NYC’s Mayoral Cheat Sheet

If you’ve waited until the last minute to figure out who to vote for mayor, the Village Voice has you covered with our handy cheat sheet. We summarized the eight top Democratic candidates’ positions in three major topic areas: public safety, housing, and the economy. 

Before we jump in, here’s a quick who’s who of candidates:

Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president who draws on his experience as a Black NYPD officer; Kathryn Garcia, the former sanitation commissioner who quit after fallout over budget cuts; Maya Wiley, ex-ACLU lawyer and former counsel to Mayor de Blasio; Andrew Yang, an ex-presidential hopeful turned mayoral front runner who’s gotten all kinds of press; Scott Stringer, the anti-de Blasio city comptroller who’s fending off allegations of sexual harassment; Dianne Morales, the far-left candidate who’s battling protests inside her campaign; Wall Street executive Ray McGuire; and Shaun Donovan, Obama’s former housing secretary, whose rich father made a huge splash in the race.    

Hopefully, this cheat sheet will help you decide who to rank where on your ballot. (We are focusing on the top eight vote-getters in recent polls. Below they are listed in the order in which they appear on the ballot.) Early voting for primary elections will be open until June 20 (after that, voters will cast their ballots on Election Day, June 22).

¶ Do they support “defunding” the NYPD?

Dianne Morales: Yes. Morales is the only frontrunner who has embraced the “defund police” slogan (it’s literally on her website). She wants to cut the NYPD budget by $3 billion and remove officers from schools, traffic enforcement, and other instances where she believes armed police presence is unnecessary. She proposes redistributing funds to a Community First Responders Department, independent from the NYPD and staffed with personnel trained in trauma-informed intervention.

Scott Stringer: Sort of? As comptroller, Stringer criticized de Blasio’s NYPD budget allocation amid summer protests, calling to slash $1.1 billion from the department to reinvest in community services. But as a candidate he has shied away from the “defund” slogan — there’s no mention of the $1 billion cut on his campaign website or in his public safety report. An investigation revealed that Stringer audited the NYPD twice over his eight-year tenure (for comparison, he audited the Housing Authority 17 times). He favors shifting funding toward social services and strengthening the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

Ray McGuire: No. McGuire is explicitly against it, arguing that the city’s budget ($98.6 billion for the 2022 fiscal year so far) barely contributed funds for the NYPD, which has a proposed budget of $5.4 billion. Instead, McGuire wants better training for the police force; continued use of the experimental ShotSpotter program, the gunshot-detection system which alerts officers of possible gun-related activity; and a 24/7 emergency social services bureau.

Maya Wiley: Yes. Wiley has kept an arm’s-length from the “defund” slogan (opting for the term “right-sizing” instead) but regularly pushes concerns on excessive policing. She pledges to cut the NYPD’s budget by at least $1 billion each year to fund alternatives to traditional policing. Wiley was chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the oversight body for the NYPD, but some say she did little to reform the sleepy agency during her year there.

Kathryn Garcia: No. Garcia is a proponent of police reform, proposing improved mechanisms for transparent discipline against officers and implementing new training. She’s mentioned investing in the NYPD’s Gun Violence Suppression Division to combat gun violence and wants to reassign more officers to the neighborhood policing unit.

Eric Adams: No. Adams, a former NYPD captain, has repeatedly argued against taking money from the department (and drew heat from activists after suggesting that affluent white millennials were leading the “defund” movement). He’s acknowledged abusive policing, having been beaten by police as a teenager, and pushes for reform through improved training, better accountability systems, and a new version of the disbanded plainclothes Anti-Crime unit. While he’s painted himself as the public-safety candidate, don’t expect him to give up packing once he’s mayor.

Shaun Donovan: Maybe. Donovan wants to refocus police priorities on violent crimes but hasn’t stated he would cut the NYPD’s budget. He has pledged, by his second year, to invest $500 million each year in community-focused public safety initiatives, in part by “redirecting funds allocated to law enforcement and corrections,” which includes agencies beyond the NYPD.

Andrew Yang: No. Yang has stated that “defunding” is “the wrong approach for New York City,” and proposes staffing up certain divisions to improve the city’s low-solve rate. He’s argued for diversifying recruiting inside the NYPD (asking New Yorkers to sign up for the police force during a televised debate) and proposed stronger civilian oversight by appointing a civilian police commissioner.  

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¶ What are they going to do about rising housing costs and homelessness?

Dianne Morales: Morales’s proposal mixes moderate fixes like converting unopened hotels and vacant lots into affordable housing with radical ideas such as replacing the Public Housing Authority with a fully tenant-run management body. She proposes reallocating the $3 billion annual shelter budget toward preventive measures against evictions. But housing advocates have been critical of Morales’s ties to Phipps Housing, an affordable housing developer and one of New York City’s worst landlords. 

Scott Stringer: Stringer tries to establish himself as a “watchdog” to de Blasio, criticizing the mayor’s appetite for rezoning low-income neighborhoods to build more affordable housing and emphasizing his record auditing New York City’s Housing Authority. Stringer promises to build 10,000 affordable housing units each year, requiring every new building to allocate 25% of units for affordable housing, and pledges that he will oppose “developer-driven” rezonings.

Ray McGuire: McGuire’s business background is apparent in proposals to reduce construction costs by streamlining approvals and a new tax credit to incentivize construction of senior affordable housing. He wants to invest $1.5 billion in public housing annually and give tenants more control over how those funds are spent through signed contracts with the city. 

Maya Wiley: Wiley’s housing policy centers on measures that get at root causes of the crisis, such as creating a “universal community care” ecosystem. It’s an ambitious plan: In addition to committing $2 billion for public housing, she promises to guarantee that New Yorkers making 50% or less of Area Median Income won’t pay more than 30% of their income on rent. 

Kathryn Garcia: Garcia’s housing policy is a mixed bag; she wants to move the city away from shelters to permanent housing planning by building 50,000 “deeply” affordable housing units, but suggests creating 24-hour drop-in centers with bathrooms and other services for unhoused New Yorkers. She also supports NYCHA’s Blueprint For Change plan, which tenant advocates have criticized as a step toward privatization.

