for the mob, put a sleeper hold — ­a tight lock around the neck that cuts off blood and oxygen to the brain — on a crackhead. “Sal grabbed him and just put him to sleep, dropped him on the ground. The kid was out,” Nico says. “They’re up to no good, these crackheads. We’re cleaning the neighborhood up.” The youth of Bensonhurst pride themselves on keeping out disorganized crime such as muggers and burglars. “This neighbor­hood is Top 10,” brags Joey, a corner regular. “I rate it nine out of 10 on safety. My mother could walk through here with a hundred dollars in her pocket.”

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Street crime is not the only thing locals fight to keep out. New immigrants from Asia and the Caribbean are now making their way into Bensonhurst. Their recep­tion often includes having garbage bags and eggs thrown at them. As the young men who hang out on the corner see it, Little Italy has been almost wiped out by Chinatown and the surging waves of Asian arrivals. And the few remaining Italian neighborhoods in the Bronx get smaller every day.

“You have a siege mentality [in Ben­sonhurst] now,” says Bob Massi, a Brooklyn legal aid attorney who grew up in the neighborhood, hanging out on street corners and polishing his knuckles on other people’s faces. “The Italians who are there now have moved there from other parts of the city. It’s white flight — the last Italian neighborhood.”

In their own view, the armed legions of Bensonhurst are playing out their neigh­borhood’s final stand. Fortified by their faith in the Godfather myth and armed with baseball bats, beer bottles, and pam­phlets calling for a boycott of local Chi­nese businesses, the youth of Benson­hurst have taken their battle to the streets. “This neighborhood has been Italian for 100 years and it’s not going to change,” vows Salis Reyna, a neighbor­hood loyalist.

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ALTHOUGH ONLY LOWER-LEVEL Mafiosi still live here, the big players do business in the small but exclusive cafes that line 18th Avenue. “These guys are heroes to [the neighborhood] kids,” says one detec­tive familiar with Bensonhurst. Benson­burst is still a place where rules of long standing must be followed, and where stepping on the wrong toes can get you “clipped.” “We pretty much answer to certain people around here, wiseguy peo­ple,” explains Nico. ” ‘Cause they’ll shoot you in the head and not think about it the next day.”

Nico, 23, is a plumber who works off the books for people in the neighborhood. He has a wife, a girlfriend, a $600-a-­month apartment, two cars, and a Pom­eranian to support. He hasn’t worked for two and a half months, but that’s no problem. There’s always money to be made on his own scams or doing favors for local wiseguys.

As the oldest corner regular, Nico is treated with deference. He is trim and good-looking, with small regular features (the kind of face girls would call “cute”) and brown hair cut short on top and long in the back, like a neat rocker. Nico dresses in casual chic — jeans and a waist­-length black leather jacket — and usually sports heavy gold jewelry. In a neighbor­hood where men have perfected the art of boisterous camaraderie, his manner is subdued. Nico gives the impression of being in control, although his brown eyes shine with wry humor.

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“They always said I was gifted,” Nico says. “And I was supposed to be admitted to a gifted school. But I didn’t really want to go. Fourth grade they pushed me ahead to fifth grade. Fifth grade they pushed me to junior high. Junior high pushed me to high school. And high school I dropped out” — dropped out and got married.

Almost before the conjugal sheets were dry, Nico’s teenage wife began an affair. Nico had a serious talk with his wife’s father and promised not to hurt the in­terloper if he agreed never, under any circumstances, to drive or walk down 18th Avenue or 81st Street. To help even the score, Nico took a girlfriend. Neither he nor his wife has sued for divorce. These days, Nico continues to see both his wife and his girlfriend. Tonight, he will go bowling with his wife.

As Nico relates his story, a middle-aged man with stooped shoulders slouches by. “Hey Pete,” he calls jovially. “How’s the wife and kids?” The man drops his head and limps on. “His wife left him two months ago and took the kids,” explains Nico with a wry grin. “It’s a big mental scar for him.”

It is Sal — who also happens to be Ni­co’s girlfriend’s brother — to whom Nico and Frank look to as their sponsor. Sal­ — who is also a low-level arms dealer — ­doesn’t have time to hang out. “He’s got connections,” says Nico. “He’s on the payroll. He takes care of things when they need to be taken care of — some­body’s got to be hurt, somebody’s got to be finished. You know, whatever.” In spite of the fact that Sal’s father works for a rival firm — the New York Police Department — Sal’s career and reputation are legendary.

Not long ago, Sal’s van was broken into, and suspicion fell on a trio of locals who used to hang out on the corner but got a bad reputation when they began using crack and stealing. “One crackhead robbed a van,” Nico begins the story, which he and Frank toss back and forth like a football. “They thought he robbed a van,” Frank corrects. “Sal found one of them. He got Miles.”

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“Sal hit him over the head with a bot­tle,” Frank says. “Then he grabbed him by the back of the head and stuck the end of the bottle in his face, right in the nose. Thirty-six stitches.”

“Still, he just wanted to get a word out of him,” amends Nico. “He just wanted to get names.”

“So the guy he stabbed in the eye gave up everyone else,” continues Frank.

“He said he had nothing to do with it,” prompts Nico.

Sal soon caught up with the next kid. “He stabbed him in the throat — slit him — 17 stitches,” Frank says. “The kid was layin’ on a bench, and he lifted his leg up. Sal was goin’ for his heart but he stabbed him in the leg, ripped and went through his leg. And he wanted to kill him. But the kid ran out on the highway. So he just watched. He figured it would be like the nigger that got killed on the highway” — a reference to the Howard Beach incident.

“But there was no cars comin’,” says Frank, throwing up his hands in a gesture of mock helplessness. “There’s no cars comin’,” echoes Nico, laughing.

“So he got away. Then he found out it wasn’t even those kids,” Frank says, con­cluding, with a laugh, “it was someone else! So they’re friends again. So you know what Sal says. He says, ‘I’m sorry!’ ”

“I’m sorry!” exclaims Nico, also laugh­ing. “And the kid’s so petrified of Sal, he says, ‘Okay. Everything’s all right.’ And he’s got a scar from here to here.” Nico runs his finger from his ear to his Adam’s apple.

Nico later admits that one of the crack­heads was Sal’s brother. “Sal was lookin’ to kill him. He was lookin’ for him for a long time. He finally got to him and put the gun to his head, but he couldn’t do it. Because he knows his mother would nev­er forgive him. And he’d never forget it himself.”

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THE VIOLENCE THAT UNDERLIES the neighborhood’s calm surface is revealed in small as well as dramatic ways. Even when the guys on the corner are not doing anything that might attract police attention, they play at being wiseguys. Most of them own BB guns. And on a really slow night they meander down to Gravesend Bay and shoot at rats — “tar­get practice” for more serious games.

Nico gestures at “Little Ralphie,” an­other corner regular, and says, “That cocksucker shot me in the ass,” a con­gratulatory tone in his voice. “That was a real professional hit.” Nico relates how Little Ralphie pulled up in his car and squeezed off several shots. “I said, ‘Okay. That’s all right. I’ll get him later.’ Meanwhile, it left a welt this big on my ass. So when I was ready to leave, I was sittin’ in the car. I loaded it up. I said, ‘Okay, Sal, I’ll see you later.’ I rolled down the win­dow. Boom, boom, boom.”

In Bensonhurst, such games still have a counterpart in real life. Nico recalls how Sal warned a neighborhood local who had gone into debt to the wrong people. “He shot the kid six times. I mean point blank from here to the tree. The kid didn’t die. But Sal was using target practice bullets in a .32 and they were just bouncin’ off his leather jacket. Like gettin’ hit with a bat. They chipped his ribs. But they didn’t hurt him. Then his uncle came down and gave Sal $20,000 [not to kill him].”

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In addition to acting as muscle for the mob, Sal has a lucrative little side busi­ness, with which Nico occasionally helps him out. “The hand grenades are going like water,” says Nico. “Sold two dozen already.” At $100 a piece, Nico is think­ing about buying one himself. He already owns a handgun that he purchased from Sal. It is part of a small, traveling arsenal in Nico’s trunk that includes two baseball bats, a lead sap, brass knuckles, a ma­chete, and a tangle of wires Nico says is a phone tap.

Although Nico and the older guys on the corner always have plenty of cash for cocaine and custom windshields, most say that what they really want is a city or union job. Nico gestures toward a muscu­lar young man with a round face who is holding court on the corner: Everyone wants to know what he thinks of the big name next week. His manner is low-key, like the strangely suburban Accord hatchback he drives, a practical purchase made with proceeds from his mob-sanc­tioned bookie job. “That’s Pino,” says Nico. “He’s afraid of guns. He’s the gam­bling part. They have nothing to do with violence. Nothing at all. But he knows the street laws. He’s a smart kid that way. He don’t make trouble. We’re both looking to get into Conrail. He wants the benefits, just like I do.”

