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The Ubiquitous Candidate

“Get ready for a treat!” Charles Schumer calls out as he heads for another front door in south Buffalo. It is a clammy August Saturday and the Democratic Senate candidate is the only guy within a 20-block radius wearing a tie. His suit jacket, though, is back in the car, ditched not long after he began sweating through his undershirt.

Armed with a printout of likely primary voters, the Brooklyn congressman is doing some retail campaigning. Schumer, 47, may be spending record millions on a statewide television blitz, but he recognizes the importance of a little human touch. Lined with soaring elm trees, Whitehall Avenue is part of a heavily Irish, Democratic district that propelled Jimmy Griffin, Buffalo’s kooky former mayor,to 16 years in City Hall. Boasting turnouts that can approach 70 percent, the neighborhood is home to the primest of prime voters.

At the door of 114 Whitehall, the slope-shouldered Schumer knocks a few times and calls into the house through a screen door, but gets no response. Obviously someone is home because a vacuum cleaner roar is ricocheting from inside. Turning to Steve Pigeon, the Erie County Democratic boss, Schumer asks, “How many registered?”

“Five,” Pigeon says.

“We’ll wait,” the candidate declares.

After a couple of minutes, the vacuum cleaner goes silent and Schumer successfully beckons a housewife to the door. He hands her a piece of campaign literature and introduces himself as someone who wants to retire Al D’Amato. But like many people on Whitehall, the woman already knows who he is, having seen Schumer’s TV spots ad nauseum. This pleases the candidate to no end, since he’s paid for such recognition.

As he continues door to door, many of the prospective voters Schumer encounters are in some stage of undress. “So far, not a single guy with a shirt,” Schumer says at one point. “Four p.m. on a Saturday? Lots of naps. Lots of naps,” theorizing that he may be interrupting a few afternoon assignations. “You know,” he tells Pigeon, “they even wrote a song about that: ‘Saturday Afternoon Delight.'” The sweaty gentleman from Brooklyn was actually referring to the Starland Vocal Band’s classic, “Afternoon Delight.”

The only thing that keeps Schumer from bounding up to a front door is the home’s Republican registration or a menacing pet. Though there are two prime voters inside one house, the candidate is deterred by a Siberian husky perched on the driveway. Eyeing the dog, Schumer announces, “The O’Tooles will do without our presence for the moment.” As he strides to the next door, the candidate is careful not to cross any of the tiny lawns dotting the pristine neighborhood. Back in his Brooklyn district, Schumer knows how people feel about their grass. The circuitous route, it seems, is always the safest one.

“They all knew who I was,” Schumer says contentedly as he slides into Pigeon’s car after the door-to-door canvass. As he is driven around Buffalo, the candidate peppers Pigeon with questions about everything from the local basilica to western New York’s leading rock bands (Schumer knew the Goo Goo Dolls, but had to be reminded about 10,000 Maniacs). He will probably use these new information nuggets during subsequent appearances in the area. Schumer’s queries end as a Green Day song (that slow, sappy one) comes on the radio. He closes his eyes and nods his head slowly. Soon, he’s out cold, power-napping his way to an Irish festival in nearby Lancaster.

The way Chuck Schumer sees it, Mark Green has gone flatline and Geraldine Ferraro is still flailing about for a reason to be. He, on the other hand, is ascendant and faces no such problems. In fact, he tells supporters that his polls have him beating Ferraro by several points. In this bizarre, speak-no-evil primary, Schumer has been publicly silent about his opponents, forced to hold his prickly tongue lest he be accused of helping to somehow reelect D’Amato.

But privately, Schumer has ridiculed Ferraro’s performances on television and before Democratic party officials. He has described a recent NY-1 meltdown–during which Ferraro muffed a softball question about the first three things she wanted to accomplish as a Senator–as “appalling.” As for Green, whom Schumer tried to kneecap at this year’s state Democratic convention, the congressman has dismissed him for aspiring to be another Paul Wellstone–that is, an ineffective, if principled, lefty.

While now commonplace in appraisals of Schumer, it appears that the first Sammy Glick comparison came in these pages almost 20 years ago. After six years in the state assembly, Schumer ran in 1980 to succeed Elizabeth Holtzman, who had given up her congressional seat to run for the Senate. A graduate of both Harvard College and Harvard Law School, Schumer was a young man in a hurry and not much interested in an extended stay in Albany.

That race was notable for two reasons. Unlike most outer-borough officials, Schumer showed an ability to raise cash from power circles usually open only to major Manhattan politicians. Back then, the Voice described the 29-year-old pol as “liberal, but malleable.” Secondly, the House race triggered a federal criminal probe of Schumer that examined whether he illegally deployed assembly staffers to work on his congressional campaign. The tawdry scandal, the Voice noted at the time, left the impression that Schumer exhibited the “frantic, unprincipled ambition of a liberal Al D’Amato.”

In a year where D’Amato’s pay-to-play ethics will again be questioned, it is ironic that Schumer–and not the Fonz–is the Senate candidate who has come the closest to being busted. Schumer’s indictment on fraud charges was sought in 1982 by the Brooklyn U.S. Attorney and signed off on by the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division (then headed by one Rudolph Giuliani) and the Office of Public Integrity. But the new congressman was spared when a deputy attorney general nixed the prosecution, apparently on jurisdictional grounds.

While the criminal probe left him with a black eye, it did not stop Schumer from being reelected. Represented during the federal investigation by Arthur Liman, Schumer racked up legal bills of more than $60,000, a sum he eventually wrote off on his taxes over a five-year period, according to his returns from 1982 to 1986.

After this rocky start, Schumer has compiled an admirable legislative record and he is the clear star of the New York congressional delegation. His work on the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban made him a target of the National Rifle Association and gun nuts everywhere. Schumer’s other Washington achievements are numerous, and he notes in a recent campaign mailing he has “done more than you can squeeze into one 30-second ad,” or “even six or seven ads.” Since Schumer has actually aired more than a dozen spots, this reads less like a boast than an apology for his commercial deluge.

Another campaign piece touts his fight to aid workers by raising the minimum wage, a stance that is surely supported by Schumer’s own employee. Since 1995, he has employed a full-time nanny who earns only $13,000 a year, or $250 per week, to care for his children. Schumer’s tax returns from 1995 to 1997 show that the nanny, Evelyn Deshong, did not receive a raise during that period of employment.

While Schumer’s legislative résumé is impressive, there remain indications that the “liberal, but malleable” tag applies. His flip-flop on the death penalty only serves to make him more appealing to a statewide electorate. While he has made much of his fight against Newt Gingrich and the Contract With America, Schumer is only a recent convert to the D’Amato jihad. While Green has been doggedly pursuing the Republican for more than a decade, Schumer targeted the Fonz only after deciding not to challenge the more invincible George Pataki.

