The Last Jewish Gangster

Sitting in a small office across Fifth Avenue from the New York Public Library, Murray Wilson doesn’t appear to be a world-class hoodlum, the shadowy link between New York’s Russian and Italian mobs. Neatly dressed in a crisp blue shirt and slacks, his silver hair soldered in place, the 57-year-old businessman flashes an easy smile and tosses quips with the aplomb of a Borscht Belt veteran. Forget for a moment that he is talking about friends who got whacked or meetings with wiseguys like Benny Eggs and Johnny Sausage. Wilson could pass for your uncle, the funny, roly-poly one.

As he reluctantly answers a visitor’s questions about his colorful career — one packed with million-dollar swindles, foreign intrigues, murders, and gangsters galore — Wilson complains, “I don’t need you to write a book on my life. You want to do it and ruin me, go ahead.” He adds, “I just don’t want no more bullshit around me.”

In a city teeming with ethnic gangs, Wilson quietly sits at the crossroads between Howard Beach and Brighton Beach, perhaps the only man to be identified by law enforcement officials as a high-level associate of both the Russian Organizatsiya and the Italian La Cosa Nostra. A twice convicted felon, Wilson — described in one confidential law enforcement report as a “sophisticated fraud man” — is suspected by federal and state investigators of being involved in laundering and investing money for both crime groups.

Wilson’s remarkable career — which began with hosiery sales in the Garment District when he was a teenager — has seen him traffic in diamonds, bauxite, trademarks, stolen checks, stock, aluminum, restaurants, letters of credit, and bootleg gasoline. During this span, Wilson has been the focus of at least eight criminal probes and has surrounded himself with Mafia bosses, Russian killers, captains of industry, corrupt lawyers, and, for good measure, an international art thief and one KGB agent. A former prosecutor who once unsuccessfully tried to “flip” Wilson against his criminal cohorts said enviously of the businessman: “This is the guy who knows about the money.”

But while Wilson has played a key role with both crime syndicates, he has managed to maintain a low profile. Married 38 years and the father of two grown daughters, Wilson lives with his wife, Sondra, in a Forest Hills co-op that they moved into in 1964. He drives a Mercedes and reports income of $240,000 but does not appear to have a flashy lifestyle. Wilson portrays himself as a quiet homebody who spends weekends in his Queens apartment and plans on retiring in a couple of years.

One federal agent was surprised recently when told of Wilson’s recent activity, saying he thought the businessman was dead. A state investigator, too, was unaware of Wilson’s good health, asking, “He’s still alive?” In fact, it appears that Wilson’s name has never appeared in any published or broadcast reports about organized crime. During an interview, Wilson indirectly attributed this to a motto he picked up during an early-’90s hiatus in federal prison: “Obscurity is security.”

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A detailed Voice examination of Wilson’s career, though, has turned up information that he would surely prefer remain obscured. These findings include:

  • A Wilson firm is the second largest shareholder in the publicly held Sloan’s Supermarkets chain, which owns and operates stores in Manhattan and Brooklyn. In connection with this stock ownership, Wilson has submitted a false report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, omitting details of his criminal background. Sloan’s principal owner is supermarket titan John Catsimatidis, a Wilson acquaintance now embroiled in the controversy over City Hall’s awarding of $43 million in contracts to a Queens-based social service organization.
  • Wilson has a secret interest in two popular Manhattan restaurants, including the favored East Side haunt of former police commissioner William Bratton. Because his criminal convictions disqualify him for a liquor license, Wilson’s fashionable bistros are held in the name of an employee, a Hasidic Jew from Monsey.
  • Though he travels in potentially dangerous criminal circles — a number of his contacts have been the victims of gangland hits — Wilson has maintained a “continuous ‘open door’ line of communication with the FBI in New York” regarding various criminal probes, according to one court document.
  • Along with his FBI cooperation, Wilson has also served as a primary, though unnamed, source on several newspaper and magazine articles about the Russian mob. In the stories, Wilson’s identity is thinly concealed, though his role as a source could prove as perilous as his FBI contacts.

While many organized crime experts busy themselves speculating about who will become the “new John Gotti,” a more appropriate question might be “Who is the new Meyer Lansky?” The financial guru behind some of New York’s original organized crime dons, Lansky and cohorts Gurrah Shapiro, Lepke Buchalter, and Longie Zwillman ran the loosely configured “Jewish Mob,” an outfit obliterated over the years by death and deportation.

Though certainly never the financial genius he has been made out to be, Lansky — like the thousands of uninitiated associates who followed him — helped maintain the Mafia’s financial backbone. Today, this network of associates — which far outnumbers “made” men — continues to help generate, hide, and invest organized crime’s illicit profits. A Mafia affiliate like Wilson — a highly prized moneymaker for the Genovese gang — is required to kick back funds to the family he is “with.”

Though he barely made it through the Bronx’s Taft High School, it is Wilson’s familiarity with complicated business transactions, off-shore financing, and Swiss bank accounts that makes him such a valuable mob “associate.” Wilson claims to run companies chartered in England, Ireland, the Isle of Man, the Bahamas, and more mundane spots like Delaware. He claims to have “representative offices” in places like London, Moscow, Zurich, Kiev, and Riga.

While not particularly religious, Wilson has dabbled in Jewish causes, including the Jewish Defense League and Soviet Jewry. He has also owned a kosher restaurant, managed the folk singer Shlomo Carlbach, and purchased the trademark name of Grossinger’s, the fabled Catskills resort.

In the rough-and-ready tradition of hoods like Zwillman and Shapiro, Wilson — up from the Bronx streets — is perhaps the last Jewish gangster. To his mob pals, though, the distinction is moot, since making money is a decidedly secular pursuit.

With his panoply of criminal connections and his preference for the shadows, it is surprising that Wilson has recently taken a rather public position with regard to the Sloan’s Supermarkets chain.

According to a 1995 SEC report, a Wilson company called Merchants T&F owns 206,250 shares of Sloan’s stock, or 6.6 per cent of the publicly held company. The only larger shareholder is multimillionaire John Catsimatidis, the firm’s chairman, who owns 42.3 per cent. The value of Wilson’s position — which apparently cost in excess of $1 million — has dropped substantially, since Sloan’s now trades at around $3.50, down from a high of about $9. The chain of 13 supermarkets has 355 employees and recently posted revenues of more than $48.3 million.

Along with his Sloan’s stake, the 47-year-old Catsimatidis also privately owns dozens of other metropolitan area markets, including the Red Apple and Gristede’s chains. In a January SEC filing, Sloan’s reported that it recently bought three of Catsimatidis’s privately held supermarkets and was planning a bond offering to finance the purchase of up to 30 more stores from the supermarket baron.

But the prospective bond deal cannot be helped by the disclosure that Sloan’s number two stockholder, Wilson, has been convicted twice of felony financial frauds. And, in an August 1994 SEC filing which disclosed its significant stake in Sloan’s, Merchants improperly asserted that Wilson — its president and treasurer — had not, in the prior five years, been “convicted in a criminal proceeding.”

Wilson failed to disclose a November 1991 New York State grand larceny conviction. That felony — in a case involving a $1.35 million swindle — came well within the mandated five-year reporting period. (Wilson was not required to mention a federal conviction in Las Vegas — which came exactly five years and 47 days before the SEC filing.)

The SEC filing, which was prepared by the politically connected law firm Davidoff & Malito, was signed by Laszlo Schwartz, a Wilson employee listed as vice president of Merchants T&F. Schwartz refused last Friday to speak with the Voice. Larry Hutcher, the Davidoff & Malito partner who represents Wilson, did not return messages left at his office.

In a sworn deposition taken only days after Merchants filed its perjurious SEC form, Wilson was asked whether, in addition to the Las Vegas case, he had “any other convictions.” He answered, “Not to my knowledge.” The deposition was part of a lawsuit against Wilson brought by investor Edward Reiss, who had charged that Wilson reneged on an agreement to purchase from him shares of Sloan’s.

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Reiss has also filed a federal lawsuit against Catsimatidis and Sloan’s, charging that the company and its chairman belatedly disclosed to stockholders information about a Federal Trade Commission investigation targeting the Catsimatidis supermarket empire. In a bid to squelch the Reiss action, Catsimatidis last August submitted to federal judge Peter Leisure a sworn affidavit from Wilson in which the mob associate asserted that, as a Sloan’s stockholder, he did not believe the FTC’s antitrust investigation hurt the stock’s price. In a March 25 decision, Leisure rejected Wilson’s and Catsimatidis’s arguments, granting Reiss’s lawsuit class-action status.

Catsimatidis said he knew Wilson “got in trouble once” in Las Vegas but that he “didn’t know the exact extent of the problem. What am I gonna do? Ask him if [he’s] a criminal?” Catsimatidis said he has recently turned down Wilson’s request to have his daughter Lori — also a Sloan’s shareholder — appointed to the company’s board of directors. “As far as I know, the guy hasn’t been a bad guy,” said Catsimatidis. “A little weird sometimes, but not bad.”

Reported to be worth in excess of $200 million, Catsimatidis is currently embroiled in the controversy swirling around City Hall’s questionable awarding of $43 million in welfare monitoring contracts to the Hellenic American Neighborhood Action Committee (HANAC), which he chairs. Federal and city investigators are now probing the canceled contracts. The politically connected Catsimatidis is also deeply involved in the nascent mayoral campaign of Fernando Ferrer, helping the Bronx beep raise $1 million last year. Of that total, $1000 came from a Manhattan corporation owned by Wilson.

Catsimatidis and Wilson met each other in the late ’80s, when the tycoon bought into Designcraft, the predecessor company to Sloan’s. At the time, Wilson also owned stock in the firm, which manufactured jewelry. Another investor, according to ex-chairman Sam Beckerman, was Venero “Benny Eggs” Mangano, underboss of the Genovese crime family. For years, Mangano, now imprisoned for extortion, was Wilson’s chief Mafia handler and a close friend.

While Beckerman, 79, had nothing but hosannas for Mangano — a hood suspected of involvement in several murder plots — he derided Wilson as a “roughneck” and “a total dumbbell.” The retiree added, “As long as this guy breathes, there’ll be trouble in his future.”

When the Secaucus police first came upon Zvi Hager, he was cowering in the dark behind a factory building. The Brooklyn man told them he had just been robbed, which seemed plausible since the 24-year-old man was standing there naked.

Hager told detectives that his evening had started at a kosher restaurant on Essex Street in Manhattan, where he had met up with Wilson and the businessman’s hulking crony Sam Watenstein, an ex-Jewish Defense League enforcer. Hager, who once worked for Wilson, said he had accepted his ex-boss’s invitation that night to join him and Watenstein on a jaunt to Atlantic City.

As they crossed the river, Wilson told Hager he had to make a pit stop in Secaucus to “pick up a package.” When he pulled up behind a factory building, Wilson turned and laced into Hager, accusing him of trying to break into his office. In an interview with police a few days later, Hager recounted the assault that followed: Mr. Wilson got into the back of the car, took off my glasses and broke them into bits. Then Mr. Wilson punched me in the head and told me to get out of the car. I got out of the car. Mr. Wilson and Mr. Watenstein started to punch me all over. Mr. Wilson put his hand in his pocket and said he had a gun, and told me to take off my clothing. I began to yell and cry. Mr. Wilson came over and started ripping my shirt off and told me again to take off my clothes or he would shoot me. I started to take off my clothes. I was in my underwear. He told me to take off my underwear too.”

“Then what happened?” a detective asked.

“He started kicking me in the balls. And I took off my underwear and he told me to get into the bushes. I went into the bushes. He got into the car with Sammy and left.”

Though Wilson and Watenstein were arrested for assault, a New Jersey grand jury voted not to indict the pair.

Obviously, behind Wilson’s affable front hovers more than a hint of menace. In fact, several of the mob associate’s acquaintances would only speak to the Voice if granted anonymity, fearful of reprisals from Wilson. One described his former friend as a “brilliant guy. Diabolical, but brilliant.”

Accounts of Wilson’s wild streak poured from his ex-associates as well as the businessman himself: tales of Wilson punching a busboy at a restaurant, or smacking a fellow motorist who had leaned too long on a car horn. A public relations executive once testified that Wilson and Watenstein barged into his office one day and threw the contents of his desktop out the window because the man was slightly late in repaying a debt. The usurious loan would have made a loanshark blush: Wilson gave the PR man $20,000 for one month, but required a $25,000 repayment — the equivalent of a 300 per cent annual interest rate.

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Wilson himself recounted a soured business deal in Israel that ended with him almost getting arrested for busting up his own clothing factory with a sledgehammer and painting swastikas — a crime in that country — on the destroyed equipment. Wilson defended “the doing of the artwork,” saying his Israeli partners had robbed him, causing a $250,000 loss.

Asked about an incident that occurred after his final break with JDL founder Meir Kahane, Wilson smiled broadly and listened as one of his wildman episodes was recounted. Once an early financial supporter of the JDL, Wilson’s relationship with the right-wing rabbi deteriorated, in part because he believed Kahane had stolen JDL funds.

In late 1984, Wilson orchestrated a harassment campaign against Kahane while the JDL boss was fundraising in New York. One night, Wilson and some accomplices broke into Kahane’s auto and stole some of the rabbi’s belongings. Before spray-painted the words “Nigger get out of America” on Kahane’s car. The rabbi eventually complained to the FBI that Wilson was plotting to have him killed, a claim Wilson denied.

“I never would do that,” Wilson said of the spray painting. He added slyly, “That’s vandalism!”

Wilson does little to dispel his tough guy rep, in part because he appears genuinely enthralled with the gangster image. Once, before heading to a Christmas party at Mangano’s Thompson Street social club, Wilson turned to Watenstein and — excited by their Mafia social climbing — exclaimed, “Sammy, we’re getting up there!”

In Voice interviews, Wilson spoke freely about gambling with Mangano in Atlantic City, and of his frequent trips to the wiseguy’s Village hangout, mentioning how he would point out FBI agents trying to conduct surveillance of the club. Wilson said he met with Mangano to discuss their mutual interests in the closeout clothing industry. “If I had to discuss business with him at night, I would stop down at the club and have a coffee and discuss business with him.” A phone call apparently would not suffice.

Along with his trips to the Village, Wilson attended the christening of Mangano’s granddaughter and — for a time — used the hood’s son Joseph to write his insurance. “He handled my insurance, but he screwed it up,” Wilson said. Of Benny Eggs, who was imprisoned in 1993 following a federal extortion conviction, Wilson said, “He had probably a much better reputation than I did… for honesty and integrity. I didn’t find any fault in being near him.”

Law enforcement officials have pointed to Wilson’s close ties to Mangano, the number two man in the country’s strongest crime family, as evidence of Wilson’s own stature in the Genovese gang. Investigators have also said Wilson was once close to Genovese captain Matthew “Matty the Horse” Ianniello, a charge he denies.

With Mangano jailed, sources said that supervision of Wilson has fallen, at times, to Mangano’s longtime sidekick John “Johnny Sausage” Barbato and Daniel Pagano, a powerful Westchester-based Genovese member. The businessman has bragged, according to one source, that he remains able to “send a message downtown in the morning and get an answer in the afternoon” from the Genovese leadership regarding business decisions.

Asked about meetings with Barbato, Wilson said, “Yes, I run into him,” but he could not remember when, where, or why he met with the Mafia soldier. As for Pagano, Wilson claimed, “I’ve met him, never dealt with him.” Wilson said that he was introduced to Pagano by either Alex Zilber or his brother Victor, both of whom are members of the Russian mob and longtime Wilson cronies.

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Now in their midthirties, the Zilbers arrived from Odessa with their parents about 15 years ago. They have been involved in a variety of business ventures, including their not-so-secret ownership of Rasputin, the gaudy Brighton Beach restaurant. Ledgers seized by the FBI indicate that the pair poured more than $4 million into the establishment, a marble shrine to blinis and beef Stroganoff.

The relationship between Pagano and the Zilbers, sources said, was rooted in their joint interests in gasoline bootlegging. The lucrative scam, which relies on the evasion of excise taxes for its huge profits, was the first criminal enterprise jointly run by Italian and Russian gangsters, beginning in the early ’80s.