Due to competition from Asian and Caribbean gangs, the Mafia has not ex­panded much over the last few years, but its potential labor pool has. Few opportu­nities remain in New York’s “last Italian neighborhood.” “A generation ago we were working in construction and the skilled trades,” says Bob Massi. “We were printers, bricklayers, longshoremen. Those jobs are not so well-paid now. Those industries are gone. The kids are up against an economic brick wall. The world is a computer that has no unions and all they have left is the neighborhood.”

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IT IS FRIDAY NIGHT. Frank and the rest of the guys are out in full force. A restless spirit has added a festive air to the evening’s activities. Eggs are being pur­chased in bulk. Before the night is over, several dozen will be thrown. As a likely looking car drives by, Frank winds up a long and powerful pitch that unleashes with athletic speed, slamming his fragile missile against the moving target.

But throwing eggs isn’t really satisfy­ing. It’s much better to pick a fight. Fighting is, after all, a legitimate, even redeeming, pastime in a world marked by tribal divisions. According to Frank, Brooklyn Italians hate Long Island Ital­ians, Long Island Italians hate Jersey Italians, and they all hate Staten Island Italians. Furthermore, Brooklyn Italians from different turfs are also obliged to knock heads. “If different Avenues are at a club, they always have to fight each other,” he explains.

If no more likely target is available, the guys may stoop to beating up a bum in another neighborhood. But most of the time they would rather fight. In fact, it is part of Frank’s purported frustration with some of the passing victims that they aren’t eager to take on the 81st Street crew. The few blacks, Hispanics, or Asians who wander into the neighbor­hood are rarely anxious to tackle 10 to 12 young men clustered on the corner. But the lopsided numbers don’t perturb Frank — the rule is, outnumber and catch the outsider. Frank would expect the same treatment if be ventured alone out­side his boundaries.

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This group harassment is now being directed not only at passing pedestrians, but also at minorities who have recently moved to the neighborhood. These people cannot avoid Bensonhurst after dark. They live here.

“You know, you’re not white, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in the neighborhood,” says Gi, a Trinidadian immigrant to Bensonhurst who says he has twice been beaten and robbed by the local kids. After returning from a recent trip to the Caribbean, Gi says, his land­lord tried to evict him in favor of a white tenant.

Two young Hispanic men walk by the corner, both of them rather small. Frank cheers when Tim, an Irish-Italian corner regular, trots up behind them, an egg in one hand, and slams his fist into his victim’s face with a sickening crack. Yolk and shattered egg shell drip slowly down the young man’s chin onto the sidewalk. Frank applauds Tim’s efforts, but dispar­ages the victim: “The Mexicans are no fun. They don’t fight back.” Across the street, two Asian youths round the corner and Frank charges them, flinging a gar­bage bag at their retreating backs. “They walk through here like they got America by the balls,” says Tim, crying, in a mocking tone: ” ‘I got the green card. I got the green card.’ ”

Nico recalls an evening a few weeks earlier when he chased a young black couple down the street for “making out at the bus stop.” He casually admits to feel­ing bad when he found out they were retarded.

Across the street, a skinny 16-year-old named Angelo Berkowitz watches the egg-throwing but doesn’t join in. Angelo, who pleads guilty to being Jewish some­where back in his Italian lineage, stares out at the action from under a baseball cap pulled low on his forehead. “You know,” he says, taking in the scene, “they think they’re right, but they’re really wrong.” On the other hand, he argues with himself, “It isn’t such a bad thing, really. What if this neighborhood was Mexican and black and Chinese?” Would that be such a bad thing? “Yeah …” he replies, his voice trailing off.

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The evening winds down when a police car stops and two angry officers slam the doors, kicking half empty egg cartons out of their way. “You’d better knock this shit off,” snaps the tall, fair-haired one with glasses. “Haven’t you guys got any­thing better to do at your age?” The police pull away and Frank waves good­bye by grabbing his crotch. “I hate cops,” he says. “My dad hates cops too. He told me if I ever became a cop not to bother to come home.”

Breaking the neighborhood rules is not tolerated, but breaking the law is, espe­cially if it involves crime in a minority neighborhood. Nico freely admits to mak­ing money by working protection for a drug dealer in a nearby Puerto Rican neighborhood. A few weeks ago, he and a friend went to check out the drug dealer. “We figure we let him [the dealer] sit in the car for an hour and give him a little protection, a little whatever. Keep him warm. And he threw us some coke. The next thing we went back again and he gave us [some] again. He’s got this black guy who breaks heads for him. They’re all punks over there. It ain’t nothin’. I mean if we wanted to go over there and start takin’ over, it would be no problem.”

Like the real wiseguys, Nico also knows how to earn money the old-fashioned way: He extorts it. He says a woman friend of his is skimming money at a neighborhood grocery store. In return for not spilling the beans, Nico boasts, he pulls down several hundred dollars a week. In Bensonhurst, it’s called making a living.

From an early age, Bensonhurst kids are taught to look the other way when questionable business in progress in­volves their own. Dishonesty isn’t a crime, but giving up the wrong people is. Bob Massi recalls a childhood incident: “A guy my father knew walked out of his house. My father said, ‘Where’s Tony?’ I didn’t understand, so I said, ‘Right over there.’ He smacked me. ‘You don’t see nothin ‘,’ he said. ‘You never see Tony.’ ” ■

1989 Village Voice article, by Mark Bauman and Samme Chittum, about the influence of the Mafia in Bensonhurst - part of a Voice package about the murder of Yusef Hawkins

1989 Village Voice article, by Mark Bauman and Samme Chittum, about the influence of the Mafia in Bensonhurst - part of a Voice package about the murder of Yusef Hawkins

1989 Village Voice article, by Mark Bauman and Samme Chittum, about the influence of the Mafia in Bensonhurst - part of a Voice package about the murder of Yusef Hawkins

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

This Land Is Your Land

Borders That Stretch from Beijing to Bensonhurst

I COULD HAVE BEEN KILLED on that street corner in Bensonhurst. And that corner is precisely where we part company — “I” am not you, un­less you share my heritage and look like me. My “I” is fatally specific: I am a brown-skinned descendant of enslaved Africans, holocausted Chero­kees, and invisible Europeans, and I am despised and feared and envied the world over. Define me black.

Democrats in Bensonhurst and China agree: “Black men better stay out of our gardens.” Most people have forgotten the antiblack Chinese riots before Tianan­men Square; like their Brooklyn counter­parts, the Chinese students, who would be canonized in a few months by an eager U.S. press, shouted the message: “Our women are our turf. You trespass on ei­ther and we will kill you. (Try us.)” When I look at those grainy black-and-­white photographs in the Daily News and the Post of that young boy’s dead body lying on a stretcher, my mind wants to cry but my eyes won’t let me. My eyes are too tired — they’ve seen this shot before and they’re too used to it.

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I grew up in a middle-class neighbor­hood of row houses in the Bronx called Eastchester. When my parents moved in, our block was almost all white, but that was in 1968. Most of the children I played with were brown, and only the half-generation just above me was “mul­ticultural”: there was Frankie and Valerie (Italians), there was Jennifer (Jamaican), there was Cindy and Blossom (Chinese), and so on. But in the group just below, there was us — Randy, Rodney, Orchid, Valery, Albert, Carey — and we were all brown.

Do parents whisper warnings in their children’s ears? I don’t know, but I knew early on to stay away from the neighbor­hood next door: they don’t like black peo­ple. I’m not sure when I began to reflect on the warnings’ meaning, and I don’t know when racist words like guinea or wop entered my consciousness, but I do know that I was practically born with a wariness about the middle-class Italian neighborhood next to my own.

Their neighborhood was always cleaner than ours, their houses better kept. (Were their garbage pickups more regular? Did they respect their property more than we did? Did those hallowed white streets just seem cleaner?) My parents drove us to and from the library in their area, be­cause their branch had more books, and people returned them unmarked. My par­ents always bought ice cream chiffon cakes for my birthday parties from bak­eries in their neighborhood and we hired them as plumbing and home-improve­ment contractors because “they put care into whatever they do.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”724836″ /]

But something sinister hid underneath all that chiffon, behind those neat flower gardens, within those clean brick houses. And that sinister thing whispered STAY AWAY. Just your green, not your black, thank you. STAY AWAY. When I was about 12, I started hearing stories about brothers getting the shit kicked out of them for dancing too well with white girls. Walking past an outdoor basketball court in their neighborhood, I heard the word “nigger” tossed at me, as if in con­versation. I looked straight ahead and walked on home.