The Senate candidate, a member of the House Banking Committee, is also extremely cozy with the securities industry, à la Alfonse. He has been able to bank nearly $13 million for this campaign because firms like Goldman, Sachs, the Travelers Group, and the Equitable Companies are comfortable with him. Schumer provided crucial support for 1998 legislation to supposedly modernize the financial services industry. That measure passed the House by one vote and was roundly criticized by President Bill Clinton and good government groups for weakening the Community Reinvestment Act and helping to facilitate megamergers that are rarely in the consumer’s interest. Schumer also had previously supported the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, which was derided as “special interest politics at its worst” by the Consumer Federation of America. That measure limited stockholders’ ability to pursue legitimate legal claims against companies.

Gay groups have also criticized Schumer for supporting the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which labels heterosexual marriages as the only legal unions. Last month, Schumer was a no-show at a candidates’ forum at Greenwich Village’s Gay and Lesbian Community Center, where his name was booed by a 150-person crowd.

It is unclear, though, whether Schumer’s positions on securities legislation, DOMA, or the death penalty will resonate with primary voters. He believes that since beating D’Amato is the goal of every Democrat, he can make a persuasive case as to why he is the only candidate able to deny the Republican a fourth term. If he faces D’Amato, Schumer reasons, he will be flush enough to fight fire with fire and won’t get sandbagged by D’Amato commercials that will begin targeting the Democratic nominee immediately after the primary. Of course, much of his artillery will be underwritten by the same benefactors stocking the D’Amato war effort.

Schumer’s attempts to supplement his commercials with free media have, so far, fallen short of Green’s successes. His press conferences–on subjects like HMO reform and skyrocketing college tuition–have been sparsely covered. While Green was barnstorming Brooklyn churches with David Dinkins and drawing cameras, Schumer addressed three Harlem churches on a Sunday in late August in virtual anonymity.

Actually, that might not have been so bad, since his remarks were rather awkward and peppered with forced and repeated references to God. Addressing the plague of guns on the street, Schumer told one congregation of the days when he “grew up on the streets of Brooklyn.” It was a time, he said, when “my hormones were racing” and he got into a few scuffles. Even came home once with a broken thumb. “But, praise God, I never came home in a coffin!” Had he been given a few more minutes at one West 116th Street church, the candidate might have asked the crowd if he could get a couple of amens.

Schumer’s public schedule is also dwarfed by the peripatetic Green’s jaunts. But then again, odds are Schumer will be invading your living room several times a night. The Senate candidate has become such a ubiquitous presence on NY-1, you half expect him to deliver the “Weather on the 1’s.”

The day before Schumer did his Harlem church circuit, he was in Lockport headlining a small rally for a slate of Niagara County Democrats. Held on a breezy ribbon of grass near the local marina, the picnic was organized in response to a recent swanky D’Amato fundraiser that was attended by Giuliani and cost $1000 a head. By comparison, the Democratic soirée featured hot dogs, homemade pizza, and Sweet Valley Cola.

A succession of candidates addressed the crowd, speaking from under the green and white awning of a 1978 Dodge Cruiseair. The local assembly candidate must have missed the Senate candidate’s commercials because she referred to him as “Chuck Shumner.”

When Schumer took the mike, he made sure to mention that he supports the state resolution that would bring gambling to the economically depressed county. In fact, he called on D’Amato to “light a fire” under Pataki to call a special session of the legislature and to get the gambling measure passed. He also pointed guests to a stack of phony $1000 bills on one picnic table. D’Amato’s picture was in the center of the xeroxed currency. “I hope you all saw this,” Schumer said, “it’s a great thing.” He then read an ad from the local paper announcing the picnic. “Save $1000,” the ad said. “Didn’t have $1000 to meet our current U.S. Senator? Then come meet our next U.S. Senator for free.” For Schumer, the $13 Million Man (and counting), this must have seemed like quite a bargain.

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Tooning In

Disney is not known for heralding directorial authorship, least of all when it comes to animation: try naming the director of The Little Mermaid or even a classic like Dumbo. It’s the corporate brand name that sells the movies. And yet, last year, the company acquired the rights to distribute the entire oeuvre of Hayao Miyazaki, Japan’s premier auteur-animator. Miramax will release the director’s latest film, Princess Mononoke, in theaters next year (the movie is second only to Titanic as Japan’s all-time box office champ); the remaining titles will go straight to video in brand-new dubbed versions, starting with this week’s release of 1989’s Kiki’s Delivery Service.

Born in 1941, Miyazaki is a beloved icon in his home country–though he’s called “the Disney of Japan,” he’s been vocal about his distate of Disney movies. After working on various TV series, he made his directorial feature debut in 1979 with Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro, a breathless caper complete with secret stairways, a captive princess, and Indiana Jones-like hijinks. Miyazaki’s artistic breakthrough came in 1984’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, whose title character, the first of the director’s trademark headstrong heroines, leads her village in a battle for ecological survival. In 1986’s Laputa–Castle in the Sky, slated for video release next year, a young girl fights off the factions lusting after her “levitation stone” (flight is a Miyazaki obsession, and there are airborne scenes in all his movies).


My Neighbor Totoro (1988; Fox Video, 1993) may be the director’s best-known film. Two young sisters meet a mythical forest creature who helps them cope with their ailing mother’s absence. Buoyed by Joe Hisaishi’s imaginative score (he also works with Takeshi Kitano), Totoro neatly encapsulates Miyazaki’s main obsessions: the need for balance between man and nature, and the trials of spiritual and moral development.


Though Miyazaki can orchestrate impressively precise action scenes (Kiki’s arrival in the city provokes chaos in the streets; 1992’s philosophical adventure movie, Porco Rosso, includes magnificent aerial dogfights), his movies usually unfurl at a leisurely pace. The director allows for reverie and for a sense of wonder to bloom. Humor, always present, tends to be gentle slapstick, unobtrusively punctuating an otherwise contemplative rhythm.


Drawing thousands of each movie’s animation cells himself, Miyazaki composes every shot with a painter’s eye. Influenced by Jonathan Swift (Laputa–Castle in the Sky is named after a floating island in Gulliver’s Travels), Jules Verne, and Lewis Carroll, he smoothly integrates the fantastical and the mundane. Nobody gets crushed by falling pianos in Miyazaki’s movies (he finds Disney too violent), but cats shaped like buses roam the countryside. A humanist concerned with rites of passage and periods of transition, Miyazaki avoids cheap moral lessons and the safe distance of cynical wisecracks. Being marketed by Disney, in fact, might be the greatest irony in the career of a director who can appeal equally to four-year-olds and admirers of Yasujiro Ozu.

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Political Conversion

Only seven years ago, Brooklyn City Councilman Noach Dear appeared to be headed for political oblivion, if not jail, when he was found receiving nearly $250,000 a year from a charity he headed called the Save Soviet Jewry Foundation. After an investigation by the state attorney general, Noach returned more than $37,000 to the now defunct nonprofit.