The Pagano-Zilber connection was first exposed in a November 1994 New York magazine story written by Robert I. Friedman. In that article, there can be little doubt that Wilson is the “Genovese crime-family figure” quoted at length about both mob groups. In fact, at least four other Friedman pieces — dating back to 1988 and published in the Voice, Vanity Fair, New York, and The Washington Post — also bear a similarly distinctive Wilson stamp.

Friedman, a former Voice staff writer who is now pitching a book on the Organizatsiya, authored a 1990 biography of Kahane which includes Wilson’s on-the-record recollections of his JDL activities, including his role in the 1984 harassment campaign against the militant rabbi.

In the 1994 New York story, Friedman reported on the November 1992 attempted murder of Victor Zilber, indicating that the shooting may have been a bid by Pagano — in the face of a federal criminal probe — to silence a potential liability. Zilber, shot in the head, is now “blind and cuckoo,” according to his friend Wilson.

The hit theory was bolstered by some colorful quotes from an unnamed “Genovese associate” who noted that “Zilber had big balls. Unfortunately he used them for brains.” The source concluded that “He’s lucky his head wasn’t blown off. Victor was a loose cannon. Shutting him up was an act of survival.”

Of course, the irony of the latter quote is that Wilson either willfully ignores or is somehow oblivious to the inherent danger of his talking about mob business. The reckless behavior, though, does not surprise one old friend who believes the publicity — though anonymous as it must be — thrills Wilson. “He’s doing [business] deals that would scare normal people,” the source said, noting that Wilson — a high-stakes gambler — has never shied from taking chances.

The New York article also reported that when “Alex Zilber asked one of his Genovese partners” to arrange a sitdown with reigning Russian mob boss Vyacheslav Ivankov, “the mobster offered to have the Italians wipe out Ivankov.” The story continued, quoting the Genovese source: “The Brighton Beach boys are crazy, but they are still a pimple on an ass next to the Italians. Ivankov would never take on the Italians.” The voluble source concluded that if the Russians “ever challenged us, they’d never leave Brighton Beach alive.”

“I happen to like Robert and I’ve spoken to Robert on many occasions,” Wilson said, but he denied serving as the reporter’s source. Asked about passages from a 1993 Vanity Fair story which point to him as the source, Wilson quipped that he didn’t read the glossy “except when Demi Moore’s picture was on the cover.”

Potentially more dangerous than conversations with a journalist are the mob associate’s contacts with the FBI. In court papers, Wilson’s Las Vegas criminal attorney mentioned his client’s “continuous ‘open door’ line of communication” with the FBI regarding “investigations of others for which the FBI wishes to speak with” Wilson.

The disclosure of Wilson’s “continued cooperation with Governmental authorities” was made in a 1989 motion to secure relaxed bail conditions for Wilson. Attorney Mitchell Ogron noted that “At no time, past or present, has Mr. Wilson requested anything in exchange” for his assistance. Another document referred by name to two FBI agents who would, Ogron claimed, vouch that Wilson posed no threat to jump bail. One agent is an organized crime supervisor, while the other handled many JDL investigations.

In an interview, Wilson denied providing information to the bureau. The hint of cooperation, though, becomes even more dangerous, since while so many of Wilson’s associates have been arrested over the past five years, he has faced no criminal charges.

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Records obtained by the Voice show that Wilson has served as Alex Zilber’s financial adviser, co-owned a company with him, and was involved in one real estate transaction with the Russian gangster. Zilber, Wilson said, “would only come to me for advice every now and then” when business problems arose.

Wilson and Zilber were partners in a 1991 joint venture — formed in conjunction with a large Ukraine-based manufacturer — to purchase bauxite for the production and sale of aluminum products across Europe and the former Soviet Union. The inclusion of Zilber in the deal could be attributed to his relationship with Russian gangsters in his native Odessa, where the manufacturing plant was located.

Before the arrangement collapsed in 1993 amid a flurry of lawsuits over the division of profits, the venture recorded about $500 million in sales — including many deals with fugitive financier Marc Rich. Bank records show that a Wilson firm, Bronx Investments, Ltd., received $7.2 million in wire transfers from the venture’s New York bank account. Another $250,000 was paid in April 1993 to Merchants T&F, the Wilson firm that owns stock in Sloan’s.

According to court documents, Wilson also lurked behind the scenes of the gasoline scheme that almost cost Victor Zilber his life. That illegal operation, federal prosecutors in New Jersey said, cost tax authorities more than $100 million in uncollected revenue and triggered more than $48 million in money laundering. The Newark probe resulted in convictions against a number of Wilson cronies, including Russian mobsters Arkady Seifer and Jacob Dobrer. Victor Zilber was also charged in the 1993 indictment but has been judged unfit to stand trial.

Cooperating witness Jeffrey Pressman, a key gas scam participant, testified that Wilson “did financing” for his illegal business. Pressman said that Victor Zilber also participated in some of these monetary transactions, which involved Wilson securing letters of credit from overseas banking institutions. A federal source said that the FBI, aided by the cooperation of four members of the New Jersey scheme, is continuing its probe of the illegal gasoline operation. Investigators are targeting members and associates of the Genovese crime family, certainly bad news for Wilson and Pagano.

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Over the past decade, Wilson’s contacts in the leadership of the Russian mob have had a rough time in office. Along with the now “cuckoo” Victor Zilber, Wilson cronies have been murdered, sent to prison, or become government informants.

Wilson pal Evsei Agron was the first Brighton Beach boss. Before getting rubbed out in 1985, Agron was a feared presence in Brooklyn’s Russian immigrant community. Agron, the legend goes, carried a cattle prod like it was a walking stick.

In April 1983, Agron and a large contingent of Russians accompanied Wilson on a Passover junket to Las Vegas’s Dunes Hotel. The immigrants were there to assist Wilson in a $1 million heist from the hotel casino. The plan was simple: Wilson, a valued Dunes customer, had arranged for credit to be advanced to the Russians, who — unbeknownst to the hotel — had no intention of gambling. Instead, the Russians returned the chips to Wilson, who had Watenstein and Hager (then fully clothed) redeem them for cash.

At Wilson’s and Watenstein’s subsequent 1989 fraud trial, Hager and other witnesses testified about the chip operation, recalling how Wilson’s hotel suite was awash in black $100 chips, delivered to him by a steady stream of Russian-speaking runners. Wilson instructed Hager to shout a code word — the Hebrew phrase for “to go up” — when it was time for the Russians to bring chips to Wilson.

In return for their services, Wilson treated the Russians to sessions with a pair of Vegas prostitutes. Asked if some of her johns wore “religious garb,” hooker Sally Kallestad — no Talmudic scholar — answered, “Yeah, beanies. Those little beanie things.”

A federal jury found Wilson and Watenstein guilty of mail and wire fraud, and the pair received prison terms, respectively, of three years and 18 months. Wilson served about a year in Allenwood before being paroled to a halfway house for six months. As a condition of his release, he was required to enroll in Gamblers Anonymous, and he is eternally grateful. “I thank the government.… Because you sit in a room with people who have the illness and you start to notice on others what you see a little bit of yourself.”

So, a reporter asked, “You’ve quit gambling?”

“No. I bet the Super Bowl,” Wilson laughed. “I had Tyson in the third round the other night,” he continued, referring to the ex-champ’s victory last month over Frank Bruno — which came by TKO in the third round.

In addition to Agron, other Russian mobsters along for Wilson’s holy days heist included Dobrer, Seifer, and a tattooed thug named Emil Puzyretsky. While Dobrer and Seifer would later be convicted in gas tax cases, Puzyretsky suffered a worse fate. The hoodlum, who reportedly did time in a Soviet gulag for murder, was himself killed in a 1991 gangland rubout in Brighton Beach.

Wilson claimed that he did not know Agron well and did no business with the mob boss. “He tried to get me into a real estate deal in Brooklyn,” recalled Wilson, “which I never went in.” But two sources recalled Wilson mediating a dispute between Agron and Genovese family members over a shipment of stolen merchandise sold by the Italians to the Russians. Wilson denied involvement in this deal, saying he had never heard of the transaction.

Succeeding Agron was his lieutenant, Marat Balagula, who is suspected in his ex-boss’s violent demise. Balagula, now serving time for — what else? — a gasoline tax swindle, was a sharp businessman with whom Wilson grew close. Sources said their business dealings were extensive and included diamonds as well as gasoline. The duo was even involved in Sierra Leone, the West African nation that had somehow become a virtual outpost for Russian hoodlums.

Through Balagula, Wilson was also introduced to a shadowy criminal named Shabtai Kalmanovitch, who, according to federal investigators, became “a close business associate” of Wilson’s. Through his ties with the Sierra Leone government, Kalmanovitch had become the diamond-rich nation’s unofficial economics czar. He offered Russian mob contacts — including Balagula as well as Wilson — a variety of investment opportunities, including importation and fishing rights. Supermarket baron Catsimatidis recalled Wilson once trying to recruit him to invest in “some far-flung scheme in Sierra Leone. Rice and diamonds, or something. I wasn’t interested.”

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Wilson said that he met with Kalmanovitch once in Sierra Leone but would not deal with him because “I saw Shabtai was a crook.” He said his relationship with Balagula was “very peripheral.”

In December 1987, Kalmanovitch was arrested and later convicted in Israel on espionage charges. Months before Kalmanovitch’s bust, the spy was involved with Wilson, Watenstein, Balagula, and others in a counterfeit scheme to negotiate $12 million in phony Merrill Lynch checks, according to an FBI investigation.

The FBI determined that Wilson and the others “were involved in arranging the counterfeit checks and carrying them to Kalmanovitch in Europe.” The KGB spy was able to cash $3 million in bogus checks before his May 1987 arrest at the Sheraton Towers Hotel in London. “Hotel records show Wilson as staying in the hotel at the same time as Kalmanovitch,” while a search of the spy’s room turned up “an address book with Wilson’s name, address, and phone numbers.”

(The Merrill Lynch scam was detailed in papers filed by prosecutors during Wilson’s Las Vegas mail and wire fraud prosecution. They also reveal Wilson was under investigation for passing $10,000 in bribes to New York State tax agent Anthony Tedeschi. The payoffs were to fix a tax problem Wilson had with his now defunct kosher restaurant, La Difference. Though the document stated “Wilson is likely facing additional serious charges” for the payoffs, he was never indicted. In an interview, Wilson acknowledged knowing Tedeschi, who cooperated with prosecutors, but declined to talk about the allegations, except to call Tedeschi, “a guinea piece of shit.”

Law enforcement sources said Wilson was introduced to Tedeschi by notorious swindler Irwin “The Fat Man” Schiff, a childhood buddy and Taft High School football teammate of Wilson’s. Schiff, also a Genovese associate, was murdered in 1987 on orders from the crime family’s leadership. Wilson has said that when investigators with the Manhattan district attorney’s office tried in 1988 to convince him to “flip” on Mangano, they said the Genovese underboss wanted him dead, and had been involved in Schiff’s murder.)

While Kalmanovitch and a partner, William Davidson, were hit with federal fraud charges, Wilson and Watenstein were never indicted. The case against the swindlers was brought in North Carolina, since many of the bogus checks were drawn on a North Carolina National Bank account. Twenty years earlier, Wilson maintained a checking account at that same Southern bank, according to Wilson’s 1970 bankruptcy filing. Only 31 years old at the time, he stuck his creditors for a whopping $1.4 million, the equivalent today of $5.6 million.

Questioned about Davidson, Wilson denied doing business with Kalmanovitch’s sidekick. Court records and other documents, though, reveal that Wilson claimed to have been involved with the crook in a $1.3 million diamond venture, for which Wilson said Davidson owed him $1 million. After securing a judgment against an agreeable Davidson, Wilson set out to collect the money he was supposedly owed.

Showing monumental chutzpah, Wilson — armed with the Davidson judgment — launched a legal battle in Monaco to seize funds from a bank account opened there by Davidson. The frozen account happened to be where Kalmanovitch and Davidson had deposited the proceeds from the counterfeit check scheme. It is unclear whether Wilson succeeded in latching on to any of these funds — money the FBI claimed he helped originally steal.

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When he was asked about his array of contacts with the Russian mob, Wilson scoffed: “You really think the Russians are organized crime? Do you really believe that? It behooves me how anyone can think the Russians are organized.”

Wilson said that he met most of the men through work he performed for Bris Avrohom, an organization that helps settle newly arrived Russian Jews. “I met these Russians through my solicitation of donations [in Brighton Beach] for this charity. Some may have turned out bad, but the majority turned out to be very nice citizens,” he said.

During an interview, Wilson proudly displayed a journal from a 1986 dinner at the Hilton which honored him and his wife Sondra for their work with the New Jersey–based Lubavitch group. Wilson beamed as he pointed to form letters from Ronald Reagan and George Bush saluting Bris Avrohom and the couple.

Wilson broke with the group after the charity, he claimed, abandoned him during his stay at Allenwood: “We had 80 Jews out of 800 people up there. I think 79 had rabbis visit them. I’m the only one who didn’t have a rabbi.” Wilson was also upset that Bris Avrohom did not help him get a special furlough to Miami, where selected federal inmates were allowed to congregate for Passover services.

Though hardly religious, Wilson wrote on his prison furlough application, “I was a very ‘active’ Jew and have lost the feelings,” adding that he wanted to again “do the mitzvahs I once did.” He even claimed to be considering “aliya within 3 years,” the Hebrew term for immigration to Israel.

One former associate, whose general opinion of Wilson is harsh, said that he always respected the businessman’s “strong Jewish identity” and support for Israel. The ex-friend surmised that Wilson’s worldview has always been colored by the belief that “I am a little kid from the gutter from the Bronx. And I was beaten up because I was a Jewish kid, or taken advantage because I was a Jewish kid. Now we got our own state: Fuck you. Fuck the world.”

In fact, the single thread that runs through Wilson’s career — gangsters and scams notwithstanding — is his involvement with Jewish businesses and causes. In 1994, he plunked down $225,000 for a piece of Jewish-American history, buying a partial trademark for the name Grossinger’s. Wilson, who can license it for bread and chicken products only, said proudly that he now earns “two cents on every loaf” of Grossinger’s rye bread sold.

The businessman has even adopted an alias, he has claimed, to better identify him as Jewish. By using the name “Harvey Schwartz,” Wilson — who said he is often mistaken for being Italian — leaves no doubt about his heritage. To detractors who sense an improper motive, Wilson has answered, “It is done as a matter of pride, not for the purpose of concealment.”

Along with his Grossinger’s purchase, Wilson last year paid — again at a bankruptcy auction — $1.47 million for the assets of a chain of jewelry stores. It was at least the sixth time he has bought a firm out of bankruptcy, prompting one acquaintance to joke that Wilson “always was a closeout guy.”

Along with these ventures, Wilson dabbles in commercial finance, providing loans to anyone willing to pay steep interest rates. One recent borrower was art thief Richard Erman, who collateralized a $150,000 Wilson loan with Dans Le Parc, an oil painting by French artist James Tissot. The work — stolen by Erman and smuggled into the United States — had been scheduled to be auctioned by Sotheby’s in May 1993 for between $800,000 and $1.2 million, but the item was instead seized by U.S. Customs agents. Claiming that Erman — who is now jailed in France on tax charges — never repaid the loan, Wilson is now waging a court fight against the auction house and the French government for possession of the painting. Wilson has said that, at the time of the Erman loan, he was unaware the 19th-century work was hot.

One of Wilson’s bankruptcy “closeouts,” sources said, was the joint purchase of Tribeca’s Ecco and the Upper East Side restaurant Campagnola, which, according to the Daily News, is the favorite restaurant of former top cop William Bratton. In fact, last Friday — after his final day at police headquarters — Bratton hosted a dinner party at the First Avenue nightspot. But while the ex-commish helped lower crime rates citywide, he apparently was oblivious to the fraud playing out in front of his plate of penne à la vodka.