It’s too simple to say that all those folks were racist killers or that Italian neighborhoods per se are any more dan­gerous for black men than other nonblack neighborhoods. On analysis, simple looks are always lies — who’s to prove that the crime in my black neighborhood doesn’t have some subtle black-dissing-black cause, some nigger-ain’t-worth-shit-any­way dimension? But about that American neighborhood next door to mine, we can say this: black means dirty, black soils things, black is unwanted.

There’s proof: Willie Turks, Richard Ocana, Samuel Spencer, Michael Griffith, Derrick Antonio Tyus — and now Yusef Hawkins.

“Them niggers will ruin our clean, fresh women.” Shit is so tired, and so common. Kills a piece of me. Makes me want to holler, but I can’t: too much work to do. Make me want to cry. ■

Next: “Married to The Mob: The Wise Guy Wannabes” by Mark Bauman and Samme Chittum

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized Violence

Do the White Thing

Fear Eats the Soul

[Spike] Lee is cagey and talented, but he’s a classic art-school dilettante when it comes to politics … His film … is more trendoid than tragic, reflecting the latest rifts in hip black separatism rather than taking an intellectually honest look at the problems he’s nibbling around . … All these subtleties are likely to leave white ( especially white liberal) audiences debat­ing the meaning of Spike Lee’s message. Black teenagers won’t find it so hard, though. For them, the message is clear … The police are your enemy … Whites are your enemy.
— Joe Klein, New York Magazine

I’D LIKE TO SHARE A STORY with Joe Klein. Though perhaps in light of the murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst, its moral may have al­ready occurred to him.

One summer afternoon in New Haven, a white friend went walking with her white boyfriend through the green across from Yale’s old campus. Most students had cleared out, leaving this economically depressed and predominantly black and Italian city to its own devices. Viv and Ned passed three young black men who were hanging out on a bench, cranking a radio, blasting a song called “Drop a Bomb On the White Na­tion.” According to Viv, the homies said nothing, maybe didn’t even notice them; but she sure noticed them. All of a sud­den, she said later, she was convinced they wanted to kill her. Why? Because she was white.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725402″ /]

Now, I understand fear and feeling en­dangered — that, unfortunately, is femi­nine intuition — but when this story was related to me I just laughed. It all seemed so obvious: Here’s this nice white student continuing on the road to economic as­cendancy — a very complicated given predicated on a racist, classist system. (Forgive the revolutionary tone.) Here are these young black men — statistically, their stars are not rising. They were just listening to the radio. What was she thinking? Her racial anxiety didn’t just shift, it flipped: subconsciously, she con­cluded that if we black folks aren’t mad at white folks, we should be. Repressing this conclusion, she arrived at a blind sense of threat. Others go further: Some of the best white supremacist rhetoric is couched in the language of self-defense.

I’m not a fan of reading movies as ambiguous and nuanced as Do the Right Thing as agitprop, or even thinking that a director has the special handle on his film; Spike has said some iffy things. Even so, when Joe Klein wrote that the film might lead to riotous behavior on the level of the Central Park Horror, he turned reality on its head. Instead, why didn’t he envision this, more common scenario: in a city tense about race issues, a gang of white youths hunt down four black men and kill one of them.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716036″ /]

Klein seems unable to accept that black moviegoers can become angry with­out rioting; he also ignores the possibility of backlash, of a reverse race riot. But while Klein is baffled by the complexities of what Lee put onscreen, the residents of Bensonhurst are unable to admit the simple reality of what happened on their streets. Witness the defensiveness of their responses: it wasn’t racism, it was a case of mistaken identity, or the age-old axe murder/rapist/molestor/batterer de­fense, “He couldn’t have done it, he was always a nice guy.” The fact is, you don’t know whether someone is racist until they come face to face with another race — or until they feel the need to justify the racist actions of a neighbor.

This past Sunday my brother, some friends, and I were having brunch. One person at the table was reading the cover of The Daily News, something about wa­termelons and a jeering crowd of young Bensonhurst residents out to rid the neighborhood of protestors. Watermelons and racist exhibitionists and another black death in New York City. Suddenly, it was all too cartoonish and hopeless. My brother just began to laugh his beau­tiful soft laugh, slightly hysterical. I joined in — our two friends, both white, just looked horrified. ■

Next: “This Land Is Your Land” by Joe Wood

1989 Village Voice article by Kathy Dobie about murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst

1989 Lisa Kennedy article for the Village Voice about the murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst and also Joe Klein’s obtuse review of DO THE RIGHT THING

Categories
From The Archives Neighborhoods NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized Violence

The Boys of Bensonhurst

A Neighborhood’s Rage — and an Eyewitness Account

I didn’t see nothing, and even if I did see something I didn’t see nothing.
— A Bensonhurst teenager

ON THURSDAY, when I arrived in Bensonhurst, neighborhood people, cops, and reporters were milling on the cor­ner where, the previous evening, Yusef Hawkins had been shot and killed by a crowd of neighborhood boys. In the apartments above the candy store and beauty salon, men, women and children hung out of the win­dows, watching. Gina Feliciano — the 18-year-old girl who had enraged the neigh­borhood boys by, presumably, dating a black guy — lives in one of those apartments and I wondered which one was hers, but I knew the window would be darkened, the blinds drawn. Around the corner, a wavering line of chalk marked the place where Hawkins, who was 16, had died — because he was black and be­cause he had tripped the wire of some­one’s “manhood.” Gina was in hiding — as if she had pulled the trigger — and a neighborhood was defensive and angry.

“My old man told me don’t say any­thing to reporters if I want to see my children. He’s 40 and he could still break my legs.” The speaker, a young man, works at a bakery; he’s wearing a white apron, white pants and a white tank top.

“I don’t trust nobody anymore,” a kid tells a reporter. “Why should I tell you anything? You just say what you want to say anyway.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”716742″ /]

“Well, then why do you come out here every day?” the reporter asks.

“‘Cause you’re here,” says one kid.

“Because we have to defend ourselves,” say another.

Neighborhood residents insist the Hawkins incident wasn’t racial. They blame the girl. “She provoked them,” they tell reporters, because, apparently, Gina had said her boyfriend and his friends were coming into the neighbor­hood and they were going to show the white boys something. “If she said I’m gonna bring my Irish boyfriend in to fight you, the same thing would’ve happened,” one man says.

Many of the kids don’t even think Keith Mondello — one of the five who had been arrested for the attack — was seeing Gina. “She’s a skag,” they say. “Let’s put it this way,” a recent high school gradu­ate told me. “A lot of boys have memories of her.” It seems she has been an outsider for some time. “She went bad,” says a mother who has known Gina since she was a little girl.

When Gina dropped out of high school and began to attend secretarial school, she made a lot of black and Hispanic friends. People on her block — including adults — had been telling her for awhile not bring those kind of people into the neighborhood anymore. Wednesday — the night of the killing — was Gina’s birthday.

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BY HIS OWN ADMISSION, Michael’s an anomaly. He stays out of trouble, does well in school and plans on going to college. He loves his neighborhood, and when I talk with him two nights after the murder, he’s struggling with that love. “I used to hang out there with these guys three or four years ago. I didn’t think they were capable of doing this. I really didn’t.” He’s sitting in the kitchen with his sister, Sheila and his mother, Rose.

Michael and Rose don’t believe the incident was racial, but they don’t defend the kids either. When a 24-year-old suspect was arrested, Rose said, “A twenty-four-year-old hanging out in the schoolyard!”

“Their set of morals are different,” Rose says. “They don’t think of death as a terrible thing.” Michael cuts in, “It’s another notch on their belts.” Rose says there are lots of young men who believe in a “distorted” picture of the mob and play at being gangsters. Rose asks if I’m Italian. No, I say. “How can I explain?” she sighs. Her parents came from “the other side.” They met in night school studying English, educated themselves, wanted to get ahead. “The ones coming over today don’t bother to learn the language, they don’t care about education.” She says they don’t know what their kids are doing in school because they can’t talk to the teachers. They lose track of their kids in the world.

“Different things are important to me,” says Rose. “School is important to me. Respect is important to me.”

“That’s what the kids wanted,” Mi­chael says to her. “Respect from the street.”

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“That’s not respect,” she retorts.

“Ma, open your mind!” Michael counters. “For them, that’s respect.”

Rose taps her cigarette impatiently. “You shoot somebody point blank with a gun and you didn’t think you were gonna end up in jail?”

“They didn’t think anybody would talk,” Michael says.

“They have to sleep with themselves anyway.”

The guy the cops are looking for — Joey Fama, the alleged murderer — is, Michael says, “a typical Guido.”

“A coward Guido,” Rose says.

“A brown-noser,” Michael says.

“Now who would he be brown-nosing?” Rose asks.