Today Noach Dear is running in a tight race for Congress, vying for Chuck Schumer’s open seat with three other Democrats. Like Al D’Amato and George Pataki, the conservative Dear has been presenting a kinder, gentler version of himself, backing away from his right-wing voting record and lifetime of hostile rhetoric towards gays, blacks, and women. Indeed, the man who voted against several major AIDS and gay civil-rights bills before the City Council last year said that he “believes in equal rights for gays because discrimination is not a religious right.”

No doubt Dear’s makeover is based on necessity rather than conviction, a recognition that he’s no longer running in the conservative confines of Borough Park, the Orthodox Jewish community he has represented in the council since 1983. In fact, Borough Park is not even in this district. The recently reconfigured 9th Congressional District is roughly 60 percent Brooklyn, and the rest Queens, and is comprised mostly of secular Jewish, middle-class communities. (Apparently, Dear didn’t know this. He had 3000 signatures rendered invalid because they came from outside the district.) Ironically, the new design may work in Dear’s favor, since voters in this district may be vulnerable to his attempts to refurbish his image.

One area where the tactic won’t work is Park Slope, which has a sizable gay population. Look for progressives to come out with guns blazing against Dear from now until the September 15 primary. “The notion that somebody as reactionary as Noach Dear may be the next member of Congress for this district is very scary,” asserts Alan Fleishman, a neighborhood activist with a long involvement in gay and lesbian issues. “Things have been quiet over the summer, but we’re going to ratchet it up a few notches now.”

On Monday, several gay rights and prochoice organizations held a press conference in Prospect Park, pointing out Dear’s conservative record in the City Council. To wit: voting against the landmark 1986 gay rights bill, AIDS prevention advertisements, and the 1998 domestic partnership bill; opposing Mayor Giuliani’s efforts to raise money for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis because it would legitimize “a lifestyle that the heterosexual person is opposed to”; and consistently voting prolife, including voting against a 1994 bill making it illegal to block access to an abortion clinic. (Dear denied the Voice‘s request for an interview.)

The other Democrats in the race are all formidable and have a shot at winning. Dan Feldman, a longtime member of the state assembly, has the support of Brooklyn’s Democratic county organization and many political clubs. Melinda Katz, an assemblywoman from Queens, is being heavily promoted by City Comptroller Alan Hevesi and the Queens county organization. She will benefit by being the only woman and Queens candidate in the race. City Councilman Anthony Weiner, whose face recently adorned The New York Observer as a “young political hotshot,” is close to Chuck Schumer. He was endorsed by the late Tony Genovesi and his Canarsie club, and thus suffers from his death.

What Dear has going for him is money—lots of it. In 1996, he flexed his fundraising muscles by securing more than $2 million for the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign. (Gore even paid a visit to Dear’s Borough Park home three years ago to raise money.) Dear has gone on to use his extensive contacts to build a considerable war chest of his own, raising $1.3 million by the end of June, more than his three Democratic opponents combined. He will hit the television airwaves with commercials over the next two weeks, and plans to send a self-promotional videotape to 20,000 residents in the district. The primary candidates will hold a debate September 3, at P.S. 206 in Sheepshead Bay.

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Dutch Treat

Among the many distinguishing features of New York City real estate, one is prominent: change. Hospitals evolve into luxury apartments, landmarks are reduced to rubble, and buildings flip with the alacrity of circus acrobats. In a city where even phone jacks can be sublet, permanence is as rare as a decent closet.

That’s why the Hendrick I. Lott House in Brooklyn’s Marine Park is remarkable—it has both permanence and fabulous closets. Built in 1720 and expanded in 1800, the 18-room Dutch farmhouse has been owned by the same family for 278 years—a lineage that is singular in New York City. Sitting midblock on three-quarters of an acre amid a sea of two-family semidetached townhomes, the Lott House is an architectural chronicle of Brooklyn life from farm days to slavery to modern times.

But the Lott House is also clad in that most common New York City real estate veneer, controversy. Since its inception in 1965, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) has tried to designate the house a landmark. And from the start, Lott descendant and house owner Ella Suydam battled it.

“Who the hell are you to tell me what I can do with my house?” Suydam asked a city agency in 1980. To Suydam, landmarking amounted to harassment and an invitation to gawkers to come prowling about her yard. But in July 1989, Suydam died in her house at the age of 92, leaving the vacant house to two out-of-town nieces. Two months later, the Lott House was named a landmark.

Now the property is swarming with activity. In June, archaeologists from Brooklyn College began excavating the yard, unearthing what they believe is a stone kitchen that likely doubled as slave quarters. The Hendrick I. Lott House Preservation Association is working with the city Parks Department’s Historic House Trust to restore the building. And while all that could make Ella Suydam spin in her Greenwood grave, she might find comfort in knowing that the house is still owned by Lott descendants.

That’s because Suydam’s estate sued LPC in 1990, claiming that landmarking made the property worthless because the house could not be demolished. In court papers, the heirs argued that developers had offered more than $1 million for the land if they could raze the house and put up more two-family homes.

“The way to deal with that house economically would be to destroy it, but landmarking prevented that,” says Gary Divis, a New York City attorney who is married to Suydam’s cousin, Catherine Lott. “So they were caught in a bind.” Divis and his wife support the landmarking effort.

For eight years, while the estate and city wrangled over the house’s fate, the structure degenerated. The longer it sat idle, the more expensive the prospect of renovating it became. “In this case,” says Scott Heyl, executive director of the Historic House program, “landmarking actually accelerated the endangerment.”

Designating a building a landmark might seem an honor, but many owners resent it because it limits what they can do with their property. For example, Broadway theater owners sued the LPC because landmark status meant they could not demolish or alter their buildings. The City Council is about to vote on a bill to allow theater owners to sell their air rights in part to compensate for the limits set on their properties by the LPC.

The arguments for landmarking, however, can be compelling. “Houses like the Lott farm are the living embodiment of the heritage of the city,” says Heyl. “In a city that’s always had a tear-it-down-and-build-it-over-again mentality, its survival is remarkable.”

Heyl and others are negotiating with the Lott estate and last fall won site control. Heyl says he hopes the purchase will go through within two years, and while he wouldn’t discuss price, sources expect it to be about $1.5 million. Heyl also hopes to acquire many of the house’s original furnishings, which Suydam’s nieces took. If negotiations work, the Lott House will be a city park.

Indeed, with its large, lush yard, the Lott House is already parklike. But the land surrounding it is a mere slice of the Lott family’s former holdings, which encompassed the better part of South Brooklyn between what is now Bedford and Flatbush avenues from Quentin Road to Jamaica Bay.

The Lotts were farmers, raising potatoes and corn, but their real wealth was in the land, which was often parceled out as marriage presents. The family roster reads like a Hagstrom’s map of Brooklyn, with names like Remsen, Boerum, Bergen, Van Brunt, Snedeker, and Suydam.