State Liquor Authority records list Wilson sidekick Laszlo Schwartz — who does not have two felony collars — as “president and sole own­er” of both Italian establishments. But Voice calls to both restaurants asking for Schwartz caused confusion. “Does he have a reserva­tion?” a hostess at Ecco asked one night. On an­other occasion, the response came back, “There’s no Mr. Schwartz here.” A call to Cam­pagnola elicited a simlilar response. ”Never heard the name,” a man answering the phone said. The idea that Schwartz, an Orthodox Jew, would own a nonkosher, trayf-filled establish­ment is unlikely, said one source familiar with Wilson’s 53-year-old sidekick.

The response was quite different when a caller asked for Wilson at the eateries. At Ecco, a helpful receptionist offered, ”I know Mr. Wil­son is a part owner.” In February, a Campag­nola employee said, “I don’t know if he’s com­ing in today,” adding that he did not know if Wilson — who travels frequently — was “in town.” On another night, a caller was told, ”You just missed him.”

Wilson seems to stop by Campagnola reg­ularly after work, something he effectively de­nied during a Voice interview. Referring to his low-key lifestyle, the Forest Hills resident said, “That’s why I go home every night. You’ll never see me in the city having dinner…”

Wilson’s Merchants T&F company also has an interest in Akbar, an Indian restaurant on Park Avenue near 57th Street. Merchants paid $180,000 in May 1994 for the eatery’s assets, which included the establishment’s valuable ground-floor lease.

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Seated at his desk one afternoon, Wilson is talking about the joys of typing. He does not need a secretary (”I save $600 a week!”) be­cause he types every contract and licensing agree­ment his office produces, a chore he finds relax­ing. “That was my job at Allenwood. I was the head typist,” the ex-con said. Wilson then ticked off the fringe benefits: ”An air conditioned of­fice! With girls!”

To the left of his desk, where Wilson’s gaze often falls, is an up-to-the-minute account of his stock holdings. A Quotron clone, the computer screen across the room is far enough away so that an optically challenged reporter cannot decipher the flickering ticker symbols.

The best peek into Wilson’s market hold­ings comes from 1993–1994 records from a trading account he maintained at the Zurich of­fice of Prudential Bache. The documents record Sloan’s trades as well as a 25,000 share position in a New York firm then controlled by Wilson’s uncle. At times, other holdings included Getty Oil, Bethlehem Steel, and Wal Mart.

While the account balance fluctuated from month to month, it usually hovered near $1 mil­lion. However, the most recent statement ob­tained by the Voice, covering May 1994, reflect­ed a closing balance of $4.25 million, due to the purchase of $2.9 million in U.S. Treasury notes.

As with most matters involving Murray Wilson, the answer to the question, “Whose money is this?” remains, for now, obscured. ❖


Protruding Breasts! Acidic Pulp! #*@&!$% Senators! McCarthyism! Commies! Crime! And Punishment!

“Pass them over, I should like to read some horror comics.”—Winston Churchill

In a June 1952 comic strip, Charlie Brown peruses a comic-book rack overflowing with minimalist titles such as “HATE,” “STAB,” “CHOKE,” “GOUGE,” “SLASH,” and “KILL.” He flings his arms wide before this drugstore altar, labeled “For the Kiddies,” and exclaims, “What a beautiful gory layout!” Blast Comics features a mushroom cloud, another indication that Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts newspaper strip was spotlighting a growing national obsession: the influence of violent and titillating comic books on impressionable youth.

Colorful and direct, comic books originated in the mid-1930s as reprints of newspaper strips, then quickly evolved into original adventure and superhero stories that became all the rage with America’s children. Some adults viewed them the way harried parents see video games now—something to keep the kids out of their hair for hours on end, and certainly the Peanuts gang lazed away many an afternoon hunched over comic magazines. Other grownups, however, saw such fantastical characters as Superman, Captain Marvel, the Human Torch, and Wonder Woman as nothing more than salacious trash. As early as 1940 Sterling North, the literary editor of the Chicago Daily News, was editorializing that comics were “Badly drawn, badly written and badly printed—a strain on young eyes and young nervous systems—the effect of these pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant. Their crude blacks and reds spoil the child’s natural sense of color; their hypodermic injection of sex and murder make the child impatient with better, though quieter, stories. Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the ‘comic’ magazine.”

“Teen-Age Dope Slaves,” from 1952, featuring Rex Morgan, M.D.

Publishers however understood that there was gold in that acidic pulp and those four-color inks. During World War II, comic books sold upwards of a billion copies annually, both on the home front and in military PXs. After the war editors scrambled to continue attracting readers, including returning GIs, who were no longer interested in muscle-bound beings flying around in long underwear. Some publications predictably headed downmarket, featuring women wearing no more than lingerie, often accessorized with tightly cinched ropes. Adults who had deplored superheroes were now doubly outraged by the growing number of crime and horror titles. (A few even organized comic-book burnings—in a 1948 photo, children in Binghamton, New York, can be seen laughing as they pile up comics for a bonfire.) The November 1953 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal included an article by Dr. Fredric Wertham, which asked the question, “Do Comics Create Child Criminals?” A New York City psychiatrist, Wertham (1895–1981) had grown concerned over the effects comics had on children he saw in his practice. In 1954 he gathered his research into a 400-page polemic, Seduction of the Innocent, which blamed the bulk of America’s social ills on comic books. The book is filled with observation of various genres, such as one that Wertham claimed adolescent boys called “headlight comics,” which specialized in “highly accentuated and protruding breasts in practically every illustration.” With such assertions, Wertham’s minor bestseller came close to destroying the comic-book industry.

The November 1953 issue of “Ladies’ Home Journal,” with Dr. Fredric Wertham’s article “Do Comics Create Child Criminals?”

Among devoted fans, Seduction can still trigger the incoherent outrage torch-bearing villagers felt toward Frankenstein’s creation, and the book in fact has much in common with Shelley’s monster: clumsy and destructive, but also heartfelt and often misunderstood. Like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which warned of environmental calamity brought on by the overuse of pesticides, or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, exposing the rapacious cruelties of turn-of-the-century meatpacking cartels, Seduction is the rare book that truly unleashed the power of the written word—a force that becomes most manifest in America when it hits business squarely on the bottom line.

In 2008’s The Ten-Cent Plague, David Hajdu notes that by the mid-1940s, “the comic book was the most popular form of entertainment in America. Comics were selling between eighty million and a hundred million copies every week, with a typical issue passed along or traded to six to ten readers, thereby reaching more people than movies, television, radio, or magazines for adults.” But many of the early superhero comics from the medium’s “Golden Age” had disappeared into vast paper drives during World War II, when characters such as Captain America encouraged readers to gather “magazines, boxes, store bags, envelopes, newspapers” because “Paper is a weapon of war! A mighty weapon! Every gun, bullet—Every piece of ammunition used to smash the unholy Japs and Nazis is shipped in paper containers!” In later years many comics were simply discarded when childhood bedrooms were cleared out as kids left the nest for jobs or college dorms.

In the early 1960s nostalgia for this brash entertainment blossomed into a network of self-published fanzines that allowed enthusiasts to trade comics among themselves; by mid-decade conventions were organized in New York, Detroit, and other cities, where fans could congregate and meet artists and writers from the industry. Thus was born a huge collectors’ market, which long ago swept Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent into its insatiable maw.

A recent search of eBay, that remorseless barometer of the absolute worth of American desires, finds a first-edition SOTI (as it is referred to among the cognoscenti) on the block for $795. Having almost wiped out comics fans beloved art form, Wertham’s out-of-print manifesto became a sought-after relic during those early decades of fandom, and copies were often swiped from libraries. I experienced the effect of this phenomenon as a teenager, in the late 1970s, when I first read of the mysterious and malicious volume in a magazine article. SOTI, it seemed, outraged true believers in a similar manner to the way the perceived lies and nefarious agendas in the Warren Report provoke J.F.K. assassination-conspiracy theorists. Intrigued, I scoured the Baltimore library system, hoping to find the book that had become as legendary—and elusive—as H. P. Lovecraft’s fictional Necronomicon. But it was no dice—I was put on a waiting list and told months later that the book had gone missing. One librarian told me on the sly that I would have a much better chance finding Wertham’s opus at a comic-book convention.

Passion for other branches of literature and art consumed me over the following years, and I only returned to the quest for SOTI when I realized, in early 2004, that its golden anniversary was approaching. At 42nd Street I passed between the stone lions guarding the Fifth Avenue entrance of New York’s main public library branch, notable as a research library, where one must peruse the books on-site. I found SOTI in the catalog, filled out a form, and waited while it was retrieved from the stacks. Half an hour later I was handed a box sealed by a thin cord wrapped around cardboard buttons—opening the protective flaps felt like exposing some forbidden, profane text. The book was sans dust jacket, black covers worn thin, corners dented; the pages were well-thumbed, dog-eared, some annotated with pencil or highlighter—a few had been jaggedly torn out. This was a volume that had engendered genuine passion.

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Wertham “came as close to shutting down the entire comics business as anything I know of,” the renowned comic-book artist Joe Kubert told me during a 2003 interview. Kubert (1926–2012) began working in comics around the age of twelve, just as the industry was exploding with the success of a newfangled hero called Superman. Kubert’s spare, rough ’n’ ready style amped the propulsive thrust of the slyly antiwar stories of his signature character, Sgt. Rock. “If I can give just enough detail so that the reader can finish it off, that reader becomes part of the story,” he told me. In a career that spanned eight decades, Kubert witnessed the birth—and near death—of the comic-book medium. Wertham “was out to make a name and a buck for himself,” Kubert added, his cynicism derived from seeing “a helluva lot of jobs lost” because of Wertham’s anti-comics crusade. (Hadju’s book lists some nine hundred artisans who never worked in the comics field again after the moral backlash SOTI created.)

But like Batman’s nemesis Two-Face (an honorable DA turned schizophrenically cruel after a crime boss threw acid in his face), Wertham was a complex and contradictory character, who was after more than notoriety even as he achieved infamy. Born in Nuremberg, he studied medicine and literature in London, Paris, and Vienna, absorbing Marx and the social-reform theories in the novels of Dickens along the way. In 1922 he landed at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he began a lifelong commitment to civil rights and low-cost psychiatric care for minorities and the poor. By 1946, with help from Paul Robeson and Richard Wright, he had established the Lafargue Clinic, located, as his publisher describes, “in the heart of a slum area in Harlem, the first psychiatric clinic to be opened in that district.” (The author’s photo on the jacket of Seduction—tight-lipped, bespectacled, with severely parted gray hair and pinstriped suit—was taken by the noted African-American photographer Gordon Parks, who would later go on to direct the Blaxploitation classic Shaft.)

Wertham’s portrait, by Gordon Parks, on the book jacket of “Seduction of the Innocent.”

Wertham’s testimony on the harmful psychological effects of segregation was incorporated into briefs for Brown vs. Board of Education, another major event in 1954’s political landscape. It is therefore no surprise that Wertham writes in Seduction, “While the white people in jungle [comic] books are blond and athletic and shapely, the idea conveyed about the natives is that there are fleeting transitions between apes and humans … this characterization of colored peoples as subhuman, in conjunction with the depiction of forceful heroes as blond Nordic supermen … is the usual parade of invitation to sadistic perversion, race hatred and violence for violence’s sake.” The doctor’s beliefs are clear: Race-hate must never again take root, especially not in the bumptious democracy of his adopted homeland. And when Wertham continues, “We have learned more and more that sexual behavior varies widely and that many patterns which used to be regarded as serious crimes, extremely immoral, or severe abnormalities do not deserve to be so seriously regarded,” it becomes apparent that he isn’t simply the blue-nosed censor of fandom legend.

Wertham’s psychiatric philosophies were leavened with literature—in chapter epigraphs, Bacon and Pavlov rub shoulders with Pushkin, Rilke, and Shakespeare. On my first perusal, Seduction proved as complex as its author. But at closing time, all materials must be returned. In the way of the world, other assignments and life’s pageant intruded, and it was not until two months later that I again requested Seduction, only to be told it was unavailable. Knowing the book’s vulnerability to the collector’s fetish, I contacted the library’s press office and left an inquiry about its fate.

In the meantime, I decided to pursue another touchstone. As a result of Wertham’s earlier articles and other commentators’ alarms, in 1954 a Senate subcommittee began hearings investigating the effect of comic books on juvenile delinquency. On April 21, 22, and June 4, in an implicit stab at the heart of this New York–based industry, the members of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency brought their televised road show to the federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan. I found the transcript of those hearings tagged in the library’s catalog—but it was held off-site and I was put on another waiting list.

With both books unavailable I next plugged those 1954 Senate-hearing dates into the New York Times archive and crashed right onto the front pages of the Cold War. Above the fold, a headline blares, “McCarthy Charges Plot To Halt Him”; in the lower left corner, less bold and more enigmatic: “No Harm in Horror, Comics Issuer Says.”

The newsprint time machine revealed that Wisconsin senator Joe McCarthy, whose claim to fame was hunting Communists in government, was in a political dogfight with the Army brass. Meanwhile, the smaller headline heralded one of the most famous moments in comic-book history, when a young publisher, William M. Gaines, was confronted by Tennessee Democrat Estes Kefauver at the downtown hearings. Gaines’ father had been a comics pioneer, packaging newspaper strips into some of the earliest pamphlet-size comic books. When his father died, Gaines inherited the staid Educational Comics line, which featured such titles as Picture Stories from the Bible and Picture Stories from American History. Along with his editors, Gaines decided that science-fiction, crime, and horror comics would be more fun—and profitable—to produce.

Kefauver was at the televised hearings because of his presidential ambitions; Gaines was simply trying to protect his Entertaining Comics empire, which included groundbreaking horror titles such as Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, featuring witty, brilliantly illustrated stories with O. Henry–like twists. (Reanimated corpses seeking vengeance on unfaithful lovers was a favorite formula.) “I started horror,” Gaines proudly told the senators, and then calmly testified on the fine art of cropping cover illustrations: A woman’s decapitation would be in bad taste only if the killer were “holding the head a little higher so the neck would show with the blood dripping from it.”

The front-page article reported that Kefauver replied softly, “You’ve got blood dripping from the mouth.”

Gaines, the comics industry, and “Tail-Gunner” Joe McCarthy were all heading for inglorious beatdowns at the hands of the U.S. Senate. Only Gaines would live to laugh at his persecutors.

A few weeks later I received an email from the library announcing the arrival of another Seduction, bought for an off-the-record sum from a used-book dealer. It was in good shape, still wearing its block-lettered dustjacket. Like many a learned tome reposing in private libraries, a number of its leaves had never been cut. The librarian carefully sliced apart the pages the original owner had never gotten to.

In his medical practice, Wertham saw some hard cases—juvenile muggers, murderers, rapists. In Seduction, he begins with a gardening metaphor for the relationship between children and society: “If a plant fails to grow properly because attacked by a pest, only a poor gardener would look for the cause in that plant alone.” He then observes, “To send a child to a reformatory is a serious step. But many children’s-court judges do it with a light heart and a heavy calendar.” Wertham advocated a holistic approach to juvenile delinquency, but then attacked comic books as its major cause. “All comics with their words and expletives in balloons are bad for reading.” “What is the social meaning of these supermen, super women … super-ducks, super-mice, super-magicians, super-safecrackers? How did Nietzsche get into the nursery?” And although the superhero, Western, and romance comics were easily distinguishable from the crime and horror genres that emerged in the late 1940s, Wertham viewed all comics as police blotters. “[Children] know a crime comic when they see one, whatever the disguise”; Wonder Woman is a “crime comic which we have found to be one of the most harmful”; “Western comics are mostly just crime comic books in a Western setting”; “children have received a false concept of ‘love’ … they lump together ‘love, murder, and robbery.’” Some crimes are said to directly imitate scenes from comics. Many are guilty by association—millions of children read comics, ergo, criminal children are likely to have read comics. When listing brutalities, Wertham throws in such asides as, “Incidentally, I have seen children vomit over comic books.” Such anecdotes illuminate a pattern of observation without sourcing that becomes increasingly irritating. “There are quite a number of obscure stores where children congregate, often in back rooms, to read and buy secondhand comic books … in some parts of cities, men hang around these stores which sometimes are foci of childhood prostitution. Evidently comic books prepare the little girls well.” Are these stores located in New York? Chicago? Sheboygan? Wertham leaves us in the dark. He also claimed that powerful forces were arrayed against him because the sheer number of comic books was essential to the health of the pulp-paper manufacturers, forcing him on a “Don Quixotic enterprise … fighting not windmills, but paper mills.”