“I don’t know, Ma,” Michael says.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718817″ /]

BOBBY IS PUERTO RICAN and moved into the neighborhood when he was 16. About a month later, he was sitting with his little sister outside the house when four guys cruised by, calling him Puerto Rican this and Puerto Rican that. Bobby just turned and went inside. But the next day he got four carloads of his friends from the old neighborhood. They had weapons, but they didn’t fight. They just predicted the future — not too promis­ing — of the white kids if they touched a hair on Bobby’s head. Bobby was left alone after that. “My stepfather’s Sicil­ian,” he says. “And he always told me, ‘Stick with your own people. You can trust them a little more than others.’ ”

Bobby’s 28 now, married, with a kid, and works as a maintenance man for the local church, St. Dominic’s. He doesn’t have to fight anymore — not with his fists, at any rate. Bobby’s looking for a larger apartment because he and his wife want another child. “I went to all the realtors on 18th Avenue. Every place they sent me to was out of the neighborhood. They keep trying to move me to Coney Island. And they do it with a straight face!”

We’re sitting outside the church. The sun’s slanting low and the women are arriving for Bingo. Bobby calls the old ones baby, and they love it. He says the neighborhood kids hang out in front of the church at night. He imitates them, slouched, arms folded, their faces immo­bile — “like old men.” Bobby doesn’t get it. When he was their age he was seeing girls, going out dancing, playing pool.

Bobby say Father Arthur of St. Domi­nic’s, organized a basketball league and opened the gym at night for the neigh­borhood kids but they kept pulling shit like shutting out all the lights in the mid­dle of the game. So Father Arthur said, “Everything to you guys is a joke. Well I’ll how you what a joke is …” And he barred hem from the gym for the rest of the season. “He only lets the really young ones in now,” Bobby says.

Later that night, I meet a kid who says he can’t talk to me because one time, his friends thought he “ratted” on them and three of them jumped him. He’s husky, built strong, but he didn’t fight back just, ducked and blocked the punches as best he could because he thought they might run to their car and get their bats or maybe even a gun. He tells me about an 18-year-old neighborhood kid who was found handcuffed, both legs and arms broken, six shots in the back of his head. “The kids around here don’t do anything their fathers wouldn’t do,” he says.

ON SATURDAY, up until almost the mo­ment Reverend Al Sharpton and the pro­testers arrive, the crowds on 20th Avenue are calm. Nothing is going to happen, I’m told, “not with all the cops here.” I sit with a group of boys who joke about Gina. But when we get around to discuss­ing racism, the talk turns angry. One guy pulls down his shirt, revealing some heavy gold, and asks angrily, “Do you think I could walk through Bed-Stuy like this without getting shot?” “What about all the times a white person gets killed by a black person — why isn’t that racial?” “What about Central Park?” Then they discuss affirmative action — the white man’s on the bottom of the totem pole, they complain. “If I go to get a job at the Transit Authority, do you think I’ll get one?” An older man walks with me away from the crowd, sadly shaking his head. “They don’t think before they open their mouths,” he says. “They mix things up. They don’t understand that they could get a job at the TA. They could get out of here if they tried.”

Then the cops’ walkie-talkies are buzz­ing with news of the marchers’ location. Some neighborhood people have brought signs and hold them up for the TV cam­eras — WE ARE NOT RACISTS, and NO MORE TAWANA BRAWLEYS — and the crowd cheers. Then the sound of sirens, the sight of cars and a bus being whisked to the back entrance of the schoolyard. Everyone rushes over there, and as the protesters start pouring into the school­yard, the white kids push up against the chain link fence, girls getting hoisted onto their boyfriends’ shoulders. “Sharp­ton’s using you!” a blond girl starts yell­ing. A teenage boy says to his friend, “You know they got fear in their hearts.” And then, “Smell that stench in there.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”724831″ /]

One man is holding up a huge card­ board sign: WE ARE ALL GOD’S CHILDREN — DEATH HURTS US ALL. “Put that sign away,” a kid yells. “Yusef, Yusef,” the protesters begin to chant. “Fuck you, fuck you,” one white kid howls back. “Watch your mouth dude. We don’t want no trouble,” says another. “Jon Lester for  president!” from another part of the crowd. There’s a frantic “shush” from some quarters, laughter from others. The crowd twists against itself. “Don’t let them show us up,” one of the whites yells. “This is our neighborhood. What the fuck is this! Once again they’re kicking us out of our neighborhood.” A boy yells, “Fucking niggers!” and applause and cheers sweep the crowd, making it one.

Then the cops are standing in two rows at the schoolyard gate, channeling the protesters through. The marchers move out onto 20th Avenue, 10 to 12 people to a row, and the whites, mostly kids, teen­agers, and men in their early twenties, run along the sidewalk next to them. “We want the killer!” the protesters chant. “Go home monkey face!” the crowd re­sponds. “Break out the coconuts!” A black woman occasionally flips the finger at the howling boys, but does not look at them. A few blocks away from the school­yard and the calls of “nigger” propel one black man out of the lines. Whites and blacks rush in and cops push and hop into the middle of the scuffle, nightclubs raised. When the groups are separated again, a photographer says, “That was the best yet. No blows, but …” “Did you see that?” a white man says breathlessly. “They attacked us. Police brutality!”

“Our streets!” goes the new chant of the marchers. The white kids go crazy. “You’re losers!” “Go home to your crack-­infested projects!” A block later a white kid charges through the line of cops, straight to Sharpton, whose guards sur­round him immediately. The attacker is chased by cops. “They showed their true colors today,” Sharpton says. A young black woman, her face wet and eyes dazed, heads out of the ranks as if she’s sleepwalking, but before she enters the white sea, two protesters pull her back. “They want that house for free!” yells a neighborhood man. “They think freedom is a free house!” One marcher remarks to another, “They fought three wars with that shit in their blood.”

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After another scuffle, a neighborhood man calls, “Look, look!” He points to the ground. I look down and there’s his card­board sign — WE ARE NOT RACISTS — cov­ered with scuff marks, two cops planted firmly on top of it. “They won’t give me my property.” He’s frantic, weeping. “Re­verse racism!”

The return march from the police sta­tion seems calmer somehow. The march­ers begin to chant, “Poor white trash!” and black and white boys grab at their cocks, challenging each other to step over the line. “It takes two of yours to make one of mine,” croons a black man. “I got balls, I got balls, come on over here,” a white kid yells. “White pussy boy,” calls a marcher.

Once, there’s almost a conversation. “Malcolm X is a racist!” a white boy screams and the black protesters groan.

“Who’s more racist than you?” a black man answers.

“Sharpton’s using you!” the white man yells back.

“It’s not about Sharpton. He’s not im­portant. It’s about Yusef.”

“I didn’t kill Yusef. None of these peo­ple here killed Yusef.”

But then both crowds are shouting and the two men are drowned out and swept by their respective groups down the street.

When we finally return to the school­yard, the Bensonhurst kids are fenced out, and they start spitting through the fence at the protesters. One guy is sud­denly darting for something on the ground in front of me. Just then, the cops push everyone across the street. A black reporter reaches down for the same ob­ject the white kid was trying to get — a soda bottle — and with anger and disgust etched deeply into his face, he throws it hard to the sidewalk and it splinters into a thousand useless pieces.

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On the other side of the street we’re kept behind cars, crowded close together. When the kids see me writing, they start yelling things for me to jot down. A boy shoves a watermelon in front of me. “I went to Africa and brought a tropical watermelon,” he announces. “We’re not racist!” another boy says gleefully. “Write that down.” They’re tired of being good and sorry. They’re having fun. Then the kids start singing, “We Are the World.”

There will be a memorial service for Yusef Hawkins at the site of the killing the next day, and when the protesters have driven away, a tall man holding a baby announces a “baseball game” sched­uled for tomorrow morning. “Bring your bats,” he says. “This is our neighborhood, not theirs.” On the corner, another man is yelling at a police officer that he has his name and badge number. He’s furious because during the march the officer hadn’t let him go into a store to buy a soda. He screams, “You weren’t a cop today, you were black!” The kids are de­ciding what to do with the watermelon. You can tell they’d like to eat it but they can’t now. “Throw it on the ground,” one kid advises.

Roy Innis holds court outside a bakery, and neighborhood people are talking to him eagerly and more articulately than they do to the reporters. “Why does the media only talk to the kids?” an older man asks. “They’ll say anything, do any­thing because of the TV cameras — why do you think they had a watermelon? Looking like fools!” Innis tells them not to let the media back them into a corner. “Where are the reporters now?” someone says. “They start this whole thing up and then they leave.”

Three women talk on the corner. “I didn’t even know there was going to be a march today,” one says. “This is a shame,” says another. “Now my kid is using the word ‘nigger.’ ” Another says, “The problem is, we have no leaders.”

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AFTER THE MARCH, Tony is hanging around like someone with no place to go. He’s slight, brown-eyed, with a soft, expressionless face. That morning his mother had warned him to stay in the neighborhood today, to “stay where peo­ple know your face.” “I didn’t even know they were going to march,” Tony says. “Then I saw my friend and he said there’s gonna be a fight.” So he came right over.

