When Christian America and the Cops Went Insane Over N.W.A, Rap, and Metal

N.W.A were on the cover of the Village Voice in October of ’89, in what remains today an eye-opening report (reprinted below) on the extreme lengths the religious right and law enforcement went to in order to vilify artists like N.W.A and Guns N’ Roses, along with Siouxsie and the Banshees, Prince, L.L. Cool J, and many others. While the N.W.A biopic, Straight Outta Compton, has several issues of its own, no one’s claiming it shouldn’t have been made (or that nobody should see it or that we should picket movie theaters that show it or orchestrate letter-writing campaigns against it).

Reprinted below is the report by Dave Marsh and Phyllis Pollack, exactly as it was published in the Village Voice‘s October 10, 1989, issue. We thank Marsh and Pollack for their permission to reprint.

* * *

How’s this for government intimidation? In early August, a letter arrived on the desk of Priority Records president Brian Turner. Written on Department of Justice stationery, it was just three paragraphs long:

A song recorded by the rap group N.W.A. on their album entitled “Straight Outta Compton” encourages violence against and disrespect for the law enforcement officer and has been brought to my attention. I understand your company recorded and distributed this album, and I am writing to share my thoughts and concerns with you.

Advocating violence and assault is wrong, and we in the law enforcement community take exception to such action. Violent crime, a major problem in our country, reached an unprecedented high in 1988. Seventy-eight law enforcement officers were feloniously slain in the line of duty during 1988, four more than in 1987. Law enforcement officers dedicated their lives to the protection of our citizens, and recordings such as the one from N.W.A. are both discouraging and degrading to these brave, dedicated officers.

Music plays a significant role in society, and I wanted you to be aware of the FBI’s position relative to this song and its message. I believe my views reflect the opinion of the entire law enforcement community.

The letter was signed by Milt Ahlerich, an FBI assistant director, who describes himself as the bureau’s chief spokesman and who says he reports directly to Director William Sessions. Ahlerich says his letter represents the FBI’s “official position” on the record by N.W.A. (Niggers With Attitude), hip-hop’s most streetwise and politically complex group. But he also says he hasn’t heard the song. Neither he nor the bureau owns a copy. Ahlerich didn’t ask N.W.A. or Priority for the unintelligible lyrics; he got them — or something purporting to be them — from unnamed “concerned officers.” Ahlerich says the FBI has never adopted an official position on a record, book, film, or other artwork in the four years he’s worked there nor, so far as he knows, in its entire history.

Ahlerich claims writing the letter was justified because N.W.A.’s song, “—— Tha Police,” allegedly advocates violence against the police. (The group sings “Fuck the police,” but the album juse uses blanks.) “I read those lyrics and those lyrics spoke of violence and murder of police officers. That to me did not seem to be in the public domain at all,” he said, strenuously objection to implications that the letter was censorious or intimidating.

Ahlerich isn’t the only cop incensed by “—— Tha Police.” An informal police network faxes messages to police stations nationwide, urging cops to help cancel concerts by N.W.A., a group based in Compton, California. Since late spring, their shows have been jeopardized or aborted in Detroit (where the group was briefly detained by the cops), Washington, D.C., Chattanooga, Milwaukee, and Tyler, Texas. N.W.A. played Cincinnati only after Bengal linebacker and City Councilman Reggie Williams and several of his teammates spoke up for them. During the summer’s tour, N.W.A. prudently chose not to perform “—— Tha Police” (its best song), and just singing a few lines of it at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena caused the Motor City police to rush the stage. While the cops scuffled with the security staff, N.W.A. escaped to their hotel. Dozens of policemen were waiting for them there, and they detained the group for 15 minutes. “We just wanted to show the kids,” an officer told The Hollywood Reporter, “that you can’t say ‘fuck the police’ in Detroit.”

In Toledo, N.W.A. performed only after Reverend Floyd E. Rose complained publicly about police pressuring  local black clergymen. “Rightly or wrongly, the perception in our community is that the ‘police think they have the authority to kill a minority,'” he wrote the police chief, quoting the song, “and that [police] think that every black teenager who is wearing a gold bracelet and driving a nice car is ‘selling narcotics’ … I must say that while I do not like the music and abhor the vulgar language, I will not be used to stifle legitimate anger and understandable resentment.”

Anger and resentment are at the center of N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, a two-million seller that slices current r&b fashion to ribbons, then goes on to pretty up the latest in gang-culture bad-mouthing. It rocks harder than any other album released this year; if the abusive, profane, language didn’t keep N.W.A. off the radio, the sheer assaultive sound probably would. N.W.A. is, above (or below) anything else, not nice. But the profanity exists not for shock effect or as a bohemian art stance, but as an organic expression of south-central L.A.’s half-hidden gang world. The group wouldn’t be half so politically important, or half so exciting, if they were just rap’s answer to Andrew “Dice” Clay. Much if not most of what the group has to say — especially about women, but also about drugs, guns, and the sanctity of private property — will make any civilized soul squirm. They don’t just epater les bourgeois, they rub its face into its own merde. This is music to make the blood run cold, and if only a dimwit would salute its values, only a fool would completely disrespect them.

As Reverend Rose and most everyone who has heard the song realizes, “—— Tha Police” isn’t about shooting cops. It’s about being bullied and tormented by them. A hip-hop barrage, the song tells of a young black man who loses his temper over brutal police sweeps based on appearance, not actions, like the ones frequently performed by the LAPD. In the end, the young man threatens to “smoke” the next flatfoot who fucks with him. The same point is made even more clearly in the “Straight Outta Compton” video, which presents docudrama footage of a gang sweep in which the L.A. police violently round up street kids (played by N.W.A.) just for wearing dookie ropes and beepers. Finally, the kids retaliate — or to put it another way, defend themselves. (Ahlerich isn’t so eager to mention that 339 Americans were gunned down by peace officers last year in “justifiable homicides.” Or as Brooklyn rapper KRS-One puts it, “Who Protects Us From You?”) N.W.A.’s Ice Cube calls his songs “revenge fantasies.”

Advocacy? “The song does not constitute advocacy of violence as that has been interpreted by the courts,” says Barry Lynn of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It doesn’t come close.” As for saying “fuck the police,” attorney Charles Rembar, an obscenity expert, remarks, “It’s far more clearly protected than burning the flag.”

To Lynn, what is legally questionable is Ahlerich’s letter. He cites several court decisions that hold that government communications can have an unconstitutional chilling effect “even if they don’t threaten direction action.” And Ahlerich says that his letter was not personal but an official FBI policy statement, albeit adopted “on my authority” without consulting his superior, Sessions.

Lynn says, “It would not violate the First Amendment for an individual working for the FBI to personally write such a letter. But it’s incredible for the FBI to send this kind of official letter to any person in the creative community.”

“Oh I didn’t know they were buying our records, too!” Ice Cube told his publicist when she first old him of the Ahlerich letter. “People overreact,” he told us. “Getting a letter from the FBI seemed kind of funny to me.” Does he feel threatened by what might come next? “No. Money conquers all. There’s a lot of people that’s making a lot of money off N.W.A. as far as record companies, distributors, and concert promoters.” But by the end of the conversation, he was saying, slightly more seriously, “Maybe they’ll send the CIA after me, arrest me for treason.”

Interesting as it is that Milt Ahlerich chose to have the FBI take an official position on a record nobody in the bureau has bothered to buy, it’s even more interesting that he can’t explain how word off that record’s existence reached him. Pressed, he said only that he received a copy of the purported lyrics from “responsible fellow officers.” He wouldn’t , or couldn’t, name them.

Police officials in Toledo and Kansas City says officers in Cincinnati faxed them the information  about N.W.A. and “—— Tha Police,” according to Gregory Sandow, the Herald Examiner rock critic who tracked the informal anti-N.W.A. cop network. Cops began receiving the anti-N.W.A. warnings in late spring, about the same time an article about the group appeared in the June issue of Reverend James C. Dobson’s Focus on the Family Citizen under the headline, “Rap Group N.W.A. Says ‘Kill Police,'” Its readers are urged: “Alert local police to the dangers they may face in the wake of this record release.”

The article was written by Bob DeMoss, Focus on the Family’s “youth culture specialist.” DeMoss formerly headed Pennsylvania-based Teen Vision, which produced Rising to the Challenge, the Parents’ Music Resource Center’s video. This video was recently withdrawn from circulation and re-edited after revelations that it ended with a phony endorsement attributed to Bruce Springsteen. The PMRC contends that they were not aware when the video was made that the Springsteen quote was false.

The Dobson/DeMoss/PRMC connection is instructive and important because, while the Washington wives like to boast of their respectable affiliates (the PTA the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the political board members), they don’t like to admit their role in stirring up the Christian right. In fact, the PMRC’S official position is that it no relationship with any group except the PTA and the pediatricians. It does everything it can to deny other ties.

Since October 1985, when the PMRC coerced the Senate Commerce Committee, composed largely of PMRC’s directors’ husbands, into holding antirock hearings, rock has been attacked from city halls, statehouse,s fundamentalist pulpits, and the executive echelons of the FBI. The PMRC has become a key link connecting right-wing Christian groups like Reverend Dobson’s with such theoretically respectable entities as the PTA, the pediatricians, and PMRC advisory board members like Atlanta mayor Andrew young.

Tipper Gore has been every rocker’s favorite basher, but the most powerful of the PMRC’s founders is Susan Baker, whose husband, the Secretary of State, is now four heart attacks away from the White House. Susan Baker, who incarnates the stiff-necked, antisexual Born Again, sits on the Focus on the Family board of directors. (Several members of the board come from the investment and banking business that James Baker, as secretary of the Treasury, “regulated.” Secretary and Mrs. Baker refused to comment on their ties to Dobson and his organization.)

Although the PRMC’s ties to the Christina right are numerous, the most crucial of them is Focus on the Family and Dobson. The ACLU’s Lynn says that with the breakup of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, Focus on the Family makes Dobson “the most powerful fundamentalist in the country.” Perhaps the flakiest of all the Meese Pornography commissioners, Dobson came to prominence as Ted Bundy’s final confessor, claiming that the mass murderer/con man’s crimes were the result of addiction to pornography. Dobson campaigns stridently against abortion, and his Citizen magazine is a forum for activists like abortion center terrorist Randall Terry and Nixon administration felon Charles Colson. His plan for American education calls for getting evolution out of the classroom and putting prayer back in. Susan Baker, as a director of this 500-employee, $57-million-a-year organization, presumably shares those goals. We know that Dobson shares her views on rock ‘n’ roll, because Citizen‘s July 1988 issue ran an article on her complaint that record labels were dragging their feet on warning label compliance.

The rest of the PMRC’s ties with Dobson aren’t so casual, either. In the June 1989 issue of Citizen, which contains DeMoss’s anti-N.W.A. article, PMRC executive director Jennifer Norwood says, “We want music critics and organizations like Focus on the Family to disseminate this information to their constituencies. This is something that needs to be done.” Norwood insists that this call to Christians to crusade against rock is the same as dispensing “consumer information” to moms and ads at the PTA.

If Dobson is the most important of the PMRC’s Christina cronies he’s far from the most dubious. None of the groups listed below is an official PMRC affiliate. But all of them use the quasigovernmental clout and the credibility of the PMRC to legitimize their endeavors, and the PMRC shares many of their goals. Whether it also shares money, no one knows. The PMRC refuses to reveal the sources of its funding.

The Back in Control Center, the Fullerton, California, “de-metaling/de-punking” center, is endorsed by Tipper Gore in her book, Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society. Its de-metaling handbook lists a variety of satanic/occult symbols, including the “six-pointed star representing the Jewish Star of David.” Director Greg Bodenhamer, a former probation officer, accused the rock group Kiss of using the Jewish star to worship the devil; on more than one occasion, Bodenhamer has flashed a picture of Kiss members wearing such stars as “proof.”

Back in Control also produced Punk Rock & Heavy Metal: The Problem/One Solution, a 20-page training manual used by several California police departments. Printed over the name Sergeant M. Shelton, of the Union City PD’s now-defunct Youth Services Board, the manual likens rock ‘n’ roll to Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist Party and makes sure to point out that music can be used as a very effective medium of rebellion against the government. Besides the usual heavy metal targets, it also attacks “huskerdo,” Rush, and Van Halen, and rock magazines like Circus, Hit Parader, and Creem. (Through the press office of her husband, Senator Albert Gore, Mrs. Gore said that Bodenhamer’s misrepresentation of the Jewish star was a “mistake.”

Truth About Rock, the St. Paul, Minnesota ministry of Dan and Steve Peters, pastors of Zion Church. The Peters brothers and their antirock writings have been repeatedly touted in PMRC literature. The brothers specialize in record album burnings; they also condemn Tina Turner, among others, for non-Christian beliefs. (She’s a Buddhist.) The Peters also claim, “The Jewish star is the universal symbol for Satan.” (Jennifer Norwood says the Peters brothers book Why Knock Rock? — recommended by the PMRC — doesn’t endorse record burnings. However, the book has a photo of the brothers at an LP bonfire.)

Missouri Project Rock, which was founded by Shirley Marvin, a lobbyist for Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum. Marvin cites an Eagle Forum meeting with Tipper Gore as her inspiration, and an MPR brochure claims that i works in cooperation with the PMRC. A Memphis rock-monitoring group called the Community Aware of Music and Entertainment Coalition, praised in Gore’s Raising PG Kids, is also listed as an ally in MPR literature. (Norwood denies any PMRC ties with MPR and says she asked Marvin to delete its claim of one in the brochure.) MPR’s “musical director,” Reverend Shane Westhoelter, calls Catholics “cannibals, because they eat wafers which are the body of Christ.” Project Rock’s literature says that Bruce Springsteen has a satanic backwards message in “Dancing in the Dark,” and their information kit includes tapes from Victory Christian Church in St. Charles, Missouri, asserting that Hollywood promotes race-mixing, that the Holocaust never happened, and that Hitler didn’t write Mein Kampf. The tapes also refer to “Martin Lucifer King.”  The American Family Association, best known for Reverend Donald Wildmon’s campaign’s against Madonna’s Pepsi commercial, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Might Mouse’s sniffing of flower petals. LINK TO CULTURE BUSTER STORY HERE. Wildmon’s anti-Semitism finally led to disavowals by such erstwhile supporters as Archbishop John L. May of St. Louis, and the leaders of the Church of the Lutheran Brethren and the Mennonite Church.

Wildmon’s National Federation for Decency magazine reprinted 14 pages of Raising PG Kids with permission, according to the book’s publisher. Mrs. Gore, through Norwood and her husband’s office, claimed that she never learned of the reprint until we asked about it.

On September 14, Gore’s office said Gores “have never and would never cooperate with any effort in any way connected to anti-Semitism … Mrs. Gore had no knowledge whatsoever and did not authorize in any way the excerpting of her book in the magazine of the National Federation for Decency. She does not know and has never met Donald Wildmon.” Does this constitute a repudiation of Wildmon? Gore press officer Narla Romash said, “Yes.” Asked for a comment, a Wildmon official hung up.

Even as The New York Times recognizes, bigotry is rock’s fastest-growing problem. Jennifer Norwood told us the PMRC has taken a firm stand on this topic, corresponding with the anti-Defamation League and the NAACP. Tipper Gore made similar claims on Entertainment Tonight September 22. Norwood says that the PMRC has been vociferous in its condemnation of Guns N’ Roses’ racist, homophobic “One in a Million,” though only after the song became nationally notorious did the PMRC attack it (for instance, on the ET broadcast). The PMRC didn’t mention the tune in tis summer 1989 newsletter, a peculiar omission in that GNR’s “I Used to Love Her” from the same album was included in a list of objectionable “Top 4 0Lyrics.” That song was placed under the heading Murder. The only other headings are Violence, Sadomasochism, and Sexually Explicit.

Meanwhile, the record industry silently but effectively participates in the repression. Contacted about the FBI letter threatening N.W.A., neither the Record Industry Association of America, the record lobbying group that numbers N.W.A.’s Priority label among its members, nor the National Association of Record Merchandisers, the lobbying group for record sellers, had any comment. Nor did Russ Bach, president of CEMA, the Capitol/EMI-owned company that distributes Priority. Billboard, the industry’s leading trade publication, has rarely taken an editorial stand against censorship. On the odd occasion when it has published anticensorship guest editorials, it has immediately followed up with articles by the PMRC spreading the same old half-truths.

At the National Record Mart chain’s July convention, a not-so-silent Russ Bach said that he has recommended to labels CEMA distributes — which include not only Priority, but Southern California Civil Liberties Union chief Danny Goldberg’s Gold Castle and Frank Zappa’s Barking Pumpkin — that they should more carefully scrutinize and sticker their albums. “If anything, we should err toward the conservative.”

With a few exceptions (Zappa, Don Henley), rock stars have been equally silent. Most prefer to treat censorship as an issue that affects only the music’s vulgar fringe: rap and heavy metal. Many still believe that the notoriety of a stickered album is good for business.

The PMRC would like to wipe the smirk from their faces. Its recent quarterly newsletters carry Red Channels-style lists of “Releases Without Consumer Information” (that is, warning labels) and “Releases With Consumer Information.” Norwood says this is legitimate consumer information; she would unable to specify either where her group draws the line in deciding which unlabelled albums to report, or why it does not report on records that don’t need labels. The PMRC doesn’t just provide consumers with neutral information. On September 22 Norwood told radio station KSD-FM in St. Louis that the PMRC “endorses” the Rolling Stones tour.

Aside from providing that even pleading guilty-by-implication with a sticker won’t keep censors off you, this particular package of “consumer information” has other revealing implications. On the most recent “Releases With Consumer Information” report, every stickered act is black — including N.W.A., Prince (honored for Batman), and L.L. Cool J. According to Norwood, this indicates rappers are among the most compliant rockers; in reality, it tells you who the record industry most easily pushes around.

Harsher days are coming, even for art rockers, college radio favorites, and mainstream stars. On the “Without Consumer Information” chart are a number of rap and metal records, but also Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Peepshow and XTC’s Oranges and Lemons. The spring edition of the PMRCD blacklist includes Iggy Pop’s Blah Blah Blah, the Rolling Stones’ Dirty Work, the Cure’s Standing on a Beach, the The’s Infected, Big Audio Dynamite’s No. 10 Upping Street, Simply Red’s Men and Women, and the Beverly Hills Cop II  soundtrack.

Although the PMRC has failed to get the record companies to comply with its deepest stickering desires, it has had far less trouble with retailers, who are much more vulnerable to picketing and boycotts. The 130-store Hastings chain now is refusing to sell certain rap and heavy metal records to minors; Camelot Music told Billboard that it would pull records from stores rather than be picketed. The PMRC says it doesn’t want government legislation against rock, and no wonder — look how effectively the marketplace does the job. But as the FBI has shown, legislation isn’t the only way for the government to become involved.

The record industry is testing the civil liberties idea that, for every inch the censors are given, they’ll demand a kilometer. The major labels and distributors’ November 1985 concession to the PMRC, which created the warning labels, is an implicit guilty plea that gave Susan Baker and Tipper Gore the credentials to write a Newsweek column conflating the tabloid connection between rap and the Central Park rape and the need to control what our children hear. (You can be sure that they won’t be contributing a piece on the connections between bel canto and Bensonhurst.)