For someone with such literary pretensions, Wertham delivers some real howlers. Discussing scenes in which characters are violently blinded, he states that there is “no counterpart in any other literature of the world, for children or adults.” The most infamous illustration in Seduction is a panel depicting a young woman dreaming that a “sick hoppy” is about to stab her in the eye with a hypodermic needle. Wertham, the old-world scholar, might be excused for not being hip to the eyeball slash in Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, but surely he was aware of the tale of the Cyclops, or of Gloucester having his eyes plucked out and stomped on in King Lear. Blinding is an enduring image not only of cruelty but also of despair. And despair is certainly the point of “Murder, Morphine and Me,” an unglamorous comic-book story of a gangster’s moll, whose looks, relationships, and health are ruined by drugs and crime. Wertham also asserts, “Outside the forbidden pages of de Sade, you find draining a girl’s blood only in children’s comics.” Whatever his grasp of de Sade’s oeuvre, Wertham somehow missed out on Bram Stoker’s Dracula and its myriad adaptations across the panoply of popular culture.

Draining blood in the comics. This is Dracula.

Such miscues call into question both Wertham’s methods and his conclusions, as he becomes ever more shrill. “The comic book format is an invitation to illiteracy.” “Comic-book writing is also extremely poor in style and language.” “Comic books are death on reading.” He bemoans a strip in which a beetle turns into a superhero: “Kafka for the kiddies!” Even romance comics earn his ire. “You have to wade through all the mushiness, the false sentiments, the social hypocrisy, the titillation, the cheapness.” Classics Illustrated comics attract special wrath: “Macbeth is offered to your child ‘Streamlined for Action … a dark tragedy of jealousy, intrigue and violence adapted for easy and enjoyable reading. Packed with action from start to finish…. ’ Shakespeare and the child are corrupted at the same time.” Despite the witty end line, one wonders if the Bard himself, always an entertainer first, wouldn’t have relished that description of “the Scottish play.”

Wertham’s anecdotes do evince a real concern for children’s welfare, but at heart he is more a cultural warrior. A product of some of Europe’s finest universities, he simply cannot stomach this audacious new art form. “By no stretch of critical standards can the text in crime comics qualify as literature, or their drawings as art,” Wertham railed, calling them “an inartistic assembly-line product…. Even if the drawings were good, which they are not, their numbers would kill their artistic effect.” Perhaps he was unaware of art critic Clement Greenberg’s dictum, “All profoundly original art looks ugly at first.” It’s certainly the case that Bob Kane’s Batman drawings feel absurdly stiff compared to the flowing figuration of classic European art, but the young Bronx-born artist was creating something else entirely. The black chevrons of Batman’s cape bisecting a flat yellow moon; the bold, contorted stripes of a flailing gunsel’s suit; the vertiginous perspectives of rooftop battles amid dark urban grids; the contrasting color blocks necessitated by cheap printing—all these add up to something new, a gothic cubism, a New York dynamism.

Although Wertham collected artworks by such luminaries of the European avant-garde as Moholy-Nagy and El Lissitzky, he was blind to the stimulating artistic impact comics would soon have on his adopted culture. In the early 1960s, Pop Art would supplant Abstract Expressionism as the height of American art. This miscegenation of high and low would also influence such novels as Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), wherein Thomas Pynchon gives cameos to Superman, the Sub-Mariner, and Wonder Woman, as well as to the most famous creation of comic-book maestro Jack Cole, whose hypodermic-to-the-eyeball panel so incensed Wertham: “Four-color Plasticman goes oozing out of a keyhole, around a corner and up through piping that leads to a sink in the mad Nazi scientist’s lab.” Pynchon appropriated these pulpy icons to set a bar of outlandish behavior that his flesh-and-blood characters could then surpass.

In Seduction, the comic panels were poorly reproduced in black and white, undercutting Wertham’s argument that kids were drawn to comic books less for reading than to simply ogle the pictures. As the prolific graphic designer Chip Kidd told me during an interview, the eye-stabbing scene in “Murder, Morphine and Me” is “an incredible panel, and … it certainly would’ve made [Wertham’s] case a lot stronger if he had shown it in color. It’s much more terrifying.” In a book on Jack Cole, Kidd uses the original lurid colors and a three-fold enlargement of the scene—the girl’s splayed fingers, the junkie’s hand clawing her face, the spike aimed at her bulging eyeball—to emphasize its riot of nasty diagonals.

From Murder, Morphine, and Me by Jack Cole

It is to Dr. Wertham’s credit that he was more concerned about violence in comics than about sex. (Though he did fret about the relationship between Batman and Robin: “It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.”) Additionally, he did not propose outright censorship, and in fact he writes of appearing in court to defend a novel against charges of obscenity. But when he proudly notes that the case was dismissed, he cannot help remarking, “This novel belongs to the realm of literature and art and reaches a relatively small number of readers, while these comic books are mass produced and just trash.” (Typically arrogant, he provides no title or author for the novel, and it is only later that I find a clue.)

Wertham’s solution to comic “trash”? A “law that would forbid the display and sale of crime comic books to children under fifteen,” foreshadowing the movie ratings and music-content labeling of later decades. In this same vein, he points out that the “difference between the surreptitious pornographic literature for adults and children’s comic books is this: In one it is a question of attracting perverts, in the other of making them.” Still, the tone of Seduction leaves no doubt that he would not have mourned the complete eradication of the comics industry, an outcome the Senate hearings would at least partially achieve.

Back to 2004, and the arrival of the library’s copy of the Senate transcripts, bound in a forest-green hardback that is blank save for “UNITED STATES/ JUDICIARY COMMITTEE (SENATE)/HEARINGS/83 CONG., 2 SESS. JUVENILE DELINQUENCY” stamped in gold on the spine. It is bound in a cross of linen ribbon—unlike the earlier disrobing of Seduction, opening it feels more like untying a diploma or a proclamation. This was official, not sexy, a neatly wrapped bundle of democracy soon revealed as a collision of ideals, economics, and agendas buffeted by a miasma of rhetoric. (Nowadays you can save yourself a trip to the library—much of the testimony can be found here, though one still gets a more palpable sense of the era’s machinations in the bound volume.)

On the page, the dialogue between senators chimes in the mind like those overly polite rodents, Chip ’n’ Dale. “Mr. Chairman, before we call the first witness, I just want to compliment the chairman upon a very excellent statement of the purposes of this subcommittee and of this hearing here.” “The Senator from Tennessee is entirely correct and the Chair wishes to congratulate and commend the Senator for his contribution.”

But the fix is in right from chairman Robert C. Hendrickson’s opening statement on “the problem of horror and crime comic books. By comic books, we mean pamphlets illustrating stories depicting crimes or dealing with horror and sadism…. Thus, while there are more than a billion comic books sold in the US each year, our sub-committee’s interest lies in only a fraction of this publishing field.” By some reckonings, the crime and horror genres accounted for half of all comic-book circulation, a pretty big fraction. Such a huge, profitable industry will have its defenders. A fellow psychiatrist testified, “We may criticize Wertham’s conclusions on many grounds, but the major weakness of his position is that it is not supported by research data.” (In 2012, this view was reinforced in an academic paper by Carol L. Tilley, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science. More than two hundred boxes of Wertham’s papers had been donated to the Library of Congress by his widow, but access to them was embargoed until 2010. Soon after, Tilley sifted through thousands of pages of Wertham’s notes and drafts and found that the doctor “often played fast and loose with the data he gathered on comics,” and that he “manipulated, overstated, compromised, and fabricated evidence—especially that evidence he attributed to personal clinical research with young people—for rhetorical gain.”)

In the Senate transcript, Wertham is also rebutted by a senior psychiatrist from New York’s Bellevue Hospital, who believed it was harmless for children to read crime and horror comics because they know “it is not real.” She was concerned about another medium, though. “I have seen children brought to me in terrible panics, and interestingly enough most often [because of] the Walt Disney movies which do depict very disturbing mother figures. The mothers are always killed or sent to insane asylums in Walt Disney’s movies.” (Uncle Walt was later staunchly defended by a bellicose witness opposed to crime and horror comics.) During the hearings, the senators were photographed examining a display of comics with boldface words in the titles—“CRIME,” “COMBAT,” “DANGER,” “CRYPT,” “FEAR”—reminiscent of that 1952 Charlie Brown comic strip. Similar expositions concerning the dangers of crime and horror comics also traveled to England around this same time, where Winston Churchill for one was underwhelmed—perhaps enduring the Blitz a decade earlier had inured him to the terrors of four-color pulp.

Although Seduction has little to say about Cold War tensions (Wertham was in fact a sympathetic witness on behalf of those hoping to improve the treatment of convicted Soviet spy Ethel Rosenberg in the time leading up to her execution), the specter of Communism loomed darkly over the Senate hearings in this age of McCarthyism. A booklet entitled “Brain Washing: American Style” is entered into evidence, and warns, “This evil literature floods each community by the truckload. It is produced in corruption as maggots are produced.” The American Civil Liberties Union, which has defended comics publishers, is accused of close affiliation “with communistic movement in the United States and fully 90 percent of its efforts are on behalf of Communists who have come in conflict with the law.” One comics page so angered the senators that it became the sole illustration (“EXHIBIT NO. 8b”) in 310 pages of transcripts. “Are You A Red Dupe?” was drawn by Jack Davis, a virtuoso who wildly caricatured the human form while accurately conveying the body language of a jackbooted commissar stomping a printing press. The accompanying text reads, “Here in America, we can still publish comic magazines, newspapers, slicks, books, and the Bible. We don’t have to send them to the censor first. Not yet… ” and then goes on to report that one of the most vociferous critics of comic books is the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker, which insists that the violence in comics desensitizes the masses, priming them for capitalist warmongering. After much harrumphing, one senator concluded that the publishers were devoid of ideology and didn’t care “what they dish out to these youngsters as long as it sells.” The committee was fast reaching consensus that crime and horror comics were beyond redemption. (Although Senator Hennings, of the “Show-Me” state of Missouri, mused on whether they were any worse than Edgar Allan Poe, the Brothers Grimm, or Hans Christian Andersen.)

William Gaines’s satire against censorship did not amuse the senators. One fan, however, used the page to defend comics in his local newspaper.

Soon Wertham himself appeared. After a numbing list of credentials and publications, his testimony began, rehashing many of Seduction’s charges. He spoke of the eye injuries  “with this literature that I have never found anywhere else,” and talked of a school where “Some time ago some boys attacked another boy and they twisted his arm so viciously that it broke in two places, and, just like in a comic book, the bone comes through the skin….  In this same high school in one year 26 girls became pregnant. The score this year, I think, is eight. Maybe it is nine by now.” Wertham spoke of a “general moral confusion…. I think these girls were seduced mentally long before they were seduced physically … and of course, all those people are very, very great—not all of them, but most of them—are very great comic book readers, have been and are.” Considering the circulation of comics at the time, this would be tantamount to saying today that most young miscreants are great cell-phone users.

Wertham then laid into Superman comic books. “They arose in children phantasies of sadistic joy in seeing other people punished over and over again while you yourself remain immune. We have called it the Superman complex.” He would not be the first or last critic to call the Man of Steel a fascist—he may just have been the most humorless. Of a revenge tale from a horror comic in which a woman cooks and eats her antagonist, Wertham said, “I am a doctor; I can’t permit myself the luxury of being disgusted,” and then added, sarcastically, “‘The End’ is this glorious meal, cannibalism.”

SENATOR KEFAUVER: So it did not have a very happy ending.

WERTHAM: Well, the comic book publishers seem to think it did. They made a lot of money.

After this, Wertham took the high ground, proclaiming, “I detest censorship. I have appeared in very unpopular cases in court defending such novelties as The Gilded Hearse.”

This, perhaps, is the elusive novel belonging to “the realm of literature and art” that Wertham referred to in Seduction, though before this august body he has downgraded it to a novelty (or else a transcriber mistakenly heard an extra syllable while typing out the testimony). The Gilded Hearse, by Charles O. Gorham, was published in 1948, and it was probably the title, cribbed from the opening epigraph, that most attracted Wertham.

The new years walk, restoring
Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring
With a new verse the ancient rhyme. Redeem

The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream
While jeweled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse.

—T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday IV

The book’s major transgressions are references to abortion and “fags,” clinical descriptions of the female orgasm, and moments of adulterous sex (the most explicit being a postcoital “limp, mucilaginous exhaustion” during which two lovers smoke cigarettes—“a spark dropped on Mary’s breast but she didn’t flinch or cry out, accepting the sharp, taunting pain almost with pleasure”). Wertham told the senators that he defends such books because “I believe adults should be allowed to write for adults. I believe that what is necessary for children is supervision.” A reasonable argument, but toward the end of his testimony, Wertham the demagogue rears up again: “I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry. They get the children much younger. They teach them race hatred at the age of four before they can read.” He then refers to a comic-book story in which “a derogatory term for Puerto Ricans, which I will not repeat here, but which is a common derogatory term, is repeated twelve times in one story. This greasy so and so, this dirty so and so…. What is the point of the story? The point of the story is that then somebody gets beaten to death.”

The doctor’s testimony ends shortly afterward, and is immediately, like a courtroom drama on late-night TV, followed by William M. Gaines. The publisher at first gives as good as he gets: “The comics magazine is one of the few remaining pleasures that a person may buy for a dime today.” … “[American children] are bright children, but those who want to prohibit comic magazines seem to see dirty, sneaky, perverted monsters who use the comics as a blueprint for action.” …  “Jimmy Walker once remarked that he never knew a girl to be ruined by a book. Nobody has ever been ruined by a comic.” … “The truth is that delinquency is the product of the real environment in which the child lives and not of the fiction he reads.”

Then Gaines bores in. “I am happy to say, I have just caught [Dr. Wertham] in a half-truth and I am very indignant about it.” [He is referring to the tale from the Shock SuspenStories comic that Wertham accused of promoting race-hate.] “There do appear in this magazine such materials as ‘Spik’ [sic], ‘Dirty Mexican,’ but Dr. Wertham did not tell you what the plot of the story was. This is one of a series of stories designed to show the evils of race prejudice and mob violence.”

“Headlights” meet the KKK.

And so it does. “The Whipping” tells the tale of a racist father who objects to his daughter’s Mexican boyfriend. In the last panel—set outside a dark house on a dark night, a perfect setting for mistaken identity—a Hispanic youth cradles a dead white girl in his arms as a balding white man pushes a white hood back from his face:

LOUIS: We … we we’re married secretly! She was waiting for me to get home … from work … sob …

KLANSMAN: AMY! AMY! Oh Lord! I’ve killed my own daughter!

Although the story is clearly—not to say head-bangingly—blunt in conveying the message Gaines attributes to it, Kefauver condescendingly averred that, while he “can’t find any moral of better race relations in it,” he thinks it should be “filed so that we can study it and see and take into consideration what Mr. Gaines has said.”

THE CHAIRMAN: Mr. Gaines, you have no objection to having this made a part of our permanent files, have you.

GAINES: No, sir.

But then the heavyset Gaines, hopped up on Dexedrine to aid in his chronic dieting, began to fade under the tag-team inquisition of senators and the committee’s chief counsel.

HANNOCH: Do you know anything about this sheet called “Are You a Red dupe?”

GAINES: Yes, sir. I wrote it.

HANNOCH: … You believe the things that you say in this ad that you wrote? … That anybody who is anxious to destroy comics are Communists?

GAINES: I don’t believe it says that.

HANNOCH: The group most anxious to destroy comics are Communists?

GAINES: True, but not anybody, just the group most anxious.