While the Lotts were huge landowners and fairly large slaveholders—census records show they owned about 35 slaves in the early 1800s—they were not elite. “These are not Southern plantation owners sitting on the porch watching the slaves work,” says archaeologist Chris Ricciardi. “They also worked the farm themselves, and made their living with their hands. In New York at that time, that meant you were not in the wealthy class.”

The Lotts’ property remained a working farm until the 1920s, though by then it had shrunk to a five-block radius from the house. In 1926, owner Andrew Suydam and his wife Jennie Lott Suydam (Ella’s parents) sold everything but the house and its current yard.

In 1952, Ella Suydam inherited the house from her mother, and lived there another 37 years with her sister Anna, who died in 1987. Both women were librarians; Ella ran the library at Erasmus Hall High School.

The Lott House is largely true to its original design and, unlike many of the 14 surviving Dutch farmhouses in Brooklyn, remains on its original land. The 1720 portion of the wooden house has ceilings only six feet high and features a single tiny bedroom. But the rest of the building is adorned with arched dormer windows, a grand foyer, and enough closets, pantries, and built-in storage spaces to make any city dweller dream.

The house also bears the marks of Ella and Anna’s more recent tenure. Original Federal fireplace mantels remain, but faux brick hearth linings with marble laminate backings abound. Floral-patterned wall-to-wall carpeting covers wide-plank wood floors. Layers of extinct newspapers—The Brooklyn Eagle, The New York Herald Tribune, and The New York Sun—serve as a liner between wooden floors and once new linoleum.

While the house is virtually empty, stray objects remain: 29 pairs of women’s shoes fill one upper bedroom; a dozen Saks Fifth Avenue hatboxes are scattered in another. Squatters and local kids who vandalized the house after Ella died have left scars: small fires burned into floors, names were carved into walls or dripped on a radiator cover in candle wax. Remarkably, the damage is minimal.

There is one other vestige of Ella’s ownership: the NO TRESPASSING sign she posted near the front gate. In late July, when archaeologists were excavating, the sign sat lopsided atop a pile of trowels and shovels used to dig up Ella Suydam’s old yard. Ricciardi jokes that her ghost still haunts the place: new lightbulbs burn out regularly, and once, interior doors slammed shut even though the house’s windows are boarded. “We ring the bell now when we come in the house,” says archaeologist Alyssa Loorya. “We say hello to Ella.”

Ricciardi says archaeologists, historians, and architects will be actively studying the Lott House for the next four or five years. Conservationists will restore it, taking up 1940s carpeting and Depression-era wallpaper. As New York City celebrates its centennial, the Hendrick I. Lott House will be brought, kicking and screaming, back to the 17th century.


Research: Michael Kolber

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Clark Bar

Location: Park Slope, Brooklyn
Rent: $975 (rent stabilized)
Square feet: 600
Occupant: Dana Sherwood (art teacher); Karen Mancuso (editor, HX; HX for Her)

Your cherry red­and-white table makes me think of June Christy when she sings that song aboutapple pandowdy. You say your life is in the kitchen and you love to cook! I bet you both read stories in the food section about the lonely life of a blueberry or the misunderstood spotted mushroom. You have cutout illustrations of food on your kitchen walls from a 1950s home economics class. The Swiss steak is out of focus. On the back of the picture of liver, it reads: “dietary allowances for boy or girl.” The percentage for girls is higher. Liver discrimination! So here you are in Park Slope among the literati. You say you found your big, airy, tidy apartment after looking at two others. The realtor was panting and said you had to give him cash immediately. He drove you right to the ATM in his car. [Dana] We had to take out $1000 and give it to him. [Karen] He was a jerk. [Dana] You know how they are.

This was six months ago? [Karen] Yes, and a good friend who just moved to Park Slope got a one-bedroom smaller than this and it costs $1400. Ours is just $975. [Dana] An apartment downstairs the same size is renting for $1200 now. In a few months, prices have gone up so much. [Karen] You constantly see young couples, kids, and real estate brokers walking around Park Slope together.

What a sight! [Karen] It’s such an amazing community. [Dana] People are so happy to be living here. [Karen] There are gay couples, tons of interracial families. It’s very friendly.

It sounds like a planned liberal community. How did you meet? [Dana] I went to Clark University in Massachusetts. [Karen] I was a sophomore. I didn’t know Dana. [Dana] You knew Heather. [Karen] You recognized me. I was in a bar in Manhattan last February. [Dana] I was here on a working trip with a friend. I was living in California. I knew I wanted to move to New York. I saw Karen and I said, You look familiar. [Karen] Then when I went to California, because my brother’s ex-girlfriend is from Santa Cruz, I called Dana.

You said you go to stoop sales a lot. [Dana] I get a lot of art supplies. There’re these old ladies in Park Slope who’ll say, I’ll sell you my acrylics for $5.

How sad—all these aging women artists who don’t paint anymore! No, it’s grandmothers with these paint-by-numbers set kinds of things.

Here’s your matchbook collection that Dana got from her cousin in Connecticut. There’s one from “Lester’s Family Shoe Store” and another from “Frances Brewster, Distinguished Resort Fashions.” That’s the kind of place where my friend in high school’s mother got the strapless floral with the big skirt that she wore one Fourth of July and after about five gimlets told the guests, “You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip.” She was talking about her husband. Here’s a matchbook that says “Noel.” It’s so early ’60s. The design is so long and low. [Karen] I don’t notice these things. [Dana] You’re a words woman.

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Cast Party

Charles Barnes stares across the wide waters of Prospect Park Lake, gazing back in time. Over by the broken tree, his father once hooked a bass that jumped gloriously above the water, and then got away. Nothing could top that, except maybe the 30-pound carp—”so big it filled up my bathtub.” In the 1970s, when his family was on public assistance, “fishing was a lot of how we survived.” For the price of a 35-cent token and a 50-cent loaf of Italian bread, they could catch enough bass to eat for a week.

Back then, fishing in Brooklyn was hardly a secret. The wildly popular Abraham & Strauss Junior Angler’s contest, which attracted as many as 5000 boys and girls every summer, awarded prizes like English bicycles and tackle boxes, and wrapped up with a giant fish fry. “I won a nice little trophy,” Barnes, 34, recalls. Now Macy’s, which took over the contest in 1995, runs it as a scaled-back, seven-day event. It begins July 10 this year.

The contest will no doubt bring a new crop of anglers, though many have come and gone over the years, and a small group of old-time winners never left. Today, the lake and its piscine inhabitants are on the verge of rediscovery.