Eric Adams: Adams wants more housing — and quickly, promising to expedite the city’s initiative to create 15,000 units of supportive housing in 15 years to 10 years. He has low-income renters in mind, with proposals such as streamlining rent-relief applications and adjusting housing vouchers based on market rate, and cites nonprofit Fountain House as a model for wrap-around social services. But Adams has a cozy relationship with developers, raising nearly a quarter-million dollars in donations from real estate stakeholders.

Shaun Donovan: Donovan loves to remind everyone of his stint as President Obama’s housing secretary, and (to a lesser extent) his tenure as housing commissioner under Mayor Bloomberg. A look at his track record brings up mixed reviews. Much of Donovan’s plan relies on state support, like pushing the state to establish a State Public Housing Preservation Trust and to increase annual spending on emergency rental assistance.

Andrew Yang: Yang’s housing approach seems focused on improving existing mechanisms: He would convert the city’s unopened hotels into affordable housing buildings and, as a big believer in Community Land Trusts (CLTs), invest more in existing CLTs. He’s committed to investing $4 billion annually in building affordable and supportive housing.

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¶ How are they going to recover jobs and businesses for New Yorkers?

Dianne Morales: Morales has made investing in small and mid-size businesses the center of her economic recovery platform. She wants to eliminate massive tax breaks for wealthy corporations operating in the city and has committed to investing at least $1 billion in a participatory city-wide People’s Budget Project.

Scott Stringer: The city comptroller proposes a $1 billion NYC Recovery Now Fund for small business grants up to $100,000, which can be used to pay off back rent and rehire former employees. Stringer also proposes developing a stronger workforce pipeline for CUNY graduates and an affordable childcare plan for families with toddlers. 

Ray McGuire: McGuire’s “Comeback Plan” zeroes in on supporting the city’s small businesses. He wants to bring back 50,000 jobs through items such as wage subsidies — covering half of wages for small businesses over a year — and expanding small business owners’ access to loans through community bank investments.

Maya Wiley: Through her “New Deal New York” plan, Wiley wants to invest $10 billion in a public works program, with a target of creating 100,000 new jobs over a five-year period. Wiley pushes for a “care-based economy” through $5,000 grants for high-need care workers and building community care centers.

Kathryn Garcia: As the “fixer” candidate, Garcia leans into cutting red tape that impacts small business owners, proposing an all-in-one small business permit and a new program offering zero-interest microloans. The highlight of her economic recovery plan is her promise to support working parents and guardians in families earning less than $70,000 a year, with free childcare for children up to three years old.

Eric Adams: Adams wants to create jobs by investing in green infrastructure — establishing the city as the “wind power hub” of the East Coast — and attract businesses by expanding the Relocation Employment Assistance Program of tax credits for businesses if they open in certain neighborhoods. He’s also focused on work development for youth, with a proposal to expand the Summer Youth Employment Program to operate year-round.

Shaun Donovan: Donovan’s economic recovery plan centers on rebuilding the city’s strongest revenue sector — entertainment and nightlife — and work development for the city’s future generation, committing to creating 500,000 jobs in his first term. He promises 10,000 internship placements within the first years of his mayorship through a skills-based training program that guarantees placement for public school and CUNY students, and an NYC Job Corps to train potential workers in high-growth job industries.   

Andrew Yang: Yang supports the City Council’s contentious Small Business Job Survival Act, legislation that would essentially help with rent stabilization for commercial tenants, and wants a “universal portable benefits fund” to support expansion of the city’s gig workers’ protections.    ❖

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NYC Normal: Analog Pleasures at Film Forum

Vittorio de Sica’s Il Boom (1963), running April 23 to 29, is another return of bitter whimsey. Film Forum offers it again, after its 2019 restoration-run, as it is de Sica’s rarest film and has had no home-video exposure at all. Mega-schmoe Alberto Sordi is a would-be parvenu in the same crass Italian bourgie circles Antonioni and Fellini were skewering in the ’60s; as they endlessly party (doing the Twist and the Madison!) and make plays for each other’s spouses, he sinks into damning debt and ass-kisses everywhere searching for a hapless investor to rescue him.

It’s a doozie when it comes: The wife of a one-eyed tycoon (Sordi thinks she wants sex, for which he will happily be paid) offers a princely sum for the man’s donation of a single eye. It’s a simple and pungent scenario that could’ve asked its horrible questions in a 30-minute Playhouse 90 (or Black Mirror) episode, but de Sica goes for protracted discomfiture, and Sordi’s cow-eyed deadpan gradually evolves from hilarious to queasily tragic. Famous for his pioneering Neo-Realist stakes first, and his sex comedies second, de Sica (along with his always-partner, screenwriter Cesare Zavattini) maintained an appetite for hypocrisy, and his cynicism about his own postwar society — among which he was a favorite son — should never be underestimated.

Rounding out the month is King Hu’s Raining in the Mountain (1979), showing April 30 to May 6, which debuted virtually in October but is now getting time on an analog screen, in front of an analog audience, where it belongs. Hu’s standing as the Elvis of wu xia pian directors has never been challenged, though for the most part we’re familiar only with Come Drink With Me (1967), Dragon Inn (1967), and A Touch of Zen (1971). But he’d made a dozen other films over nearly 30 years, including this fabulously intricate intrigue-athon, which plunges very lightly into actual martial combat and favors instead a masterfully visualized stream of pure subterfuge and creeping espionage. Shot almost entirely on the grounds of South Korea’s famous 8th-century Bulguska temple — a found location Hu and his cast treat like an epic playground — the story involves a small band of thieves arriving at the temple as the master plans to retire and choose a successor, a process that invites en masse kibbitzing from various interested parties, each vying for their own candidate. The thieves want a priceless scroll, but amid the quick-quick-quick spatial near-misses and mini-chases in and out of the temple’s maze of alleys and halls, the tale takes relaxed detours, explores other characters (all either good or evil, in trad matinee style), throws in a murder plot, and generally eschews the Hong Kong sense of filmmaking as heart-attack-on-a-trampoline that Tsui Hark and company made popular in the ’80s. As in A Touch of Zen, the old-school yarn and serene action editing can be almost meditative, and the mesmeric presence of Hsu Feng, here as the arch-thief White Fox, is a gift from movie heaven.   ❖


Rat-Borne Bacteria and other Amenities in Ved Parkash’s Buildings

Ved Parkash, once known as New York City’s worst landlord, a Bronx emperor of evictions who forced out more apartment dwellers in 2019 than any other city property owner, and whose tenants in one building got sick from rat-borne bacteria — one died — is at it again. With Covid-19 and its economic fallout still hammering the Bronx, Parkash is moving to oust more than 10% of his tenants — some 600 families — while at the same time begging for property-tax relief on buildings where families went without heat this winter. Even as the state grapples to ameliorate a Covid-induced real estate crisis, Parkash’s record illustrates that the problems facing poor tenants long predate the pandemic, and will shape whatever version of the city emerges from it.