The senators betrayed no appreciation of Gaines’s broad satire, and huffed at being lumped in with Communists. In addition to Commies and beheadings, capitalism was also on the agenda. Gaines was grilled about his salary and the corporate structure of E.C. comics, and much of the testimony of the two dozen witnesses who appeared is devoted to grosses, nets, circulation figures, and retail distribution. “Tie-in” sales were hotly debated, one witness vouching that newsdealers have comic-book “trash” “foisted and thrust upon” them by unscrupulous distributors, who in turn testified that, despite the occasional “overzealous routeman,” no retailer had to accept comic books in order to obtain consignments of House and Garden or the Saturday Evening Post. Like congressional investigators delving into the Watergate break-ins two decades later, the senators were definitely following the money.

The next day, as one witness discusses the “warped sense of values” he finds in Gaines’s comics, you can almost hear a weary sigh rise up from the printed page. The politicians are united in their disgust with Gaines and his wares, and the chairman states for the record, “I shall never forget his testimony nor his demeanor.”

After a month-long recess, the hearings concluded with the orotund cadences of power as the chairman gaveled the proceedings to an end. “I think I speak for the entire subcommittee when I say that any action on the part of the publishers of crime and horror comic books, or upon the part of distributors, wholesalers, or dealers with reference to these materials which will tend to eliminate production and sale, shall receive the acclaim of my colleagues and myself. A competent job of self-policing within the industry will achieve much.”

Shortly thereafter, a group of Gaines’s publishing rivals formed the Comics Code Authority, a self-censoring body created to satisfy Congress that comic books would henceforth hew to the straight American path and portray a world cleansed of murder and deviancy. Soon the bulk of comics on the newsstands would portray Disney’s animal kingdom, Archie’s squeaky-clean teens, watered-down adventurers, and neutered superheroes, who now looked faintly ridiculous in their capes and tights. Distributors began returning unopened boxes of Gaines’s entire comics line, not just his horror and crime issues. A few months later, the disgraced publisher was joined by his old companion from the front pages, Senator McCarthy, who was censured by the Senate for his beyond-the-pale (even by U.S. Senate standards) demagoguery.

So how bad were these #!@%$&*! comic books that were forced off the stands, anyway? Certainly the occasional decapitation, eye-bulging strangulation, gangster’s body flailed by machine-gun fire, and other depictions of ultra-violence weren’t appropriate for the tenderest of tots, and perhaps Wertham’s ideas about age-appropriate ratings would have saved the industry a lot of grief. But even the worst of the comics Wertham selected to illustrate Seduction can’t compete with the today’s parade of outré sex and hi-def brutality on the Internet. The bogeyman was this: Comics were the first mass-market medium aimed at the increasing purchasing power of kids and teens. Ironically, the most subversive comic of all squeaked under the radar of both Seduction and the Senate hearings. Since 1952, Bill Gaines had been publishing a satirical comic book dreamed up by one of his editors who needed more money to fund a growing family. Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD became a runaway hit. In a 2002 interview, Maus creator Art Spiegelman told me that MAD had been “an incredibly original endeavor…. The basic message was, ‘The media, which includes us, is lying to you.’ ” Hence, “What’s My Shine?”—a blistering parody of the televised Army-McCarthy hearings, changing the venue from a Senate hearing room to the “Friendly quiz game for the whole friendly family!” The real-life McCarthy’s shouts of “Point of order!” become demands for ham-on-rye for himself and factotum Roy Cohn, wickedly caricatured with puckered lips whispering into McCarthy’s ears.

After the Senate hearings, Gaines, now a national poster boy for depravity, wanted out of the comics game altogether, since distributors would no longer touch his crime and horror wares (and, unbeknownst to him, the F.B.I. was investigating whether his grittily realistic war comics were seditious). He eventually earned millions by converting MAD from a color comic book into a larger-format black-and-white magazine that would avoid the new comics code altogether. MAD’s irreverence toward all aspects of American politics, religion, and culture—and toward itself—gave license to a group of emerging cartoonists who would crank out some of the most transgressive art America has ever seen.  In Seduction, Wertham refers to a pirate drawing copied from a comic book by a patient, describing its “phallic symbols—the sword … the big gun.… The actual genitals are extremely accentuated.” What would he make, then, of S. Clay Wilson, the apex/nadir of an underground comix movement that, in the mid-’60s, rose up like a moldering corpse from an old Vault of Horror comic, as if in revenge for what Wertham had done to the medium that this new breed of cartoonists had loved as kids. Boldly rendered characters such as Captain Pissgums and strips such as “Head First: A Tale of Human Pathos on the High Seas Below Deck” (wherein one sailor admires, then chops off, then eats the massive penis of another) bristle with graphic extremity. Wilson’s chunkily crosshatched, big-foot cartoon style lends such scenes a morbid hilarity. In a published interview, Wilson pointed out, “Just because you depict evil, doesn’t mean you are evil.… People show up in leathers and shit, looking like my characters, I won’t let them in my house.” Influenced by Jackson Pollock, Wilson’s densely packed narratives of pirate slaughter and brawling bikers battle for coherence amid his horror vacui compositions. He once told a doctoral student, “I think cartoons can be art!… Let history sort it out after it’s all done, when we’re all dead.”

Wertham, Gaines, Senator Kefauver, and Tail-Gunner Joe are all dead now, but their legacies claw at us like those bony hands always erupting from unquiet graves in classic horror comics. There is currently no shortage of culture warriors and political demagogues, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund maintains a list  of comic books embroiled in censorship battles across America.

For those readers who want to judge Wertham’s taste for themselves, the Web site Comic Book Plus has put up digital copies of some of the books cited in Seduction of the Innocent. On the site you can also find a comic-book series that particularly stuck in Dr. Wertham’s craw: Crime and Punishment, which, despite the title’s pedigree from Dostoyevsky’s 1866 novel, ignored the great Russian author’s penetrating psychology in favor of gangsters who wreak mayhem and thwart cops before achieving gruesome, premature deaths in The Chair or under a hail of lawmen’s bullets. This casual appropriation of literary cachet may explain why Wertham used multiple examples of Crime and Punishment’s lurid tales in Seduction (thereby ensuring those particular issues increased worth on the collectors’ market—Crime and Punishment, like all its brethren, ceased publication by 1955). Issue No. 59 includes the tale of Carlo Vanna, deported from America to an unnamed European country “on the first garbage scow headed straight for the Mediterranean.” Carlo lives only for revenge, training his growing son in all methods of murder and mayhem. The plan backfires when young Joe knifes his old man and heads for the New World. The panel Wertham chose to include features a silhouette of the Statue of Liberty and the text, “Joe Vanna ran far—He ran to America! He recalled the names his father had mentioned! He knew where to go—to this fence—to that gunseller!” Wertham annotated the illo: “What comic-book America stands for.” The immigrant psychiatrist had seen the downside of the American dream—its crime, violence, and decadence—in both reality and fantasy.

Which brings to mind those “streamlined” versions of great literature that also infuriated the good doctor—Classics Illustrated comics. One of the most dramatic characters in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigailov, travels to America in an outrageous mind trip that has never been equaled in any art form. Vulgar, violent, willful, and rich, Svidrigailov gaily admits to being “depraved” and “sinful,” and says he likes his “cesspools precisely with a bit of filth.” Near the end of Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky allows Svidrigailov an outlandish valediction after he realizes that his life, devoid of love, has been wasted. Stumbling amid the gray St. Petersburg dawn, the rogue finally stops and stares for a long moment at a grizzled old watchman (christened Achilles for his classical bronze helmet).

“Zo vat do you vant here?” he said, still without moving or changing his position.

“Nothing, brother. Good morning!” Svidrigailov replied.

“It’s de wrong place.”

“I’m off to foreign lands, brother.”

“To foreign lands?”

“To America.”


Svidrigailov took out the revolver and cocked it. Achilles raised his eyebrows.

“Zo vat’s dis, a choke? It’s de wrong place!”

“But why is it the wrong place?”

“Because it’s de wrong place!”

“Well, never mind, brother. It’s a good place. If they start asking you, just tell them he went to America.”

He put the revolver to his right temple.

“Oi, dat’s not allowed, it’s de wrong place!” Achilles roused himself, his pupils widening more and more.

Svidrigailov pulled the trigger.

Sadly, you don’t get this scene of America as eternal destination—and damnation—in the Classics Illustrated version of Crime and Punishment. In fact, you don’t get Svidrigailov at all. The editors conclude, “Because of space limitations, we regretfully omitted some of the original characters and subplots of this brilliantly written novel. Nevertheless, we have retained its main theme and mood. We strongly urge you to read the original.”

Streamlining the classics.

This is, of course, much more seductive than a parent or teacher urging a kid to read some heavy book bristling with impossible Russian names. Wertham would have done well to document how many kids went on to read the classic after first breezing through an action-packed version “adapted for easy and enjoyable reading.” Comic books opened doors to all the good stuff. Passion. Drama. Sin. Violence. Literature. Love. Sex. America.

They had it right all along.


Author David Grann Follows Up “The Lost City of Z” With Another Ripping Yarn

Unlike The Lost City of Z — David Grann’s last bestseller, and now a major motion picture — the author’s new book, Killers of the Flower Moon, didn’t start with a New Yorker story. It originated with a tip from a historian, and as soon as Grann did even a little reading up on this little-known story of greed and murder in Oklahoma’s Osage Indian territory in the 1920s, he knew it was too big for a magazine piece. “It had to be a book,” he says.

Killers focuses on two main characters: Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman married to a white man whose close family members begin to die suddenly and suspiciously, and Tom White, an FBI agent sent to Oklahoma by J. Edgar Hoover to look into the suspicious deaths. Hoover suspected a conspiracy, with some culprit — or culprits — killing off Burkhart’s family in order to accumulate their oil rights. Because the barren patch of plains land sold to the Osage by the U.S. government turned out to be lousy with oil, this relatively small population of Native Americans became, for a time, the richest people per capita on the planet. It also made the Osage an immediate target for exploitation. White and several other relatively inexperienced federal agents went undercover and began to assemble evidence of a shocking, widespread conspiracy that stretched to the highest levels of local and state government.

Grann spent more than three years on the project and found, through interviews and archival research, that the crime was actually far larger and more insidious than even the FBI let on.

David Grann
David Grann

Tell me how this book came to be.

A historian mentioned the story to me in 2011, and I was surprised that I had never heard of it, never read about it in school. The Osage were the wealthiest people in the world? The FBI had been involved? There were all these elements, and I was like, “Well, how have I not heard of this?” So then I went out to the Osage Nation to just get a better sense of what was there. And that was what began the process. I think the biggest challenge, and the reason it took a long time, is because I really did not want it to be just a cataloging of the dead. In most things I had read about it, you never heard the voices of the victims, or who they were as people. My hope was to try to reclaim some of that to history. It took a long time to find the right words to do that.

This was once a very prominent story, covered in every magazine and newspaper in America. The FBI promoted its success in a movie! Why did it get so lost?

I don’t know if I have the perfect answer. I had a similar question with The Lost City of Z, because Percy Fawcett had once been very famous and then was totally forgotten. I think in this case it was probably twofold. Early on, it got attention because Hoover seized upon it to self-mythologize and to promote the bureau. And then the 1930s came and there were bigger cases in the war on crime, like [the gangster John] Dillinger. And then I think there is an element of prejudice, in the sense that the Osage remember the history, but many of the people writing the mainstream history books don’t seem to pay it much attention. The stories are a part of the history that gets neglected.

But when you do read about the case, it’s unforgettable — it’s just such an incredible, dark story of premeditated murder.

It was systematic. One of the things that drew me to this story is that it is a microcosm of the clash between white settlers and Native American cultures that has played out in this country over the years. Here it was kind of playing out in the modern era, which is unusual; it’s happening in the ’20s. But it’s almost a microcosm of all those forces.

The striking thing about these murders is how methodical they were, plotted by men willing to do seemingly anything.

There’s a calculating quality to them. And it’s not just the taking of money and life — they involve an emotional exploitation as well, which is very disconcerting.

Did you expect to actually pick up the investigation yourself? That was a surprise to me, when I got to the book’s final section.

I had hints early on, from when I would meet with some of the Osage, that this conspiracy may have been much broader than we understand. But I had no idea that I’d be able to find the evidence to support it. Before that, I was just worried if there was enough information out there to tell the main story. That was a huge hurdle to climb — to find the descendants of the victims of the murders. And then I was bewildered by how to tell the story, because the material was so sprawling. There were so many investigations, there were so many characters, there were so many victims. I couldn’t figure out a way to organize the material. And then, gradually, that structure appeared to me.

What was your solution?

I wanted to make sure it was an Osage story. So I decided to begin with Molly, an Osage woman who’s a prime target of the conspiracy. And then I was able to pick one investigator, Tom White, who could lead us through the investigation. They were both transitional figures, and that part of the book is about the emergence of a modern country and all these undercurrents that are at play. She being somebody who was born in a lodge or a wigwam, and within a span of thirty years, she’s living in a mansion with a white husband speaking English. That’s a radical transformation in a very short span of time. And Tom White, similarly, was born in a log cabin during a period of frontier justice — justice in the barrel of a gun — and then he’s trying to learn fingerprints and ballistics and has to wear a suit and file paperwork and wear a fedora. So I see them both as stepping-stones from the Old West to modern America.

Was there a point in the reporting where you thought you were just going to tell the story as a tidy narrative, with the head conspirator going to prison?

Early on I did. Early on I certainly thought of it as just self-contained, with a clear beginning and end. And then I thought maybe I would update with an epilogue of what happened later. But I found that there was a deeper, darker conspiracy — much deeper than the bureau had exposed, much deeper than I had thought.

And that tarnishes Hoover’s own telling of the story a little, of this great, heroic FBI success against all odds.

Right. It’s hard to know exactly what they knew. There is a quote from one agent, not White, that suggests . . . I don’t remember the words exactly, but I think he said, “There are hundreds of murders.”

And yet they didn’t pursue those cases. I think there was enormous pressure from Hoover to solve the case and get it wrapped up. It’s very expensive. Even though the Osage had to fund some of it — which is outrageous — he wanted to declare victory. And so if there were other trails, I think nobody was pressured to keep digging. And then, I also think they fell prey to something that makes our consciences feel better or easier to live with. Which is this notion that when there is a brutal crime, there’s kind of a singular evil force, and that if we catch that singular evil force we can remove it. And then ordinary, normal society returns. It’s almost like a cancerous tumor that has been removed. So the notion that this cancerous force bled into the hearts of so many ordinary, white, prominent citizens . . . I think was something they were not prepared to stare down. When I began the story, I saw it very much as a “Who did it?” By the end, I just kept thinking, “Oh my God. This is like, ‘Who didn’t do it?’ ” It was basically the reverse of what I had originally expected when I began research.

Was this easier or harder to do than The Lost City of Z?

Physically, much easier. I ate much better. But it was harder psychically, in the sense that it took a long time, and it dealt with subject matter that can be very disturbing and that I had to live with for a long time. It was also the first pure piece of history I’d done, and it just had a time intensity. I was really conscious of, hopefully, documenting these voices that had not been recorded. And to find those voices in the materials just took a lot more hunting than I had to do for Z. Fawcett had all his letters, and he gave them to the Royal Geographical Society, or they were with the descendants, and I got them all. This was always fragmented, and I could only get as close as I could get. With history, you’re always up against that: The material will only give you so much.

You spent a lot of time opening dusty boxes in archives. What was your most memorable discovery?

I found this book of guardian papers. Guardians were appointed to oversee the Osage’s money. Somehow, during the roaring ’20s of Gatsby, they didn’t think the Osage could be trusted with these fortunes. The idea that the Osage were the people who needed to have guardians was absolutely ridiculous and abhorrent. I went through those records, and a lot of it’s just kind of accounting — like, expenditures. But there was one book I found that had a list of guardians with their Osage “wards,” because that’s what they’d refer to them as. There’d be a list of wards, and next to the names was written “dead,” if they had died. And that’s all it said. So you’d have a guardian with, like, six people under his name, and it would be the ward’s name and “dead.” Doesn’t give a cause of death. But you realize that this bizarre bureaucratic document is concealing in itself hints of a systematic murder campaign. Because there’s no way these people, in a span of three years, were all dying of natural causes. It defies any logic. Also, they were very wealthy. They had very good medicine. These were not people that were hungry and living at the margins of society.