Not everyone is so cowardly. In Rapid City, South Dakota, the local PMRC affiliate tried to get city officials to block a June 16 Metallica/Cult show. Opposed by citizens connected with Music in Action, the music industry’s anticensorship group (the authors of this piece are members), they lost. The concert produced the most integrated white/Indian audience ever seen in the Black Hills. In Kansas City, where N.W.A. played after the city’s acting mayor, Emanuel Cleaver, tried to stop the show (saying “Take your trash back to L.A.”), Ice Cube concluded the performance by saying, “We just showed your City Council that blacks, whites, Mexicans, and Orientals can get together for a concert without killing each other.”

Nevertheless, rock world opposition to the censors remains small and unfocused. The $6.2 billion record industry has no defense budget at all. The record business has nothing to say about the FBI’s abuse of artistic liberty — maybe because it protects its investment with the FBI’s Special Task Force against record piracy. Libeled by bullies, liars, reactionaries, and bigger weirdos than rock ever knew in its psychedelic heyday, corporate rock ‘n’ roll can’t even find the strength to whimper.

Cops ‘n’ Rockers, a sidebar by Dave Marsh

Police pressure forced the cancellation of a June 17, 1987 Run-D.M.C./Beastie Boys show at the Seattle Center Coliseum, beginning a new cycle of such abuses that trace back to the heyday of Alan Freed. Last May, Ouachita County, Arkansas, sheriff Jack Dews seized rap and heavy metal tapes from a Wal-Mart from the Heart of the Blues record store in Camden, claiming the music was obscene under state law and couldn’t legally be sold to anyone under 17. In August, the 203,000-member Fraternal Order of Police declared  a boycott of any musical group that advocates assaults on police officers, a significant stand since off-duty cops staff most concert security teams.

Billboard‘s September 9 front page detailed nationwide efforts to repress acts “that swear, engage in erotic posturing, and sing lyrics touting violence.” It reported curtailment or cancellation of shows by Skid Row, Too Short, GWAR, and N.W.A., as well as the arrests of Bobby Brown in Columbus, Georgia, and Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Among the other towns where local officials censor rock are Cincinnati and Toledo, Ohio; Erie, Pennsylvania; and the Poughkeepsie and Syracuse, New York. GWAR manager Bill Levin says that in Toledo, “We couldn’t say fuck or shit, but it was OK if we cut the heads off people.” (The decapitation of mannequins and pseudodismemberment of each other is a focus of GAWR’s oeuvre.)

The New York area is not immune to governmental shenanigans against rock. Some months ago, Middlesex, New Jersey, district attorney Alan Rockoff formed JUST  (Joint Unit To Stop Terrorism), alleging the task force is necessary to stop cemetery vandalism caused by kids listening to rock. “There’s a healthy way to be Big Brother, “says Rockoff, whose unit tracks heavy metal bands and their fans with a computer.

N.W.A. has not yet played New York. According to Ice Cube, nobody’s made the multiplatinum hip-hoppers a worthwhile offer.

Return to Senders, a sidebar by Phyllis Pollack

In July, I obtained the suspiciously uniform batch of letters that Priority Records received protesting N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton. To find out why the letters were so often alike, I called their authors, who came from all over the country. I checked more than 100 letters.

Most of the letters claimed that the authors would “never buy an album from your label again,” but my interviews with their writers indicated that none of them had bought any LP, cassette, or CD in the last 18 months, except two who said they’d purchased a “Christian record.” (How can you boycott a product you never buy?) None were aware of a wide range of rap acts, including Run-D.M.C.; several said they’d  never heard of N.W.A. Those who were aware of the group said they’d learned about them from Reverend James Dobson’s Citizen magazine. Not one of these anti-N.W.A. letter-writers had listened to their record, although many were quick to respond to questions about the group by saying that “—— Tha Police” as one put it, “calls on blacks to kill police officers.”

Only a single letter-writer acknowledged living in a household with anyone who buys “rock ‘n’ roll records.” And that respondent was the one who asked for advice on how to organize a rock-bashing group. She said she’d already started working on it.

* * * *

Here’s the scanned story:


Bob Dylan’s 1965 Newport Folk Set Proved He Was the ‘Greatest Poet’ of His Generation

Since 1959, the Newport Folk Festival has sprawled alongside Narragansett Bay for one weekend in late July (or early August, depending on the year) for the sake of celebrating the best and most beloved talents in modern folk music. The soundtrack for the first few renditions of the festival in Rhode Island featured mainly banjo, acoustic guitar, and fiddle, but Bob Dylan made history in 1965 when he opted to leave the soft strumming in the Village and plugged in for an electric set that would go on to become one of the most iconic moments in American rock ‘n’ roll history.

It’s been fifty years since Dylan Went Electric, and from there Newport Folk has gone on to challenge the definition of folk music as we know it, booking a lineup that grows increasingly diverse with every passing year and moving steadfast rock ‘n’ rollers like Jack White to tears. At the time the crowds — which reached 76,000 strong in 1965 — weren’t convinced: Dylan’s hard left turn into a new sound infuriated some Newport Folk patrons, and the Voice‘s correspondent on assignment, Arthur Kretchmer, rolled his eyes at the fact that “the greatest poet of this young generation” was more or less met with a resounding chorus of boos for bringing rhythm and blues to a crowd that wasn’t ready to hear it.

Kretchmer also predicted the future — or at least had a strong inkling that that one set would go on to solidify Dylan’s place in popular music history. “The irony of the folklorists and their parochial ire at Dylan’s musical transgressions is that he is not Guthrie or the Shangri-Las, but this generation’s most awesome talent. And in 60 years you will read scholarly papers about his themes (terror, release) and the images (so similar to the disharmonies and exaggerations of a William Burroughs). And those learned men will be benefited by the most comprehensive set of readings that any poet ever provided.”

Here’s Kretchmer’s review of Dylan’s 1965 set, which will be revisited at Fort Adams on July 26. Newport Folk hasn’t confirmed what its plans for the ” ’65 Revisited” set are, exactly; the only guarantee is that the talent assembled (which will include some of the bigger names from the festival’s 2015 lineup, to be sure) will do its damnedest to re-create Dylan’s ’65 set. Whether or not they’ll do the greatest poet of Kretchmer’s generation justice remains to be seen, but high hopes abound for “Maggie’s Farm” and more.

From the Village Voice: Bob Dylan at Newport 1965, by Arthur Kretchmer



Behind the Seventies-Era Deals That Made Donald Trump

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series on Donald Trump and the real estate empire he and his father built. In 1979, Wayne Barrett spent two months researching the story. He read thousands of pages of court documents in Philadelphia and New York and campaign contribution filings in Albany. He spent fifteen hours interviewing Donald Trump. The Voice is republishing Barrett’s accounts as Trump, now 69, is making news as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. Part one of Barrett’s series, which originally ran in the January 15 and January 22 issues in 1979, can be found here.

Donald Trump Cuts the Cards: The Deals of a Young Power Broker

By Wayne Barrett

This is the profile of a power broker at work. It is also the deal-by-deal account of how a $400 million convention-center site was acquired and selected. Next to Westway, the convention center has been New York’s single largest development issue of this decade. At center stage is Donald Trump, the young man who managed the land deals, profiting by his relationship with a mayor and a governor. He has left a trail of tradeoffs behind him that is — in a city where political brokers learn to cover their tracks — exceptionally clear.

It is a November day in Philadelphia, 1974. On sale in a federal bankruptcy court are the largest undeveloped tracts of land left in Manhattan — the West Side rail yards, stretching along the waterfront from 30th to 39th streets and 59th to 72nd streets. One of these properties — the 30th Street parcel — has since become the designated site for the city’s convention center. The other is being promoted as a 5,000-unit housing project surrounded by parks and a shopping area.

The seller is the bankrupt Penn Central Transportation Company (PCTC), which is attempting to reorganize itself by turning it’s real-estate portfolio into capital. The buyer is Donald Trump, then 28 years old, the son of Brooklyn’s largest apartment builder.

Trump proposes to build up to 30,000 units of partially subsidized housing on the sites. He seeks an exclusive option on the property and offers Penn Central the promise that he will obtain the required zoning changes and taxpayer subsidies to guarantee a minimum land-purchase price of $62 million — the least he expects to obtain in government mortgage funds. Trump’s firm advances no cash.

But, of course, without City Hall’s cooperation, this remarkable proposal would have remained just that. Trump’s father, Fred, had known Abe Beame, then the mayor, for some 30 years — and had been a campaign contributor for 20; the firm is tied to the same Brooklyn Democratic machine which spawned Beame’s political career. Trump’s attorney Bunny Lindenbaum, seated beside him in the courtroom that morning, is Beame’s oldest and closest friend. Penn Central representatives began negotiating with Trump two weeks after Beame became mayor. Trump’s option is scheduled to end when Beame’s term is up. There can be no misunderstanding: Trump, in that Philadelphia courtroom, was executing a political option.

Edward Eichler, who had represented the railroad in its negotiations with Trump, explained what had led to the acceptance of Trump’s proposal. In a 150-page deposition he said the railroad had had lists of real-estate brokers, developers, and attorneys who were interested in the sites. But PCTC chose not to contact any of them. “It seemed self-evident that they would be interested,” he said, but Penn Central had to find a developer who was “very, very high in his political position. We proceeded to make a judgment as to which one we thought would be best, and we judged that Trump would.” The basis for that judgment — at least in part — could have been a meeting Trump had arranged some months prior to submitting his proposal. Present were Abe Beame, Trump and his father, and Eichler. According to Donald Trump: “I called the mayor because Penn Central wanted to know whether or not the city was interested in developing the land. The mayor said his administration would be…” Eichler told me that Beame had indicated “he’d known the family and that it was a good organization.”

[pullquote]Penn Central began negotiating with Trump two weeks after Abe Beame became mayor. His option was scheduled to end when Beame’s term was up. There can be no misunderstanding: Trump, in that courtroom, was exercising a political option.[/pullquote]

Further, Eichler said, Penn Central was looking for the developer “who seemed best positioned in the New York market to get rezoning and government financing.” He emphasized that zoning is a “highly political activity in the City of New York,” and that there had not been a “rezoning of this magnitude on a piece of property this politically sensitive in the recent history of the city.

“There are going to be opponents from the neighborhood,” Eichler continued, “who have already…stated that they are going to oppose anything but very low densities. They are going to oppose very high buildings and view-blocking…and the real swing in value is…to a high density.”

Trump was selected to transcend these petty community interests. After all, records on file with the board of standards and appeals show that over a 10-year-period, clients of his attorney, Lindenbaum, have received more zoning variances than clients of any other attorney in the city. With Beame as the new mayor, Lindenbaum’s batting average was improving.

But there were two other significant actors in the courtroom drama unfolding that morning. One was Herman Getzoff, a Manhattan real estate broker who had previously worked with PCTC and had opposed the Trump transaction for months. The other was David Berger, senior partner of Berger and Montague, a Philadelphia law firm representing the stockholders and unsecured creditors of the Penn Central Company. Berger’s clients, whose stock had lost its value with the PCTC collapse, had the strongest interest in maximizing profits from the sale of the railroad’s properties. So, Berger, too, was opposing the Trump deal.

Earlier, Herman Getzoff had brought in other potential buyers. Through friends, he’d learned of the Eichler/Trump negotiations — which had been conducted in secret — and, in July, he’d submitted to Eichler a formal offer from the Starrett Brothers and Eken Co., another major New York builder. According to Getzoff, Starrett had offered a $150 million purchase price for the railroad’s land, as opposed to Trump’s offer of $62 million plus a share of the potential development profits. Though Getzoff had made daily efforts to reach Eichler after the bid’s submission, he never did. And, toward the end of July, a week after the Starrett bid had been submitted, Eichler went to court and put forth Trump’s bid as the recommended proposal of the trustees. He had not met with Starrett, though he wrote an internal memo conceding that Starrett’s 30th Street offer “would generate more money than the Trump deal.” But he stuck with Trump because “the rezoning will only be the result of an especially powerful political effort, which Trump is much more likely to pull off…” Then he wrote Starrett a letter, suggesting it apply for “other parcels.”

On August 7, Trump and Starrett’s chairman, Robert Olnick, met. The same day, Olnick withdrew the Starrett offer. According to Trump: “Starrett and Trump are partners in Starrett City, of which we own 25 percent, and they own 5 percent. Frankly, if we hadn’t put in the $7 million equity, the project wouldn’t have been built. We have a big relationship with Starrett. Olnick never responded to a half-dozen calls from me.

Getzoff then obtained a second bidder, HRH Construction Company, another housing developer, Richard Ravitch, HRH president, wrote to the court: “We’ve been interested in developing the yards over a period of almost a decade…However, we were not advised that the trustees were considering selling the yards until after a petition was filed with the bankruptcy court…”

The HRH offer, like Starrett’s and Trump’s, was dependent on obtaining a government-guaranteed mortgage to finance both the land purchase and the housing construction. The difference between Trump’s proposal and the HRH/Starrett offers was that neither Starrett nor HRH sought a percentage of the land profits. Trump required 15 percent, which meant that in fact Penn Central would only get 85 percent of the sale price. Another difference was that neither Starrett nor HRH demanded that Penn Central foot the bill for $750,000 worth of risk capital investment to be used to develop the project. Trump did.

What Trump offered the railroad that Starrett and HRH did not was an option for the company to pay for and obtain an equity interest in the projects eventually built. According to HRH, the primary value of such an interest in a Mitchell-Lama housing project was in a highly speculative tax-loss sale. The return to Penn Central on such an interest depended on the unpredictable state of the tax laws four to 10 years later.

Costello trumped Trump on the cover that week.
Costello trumped Trump on the cover that week.

The final, and most important, difference between the Trump and HRH offers was that  Trump’s attempt to share in the land profits appeared to violate the then-applicable Mitchell-Lama guidelines barring a developer from profiting on land he does not own when he submits the site to government agencies for approval.

The consequence of Trump’s ill-conceived sharing plan was that, if the project were approved at all, the government agencies would have to purchase the land at its minimum price in order to eliminate potentially illegal Trump profits. The HRH offer contained a minimum that doubled Trump’s.

Getzoff’s early ally in opposing the Trump transaction was David Berger, attorney for the Penn Central stockholders. An associate in Berger’s firm at the time, Edward Rubenstone, took the deposition from Eichler, stating on the record that “no honest attempt was made” by Eichler to “determine what other persons were willing to pay for these properties.”

Rubenstone also grilled the appraiser selected by Eichler in a 235-page deposition that revealed that:

  • The Philadelphia appraiser had never estimated a New York residential or industrial property. His appraisal assigned no value to the existing structures on the two sites, which had been previously assessed by the city at $6 million. In arriving at his value for the 30th Street yards (as zoned), the appraiser compared the parcels exclusively with land sales in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx.
  • The resultant appraisal pegged the 30th Street yards at $4 per square foot — or $8 million — as currently zoned, with the value increasing to $27 million if rezoned for residential use. These depressed values were compared by Rubenstone and Getzoff to two nearby Penn Central sales — at $26 and $32 per square foot. The land under Manhattan Plaza, located in between the two yards on the West Side, had gone for as high as $82 per square foot after rezoning. Even the land for Trump’s own Starrett City project in Brooklyn had sold for $11 per square foot.
  • Most important, the appraiser conceded that he had applied a 50 percent discount on the land to cover the time and costs a developer would incur over the years it would take to complete such a large project. The appraiser did not anticipate that under the Trump deal a major portion of these costs were to be assumed by Penn Central. He figured them as the buyer’s burden and discounted for them. HRH had indicated a willingness to pay the undiscounted price of $124 million for the 30th Street and 60th Street properties.

Rubenstone told me: “I thought we had the deal broken. The appraiser’s deposition was pretty devastating in terms of the fair-market value of the property.”

The same day Rubenstone took the appraisal deposition he called Getzoff and asked him to come to Philadelphia to testify at the hearing as a witness for the stockholders. Getzoff was to testify about the Starrett bid and withdrawal as well as the terms of the forthcoming HRH offer.

When Getzoff arrived in Philadelphia on November 11, he learned that Berger, Eichler, and Trump (Rubenstone had been taken off the case a few days before the hearing) had been meeting for several days and Berger no longer wanted him to appear as a witness. In fact, Berger said, he would now speak on behalf of the Trump deal, which had been amended to increase Penn Central’s share of the land price as well as the size of its option in the development project. Trump had also amended the contract to provide that if he were not allowed to share in the land profits — as the guidelines indicated he would not — then he could walk away from the deal. The only loser would be Penn Central, which would then forfeit the $750,000 it would have advanced to cover the developer’s preliminary expenses.

Getzoff was stunned. But even more indicative of Berger’s new attitude was his approach to Getzoff and a housing consultant who had accompanied him to Philadelphia that morning. Getzoff wrote a memorandum to himself immediately after these events. It reads: “Mr. Berger took us aside and suggested that ‘instead of fighting,’ wouldn’t I ‘withdraw the HRH proposal so the whole matter could be settled at the hearing.’ Mr. Berger stated that he was ‘sure that if we played ball, he could work out a very satisfactory  brokerage commission’ for us…We [Getzoff and his consultant] informed Mr. Berger that ‘we don’t play that kind of game.'”

Getzoff also recalled that later that day Trump approached him with a similar question: “This arrogant young man patted me on the back in a most patronizing manner and asked me if I might be his broker. I assured him that I was not in the need of having a patron builder. He said that it’s rare that you people — meaning brokers — are honest.”

“I don’t think I said that. If I did, fine,” Trump said to me.

I also talked with Edward Rubenstone, now a member of another Philadelphia law firm, who confirmed Getzoff’s account of his conversation with Berger. “I do recall being a little distressed at what happened there.” Asked if he could explain the Berger shift, he replied: “To tell you the truth, I really can’t…The negotiations were really taken over by Berger. What happened was that at some point it was decided that we were not going to continue to oppose the sale to Trump. And there was really no substantial explanation given. I thought I had ’em nailed. I wasn’t in a position to argue or make a stink. I thought we had a pretty solid case and suddenly it was decided not to pursue it. That troubles me.”

One immediate consequence of the Berger switch was that Getzoff would no longer be able to present the HRH case as a witness for a party to the action. Indeed, Penn Central attorneys tried to prevent him from detailing the offer in court at all by arguing that he had no legal standing. But Judge John Fullam wanted to hear it, complaining that, “I am not at all satisfied…that there has been necessarily adequate consideration given to the competing offers…” Fullam reserved decision and ended the hearing.

The debate continued. Ravitch wrote Fullam in January 1975, enclosing a 20-page comparison of the Trump and HRH bids and requesting that he re-open the hearing. Instead the judge issued an order that March, confirming the Trump deal. His basic reason: “No party to the reorganization proceeding has expressed objections to the present proposal. Berger’s switch had been decisive.

Fullam said that it is “the function of the trustees to make business judgments” and that he “should interfere with the trustees’ proposed actions only if they are legally impermissible.” The Eichler firm’s (and thus, the trustees’) support of the transaction had also been decisive.

Fullam concluded that the HRH had not “placed itself in a position of litigating.” Ravitch had expressly refused to file a motion to reopen the case. His attorney later explained: “He did not want to litigate. He was content to make the bid and not go beyond the bid.”

This curious reluctance might have been prompted by the relationship both Ravitch and Trump enjoyed with the new governor, Hugh Carey. Trump h ad been Carey’s largest post-primary contributor in 1974, having donated a total of $35,000. Both he and Ravitch had just been named by Carey as the only developers on the statewide housing task force. Ravitch had also just been asked by Carey to take over the fiscally troubled state Urban Development Corporation. A public court fight between Ravitch and Trump over two prime Manhattan housing sites would have been unseemly and time consuming. Ravitch told me that his failure to press his bid legally had nothing to do with his and Trump’s relation with Carey. He said that his appointment at UDC had left him “with no time to pursue new business ventures.” In the end, Trump got his land, investing nothing but his time and effort, and squeezing every ounce of potential profit out of the deal.