Tony and I walk a few blocks away and sit on a stoop. “Do you know what a ‘baseball game’ is?” he asks me. “I figured it out,” I say, and ask if he’s going to be there. He says, “I’ll be there. I’ll park my car in the schoolyard.” Says it without any passion, like an obedient child.

Our conversation happens upon the murder by mistake. “They didn’t shoot the right one,” Tony says. “I was there. I saw him fall.” He stares out at the street. He doesn’t pour out the story, just an­swers my questions as if he would’ve an­swered anybody that had bothered to ask him. He calls Joey Fama “my friend” throughout the conversation. Says they had gone drinking at the Bay Lounge the night of the shooting. Drank vodka and rum. When they came to the corner, they bought some beer. “Then my friend was really zooted.” There were about five of them hanging out. He remembers Joey saying, “Wait. I’m going to the house and get my gun.” He says there were still only five guys hanging together on the corner when they spotted the four black kids heading down the avenue, but other neighborhood kids started following them. Kids started going to their cars — maybe there were baseball bats, Tony says, but no one got a chance to use them.

[related_posts post_id_1=”4736″ /]

Tony says Joey pointed the gun at one of the kids. “The black kid started getting really scared. He says, ‘Wait, wait, please wait.’ My friend says, ‘No, you fucker, you was fucking with my girl­friend.’ Then he pulled the trigger. Pop, pop. I didn’t know it was going to hap­pen, it just happened. When I got home I told my mother, and she said, ‘These are the kind of friends you want to pick? You’re gonna end up in jail.’ ” He waits for me to finish writing, patient as a dog.

“The black kid said, ‘I’m not the one. I don’t even know who your girlfriend is. I just came here to buy a car.’ My friend said ‘That’s bullshit.’ ” He started cursing at him. The black kid kept backing up. My friend said ‘Don’t back up anymore.’ He said ‘Okay, Okay. I’ll beg on my knees. Please, please …’ and he just shot him. That was it. He just fell. The way he shot him — blood came out in four differ­ent directions. I never saw nothing like this before. My heart dropped, my feet started running.”

Speaking of Yusef, Tony looks at me. “His parents were freaking out probably, huh? I saw his father on the news.” When a man who lives in the house comes out, Tony scoots quickly to the side of the step. “Hi. How you doin’?” he says polite­ly. The man looks at him once without any friendliness and nods his head. I of­fer Tony a cigarette. “I saw a kid get beat up by two men for letting out some infor­mation,” he says. It happened on the same candy store corner. “I’ll never forget that as long as I live.” He’ll never forget the black kid being shot either, he adds. “Were you surprised Joey did it?” “I knew he had it in him. I knew he had the heart to do it,” Tony says. “But I thought he was just going to point the gun and scare the guy. But everything turned out different.” ■

Next: “Do the White Thing” by Lisa Kennedy

1989 Village Voice article by Kathy Dobie about murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst

1989 Village Voice article by Kathy Dobie about murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst

1989 Village Voice article by Kathy Dobie about murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Where Have All the Hipsters Gone?

What’s going on around here? Where the hell is everybody? I’ve been living in the West and East Villages for the past 13 years and I’ve known a gang of people all over New York, but where are they now? I went to the recent peace congregation in Washington Square and with the exception of a pair of friends from a subterranean newspaper and the peripatetic Nat Hentoff, I saw not one face I recognized. Not one! including those on the speakers’ platform, and I’ve been pounding against the abomination of this war since 1964. Where is that whole happy tormented crowd I used to know? Driven from the Village to the Lower East Side too … where? Where are they? Or maybe the question should be: where am I?

Recently I decided to break out of and away from certain stultifying and treacherous patterns to which I had anchorweighted myself; things as simple as always taking the same out when going from one place to another. When I lived on Charles Street in the Village (’59 to ’63) I pretty much stayed in that community. Since ’63 I have lived on the Lower East Side (nine bleeping years! a quarter of my life!). Since I’ve been here I haven’t gone back to the Village much so I decided that for old times’ sake I’d right-angle it down MacDougal and east across Bleecker one Wednesday morning a week or so before the peace thing. It was a bad idea. It has become Desolation Row.

[related_posts post_id_1=”674582″ /]

In the early ’60s residents of the Village complained that creeping moneylust was going to turn Bleecker and MacDougal into another Coney Island. On that recent Wednesday morning ramble I couldn’t help thinking it should only look as nice as Coney Island. The old familiar places the crucially vital organs — gone: the Remo the Figaro the Kettle of Fish the Cafe Bizarre … now vacant stores and even the occupied ones have dusty windows the hue and texture of pavement. No one — but no one on the street. Wine bottles lumping in clusters of paper bags in the doorways — and somehow I couldn’t believe they were left by the cheerfully wrecked poets and painters of beat-time — but rather by those professional mourners from a few blocks further east where Third Avenue bends into Bosch.

Where are they? Where have all the hipsters gone? The people whose speech was musically suffused with slang five years before people in Boston and Chicago even knew what the words meant. People who did all the new dope before others knew it existed. I remember a black actor-friend in 1960 telling me (as we went out to haul beer back to the endless party) of “this really insane dope I took. I don’t even know what it’s called — but it’s just a little brown [word missing] cube of sugar and I stayed high all day Man …” People who dressed like Bonnie and Clyde in 1963 — before it became fashionable — when it was hip. You had to have some kind of together head to carry that.

Someone recently asked me, “What’s happening on the Lower East Side?”

I answered, “I don’t know. I haven’t lived there for three or four years.”

“But I thought …”

“Oh my apartment is still there. And I sleep there almost every night. I just don’t live there.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”716114″ /]

It’s been too scary. In ’63 I could sleep comfortably stoned in Tompkins Square Park on a bench by myself and be awakened around dawn by pure sweet saxophone music. Lately I get nervous there on Sunday afternoons with four friends. The last time I walked the length of Avenue B was two and a half years ago when I moved into the place in which I now life. I had to go to the lumber yard on 13th for bookcase material. The lumber yard and most of 13th Street between B and C is now gone — as though the hand of Wotan descended from empyrean precincts and removed it as some kind of arcane warning to us witless mortals.

And the joints. Those warm giddy bars and stupormarkets which used to pump such fine bright highs into the neo-bohemian nights. Stanley’s, at 12th Street and Avenue B, once the best hip bar in the city, seems to have reverted to the Polish-Ukrainian neighborhood tavern it was before the onslaught of chinhair and tits at the beginning of the last decade.

The Otherplace looks foreboding, and we all know what happened to Linda and Groovy downstairs from the Annex which was putatively responsible for its closing. In order to travel the streets of the Lower East Side at night on foot you have to be with a paranoid of friends, totally ripped on booze, or so stoned on something else that your interest is psychopathically focused on things not concerned with survival.

The jollies I got in the Village I once could get on the Lower East Side. I even got an 11-pound novel out of it. I don’t get those jollies now in either place — but there is an area in town where I do still get that fine jumping rush, an area where the women seem more together in their heads than elsewhere, where men regard one another with apparent friendly warmth (which is not to say that there is a lack of healthy cynicism), where blacks and whites still seem able to inter-act without visible hostility, an area where you can say “Bird” or “Brautigan” or “gesso” and people will know what you’re talking about. SoHo.

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I’ve been roaming SoHo lately and though the fear-vectors are somewhat present for me (they’re everywhere now I guess) there is that precious old rush that jab-and-tingle of intense energy-levels loose on any given seemingly-deserted block. You can actually feel it zapping out of the buildings and it shakes your nervous system by its very vitals. It is as though you become enveloped in a dense paisley fog of productivity. That dance.

Frug on down to SoHo any Saturday afternoon on West Broadway on Prince on Spring … and you’ll see a lot of people who look like the people who used to come to the Village on Sunday to pin the beatniks. Very like them. They stream into and pour out of the galleries and honky-tonks. Remember how it used to be on 10th Street between Third and Fourth? Same number. A couple of months ago a painter-friend said (as we ate a midweek lunch of beer in a rather charming little bar/restaurant he had introduced me to that very day), “You should make it down here on a Saturday afternoon when the painters take this place over.” At the time the clientele was composed of about one-third painters, one-third truckdrivers, and one-third indistinguishable others.