Having already embarked on a major restoration of Prospect Park’s woodlands—Brooklyn’s only forest—park workers are slowly turning their attention to the murky waters of Brooklyn’s only freshwater lake. Its 55 acres were dug by hand, to a depth of about seven feet, in the 1860s. The lake is like a big sink, fed by tap water that pours out of a pipe hidden in some rocks near the ballfields and ultimately spills into a sewer not far from the parade grounds on the park’s south end.

“It’s completely human-controlled,” says Prospect Park aquatic biologist Brandon Muffley. “We can turn it on, or we can shut it off and choke this whole system.”

Within those parameters, nature asserts itself. In October 1997, the Parks Department and the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) decided to inventory the lake’s marine life. They went electrofishing one night, zapping the waters along the shoreline with a 200-volt device (which stuns but doesn’t kill), then weighed and measured whatever floated up. They found 942 fish of nine species in four hours and 25 minutes.

The overwhelming majority—697 fish—were bluegill sunnies less than six inches long, but largemouth bass—a thrilling, explosive sport fish—came on strong. With 170 specimens, many of them over 18 inches long, the DEC proclaimed the lake the second-best spot for bass on all of Long Island, after Queens’s Oakland Lake. “The fish community in Prospect Park Lake is thriving,” the report declared.

The fisherfolk could have told them that. There are perhaps several dozen regulars, unremarkable in their jeans and T-shirts and baseball caps. Most fish for bass or sunfish, but a few prefer catfish and carp. They are black and white, Asian and Hispanic. Almost everyone has a bag or a secret pocket crammed with the tools of the trade: scales for weighing, folding nets, small boxes packed with gaudy lures.

“It always seems to be a place where immigrants come,” says Charlie Gili, who learned to love nature in the park as a boy and grew up to be the Parks Department’s deputy chief of operations in Brooklyn. “When I was a kid it was a lot of Irish and Italian and Jewish. When you’re out in the park fishing, you don’t see differences in people.”

Every weekend morning just after dawn, Wayne Connors comes to the park with his mother, Iris, who first brought him there when he was six, in 1956. “I’m fanatical about carp,” he says, but few other anglers share his passion for the bottom feeders. Wayne cooks up his own bait, called “boilies”—marble-sized dough balls flavored with vanilla, maple syrup, or cherry Kool-Aid. The biggest fish it’s brought him—so far—is 17 pounds. He casts his line, props the rod on a stick, and waits, sometimes hours, for a strike.

He and his mother used to play cards while they waited for the carp to bite, but now Iris is learning to trawl for bass, casting and reeling in a line baited with a large, scented plastic worm. Iris keeps a scrapbook that includes color photos of their most memorable fish, a 1962 telegram from Western Union announcing one of Wayne’s A&S victories, a faded Brooklyn Eagle clipping showing Wayne at 13, accepting a $250 savings bond from Parks Commissioner Hoving. The contest hoopla over the years included celebrity guests like Carl Furillo of the Brooklyn Dodgers, tennis star Althea Gibson, and Fred J. Muggs, the show-biz chimpanzee.

But fishing isn’t just about glamour. The regulars love the solitude, the stillness, the sense that they aren’t in the city at all. Many are as besieged as the fish. They have tough, noisy jobs—Wayne is a union plumber—but out by the lake everyone leaves them alone. It’s incredibly peaceful to be out in the early morning surrounded by water and trees. They soak up all the natural minutiae that most visitors overlook. They know where the fish are hiding, if the green herons have hatched, whether the four-inch crayfish are crawling around today. Luis Miranda, a wiry, Marlboro-smoking bass fancier, has been fishing here for 36 years, since he was 10. “There ain’t nothing they can tell me about this lake I don’t know,” he says.

The lake was stocked on and off between 1909 and 1979. Many of those species—bass, black crappie, pumpkinseed, brown bullheads, suckers, golden shiners—remain. Others arrived by less official means. The goldfish—some up to seven pounds—were probably once the inhabitants of a kid’s aquarium. So, most likely, was the piranha one fisherman claims he caught. (Even if this fish story is true, a piranha wouldn’t survive the winter.) The DEC study remarked on a white sucker, guessing that it had probably been liberated by a Buddhist sect that “commonly releases animals, including fish, in the park.”

There are other oddities. Miranda says one day he and a buddy were fishing near a spot called the mudhole when suddenly his friend felt something bite. He wrestled with the fish, pulling it mightily to one side. But as he drew his catch to the surface, an arm suddenly emerged from the water. A spinner bait—which sports jaunty feathering and a twirling metal plate, plus several hooks—had snagged the shirt of a corpse. (Miranda learned later the body was that of a despondent woman who’d been missing for months.)

Except when it comes to floaters, the Parks Department’s fishing policy is catch and release. The only person enforcing that rule is Michael Jordan, the DEC’s sole environmental conservation officer for Kings County. Jordan is loath to fine the few people he thinks are starving, but he has ticketed some recreational gluttons, like the man he discovered making off with 70 sunfish on a string.

“A lot of the people are Russian-speaking or Asian-speaking, and then I have a communication barrier,” Jordan says. He tries sign language, scooping the captive fish from their buckets and sliding a finger across his throat. Or he says: “Nyet! Nyet!” “I know nyet,” he laughs.

When Jordan was growing up in Flatbush in the ’60s and ’70s, his friends actually swam in the park. But the Albany-based DEC historically pays scant attention to New York City. The Prospect Park Alliance is considering selling state fishing licenses, which Jordan hopes will encourage the DEC to send down biologists and maybe someday even stock the lake. (Though at this point, park officials say, there are enough fish.) Next week, Jordan will watch some of the urban kids in the Macy’s contest get their first lessons. “Fishing is fun,” he says.

Aquatic biologist Brandon Muffley is all for fishing. But bass notwithstanding, he says, the lake has a host of problems: plumed phragmites sprout everywhere; the orthophosphates the city pumps into its water supply to prevent mineral buildup in pipes make the floating weeds grow wild; summer temperatures in the shallow waters can rise so high they practically cook the fish; oxygen levels get frighteningly low. “Is this really what an ideal healthy lake looks like, just because we have these big game fish?” Muffley asks.

Whatever bureaucratic struggles may ensue, the life of the lake goes on. One day soon, Charles Barnes plans to bring his fiancée’s two daughters to the park. “I’ll get them two little poles and teach them fishing just like my father taught me,” he says. “I’m keeping the faith.”

The fishing contest is open to kids aged 15 and under. For information, call 718-965-8954.

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The Wiseguy and the Wetlands

This is the one New York story about a Mafia soldier and a marshy Brooklyn wetland that does not include any of the following: a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson, duct tape, an area rug, or misplaced appendages.

Instead, this is the saga of one felon’s continuing fight with the government over the construction of his waterfront dream home with a stunning view of Mill Basin (not to mention easy access to the Belt Parkway and the Kings Plaza shopping center!). It is the story of what happens when a careless gangster gets caught in the act–the Tidal Wetlands Act, to be precise.