The Berger Connection

On January 19, 1977, Fred and Donald Trump filed a $100 million antitrust suit in Brooklyn federal court against nine major oil companies for fixing the price of heating oil. The suit was not a class action; only those landlords listed as plaintiffs will benefit from a favorable settlement. It seeks damages, to be divided between Trump and the law firm that had originated the case in 1974 and is listed on all court records as attorney for the Trumps: David Berger of Philadelphia. It should be remembered that in 1974 David Berger was also the attorney representing the Penn Central stockholders.

The suit began in July, 1974, with a single plaintiff — the Lefrak organization. Richard Lefrak says that “Berger felt that more than one plaintiff should be involved.” Berger’s reason for having additional clients was not just to raise the total amount of damages from which Berger takes one-third. Each plaintiff landlord also paid an advance to Berger, a former Philadelphia corporation counsel and unsuccessful candidate for D.A. Berger was experienced in oil-company conspiracy cases, having won a $29 million settlement in a gas-price-fixing case in New Jersey in 1973. “Berger is running the case,” Lefrak said. “He’s the bandleader.”

The record of the heating-oil case revolves around the issue — raised by the oil companies — that in 1974 and early ’75 Berger actively engaged in the recruitment of potential plaintiffs for it — a violation of the legal canons and grounds for disqualifying Berger from the suit. As evidence of this allegation, the oil companies introduced blank law-firm retainer forms on Berger letterhead, describing the terms of the agreement between Berger and the plaintiffs. The forms were being widely distributed to co-ops and apartment owners by a New York real-estate firm.

Berger denied that he’d had any knowledge of the real estate firm’s activities through an associate in his law firm stated in court in January 1975: “We are going to have to have a substantial number of additional plaintiffs, some of whom fall into the commercial relationship as Lefrak, others who may be cooperatives and the like.”

The judge dismissed the issue, commenting that “The distribution of the law-firm retainer forms…was regrettable, since one not privy to the intricate chain of events could misinterpret the distribution as involving improper solicitation.”

Eight plaintiffs joined Lefrak, bringing the damages sought to almost a billion dollars. Berger’s advance fees were based upon the number of apartment units each plaintiff brought into the case. Trump’s number of apartments was among the largest.

I asked Trump how he’d gotten involved in the suit and first he described himself as one of the “original instigators” of the case. “Though I was involved in the case from its inception,” he said, “I didn’t file as a plaintiff until later.”

When I raised the subject again, noting Berger’s roles in the Penn Central case at the same time, Trump began to emphasize that his suit had occurred two years after the Penn Central sale. He also contended that it was another attorney, Eugene Morris of Demov and Morris, who contacted him about the case, not David Berger. But Richard Lefrak, who’d started the suit with Berger in 1974 recalled that “Trump was involved in the beginning. He joined the case within 90 days of the filing of the complaint.” Lefrak said that Trump had attended meetings at the office of realtor George Mehlman “three or four years ago.” Mehlman confirmed Trump’s attendance at an early meeting: “He went along right away. This was in 1974, and may have been prior to the filing of the case. Berger came up and attended the meeting, too.” Lefrak said, however, that Trump “may not have filed his complaint until 1977,” because there were different categories of complaints, and the case was broken into separate parts….”

Last month Trump made a deposition in this case. While he would not pinpoint just when he began his involvement with it, he said it was ” a very substantial number of months” before the January 1977 filing. Whenever the oil company attorney attempted to question him about how he’d entered the case, Berger’s associate instructed Trump not to answer. At one point he said, “There will be no questions about the nature of why the Trump organization is or is not a plaintiff in this lawsuit….”

In my brief interview with Berger, he was just as evasive. He began by contending that he hadn’t represented Trump on the case; that Demov and Morris did. I countered by pointing out that Demov and Morris’s name didn’t appear in any case records until November 1978. He replied that he couldn’t explain that. I pointed out that his name had, again and again. In fact, Berger had been present at Trump’s deposition.

What seems clear is that Trump’s association with this case — one of Berger’s most important and potentially profitable legal actions — dates back to the same time frame of his sudden switch on the Penn Central transaction.

A portion of Barrett's story.
A portion of Barrett’s story.

The Palmieri Connection

In September 1973, prior to the Trump negotiations in the sale of the Penn Central railyards, a small Los Angeles-based investment-and-management firm, Victor Palmieri and Co., had been retained by the PCTC trustees as an outside contractor “to develop, sell or lease” PCTC properties. Edward Eichler was then Palmieri’s vice-president. The Company’s profits were, in part, pegged to a percentage of sales negotiated. Palmieri and Co. would negotiate a sale, propose it to the trustees, and, with their approval, petition the court for acceptance. That is how Trump obtained not only the 30th and 60th street yards, but the Commodore Hotel, which he is now transforming into a government-aided $80 million Hyatt Hotel. All of Trump’s historic Manhattan ventures, and the extraordinary terms he negotiated for these purchases are rooted in his relationship with Palimieri.

Victor Palmieri, 49, is the founder of VPCO, a company that has made a fortune out or the collapse of Penn Central. In addition to the fees he has received managing Penn Central real estate, he’s already made in excess of $21 million in incentive fees alone — on top of salaries, expenses, and a flat annual fee — for handling the assets of other Penn Central subsidiaries. In a profile last year, the Wall Street Journal cited Palmieri critics who claimed that he’d gotten his lucrative court assignments “due to his influence with the important people he knows.” The Journal said he is described by these critics as “an active Democratic Party member.” Other critics have gone even further. They say that Palmieri’s contracts create a momentum to dump properties simply to accumulate fees.

There is no question but that Palmieri’s political connections are national in scope. In 1967, he was named deputy executive director of the Kerner Commission on Civil Disorder by President Lyndon Johnson. In that position, he made contact with a host of national political figures — including commission member John Lindsay. His aide at the commission, John Koskinen, wound up working for Lindsay and Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff, before rejoining Palmieri as a principal of VPCO in 1973. Palmieri was active in John Tunney’s 1970 Senate campaign in California and through Tunney, is said to have entered the Kennedy political circle.

Last year Palmieri was selected by the scandal-ridden Teamsters’ Central States Pension Fund to manage its $600 million worth of real estate west of the Mississippi River. The selection was made by the Teamsters themselves, though approved by the Department of Labor.

Palmieri and Trump were drawn together. It is clear from the Eichler affidavit in the Penn Central case that the Palmieri strategy is to identify political entrepreneurs  not merely to develop sites, but to develop relationships. Palmieri and Trump operated in the same way — Palmieri was a national broker in search of a local broker and ally. One sign of the relationship was that in 1976 Trump located an office for himself next door to Palmieri’s. Recently a note on the door indicated that packages for Trump could be delivered to Palmieri’s office. The business relationship between Trump and Palmieri soon extended beyond the Penn Central Properties. In July 1975, Palmieri was named by a Connecticut federal judge to manage Levitt and Sons, Inc., a home-building company that International Telephone and Telegraph was being forced to divest as part of a government antitrust action.

The judge told me h e’d picked Palmieri in part on the reference of another federal judge who’d known Koskinen when both had worked for Ribicoff. A bonus was built into the contract with Palmieri. The quicker they sold Levitt, the larger Palmieri’s take. But that was no simple task: For four years there’d been no takers.

In early 1977, Palmieri suddenly had an interested potential buyer, Starrett Housing Company. The leadership and name of Starrett had changed since the 1974 bid on the Penn Central sites: Olnick was gone, but Donald Trump was still a principal equity owner of Starrett City and had just selected Starrett to build his Hyatt Hotel (Starrett’s largest domestic contract that year). Starrett studied Levitt and its potential market for what it described in its annual report as “many months.” In February 1978, Starrett purchased the company for $30 million. Although Trump admitted to being the broker for the deal, he refused to say what his commission was.

Neither Palmieri nor the judge was too clear on just what Palmieri’s profit on the sale was either — though the judge was certain that part of the healthy fee was due to his speedy disposition of the company.

As part of the acquisition package arranged by Trump, Starrett gave a five-year employment contract to Levitt’s top executive, who had been installed by Palmieri. Levitt’s president — now operating on a lucrative Starrett contract — is none other than Trump’s old friend, Edward Eichler, who’d handled the Penn Central deal with Trump.

Birth of a Convention Center

Even before Trump’s deal on the 30th Street yards had been confirmed by the court, he had dropped any pretense of developing it as a housing site: “I envisioned it as a convention center prior to the final court decision,” he said. Despite the clear terms of his agreement with penn Central, which called for housing on 30th Street and foreclosed a role for him in any government purchase, he began to promote the site. The problem was that Abe Beame and City Planning commissioner John Zuccotti, both of whom had aided him in the acquisition of the yards, were committed to another convention-center site, on the waterfront at 44th Street. Even Bunny Lindenbaum, his son Sandy, and publicist Howard Rubenstein — the brokers closest to Beame — were under retainer to the 44th Street convention center corporation formed by the state legislature.

In 1974 some Clinton opponents of 44th Street had actually advocated the 34th Street site as a possible alternative. However, after the Board of Estimate voted to fund a rehabilitation plan for Clinton around the 44th Street site, neighborhood groups became persuaded that the only way the city would deliver on its promised rehabilitation was to accept the convention center.

But, just as community opponents were becoming resigned to the center, its political supporters were pulling back. Tom Galvin, then executive vice-president of the Convention Center Corporation , said he quit in May 1975, because: “With Beame as mayor, i could see the death knell of the project coming.” Though the city continued to pour money into the site, paying $1,500 a month for Rubenstein and $36,000 to the Lindenbaum firm —ultimately wasting up to $17 million on it — the project was going nowhere.

Neither Beame nor Trump can recall when they first discussed the 30th Street yards as a convention-center site. But Trump told me that when he conceived the idea, his “initial approach was to Beame directly.” Since he had been spending money on the site, Beame, clearly, had not discouraged him, although Trump remembers the mayor as “skeptical.”

A Palmieri affidavit filed in Philadelphia dates the beginning of Trump’s negotiations with the city as October 1975, around the same time as Beame, citing fiscal problems, announced that the city would pull out of the 44th Street convention-center project.

A few weeks after the Beame announcement Trump retained Howard Rubenstein, quickly ending three years of Rubenstein’s promotional efforts on behalf of of the 44th Street site. The same week Trump brought in Sandy Lindenbaum, who had handled zoning on 44th Street. Bunny Lindenbaum, who also left the 44th Street project, told me he began working with Trump “more in the role of an informal family adviser than as a lawyer.”

Trump’s proposal of a privately financed state-guaranteed center was, on the face of it, dubious. If attainable at all, it was as applicable to 44th Street as it was to 34th. He now concedes that this proposal — made primarily to counterbalance a sudden Battery Park City proposal — was not serious. “I never wanted to be the developer of the convention center,” he said. “I wanted the site to be chosen … there was no way a profit could be made as a developer.” But Battery Park City emerged with its own financing. Tom Galvin recalls that the Port Authority had been quietly trying to strike a deal with Beame, offering to finance the center. The Port Authority’s willingness to take the expected operating losses on the center could have been counterbalanced by the city’s willingness to waive other Port Authority payments. Beame balked. He and the Port Authority did announce, however, that the authority would do a $100,000 feasibility study of the Battery Park City site for the city.

The Sun Shines on 34th Street

For this new enemy — which Trump characterized as the “Rockefeller interests” — Trump needed new, up-front, allies. Trump says that “in the middle of 1975” he had begun discussing his convention-center idea with Carey fundraiser Louise Sunshine at a dinner to pay off the governor’s campaign debts. Sunshine, who was the finance director of Carey’s 1974 and 1978 campaigns, was the right person to talk to. In addition to her role with Carey, she was treasurer of the State Democratic Party and national Democratic commiteewoman from New York. She had been a fundraiser for former assemblyman Albert Blumenthal and had important political relationships on the West Side, where Trump needed allies to counter 44th Street. One significant contact was with State Senator Manfred Ohrenstein who, as minority leader, had named her to the Advisory Council to the Democrats of the New York State Senate.

“I told her I was looking for someone to take the burden of the convention center off my back,” Trump told me. “and asked who she’d suggest I hire. She called me the next day and said she’d driven to the site herself. She said it was the greatest site for the convention center. She worked on it a long time without pay. Finally she came on staff.”

[pullquote]Since 1974, the largest individual contributor to the campaign of New York Governor Hugh Carey, a Democrat, (exceeded only by the governor’s brother) was none other than Donald Trump’s companies with $125,000.[/pullquote]

Rubenstein issued a press release announcing Sunshine’s position in February 1976, at the peak of the enthusiasm for Battery Park. She registered as a Trump lobbyist with the secretary of state. In November, Trump filed the obligatory, end-of-session, corporate statements, detailing $13,058 worth of salary and expenses associated with Sunshine’s lobbying efforts.

[Sunshine failed to file her pre-session lobbyist statements in 1977 until she was reminded by the secretary of state’s office at the end of the session. She didn’t file at all in 1978, nor did Trump file his corporate report. Since Trump refers to her continuing efforts on behalf of the convention-center site, it appears that she is currently an unlicensed  lobbyist, having failed to file her 1979 pre-session statement. The last record of Sunshine’s lobbying activity is Trump’s report of her $25,000 salary in August 1977. Failure to file annually constitutes a class “A” misdemeanor for both employer and lobbyist under the existing disclosure laws.]
In her 1976 filing, Sunshine had stated that she “intended to appear before the legislative committees and the governor upon all measures affecting the proposed 34th Street convention-center site.” While she lobbied, she would retain here position as an advisor to Senate Democrats and fundraiser to the governor. Carey has since appointed Sunshine to the Thruway Authority and the Job Development Authority.

Her alliance with Trump was widely perceived as the tangible sign of Carey’s commitment to Trump’s site. That is how Trump intended it, to counter any movement toward Battery Park.

Working simultaneously for Trump and Carey, Sunshine’s functions as Carey appointee, lobbyist, and fundraiser had blended together. The largest individual Carey campaign contributor (exceeded only by the governor’s brother) was none other than Donald Trump’s companies — $125,000 since 1974.

Howard Rubenstein says that Sunshine made the great bulk of the contacts that produced lists of 34th Street supporters. Not surprisingly, those lists read like a Carey campaign financial statement. Many of the new corporate and real estate boosters were quickly shifting allegiance from the 44th Street site, which had become the site championed by the Clinton groups and Community Planning Board 4, whose area included both the 44th and 34th Street sites.

Trump eventually forced the Port Authority to add his site to its study. By the time the Port Authority reported in June, the political impetus and financial feasibility of the Battery Park City idea had already receded. The report gave the Port Authority’s evenhanded blessing to either site. It also put to rest Trump’s ruse of private financing and concluded that a bond-issuing authority would have to develop the center.

Trump started manufacturing reports. In November 1976, a group of graduate students at the New School for Social Research did a class study of the available sites and favored 34th Street. Then-City Councilman Robert Wagner, Jr., who taught at the school, served as an adviser on the study, which was never released. He and the school agree: “The study did not, in any way, represent Wagner’s views.” But Trump wound up with a copy and started touting it as the Wagner report. Wagner says that he later told Trump and Sunshine to stop using it. Nonetheless, Trump described it to me as “a professionally done report” and said: Bob Wagner Jr. came out with a very strong statement that 34th Street was the best site.”

Then Trump parlayed Sunshine’s relationship with Manfred Ohrenstein into a stunning blow against the 44th Street site. In 1973-74, Ohrenstein had refused community pleas that he support 34th Street. But, by 1976, after the special zoning district had been created and Clinton had been promised rehabilitation, there was a near-unanimous community consensus around 44th Street. Beame’s decision to forego building the center was seen as merely a temporary setback.

Suddenly, according to neighborhood activists, Ohrenstein released a report favoring 34th Street. “He consulted no one in the neighborhood,” said one. In 1976, Trump began contributing to Ohrenstein’s personal and Senate-majority campaign committees. He’s given $10,000 since.

But the Ohrenstein — and implicit Carey — support did not move the defenses now formed around 44th Street, headed by Deputy Mayor John Zuccotti. Around the time of Ohrenstein’s report, Zuccotti had formed the State/City Working Committee and stacked it with proponents of 44th Street. Beame told me: “I didn’t name anybody to the thing. Zuccotti sparked that. I had no objection.” The working committee had a staff component and a quasi-board of high-level officials. The staff favored 34th Street, with various caveats. The board leaned toward 44th, with some advocates of the Battery. So, in April 1977, the committee disbanded without reaching any public conclusion. Zuccotti later left the city and Beame moved into his mayoral primary campaign, promising that after the election he’d final settle this thing.


A portion of Barrett's story.
A portion of Barrett’s story.

Beame had, in effect, killed the 44th Street site in 1975. He’d killed Battery Park City in 1976, when he’d turned a cold ear to those Port Authority officials who had wanted to finance and operate a center, but only at the Battery.

Indeed, court records suggest that Beame had quietly acquiesced to the 34th Street site as early as April 1976, when Palmieri and Co. had asked Judge Fullam to change 34th Street from a housing-use to a convention-center site. The new terms anticipated approximately a $17 million increase in the cost of the land to the city and built into the agreement a Trump fee of up to $2 million. (Not surprisingly, David Berger, who was only months away form formally representing Trump in the oil-company case, raised no objection to the new deal — even though Trump’s fee would come out of whatever amount the city or state would pay Berger’s clients, the Penn Central stockholders.)

Since the Penn Central appraisal had valued the convention-center portion of the site (roughly half of the 30th Street property) at $4 million, the city could have probably acquired it by condemnation for that amount and avoided the payment of any fees to Trump.

Under the amendment, Trump was cut into a condemnation sale and guaranteed a flat fee of $500,000. He was also given a third sales price if he could drive the city’s price past a minimum of $13.5 million. Trump is now seeking $21 million for land the city or state might have got for roughly $4 million 3-and-a-half years ago. Ironically, Palmieri and Co. had described the site as a “wasting asset,” declining in value, in order to get court approval of the original sale in 1975.

These amendments — plus the affidavit stating that Beame had “abandoned” 44th Street and indicating that the Port Authority was the only obstacle to the 34th Street site — were formally served on the city. The court awaited any comments or objections. Finally, Judge Fullam approved the amendments in late May, 1976. By an act of omission, the city had permitted approval of the terms that had made Trump’s search for convention center-support so potentially profitable to begin with.

Shortly after his primary defeat, Beame appointed another committee. Richard Ravitch — who’d lost the site to Trump in Philadelphia and whose firm had subsequently been retained by Trump to cost out his convention center — chaired it. Ravitch’s report, while favoring 34th Street, concluded that the differences among the three sites were marginal.

Ravitch reported and Beame endorsed the site right before he left office. Last April, Koch, Carey, Ohrenstein, and Trump confirmed Beame’s selection and jointly announced agreement on 34th Street. Since then, Ohrenstein has been introducing legislation and the Republicans have been blocking it. After last month’s special legislative session, Carey and Majority Leader Warren Anderson indicated that they’d agreed on a plan of state funding.

But word out of Albany is that State Senator John Marchi, angered by what he regards as the Ohrenstein-organized and Trump-financed electoral challenge he just went through in November (a product of Ohrenstein’s drive to elect a Democratic majority in the Senate) says he will block any convention center built on Trump-owned land. No one is quite sure how serious Marchi is. But in Trump’s world, there is something fitting about Marchi’s strange reasoning. It is a kind of ultimate quid-pro-quo in a transaction plagued, in every detail for half a decade, by quid-pro-quos. There is bound to be at least one deal too many in this chronology.