The following Saturday I did go back. When I pushed through door were perhaps eight people in the front half of the smallish establishment. It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon. I got a beer, sat down at an empty table, and began rather offhandedly jotting down first-draft notes for a recipe I’m thinking of writing. Twenty minutes later I looked up from the scribbling and there were 400 people in the place and 20 times more hair than there was on the stage at the last Miss America contest. It was Stanley’s and it was 1963 again. You couldn’t get to the men’s room. The waitress had to quit waitressing because she couldn’t get herself, let alone a tray of lush, through that luscious throbbing jam. Theoretically one could probably have gotten laid (or maybe “stood” would be a more accurate word) without anyone but you and and your sexual conspirator knowing it. It was not a little exhilarating. Everybody seemed to know everyone else and it was like the kitchen at home on Christmas Eve. Like a warm hip square-dance in the wilderness with everyone simultaneously doing the calling to his own private do-see-do allemande left. Even I knew a lot of people, some of whom I hadn’t seen in years. Since the Lower East Side was alive and not fraught with incendiary creeps and ghouls. I saw people from Stanley’s. And people I had been avoiding calling for months and the relationships were pretty much all cool and straightened by the time I left. I miss that kind of place.

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But some people who live down there have told me that they give the scene maybe two years in its present state — and that made me sad. Maybe they’re wrong though. There are no quaint shops and art movie houses and charming brownstones down there such as those which attract accountants and their wives to the Village. No Nathan’s. No Blimpies. Just a lot of shabby gray loft buildings. And a few galleries. And a few choice bars. And a couple of sweet little eatfood places. And probably more intensely concentrated creativity than you’ll find anywhere in America. Maybe even the world. But you can’t see that from a tourist bus.

Talent in New York does have an abstruse way of coming together like that. In ’63-’64 at Stanley’s (before anybody knew who most of them were) you might have walked in on any given afternoon or evening and encountered writers such as Ishmael Reed, Calvin Hernton, David Henderson, Ron Sukenick, Allen Ginsberg, Tuli Kupferberg, Ed Sanders, and Lennox Raphael; actors like Moses Gunn, Mitch Ryan, Lou Gossett, and Cicely Tyson; musicians such as Odetta, Marion Brown, and Richard Andrews; Khadeja the fashion designer who was Afro before people knew what that meant; Tom Dent, one of the founders of the Free Southern Theatre; Walter Bowart, who tended bar there and later was the original publisher of EVO — and Clark Squire, one of the Panther 21.

Perhaps a variation of the old Circle Theory is in play after all. When the coin-schleppers drove less fortunate artists and writers from the Village more than a decade ago they repaired to the Lower East Side — a veritable slum — but rents were more agreeable — some even fair. There are now buildings down here — renovated to be sure — which command $380 a month for three rooms. In a slum. Dig that. It is not inconceivable that the time is coming when wretched poor people won’t be able to live in this slum — when artists who Have Not Made It won’t be able to live here either. Then the apartments will go to the quasi-hip brokers and lawyers who want to vamp Where It’s Hapnin Baby (or was). These situations in New York City have been historically cyclical. Greenwich Village, for instance, was a black ghetto for some time after the Civil War — before Harlem. And Harlem. My mother lived in Harlem for a few years in the ’20s while she waited tables midtown. Today she wouldn’t go there in an armored car with the Mayor riding shotgun.

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Ten years ago speculation had it that when the Lower East Side would inevitably turn into the East Village (as we knew it would have to) all of us lesser lights would probably then make it to the Lower East Side (where some had even then already moved) to Stanton Street and Essex and Delancey. But the hot action moved to SoHo — where the painters and sculptors and craftsmen (and craftswomen) (and craftsgays) (have I got everyone?) can’t be all that poor judging by the rents. Lately I hear more and more of the successful of their number are buying the buildings they live in — and the moderately successful banding together as corporations to buy their individual lofts in buildings as a whole. It is hard to tell where the as-yet-unsuccessful strugglers are living — but they’re partying in SoHo. The vibes are apparently of the right intensity and consistency. Or else all the artsy-smartsy dudes know the right gangster landlords.

There are priorities and necessities which must be present (on all sides) in the emerging of any “artists’ colony” — and economics is certainly one of them. In the summer of 1963 I lived on the Lower East Side for more than three months on something less than $150 cash. Today it would take a grand. Minimum. From the speculators’ point-of-view it seems that the very presence of artists in abundance is sufficient: they follow close on their heels judiciously snapping up properties, naming them with hysterical designations such as the Hip Bagel and the Hippydrome and the Rock and Roller Skating Rink, and when they own everything they’ve killed their golden goose and then must begin following the next exodus to the new land of paint and money. The people who already own businesses in the area before it “happens” (once they get over their abject disgust at bohemians and begin catering to what money they have and that which their presence attracts) flourish while they are there (like Bleecker and MacDougal — like Avenue B and Saint Marx) and languish when they have been driven elsewhere. You don’t have to wait in line in the cold at midnight to get into Stanley’s on a Thursday anymore.

Yet maybe my informants are right after all. I went to the aforementioned bar in SoHo after the peace mingle (I won’t give the joint’s name because then you’ll steal it from me) and walked into it shortly after 3. The bar and tables were almost completely filled with about 40 people in their 30s and 40s all of whom looked like they had alighted from a bus from Queens or Staten Island. They left together shortly after I arrived and I asked the bartender who they were. They were from Virginia. Yes Virginia, there is a SoHo. SoHo knows there is a Virginia. And that it is coming to get them.

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But it can’t happen to SoHo! (A discotheque in a cleaned-up loft called the Paint Rag?) What about all the rats down there? Big as small babies. What about the panhandling winos and the apprentice corpses in the doorways? They carry pistols and machetes. What about the huggermuggers lurking in every shadow just waiting for purses and watches maybe desperate enough to kill? They are men (and women) without consciences. What about the narrow repugnant streets? They’re all right if you don’t mind puke-covered shit. And there’s nothing down there at night … it’s deader than Wall Street for chrissake! What about …

Perhaps in the virtues of voyeurism lie its own rewards.

Note: After having written this, last Sunday, jiving along down Second Avenue at 14th Street I heard my name called out from the window of a bus. A black radical whom I hadn’t seen for quite some time because he had fled The Man to a commune in New England:

“Bill!”

“Hey Baby!” (Lock palms and thumbs — no more popping.) “Whas hapnin?”

(Bus begins to pull away.) “I’m staying down on Spring Street in SoHo under the name of *** *****! CALL ME!”

I guess maybe it takes one to know one. ♦

 

 

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

Everything Above 14th Street Is Gila Bend, Arizona

Everything Above 14th Street Is Gila Bend, Arizona
March 18-25, 1981

Recently I read the most offensive arti­cle I can ever remember encountering in the pages of the Voice. I refer of course to “With Malice Toward Everything Below 14th St.” by Marcelle Clements. Now I can understand that the Voice is a liberal paper and thus obliged to present all points of view no matter how pustulent, but I must call the Voice‘s liberalism into question when it prints a piece so obvious­ly elitist, an obscenely yawning wound of terminal neuroses, venom-urping jealousy, and outright class snobbery so hincty stifl­ing it feels like you’re trapped in a para­lyzed elevator crammed fulla 38 function­ing Mentholatum vaporizers cranked to the max and an epileptic cocaine-OD yammering at you about the water on his knees. There is such a thing as journalistic responsibility, after all, First amendment or no (shut up, Hentoff).

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Taking Mr. Clements’s (I presume it is a Mr. — no woman, no one, in fact, but a pathetic male specimen with Travis Bickle-like virility malaria could ever write such a swimming pool full of vi­triolic spew) points one by one, he makes such easy pickings I should just turn him over to Frank Perdue if not the Second Ave. Hell’s Angels (who incidentally have seen to it that THERE IS NO HEROIN ON THAT BLOCK; if a junkie or pusher comes ’round they simply kill him).

Before disposing of this walking corpse myself, however, I should perhaps mention that I am proud to reside at Sixth Ave. and Fourteenth St., which is the ideal vantage point on every level. I get to walk outside every day and immediately run into junkies, winos, pill pushers, shop­ping bag ladies, wasted street hookers, cripples and mutilations, and ripoff artists of every description. It’s a nightmare, but it never pretends to be anything else, unlike everyplace else in this fucking city which as everybody knows is the only place on the planet to live. I’m more comfortable with my mutanthood here than I would be in, say, San Diego where I grew up, or even Detroit where I did time. Because Fourteenth St. is, of course, No Man’s Land, the demarcation line ev­erybody uses. Strictly speaking, I live in no definable neighborhood, which obvious­ly is the best neighborhood. South there’s the Village, about which admittedly both good and bad can be said, North there’s everything else, about which nothing good can be said. So I, as well as the Village, Soho (even? Jesus, this is worse than I thought!), Lower Manhattan, the Bowery, etc., win hands down by simple arithmetic.

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Unfortunately, however, bonehead math is not among the disciplines Mr. Clements has yet mastered. He says that our streets “fit within no grid.” Apparent­ly this pathetic specimen is so retarded he has to have all streets laid out in absolute­ly rigid rectangular patterns or he gets hopelessly lost if he tries to venture out to the corner deli.