Ana Javier keeps her apartment immaculate. Her one-bedroom a block south of Fordham Road exudes the aggressive cleanliness of a Dominican grandmother’s home: silk flowers on the polished table, a dark-wood sofa set whose spotlessness suggests it is reserved for very important occasions, diaphanous curtains that keep out the sidewalk. The floors are what you notice first though: light-blond laminate made in imitation of the hardwood flooring that once ran through this six-story 1941 building, where the high ceilings and muralled lobby hint at former grandeur. The murals depict Peter Minuit laying claim to Manhattan Island, NYC’s first real estate transaction—in which someone got screwed. The building on Tiebout Avenue is not a glamorous address these days, but Javier and her neighbors are living their lives. She paid $1,000 for the new floors to replace the boards ruined last year when a pipe burst, spewing filthy water two inches deep throughout her apartment. The senior citizen clutches her shawl around her housedress as she leans over to point to the tops of the baseboards, where the slosh of water reached. She submitted the receipts to the landlord, but Parkash has ignored them.

“I just want him to come and fix the stuff he’s supposed to fix and then leave me alone,” she says. This winter the problem was heat. For 10 days in February there was none in the building. “We were shivering. I’m still shivering,” she says. “I called the landlord crying. I called him directly, but he did nothing.”

In 2016, Parkash topped a list the city public advocate compiles to try to shame the landlords with egregious housing-code violations into making repairs; it’s modeled on the “10 Worst Landlords” articles Village Voice muckraker Jack Newfield pioneered in the 1960s. Parkash made enough repairs to get off the list, but his portfolio still has scores of serious violations, from lead paint to mold, broken doors, roach and rodent infestations, busted window guards, and holes in the walls. In 2019 he evicted 158 families across his 71-building portfolio, more people than any other property owner in the city, according to records analyzed by the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition and data collective Because of state and federal Covid-19 protections, no one has been evicted from a Parkash building—or any other—since March 2020.

But in August, landlords were cleared to bring new cases against tenants who fell behind on rent in 2020, and to petition to resume eviction cases started before the pandemic. Parkash filed 300 petitions in housing court between August and November and another 350 since, 5% of all Bronx cases, according to court records. Actual evictions — the city marshal carting tenant’s stuff onto the sidewalk — have been suspended, but the legal steps leading up to that scenario are moving forward.

Many tenants leave when they get an eviction notice, or sign agreements to pay back rent that they’ll never be able to honor, unaware that in certain NYC zip codes they have the right to a free lawyer. Parkash has more than 100 appearances on the court calendar set for March, April, and May. A third of those tenants are not represented by counsel.

“He’s just lining them up for when the moratorium lifts,” says Caroline Kirk, a data analyst at University Neighborhood Housing Program (UNHP), a nonprofit in the Northwest Bronx that conducts research on affordable housing.

Jaime Steinberg: In it for the long haul.

At the same time, Parkash is seeking relief from city taxes. On October 9, he filed 53 motions against the city Tax Commission, arguing that his Bronx portfolio is worth less than it was assessed for. Forty-seven of these buildings were without heat and hot water for stretches this winter — the same buildings where he has begun eviction proceedings against hundreds of tenants. “The guy’s a multimillionaire, why does he need a tax break?” asks Yoselyn Gomez, one of Parkash’s tenants.

“We have complied with all local, state, and federal eviction regulations and housing laws throughout the pandemic,” Anurag Parkash, manager at Parkash Management, and Ved’s son, said in a written statement. “The housing court, not Parkash Management, is slowly restoring cases to the calendar — especially pre-pandemic cases and particularly those where a judgment had been entered.”

But Parkash’s history demonstrates that he makes aggressive use of housing court. “There’s enough reporting on and past organizing in Parkash’s portfolio to know that evictions and minimal building reinvestment have been key parts of his business plan,” says Jacob Udell, research director at UNHP. The state budget adopted on April 7 provides significant aid to tenants who owe back rent; New York tenants owe a total of $1 billion. But beyond avoiding evictions, it’s critical that state and city leaders ensure that landlords who get that rent actually take care of their buildings, Udell explains.

Parkash denies that eviction is part of the company’s business strategy, or that he turns to it easily. Anurag Parkash said in the written statement, “Empty apartments, just as failure to pay rent, have a negative impact on all tenants and the building itself, which is why our efforts, first and foremost, are geared toward compassion and flexibility — working with financially struggling tenants, giving them time to pay, within reason of course.” He argued that some tenants took advantage of Covid protections, “despite having the financial wherewithal to pay rent.”

This past winter, what many Parkash tenants were struggling with was cold. There was no heat or hot water at 825 Gerard Avenue for 15 days in February. At 125 Mt. Hope Place, tenants had no heat or hot water for 19 days in December, including Christmas Day, or for 11 days in February. Another Parkash building, 2842 Grand Concourse, was without heat or hot water for 13 days in January and for 8 days in February. A few blocks south, at 2625 Grand Concourse, the tenants had no heat or hot water for 16 days in January or for all but four days of February.

In a portfolio of old buildings — most of them built before 1940 — maintenance is a constant process, Parkash has said. In the written statement, Anurag Parkash said, “We maintain heat and hot water at the lawfully required temperatures, but when a problem arises in our aging buildings, we work with the appropriate city agencies to efficiently, effectively, and lawfully remedy heating and hot water, as well as lead paint and other complaints or problems when they are brought to our attention.”