There is nothing terrible about Trump’s convention center site. It is, I am sure, as good as the others. In hours of interviews Trump almost sold me on it and he’s clearly prevailed with some government officials — like City Planning Commissioner Robert Wagner — despite, rather than because of, his brand of political intrigue. My quarrel is that $400 million of state funds could salvage entire neighborhoods; that New York City already is the top convention city in America and has an exhibition hall that is turning a profit for the city; and that Trump’s site will never pass any fair environmental test, precisely because it sees midtown as the city and will concentrate thousands of people — with their cars and their sewage — right where the city can’t cope with them. Trump’s answer to this kind of pro-neighborhood argument was contained in a New York Times piece about him two years ago: “I think the city will get better,” he said. “I’m not talking about the South Bronx. I don’t know anything about the South Bronx.”

What he doesn’t understand is that the South Bronx is this city. Its problems were created by someone else’s deals. And the problems remain, at least partially because of deals that ignore them. Deals like his own.

There is one final twist to this story. State laws provide that no one can get a broker’s commission on a transaction unless he was a licensed broker throughout the negotiations of the deal. Trump and the City Planning Commission have described Trump’s services on 34th Street as those of “a broker.” The problem is that young Donald Trump didn’t become a licensed broker until after his contract with Penn Central had been completely negotiated and approved by Judge Fullam. But brokerage licenses are merely pesky requirements of the law.


In this two-part history we’ve been looking into a world where only the greed is magnified. The actors are pretty small and venal. Their ideas are small, never transcending profit. In it, however, are the men elected to lead us and those who buy them. And in it, unhappily, are the processes and decisions that shape our city and our lives.

Read Part One of the Village Voice‘s 1979 profile of Donald Trump.


Here’s How They Got Teens Off Drugs in 1960s Greenwich Village

“‘THERE’S NO SUCH THING as a non-drug hip any more. Drugs just became part of the hip — an increasingly important part of it. The Village went right from folk music to amphetamine. Somewhere around ’63, suddenly there were drugs all over the place.’ Brendan Sexton, clean-cut, handsome, all-American, looks like the last guy in the world who ought to know. But, at 21, he is a redeemed veteran of the teenage drug scene.”

So begins Stephanie Harrington’s “How to Reform Without Really Going Square,” a feature story that ran in the Village Voice 49 years ago this week.

Drawing on the points of view of Sexton and two other “good-looking, bright, sensitive, and reformed high-school hopheads” — Sexton’s first wife Lynn and a guy named Jan Stacy — Harrington sketched the “teen drug scene” on MacDougal Street.

Sexton told of ditching school at Forest Hills High to hang out in the Village, where he and his pals got “caught up in that whole mystique of drugs.” Weed, hash, speed, booze. “‘One kid had an apartment with his mother, but he kicked her out,’ Sexton recounted. ‘Before that, though, his mother used to sit in the kitchen while he was shooting up in the bedroom.'”

By the time Harrington meets with them, all three are sober (thanks to “the help of a Synanon type of group therapy”) and attending college (“Brendan at NYU, Lynn at Cooper Union, and Jan at City”). Having concluded that the drug lifestyle is “empty and phony,” they’re in the nascent stages of putting together a space in the Village where they can help young people reach the same conclusion:

“They want to set up their own rescue operation, to get a building or a coffee shop or an apartment on MacDougal Street where they can conduct therapy sessions, have guitars available, hold lectures and seminars.”

Harrington concludes by writing, “As of now, they are trying to raise funds for their project — from, among other sources, the city’s Youth Board. Which is not so far-fetched, since at this point their approach is more imaginative than anything the city has come up with.”

A half-century later, it may sound too goofy to be true. It certainly did to one Irwin Gooen, who wrote to the Voice the following week to opine that Sexton and co. had “learned just about nothing from their past experiences. Still maintaining a ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude, they have just shifted ‘sides’ on the drug issue.”

If anything, the adolescent antics now ring a tinge urban-romantic, in the Jim Carroll/Basketball Diaries sense. (Here’s Jan describing the thrill of stealing chairs from factories on Seventh Avenue: “It wasn’t the chairs we were after, but the excitement. Climbing over roofs and up and down fire escapes in the dark. Sometimes we’d sell the chairs to a couple of fags. They’d give us a dime or a quarter a chair, and we’d tie ropes around them and they’d haul them up through their window. They might have refinished and sold them. Or maybe they were just trying to lure us up to their apartment.”)

But Sexton’s drug-counseling dream actually came true. True to his word, the Queens native founded a nonprofit called Encounter Inc.

And that was only the beginning, as the Voice learned when we caught up with Brendan Sexton, who’s now 70, earlier this week.

After a stint at the NYC Addiction Services Agency, Sexton went to work at the city’s Office of Management and Budget, then served under Ed Koch as director of the Mayor’s Office of Operations. In 1986 he was appointed the city’s sanitation commissioner, a post he held for four years. (His most significant legacy as top trash man: a gluey, “fairly ugly Day-Glo green” sticker, affixed to the windshields of parking scofflaws, that read, “This Vehicle Violates N.Y.C. Parking Regulations. As a Result, This Street Could Not Be Properly Cleaned.”) Then a term as president of the Municipal Art Society, followed in 1998 by a stint at the top of the Times Square Business Improvement District.

Stephanie Harrington couldn’t have known all that in 1966. But thanks to a pair of profiles (linked above) that appeared in the New York Times in the intervening years, we know that she did opt not to mention that the pillar-of-public-service-to-be she was profiling stood all of five foot five.




By Stephanie Harrington


Published in the Village Voice, June 9, 1966

“There’s no such thing as a non-drug hip any more. Drugs just became part of the hip — an increasingly important part of it. The Village went right from folk music to amphetamine. Somewhere around ’63, suddenly there were drugs all over the place.” Brendan Sexton, Clean-cut, handsome, all-American, looks like the last guy in the world who ought to know. But, at 21, he is a redeemed veteran of the teenage drug scene.

These days Sexton could probably make that scene without ever leaving the locker room of his alma mater, Forest Hills High. But back in ’61 the suburbs were relatively clean and high-school kids still had to commute to their highs.

“Growing up frightened the hell out of me. I started not going to school. One year I cut 47 times. I was a kid who wrote poetry, who didn’t like folk music particularly, but listened to it — the kind of kid who thinks of the Village. Boy, if you want to run away from anything the Village is the place. You can do whatever you want. You don’t know what you want, but nobody bothers you. And you get taught up in that whole mystique of drugs. I started staying up all night and sleeping away from home. I met kids who lived in the Village or on the East Side. One kid had an apartment with his mother, but he kicked her out. Before that, though, his mother used to sit in the kitchen while he was shooting up in the bedroom. His father was a postal clerk. He ran off when the kid was two. Sometimes I’d stay in friends’ apartments and sometimes I’d just sleep in the park. It was the equivalent of Jan’s stealing things from those factories up on Seventh Avenue.”

Around the Corner
Jan is Jan Stacy. He and Brendan’s wife, Lynn, were childhood friends. They, too, are good-,poking, bright, sensitive, and reformed high-school hopheads. The only difference is that they are three years younger than Brendan and they grew up in the Village where the kicks were right around the corner.

They started out on their pill popping odysseys in search of excitement. It could have been anything. A few years earlier they might have found it in belonging to a gang. “There was a time when switch blades were available. Now it’s drugs. The kids in this country are very screwed up,” Sexton points out. “A zip gun or a set of works — the alternative to gangs is drugs.”

How did the latest currency of hip become so available?

“How does money come into the economy?”

Jan’s urge for kicks was worked out harmlessly enough at first. “I was playing stoop ball all the time.”

And when things really got dull he and his friends would find an evening’s entertainment in stealing chairs from factories on Seventh Avenue. Why chairs?

“It wasn’t the chairs we were after, but the excitement. Climbing over roofs and up and down fire escapes in the dark. Sometimes we’d sell the chairs to a couple of fags. They’d give us a dime or a quarter a chair, and we’d tie ropes around them and they’d haul them up through their window. They might have refinished and sold them. Or maybe they were just trying to lure us up to their apartment.”

It was Lynn, as they recall, who turned Jan on to drugs. The pastime that led to her initiation into the drug scene couldn’t have been more innocent — bicycle riding.

“When I was in high school I used to hang out with a bunch of kids at the 8th Street hostel. We used to ride our bikes or just hang around Washington Square Park — around the benches closest to the arch. That overlapped with the area where the people on drugs hung out. I was bored and looking for people to talk to. They were older and attractive. First I’d just listen to them. Then I’d sit around talking to these people and watching them — all goofing around and talking in this funny way.”

“Yeah,” Jan broke in, laughing at the recollection. “You’d see them high and it looked very good — their running around and falling down and laughing and philosophizing about the stars. And you’d say to yourself, ‘I’d like to talk like that,’ or ‘Gee, what are they high on tonight?’ They seemed like very important people then and we thought they were leading a very exciting life — narrow escapes from the cops, falling down all the time, what a great thing.'”

Convenient High
In 1963 Lynn began turning on with benzedrine and dexedrine. It was very convenient. You could do it during school, after school, on weekends.

“We used to buy a roll of bennies and go into the Night Owl — when the Night Owl was Art Ford’s coffee shop it was one of the places you could turn on in the Village. We’d spread the pills out on the table, divide them up, buy a coke, and drop five or six. You could turn on anyplace in the Village that didn’t have locks on the bathroom doors.”

What about the police?

“You never expected to get in trouble with the cops,” Lynn explained, “because the cops never did anything, or if they did you got out of it. That was never any threat.”

What about liquor?

“Oh, we’d drink, too,” Jan replied. “Mostly wine. Anything that would get us high.”

Like those kids who walk around now with pint bottles in paper bags?

“We didn’t bother about the paper bags.”

“There was a place on Houston Street,” Lynn remembered, “where we used to go — around dusk — and have chug-a-lug contests.”

All Divorced
“That all seemed very grown up, but it wasn’t,” Brendan interrupted, dousing the reminiscences with a little reality. “It was childish. It denied every principle of growing up — no responsibilities, no plans for the future, no relationships. It was empty and phony. You can pretend to be anything and no one will stop you.”

What about parents?

“All our parents are divorced.”

“Every friend I have in the Village, their parents are divorced,” Lynn added, then going back to her husband’s point about the phoniness of the teenage drug world.

“I was a phony and I knew it. I was going with a guy and we were always turning on. I knew this was a very meaningless relationship, but finding that out didn’t help because after I broke up with him I met a guy who had just come back from Tangier with a fantastic amount of pot and hashish. I’d get up at three in the morning and tell my mother I was going out to ride my bike — she would be half asleep and wouldn’t know what time it was. I’d ride my bike down to his apartment and smoke until six. Then I’d go home, change, and go uptown to school — I went to Music and Art…I rarely paid for drugs. There was a lot of sharing. If someone had a pound of pot you could have some. By the way, I’m sure they think they’re very open and give of themselves.”

“That’s generosity, man — giving your pot!” Brendan agreed, laughing. Their attitude toward their old life and the people who still live it is a mixture of amused contempt and disgust. There is also compassion, but it is pragmatic rather than sentimental. They’re not interested in feeling sorry for their friends who are still hooked. They’re interested in getting them off the hook, using their own experience as a guideline.

They consider themselves lucky. They all managed to graduate from high school with good grades despite their chronic truancy. (All three of them are now in college: Brendan at NYU, Lynn at Cooper Union, and Jan at City.) They didn’t worry about being kicked out of school or put in jail. They had that one figured out. As Brendan put it, there was nothing the authorities could do. “After all, why turn a truant into a criminal?”

Brendan first went to the University of Wisconsin and dropped out after a bad first semester. “After that I degenerated in Madison for a couple of months and then I came home and degenerated some more.” But he managed to snap out of it sufficiently to go to Louisiana that summer to work for CORE. He worked on voter registration in Plaquemine, a little known spot which achieved international recognition through its white citizens’ dexterity with cattle prods. Brendan did well enough to be one of 14 summer volunteers that CORE accepted as permanent staff members.

Clean for Months
“That was one of the best periods of my life. I stayed five and a half months and I was clean the whole time, except for pot. I was arrested four times down there. One day in jail I realized that this was one of the greatest things I’d ever done in my life and I was still falling apart. I couldn’t talk to a girl on anything but a phony basis. I couldn’t stand myself, I was fed up. It was a healthy couple of moments. Anyway, I decided that I needed group therapy, so when I went home for Christmas I stayed, principally for the therapy.

“Strangely enough, that’s when I really got involved in drugs and started on heroin and doing things like stealing and swindling. I’d see a guy on MacDougal Street and I’d tell him I could get him some heroin. Then I’d take him over to the Albert Hotel and up to the sixth floor. I’d tell him to give me the money and wait for me there. Then I’d disappear through a door, go down a back way, and get out on the street while he was still waiting for me upstairs. And people on drugs are so impotent, even if the guy would see me later and ask me what happened I’d just tell him, ‘Aw, leave me alone, man.’ And he would.”

“They’re so ineffectual,” Jan added, “I once took some amphetamine away from a guy on crutches, with all his friends standing around. They didn’t do a thing.”

Afraid of Sex
As for sex, there was unanimous agreement: “Most kids in the Village are as afraid of sex as a wild bull.”

“There have always been some people in the Village making some kind of sex scene,” Brendan conceded. “There’s some hustling, and some girls get involved with some way-out sex scene and fool around with it for a while. But they don’t really have fun. It’s just one more kind of degradation for them. I went to a couple of so-called orgies and they were nothing — I mean nothing! Everybody went into the bathroom and got high.”

Brendan, Lynn, and Jan, with the help of a Synanon type of group therapy, managed to make it off MacDougal Street after only a few years. Now they want to go back, but this time with a different purpose. They want to set up their own rescue operation, to get a building or a coffee house or an apartment on MacDougal Street where they can conduct therapy sessions, have guitars available, hold lectures and seminars. In short, they want to offer the kids who are still on MacDougal Street an alternative. Their experience taught them that the great attraction of drugs at first is not their effect, but the fact that it is hip to take them. “You spend more time talking about getting money for it, preparing for it, than actually doing it. When you first take drugs it’s not an escape, it’s excitement, but after you start taking them you keep on to escape from not taking them. Once you’re on them you can’t stand the boredom of not being on them.” The only way to combat drugs, therefore, is to re-define hip.

Two Tools
“There are two tools that can accomplish this,” Brendan told a recent community meeting on the drug problem held at the Village Peace Center. “You can offer them something hipper to do, and you can ridicule them for what they’re doing.”

The three of them feel that among them they know enough kids still on MacDougal Street to make a dent. They’re convinced that just by walking down the street and saying to guys they know: “Why aren’t you playing guitar like you say you want to?” or “Why aren’t you making that girl you like?” they can each convince ten kids a night to at least try to straighten out.

[pullquote]Stephanie Harrington wrote a follow-up to her MacDougal Street drug story in January 1967. Click here to read it.[/pullquote]

“The way it is now,” Brendan maintains, “almost no one on MacDougal Street has any fun; it’s just a question of not doing what you were doing…. We’ve done what they’re doing now and we could show them that there are hipper things to do, and if you can find out how to do them, well, you’d just rather…. But,” he says, any alternative set-up would have to be on MacDougal Street, “so they can see it, and because MacDougal Street is incredibly exciting if you’re  in that kind of mood.”

But what about the local residents who are interested in precisely the opposite — i.e., moving the scene off MacDougal Street?

“If there are people in the Village who are reasonably mature and responsible, we think we might be able to change it from an open-street night club and give it a constructive atmosphere.”

As of now, they are trying to raise funds for their project — from, among other sources, the city’s Youth Board. Which is not so far-fetched, since at this point their approach is more imaginative than anything the city has come up with.


“STEPHANIE HARRINGTON WAS A TERRIFIC LADY who took real interest in young people, so that was flattering,” Brendan Sexton says by phone from his home in Greenwich Village. “Of course, if you’ve ever been written about, you find things that you would have done differently — the term ‘former hopheads’ was certainly not ours; I guess it was Stephanie’s attempt to distinguish from the idea of an ex-addict or an addict.”

Sexton and his colleagues at the nascent Encounter felt drugs weren’t at the root of their problems. “We knew we weren’t junkies, but we knew we were flailing about in our attempts to grow up, or avoid growing up,” he says. “And what we had was each other — that’s really all we had.”

They’d experienced loss at an early age. He, Lynn, and Jan Stacy were all children of divorce. And “all of us, by the time we were twenty, knew kids who had died, kids who were in prison. Including, among them, our best friends. By then there was enough crystal meth around that all of us knew at least a couple of kids who were highly wacked on speed. And of course we also knew some kids who were getting along well — we never claimed that was impossible, but it wasn’t true of us. We had, obviously, struggled.”

Some were dying and didn’t know it. Stacy, Sexton discloses, died of AIDS, as did Lynn’s second husband. Sexton himself would learn years later that he had contracted hepatitis B and C thanks to shared needles.

“In those days the dangers of IV drug use were considered chiefly OD or arrest,” Sexton says. “It seems so obvious now — anything in your bloodstream you can spread by sticking a needle in your arm. We were stupid. We were kids.”

As for Encounter, “It had a very nice life for about ten years,” before falling into financial and organizational disarray.

“It was a little bit like a communal society,” Sexton recounts. “Some survive, some survive in a sort of degenerated form, becoming tyrannical or corrupt — Encounter’s community didn’t do anything that dramatic. I won’t say it ended bitterly. Not with a bang but with a whimper.

“Don’t forget, we were going from late adolescence or very early adulthood to actually having a life,” he adds. “Lynn and I got married, we had some kids — these sorts of things were happening.”

By that time Sexton had moved on from Encounter. He enrolled in grad school at Columbia to study the efficacy of treatment programs and prevention programs. Not long afterward, enticed by his experience in the field, the city hired him away. “There was some research, but it was dreadful,” he explains, “so they hired a couple young people like myself to try to see if they could figure out what was working.”

And a life in public service was born.

SEXTON SAYS HIS CAREER PATH was something of a fluke, brought on by New York City’s mammoth financial crisis.

“Because of the fiscal crisis, I was invited to do work which was like the work I’d done in Addiction — it was evaluating public programs. Of course, by then it was evaluating programs to see what should be kept and what shouldn’t be. I wound up working for the mayor’s office indirectly, and the Mayor’s Office of Operations, and then I got that job as my own, running that office.”

Then came Sanitation. “I loved that job,” he says. “Sanitation was probably the most fun I ever had working.”

Some of that fun was furnished the stickier-than sticky stickers that for many years department workers affixed to the windshields of illegally parked cars.

“One of my proudest inventions!” Sexton exclaims of the practice of shaming New Yorkers decades before the term became popular. “I loved them. And they worked, by the way! Because the city had Project Scorecard, which measured litter penetration and dirt, and how dirty or clean the streets were, you could see the same neighborhoods before and after — in fact, route by route, you could examine particular neighborhoods before and after using those stickers. I’m not saying you could eat your peanut-butter sandwich off the street, but you could see a few points’ change in Project Scorecard. So I was very proud of that. ”

If you’ve ever wondered whether it’s possible for a public servant to express unalloyed glee, you now have your answer. And how are the streets now, three years after the city finally abolished the stickers?