And how did you react to that?

It made me want to dig deeper! How was that bureaucrat keeping this record at the Department of the Interior, writing, “Dead, dead, dead”? In the middle of the 1920s! I didn’t ever say this explicitly in the book, but all the oil barons were going to Osage country and making a fortune during the murder campaign. And I couldn’t find a single comment from any of them about this. So I’m not saying that they were necessarily complicit, but that’s a complicity too. A complicity of silence. Everybody was getting rich. Nobody wanted to rock that boat. There are different levels of complicity. There were the conspirators who were killing, and there were an ungodly number of them. There were the conspirators who helped cover it up because they were getting kickbacks or were profiting in some way or paid off. And then there were the conspirators who — just because these were Native Americans — kept silent. For years these cases went on, and nobody did a damn thing.

Mollie Burkhart
Mollie Burkhart

It makes it even more impressive to consider those who did stand up in that context.

Like Mollie. I was very struck by her. It took an inordinate amount of courage for her, as an Osage woman in the 1920s, to be pursuing justice. Here are families being targeted one by one. She’s a woman, and back then, the jurors in the cases were all male. You have a society of male law enforcement, and she was Osage, who they considered not fully human, and she’s pursuing justice in her own quiet way — hiring PIs, putting out a reward, pretty much putting a bull’s-eye on herself. And she didn’t flee. It took an enormous amount of courage on her part. And then to also eventually have to confront the truth that is the most appalling truth I think I’ve ever encountered, of anything I’ve ever written about.

Worse than doing the Cameron Todd Willingham story, for the New Yorker, in which you realized that Texas almost certainly executed an innocent man?

I guess the difference with Willingham was that there was a system that failed at so many levels. In this case, what was particularly awful was that people you thought you loved turned out to be the very people plotting against you. And so that added some element of deception that’s off the charts. One of the things that struck me about this case — and it has some overlaps to Willingham — is that I didn’t have a sense until I worked on this project how lawless the country was and how fragile so many of our legal institutions are. How much corruption there was. How little training there was. And just a lack of professionalism — a kind of impartial pursuit of the truth that’s not corrupted, where you don’t tilt the finger to justice for the powerful. You realize how important it is to be a nation of laws and how, with this case, we really were not a nation of laws. You could literally murder people for years and get away with it. And in some cases, never get caught and never get punished. To the bureau’s credit, and certainly Tom White’s credit, they were able to at least capture some of the conspirators who most people believed would never be punished. And even when they caught them, everyone’s just like, “They’re not going to serve a day in jail.”

Let’s talk about movies. This one was already optioned, after a crazy auction, but you’ve been through all this before. Z was in and out of production a few times, right?

So many times. That was optioned in 2008, before the book came out, and now it’s 2017. So what’s that, nine years? It was definitely like a roller coaster, and I discovered that making a movie is harder than trekking through the jungle looking for a lost city. For me, it was like, “OK. I have a book.” I did my thing. I mean, this would be wonderful, but this isn’t my creation. My creation was the book that you will draw from, so I just keep that in mind, but now that it actually happened — it’s totally crazy exciting.

So you’ve learned your lesson, and now you won’t get your hopes up about the movie actually getting made?

I think you can’t help yourself. You are going to get emotionally invested, and then you have to talk yourself off the ledge. I’m the most neurotic person around. I talk myself off the ledge constantly, but then I come down and I sound good. Just don’t get me on the day when I’m on the ledge.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
By David Grann
338 pp.


Work-Study, Manhattan Style: Thousands of NY Students Turn to Sex Work to Make Ends Meet

Johanna* needed money. Her mother had become too ill to support herself, leaving Johanna to care for her and the rest of the family while a full-time student at New York University. Tuition for her junior year had hit $63,000 — the third highest of any university in the country. In her first two years she’d scraped by with a waitressing job at a pizzeria, two scholarships worth $32,000, and help from her family — a $30,000 gift from a cousin and a $15,000 federal loan in her mother’s name.

But her fortunes faded quickly. Her cousin’s money ran out just when the cost and time commitment of Johanna’s frequent trips home were becoming untenable. Her grades slipped; scholarships vanished. She was fired from the waitressing gig for missing too many shifts for class. Johanna considered switching to a less expensive school, but because of the idiosyncratic nature of her course load (she is enrolled in one of NYU’s specialty majors), her credits wouldn’t transfer. She took out another $19,000 in government loans to cover the mounting shortfall. But those payments would one day come due, and the rent on her Lower Manhattan apartment wasn’t getting any cheaper.

So it was that on a cold February day last year, Johanna found herself on the corner of Sixth Avenue and West 39th Street. She kept her right hand in her pocket to keep warm. Eventually her phone rang: Go in the door next to the hair salon, the voice told her, and walk up to the second floor. There, a security guard checked her ID and opened the door. The familiar hum of the city streets faded quickly as Johanna entered a dungeon equipped with bondage wheels and cages suspended from the ceiling; through another set of doors was a room designed to look just like a doctor’s office, set up for needle play. All of the windows were boarded up.

Between sessions, women waited in two dressing rooms; that first night Johanna counted around thirty in each. Of the women she spoke to, Johanna says that all were students or recent graduates working for tuition money or to pay off student loans. Many were students at Sarah Lawrence, CUNY, and Cooper Union. Most, Johanna claims, were from Tisch, NYU’s arts school. (Reached by telephone last week, workers at the dungeon confirmed to the Voice that many of the women working there are university students or recent graduates.) Three weeks later, Johanna agreed to her first “sub session”: She was chained to a hook and suspended naked from the ceiling while a man whipped her repeatedly with his belt. This lasted an hour. She received $80, plus tip.

The Voice first met Johanna the following September, when she was among dozens at Washington Square Park protesting then–NYU president John Sexton’s controversial use of university funds — for everything but easing the burden of tuition on students. Johanna was reluctant about speaking in public; her friends and family didn’t know what she was doing for a living. Nevertheless, she agreed to participate, taking the dais cloaked in two headscarves, a ball mask, and a long-sleeve shirt, despite the heat of the late-summer afternoon. “My story is a common one,” she said into the mic. “And that is why I need to tell it.”


Public opinion on sex work has liberalized rapidly. A recent New York magazine story revealed that in 2012, 38 percent of Americans believed it should be legalized; by 2015 the share had grown to 44 percent, and the wave shows no sign of having crested. At the same time, we’ve seen an explosion in the number of services like, Ashley Madison, MyRedBook, Adam4Adam, and Peppr — which markets itself as the “Uber for escorts” — connecting potential workers to potential clients. (One of those services,, was once affiliated with the Village Voice, but after a change in ownership last October, the paper no longer accepts such advertising.)

Among the largest and oldest is Seeking Arrangement, a matchmaking website founded in 2006 that helps 2.6 million registered “sugar babies” find the sugar mamas and daddies willing to pay for their company. In a somewhat counterintuitive public relations move, Seeking Arrangement in 2015 released numbers claiming that more than half its U.S. providers were students. The same dataset also revealed that more than 1,000 undergraduates and graduate students at NYU alone — 2.6 percent of the school’s 45,000 full-time students — had active accounts, more than any other American college listed in the report, including Columbia (1.8 percent), the New School (1.7 percent), and CUNY (0.25 percent).

Seeking Arrangement’s data trove offered what may well be the clearest glimpse to date of the size and scope of college students’ engaging in sex work in this country. But it represents a fraction of the overall phenomenon. The numbers, for example, do not account for sex workers, such as Johanna, who arrange meetings through the myriad other services available. They also exclude those who signed up with a personal email address. (Presumably in order to be able to advertise its “college students,” the site’s targeted “Sugar Baby University” promotion encourages people to register with their college addresses by offering free premium accounts. “No minimum GPA required,” reads the landing page.) In other words, we can safely assume that the figure Seeking Arrangement gives for student providers substantially underestimates the overall number citywide. After all, a recent YouGov poll reported that 6 percent of Americans have been paid for sex at some point in their lives.

It’s important to understand that this phenomenon is not exclusive to NYU. If there’s anything the Seeking Arrangement data make unequivocal, it’s that student sex workers are everywhere. Student sex workers willing to talk to the press, however, are not. Johanna and the other student sex workers who agreed to speak on the record are students at NYU. But it’s also true that the financial realities of getting a college education at NYU can be particularly punishing and may contribute to the fact that, if Seeking Arrangement’s numbers are to be trusted, a higher percentage of its students seem to be turning to sex work in order to make ends meet.

Sexton was the president of NYU for thirteen years and is widely credited with transforming the school from an excellent local institution into a world-class global university. NYU attracted twice as many applicants in 2012 as it did in 2002, the year Sexton took office.

But his tenure was also marred by financial scandal. In 2007, an investigation by the New York State attorney general found that NYU, along with four other universities, was secretly taking kickbacks off of student loan interest rates from Citibank — NYU’s preferred lender, which at the time serviced most of the school’s loans. In 2010, the university administration announced a controversial plan to spend $6 billion on some of the world’s most expensive real estate around New York City, a move that seemed to have little to do with higher education. A 2013 New York Times report revealed the university was funding faculty vacation homes and paying exorbitant salaries to the administration’s higher-ups. And in 2015, an investigative report by Nardello & Co. found a series of labor rights violations at a new campus in Abu Dhabi — built to the tune of $1 billion.

The university has long been accused of focusing on adding to its already massive real estate holdings at the expense of its students. In response, NYU claims its financial aid budget has tripled over the past ten years and that student debt has decreased by 30 percent in the past five. Yet a data analysis by ProPublica in 2015 revealed that the university saw a 91 percent increase in revenue from student fees and tuition over the past decade and that student debt rates are roughly unchanged from ten years ago. On a scale of 60 to 99, the Princeton Review rates NYU’s financial aid awards a 63, the lowest of any major university in the nation even as its tuition ranks among the highest.

Nationally, of course, more students than ever are going into debt to finance a college education: The national student debt burden recently surpassed $1.2 trillion, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In 2009 the average NYU grad owed more than $28,500 in federal debt, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education, and a report by the Brookings Institution found that in 2014, NYU student debt was the second highest in the country among attendees of nonprofit colleges. Furthermore, low-income students at NYU whose families make less than $30,000 per year typically owe more than $23,000 in federal loans upon graduation, according to the ProPublica analysis. (These numbers don’t include loans taken from private banks.)

Some students critical of the campaign against Sexton argue that the school has every right to choose how to distribute its money and that students are fully informed of all school-related costs upon admission. It is up to the students to decide whether attending is financially feasible. Following her speech at the September rally, Johanna was accused by her peers of being entitled: She’d opted to attend an expensive school and the consequences were her responsibility, they commented on social media. Johanna stands by her decision, arguing that in an age when the prestige of one’s degree matters more than ever, her choice was practical. “I realize that names don’t always matter,” she told the Voice. “But to a lot of people it does.”

In an email sent out last month to NYU students and faculty, NYU’s new president, Andrew Hamilton, vowed to freeze housing and meal plan fees and nominally reduce the cost of attendance. Hamilton also blamed the school’s high tuition on its prime Manhattan location and relatively small endowment. However, while NYU students pay almost $18,000 for one year of room and board, Columbia University, located just uptown in comparably tony environs, charges just $12,000. And although NYU’s $3.2 billion endowment is substantially smaller than Columbia’s $8.2 billion, ProPublica’s Debt by Degrees database lists dozens of colleges with smaller endowments than NYU, including Syracuse University and Fordham, that charge their low-income students a fraction of what NYU does.

When reached for comment about the details of this article, Matt Nagel, NYU’s director of public affairs, emailed the Voice two statements that addressed the issues of student debt and sex work. In response to Johanna’s public allegations, he wrote: “It’s not really our practice to respond to the claims of masked individuals at a protest rally. But the bottom line is this: if a student comes to us in difficult financial straights [sic], then we are usually able to assist them, and we work with students on these issues all the time. The claim that someone has to turn to activities that are harmful to himself or herself is at odds with NYU’s concern for the welfare of its students and the services we have in place to support them.”


Some student sex workers say they enjoy what they do and don’t do it just for the money. Nay Nay*, 21, who studied acting at Tisch, began working as a lap dancer at the St. Venus Theater in Hell’s Kitchen after quitting her job at the NYU Call Center due to poor pay. As a lap dancer, Nay Nay took home an average of $600 per night for a six-hour shift, which allowed her to dedicate more time to schoolwork, as she’d only have to dance one or two nights a week. “I find a weird kind of empowerment in it,” she explained to the Voice over Skype from New Orleans, where she now lives. “I like that I have the choice to do it, I view it as ultimately my decision, and if I enjoy dancing, then I can do it.”

“Why on earth wouldn’t someone do it?” asked Norma Jean Almodovar, 64, the founder and president of the International Sex Worker Foundation for Art, Culture, and Education, a nonprofit that advocates for decriminalizing sex work and reducing violence against women in the trade.

Almodovar was a cop with the LAPD in the 1980s when she decided to take a stand against the “idiotic” laws and poisonous social stigma that punished people for taking part in the sex industry. “You know what cops call murdered prostitutes?” she asked. “NHIs. You know what that means? ‘No humans involved.’ I found that extremely offensive, that they could say that about anyone — much less because the cops had sex with them all the time.”

Almodovar quit to become a full-time activist, ultimately making a name for herself as one of America’s most outspoken sex worker advocates, and took call girl jobs on the side. She has no regrets. “Why take out these huge student loans if you have options such as doing sex work which can generate more money in one night than you can earn in a month?” she said. In her case, she often forged strong bonds with her clients. “Not only is it financially rewarding, but it’s emotionally rewarding. It was the best job I ever had.”

Max*, 25, who was a sex worker while studying film at Tisch, strikes a more ambivalent tone. Sex work was not part of Max’s plan when he decided to transfer from a large private university to Tisch’s competitive film program. He said he received $16,000 in scholarship funds for each of his junior and senior years and took out another $110,000 in student loans. Extracurricular costs in the film program are extremely high, however, and students can spend upwards of $15,000 on their senior project, according to an administrator at Tisch. These films play a significant role in students’ job search, and Max said several of his classmates from privileged backgrounds spent between $30,000 and $40,000, making it difficult to compete.

Max did what he could to get by. He budgeted $2,400 for his junior project and waited until the year after he graduated to complete his senior project so he wouldn’t have to worry about funding it while he was in school. He moved out of the dorms, which cost $1,600 per month, into a “shoebox apartment” in the East Village that was $500 cheaper. He got a job as a busboy and signed up for a meal plan that could be covered by student loans. It still wasn’t enough.

Max said the decision to move into sex work came naturally to him and his friend Stephen*, with whom he allied for safety reasons. Max and Stephen carefully selected their clients from the fifty or so responses they received each day to their Craigslist ad.

“We’d see who we could get the most amount of money from for the least amount of actual sex,” he explained matter-of-factly. Despite having created this boundary for himself, he still occasionally struggled with bouts of shame and guilt — when, for example, he inadvertently found photos of his clients with their wives and children. The work has also affected his personal life. Max has been in three romantic relationships since he gave up sex work, but each time, he says, it’s just as difficult as the last to disclose his past. “To have to have sex with someone who you knew used to be bought and sold is maybe not something that they want,” he said.

According to Rosara Torrisi, a sex therapist at the Long Island Institute of Sex Therapy and Ph.D. candidate in Widener University’s Human Sexuality Program who counsels a number of sex workers, it is not unusual for them to encounter difficulties with romantic partners. She says her clients often struggle to distinguish their work–sex life from their love–sex life and encounter resistance from partners who have a hard time understanding what they do. “There’s a certain amount of jealousy and concern about honesty,” she said. Sex workers often experience anxiety and occasionally depression, exhaustion, and even PTSD if they’ve been in a violent situation, Torrisi said. “It’s a very isolating profession. There are very few people you can openly talk to about this.”