Another tenant, Ms. Clare, smiles ironically when asked about life at 3873 Orloff Avenue. She doesn’t give her first name because she’s a survivor of domestic abuse and doesn’t want her former partner to find her, but she has plenty to say about the building. Persistent mold in her poorly ventilated bathroom made her asthmatic daughter sick. She had to take Parkash to court before he would make repairs. This winter there were 46 days without heat. She’s grown accustomed to turning on her kitchen faucet and having nothing happen. “They are always claiming that the boiler is broken so they have to shut off the water to fix it. How many times do you have to fix it?” she asks, cocking her head. “I just think they shut it off in daytime so they save in heat and hot water.” The front doors are always broken, Clare says. Anyone can walk into the building. When it rains, the lobby floods. In the summer, the apartments are full of flies, coming in through the plumbing, she suspects. “He should live in one of his apartments for a year. He really should. Him or his family,” she says, amused at the idea. “The tenants are afraid, but they don’t know their legal rights.”

In 2016, residents at 750 Grand Concourse — where the rat-borne infection sickened people and killed one—gathered tenants from other Parkash buildings to file lawsuits forcing repairs. The Parkash Tenants Association got lots of media coverage, and met with then Public Advocate Letitia James; things got better at 750 Grand Concourse and they won rent freezes, says resident Gomez. But in other buildings, conditions remained poor and it took years to get repairs.

Eighty-two-year-old Bolivian immigrant Jaime Steinberg battled Parkash — and mold — for five years. He helped start a tenants’ association in his building on Tiebout Avenue, and worked with organizers from the Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition and Community Action for Safe Apartments, which works primarily in the Southwest Bronx, while Gomez was organizing her neighbors on the Grand Concourse. But over the years tenants moved out, and others lost heart. “One thing that I noticed since I come here to this country, the American people are very quiet. They accept it. If they raise the rent, if they raise the subway cost, they don’t complain. Maybe they complain for one week and then they forget it. But people need to wake up,” Steinberg says, his emphatic pronunciation equal parts Yiddish and Spanish.

Mold grew dark on the bedroom walls in Steinberg’s apartment, fed by faulty plumbing and a leaky roof. Parkash made repairs again and again, but they never got to the root of the problem. Steinberg thinks the shoddy repairs were harassment for his organizing work. “Every time they came to fix something, they made it worse. They wanted me out,” he says. (Parkash denies this.) Many nights the smell of the mold, and of something fetid and nasty in the broken radiators, was so intense it drove the old man from his apartment. “You can’t sleep with this, the smell. There were nights, so many nights, I slept on the stairs because the smell was so bad,” he says, waving a hand at the staircase leading to the roof. Steinberg sued Parkash, and at the end of March reached a settlement in which the landlord will pay Steinberg a sum and ensure that the apartment is in good condition for a year. (The settlement is not an admission of harassment.) Steinberg says, “This has always been the state of the world: the greed and power. These two things dominate the world. I didn’t go to university, but I learned some things in this life.” It only takes a minute standing in his bedroom to smell the mold. He sleeps in his living room now.

A sentry in the vestibule: Michelle Lopez and her son.

Michelle Lopez looks like a sentry in the vestibule on Tiebout—the buzzer doesn’t work, so she’s waiting for her Amazon package, greeting neighbors with “Love, how’s your mother?” as they come and go. She’s lived in the building for 20 years, raised her sons here, and remembers when the lobby used to be decorated beautifully for Christmas, and when the super made real repairs. “We as a community have to stick together and make things work better, but ourselves, we can only do so much,” she says.

Lopez believes the two weeks without heat in February were the result of slapdash repairs. “He hired Mickey Mouse boiler repair people because he don’t want to pay,” she scoffs. “That’s why we were weeks without hot water. We slept with jackets and extra blankets.” Her son, a sweet-faced young man in his early 20s, moved to upper Manhattan a few years ago. When there was no hot water, she went there to shower. On this day, he’s stopped by the building to check on her. “She’s my princess. Always,” he says. Many people have moved away. “A lot of these people moved out because they couldn’t take the negligence,” Lopez says. “I would love to move, but everywhere else is expensive and I can’t afford it. Everywhere you go these landlords want to take advantage of you.”

Since January, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development has filed five lawsuits against Parkash. At 58 East 190 Street, HPD has been trying since 2019 to get him to follow the lead-paint law. A city lawyer argued that Parkash should pay $60,000 in fines—and prove he’s gotten rid of the lead paint. That case will be back before a judge on May 6. At 835 Walton Avenue, not far from Yankee Stadium, HPD is invoking a $1000-a-day fine against Parkash for failing to provide heat and hot water. HPD records show that tenants complained about heat on seven days each in December, January, and February. A ceiling collapsed on the sixth floor in December, and HPD issued violations for roach and rodent infestations in multiple apartments. After receiving dozens of 311 complaints from 3873 Orloff Avenue—where Clare lives—the city sued Parkash in March, seeking an order “to provide legally adequate heat and hot water to the premises.”

Hard rains fall on Orloff Avenue.

Parkash owns 4,643 apartments. Most of the tenants don’t know each other. Even within buildings, engaged tenants like Lopez, who’ve watched families grow up and know people’s names, are now a rarity. They work too many hours to chat in the hall. And since Covid, you barely see other residents.

But some still have Yoselyn Gomez’s number from when tenants fought back in 2016. This past fall, she started getting calls and texts from people on Gerald Avenue, and from the building on Walton. When tenants got eviction notices, they dialed her number. In early March, more than 40 tenants from several buildings met to develop a plan. It’s the sort of activism that’s happened for generations in the Bronx, from rent strikes organized by leftist Jews in support of Black neighbors in Bronx Park East during the Depression to strategy sessions in Catholic parish halls in Hunts Point in the 1970s and 80s, as fire engines wailed, where people parsed banking regulations and eventually got laws written against redlining.

They are usually meetings led by women—pushy, demanding, working-class women who aren’t expecting luxury, but know they deserve better than this. Instead of a lobby or a church basement, the March meeting took place over Zoom. “Someone has to stop him. Someone has to stand up,” Gomez says. She moved to the Bronx a decade ago, after getting pushed out when Harlem gentrified. Rent on the Grand Concourse ate up $1,600 of the $2,000 she made each month as a customer service worker at a Lowes in Brooklyn, a job she no longer has. “I’m behind on rent. I know I’m on the [eviction] list,” she says. “Where else am I supposed to go? We have nowhere else.” She’s not scared though, she says. “I’m ready.”  ❖


From the Village Voice 2021 Spring print edition





Back in the New York Groove?