“They’re actually in pretty good shape. We’ve definitely had periods of much better and much worse,” Sexton says. “But you have to remember, we started this during the fiscal crisis, when this was Stinky City. I mean, the sanitation situation was horrible. Slowly but surely the city has become a cleaner place. I have to think right now things are not as clean as they had been at their peak of cleanliness, but it’s certainly a different frame of reference from when we started measuring cleanliness — which we started to measure because it was so horrible, and someone had to figure out the best place to deploy the troops.”

At the time, Sexton lived on Staten Island — another focal point at the Department of Sanitation, owing to the colossally smelly landfill at Fresh Kills. “It was probably the single-largest generator of complaints to city government in all of our activities. And it was my neighbors complaining,” he says.

Today the site is being reclaimed acre by acre as a public park. Sexton serves on the board of the nonprofit Freshkills Park Alliance, working toward that goal in concert with city and state agencies. “It’s a magnificent location,” he says. “People would never believe that. It’s about 2,500 acres, and about a thousand of them were never touched — they’re just the original wetlands that had been targeted by Robert Moses to be landfill. Now there are a few hundred acres that have been reclaimed. There are deer there now. It’s pretty cool. You know, it takes 30 to 50 years for a landfill to die, really.” (According to the alliance’s website, the four mounds at Fresh Kills contain about 150 million tons of solid waste.)

Sexton has relocated to the Village, to a house that belonged to his father (who lives on Staten Island). “My daughter and her daughter are here. My granddaughter is the fourth generation of Sextons to live on Sullivan Street,” he says. “We qualify as Villagers, I would guess.”

One of his sons, Brendan Sexton III, was born on Staten Island but has since decamped to Belair. “He makes the occasional movie and the more frequent TV show,” Sexton reports, “and struggles like crazy with it. But he pays his rent. He’s a grown man who supports himself with his craft. A very courageous way to live. And he hasn’t been crushed by it yet.”

WHAT DOES SEXTON THINK of the Village now? “Well, of course it’s being eaten by gentrification — the country is being eaten by gentrification. “As the rich, and the brokers to the rich, and the agents of the rich discover these corners of urban living, they’re becoming…the Upper West Side. Which is a wonderful neighborhood, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not a cheap place to live any more. And the Village has long since been, as you know.

“I was so lucky to have been a teenager in the Village when, you know, Richie Havens was playing in a coffeehouse down the block, and John Sebastian. And this was a very exciting era and a very cheap era, and I was just incredibly — all of us were, the group in that article — lucky to be walking these streets then.

“I  don’t want to be one of these people who is stuck in the past and who can’t see the value in the new. I see a lot of value in what is new. I don’t happen to see value in losing the quirk of the city that creates our artists and musicians and suchlike. Williamsburg was that and is losing it the way the Village is losing it. Spanish Harlem, a few other places that were cherished because they were cheap and also culturally alive at the same time. And that’s pretty hard to maintain unless you’re prepared to impoverish a whole city in order to do it.

“I imagine that people who are in Detroit right now will be saying this in 25 years: ‘I remember when six of us could rent a whole ten-room house for $150 each.’ My first apartment in the Village was at 8th Street and Avenue D and it was $25 a month! Eighteen years old and I could get an apartment. And by the way, it was appropriately priced.

“It’s impossible to not regret the loss of that, but it’s also incorrect to stay stuck in the past and not figure out what the next phase is going to be.”

Follow Tom Finkel on Twitter @t_fin


The Article That Made Mario Cuomo Governor in 1982 — No Kidding!

When I wrote this story, in June 1982, during the Democratic primary campaign for New York governor, Mario Cuomo was still seven points behind Ed Koch, who had defeated him for mayor only five years earlier with a strong death penalty pitch that Cuomo always courageously resisted. I wrote here about Cuomo’s fascinating mind and character as well as about the death penalty politics that shadowed this race.

The story certainly turned a lot of heads at the time, reintroducing the city’s liberals and leftists to an “outer borough ethnic” whom they’d spurned in the 1977 mayoral primaries for Bella Abzug, Herman Badillo, and others, as well as for Koch. Five years later, Koch had begun to seem a lot less “progressive” than Manhattanites had remembered him being as a Greenwich Village member of the City Council and then of Congress. By 1982, Cuomo was sounding at least as progressive — and, given his roots, as courageous — as Koch.

It’s interesting now to measure Cuomo’s record against the buoyancy and high promise that he brought to the campaign, as depicted in this article. I think that he let down his supporters, partly by deciding not to run for president and then by not accepting Bill Clinton’s invitation to nominate him to the Supreme Court. I, in turn, let Cuomo down in several New York Daily News columns by the time he was running for a fourth term, in 1994.

Even in 1982, I closed this Voice piece with three paragraphs that may seem dark for that time but that, sadly, have proved prescient for ours.

Mario Cuomo died on January 1, 2015, at age eighty-two. His funeral is today.

Cuomo: Too True to Be Good?
The June 22, 1982, <I>Voice</I> cover. Click for a larger version.
The June 22, 1982, Voice cover. Click for a larger version.

It takes most people a while to catch on to Mario Cuomo’s way of thinking about society and his place in it, but once you catch on, his thoughts begin to haunt you in a troubling yet beguiling way. Consider a story he likes to tell about the time a patrician Virginian took him to lunch at an exclusive club 25 years ago. Cuomo, a junior associate in the blue chip, old money law firm the Virginian had retained, had rendered the client some extra service that merited a token of regard.

Cuomo recalls a stuffy private dining room where censorious waiters seemed to join with their eyes in the host’s whittling inquiries about how such a capable young man could have grown up in the back of a grocery store owned by poor Italian immigrant parents. The menu was in French, the service a pageant of manners in a minefield. As Cuomo, still smarting from cross-examination, studied the offerings, his patron demanded a glass of fresh clam juice and, with a touch of ostentation, admonished the waiter to make sure there was a clam in it. “Ah,” he said, quaffing the drink a moment later, an eye fixed almost belligerently on his young guest, “that’s fresh clam juice.”

“I’d like the turtle soup, please,” said Cuomo to the waiter. “And make sure there’s turtle in it.” The Virginian rose and stalked out of the room.

The story sounds a bit square in the wake of more recent and serious trashings of authority and privilege. But the listener allows as how Cuomo had reason to be furious enough to risk what amounted to a major confrontation in that time and place.

“It wasn’t anger,” Cuomo replies matter-of-factly. “It was appropriate for it to happen to him.”

* * *

“It was appropriate.” Hovering in that room was some truth bigger than the young lawyer and his host, some standard of social fairness that had been violated and needed somehow to right itself. This is how Mario Cuomo thinks, and such thinking drives interest-brokers like Hugh Carey and Stanley Fink crazy. It’s disorienting and suspect, this tendency to put personal feelings in a godly perspective. How the hell can you broker a deal when one of the parties is the “All Seeing Eye”? Who could even breathe in such an atmosphere? What if Meade Esposito, the patron of Brooklyn patronage, invited Mario Cuomo to lunch?

“When I refused to make a deal in the 1977 mayoral runoff, and they accused me, even my closest friends, of naiveté, my theory was, look, I want to be very powerful when I win, and if I play the game to get there, then I lose the power,” Cuomo says. “If I win this governor’s race, doing it the way I’m doing it, I won’t owe anybody anything.”

That kind of thinking loses elections, say many of Cuomo’s friends, but Cuomo sees it differently. “I was not as happy to run for mayor as I am now to run for governor, because in 1977 I looked around at the field — Abzug, Badillo, even Koch — and it was very difficult for me to say, I am so superior to these people that for the good of the city they need me. That’s one of the reasons I had difficulty in that campaign. And what Doug Ireland described as Hamlet, well, B.S., that was me posing these questions. I don’t have those questions this year. There may be 36 people in this state who ‘d make a better governor than I. But they are not in this race. I go at this very convinced I’m better. Because I’m so good? Or because they’re so weak? What’s the difference?”

This is how Mario Cuomo thinks. Whenever he talks about something for more than a few minutes, a trapdoor opens somewhere in the ceiling and suddenly you’re looking down at the issue from a vantage point that makes ego seem ancillary and rather small. Politics is a brokering of interests, yes, but in order to do the brokering, he feels, chief executives and judges must transcend their own political and personal interests to care for society as a whole.

Not only does Cuomo think he’s the only candidate trained and disposed to look at things this way; by his own higher calculus, he is the only candidate who can afford to. He has little real estate or other special interest money, though his campaign manager, Bill Haddad, reports a growing trickle of “hedge-your-bet” contributions from such interests now that the gap in the polls is closing to within seven points, according to Gannett and several private polls. What he does have is labor support, the big, serious kind that carried the state for Kennedy in the 1980 presidential primary. He is happy to have it. Cuomo would prefer public campaign financing, and he has challenged Koch to publish his checks as they come in, so that the press can scrutinize every “inference of influence” and quid pro quo (Koch has refused, but Cuomo has adopted the practice). But he thinks it’s specious to compare broad labor support to special interest domination.

What Reaganomics says of capital Cuomo says of labor: its gifts to “society as a whole” transcend its special needs. “I am a traditional Democrat who believes you have to keep the working middle class and the poor in one party because once you don’t, once the middle class goes over to the right with the rich, they bludgeon the poor,” he says. “The whole society suffers because of the social disorientation that produces crime, deterioration, everything evil. You cannot live with a large part of this state or nation deprived. It can’t be done. You can’t build a wall between you and them and say maybe they’ll go away.

“Reaganomics says that God helps those whom God has helped, and that if God left you out, who am I to presume on God? We hope that the rich, in the fullness of their good disposition, will find the occasion to drop some morsels on the South Bronx or invest in a plant in Utica, and that it’ll be good for you in the long run. It doesn’t work. The antiunion movement reflects the truth that ever since Adam and Eve bit the apple, you can’t leave it to the rich to do the right thing, any more than we could leave it to the business people to provide safe quarters for the garment workers a hundred years ago. That’s why people burned to death in factories, that’s why children choked to death in mines. You need unions the same way you need policemen. You need laws that say to the rich, you’re gonna have to share some of your wealth — that’s why we have the income tax.”

Pretty tame stuff. Jimmy Carter believed in unions, too, and he called our battered tax codes a “disgrace to civilization.” Even public campaign financing won’t free a government that’s a debtor to banks and a hostage to financial control boards. In a contracting yet increasingly corporate-dominated economy, trade unionism and progressive taxation don’t put people to work producing goods and services to meet basic needs. They don’t stop the social deterioration that Cuomo says occurs when “all power’s massed on one side of the spectrum.” Mario Cuomo is not at the cutting edge of the coming debate about socially responsible investment and about free enterprise and corporate capitalism in meeting basic human needs. ‘We’re in a race between a Reagan Democrat and a Carter Democrat, which means a majority of Democrats are disenfranchised in this state,” says one political observer.

Cuomo’s resemblance to Carter, whose campaign he ran in New York State in 1980, is indeed striking. Both are intelligent, well-read men. Both are family men who uphold traditional social values. Both are religious, not so much arrogant as simply vertical in their orientations, serene in a faith that some say insulates them from the grim urgency of struggles they ought to lead. Both are conciliators more than seasoned wielders of power: Cuomo made a name for himself as Lindsay’s independent mediator between predominantly Jewish homeowners and low-income housing advocates in Forest Hills in 1972; Carter’s triumph was with Sadat and Begin at Camp David.

And both of them know that trapdoor in the ceiling. The day after he announced for governor, Mario Cuomo crammed his tall, broad-shouldered frame into a payphone booth to hear Jimmy Carter tell him, “I’m glad you’re running. It’s right you should be. You’re a truth-teller, and in the end they’ll recognize that. I’m not willing to get involved in any primaries except this one.” Cuomo hasn’t yet decided to take Carter up on that.

And yet modest protections for working people though trade unions and progressive taxation may be, Cuomo’s opponent, like Carter’s, has tried to erode them — by his posturing on the Brooklyn Bridge during the April 1980 transit strike, by his staunch defense of the massive giveaways involved in the J-51 tax abatement and exemption program for upscale housing conversion, and by his efforts to delay and repeal the capital gains tax for real estate sales of more than $1 million — “a near-perfect tax,” as Cuomo called it in a recent statement denouncing Koch as a “junior Ronald Reagan.” And while Cuomo may not cement a “pure” progressive coalition, there is no mistaking Koch’s efforts to divide the working middle class from the poor with the wedge of death penalty and loose talk about “poverty pimps.”

Cuomo the conciliator would argue that Manhattan liberals and leftists habitually underestimate the fear he’s witnessed among the working middle class in Forest Hills and around the state; that he knows in his gut where that kind of fear comes from; that his talent is at softening people half-crazed with hatred, coaxing them back to the realm of civilized discourse. While Cuomo soothed and cajoled Forest Hills homeowners in 1972, Koch, seeking to float his first mayoral campaign, marched with the most demagogic of those protesting low-income housing. Cuomo’s empathy with them ran deeper that year than Koch’s fear-mongering; Koch’s effort fizzled, while Cuomo’s compromise was accepted.

The same empathy told Cuomo that only Carter stood a chance of keeping Reagan at bay. “I first met Carter in 1976 at a political meeting, when he found out I knew the state of Georgia. I’d signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates and played with the farm team in Georgia, and knew all the little dusty towns dear to his heart. We hit it off. He came to me in 1979 [shortly after Cuomo had become lieutenant governor] and asked if I would run the campaign. I liked him. I thought that he was not a good communicator, so that to this day people don’t know Jimmy Carter. They don’t know his intelligence, his subtlety…

“In the early stage, when I talked to people like Peter Edelman, Jack Newfield, Bill Haddad, Jimmy Breslin, David Burke, they all said the same thing — Kennedy’s definitely not running; and they’d all encourage him not to run. And so I got in [with Carter], and of course once I did, I was not about to step out, especially because if you remember, when Kennedy came in, he made no case: ‘I agree with you 90 percent of the time,’ he said, ‘but I’m a better leader than you.’

“What could’ve happened if I’d known when Jimmy Carter asked me that Kennedy was also running? Would I have remained neutral? It’s academic. I was with Carter.”

Ask Cuomo whether Chappaquiddick was a factor, and that trapdoor in the ceiling opens again, confounding what you might expect from one who battled Kennedy to the end. “No,” he says. “There are only two truths, the objective truth that God knows, and the truth that the system establishes. When the jury says you’re guilty, you’re either really, truly guilty, in the all-seeing vision, or you’re not. We settle on the truth that’s in the trial. Personally, you may have reservations, but I can’t believe that simply because allegations are made, he’s been blemished. That’s a very bad precedent, because then every indictment kills. How could I make that judgment on him? Especially a person like me, who spent 20 years cross-examining people. You spend three hours with somebody in a chair under an oath, you watch him sweat after an hour and a half, you watch the story change after two, you watch him cry after two hours and thirty minutes, you watch him surrender after three and say, ‘Yeah, I lied, please don’t hold me for perjury.’

“On Chappaquiddick, I don’t know what really happened. Only God knows. I believe the system, that he was exonerated. The system also revealed he had a moment of weakness; he said so in his own words. I accept that. I accept that he exercised poor judgment. I don’t think that bespeaks a weakness so pervasive that it should disqualify him.”

So Cuomo didn’t trade on Chappaquiddick in the bitter New York primary campaign. Which may be one reason why Kennedy has given Cuomo photo sessions and nice quotes to use on television this summer. It says something about Cuomo that both Carter and Kennedy support him, though it also probably says a lot about the two men’s loathing of Koch.

* * *

The loathing too is part of the point: at a time when a rearguard action is necessary against hatemongering and social disintegration in tandem with any moving forward, Mario Cuomo feels he’s the one who can face down the hatred. He has an important job to do, and is glad of it, and he runs with a near-serenity that some mistake for passivity but that he sees as good conscience and the peculiar, understated confidence it breeds.

Cuomo came of age in the New York City public schools’ waning days of glory in the late ’40s, and is still carrying on that schoolboy’s love affair with America that most of us have consigned to a time out of mind. He reached intellectual maturity among the Vincentians* of St John’s (where he went to college, law school, and taught law) and in the liberal ecumenical spirit of Pope John XXIII and Vatican II; whence his love of a “higher truth” which tempers his secular awe of American institutions and the system’s truth. It makes him something of a celebrant of the state he would serve. He is not so much equivocal as he is — his word — “ontological,” attuned to higher truths about the way things are and should be.

“The easy political position is to carve out an identifiable constituency, and if they’re 54 percent you win,” he says. “The hard position is between Scylla and Charybdis, because you miss them both and they’re both unhappy. I think Koch’s greatest political strength is his ability to gauge what the majority of the voting people perceive as their best interest and to ally himself with it. But that’s not what representative government is. It says we have to work an exquisitely difficult balance between the will of the people and the judgment of the elected people who are given the assignment of leading and legislating in the two- and four-year intervals allowed them.”

But in truth, Cuomo is anything but passive. What he lacks is that instinct for the jugular, for the political kill at any price, increasingly predominant in New York under Koch, Garth and Murdoch. But that is what he is campaigning against, and he believes he has other resources. A man possessed of athletic grace and power even at 50, he plunges into crowds more easily than before, smiling almost as if he can barely suppress some mischievous mirth, winking as if he had destiny up his sleeve. He fairly bounds up to the high podium of the senate, over which he loves to preside, swapping baseball trivia with his counsel and clerk while calling on senators in an amiable chaos of motions and debates. He has a bit of an altar boy’s levity, a nervous energy born of respect for the institution. The senators join in it and they like him for it.

Ontological, not equivocal: marching several ranks behind Koch in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, both of them behind Carey, Cuomo is asked whether he looks forward to marching in front of Koch next year. “No,” he replies spontaneously, “I look forward to marching side by side, because a governor and a mayor must work together.” It is not my vindication that counts, in other words; it’s how things are.

Emerging from a garment factory where he stood on a lunchroom chair and roused a little United Nations of workers to robust applause by telling them of his immigrant parents and the importance of unions and voting, he’s asked if the reception makes him feel encouraged. “No,” he replies. “I feel good showing them there’s someone in the nether reaches of government who’s in some way like them. What grabs at you is that so many of them aren’t registered — not because they’re illegal, but because there’s so little outreach.”

After a standing ovation from an Israel Bonds dinner crowd in Rockland County, he’s asked if he feels like he’s really going to win. “No,” he replies, “I feel that I should win.” It is, he feels, appropriate, logically if not ontologically. “What sense does it make to distort a mayor into a governor, make Carol Bellamy an interim mayor with a new fight nine months later, and kick Cuomo out of public service? Let the mayor be the mayor, and let the lieutenant governor be the governor.”

State Senator Linda Winikow is at the Rockland County dinner, hedging her bets: “I came down here specially to introduce you to a very good friend,” she tells the audience. “Mario is one of the few politicians who, when the going gets rough, stays right in there…” Winikow has the distinction of being the only senator who caved in to vote for the death penalty this year after opposing in the past. Outside the hall, she equivocates on Koch versus Cuomo, saying, “Oh, the sentiment here is very much up in the air. People respect Mario tremendously, and they love Ed Koch. No, I haven’t made up my mind. I think Mario is such a fine man. Ed Koch visited me in the hospital when I had polyps on my throat, and he didn’t even talk politics.”

On the way home in the car, Cuomo says, “Tell me what you asked Winikow and I’ll tell you what she said.”

“Ms. Winikow,” the reporter dutifully intones, “what’s the sentiment around here on the governor’s race?”

“Oh,” cries Cuomo in a high-pitched whine, “everything around here is so up in the air; everyone respects Mario, but they love Koch…”

He breaks up laughing and sighs, “To thine own self be true.”