While there are dozens of outreach programs and advocacy groups in the U.S. that provide emotional and structural support to sex workers, there are no organizations that are directed specifically at students. Except for one. Oregon’s Portland State University is the only college in America with a student sex worker outreach program. However, when reached for comment, no one involved in the effort was permitted to speak publicly about the organization; the university’s administration had asked that they refrain from speaking to the media.

“I know they don’t necessarily publicize [student sex worker programs], because they get a lot of criticism,” said Almodovar. “I think the best thing is both to give student sex workers a safe space where they can meet and discuss issues and give them an opportunity to interact with academics who have a lot to learn from people in sex work.”

In the end, sex work is sometimes not the panacea it seems to be. Max, for his part, graduated three years ago and $110,000 in debt. With interest, that figure has since climbed to $130,000. As he put it, “I don’t know that that’s ever going to get paid off, ever.”

Johanna’s days at the dominatrix den were short-lived.
Customers, mostly men, would come in and fill out an elaborate form describing their fetishes and what kind of woman they were looking for. Were it not for the fact that Johanna fit the type that was most in demand — an “all-American college student” — she likely would not have been able to book many sessions at all. As it was, she typically never worked more than one session per night, and she often didn’t work period. In March, Johanna quit and turned once again to Craigslist.

After a few stints cleaning apartments naked for $180 per hour, Johanna settled on a job at a massage parlor, where she would give sensual massages for the following three months. As a “body rub girl,” Johanna received $110 per hour, plus tips, and would earn an extra $90 to meet a client at his hotel room.

Overwhelmingly, she says, the men treated her with kindness and respect. There were a few instances, though, where she was touched inappropriately. In these cases, the women have the option to blacklist clients. Still, when a married insurance mogul and former athletic director of a well-known university repeatedly asked for more than what her services offered, she didn’t blacklist him. He tipped too well. So well, in fact, that when he left her $2,000, she decided she was financially stable enough to leave the sex trade.

But it wasn’t long before she needed money again. Which explains why, on another cold February afternoon — this one five months after the Voice first met her — Johanna is waiting anxiously at a coffee shop in midtown Manhattan. She is sipping a large chai with milk, clutching her phone in her left hand.

The phone chimes: I may have a 2p for you. It’s her boss, Kate*, who texts Johanna with her scheduled bookings. Kate owns a number of parlors across the country and manages them from San Francisco. However, unlike at many other massage studios, Kate monitors her businesses closely: All employees must be referred, all customers vetted. Potential clients must provide a phone number, which she screens, and either the contact information of a sex worker they’ve hired in the past or a link to one of their social-media profiles.

Located in an ordinary apartment building in the lower 30s, Kate’s operation is clean and organized. There are cribs and strollers to make it look like someone lives there, in case the managers come by, and the massage beds collapse for easy storage. The showers are spotless, and the living room, where Johanna often studies while she’s on call, features comfortable couches and good Wi-Fi. Five women work there; Johanna is closest with Rachel, a mathematician and business owner, and Gwen, a nursing student. Johanna puts in four-hour shifts, taking drop-ins Monday through Thursday, plus a nine-hour shift on Fridays. She makes between $200 and $1,000 per day, which she hides in old textbooks around her house.

Five minutes pass; Kate never confirms the impromptu appointment. After deleting Kate’s text, Johanna heads over to the apartment anyway: She’s booked for a 3 p.m. and wants to get there early to get ready. Johanna wears little makeup, but she wants to shave her legs.

“It’s true, I did this to myself. Would I choose it again? I don’t know,” she says. “I’m not done with my education. I could be a slave to the banks for the rest of my life, or I can spend a few years doing this and I could be free.”

*All starred names are pseudonyms.


Hell on Wheels: Port Authority’s Broken Promise Is Choking Newark’s Kids

It had been a rough couple of years for Tanisha Garner. In 2010 she left an abusive marriage and moved out of Newark’s West Ward, the neighborhood where she was born and raised; around the same time, she lost her job as a Verizon technician. To make ends meet, she eventually turned to welfare, but that only helped so much: After two years, the rental assistance keeping her and her three children in an apartment in Newark’s Central Ward expired. Out of options, and out of money, she moved her family to the Ironbound.

“I couldn’t find anywhere else, no application got back to me, and that’s how I ended up here,” Garner says of her two-bedroom in the Aspen River Park Apartments.

The Ironbound is an eastside Newark neighborhood that abuts the Passaic River, a disused industrial corridor and superfund site. Row homes, subsidized housing, and warehouses crowd the narrow streets, which are clogged with school and public buses. Vacant lots sit next to vinyl-sided houses pushed up beside one another, crisscrossed by low-slung electrical and cable wires. Jammed against Route 9, the public housing projects encircle a dirt field with patches of grass. (During Superstorm Sandy, the field was flooded with chemical runoff.)

On an early, eerily hot spring day, kids run out of their aging red-brick school, filling the streets under the power lines. The low, persistent thrum of machinery is everywhere. Surrounding the Ironbound are a rail yard, an airport, numerous gas tankers, waste stations, incinerators, and rusting shipping containers — the blue-collar engines that keep the New York metropolitan area functioning, all concentrated in this lower-middle-class section of the Garden State. And towering over all of it is the Port Newark–Elizabeth Marine Terminal, the largest port on the Eastern Seaboard and the third largest in the country.

Dockworkers and truck drivers load and unload freight here from dawn till dusk. Each year shipping companies and their thousands of independent drivers move north of $100 billion in goods through here and onto a global trade network that links Parsippany to Beijing. In 2015, a record 3.6 million cargo containers entered Port Newark; XPO Logistics, one of the largest companies birthed there, made $15 billion in revenue last year alone.

The Ironbound represents a bottleneck in that constant flow: Trucks — more than 8,700 of them in a single month, more than 1.4 million trips a year — must pass through its winding streets to move between the highway and the port, hugging the Passaic and entering the port near the Essex County Correctional Facility.

That endless procession — about two hundred trucks per hour, or three every minute — has rendered this beaten-down neighborhood a toxic mess; even a few minutes outside can irritate your throat. According to an estimate by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, diesel particulate levels surrounding the port are up to 1,000 times greater than levels considered safe to breathe. In 2013, the air at a swimming pool in the Ironbound registered twenty micrograms of black carbon (the main component of diesel exhaust) per cubic meter, dozens of times more concentrated than at a private pool in Weequahic, the middle-class neighborhood just a few miles south.

The Port Authority asked the Environmental Protection Agency, the states of New York and New Jersey, and the truck drivers themselves to share the cost of a fix, but not the shipping companies, which claimed they couldn’t afford it — despite record-setting port traffic last year.

Meanwhile, Garner and her family — as well as the 50,000 other residents in the neighborhood — live in a bowl of smog. “The exhaust gets on our food, everything,” she says, balancing her one-year-old, Chozin, on her knee. “I pray to God every day none of my kids get sick.”

Faith crosses an empty lot after school.
Faith crosses an empty lot after school.

Diesel exhaust exposure is a matchless predictor of poor health outcomes, says Robert Laumbach, MD, MPH, a professor at Rutgers’s Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. Nationwide, diesel exhaust has been linked to increased rates of asthma, lung cancer, and pre-term birth, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, some of its component chemicals, have been found to cause both ADD and ADHD in children in the New York metro area. “It contains tiny particles that get deep into the lungs, which carry on them other pollutants like a delivery system,” Laumbach explains.

One in four Newark children suffers from asthma; the hospitalization rate is 150 percent greater for kids living in the city than in the rest of the state, and more than thirty times the rate nationwide. Asthma attacks are now a leading cause of school absenteeism in the region — air pollution levels are highest between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m., when kids are heading to school.

Laumbach is working on a study to directly measure the long-term effects of diesel emissions on the health of children in the Newark area. “The idea is to get a better sense of how even short-term exposure from idling trucks might affect kids with asthma,” he says. “The other side of this study is that these kids might be more vulnerable to the effects of particulate matter on their asthma if they also have other chronic psychosocial stressors.” More than half of the kids in the Ironbound are children of immigrants, and many people in the community are undocumented. “[These stresses] all get transmitted to the kids,” Laumbach says.

The chief culprit in the Ironbound are the trucks themselves. Much of the fleet is ten to twenty years old, some with bumpers held on with duct tape, their cab doors fastened with bungee cords. The aging rigs idle for hours, emitting an endless stream of pollution as they wait to pick up their cargo.

These trucks were supposed to be gone by now. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency that controls Port Newark, announced a truck replacement program back in 2010 that mimicked successful clean-up efforts at other ports around the country: Over the next seven years, the agency said it would phase out all pre-2007 rigs — which produce 95 percent more diesel particulate matter than later models — and subsidize the cost of replacing them for drivers, most of whom own their own trucks. The program was to be funded with an initial $21 million from the Port Authority, with more money coming annually from the EPA. “We have worked closely with all stakeholders to make sure that this new program will help clean up the pollution at our ports and, in the process, ensure that we do not overburden our already struggling port and trucking industry,” announced then–Port Authority executive director Chris Ward.

If it had ever been fully implemented, the program could have cut emissions by as much as that 95 percent by 2017. But in January, after spending six years and $35 million on just 429 new trucks, the Port Authority abandoned the program. In a press release buried on its labyrinthine website, the agency announced that its goal was to continue “to balance the need to efficiently and effectively move goods to and from our port terminals, while continuing to be good environmental stewards to the communities that surround our port facilities.” It said it would no longer enforce a ban on pre-2007 trucks entering the port, claiming it could not shoulder the total projected cost of $150 million.

Coming from an agency that had just spent $4 billion on the new World Trade Center hub that even the authority’s outgoing executive director, Patrick Foye, called a “symbol of excess,” pleas of poverty were pretty hard for locals to swallow. Community organizer Kim Gaddy has lived her entire life in Newark’s nearby South Ward, a neighborhood next to the port’s main truck ramp. Gaddy’s three children all developed asthma very young. Her middle daughter, now fifteen, was diagnosed with chronic asthma when she was one.”When you’re a parent and your family members are experiencing all these health effects,” says Gaddy, “having to learn about air quality and pollutants just so your kid can be healthy, and the only rationale that the port gives you is financial, you really have to wonder what’s wrong with that picture.”

Gaddy was working for the city at the time and was determined to get Newark’s black political leadership to do something about the environmental problems plaguing the town. “They were concerned with crime and poor education,” she says. “The environmental side of things didn’t have a voice.” She was part of the original group of environmental advocates that worked with the Port Authority on its Clean Air Strategy, which included the truck replacement program. Gaddy learned the Port Authority was abandoning the plan only hours before the announcement.

A 267-acre container terminal flanks Port Newark.
A 267-acre container terminal flanks Port Newark.

In 2015, the Port Authority spent 4 percent of its capital budget on Port Newark. But between 2010 and 2015, the agency drastically ramped up its spending elsewhere. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie often allocates the agency’s reserves to pet projects that have nothing to do with bi-state transit, including $500 million to redevelop the Atlantic City airport and $1.8 billion to repair the crumbling Pulaski Skyway, which connects Jersey City with Newark. (The governor’s office declined to comment for this story.)

Federal money was plentiful, too. In 2008, the EPA began offering grants for newer, cleaner industrial equipment as part of a national push to slash diesel emissions. Ports across the country launched programs to take advantage of the funds. One such program begun that year was at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the country’s fifth and tenth largest ports, respectively. By 2012, all pre-2007 trucks had been banned from those ports entirely, and emissions were down by 80 percent. All told, the EPA has spent $52 million on the program.

L.A.’s approach couldn’t have been more different from the Port Authority’s. For one, the municipalities that controlled the city’s ports had established a schedule of fees to help pay for truck replacement. If a truck or shipping company did not comply with emissions standards, it was charged a fee that went into a fund earmarked for the replacement program. For another, much of the cost ended up being placed on the trucking companies themselves, the entities that could best afford to pay.

The Port Authority, by contrast, resisted issuing fees for politically connected shipping companies and truck carriers, even as the port experienced boom times. Instead, the brunt of the expense was passed to individual drivers, most of whom own their own rigs and earn around $28,000 a year. It was a classic case of passing the buck to the politically powerless.

Tanisha Garner and her daughters
Tanisha Garner and her daughters

A new truck can cost more than $100,000. Under the Port Authority’s program, truckers were entitled to grants covering a quarter of the price of a truck and a low-interest loan to help pay the rest. But faced with a $75,000 debt, even at low interest, drivers quickly found themselves underwater. Meanwhile, thanks to bureaucratic inefficiency and the use of pricey consultants, the cost of just administering the program ballooned to $97,902 per vehicle in 2015 — roughly the same price as a new truck. Put another way, the Port Authority’s approach doubled the cost of each new rig.

For over twenty years Juan Reyes, 57, was an independent contractor, and says he never made enough money to buy his own vehicle. Standing next to a brand-new 2016 rig — he’s one of the few drivers employed by a company that provides new trucks for its employees — he says he knows what most drivers go through.

“Nobody can afford a new truck, because you make no money to begin with,” Reyes says. “So the first thing drivers do is buy a piece-of-shit truck, just so they can start working.” Drivers rarely make enough money to upgrade their rigs in any substantive way, he explains, instead moving from one junker to another.

The trucking companies, meanwhile, own no trucks and have very few employees; they have remained one of the most vocal forces against the truck ban, wary of the opportunity it would give organized labor. (In Los Angeles, the city collaborated with the Teamsters Union to form a new, “green” trucking competitor, EcoFlow, to operate at the port.) Ana Baptista, a professor of environmental policy and sustainability management at the New School, says the carriers’ refusal to chip in is the chief reason the plan failed, and the Port Authority did nothing to require them to do so. By last year just one in ten trucks that regularly used Port Newark were newer than 2007; some of the replacements purchased with the loans and grants weren’t even up to 2007 standards. The Port Authority had been directly subsidizing noncompliance.

“Under the plan, the burden for paying for the new trucks was shifted to the most vulnerable members of the supply chain: the independent truckers themselves,” says Baptista.

But as Fred Potter, director of the Teamsters Port Division, explains, “The industry should bear the cost of this; the Walmarts, Home Depots, and the shippers that use these trucking services should be paying for it. At this moment, only 9 percent of the trucks that regularly use the port are 2007-EPA compliant. Just what did they spend all that money on?”

When staffers in the Christie administration ordered closure of traffic lanes on the George Washington Bridge in 2013, the ensuing scandal exposed, once again, the famously political nature of internal dealings at the Port Authority. Besides becoming fodder for national headlines and torpedoing the governor’s presidential ambitions, Bridgegate demonstrated just how involved Christie’s apparatchiks were in the operations of the authority, an agency established to be above political influence in order to serve the interests of two states at once. Following a lengthy investigation, both the New York and New Jersey state senates crafted a restructuring of the authority to make it far more transparent and accountable to the states’ non-executive officials. In a midnight veto, Andrew Cuomo and Christie shot down the legislation. A final reform bill has yet to materialize.

Amid the political turf war, there had been rare glimmers of hope. In mid-2015, the Port Authority appointed a new commerce director, Molly Campbell, who’d helped oversee Los Angeles’ clean truck program. It was an encouraging sign for clean air advocates, who met with Campbell in the fall and were told the replacement program would continue as they approached the 2017 deadline.

Then Campbell reneged. When the program was cut, activists were given little warning; the Port Authority didn’t even notify the EPA. After canceling the program, Campbell and her staff announced a new, drastically weaker one: The truck ban only extends to pre-1995 models, and the deadline for compliance was pushed back to 2018. The agency did solicit public comment for the new program, which went into effect in March, but unlike other state agencies the Port Authority is not obliged to respond to or incorporate that input. (“We welcome any workable environmental solutions that will further benefit the port community as a whole,” Campbell said in a statement to the Voice. “Our door is always open.”)

Meanwhile, Tanisha Garner is still in the Ironbound, worrying. She and a few other locals are conducting a tour of sorts, pointing out where Sandy sent toxic water cascading through the neighborhood after the Passaic overflowed. Alexi Martinez, a 25-year-old student who has lived in the Ironbound his entire life, remarks that many of his friends carry inhalers. It wasn’t until he started working with the Ironbound Community Corporation that he discovered why.