The leather-jacketed throng at the Bowery Electric surged toward the low-slung stage, nearly eye-to-eye with the thrumming musicians, the room resounding with raised fists and excited, off-key singalongs of “Baby I’m born to lose” and “I’m living on a Chinese rock.” The stench of spilled beer and sweat hung in the air as beanie-clad punk roustabout Handsome Dick Manitoba leapt into the packed revelers, throwing his arms around audience members as he spewed the MC5’s incendiary “Kick Out the Jams.”

That was then—November 16, 2016—this is now, April 2, 2021, to be precise. Jesse Malin—rock ’n’ roll king of below 14th Street and proprietor of clubs the Bowery Electric, Lola, and Berlin, also performed at that iconic L.A.M.F. (for the Heartbreakers’ Like a Mother F*cker album) tribute gig in 2016, a show celebrating the power of live, dirty, dangerous rock ’n’ roll.

For the past year, rock has been dangerous for another reason—a highly contagious disease that until fairly recently had no vaccine and still has no cure. On this very first night that live music is legally allowed back in New York City’s five boroughs, Malin is on the Bowery Electric stage again, doing his level best to bring music back to the (socially distant, masked) masses.

If being safe means numerous plexiglass room dividers hanging by chains from the ceiling, separating the (brand-new) tables and chairs for the limited-capacity, masked audience (who face higher ticket prices and mandatory drink and food purchases)—and it does—Malin’s on board. It appears the sold-out crowd, presumably at their first live show in more than a year, is down with it as well.

That said, there are music fans and musicians alike who are definitely not ready to congregate en masse, and still others who grouse that real “live” music can’t be constrained and government-mandated.

In any case, on April 2, around 7:30 p.m., Malin and Co. descended the stairs to the stage to the triumphant strains of Ace Frehley’s “New York Groove,” and through song and personal tales about the city and the past year, Malin eased tensions, despite the awkward audience restrictions.

In March 2020, like thousands of other musicians, Malin was on tour. He was in the U.K., promoting his recently released Sunset Kids album, produced with Lucinda Williams and Tom Overby. He had another six months and about 100 shows and festivals ahead of him.

Or so he thought. Voicing the disbelief of literally every other musician in the world at the time, Malin says, “I could never in my wildest years ever have imagined that I’d come home and my tour would be done. Or that every venue I’m involved with would be shut at once.”

The numbers on that, just for Malin, were staggering: He laid off somewhere over 200 people from his clubs, and canceled shows for the upcoming weeks … then months, then the rest of the year. “I never looked at how many acts, between all the stages, we had,” he mused. “But when the music plug was pulled and silenced—rightfully so—we found it was something around 90 shows a week.” (Malin says he currently has only about 25% of those people back at work.)

Multiply those numbers across the city, state, and world, and it’s almost too much to comprehend. If you need the stats, Ariel Palitz has them. The senior executive director of the NYC Office of Nightlife, and a longtime club proprietor herself, said on a recent panel that at the start of 2020, New York City’s five boroughs had about “27,000 entertainment and hospitality venues.” This translates to a “$35.1 billion dollar industry, with 300,000 jobs.”

Then came the saddest toll: COVID-19-related deaths in the close-knit NYC rock music community. The Arrows’ Alan Merrill, Stephen B. Antonakos of the Blue Chieftains and New York Loose, esteemed record and concert producer Hal Willner. For starters.

“Then of course, someone close to me, Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne,” Malin says somberly. Schlesinger was 55, and died almost a year to the day that we’re speaking.

It seems simultaneously like a million years ago and just yesterday.

Your faithful correspondent gets into the Spirit of Rock, 2021-style.

Live music venues, called “the first to close and the last to open,” are now legally, with myriad restrictions, allowed to open up again, though it’s not an overnight process. The return of live music—congregating in rooms with like-minded fans to pay homage to and experience the artists who help give voice to our souls—can be a sublime experience. And, to the minds of many, a necessary one.

So the question has been, since easily the summer of 2020: When and how could that live music experience be codified again, at venues both small and behemoth? A February 2021 episode of the online “Conversations” series presented by the Recording Academy’s New York Chapter had a panel of music professionals discussing the return of live music in the city. NYC Office of Nightlife’s Palitz stated, “We can no longer wait for the virus, the pandemic, to be over. We have to figure out ways right now to get open for our mental, economic, spiritual health.”

* * *

Over the past year, many people fled New York. Musician Camille Trust had to give up her city apartment, put her things in storage, and decamp to her family home in Florida, a living situation she terms “hilarious.”

Since 2018, Trust and a few friends have run a monthly all-female-led jam session at Brooklyn’s C’Mon Everybody club. Every other month, they would donate half the door earnings to a local charity of their choice.

Now, she says, “Two of four of us are not even in New York at the moment, one of them being me…. You pay to live in New York and New York is not New York,” she adds, of 2020.

Trust, who does wedding gigs and more, says, “I lost all my income. I’m collecting unemployment, I do some commercial jingles and things; I did get a few. But nothing that would sustain me.”

That said, she and others have been creative and productive, even if inspiration often arrives between days of shuffling around in pajamas in a pandemic overwhelm.

“I actually just released a single last week, called ‘Florida,’ Sort of as a love letter to my home state. I’m working on an album that is going to be completely written over Zoom. It’s called New York to Florida and sort of tells about this time.”

Another local musician, multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter Jake Pinto, stayed hunkered down in his tiny Brooklyn studio apartment for most of the pandemic, doing livestreams, cooking, learning new ways to record without a live band, and diving into Ableton Live, a digital audio workstation used for studio work as well as live performance. He continues to closely monitor COVID infection rates in New York, and stays double-masked in public.

“I felt lucky relatively speaking,” he says, during a walk in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. “Even before COVID I wasn’t relying on live gigs as my primary source of income. I had, over the course of a few years, found some success as a songwriter, and recently landed a movie trailer for The YeahTones with Position Music—movie trailer money. I wasn’t really in the green yet, but I wasn’t in debt either.”

Pinto planned for 2020 to be his breakout year, the culmination of building skills and contacts. But as advertising budgets dwindled, even these revenue opportunities pretty much ground to a halt. He received unemployment and $1,000 from Music-Cares, but only one of the three stimulus payments. He has no idea why.

Since graduating NYU in 2012, Pinto has been touring and performing around NYC, and even as a 24-year-old was making “an estimated $15,000 to $20,000 a year via music.” He would fund tours with his band, the YeahTones, Airbnb-ing his apartment—back when it was legal—while he was on the road. He had planned to release the first single for his debut solo record in mid-March 2020; after agonizing over whether to debut a new record in the middle of a global pandemic, he went ahead with an independent single campaign, releasing four singles over about six months.