(Last week, Winikow was appointed a state coordinator for Koch’s campaign.)

* * *

“The people who endorse me, I can’t frighten them into doing it,” says Cuomo. “So they must do it either because they’re anti-Koch, or because they really support me. That means they’ll work hard on the campaign.

“Koch picked off, early in the game, a lot of political people who didn’t like him but thought he was going to win. A lot of people who condemned him in 1980 for embracing Reagan, like [Al] DelBello and Lee Alexander, who fought with me for Carter, they decided they wanted to be with a winner, especially one who said he never forgets an enemy. Also he came up with a very good ploy of going around the state suggesting to everybody that they could be the lieutenant governor. At one time he had so many candidates for the office, he’d need a politburo. It’s like a groom who has 16 brides coming down the aisle — Jimmy Griffin [mayor of Buffalo], Lee Alexander [mayor of Syracuse], Al DelBello [Westchester County executive], Congressman Stan Lundine, and Assemblyman Jim Tallon. Now they know the truth and they’ve seen the polls, I think his support is extremely thin.”

* * *

So it may be. After Koch’s upstate stars had spoken, a remarkable thing happened: the people directly under them spoke differently. In Westchester, DelBello’s endorsement of Koch was followed by a declaration from 11 of the country’s 15 state committee members that they were for Cuomo. So, as it turned out, were former county chairpersons Sam Fredman and Miriam Jackson, the latter a grand dame of the Westchester Democratic Party. So were Republicans Richard Ottinger, and the mayor and supervisors of Mamaroneck, Greenburgh, Rye, Harrison, Mount Vernon, and on — a total of 66 local leaders by April 11.

In Rockland County, Chairman Vincent Monte went for Koch; three of his four state committee members came out for Cuomo. The Orange County Democratic Committee endorsed Cuomo unanimously. In the Rochester area, eight of 13 state committee members endorsed Cuomo. In Albany, the indomitable, octogenarian Mayor Erastus Corning promised all-out support.

The deluge of plain-spoken endorsements rolled on. As secretary of state and lieutenant governor, Cuomo had done his homework in every hamlet and hillock of the state, getting to know the people and their problems. He’d earned his stripes with up-country folks in 1976, when his mission was to sell the financial rescue plan for New York City. “There was enormous hostility at first,” he recalls. “Everybody said, ‘To hell with them, they’re trouble, they’re arrogant, big mouths, they’re wasted, sin city, they’ve always rubbed our noses in it, they think we’re a bunch of hicks’ — that’s what Koch’s Playboy problem is all about.”

Once again Koch found himself in the role of conciliator and unifier. He throve. An ombudsman for state government, he was able to follow-up on some of the other concerns local leaders had expressed during their skull sessions on New York City. And he embellished a theme that now dominates his campaign — that New York State must begin to think like a family. “If Brooklyn cannot learn to help Buffalo, if Cattaraugus can’t learn to help Queens, we will never make it.”

This is just rhetoric to many New York City dwellers, as Koch’s derisive comments about the rest of the state make clear. But it has won Cuomo many hearts upstate, and has given him a solid footing even in the more affluent suburbs, which are presumed to be Koch’s natural constituency.

Cuomo’s second wave of endorsements came from unions. “It’s gone almost without notice that the tremendous union involvement, emotionally and financially in this primary, is a departure from the norm in the past,” says Jan Pierce of the Communications Workers of America. “Since George Meany died, it’s been the expressed policy of the AFL-CIO to be actively involved in Democratic primaries. We’re genuinely concerned about the direction of the Democratic Party if the choice is Koch. It is repugnant to the trade union movement, because we feel that union busting started with the stand on Brooklyn Bridge, and continued with his embrace, at Gracie Mansion on Labor Day, of the man who busted PATCO. If labor’s desires are ignored by the Democratic Party, it’s time to decide whether a third party is better. That debate is already started. That’s why those of us who would prefer to work within the Democratic Party are so heavily involved in this race.”

The Labor Committee for Cuomo represented by Norman Adler of Victor Gotbaum’s AFSCME District Council 37, has equal status with Cuomo’s son Andrew, a lawyer, as a chair of the campaign. In addition to contributing more than $250,000 to the battle, several unions, including the Communications Workers, AFSCME, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers, the ILGWU, the Maritime Port Council, the Civil Service Employees Association, the Transportation Workers Union, the International Union of Office Employees, the Seafarers International Union, Teamsters Local 840, the International Union of Operating Engineers, and the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks Local 1907, have divided the state up into regions, donating office space and muscle to the Cuomo campaign.

In Long Island, for example, the Communications Workers have positioned Steve Rosenthal and Tom DeJesus, who ran Nassau and Suffolk for Kennedy in 1980. Using computer retrievals, they are able to identify the hundreds of members from participating unions living in each assembly district, and to cull the most activist among them to set up offices, phone banks, and direct mailings. It’s the same operation that in 1980 took Kennedy past Carter and Holtzman past Myerson. This year, Pierce promises “a larger network of volunteers than the state has ever seen before.”

“Union members these days are either employed or scared of losing their jobs,” Pierce says. “It’s made them more willing to listen to leadership and to get involved. What people don’t realize is that none of the polls you’ve seen so far can take this operation into account. We’re just finishing our structuring stage and beginning to call voters.”

The Civil Service Employees Association, so large and strong that it makes a Cuomo petition drive credible if the bosses try to lock him out of the state Democratic convention next week, owes Cuomo a spiritual as well as a substantive debt for his policies as secretary of state during Carey’s first term. The office has been described as a great “notary in the sky,” with 660 employees issuing licenses to real estate brokers, barbers, cosmetologists, and three or four other semi-professions, and filing certificates of incorporation for every corporation in the state. Al Levine, who directed the office’s management systems for Cuomo, recalls his boss’s enthusiasm for a plan, rejected by his predecessors, to promote clerks up through the ranks to higher grades within the agency, rather than bring in fancy number-crunchers from outside.

Cuomo prides himself on having carried a number of civil service employees with him into the lieutenant governor’s office in positions usually given over to patronage. Again, the updraft in morale was felt throughout the union and the state. “He broke the vicious cycle where civil servants are dumped on and do less and less work,” said one employee.

The union effort gives Cuomo a field operation Ed Koch won’t be able to match for love or money. “I showed the setup to a reporter who said, ‘Ah, you’re making the same mistake Ken Auletta made in managing Howard Samuels’s campaign for governor in 1974, spending all your money on an organization with not enough left over for media,’ ” Bill Haddad, Cuomo’s campaign manager, recalls with a laugh. “What he didn’t realize was that we’re spending virtually nothing on organization thanks to unions.”

Even so, Ed Koch is set to outspend Cuomo on television commercials by as much as $4 million to $1.5 million. “He’ll come in soon, wide, and deep,” Haddad predicts. “We’ll have to be more sparing.” The primary campaign pits Koch’s media-heavy approach, via David Garth, against what has all the earmarks of a grass-roots and labor coalition — the traditional Democratic one, at that.

* * *

Minority leaders have a careful strategy designed to help Cuomo without provoking Koch into some of the more obnoxious tactics he’s been known to use. “No pictures of our shining black faces around Mario for Koch to send around upstate,” cautions Assemblyman Herman “Denny” Farrell, leader of New York County (Manhattan). “We’ll endorse him one by one, and concentrate on minority registration. We think we can register over 100,000 blacks for the primary, beyond the 625,000 we have now.

“Did you know that there are 650,000 Jews registered in the state as Democrats? The thing is, the Jewish primary turnout is usually 30 percent, while the black turnout is closer to 14 percent. But recent race has broken that pattern, with high turnouts for Barbaro, Holtzman, and Dinkins. In Buffalo, when [Assemblyman] Arthur Eve captured the Democratic mayoral nomination against Jimmy Griffin, the turnout was over 70 percent. Eve just happened to be coordinating the minority effort for Cuomo in Buffalo this year.”

Assemblyman Riger Green of Brooklyn notes, “The Barbaro campaign taught us that you have to get people out to vote for someone, not against Ed Koch. That’s the importance of Carl McCall’s candidacy for lieutenant governor.” McCall, a black former state senator and alternate United States delegate to the U.N., is sure to bring thousands of blacks into polling booths on primary day; once there, they are more likely to pull the lever for Cuomo than for Koch.

Campaign observers speculate that Koch forces may try to deflect such a trend by making McCall the mayor’s “running mate.” But voters choose the nominees for governor and lieutenant governor separately on the ballot, making a “split ticket” more likely where Koch is concerned.

In Ed Koch’s erstwhile liberal constituency, meanwhile, defections are running fast and thick. Cuomo took the overwhelming support of the New Democratic Coalition (NDC), a statewide umbrella group of liberal clubs in the Democratic Party. The significance here is that Cuomo got no NDC support against Koch five years ago during the mayoral campaign. On June 9, Koch’s own home club, the Village Independent Democrats (VID), chose Cuomo by a vote of 262 to 207, thus turning on its head the mayor’s triumphant boast when he carried Frank Barbaro. “The people who know Ed Koch best, voted for me,” Cuomo can now say. VID also endorsed McCall for lieutenant governor by a vote of 71 to DelBello’s 17 and John Dyson’s one. On June 10, however, Koch got the support of New York (Manhattan) County’s district leaders by a margin of just one vote, 143 to 142, after traditional Koch critics Fred Samuel, Wilhelmina Daniel, Euzie Hutchinson, Kathy Freed and Bill Nuchow failed to show up. (Nuchow was a strong Barbaro supporter in last year’s mayoral race.) Meanwhile, a membership meeting of the state Americans for Democratic Action went for Cuomo, 86.1 percent against Koch’s 12 percent. Cuomo has also received the liberal party’s nomination, good for a waning but still critical number of votes in the general election.

Of course, endorsements are more symbolic than sure-fire predictions of the actual primary outcome. But Cuomo supporters are elated. “Keep in mind that if we can match Babaro’s numbers in Manhattan and do at least as well in the other boroughs as we did the 1977 mayoral runoff, we start with 48 percent of the city,” says Andrew Cuomo. Since Frank Barbaro ran as an unknown on a $170,000 budget to Koch’s $1.5 million last year, Cuomo’s chances of outdoing him and carrying the city look very good indeed — if he can avoid any slippage from his 1977 returns in other boroughs.


Sunday, June 6: the Avenue M street fair in the heart of Koch country, the 45th Assembly District, Midwood-Kings Highway. Creased, super-tanned faces, golf caps and polyester, people waddling by tables of literature, food and crafts. Hand them a leaflet, any leaflet, and they manage to affect a sovereign’s disdain for the offering. Yet try to bypass them and you hear, “Give me one too, please,” in a tone that can only be a commanding whine.

District leader Nancy Nirenberg and local activist I. Stephen Miller are explaining Koch’s popularity. “He’s a real New Yorker, ya know? He’s your uncle, he’s the man next door.” Asked about Mario Cuomo, Miller draws himself up and gets serious, measuring his words for posterity.

“We who have met Mario personally know him to be a highly intelligent, articulate, gifted man. But we have changing times here — crime, for example. People feel very strongly about this death penalty thing. Personally, I know it’s not a deterrent, but people want it very much.”

The 45th boasts a turnout of 20,000 in the major primaries, second only to Co-op City. Cuomo took 27 percent of it in 1977. What percentage of the turnout is Jewish?

“Oh, easily 80 to 90 percent,” says Nirenberg.

Then Cuomo did pretty well, with 27 percent.

“Wait, wait!” cries Nirenberg, one hand raised. “This happens to be one of the most well-educated electorates in the city, and we have produced some of the best educated officials — Solarz, Schumer, Feldman. People here aren’t going to vote ethnically, by name alone, in a statewide or citywide race. They know the issues.”

Well, do they think Koch will do more for the subways as governor than he did as mayor?

“You see, the death penalty is really important.”

And yet, on June 6, a street poll of 1,000 people attending the fair taken by the Kings Highway Community Democrats, a strong Koch club, reports 32 percent for Mario Cuomo.

“No question Koch is solid here,” says male district leader Herb Lupka. “But yes, Cuomo will probably gain some between now and primary.”

Cuomo tends to tackle the death penalty head on wherever he goes. One of the strangest phenomena of this campaign is that some audiences who had beat up on him for it give him standing ovations as he leaves. It happened at the Columbia Association of the New York Police Department, before 300 police officers of Italian background. “We didn’t like his stand, but we respected him all the more for standing by his position. He did an outstanding job,” says Columbia president John Ranieri. “They would hang Sacco and Vanzetti again,” says Cuomo ruefully. Part of the truth was that when the cops began to think of their pocketbooks and of themselves as union members, they found Cuomo much closer to them than Koch’s man John LoCicero, who appeared for the mayor and gave dismissive answers to questions about paybacks of deferred wages and cost of living increases, which Cuomo supports and the mayor resists.

That may be why the New York State Federation of Police, an umbrella organization of benevolent associations of police officers at all levels of government throughout the state, is preparing to endorse Cuomo within the next two weeks. Advance word is that the group’s statement will begin by saying that while the federation disagrees 100 percent with Cuomo on death penalty, it respects him as a leader and shares his views on many other issues of vital concern to the police.

For all his apparent evangelism on the subject, Mario Cuomo is basically trying to be a good defense lawyer in a confrontation that others have forced. His arguments against it are classical and well-known, his delivery passionate and eloquent. Less well known, however, and probably more interesting are his musings about supporters themselves.

“It’s a unique situation. I have never seen the anger of the people and the fear of the people as high as it is now. You see it expressed in the bitterness with which people ask for the death penalty. I mean, just as an expression of the dissatisfaction of the people’s soul. It’s unique and we ought to be doing different things, which is why I support the Biaggi superfund [an anticrime tax of $1 per week from every paycheck for more police], though I am normally not in favor of dedicated taxes. We’re more afraid, we’re more bitter, we’re more extreme than we’ve been in my lifetime. What is it? What does it mean when people have to stand up and shout for death? What are you saying about yourselves? I’m not saying those people are wrong. I’m saying that the kind of unhappiness, that kind of distress, that kind of dissatisfaction, confusion, that’s a unique condition.

“See, the question here is much harder than it used to be. It used to be deterrence. I think you can make a fairly convincing argument that it’s not a deterrent. But that’s not a question anymore. Now they’re making it the public’s right to ‘satisfaction.’ If you want to use a heavier word, you’d say ‘vengeance,’ and then some people are insulted. And yet, if it were a referendum, I’m not so sure that if you give me six months to argue it, with all the attention it would get, I’m not so sure it would pass. I know what the polls say now, but that is mostly an expression of indignation. If people focused, and heard all the arguments, and thought it through, and looked at that lever in the polling booth as the switch on the electric chair, I’m not so sure 51 percent of them would pull it down.”

As on most issues, Cuomo ends up relying on some commingling of logic and faith, which he thinks good leadership can summon in the people. Unfortunately, Ed Koch’s style of leadership runs in a different direction, and, as if it were part of his campaign, the New York Post is giving especially lurid play to every murder story it can find. The more Cuomo hopes the death penalty would eclipse people’s other concerns, the more Ed Koch pumps up the issue.


There is another issue this year which seems to have been insinuated into campaign after campaign over the past decade, that of the alleged bigotry by a candidate against a sensitive and critical group of voters. The charges often emerge with a good deal of sophistication and careful timing, yet their origins are almost always impossible to prove and their impact almost impossible for the candidate to deflect. It’s necessary to flush out these charges continually and important to those who might seem to be benefiting from them, to join in repudiating them, because they are so poisonous to the democratic process itself.

In 1974, Hugh Carey unexpectedly took half of the Jewish vote as his opponent, Howard Samuels, tried to dispel spurious charges, aired in the press, that one of his in-laws had been a Nazi collaborator in Vichy France. Carey himself was falsely tied to Libyan oil interests in scurrilous literature circulated in Brooklyn.

Just before the 1977 mayoral runoff between Koch and Cuomo, a letter signed by some prominent staff people at the American Jewish Congress was sent to an unknown number of Jewish rabbis, passing on an incomplete news account of Cuomo’s observation to the effect that, “You don’t want a ‘Jewish mayor’ created by a ‘Jewish vote,’ ” but omitting that he’d said that same thing about an “Italian mayor” in the same sentence. “They never bothered to check with me before sending that around and denouncing me for it,” says Cuomo.

There was, of course, a serious charge of bigotry against Cuomo in the 1977 runoff, when a “Vote for Cuomo, not the homo” message emerged from a soundtruck and on some posters in Queens. Cuomo promptly repudiated these messages and rebutted the charges of antigay bigotry; his gay right record, which dates at least from his issuing of an antidiscrimination executive order on becoming secretary of state in 1974, has been unambiguous.

In 1978, blatantly racist attacks against Congressman Fred Richmond’s black opponent Bernard Gifford were circulated in the district’s Hasidic newspaper Der Yid, in an anonymously authored ad calling Gifford racist names and accusing him of wanting to destroy Hasidic interests.

Last year the New York Post seized anti-Semitic comments by Amsterdam News columnist Fred Weaver about the Manhattan borough presidency race between Andrew Stein and Dinkins, attributing them to “Dinkins’ supporters” in an October 28, 1981, editorial. Though Dinkins had already repudiated the remarks, which in any case had been no part of his campaign, the Post chose to link them to him before its 900,000 readers. Dinkins had to appear in a City Hall press conference with Rabbi Balfour Brickner and Howard Samuels to assure the world he’s a friend of the Jews, but by then the Post had done its utmost to spur racist voting among Jews under the very guise of condemning “dangerous bigotry” in the Dinkins campaign.

In that same campaign, Marty McLaughlin, then press secretary to incumbent Stein and now Koch’s gubernatorial campaign press secretary, acknowledged spending $7,600 of Stein’s campaign money to print and mail 40,000 copies of a letter from Bradley Lawrence Jr. to Republicans, which State Senator and Republican County Leader Roy Goodman subsequently denounced as a racist attack on Dinkins. Following the Post‘s example, Lawrence accused Dinkins of waging “an inflammatory, one-issue campaign” based on “racism,” a near-perfect reenactment of the “big lie” scenario developed by Senator Joe McCarthy.

Now, in the current gubernatorial campaign, a Jewish voter has told the Voice she was called by a “poll” which asks, after determining party affiliation, religion and candidate preference, whether the voter is aware of rumors that Mario “has anti-Semitic leanings.” Challenged by the voter, the pollster insisted that “we’re not making any allegations,” only testing the prevalency of the rumor — a sophisticated answer.

Even before this year’s Cuomo-Koch race was joined, at least one person now involved in it had echoed similar rumors to several politically active New Yorkers over the previous year and a half. Asked by the Voice whether he had heard that Mario Cuomo had anti-Semitic leanings, Harold Ickes, who is working for Koch at next week’s state Democratic convention, said that he had. Asked whether he had ever passed such rumors on to others, Ickes conceded that he “might have.” Asked whether he could substantiate them in any way, Ickes would say only, “I’ve heard nothing that goes back to Mario.” Asked if that meant he’d heard of problems somewhere close to Cuomo, Ickes would say only that he’d “heard that there were problems.” What makes this kind of loose talk so destructive is that it cannot be countered by its victim without being given even greater currency than it already had. Yet even when public silence is preserved, “polls” and rumors can do enormous damage. It is important to raise and follow these trends early on, to keep them from gathering steam with substantiation.