Now, more than eight years after environmental inspectors first cited mob figure John Rosatti, the 54-year-old multimillionaire and state officials are finally close to settling their protracted, snail-paced litigation. Sources said that Rosatti, who recently sold the luxurious home for $3 million, is expected to pay a low six-figure fine–likely less than $200,000–to settle charges that he filled in wetlands to extend his property into protected areas of Mill Basin.

While the penalty is a significant one for a case involving a private home, Rosatti, who owns several car dealerships, will have no trouble covering it. The Colombo crime family figure, in fact, is apparently New York’s wealthiest hoodlum–and by a wide margin. In underworld circles, Rosatti is known as an ”earner,” a valued mob figure who generates millions from illegal activities or legitimate businesses–in this case, the automotive industry.

While a recent spate of newspaper stories has chronicled the supposed disarray–organizational and financial–of New York’s crime families, Rosatti is feeling no such pain. Last year, records show, the mafioso sold two Florida auto dealerships for a staggering $33 million in cash. His remaining business interests–which include Nostrand Avenue’s prosperous Plaza Auto Mall–and real estate investments could make Rosatti the underworld’s only $50 million man.

Joel Winograd, a Rosatti lawyer, said that his client was ”happy” that the wetlands matter ”is coming to a conclusion and will be much happier when it’s finalized.” One state official involved in the negotiations said the two sides were now ”fine-tuning” a settlement agreement. The talks have dragged on, in part, because of staff turnover at both the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the attorney general’s office. During the course of the Rosatti case, the AG’s office–which has filed a lawsuit against him–has been headed by Robert Abrams, Oliver Koppell, and the current officeholder, Dennis Vacco. DEC also saw staff changes when George Pataki succeeded Mario Cuomo as governor in 1995.

With his prodigious investment portfolio, there was little surprise in Mill Basin when Rosatti began construction in 1989 of an expensive two-story mansion on a corner property on National Drive. Located at the intersection of two inland waterways, the Rosatti site was the neighborhood’s best, far outstripping the smaller spreads of neighbors like Meade Esposito, the ex–Brooklyn Democratic boss and longtime National Drive resident.

With its modern decking, patio, in-ground pool, home gym, balconies, four-car garage, and immaculate landscaping, the stucco home Rosatti built looked more Bridgehampton than Brooklyn. Rosatti, who has owned yachts and Cigarette boats, also built a floating dock. The sprawling home was so big, one visitor compared it to a ”department store.”

Since some of Rosatti’s construction involved work on the property’s weathered bulkhead, DEC inspectors were required to insure that Rosatti did not damage the tidal wetlands adjacent to his property. What they discovered one day in 1989, according to DEC inspection reports and a subsequent state lawsuit filed against Rosatti, was that the wiseguy had improperly extended his property by excavating and placing landfill in tidal wetlands. As a result, the DEC charged, Rosatti had constructed a portion of his house, his swimming pool, and a concrete patio ”within the tidal wetlands and tidal wetlands adjacent area.”

According to one environmental official, while DEC inspectors often discover instances where homeowners with waterfront sites try to ”extend their property lines because they want a bigger garden or a larger deck,” Rosatti’s construction was particularly egregious. His brazen move, state officials charged, resulted in the destruction of 2000 square feet of Mill Basin wetlands and was a violation of the state’s Tidal Wetlands Act, which stipulates that ”tidal wetlands constitute one of the most vital and productive areas of our natural world, and that their protection and preservation are essential.”

Appalled at Rosatti’s disregard for these environmental guidelines, the DEC in 1992 began administrative proceedings against the mob figure. A lawsuit, which is still pending, was filed later that year against Rosatti in Brooklyn’s state supreme court. Government lawyers initially argued that, in addition to steep fines, Rosatti be ordered to cure all violations on his property.

Mark Chertok, a Rosatti lawyer, countered that the state was trying to force his client to ”rip down part of his house, demolish and remove the entire swimming pool and patio, remove the new bulkhead….” This work, Chertok claimed in an October 1992 court filing, would run ”at least into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and probably in excess of $1 million.”

As both sides began negotiating a settlement, Rosatti was forced to deal with another problem developing in Brooklyn. By 1992, his crime family had split into two factions and was engaged in a shooting war across New York and Long Island. Since everyone was a target, Rosatti traveled with muscle and stashed a gun in his waistband for protection.

With his thriving automotive businesses, Rosatti has been a key source of cash and no-show jobs, according to FBI memos. At one point, Rosatti pledged $50,000 to the insurgent Colombo faction headed by Victor Orena. But he turned down an Orena request to provide autos for hit teams prowling the metropolitan area in search of supporters of Orena’s rival, Carmine ”The Snake” Persico. An FBI informant report details how Rosatti, during the Colombo war, flew to an Oklahoma prison to meet with his jailed Mafia superior to discuss the street fighting. Another memo describes how fellow Colombo members joked about a no-show job given to Orena’s son Victor at a Rosatti dealership. ”You’re the only salesman that never sells any cars and makes money,” one hood told the younger Orena.

While a dozen other Colombo figures were murdered during the two-year family war, Rosatti succeeded in staying out of harm’s way, though he was arrested by the FBI on a gun rap in 1994. Since his criminal record included a mid-’70s attempted grand larceny conviction (for boosting cars), Rosatti was charged as a felon for possession of a gun. Though that rap could have netted Rosatti several years in prison, he pleaded guilty and escaped, remarkably, with no jail time, one year’s probation, and a $5000 fine. Compared to other Colombo war casualties–some dead, many imprisoned–the car salesman got the best deal on the lot. Between his felony convictions, Rosatti successfully maintained a low profile, avoiding arrest while building a booming car business that started 20 years ago with his purchase of an Oldsmobile dealership in Flatbush.

Rosatti’s biggest financial windfall came last year when Republic Industries, a publicly held conglomerate, paid the hoodlum $33 million last summer for two thriving Florida auto dealerships.

Republic, whose chief executive is Wayne Huizenga, bought Hollywood Honda and Hollywood Kia from Rosatti in an all-cash transaction, according to a Republic spokesperson. Huizenga, owner of the Florida Marlins, Miami Dolphins, and Florida Panthers sports franchises, purchased Rosatti’s businesses as part of a dealership buying binge. The former Blockbuster Video CEO–he sold that company to Viacom in 1994 for $8.4 billion–wants to build a nationwide network of new-and used-car dealers.

Rosatti continues to operate Brooklyn’s Plaza Auto Mall, a bustling automotive supermarket featuring Honda, Kia, Mazda, Dodge, Saab, Acura, GMC Trucks, and Pontiac dealerships. He also sells used cars.

While splitting time between New York and Florida, Rosatti no longer calls National Drive home. He sold his Mill Basin mansion for about $3 million to Galina Anissimova, a Russian-born real estate broker. As part of the deal, Anissimova, who moved into the waterfront palace last year, required Rosatti to place about $200,000 in escrow to cover any settlement payments with state environmental regulators.