Jake Pinto hits the road.

“The second single, ‘Home,’ was my most successful independent release to date. For a natural growth, without any sync components [such as film, TV, or video games], I was happy.” Pinto’s Sad Songs for Happy People LP will be out in the fall, and he’s looking forward to writing rock songs for the YeahTones again, which he found virtually impossible without being able to play with the band and “feed off their energy.”

Live performances and touring are Malin’s lifeblood, though he’s diversified via numerous music and club arenas. All that went away in 2020, and he says that in the past year, he “probably lost 80% of my income. As an artist, none of us really saved for this kind of rainy day. Because I could always go play a show somewhere.”

One saving grace is the newly formed group NIVA (National Independent Venue Association) and its Save Our Stages movement, which have been instrumental in organizing venues nationwide. Malin calls independent venues “the petri dishes for the next Lady Gagas and Duke Ellingtons and Madonnas. New York is already, in my opinion, too corporate and too much into the chains. If we lose the little-guy clubs, the only people going to survive are big companies, the Live Nations and such. For little bands, the way I grew up at CBGB or A7, where you could be off the grid and figure it out—build your audience, build a scene—where someone’s gonna let you get up [onstage], that was great.” 

Even in the best of times, the compensation for bands and musicians on the small-venue level is notoriously low, and there’s no standard or union to advocate or offer a united front. As one musician notes, “As a bandleader, your whole life is unpaid hours, which is something sidemen also need to understand.”

Malin notes that the pandemic brought club owners together. “I was on some really wonderful group calls with everybody from the Blue Note to Birdland in Midtown to people on Avenue C like Nublu—a real mix. At City Winery, Michael Dorf is always very knowledgeable, him and Shlomo [Lipetz] there.”

As of April 2, Berlin, Malin’s underground venue at Avenue A and 2nd Street, is open, along with the storied bar Niagara. But with operating costs prohibitively high, it’s not easy to break even, much less make a profit. “I mean, the rents are high, in the $40,000 [per month] range for all these businesses,” he says. “Landlords, commercial leases don’t want to give a break. Sales tax, insurance, the electricity—the rent being a huge one—the liquor license yearly. There are so many [expenses].”

Lola, which used to be Coney Island Baby, and before that, Brownies, is not open at all. “Lola doesn’t have room for a sidewalk café; there’s a bus stop,” Malin says. “We only can operate inside. So we’re really hoping we get some help from the city’s Shuttered Venues Operating Grant. They say you’re qualified by being 70% closed, or 90% closed in some cases. Well, Lola has been 100% closed. We can ease into it now, I guess.”

While 2020 was a roller-coaster of emotions, Pinto still believes that when it comes to his career, “It’ll all work itself out, which is basically how I’ve lived my life so far. I have assets: music, which hopefully will make money. But I lost all the little things that helped keep the ship afloat, a couple nights of doing live sound and things like that helped me not dig into debt.”

Onstage in front of a live audience for the first time in more than a year, Malin looks around the re-jiggered Bowery Electric and observes, “It feels like some kind of hope is happening.” Riding that wave, he has released a new single, “The Way We Used to Roll,” from his upcoming September LP on Little Steven’s Wicked Cool label.

But although Trust will be fully vaccinated by next month, she says, “I think that upon my [return] to New York in May, I will definitely be having some hesitation before entering a live concert venue.

“It’s still a weird thing,” she muses. “It’s like you’re uncovering an old wound. There’s been so much emotion toward gathering in a space together and enjoying music and having a good time. So now how is it possible, on a spiritual level and on a human level, to reconfigure that to just like, ‘Okay, no, we’re good now’?”  ❖


From the Village Voice 2021 Spring print edition





A Change Needs To Come


If you do not know what the acronym DWB means, then you are probably not Black. I didn’t know what it meant until a friend said to me, after being pulled over by a police officer: “It was just the typical traffic stop for DWB.” He told me it stood for Driving While Black.

We have greater awareness of the term today because we see it on social media posts, cell phone videos, and even police bodycam images. In one of the more recent instances that went viral, Army Second Lieutenant Caron Nazario was brutalized by police while he was in uniform in Windsor, Virginia, at a gas station. It’s not just DWB though, it could be Walking While Black, as was demonstrated in a viral video in which Army officer Jonathan Pentland accosted a young Black man who was walking on the sidewalk in a South Carolina neighborhood.

It’s become an all too familiar scene today, but tragically, it’s not a new one. As legendary Voice writer Peter Noel shared with me and my colleague Bob Baker via email:

“The ’90s were perhaps one of the deadliest periods in the history of policing Black lives in America. In New York City, police targeted Black men and boys, deeming them permanent suspects who had rap sheets stapled on their backs. Blacks like me were illegally tailed, pounced upon and jacked up by mostly undercover white cops who bloviated about owning the streets—and the night. The stops were systemic and threatening to all aspects of African American freedom of mobility. Those who resisted wrongful arrest went to jail on the most frivolous of reasons for stopping, questioning, and frisking them in the first place. Cops, in essence, were criminalizing law-abiding Black citizens.”

Even during the ’90s, writing about issues of racism and police brutality in NYC and beyond was considered somewhat taboo. In fact, Noel, in the reprinted piece from 1998 on these pages, aptly chronicled the racial profiling of Black men and women on the Jersey Turnpike. However, his use of the phrase “racial profiling” caused an internal debate with top Voice editors at the time. Despite Noel’s advocacy for the phrase, it was not allowed to be used in the original headline.

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What is so striking about Noel’s words, then and now, is that nothing has really changed. The only thing that is different today is that technology allows us to see and share these appalling occurrences readily and rapidly. The advent of social media has allowed for any incident of discrimination, racism, police brutality, and more to be instantly streamed for the country (and world) to watch in horror. And, of course, the immediacy of digital sharing obliges for greater collective consciousness, outrage, and activism.