Next, Mssr. Clements decries our Low­er Manhattan “spaces.” Well, here at least (only here) I agree with him: I hate that particular usage of that fucking word too. Just the other day I was attempting to digest a $7.95 tuna-on-toast in a little “boite” on West 76th St., when my date, a woman who resides only a few blocks away from there, in an orange crate stuffed inside an ironing board closet for which she brags to all her “friends” she only pays $900 a month (I pay $240 a month for an equally huge living room, bedroom, kitchen, bath, and bowling alley), said to me, “I can only take relationships for three weeks at the most, then I gotta blow the guy off no matter how much I like him, because I need my space!

Now we are all familiar with this type of neurotic, male or female, straight or gay, what’s the difference? The reason we are familiar with them is that both the Upper East and West Sides are infested with them, and all too many of us have had the misfortune of falling into “relationships” which shoulda stood in bed reserved for one night stands. Whereas we in the Village and points South have total­ly solved the problem of 6000 years of sexism and attendant hangups by recog­nizing and living by the obvious fact that except for singles’ bar habitues and johns who really oughta tip more SEX NO LONGER EXISTS. That’s right, we never fuck. We create deathless works of art instead.

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“Of course I never went down there of my own free will”: would that this were only true! But Mr. Clements admits he is afraid of us. With good reason. We are human. But we’ll let him come down any time he wants, because our humanism is only benevolent. He’ll go to all the wrong stores, buy all the gauchest and most overpriced merchandise anyway, thus making our atmosphere all the more aesthetically stimulating and untainted by tourist-trap ripoff except for suckers like him who as any true New Yorker will ­tell you deserve it.

“The food is better and cheaper” up­town: I might direct your attention, to single out only one among myriad ex­amples, to Asia DeCuba (190 Eighth Ave.), where you can get a fantastic huge plate of shredded beef, rice, and beans for only $3.50, plus overheard next-table conversations a good deal more interesting than the standard (“Well my acting ca­reer’s not going so good and my lover joined the Divine Light Temple but my analyst says I can blame it all and the destruction of Cambodia on my parents … “) chatter one gotta endure up in Marcelle’s environs. Hell, you can’t get food that good that cheap in Mexico, man! The one time I decided to try and cele­brate my mastery of the Homer & Jethro blue yodel by risking my alimentary canal on a certain “Mexican” place due east on 71st, the menu on the window said $13.95 for (their inventive terminology) “Texas Chili,” so I just said fuck it and split a 16-oz. jar of protein powder with Olde English 800 malt liquor with my date instead.

“The art shows infinitely superior”: Okay, so you got all the hotshit museums up there. We got lots of galleries, and besides, didn’t you ever see that devas­tatingly de Chirico-like depiction of a black leather street hoodlum Bleecker Bob used to have over the entrance to his store, not to mention those squiggly lines in homage to Joan Miro the speedfreaks scribble all over the trees in Washington Square Park? Proving yet again your putrid highbrow elitism, which is such instant proof you all got serious problems of gallstone-deep nature you might as well hang a sign around your neck sez “I have an inferiority complex,” or more appositely “WORM.”

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The bottom line fact re all this brouhaha is that the farther North you get the worse it all gets. No lie! Chelsea is okay, nice cheap restaurants, ethnic polyglot which’s always healthy, but too damn many sweatshop factories and ware­houses to be really interesting. And speak­ing of uninteresting, you ever been stranded in hotshit MIDTOWN? Macy’s/Gimbel’s. Big deal. There is noth­ing in the former you couldn’t find on Canal Street at 1/3 the price except things no one in their right mind would buy, and the latter is just like the former except more expensive. Better you should shop at Korvette’s — a little taste of Middle Ameri­can tasteless ersatz kultur for all you Sta­tus Fans! Of course if Korvette’s is your scene, better you should show some balls by taking the PATH to Jersey and digging America for real. It’s like crazy, daddio, a real long-gone L-7 cubecrib from No­wheresville. Reminding me of course of the lovely brownstones of the Middle East Side where some of the people who inflict all this crap billed “culture” on us live their well-appointed lives. Best of luck to ’em! They have ZERO SOUL but that’s not even the point. If I wanted my hostess in a hot-off-the-lathe designer gown serving shakersfull of suburban martinis I’D LIVE IN THE SUBURBS AND GET IT OVER WITH!

In terms of more palatable alternatives, I admit Times Square and 42nd St. be­tween Sixth and Eighth are pretty great, but there is one slight problem: every time you walk out of your double feature and try to score a few Quaaludes, here’s all these jerks in furs and three-hundred-­dollar cravats lining up for theatre tickets when everybody knows Broadway ain’t been worth a shit in a decade and a half. Everybody but them so here they are, so paranoid from all the sensationistic so-­called exposes they’ve seen on TV where some six o’clock jock thinks it’d be a real bright provocative idea to go down and show everybody how shockingly sleazy Times Square is that they’re tottering off the curbs, quivering if you but reach in your pocket for a cigarette, meanwhile looking at you like “Well I may be mort­gaged up the ass but I’m dressed to the teeth tonite like a real authentic genuine Rich Person so FUCK YOU SCUM.” Kill them all is what I say. But then I think Danny Fields should be Mayor.

Meanwhile look who you gotta walk among if you wanna go buy something between there and the Park: all those hideous FIFTH AVENUE people who rich or not look like their bodies never carried a speck of dust in their whole damn lives. Yuck! Mannikins! Showroom dummies! Oh, forgot Hell’s Kitchen. Never been there, actually. What is it, a good place to go if you wanna get beat up?

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All right I’ll go there. Because the other direction the horrors really begin: that lovely area around the Fifties and Second Third Park Lex. Walk down Third Ave. in the Fifties. Go eat an overpriced eye­-dropper fulla soup at Zum Zum. Right across from you sit guess who? None other than 45-year-old Mrs. nouveau riche from Scarsdale and her 19-year-old daughter; they’ve both just spent the whole after­noon compulsively barging through Bloomingdale’s trying to create more pater ulcers with their damn credit cards. They radiate pure unadulterated HATRED for all living things. Men (they’re all bastards). Other women (they’re all out to steal your bastard). Shopclerks (they’re uppity). Me (I dress like a slob).

As for Bloomingdale’s and Fiorucci: Wet magazine chic, which means you package the shit garish and trendy enough I’ll buy it the more expensive the better. Personally I get my fill of this at places like Hurrah’s. One of the supreme ambi­tions of my life is to live to be 120 years old and be able to say on my deathbed I never set foot inside Bloomingdale’s.

Of course if you’re a real moron you can go just a little bit higher into Twinkieland and try out Maxwell’s Plum, the Adam’s Apple, etc. etc. etc. ad lobotomatum. Now of course we have reached the Airline Stewardess Gulag. It’s bad enough having to endure these zombies on planes, where the fact they all got paperclips and ballbearings where eyes supposedly once lived can somehow be filed under service.

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Ah yes, the romance of the Upper East Side. Needless to say everybody in this area is even more psychotic than anybody in Midtown even. This may in fact have the highest per capita psychosis quotient of any part of the city. An old girlfriend of mine once worked in one of the many thriving businesses in this area. She said it was a big office all curvy no fucking corners and white white white in EVERY respect and everybody who worked there all they did was process computer code info which had some kinda effect on mil­lions of lives somewhere they had zero idea what or who or how or why. What was she doing there? TEMP WORK, which is what you should say if you go to a party in this neighborhood and somebody waltzes up with the inevitable opener: “What do you do?” Watch em panic as they bolt. Great fun. Best part about this place was all the employees had taken EST. She heard a woman on the phone hysterically cackling at her 70-year-old mother she’d just strong-armed into taking her first EST course: “Oh Mother, listen, I’m manipulating you, isn’t that wonderful, hahahahaha!”

Central Park. Very nice. Trees — so what? New York City has nothing to do with trees. Besides which there’s plenty in Washington Square, the dope dealers are better, and you might run into somebody interesting like Arto Lindsay instead of a rapist or his little brother who’ll pinch your twat and snicker. Never go there. If I want a fuckin’ tree I’ll buy a picture of one and hang it up in my living room!