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Anatomy of a Drug Craze

The abandoned trailer in Bushwick, Brooklyn, has only been a serious crack hangout for a few years. Inside, perched on crates, car seats, and debris, a handful of people hang out and get high. One clean-cut twentysomething who calls himself Scotty (“as in beam me up,” he explains) smokes a couple of rocks before heading off to work. Maria, a skinny 27-year-old dressed in sweats, convinces her friend to “hook her up.” Another woman furiously cleans out her pipe. With the exception of Jessie, a homeless 37-year-old, all started smoking crack after 1990, when what drug experts call “the crack era” officially ended.

There is no shortage of spots like the trailer and no shortage of crack users to hang out in them. Yet there is a popular perception–or misperception–that crack use is completely gone. When the little rocks of cooked coke hit their height of popularity in 1988, 70 per cent of those booked in Manhattan tested positive for cocaine (most of which is thought to be crack). By 1996, that had dropped, but only to 62 per cent. Cocaine-related deaths in New York City went down some 31 per cent in the same period, but still totaled 906 in 1996.

With the myth of crack’s demise comes another dubious notion: that furious legal attacks, including the Rockefeller drug laws, a ballistic police response, and crack-specific legislation, have brought the epidemic to its knees. Just around the corner from where Marie and “Scotty” get high, for instance, a local landlord named Christopher Guzzardo is reminiscing about the bad old days. What cleaned up Bushwick, according to Guzzardo, who owns several buildings in the neighborhood, was forceful policing. “They had klieg lights, helicopters, mounted police,” remembers Guzzardo. “It was like a movie.”

No question, law enforcement on all levels was tough on crack. Police Tactical Narcotics Teams made repeated sweeps of big crack neighborhoods, filling van after van with users and sellers. In 1986, then–U.S. attorney Giuliani and Senator Al D’Amato dressed up as Hell’s Angels and staged an undercover buy in Washington Heights to highlight the crack problem. Two years later, a federal law reduced the amount of crack required for a five-to 25-year sentence. By 1989, almost half of all felony arrests in the city were crack-related. Mandatory minimum sentence laws for crack-related crimes meant that most of these arrestees–first time and repeat offenders alike–were sent to prison.

But while tough sentencing laws were effective in filling the prisons, drug experts say they had little to do with crack’s decline. In fact, those imprisoned on crack charges were more likely to be arrested again than those given probation, according to a recent study of drug users and sellers in Manhattan. Even worse, some scholars say, because dealers didn’t want to risk employing those who could be tried as adults, they brought kids as young as seven and eight into the dangerous crack economy. “The extreme penalties led to mid-level crack dealers using children, and that got a lot of teenagers using crack,” explains drug researcher Don Des Jarlais. And that, in turn, led to the murders and violence that has come to be associated with the drug. “If the punishment hadn’t been so extreme, you wouldn’t have so much youth violence.”

So if the war on drugs didn’t stamp out crack–and even made a bigger mess where the drug left off–why is crack receding to whatever extent it is? Experts say the answer lies in who has stopped using it–and who hasn’t. The average age of those still smoking crack has increased over the past 10 years, with the largest group of users now in their thirties. Thus the “little brother theory”: kids who have seen their older relatives and friends messed up by crack decide against using it themselves. “Crack is the lowest rung on the nasty-dirty ladder now,” says John Galea, who runs the Street Studies Unit for the state’s Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse. “Kids just don’t think it’s cool anymore. Even heroin addicts look down on crackheads now.”

Some researchers say the little brother effect points to the beginning of the end for crack. But they also say that crack would be on the decline with or without its bad reputation, simply because most drugs enjoy only a limited heyday. Illegal drug fads typically go from incubation to plateau to decline over a period of years (though some, like heroin, will go through the process many times, resurging in popularity as their bad reps fade from memory).

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how many people smoke crack now–some estimates are criticized as too high, and others too low. The National Institute of Drug Abuse estimates that less than 1 per cent of the entire population currently uses cocaine–but it bases those figures on telephone surveys that don’t reach homeless and phoneless users, like most everyone who frequents the trailer.

Whatever the true amount of the crack trade, its nature is clearly changing. These days sellers are more likely to operate out of apartments and bodegas than from street corners. As a result, it’s now difficult to buy if you don’t have a connection, according to Ric Curtis, an ethnographer who has studied New York’s drug trade for a decade. Trade is also becoming concentrated in fewer neighborhoods. “It’s like squeezing a tube of toothpaste,” says Curtis. “When [the police] cracked down in Flatbush and Crown Heights, Bushwick, Brownsville, and Bed-Stuy began to get worse. Everyone who was still a crackhead swarmed to those areas.” And while many crack hotspots of the ’80s have been bricked over, bulldozed, and rebuilt, others like the trailer have sprung up.

Drug treatment counselors have also noticed a shift in their clients. Crack users now going for help have been on the drug longer, according to Chris Policano of Phoenix House. The observation runs counter to the early image of crack use: that people were instantly addicted, their lives immediately spun into chaos. While many crack users do lose control of their lives, it’s now clear that crack is no more instantly addicting than powder cocaine or even marijuana. Most people who try it don’t even continue to use it. And one-third of those who do don’t go on to use it every day.

Treatment providers also report a greater concentration of crack use. “Now you find one or two people per family on it,” says Sydney Moshette, director of the Reality House out-patient drug treatment program in Harlem. Moshette disagrees with the emphasis of the government response to crack. “It’s wrong–and expensive,” says Moshette. “The way to reduce use is to increase the quality of life of people living in poverty. It’s not through punishment.” In the meantime, says Moshette, “crack is still out there where people are vulnerable. And it will be for a long while.”

Back in the trailer, Marie struggles with the complex question of the drug’s appeal. “It’s about dreams,” she says after taking a hit. “It’s like you’re buying a dream. It’s good and it’s bad. I can’t explain.”

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Upswing

Viagra, a new medicine that helps combat impotence, is being touted as the miracle pill of the millennium. Heavy worldwide demand may make it the biggest-selling drug of all time. Want a prescription?

 


Tony Lipari

Age: 31

Resides: Midland Beach, Staten Island

Occupation: Elevator mechanic

Do you or your significant other need this drug? I’m married with two kids. I’d say no. I’ve already done that route–been married seven years. Now I’m celibate.

Would you try it to increase your sexual potency? To enhance my love life? Why not. You never know. Now if I was with another woman, that’d definitely enhance it.

What do you wish there was a pill for? Energy, so I don’t have to sleep. 

 


Andrea Cafarelle

Age: 30

Resides: Hoboken, New Jersey

Occupation: M.B.A. student

Do you or your significant other need this drug? My significant other is six years younger than I am. I don’t think he needs it. That’s what you have to do, pick the young ones.