There are countless issues that merit the attention of columns like this one, commemorating the rebirth of the Village Voice, such as: media bias and out-of-touch reporting that has led to the erosion of public trust in journalism and thus the rise of conspiracy theories taken as truth; or the unthinkable, unregulated power of large technology companies that have more data on individuals than any government in the world; or the number of overbearing (and increasing) laws that restrict actions that ought to be a matter of personal choice but rather are used to unnecessarily incarcerate more Americans; or Governor Andrew Cuomo’s alleged cover-up of nursing home death tolls from COVID; or our country’s response to the pandemic; or President Joe Biden’s apparent continuation of disturbing border policies for which he lambasted his predecessor; or the rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans.

Every one of those subjects warrants the attention of the Voice—and they will get it— but the issue of the day is the treatment of Black Americans. While the trial for the murder of George Floyd is ongoing, new examples of racism against Black people surface almost daily. And that is why I felt a duty to republish Noel’s original piece on DWB in the Voice.

Although Noel’s story was first published in 1998, when reading it one cannot help but think it could easily have been ripped from today’s headlines. “Driving, walking and simply trying to live while in our skins had become hazardous to our health,” Noel wrote via email about his reporting a quarter-century ago. “And, again, we had the bodies to prove it.”  ❖


From the Village Voice 2021 Spring print edition



Psychic in the City

Psychics are like therapists: they are ubiquitous in New York, they listen to people’s problems, and they offer advice — some good, some bad. Some psychics are decent and helpful and some are criminals. Every psychic will tell you that other psychics are criminals.

How has this group of workers, caught like many New Yorkers between the roles of helper and hustler, adapted to the pandemic? Did they read palms over Zoom? Did the city’s aura change? To find out, I interviewed psychics throughout the city. It quickly became clear that they had taken on many a New Yorker’s spiritual burdens.

In the Bronx, India Celestine offered seances for people seeking closure with loved ones lost to COVID-19; in midtown Manhattan, Marion Hedger advised doctors worn out from work; in Brighton Beach, Valeria Karat read the hands of the Russian community, increasingly trapped within itself; and in Jackson Heights, Dr. Rakesh Kumar consulted the planets, which warned him in advance that the pandemic was coming. 

¶ India Celestine, Centro Espiritista
Highbridge, The Bronx

India Celestine’s Centro Espiritista (Spiritist Center) is located a few blocks from the 167th St. D train stop, up one of those long and magnificent Bronx staircases that divides two buildings like a river. The temple is in India’s apartment, in a well-lit room past the kitchen, and is full of statues of gods and spirits, books on Haitian Voodoo and Hinduism, and family photos. Since the pandemic began, Celestine has offered seances here for people whose relatives died alone in hospitals.

“There’s a lot of new people coming to see me,” she says. “Some of the people that passed away, they were only surrounded by medical staff. Relatives want to say goodbye to their loved ones, to be able to say, ‘I love you.’ The spirits are trying to say goodbye too. When you cross over unexpectedly, the spirit tends to hover for a period of time trying to visit loved ones.” Celestine said she enjoins the spirits to come into the room, and then facilitates a last parting.

India Celestine: “I use basil and mint from the grocery store, ’cause we’re not out in the country.”

She says she has had to put in extra work convincing the bereaved of her good intentions. Many of them have not visited psychics before: “You get people who ask, ‘You’re not a witch, are you? I don’t want to be involved in nothing evil. My grandmother just passed away unexpectedly. I don’t want you to disturb her soul.’”

Others have come to her asking for services outside of her range. “A lady came in here asking me to murder her husband. I just had to say, ‘Ma’am, we don’t do that here.’”

Celestine dresses in calming white and explains the meaning of the items on her altar to set people at ease.

At its center is a photograph of Celestine’s grandmother, who practiced Spiritism in secret in predominantly Catholic Puerto Rico. “My grandmother’s my greatest source of power,” says Celestine. “I come from abuse, from torture. My grandmother taught me faith.”

In addition to consulting her grandmother’s spirit, Celestine consults those of Christ and Mary, and Native Americans, and the spirits of slaves, all of whom are represented in the room by figurines and dolls. Tobacco, herbs, liquor, rosary beads, and palm leaves serve as offerings to these spirits. In their variety they reflect what Celestine calls her “Creolized form of Spiritism” (or Espiritismo), a 19th-century religious movement that arose when Puerto Ricans educated in England brought back European Spiritist traditions, such as seances, which then intermingled with African religions and indigenous herbal traditions.

Celestine gathers herbs before meetings — “I use basil and mint from the grocery store, ’cause we’re not out in the country,” she says — while her boyfriend, himself a budding medium, offers chewing tobacco and anise seed liquor to a slave figurine. Customers deposit money in the hands of the slave upon completion of the seance.

While she offers some services over the phone, Celestine says she can only do seances in person. Of Zoom sessions, she says, “It’s too hard to make contact that way.”

¶ Valeria Karat, Enchantment Palace
Midwood, Brooklyn

Valeria Karat performs readings in Russian at the Enchantment Palace on Coney Island Avenue. She sells crystals, votive candles, tarot cards, herbs, and charms in the front of the shop and offers readings in a long conference room in the back. Speaking in Russian to her colleague Albina Frolova, who translated for us, she said the back room is designed to resemble “a small castle.” The armrest of every chair features a lion’s head and Valeria sits at the head of the table on a throne painted in gold. “I want everyone to feel like kings and queens,” she said.

She wears an eye of Osiris necklace and puffs from a red vape that fills the room with a strawberry scent. She is animated and firm, frequently striking a proud, forward-looking pose, like a bust of Lenin. She wears a Gucci belt and has impeccable eyebrows. The Russian and Ukrainian communities in Brighton Beach form her primary clientele, and she displays her old credentials from Russia on the wall because, she says, “sometimes old people want to see them.”

She says the pandemic has caused her clients to spiral inward. “People are trapped inside themselves, in New York everyone is anxious and depressed,” she explains. “In Russia we can easily go to our neighbors, ask for salt, bread, milk, whatever. We can go next door and start crying and get drunk with them. Here people don’t even talk to their neighbors.”

For the first few months of the pandemic, she did not charge anyone for consultations, and urged her clients to give to charities. She spent some of her savings supporting local restaurants. She says her task is to teach people the confidence within themselves, to tell them they can achieve their dreams.

She particularly enjoys working with gay clients. “I like gay people, because, you know the yin and yang, they are like that. They can be masculine and feminine. They are less jealous than Russian women, they always compliment me and tell me I am beautiful.”