Mario Cuomo turned 50 on June 15. It gives him pause. “I wrote somewhere, I think in the diary [Cuomo has kept a diary for more than ten years; a section of it, his Forest Hills Diary, was published in 1973] that in analyzing why you do this it can’t be for the applause and the acceptance because anyone who’s done it for awhile knows that they will applaud an act of prostitution, and they will condemn the most heroic and noble. If I want the power to do good things I have to persuade them to like me enough to elect me, so practically it’s very important to get their respect. But the satisfaction doesn’t come in winning their approval.

“A governor has to balance a budget, has to achieve a result, and almost always it’s a compromise, sometimes a compromise so severe that you question whether you achieved any of a number of even alternative goods. The result can appear so diluted, so perverted, that you wonder how much you’ve accomplished. A governor ought to be a person who is capable of suffering great unhappiness.

“If somebody could convince me I’d make a greater contribution to mankind as a judge in the court of appeals, boy, I’d be happy as a clam, because that’d be a much easier life for me. I’d love to be on the court of appeals personally to be able never to have to go to a cocktail party, never to have to do anything you don’t want to do, just show up, listen to arguments, study, read, tell the truth. Can you imagine that? Never really have to compromise. You listen, you write your view, you can be Oliver Wendell Holmes, always in the dissent.”

And yet Cuomo feels he can make a “greater contribution to mankind” by running for governor — in fact, that he’s the best candidate in the race. And one can’t helping wondering, for all his talk of the “great unhappiness” a chief executive must suffer, whether he really craves the office as the “bully pulpit” Theodore Roosevelt found in the presidency. There is something self-invented, didactic about his political persona that demands display; anyone who takes imaginary batting practice swings and shoots imaginary lay-ups in the high-ceilinged lieutenant governor’s office, salting his discourse with Greek mythology and Latin phrases like de gustibus, is itching to get out there and perform.

By all accounts, Cuomo did an excellent, even trailblazing job as secretary of state. He oversaw the computerization of his operations, insuring that license applicants get their exams scheduled within several days, instead of 14 to 16 weeks. He combined two other agencies, the Office of Planning Services and the Office of Local Government, with staffs of more than 200 each, and merged them with his own office, coordinating the delivery of technical advice to dozens of local and county governments. At the same time the Department of State reduced its budget from $12 million-plus to around $9 million, even with the addition of the other two agencies. Personnel savings were handled only by the attrition, at Cuomo’s insistence. He learned a lot about organization, management and personnel matters, which will undoubtedly serve him well in scrutinizing other state agencies.

As lieutenant governor, Cuomo has done little but facilitate, visit and listen. He has sponsored several studies and issued many reports with little concrete effect. Carey seems to have frozen him out since around the time they split over Jimmy carter’s candidacy (Carey nursed “favorite son” visions for himself). It was then that the governor made his well-publicized, stinging remarks about not knowing what his lieutenant governor was doing or where he was.

In fairness to Cuomo, the lieutenant governor’s constitutional responsibilities are almost nil. He presides over the senate, an honorific about as meaningful as Carol Bellamy’s technical presidency of the City Council. His budget allows him a mere 30 to 40 staff people. But it is often said that Mario Cuomo hasn’t done as much as one might with those slots. With a job much like Cuomo’s and a staff of 50, Bellamy has done considerably more, even aside from her Board of Estimate vote, the one substantial increment of power that Cuomo doesn’t have. Then again, Bellamy’s BOE vote cannot really be left aside; it makes her independent of the Mayor, while Cuomo is supposed to do what the mayor tells him. And Bellamy, has in effect, a charter mandate to take on the city administration over matters as diverse as foster-care or ambulatory-care and the J-51 tax-abatement program; her independent vote allows her to force occasional appropriations and policy challenges. Cuomo has no such mandate. He has no such power.

One of Cuomo’s first acts as governor, he says, will be to find a coordinator for the criminal justice system, a system he says he’s known well since the days he defended homicide cases before the court of appeals. He has already established, despite his death penalty stance, that he will have the respect of most police officers. Many lawyers and judges respect him; Charles Desmond, former chief judge of New York State, has endorsed Cuomo because he says he has confidence in his ability to name replacements for five of the seven judges who will have to retire in the next four years from the court of appeals, the state’s highest.

Cuomo will be fiscally conservative. That should reassure the investment bankers and others with a say in what kind of money New York State can borrow. Recipients of social services will have to depend on Cuomo’s commitment to replicate the kinds of savings he accomplished in the Department of State without hurting anybody. But since he acknowledges, indeed insists, that waste is not the real problem, we will also have to depend upon his ability to set clear priorities among alternative goods and to “suffer great unhappiness” while kicking ass as well as conciliating to get them implemented.

Will Cuomo prove as forceful a spokesman against Ronald Reagan’s threadbare “new federalism” as has Governor Richard Snelling of Vermont, a Republican who chairs the National Governor’s Conference? Beyond that, will he bring anything to the larger struggle that Reaganomics has brought to the fore — the struggle over how capital beyond the reach of public sector budgets can be channeled through housing, healthcare, education and other critical needs of low- and middle-income people? Will Cuomo fight to expand the meager share of this country’s wealth now at least nominally subject to the democratically representative, reasonable debate he’s been trained to prize? Or will his love of society somehow fail to propel him toward the most obvious criticisms about how corporate capital is accumulated and invested these days?

Cuomo does have more forceful leaders around him now in the campaign — Bill Haddad, the union people like Jan Pierce, and, not least, his son Andrew and wife Matilda. One senses his growth because of it; it’s almost as if his “family kind of politics” theme has found root and expression at last. He seems genuinely buoyed by it, though that may be as much because of the “family” part as because of the “political”: on June 5, Andrew, 24, graduated from law school; Margaret, 27, a medical doctor, announced her engagement; Madeline, 17, graduated from St. Francis Preparatory School; and Mario and Matilda celebrated their 28th wedding anniversary.

If there is a movement in Cuomo’s life, it’s not so much a rising of social classes to remake our economy as it is a chain of handings-on across the generations. He is a man still happy in the gifts of those who came before; happy, too, at the prospect of giving and teaching those who will go after.

That is his strength. But in this campaign it could also prove his undoing.

For too many people in our tightening political economy, the family ties and values he loves have been broken or twisted so that they bear no fruit in good health or fresh opportunities. And as openness and hope become overwhelmed by fear and hatred in enough people’s lives — openness curdles to bitterness and hope shrivels to a craving for revenge — hard-pressed voters turn to leaders with a streak of malevolence resembling their own — leaders who reassure them perversely by showing them where they can extract vengeance for their own diminished lives. That is what Ed Koch does, and what his campaign for death accomplishes. Any manipulations of anti-Semitism or racism would only further debase the democratic process upon which people depend.

A guy who goes around in the middle of it talking about conciliation and harmony willy-nilly gathers around him those who resent and resist the politics of despair and who are trying to expand the possibilities for reason and hope. But where will he lead them? As he battles Ed Koch, Mario Cuomo will be trying to show us his answer. The battle will tell us something about who he really is, and what we as a society really are.

Jim Sleeper is a writer and teacher on American civic culture and politics and a lecturer in political science at Yale University.


Joan Rivers, Reviewed in 1967: ‘I Don’t Know How a Nervous Girl Can Be So Funny’

In February of 1967, Joan Rivers, then 33 years old, performed her stand-up act at the Downstairs at the Upstairs (37 West 56th Street). She killed. She had yet to hit the peak of her fame. She was also a bit of an anomaly: A WOMAN COMIC! Writing for this paper in the February 23, 1967, issue, Bill Manville contributed the below review of her set. Rivers died today at age 81 at Mount Sinai Hospital.


Just above this ad is a McSorley's Old Ale House ad, which in 1967, was boasting that it was already 113 years old. ("We were here before you were born," it declares.)
Just above this ad is a McSorley’s Old Ale House ad, which in 1967, was boasting that it was already 113 years old. (“We were here before you were born,” it declares.)

I don’t know how a nervous girl can be so funny. Joan Rivers looks like one of your friends who has been cherishing this secret dream of herself as a yodeler, or a bird-caller, or whatever, and suddenly when the con emcee asks for volunteers, there she is, getting up, and striding for the stage. You are too embarrassed for her to look.

But she IS funny. She talks about the difficulties of working with various audiences. “One night, I came out into the room. You ever play to 98 engineers? Even 94 engineers?” she asks the audience. “you come out into the room, and they all got their briefcases. ON the table. I ask you – is that true party spirit?” And the audience, no engineers they, laughs with her.

I think it is this rapport she establishes with the people which makes her so successful. The up-and-back is necessary to her act. (She tells of disaster in the huge, cavernous auditoriums of Las Vegas. “I told my agent, ‘Irving, don’t book me there….’ That’s his name. Irving Agent.”) “Talk to me,” Miss Rivers says to a fat lady at a ringside table, “Where are you from?” “New Jersey,” the fat lady says, and Miss Rivers immediately begins a comic turn about life in New Jersey. Something unplanned and as-yet-unwritten (though of course she jumps into previously prepared routines when comic invention momentarily flags, of her own free-association tells her the spontaneous bit is veering close to one of these guaranteed cornerstones of her act. The method of working the early Lenny Bruce did so well.) “Tell me, where are you from?” she will ask somebody else in the room, interrupting herself to bring another source of energy into the antic discussion. And then she sets up a three-way play of humor, incorporating the fantasy of New Jersey life she’s got going with the fat lady with something else she will begin to build this new interlocutor — who turns out to be a nice, polite drunk from Florida, here on his way back from a vacation in Jamaica. “Big Jamaica or Little Jamaica?” Miss Rivers asks. “You got they-uh by ‘nairplane,” the drunk says. It turns out that Miss Rivers and her husband have just come back from Jamaica too. “Very exclusive place, Round Hill, right?” she says, and the drunk says, “It sullenly ai-iz,” and peers around benignly, happy that his status has been recognized. “No Jews, right?” Miss Rivers asks, but before the drunk can even begin to be embarrassed, she goes past him, taking him neatly off the hook. “No Christians, either,” she says. “THAT’S exclusive. As a matter of fact, all you find are three thin guys, looks toward the East.” Because Miss Rivers does not do the rat thing of scoring off her (amateur) audience.

But you ought to hear her on the Telephone Company, Con Ed, and all the other bags you’d think no one could find new scores against any more. Here she is on Luci Johnson: “She says she’s pregnant, so she regretfully has to quit going to college. She says she’s sorry, because she knows how important education is nowadays. And what’s the course this giant brain is dropping out on? The History of Furniture.”

A very funny girl, if a nervous one. (“She began here as one of our writers,” the Downstairs’ owner Irving Haber told me. “She’s really a writer.” Which explains it all.) Don’t miss her. She’s still there.

The weekend shows and Downstairs are 9.30, 11.30, and 1 a.m. Miss Rivers is preceded by a singer. there’s a $5 minimum you can use up on food (sandwiches) and drink, or else you can remain in the bar, seeing the show through the big glass doors, hearing the jox on the intercom.

Here’s Rivers just a few months later, in April 1967 on The Ed Sullivan Show.

You can stream the 2010 documentary on Rivers, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, here on Netflix.


Women’s Lib The Big Loser in King-Riggs Match, Says…a Guy

Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
September 27, 1973, Vol. XVIII, No. 39

You’ve come a long way, Bobby
by Joe Flaherty

Not since the ghastly revelation that Bella Abzug employs a housekeeper has the women’s movement suffered such a dark day as September 20, the date of the King-Riggs match. The contumely heaped on Riggs by women for his unprecedented contribution to their movement smacks of the ingratitude the Irish people leveled at Parnell for taking a sexual breather between battles. But then accolades are never the spiritual sustenance of saints and revolutionaries.


Pshaw! the sisters shout, Bobby was nothing but an old pork butt. The titular head of trichinosis! But I beg pause: put away your doctrinaire defenses, your suet syntax, and you will realize this male was sugar-cured. Let us consider cases.

If male chauvinism were looking for a club (or, in this case, a racquet) to humiliate women, would they choose a 55-year-old, half-blind tennis player who looks like a cross between Phil Silvers and a penguin to champion their cause? Indeed! The man hits the ball with the ferocity of a sorority sister in a dorm pillow fight and walks as if he is a perpetual shill for Dr. Scholl’s foot pads. If the much-maligned male were looking for a misogynist mismatch, would he not choose the number one of his gender — say, Stan Smith — to challenge the women’s finest, Billie Jean King? Even lesser luminaries such as Arthur Ashe, young Jimmy Connors , or, conceding age, that marvel of a middle-age athlete, Pancho Gonzalez? These names were never considered. The ancient Riggs was chosen not for pigdom but to be a sacrificial lamb to the altar at which we all worship.

Yet the misguided sisters never saw this. One blushed during the past week at the sisters’ lack of aspiration. Did they not ruminate what a victory over Riggs would really mean? In a prior match Bobby had defeated the other women’s great (this year’s winner at Forest Hills), 31-year-old Margaret Smith Court. In turn, he was defeated by the 29-year-old Mrs. King. Thus, could not a malevolent macho justly claim that the male species could spot the inferior sex 24 to 25 years but not 26? Did not the sisters see this insidious trap they laid for themselves? They set themselves up to suffer under the bullyboy yoke and joke that they were a quarter of a century behind their male counterparts. Could not one envision the articles in Playboy and the Teamsters’ newsletter on “The Genital Gap”? If my words have become smudged and unclear, it is only because of the tears that fall like Riggs’ lachrymose lobs upon my paper.

But at this jaunty juncture the sisters may demand just what it was that Bobby did for their movement. Well, I will set out to prove he took a sexual shambles and solidified it. To flush out this thesis, the sisters will not only have to exhibit patience but also suffer that most painful exercise, honest self-examination.

Over the last year the movement has been drooping like a pair of garterless nylons. In point of fact, it has been as flat as a pair of 1950 ballerina slippers from A. S. Beck. The Super Sisters have been savaging each other in print with Haley’s M.O. regularity. The NOW conventions with their sexual juntas make Warren Harding’s smoke-filled rooms look like an antechamber to Athens. Who should rule the rose (cock-a-doodle dandies never): liberated straights? switch-hitters? ladylike lesbians? radical lesbians? or those who opted for the convent of the cunt, trickless teetotalers?

And in these most avant-garde of cities the stud side presented in the mayoral primaries a field so dismal that the self-respecting male contemplated a gesture of gelding himself in protest. He looked in vain for a fabulous filly to (if one may be pardoned) bring home the bacon. But lo and behold, Gloria, Shirley, Bess, and Bella would not take the bit.

Then there was the campaign to have Congress pass an equal rights amendment. Was it defeated by a bevy of bourbon-swilling Senator Claghorns? Not so. The only rednecks involved were those mortified feminists whose bill was killed through the relentless campaign efforts of — gasp! — a woman. No, sisters, this has not been your season.

I suppose there was a smidgen of solace to be found. Gloria in her aviators and grimacing smile, looking like Smilin’ Jack’s Downwind Jaxon, was always good for another radical press conference at the Russian Tea Room. Or Ti-Grace might question the virginity of Mary, which was a shocker to the Buckley girls, but a yawner to dark ex-Catholics in Brooklyn in Queens. (In their midnight moments they are known to give you chapter and verse on how the deflowering occurred.) And there was the celebration of Susan B. Anthony’s birthday in Washington that drew a crowd slightly smaller than is needed for an orgy in a Toyota. Of course, Ms. Magazine, like methadone maintenance, could always be counted on to exhume that necrophiliac combo (their version of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance). Zelda to Marilyn to Sylvia. And Billie Jean this year, after 19 years of campaigning, got Forest Hills to award the same prize money to women winners (a paltry $25,000) as to men. An achievement, to be sure, but not the millennium. (Speculation is that for cohabiting the court with Riggs this year she will earn a munificent half-mil.) To put the gorilla on a crew who think vociferous protest is a low, hidden, behind-the-hand whistle at a linesman who looks and acts like Alistair Sim is hardly Up Against the Wall, Fatherfucker!

Into this breach came Robert Larrimore Riggs. In a matter of a few months he coalesced a floundering, splintered movement into an Amazonian Armada. It bespoke the genius of sending the work crew on the Tower of Babel to Berlitz. Did Riggs deserve this bile? Well, not only the sisters thought so but male sportswriters as well. But the latter are to be forgiven, since for the most part they possess saccharine brains. Evidence is their infantile mania for nicknaming everybody and everything, the latest being “Triple Sec” for Secretariat — ugh! How unsophisticated has the nation become that prattle about how women should be back in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, etc., is taken to heart!

No, sisters, the real porkers use thornier and hornier arguments, such as where are your Michelangelos, your Einsteins, your Freuds, your Napoleons, etc.? Riggs as a chauvinist is a sweat sock that won’t wash. Perhaps, you say, but he did it for money, a ripoff of our ruptured romance. It is prudent here to remind that Riggs was once married to an heiress and could have lapped from luxury to his dying days. The time has come to spring the confession of the ages, a fact hitherto known only to the carnal cognoscenti — Bobby leapt the net volleys ago, he is actually a champion of the movement.

He devised his master plan, because he was heartsick at the lethargy he witnessed in the struggle. Some say (though it can’t be substantiated) that his mother was an early and formidable influence. The same sources claim (again no proof) that he attributes his flukey backhand to his mother’s perverse penchant for nursing him with his head upside down, his wee bandy legs over her shoulder. Like Christ before him, he joyously took up his cross. The slight difference being that the Messiah, a traditionalist, preferred wood, and Bobby toted steel into the Astrodome. How happily he accepted the slur “hustler” (read here the mocking “King of the Jews”), thus liberating Xaviera Hollander and a score of suburban sluts from that appalling appellation.

It was learned by this corner that Bobby based his plans on two political precedents. The first — when Earl Long was approached by blacks demanding jobs in Louisiana hospitals, he told them he would secure the jobs but that they would not like how he went about it. Long then made a series of pseudo-racist speeches, pointing out that white women, “the flower of southern womanhood,” were being demeaned by the act of “Handling and washing black bucks.” Needless to say, jobs opened in abundance. The second — Jack Kennedy’s response to a southern Congressman who asked him to campaign for him. Kennedy said he would praise or damn him, whichever would help most. Riggs realized a standard match between a man and a woman (it’s been done before) minus vitriol would be no boon to the movement. So with these lessons in mind, the cunning codger accepted his crucible.

Moreover, it was his style of play that was most soul-cleansing for the sisters. By playing the baseline and allowing Billie Jean to be aggressive with booming serves and charges to the net (in and out), Riggs, like self-sacrificing romantics before him who allowed women to mount them while they passively lay back on the pillow, afforded women everywhere a practical exercise to dispel Freud’s most despicable theory — penis envy.

So though it be true you came a long way, baby, you still have miles to go before you sleep unless you pay homage to Robert Larrimore Riggs’s deliberate bow to love. Sisters, I plead, deep in your catgut don’t let this prophet pass without praise. See him for what he truly is, the Samuel Gompers of future generations of cuddly little things in pink rompers.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]


A Week After Coup Leaves Allende Dead, No One Knows Anything

Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
September 20, 1973, Vol. XVIII, No. 38

The Press Desk
by Alexander Cockburn

THERE HAVE BEEN HEADLINES in the papers and cover stories in Time and Newsweek but one of the central facts about Chile, so far as the world’s newspaper-reading population is concerned, is that one week after the coup no one knows what is going on there.


IN SATURDAY’S WASHINGTON POST, Marlise Simons said in a dispatch which the Post honestly stressed had been “passed by Chilean censorship” that there have been “shoot-outs at large factories, the bastions of pro-Allende forces, and fighting in working-class districts around Santiago…no one knows how many dead or wounded there are, though rumors range from hundreds into the thousands.” She referred to military displeasure at reports of “catastrophic assaults on working-class districts and large-scale resistance in the rest of the country.”