Would you try it to increase your sexual potency? If it doesn’t have significant side effects, it’d be interesting to try out.

Who should pay for it? The individual should. Medical insurance is for life-threatening illnesses.

What do you wish there was a pill for? I would like a pill that would just stop the effects of aging. 


Mel Alvarez

Age: 22

Resides: Bensonhurst, Brooklyn

Occupation: Waiter/dancer/singer

Do you or your significant other need this drug? No.

Would you try it to increase your sexual potency? Yeah. I’d take it anyway. I love pills.

Who should pay for it? Individual. It’s not a medical thing.

What do you wish there was a pill for? I wish there was a pot pill. I mean, sometimes you don’t like the smoke.

 


Michael Farbiarz

Age: 24

Resides: New Haven, Connecticut

Occupation: Law student

Do you or your significant other need this drug? I don’t need it.

Who should pay for it? The insurance companies. If they pay for mental health stuff, they should pay for this.

What do you wish there was a pill for? I’d say something for Patrick Ewing’s wrist.


Renee Monique Brown

Age: 25

Resides: Park Slope

Occupation: Dancer

Do you or your significant other need this drug? My significant other doesn’t need a pill for that.

Who should pay for it? If it’s for, like, procreating, the insurance companies should pay. They cover procedures for infertile women. But if it’s just for recreational use the individual should pay.

What do you wish there was a pill for? Racial tolerance.

 


Elliot Fruhschien

Age: 40

Resides: New Jersey

Occupation: Financial analyst

Would you try it to increase your sexual potency? No. I don’t need anything to enhance my, uh, activity.

Who should pay for it? If it’s a medical condition the insurance should pay, but if it’s not then the individual.

What do you wish there was a pill for? Be-nicer-to-each-other pill. Especially in this city. Get rid of all the greed. 


Cynthia London

Age: 28

Resides: Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Occupation: Receptionist

Do you or your significant other need this drug? No.

Would you try it to increase your sexual potency? If it’s not broken, why fix it?

Who should pay for it? If it’s something that’s been plaguing you for a number of years, insurance should pay for it. But if it’s just for your own luxury, you should pay for it.

 


Larry Tagarelli

Age: 35

Resides: Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn

Occupation: Carpenter

Do you or your significant other need this drug? I don’t need it!

Would you try it to increase your sexual potency? Sure. I’m interested.

Who should pay for it? The insurance companies. It creates happier workers on the job. And so they don’t get grief from their wives.

What do you wish there was a pill for? Definitely AIDS. 

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The Bashment King

Enter the dancehall, with its scantily clad queens, deep caverns of bass, and rakish angles, and enter a broiling church of urges–erotic, political, spiritual–finding expression in stylish, articulate gesture. A sensual confrontation with Africanized surrealism–be it the fat-ulous mampie dem in the skintight and the barely there arousing the crowd with ceremonial gyrations or the dancer crews battling with pops and hesitations, with eel-like undulations and gesture stories. Reason enough to find me and my peoples up in spots like the Boogie-Down’s Act III, Harlem’s Karate Club, or the Dome in Brooklyn, Guinnesses in hand, barking out gunshots when a badman sound system like Killamanjaro come fi teach. I’m a reveler much in the same way my Pops was (he was patronizing gunman spots like Love People) and his Pops before him. Dancehall ain’t just music: it’s full-bodied ritual experience handed down (unlike its fragmented American cousin) in complete sentences. Which is why dancehall conforms to the very specific directives of all African ritual systems–the cultivation of the amplified, sanctified moment. I’m talking those holy ghost moments when angels visit, bodies are mounted, and the dancehall explodes. The revelers have come up with a name for such controlled abandon: bashment. And Beenie Man, the dandy of bashmentism, is also its reigning king.

Beenie is king not just ’cause he flex on any riddim ‘im feel like, but because he is, above all, a formidable strategist who campaigned for his throne. In the same way Biggie took the East, West, North, South, and Midwest aesthetics of hip-hop and made them into the sound of a united ghetto, Beenie can be equally convincing commenting about any corner of dancehall’s major trinity: girls, guns, and God.

To earn bashment’s crown, Beenie battled Bounty Killer, the onetime king. It was a clash of styles–in the tradition of Shabba and Ninjaman–pitting archetype against archetype. Bounty Killer played party general to Beenie’s carnival trickster, Ogun to Beenie’s Eshu. Bounty stated the unbounded truth in rigid, bold declarations. Beenie became a master of indirection. Instead of making declarations, he asked questions–haunting, lingering rhetoricals that could loom over a crowd like the infamous scavenger birds that roam the Jamaican sky: Tell me who shot / De yout / In the street / Laast / Niight? / Dem seh nobody know. In the end, the badman ethic Bounty espoused proved difficult to sustain, while Beenie peppered the dance with tales of the sexually self-assured. His particular specialty: portraying the bravado necessary to get into them draws. In the bashment, where the supremacy of riddim is unquestioned, Beenie’s microphone charisma comes from his understanding that rhythmic prowess is sexual prowess.

On his current LP, Many Moods of Moses, Beenie remains the dilettante, refusing to trap himself into any one thematic corner, a freedom very rarely afforded to dancehall’s masters of ceremony; those who choose to exist on the expressive, emphatic edge of a passionate and focused music must mean what they say or risk the admonition of the Jamaican massive. Lady Saw, JA’s Lil’ Kim before Lil’ Kim, represents the gloriously raw, the lewd, and the woman. Bounty Killer must stay true to the rudebwoy ethos that spawned him. Buju and Capleton keep it Rasta. But Beenie can play philosopher (“Long Road”), Rasta missionary (“Foundation”), rudie (“Badman”), or provocateur (“Have You Ever”) without serious repercussions. The one drawback: Jamaicans seem to have associated his flexibility with homosexuality, a dancehall no-no-no. On one of his more self-conscious songs, “Bad Mind Active” (a remake of Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative”), he speaks to the irony of such rumors following the author of heterosexual anthems like “Gal Dem Way.”

Many Moods is a hodgepodge of an album, slightly less cohesive than his preceding one, Maestro. But this is Beenie as strategist again: while Maestro captured something of the pace and romp of the dance, Moses displays the breadth of his musicality. At times, he can sound like an accomplished mimic playfully battling ennui. But don’t let the zigzag of his movements fool you. The genre hopping–from country to gospel to ’50s r&b to opera–is meant to reconfigure Beenie, not just dancehall conjurer now but pop conqueror.

Still, the transition from bashment to pop is not an easy road, as Super Cat, Shabba, and Buju can tell you. The master must become missionary, the conjurer must commodify. Beenie’s elasticity leaves him more prepared than any of his predecessors. Yet what he takes from the bashment, and what he seems ready to give to the world, is sketched out on cuts like “Who Am I”: uncompromised dancehall, rooted in ritual. Riddiomatic pop, not refried hip-hop.