During the pandemic her car, along with some jewelry inside it, was stolen. Before that, her husband left her and went back to Russia. So she has found it hard, in some ways, to be a psychic in the U.S. She says people do not respect psychics as much, and among psychics, she believes there is less integrity — “Too many are in it for money.”

I asked if she had ever considered returning to Russia. “No,” she said, “I don’t want to be known as Valeria who served senators and celebrities in Moscow. I want to be Valeria, who serves Americans, who is on the same level as them.” 

Her patriotism came in the form of an interstate revelation: “I was driving down the highway, and I saw so many trees, on every side of me. They were so beautiful. The nature here is so beautiful, there is nothing like it in Russia. I knew then I wanted to stay in this country.”

At the end of our interview, she gave me a free reading. I asked if I would succeed as a fiction writer and whether the newly relaunched Village Voice would succeed. 

She burnt sandalwood and rubbed the smoke over my hands, prayed under her breath, and consulted her cards. On the question of my ambition, she was blunt, and, from a financial perspective, surely correct  —  “You should not write fiction. You should write about crime, criminals, court trials.” 

On the question of this newspaper’s future, she told me that a woman would need to come in and make major changes. In the meantime, she said, I should help the staff blow off steam: “You need to buy Champagne and bring it to the office. It’s too tense there. Buy three bottles. It’s such a beautiful day out. What are you doing here? Go!”

¶ Marion Hedger, The British Psychic
Midtown, Manhattan

The Reverend Marion Hedger calls herself The British Psychic, and emphasizes her descent from Lord North on her website — it is a branding strategy, she says. “Americans love Brits, they love the accent. It just pulls them in.”  She practices in a small office, no larger than a queen-size bed, painted all in violet, in a tony, midtown building near Grand Central Station. She says many more doctors had been visiting her during the pandemic.

Marion Hedgers: “Americans love Brits, they love the accent. It just pulls them in.”

“A lot of doctors are leaving their practices and going out on their own. They’re the ones who need the most help. They’re starting to see the benefits of holistic medicine, sexual health. The pandemic has left them completely exhausted.”

Hedger has had to change her seances. For months she could not bring people together into a dark room, around her table, waiting for spirits to speak or to appear superimposed upon the bodies of the participants. She had to learn Zoom instead. Now she meditates before Zoom meetings, seeking communion with the spirits of her two older mentors, named Norman and Jerry, both deceased.

“He was the best psychic I’ve ever known, Norman,” she said. “But sometimes he’ll tell things to me and they’ll just be like a burst of swear words. And I’ll have to reword it.” Decades ago Norman told her she would become a psychic all at once, in an abrupt change of careers. “He was totally right,” she says.

Hedger says she discovered her gift as a little girl when her father placed cards on her forehead, giving her a shilling for each correct guess of the card’s face. Her father lost shilling after shilling in this little exercise. He decided to use her gift for betting on greyhound races. Hedger would put pennies on the winning dogs’ names in the newspaper and her father would come home with his winnings.

At the urging of her astrologer, Hedger is now working on an autobiography and will soon be appearing on a reality TV show she would not name, for legal reasons.

In the meantime she needs a break, and plans to visit Brighton Beach soon with a fellow psychic. “You stand in front of that water and it takes all the tiredness away,” she says, “Water is like oxygen for psychics.”

¶ Dr. Rakesh Kumar, The ISHWAR Center
Jackson Heights, Queens

Dr. Rakesh Kumar founded the International Society for Human Welfare and Astral Research (or ISHWAR, a Sanskrit name of God) in Delhi in 1998, and moved it to Jackson Heights in 2005. The current headquarters is a combination temple and astrological clinic stuffed into a red-brick Jackson Heights home, one block from the strip of Nepalese and Indian restaurants on 37th Avenue.

Kumar says the pandemic has brought him more clients, who have been consulting him extensively for advice about finding work. Personally, he has had an easier time adjusting than most: “I predicted the virus. You can check, September 2019 newsletter. It’s there,” he says. That newsletter describes “a severe evil influence of Saturn” which will affect the Earth’s magnetic waves and cause “new inexplicable diseases” affecting “the bloodstream, heart, and kidneys.”

Rakesh Kumar’s father once saw honey flowing beneath a framed photograph of Sai Baba. “Sai Baba could do anything. Just think of God on earth.”

Kumar emails out a set of predictions every month based on his reading of the planets, and then collects his best predictions in a document entitled “The Man Who Can See Tomorrow . . .”. Listed there are his predictions of COVID-19, 9/11, WikiLeaks’ release of the Iraq War Logs, the defeat of India’s Congress party and the ascension of Narendra Modi, Hurricane Sandy, earthquakes in Albania, Bernie Sanders’s heart attack, the discovery of the Higgs Boson, the results of the past four presidential elections, and many other things.

In one, somewhat jingoistic newsletter, Kumar blames the virus on China, citing remarks made by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and in another he says the virus is “like a curse from the animal kingdom,” to be remedied by vegetarianism and fasting during eclipses. Knowing what we know now about the relationship between industrial meat production and pandemics, the latter seems more on point.

In consultations, Kumar asks his clients where they were born, what date, and what time of day. He then puts this information into an astrological software program that, working in conjunction with his intuition (“far more important, intuition”), helps him predict the future.

His manner inspires confidence. He is tall, speaks in an officious tone, and wears the orange dhoti of his religious leader, the deceased mystic Sathya Sai Baba. Kumar said his father once saw honey flowing beneath a framed photograph of Sai Baba. “Sai Baba could do anything. Just think of God on Earth,” he said.

Kumar came to astrology slowly, while working as an engineer, picking up palmistry texts in Kolkata railway stations. He gave free palm readings to beggars and, in the eighties, a group of old men invited him into a graveyard to teach him “mesmerism, how to summon spirits, how to know the unknown.”

“I summoned spirits thousands of times, thousands of times,” he says. “But it was not enough. I needed a system. What is right, has to be right every time.” Vedic astrology did the trick. His astrological program has column after column of calculations based off the position of the moon, sun, and the planets. Kumar calls the FBI when he sees catastrophes on the horizon. He says he saved a woman from going to a job interview in the World Trade Center on September 11th.

I asked him how he decided to enter the trade.

“We have no say over our destiny. We cannot choose it,” he says. “It is like going to Manhattan. You can choose this train route or that train route. But the destination is Manhattan.”   ❖