ARE THERE REALLY thousands dead — piled up in hospitals — as many reports claim? Or merely “scores” or “hundreds” as other journalists estimate? Nobody has the slightest idea. An AP report in the New York Times conjures up an image of a bustling reporter on the job, marshaling the facts, sifting evidence. Not so. All reporters were immobilized wherever they were when the coup broke out, crouching in their offices or hotels, harassed by soldiers, and subjected to thorough censorship.

SOME REPORTERS WERE LUCKY or prescient. The Wall Street Journal’s Everett Martin arrived in Santiago just in time for the coup and has filed two interesting reports. The London Sunday Times diplomatic correspondent flew back to London 12 hours before the coup, saying nothing was afoot. Jonathan Kandell of the New York Times had just left for Buenos Aires.

MOST OF THE WORLD’S PRESS is actually sitting in Mendoza, on the Argentinean border, waiting to be admitted. It was up to the papers, therefore, to develop useful analysis and reports in the absence of a coherent narrative of events. Here the European press has been incomparably better than the U.S.

FRIDAY LE MONDE, the leading French paper, had five pages on the coup and its consequences, ranging from an analysis of the copper market to the facts of State Department foreknowledge. Corriere della Sera ran three pages. No such coverage was proffered in American papers. All this week there have been few foreign papers available in Hotaling’s Times Square. As the man there put it, “because of that Chile business, everything has been gone all week. People buy them just for news.” Nowhere in the New York public library system can you read current foreign newspapers.

IN GENERAL U.S. EDITORIALISTS have joined with the Pope and Max Lerner and called the events “a tragedy.: The nice thing about tragedy is that it somehow absolves human beings from responsibility. Beyond that, the general consensus was that, as the New York Times put it, “a heavy share of responsibility for the disaster must be assigned to the unfortunate Dr. Allende himself.” The romantic Marxist “who never lost his taste for Scotch whiskey” had gone too far, and divided the nation.

IT TOOK RICHARD GOTT in the Manchester Guardian to point out that Allende “was elected with 36 per cent of the vote and in the past three years he has not lost a single supporter. His support went up to 44 per cent at congressional elections this year.” American newspaper readers might have formed the impression that Chile was populated entirely by middle-class housewives demonstrating against Allende. Gott points out that the week before the coup the largest demonstration in Chilean history, an estimated one million people, saluted the third anniversary of Allende’s presidency.

BOTH THE NEW YORK TIMES and the New York Post said Allende had “tragically alienated” the Christian Democrats, as though that party was lusting to participate in Allende’s program. It took Christopher Roper of the Manchester Guardian, reprinted in the Saturday Washington Post, to report that Frei, former president and prominent Christian Democrat, had been traveling in Europe and the U.S. urging bankers to mount an economic boycott of Chile and that six months ago he had predicted military intervention. Roper says that in “off the record briefings” State Department and CIA officials had been referring to the possibility that Frei should return as leader after “new elections.”

WE MIGHT HAVE EXPECTED intensive investigation of possible U.S. involvement from a press corps fresh from triumph and self-congratulation over Watergate. Nothing much has happened. Marvin Kalb on CBS national news Wednesday night, said the State Department had known the coup was coming, and that Nathaniel Davis, the U.S. ambassador in Chile, had been back in Washington for the two days before the coup. Kalb hinted there were divisions in the State Department, though dwindling, over the desirability of the coup.

NEWSPAPERS HAVE REVIEWED the evidence at their disposal and generally remarked that in “the absence of evidence” one must assume that the U.S. government played no part, beyond a decision not to warn Allende of the impending attack, which it knew of at least 12 hours in advance.

In “the absence of evidence” it might seem journalistically more responsible to assume there was American involvement, until evidence emerges to the contrary. We have coups from Guatemala and Guyana forward to guide us: there seems little reason to wait for Kissinger’s memoirs or a congressional hearing in 1984 to get the full story.

THIS WEEK NACLA (North American Council on Latin America) published some interesting research into the career of U.S. Ambassador to Chile Nathaniel P. Davis. From 1956 to 1960 he was Chief Officer in charge of Soviet Affairs at the State Department (he had previously worked in Moscow and Eastern Europe and NACLA alleges he had previously had OSS connections). From 1960 to 1962 he was first secretary in the U.S. embassy in Caracas at a time when it was one of the centers for CIa planning of the Bay of Pigs.

In 1968 he replaced John Mein (who had been killed by guerrillas) as U.S. ambassador in Guatemala. Following Davis’s arrival a successful pacification program took place, with estimated deaths among the guerrillas and population of 20,000.

In 1971 he arrived in Chile to replace Edward Korry, “whose usefulness,” in the frank words of an ITT memo, “as a diplomat in Latin America has been destroyed and who in a subiness capacity in Latin America has become questionable.” By 1972, according to a memo leaked to Jack Anderson, Davis was cabling the State Department that “there is considerable variety in ways military might intervene.” On September 8 Davis flew to Washington to see Henry Kissinger. On September 10 he returned to Chile. On September 11 Allende was dead.

Of course Davis may be as pure as a lamb, devoting his waking hours to the study of Chilean church paintings. The U.S. press has not tried hard, so far, to make the assessment , either way, of the role of Davis or of the institutions he represents. At the moment, so far as events inside Chile are concerned, we have to depend on material censored and, as the Washington Post has stressed once, altered. Are we to assume that similar hindrances exist beyond that country’s borders: that “tragedy” alone was the impelling force behind the death of Allende and the massacre or prosecution of his supporters? It seems late in the day for that kind of naivete.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]


Hackers Before They Were ‘Hackers’: Phone Phreaks!

Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
September 13, 1973, Vol. XVIII, No. 37

Phone Phreak Convention
by Ron Rosenbaum

One year ago the phone company had the phone phreaks on the run.

On May 8, 1972, a team of FBI and phone company security men arrested John Draper, alias “Captain Crunch,” the most notorious phone phreak of all. The Captain’s cherished computerized “Blue Box on wheels” was silenced.

And Joe Engressia, the original blind phone phreak genius who learned to make free calls by whistling into the mouthpiece — Joe had been busted and forced to abandon the underground phone phreak central office he had set up in his Memphis rooming house.


Police and phone company security agents had broken up phone phreak networks, and clandestine Blue Box manufacturing operations in Seattle, San Francisco, Cleveland, and Long Island. Crack phone company security teams had devised a combination of special computer programs, electronic pulse measuring equipment, and intensive surveillance to crack down on Blue Box and Black Box users.

One year ago when the First Annual Phone Phreak Convention opened in a basement meeting room in the Hotel Diplomat, phone company security agents seemed to outnumber genuine phone phreaks. The agents hardly bothered disguising their identities. They carried cameras and tape recorders. One stuffed phone phreak literature into an official-looking envelope with “Office of the District Attorney” printed on it.

“Why are you taping this?” I asked one of the beefy “photographers” in dark glasses and “hippie” clothes as he held up a small very professional-looking cassette machine to record every word of a workshop on Blue Box techniques.

“I’m not taping anything. This isn’t a tape recorder. This is a special portable radio,” he told me.

“Why isn’t it playing anything?” I asked.

“I’m not in the mood for music,” he said.

Things were different at this year’s convention. The Lone Ranger masks for instance: “Al Bell,” the 20-year-old whiz kid who organized both conventions and who publishes Youth International Party Line, the fact-filled phone phreak newsletter, brought a carton full of black Lone Ranger masks to this year’s gathering and handed them out at the door. Most of the serious — i.e., criminally active — phone freaks put the masks on. Some had arrived already equipped with false noses, fake mustaches, and wigs. If there were agents present taking pictures this year, they were going to end up with some very silly shots.

But there were no obvious agent types to be seen. None of the hulking crew cut and dark glasses types that pervaded and intimidated last year’s convention. And if there were any obvious types the Lone Ranger masks protected them as much as they did the phone phreaks. (The only participants not wearing masks, it seemed, were a group of four blind phone phreaks and their two seeing eye dogs.)

Another difference: last year’s convention barely filled the seedy basement meeting room of the Diplomat. This year’s gathering was big enough to crowd the entire seedy “Grand Ballroom” on the third floor.

The phone phreak movement seemed to be moving up from the underground on several other fronts. An NBC network camera crew was present to film the highlights of the five-hour gathering. There were screenings of instructional videotapes illustrating every form of cheating the phone company from number 14 brass washers (they are said to work like quarters) to sophisticated Blue Boxes.

But more important than that, the tide seems to have turned in the chronic technological warfare between phone phreak inventiveness and phone company counter-measures. Just when the phone company security men seemed to have the Blue Box operators on the run, certain advanced phone phreaks perfected an entirely new weapon: The Red Box. Last Saturday’s Second Annual Phone Phreak Convention will be remembered as the one in which the Red Box made its official debut.

A bit of explanatory history. First there was the “Cheese Box.” Bookies invented it in the ’30s, the story goes. Bettors dialed the number of a phone the bookie had installed in his mother-in-law’s kitchen. The Cheese Box wired to the phone caused it to ring a phone in the bookie shop across town. When the cops traced the phone number and pulled a raid, they’d find only the Cheese Box and the mother-in-law instead of a gambling operation. By the time they found the real gambling operation there would be nothing left to find.

Next there was the “Black Box.” Reportedly invented in the late ’40s, the Black Box is a relatively cheap and simple resistor device which, when attached to a home phone, turns all incoming long distance calls into free calls. Its use spread from gamblers to ordinary citizens. Recently the phone company has come up with reliable ways of detecting and pouncing on Black Box users.

And then the Blue Box. The Blue Box makes all outgoing calls anywhere in the world, for as long as you want, free. A typical Blue Box user goes into a phone booth, dials 555-1212 or any toll-free 800 number. Then he presses his Blue Box against the mouthpiece of the phone, presses the top button thereby producing a beep tone of precisely 2600 cycles per second. For complex reasons which won’t be explained here, that beep knocks the 555 or 800 party off the wire but sets the Blue Box owner up on a toll-free long distance “tandem” line. Then, using the other 12 buttons on his Blue Box control panel, he can proceed to beep out the tones for codes and numbers to connect him free of charge with any other phone in the world. If the Blue Box operator never uses the same phone booth twice his risk of detection is minimal. Captain Crunch was able to stand in one phone booth and send his voice all the way around the world to the adjoining booth by way of Tehran, Johannesburg, and Sydney. But Captain Crunch made the mistake of using the same phone booth twice, once too often.

The Red Box is different. The Red Box — if it does what the phone phreaks say it does — will be much harder to detect.

“The phone company did itself in again,” one of Al Bell’s associates, and a Red Box specialist, told me. “It used to be we’d make tape recordings of the sounds of nickels dimes and quarters dropping into the coin box, the chimes you know, and then we’d just play them into the phone and the operator couldn’t tell the difference. Now they take it out of the hands of the operators and they have coins trigger electronic pulse tones when you drop them in. What the Red Box does is simulate those pulses accurately that the phone equipment is fooled into thinking you actually paid for the call. You don’t use any 800 or 555 numbers — there’s no way they can ever tell you didn’t pay for the call unless they’re there to count the money in the box before and after you make it. But they can’t be so you’re golden. They can’t beat it.”

“THE NEW 1974 MODEL RED BOX!” a mock majestic voice boomed over the Grand Ballroom hubbub. On six tv monitors scattered around the ballroom floor a videotape explaining the theory, practice and construction of a Red Box began running.

“Isn’t that a little bulky?” I asked the Red Box man, indicating a demonstration model Red Box which had been set up in the middle of the ballroom floor and which had attracted a crowd of admirers.

“The demo model is, sure, but nobody goes into a phone booth with that. They’re making them now — well I’ve scene one that was smaller than a Sucrets package, in fact the guy carried it around inside a Sucrets package. They’re all using I.C.s these days.”


“Yeah integrated circuits, they come in a miniaturized printed chip. I know one guy who made a Red Box so small…”

I wandered over to the Red Box demonstration model. A circle of phone phreaks surrounded it. They all had personal cassette recorders in their hands, and one after another they were plugging their remote jacks into a socket in the Red Box console and recording the nickel, dime, and quarter pulses produced therein. A few yards away another circle had formed around a big machine which produced precise Blue Box phone number tones, and as one jack after another was plugged in the phone phreaks gossiped and exchanged trade secrets. On the far side of the ballroom a group of beginning phone phreaks were gathered around and plugging themselves into yet another source box: this one producing the indispensable 2600-cycle master tone.

Meanwhile on the videotape monitors two creatures dressed in long white laboratory coats and lifelike pig’s-head masks were cackling with glee as they pulled out the intestinal wiring of a prostrate pay phone to demonstrate the theory of the Red Box. Their voices were soon obscured by quavering electronic moans and sine-whines as the operation proceeded to its conclusion.

And wandering across the ballroom floor from one sound source to another were the four blind phone phreaks and their seeing eye dogs. They were all close friends, but two of them, a teenage boy and girl, looked like they were closer than that. They touched each other gently as they made their way through Lone Ranger masked phone phreaks, listening for familiar voices.

About this time I came upon the indefatigable “Al Bell” as he was making the rounds of the workshops (Credit Card Coding in Area 1, Con Ed Meter Freezing in Area 2, Blue Box Seminar in Area 3, etc.) I had a question for Al. Is the Red Box the end of the line for phone phreak inventions for a while, or is there already something new in the works?

“There is,” Al said, “but I can’t tell you what it’s really like?”


“Well,” he said reluctantly, “The people working on it are tentatively calling it the White Box. But I can’t tell you what it’ll do.”

“Not a hint?”

“All I can say is that you might call it a counter counter device.”

“Counter counter?”

“Counter counter. Let’s just say the White Box might turn out to bug some of the phone company people who’ve been bugging us.”

It was not until the last hour of the convention that I found a phone company security agent. A phone phreak who knew me from a magazine story I had done about Blue Boxes came up to me and pointed to two men standing at the rear of the Blue Box seminar in Area 3.

“Those two guys, see the small one with the vest and the big one with all the tattoos on his arms? A friend of mine took the same flight down here from Rochester this morning. They admitted to him they were security guys.”

Neither one of the two men wore Lone Ranger masks. They responded with surprising geniality when I asked them if they were phone company security men.

“Yeah, I work for a phone company,” the man with the tattooed arms told me, “but not Bell. I’m with an independent company.”

“Which one?”

He wouldn’t say.

“Did they pay you to come down here?”

“No we’re here on our won. Curiosity. Gathering information. Keeping tabs on what these guys are up to. We exchange some information with the Bell security people so we have a good idea, but you want to see it first hand you know.”

“See anything new here that has you worried, you hadn’t heard about before?”

“No. We get some problems with Blue Boxes now and then, but it’s nothing new to us.”

“What about the Red Box?”

“Well we heard about it, we got some warnings on it, but we haven’t run into any up our way yet.”

“Think it could be a problem?”

“Could make things interesting for a while I guess. I guess we’re counting on the Bell people to come up with something to stop it before it gets out of hand.”

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]


Geraldo Rivera and Dick Schaap Ump Game Between Cops and Gays

Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
September 6, 1973, Vol. XVIII, No. 36

From pitch to bitch
by David Tipmore

As soon as Geraldo Rivera cakewalked across the Leroy Street playground diamond last Monday night, you knew the charity softball game between the Sixth Precinct cops and the Mattachine Society gays had turned into the Press Putsch of the Year. Forget about warming up gay-straight relations in the Village or that $2 donation for retarded children you shelled out. Who really cared about the softball game, when all you could see from the bleachers were a chorus of tv cameras and a reporter with a copy of (More) hanging out of her purse?


Of course the media couldn’t really be blamed for taking over the event. It’s Summer, after all, and the news needs a little nudging now and then. Besides, the game was a big bomb as far as the score goes (the cops won, 15-0), and if it takes a Press Putsch to rev up the whole thing, why not

And so there they were, Geraldo umping at first with five packs of Trident in his mouth. There was Dick Schaap of Channel 4 News, taking his lumps as home plate ump. There were CBS and the Post and a One-to-One girl in an almost-Adolpho, beaming benignly as Rivera gave his 100th interview.

“Philosophically, I’m directly between these two,” Geraldo said, gesturing toward the cops and the gays, as the almost-Adolpho announced that the proceeds were going to “Geraldo’s special charity — a home for retarded children.” And why not? Wasn’t the press there to lend a little glamor and fun to the whole charity thing?

Well, sure, if fun means watching a fat CBS man in a monogram jacket shove a mike up a mute three-year-old and ask for a comment. Another “fun” part of the Press Putsch is watching Geraldo plug his own charity on the Eyewitness News. But then why not?

Of course, the best part of the game turned out to be the bleachers, which provided a road-show of suppressed hostility that couldn’t be matched by 50 dumped dinner dates. Suddenly, sitting alone in the Maginot Line between the straights and gays, you got this vision of Moses steering solo through the parting of the Red Sea. From both sides came waves of bitching: housewives bitching about not being able to get a frankfurter with onions, gays bitching about how terribly campy the whole thing was.

“Hey Alice! Up here,” one gay yelled.

Alice look up. “In the bleachers? Oh! How campy!” she said and she was up and away.

The essential point of the game, as Frank Toscano of the Police Benevolent Association described it, involved promoting the warmed-up relations between gays and cops which had come out of the Sixth Precinct-Mattachine rap sessions. Now Toscano is a sincere man, and as he watched the game and told you about wanting to “overcome the ‘busters’ in the community,” you believed him. Except at that very moment, right as Toscano was talking, two Bronx hairdos were going at it, hatcheting the gays who were hatcheting back about all the “Fertile Fannies” over in the straight section of the bleachers. You began to wonder.

But then again, the whole phenomenon of Company Baseball had never been under this kind of pressure before. There, right out there on the macadam, was the possible secret to solving community problems! Good old Company Baseball. Could it be? No more billy clubs in the Limelight? No more flashed badges in dark back seats? And all because of this lovely congeniality over home plate?

But wait. Right now, at that very same home plate, “Mama” Jean Devente, the Mattachine manager, is fighting with Dick Schaap and Tom Knoble of the cops because the cops are using an aluminum bat. Foul and illegal and discriminatory against the women on the Mattachine team, growls Mama, but Schaap doesn’t see it that way. The aluminum bat is an official softball bat, reasons Schaap, because it says so right here — on th Sixth Precinct aluminum bat.

“There is no communication between gays and cops,” screams Jean.

“She’s full of crap,” grunts Knoble, and there you have it. Forget the lovely congeniality over home plate.

The rest of the game consisted of the press putsching from pitch to bitch, hunting for hostility by wheeling cameras into eye-line view of home runs. Of course by the end of the sixth it didn’t really matter if you were staring into the back of a mike man. By that time the game was so boring most people were reading copies of the Mattachine Times which had been loose-leafed through the bleachers.

And then suddenly, around the fifth or sixth inning, Rivera executed an exit that out-pomped the Pope. Suddenly Dick Schaap deserted his umpireship and tried for a few last-minute interviews before he raced off uptown. Suddenly the reporter in the purple pantsuit put the copy of (More) inside her purse and mikes were packed up and cameras stopped and…the event was over before it was over.

Who cared, after all, about Frank Toscano, who was running around trying to fire up flagging spirit, or Mama Jean, down-in-the-mouth in the gay bull pen? The media were leaving, and without Geraldo Rivera, what’s so fascinating about a 15-0 game?

Which makes you wonder again. Who was the game really for? Community relations? The gays and the straights? The retarded children? Or the 11 O’Clock News?

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]