After that the action thins to the deadly dugouts of that long backyard known as the United States of America, first por­tents of the horrors in store taking the forms of Harlem (America un­-reconstructed) and the Bronx (pretending to be reconstructed, besides why kick a cripple?). The only thing standing be­tween us and the savages hunkering in all those Great Plains ragweed shopping cen­ters dreaming of our scalps is the Cloisters, which admittedly is one of the most beau­tiful spots on the continent. That’s why a bunch of us from Lower Manhattan are gonna come in there next week with bull­dozers and cranes and helicopters and trucks and just PULL IT RIGHT UP OUTA THE EARTH by the roots and transport it South a ways to be set down exactly where the old Mercer Arts Center fell in on itself after the Dolls got finished with it. Then we’ll bring in Suicide and DNA and Mars and Lydia’s Devil Dogs and all the other magnificent groups living downtown and let ’em crank up and BLOW OUT THE COBWEBS! If they play loud enough it oughta reach the ears even of Marcelle and all his cronies in Disney World North, whereupon all of them on the Upper East Side can hightail it to Boston and those on the Upper West Side to San Francisco, since you can buy all the same shiny garbage advertised in New York magazine in those two cities as well. Then we can finally secede from the Union for real and hell even the sidewalks won’t be so crowded. ■

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Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Equality From The Archives Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Mike Umbers: Christopher’s Emperor

A week ago last Monday, Mike Umbers sat on the deck of his Gay Dogs on Christopher Street, a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon in one hand, a Lark in the other, and talked about prostitution and pornography and real estate —  and himself. He said he was worried that the feds would soon be cracking down on him. Late Thursday, Christopher’s End, his heavily patronized all-male after-­hours bar, was raided and cleared out for the night for ABC liquor violations. Sunday morning, 4 a.m., the place was raided again, this time by the feds as well as city cops. Two of Mike’s employees were arrested and charged with failure to have the $56 federal tax stamps required for retail liquor dealers. Mike, who was not on the premises, escaped arrest.

Mike’s three big Christopher Street operations are Chris­topher’s End, when it’s open, the Studio Book Store, and Gay Dogs. All right-out exploitative. Mike calls himself a gay catalyst and flesh peddler. He deals in boy-boy sex. He describes Mark Litho, his publishing house, as a means to produce paper flesh that his Stu­dio Book Store peddles. Gay Dogs is cruising flesh. And Christopher’s End, with its backroom and nude boy shows, is climax flesh. Mike is also rumored to have his finger in the controver­sial Stonewall Inn. It was boarded up June 27, 1969, and won’t be re­opened until a liquor license is issued. Negotiations have been going on for several months. Right now, the second floor of the two-story Stonewall is occupied by a bevy of young men. The Stonewall proper is in construction limbo.

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Mike Umbers may be the “soft­-spoken maverick looking for sexual and financial freedom” described by Women’s Wear Daily, but he’s hardly the Umbers they depict who left his security analyst job at Hayden Stone eight years ago because “I disliked the coat and tie, the pretentiousness of the scene, and hated being packed into subways.” Eight years ago, Mike wasn’t riding subways. He was serving time on a first degree attempted grand larceny charge. Five years, from 1961 to 1965, shuttling between Clinton and Greenhaven and Auburn and Sing Sing. He says he went up on an insurance fraud and it was his first arrest, in fact the first time anyone from his Long Island family ever went to jail. In all four prisons, he worked for psychiatrists, pulling $5 a day. Prison was a tuition-free educa­tion for Mike, “the best education you can get.” When he came out, he had a grand total of $86 in his pocket and owed $40,000.

Contrary to Women’s Wear Daily (“after Wall Street, he began his own construction busi­ness”) Mike went into the boy-girl whoring racket. He says he was “the best male madam in New York with three houses on the East Side, all very luxurious.” One wonders how an ex-con up to his neck in debt, with no credit rating, can make it big and quick in the world of high-class uptown prostitution. The way Mike tells it, he was commissioned to paint a portrait of this good looking broad. The deal was for $300. The money came in dribbles. The broad would intermittently ex­cuse herself from the sitting, disappear for 20 minutes or so, come back, and pay Mike a little more.

The way fate has it, the broad was a whore, a high-class one, the highest in town. She and Mike took to shacking up together. He became her man. She gave Mike a daily allowance of $100. For some reason or other, they went off to Canada. He got busted on a white slavery charge. They came back to the States. But there was a long period when Mike was left alone with Susie’s fancy apart­ment and a ringing phone. So Mike took it upon himself to meet Susie’s girl friends and a few new girls to help satisfy Susie’s clien­tele. Soon Susie returned to reclaim her turf. Mike slipped into the male hustler scene. It’s a heavy scene. Mike got tired of fucking different women three or four times a day and got tired of playing the head games, telling this one I love you truly and as soon as she’s departed, telling that one I’ll marry you. Mike’s energy petered just in time. Three weeks after he got out of the business, the local cops busted down doors of apartments he’d moved out of. The FBI produced a two-inch dossier on him. He says, “I saw it when they tried to make me do something I didn’t want to do.” For the record, the blotter shows 10 Umbers arrests in addi­tion to the larceny term. The ar­rests include procuring and obs­cenity and criminal receiving and petty larceny.

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Mike in the summer of ’71 is not the slim Lothario he was a few summers back. He’s a little paunchy, a little tired, an air of defeat underneath the bravado. All things considered, though, he looks good at age 36. He’s got great pearly white teeth, short salt and pepper hair, kind green eyes, and a native intelligence that would work for him in any business, including security ana­lyst. Plus, he listens. The kids who fetch his cigarettes and sweep his Gay Dogs floors and fix his peep show machines react to Mike like kids trying to please a father. Mike in turn gives them a verbal pat on the head. But his eyes are miles away.

Mike Umbers is not the only one who is having his share of troubles. The July 18 raid on Christopher’s End was one of nine that took place on after-hours bars that night.

The Daily News labels the raids “a move to cut off one of or­ganized crime’s sources of in­come, estimated at $2 million an­nually from nine after-hours clubs alone.” It’s unlikely that income will be cut off for long. The cop at Christopher’s End figures the place could re-open in a few days. And the fed at Christopher’s End figures this is just small pickings in the over-all big syndicate scheme.

“What’s the next step,” I ask Mike Umbers. “Are we heading toward legalized prostitution?” Mike says he’s been approached by a buddy, a super cop on the In­telligence Division, a cop with only a few more years before ret­irement. The cop propositioned Mike about setting up a house. “He claims it’s the next thing Lindsay will do. He’ll legalize prostitution in special districts, maybe within the next year or two, allowing houses to exist. It’ll be a terrific source of revenue, and the Intelligence guy is smart enough to want to get into it at the start.” I ask Mike if he’s into prostitution now. Yeah, sort of, soft sell, through the Studio Book Store. He calls it a male escort service. It works like this. A dude hits town and heads toward the bookstore. He buys $40 worth of porno. So the next question to the clerk is “where can I score?” Out comes the models portfolio. Shots of 10 boy beauties, available at $25 to $50 an hour. The connec­tion is made. The customer pays. And Mike splits 50-50 with the model. All nice and clean, no hassle, everybody’s satisfied. What the model does on the job is his business. Mike doesn’t want to know from it.

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Mike, however, knows his sex business well. Well enough to give an impromptu lecture on the as­cending ladder of whoring. At the very bottom is the streetwalker. It’s the lowest form. The boys peddle their wares on Third Ave­nue in the 50s and West 42nd; the girls play the 40s and West 70s. They trick out of hotels, they do a lot of stealing and beating up of johns for money. They work the hardest and still earn nickels and dimes. “There’s little whoring in the West Village,” says Mike. “It’s the land of boy hustlers and the land of the freebies.” Next step up is the massage parlor. A girl works in the back room of a storefront that’s been converted. Mr. Customer walks in, gets a massage, and if he sounds right, gets more than a massage. The masseuse averages $100 a day. Step three is the man or woman who toils under a madam(e) in a house. The average pay is $150 a day and life is easy. Top of the heap is the call boy or call girl who has his own apartment and his own clientele. If his stamina and business sense are good, he can pull $300 a day.

Mike’s West Village real estate holdings include 714 Greenwich Street, a five-story residential building between West 10th and Charles, and 178 Christopher Hotel, which houses the Krone Gallery and is adjacent to the Christopher Hotel, home of Christopher’s End. He claims he owned these buildings before he went to prison. He also owns two East Village buildings (one is the former STAR house — see last week’s Voice) and East Side. The Christopher Hotel was one of the last addresses of Jerome John­son, Joe Colombo’s attempted killer. Did Mike Umbers know Johnson? “I’d seen him around,” he says. “He was a junkie. He used to hang out at the Keller Hotel. Like most junkies, he’d do anything to hustle a score.” Had Umbers been questioned about the Colombo shooting? “The cops were here three or four hours after it hap­pened. They got what I know.” (On Monday afternoon, after the weekend raids, Chief of Detec­tives Albert Seedman, who has been investigating the shooting of Joe Colombo, announced that Umbers was the link between Di Bella of the Mafia and Johnson.)

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I ask him what’s to become of the STAR house. “I plan on making it into a gay hostel” he says. ”It’ll have three floors of dormitory, and I’ll charge $1.50 a night. Anyone can stay there. I’m not interested in making money. I have gay businesses and I employ gay people. I started this whole empire myself, and I’m doing more for the gay community than any organization.”

I wonder what Mike means by “any organization.” Is he talking about gay liberation?