“Learning about our problem here is going to be our best hope at solving it,” Martinez says. “Just going down to the port for the first time a few months ago was mind-blowing for me. There’s just so many trucks idling, so much pollution, trucks just chilling there for hours.”

As he speaks, truck after truck slowly makes its way through traffic, trailing exhaust. Kids run across a busy street to play with the wary chickens in a community garden. Nearby, an entire alley is filled with murals: One depicts a figure crouching in a gas mask, surrounded by garbage and smog.

Garner hopes it doesn’t have to end up like that. She’s committed to staying in the neighborhood, even if it means she and her neighbors have to keep pressuring the Port Authority to keep its promise to them. “How can we effect any change when everything is political games?” she asks, pointing to a passing truck. “We’re the ones breathing this air.”

Listen to writer Max Rivlin-Nadler speak in depth about why the Port Authority scaled back its truck emissions program on WNYC:

Listen to writer Max Rivlin-Nadler’s conversation with ProPublica about the Port Authority:

[Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story on high levels of pollution in Newark’s portside communities incorrectly identified Weequahic, one of the city’s southside neighborhoods, as predominantly white. The community is predominantly black, according to the most recent census data. Nevertheless, though Weequahic is only a few miles farther from Port Newark than the Ironbound is, the concentration of exhaust there is dozens of times lower. The
Voice regrets the errors.]


After Leaving Her Beloved Red Hook, a New Yorker Learns to Live — and Belong — in the Motor City

“Can I touch your hair?”

The question catches me off guard. I look at the man, unsure of how to respond. Did I hear him correctly? He’s definitely been drinking, but then so have I. A thin veil of cigarette smoke hangs over the bar, obscuring his face. Each of the stools between us is occupied, and all of their owners are now staring at me. A hush falls over the room. Everyone is wondering how the white girl is going to react.

My husband and I are sitting in the Elbow Lounge in Detroit. A small bar on a best-be-getting-on block of a best-be-getting-on street in what most people would call a best-be-getting-on city.

But we’re not getting on. This is the city we now call home.

We’d moved here from Red Hook several months earlier and bought one of those crazy Detroit houses. We’re the emigrant couple that New Yorkers always talk about. The what-if people who left New York after musing for years about somewhere cheaper, somewhere warmer, quieter, softer. Dreaming about bailing is the city’s favorite pastime, of course, right after obsessing about real estate prices, hating the Red Sox, and complaining about those giant fucking golf umbrellas on the sidewalk. But who actually leaves? You would have to be crazy to leave The Capitol for the flyover territories. And Detroit? The murder capital of America, a bankrupt city, for a ramshackle house? Many of us spent our youth trying to get out of places like Detroit — or, in my case, Denver — and to New York. Getting to NYC is the ultimate “fuck you” to those back home. Who leaves that?

Everyone. And no one. And I could tell you all about how hard it is to leave, my tale of sadness and tears, but you’re better served by just reading Joan Didion. She did it best. Does it best. And looks more glamorous than I ever could. My story is about what happens once you leave. How do you go from being a New Yorker to being a new anything else?

I became a New Yorker in that forgotten corner of the city known as Red Hook. I settled there even though everyone told me it was too dangerous — or worse, too far from the subway — because when I stepped off the B61 bus for the first time, in 2007 (after waiting 45 minutes at Borough Hall), I was immediately smitten.

I walked down to Valentino Pier and watched as the gulls circled and swooped and the barges, cruise ships, and tankers drifted in and out of the harbor. I was alone in a city of 8 million. The magic-hour light cast a rose-gold glow on the empty streets. I knew this was home. Love at first sight.

By the time I arrived, the neighborhood had stabilized. It was no longer ground zero for crack, Mob hits, or the roving pack of dogs that once ran the waterfront. But time had also stood still here. Red Hook had been forgotten, left alone. That meant poor public transportation and a lack of basic infrastructure for its 11,000 residents. There was a sense of inhabiting an in-between space: the beautiful chaos between the worst of the danger having passed and the worst of the rebuilding — the luxury condos and Estate Four campuses — just beginning.

I knew it would take time to earn my way in. Red Hook is a small town hidden in the big city. And I knew that, just like the small town of my childhood, I’d have to prove that I belonged.

I could already feel the locals rolling their eyes at me as I professed my love. Here comes another one, I could hear them thinking. We’ll see how long she lasts. It was the same expression I’d catch on my own face a few years later when visitors would proclaim their own devotion to a post-industrial fishing village on the edge of nowhere. You can’t trust a newcomer’s commitment until they’ve shown themselves hardy enough to make it through at least one winter on the Buttermilk Channel. The moving trucks line up in September, when Red Hook is in her summer finery. Come February, those same moving trucks line up again as the wind starts to bite and the skies turn bleak and gray.

I planted myself in the best place I knew: a barstool. In Red Hook, it was at the Bait & Tackle, a quintessential locals bar with an abundance of taxidermy. (Sunny’s was only open sporadically back then and the Brooklyn Ice House was still just the old, closed Pioneer Bar.) I bellied up and ordered bourbon. Neat. And then I did that again. Day after day, through fall and then winter, until finally, come spring, the locals started acknowledging me. Usually it was an enthusiastic hello to my dog Madeline and the mere arch of an eyebrow or flick of a wrist for me. But that was enough to make me forgive the smell of hot cat piss that summer, because the bar offered some hope. It was the place of community, a gathering spot for souls seeking solace not just in a bottle but, more importantly, in belonging.

Everyone who crowded around the end of Bait’s bar had a nickname and easy rapport. There was Steamer and Sniff, Captain Chris and Canadian Chris, Crazy Dave and Whiskey Dave, and even my future husband, Hot Karl (sexy, I know). Some owned other businesses in the neighborhood; some worked in the local watering holes; others found their employment on the docks. That’s the thing about Red Hook: Outsiders confuse it with Williamsburg, with hipsters, because they saw Francis with his long beard in Esquire or John with his epic handlebar mustache walking down Van Brunt Street. But that was just their look and had been since before stovepipe jeans came back. This is the land of people who can still build shit. Industry happens here, unabated, from behind thick warehouse walls, from the Cornell Paper & Box Company to glass blowers on the ancient pier. The stevedores load and unload the dwindling number of ships still docking in Brooklyn. This isn’t some tourist town all prettied up for the guests; industry and residents live side by side. Sure, time is changing that, but — back then, at least — Red Hook was where you wanted to be should the zombie apocalypse come.

And Red Hook was good to Karl and me. We had a lovely apartment, great friends, and good jobs. But the closer we crept to forty, the more we came to wonder what the future would hold when two six-figure incomes were no longer enough to buy a place in the neighborhood Life magazine once called the crack capital of the country. What had drawn a self-selecting, tough, creative, ragtag band of outsiders suddenly was appealing to a wider audience. Rents were on the rise. Shells of buildings were selling for a million — and they’d probably need at least another million to rehab them. New owners “invested,” and small businesses that had been there through the lean times feared they’d be pushed out. Celebrity artists, not just working artists, moved in. The streets ran thick with tourists on bicycles. And this was in 2012.

Inevitably, some evenings, deep into our third nightcap, Karl and I would talk about “other” places we might try. I wanted New Orleans, but the South is too hot for Hot Karl. He thought the West would be good, but I wasn’t ready to go home. San Francisco seemed like a less interesting New York — same issues, less city. Eventually, sitting under dozens of stuffed geese, their webbed feet stapled to the ceiling, we’d land on Detroit. Always Detroit. I’d been there once, a decade before, and it captured my imagination. It declared itself to be my Plan B, should I ever find myself needing a Plan B. Which I didn’t. Until I guess I did.

Karl and I thought we would fall in love with Detroit instantly, just as I had Red Hook. But the truth is that my first reaction to the city was “what in so many fucks have we done?”

I had imagined Detroit as Red Hook writ large. Sure, there’d be blight and disinvestment. After all, we’d read the stories, seen the photographs. But while collapse can look picturesque — like pure potential — when it’s confined to one square mile of cobblestone streets on a scenic waterfront, it’s entirely different sprawling out across 139 square miles. A ribbon of potholes and broken concrete unspooled before us as Karl and I drove through the city on our first visit. Burned-out houses on empty prairie blocks. Devastation and poverty surrounded us. Where, we wondered, was all that new investment we’d been hearing about?

The classic Elmore Leonard quote about the city was ringing in my ears: “There are cities that get by on their good looks, offer climate and scenery, views of mountains or oceans, rockbound or with palm trees; and there are cities like Detroit that have to work for a living.”

It didn’t look like there had been any work here in a long time.

But when you move to a new city, you don’t know what you don’t know. We didn’t know we were driving through one of the most bombed-out sections of town, far from the more stable, gracious neighborhoods we would later discover. We didn’t yet know how to become an insider, how even to find the barstool to sit on and wait. I was just scared. Scared we’d made a wrong decision, scared of the stories of violent crime. Scared, most of all, that we’d be unwelcome. Hell, even people on the flight between New York and Detroit told us how bat-shit crazy we were, that we’d be run out of town or killed.

I wondered if I would fit into this proud, black city. I didn’t know anything about being black or black culture. I wasn’t sure I was even prepared to have the conversation about privilege and whiteness in Detroit. Did I even have the language? After all, like many people my age, I was taught that everyone is equal. End of story. End of racism. That certainly wasn’t going to fly in a city where the favorite topics of conversation are the Tigers first and then issues of social justice and racial identity. What if I said something stupid? Would I even realize if I had?

I wondered how people would react to our buying a house for $35,000 and eventually spending nearly a half-million dollars restoring it. In a city with 40 percent poverty and a significant number of people unable to afford the basic necessities — things like water — just having a job here can reek of privilege. And here we were, showing up with not one but two good jobs and some savings to boot. We might have felt strapped in Brooklyn, but by the standards of Detroit — and most places outside of New York City — we were the One Percent. I didn’t know how to tell them that I grew up living in a trailer in Colorado. That I knew what it meant to grow up poor in a place that had been forgotten.

The CVS just blocks from the house we bought made it clear where I was living. As I walked up and down the aisles looking for the familiar wall of shampoo, I saw nothing. It took me twenty minutes to find the tiny shelf where the hair products for white girls like me had been relegated. Nothing here was familiar; nothing was for me. It was getting real, all right.

By comparison, my Red Hook experience had been so white and detached. That neighborhood was more than 80 percent African American and Hispanic, yet it was easy to ignore/forget/not see that majority because the two sides of Red Hook — the “back” and the “front,” as they are called — rarely mingled. The back faces the water and has Bait & Tackle and Fort Defiance and Home/Made and all the joints that draw New York media and the ink they spill. The front, the inland side, has U.S. Fried Chicken & Pizza and a spinning-window bodega that nobody writes about. (That chicken is good, by the way.) The two sides rarely worked together. The back hated the invading Ikea; the front welcomed the possibility of jobs. Each time change is proposed for the waterfront, it’s a new class war.

The Red Hook that I love is an enclave of whiteness. Despite New York’s priding itself on its diversity and the shade it throws at the South, much of the city is as segregated as anywhere after the workday ends. Smith Street. Court Street. The major thoroughfares of hipster Brooklyn, of my life, are one big ad for an America that likes the idea of diversity but isn’t sure how to execute on it.

That Detroit drugstore, with its rows of Queen Helene Princess Curl and other brands I’d never seen, made me face what a lousy ally I must have been. Must be. It’s easy to talk about diversity and all people being equal when you’re on the conquering side of history and surrounded by a world that looks like you. I wanted to live in our new city as a member of the full community, rather than just existing in a small part carved off from the whole. But how do you actually do that? How do you learn to talk about race and whiteness in a place where you know nothing — not even how to buy hair products?

“Just don’t be an asshole, kid,” was my dad’s answer. “And listen more than you talk.”

Still, it’s not easy. Detroit is an angry city. Angry because it has been left out of its own narrative. The “media” story in the past has been all ruin porn and hellhole: Nobody would live here; the only people who remained were poor and black. Now the rote story is one of revitalization and resurgence, with smiling photographs of new pale faces like mine. (No, seriously. The New York Times profiled us, sneering at our lack of financial sophistication.)

There is still a solid middle class in Detroit that never abandoned this city, never left, even when they could have or should have or were told they were crazy. And they are pissed. They feel invisible in the great rebuilding of the Motor City. Their lives exist largely outside of the downtown and midtown districts, where investors from, yes, New York, and farther afield, are flocking. Their lives don’t necessarily intersect with the white, tech-savvy millennials who are taking up residence in new high-dollar condos in what were once low-rent squats or senior housing. Abandoned, derelict buildings aren’t yet being reclaimed in their parts of the city.

They feel like a casualty of the future. There is a real fear that this city will finally get its shit together and then promptly turn its back on the poor, leave them behind; that those who never left, either by choice or by circumstance, are no longer wanted here as the children and grandchildren of those who white-flighted come flying back in. The latter bring dollars and demand with them, remaking the city with new restaurants and amenities, but don’t pay homage to what held this city together after more than half the population left. That leaves us with a cultural divide: One group sees itself as coming home after having been pushed out; the other feels abandoned and wonders why the fuck they should welcome anyone back. “Don’t let the screen door hit your butt on the way out” is the proper Southernism, I think.

And that is a complicated conversation to be having all the time. Everywhere. On Facebook. On Twitter. At the gas station. At the grocery store. It’s just part of the constant dialogue of Detroit. It feels healthy but exhausting, having to face these issues head on every single day. Sometimes it makes me angry. Sometimes it makes me humble. But mostly, it makes me feel like I constantly need to apologize — for being white, for finally making it to the middle class, for having enough money to pay my water bills. I am a symbol, even to myself, of everything that others do not have. When I first wrote a story about our move and buying the house, someone left a comment saying I was “raping Detroit.” I was so cautious, so uncertain, my first reaction wasn’t even to kick his ass. It was to say I’m sorry. People are hurt when they see me and Karl get all the attention for doing nothing more than moving here when they have been in the trenches, choosing to stay no matter how bad it got. Nobody is applauding them, celebrating them, throwing them parades.

But this is our city now, too. We have earned a right to be here by investing in our home and our community and neighborhood. We’re just as angry about what has happened and the stories that are told, though I can’t imagine what it must have been like living for decades through the hate and ugliness. But we carry Detroit’s blue-collar chip on our shoulders as well.

Still, this city needs more people. It needs capital. It needs more middle-class incomes to pay for all the city services that need to be rebuilt. But we can also show some respect for what has come before us and invest in the population that exists. Job training and workforce development are critical. The irony of that, here in the city that did much to build the American middle class in the first place, is not lost on us.

And so we find ourselves in the Elbow Lounge, one of our new Bait & Tackles. It’s the bar nearest our house on Detroit’s east side. The peeling red façade gives the impression of an abandoned Easter egg. The first time we drove by, I wasn’t sure if we should go in. With no windows and no way to see inside, you just have to pull open the door and hope for the best.

Kevin, the owner, greets us enthusiastically and welcomes us in. The regulars all say hello and slap Karl on the back. This no-frills, cash-only bar is where Karl and I have spent our wedding anniversaries and a few Valentine’s Days. Kevin stocks a special bottle of Woodford Reserve for us after learning that it’s Karl’s drink of choice. I’m a Bulleit Rye girl, but that sounds too hipster to admit, so I stick with Jim Beam. Neat.

“Have I shown you my grandbaby?” Kevin asks, pulling out his wallet. His daughter recently had her first child, and he is beaming. He passes the pictures around to everyone at the bar. You just know this child is going to be spoiled.

Kevin remembers coming here with his dad when he was a kid. It was a Sunday tradition, all the fathers bringing their kids to the bar while they watched a game or caught up on neighborhood gossip. It was just how it was done.

Kevin says he knew from a young age he wanted to own this place, liked the spot it held at the center of the community. Eventually he bought it. And just like Sunny’s in Red Hook, he keeps it open only a few nights a week. It’s his passion project, his side-hustle. His main job is as a nurse at the local hospital. He has his nursing degree from the University of Michigan and has been delivering babies and helping the sick for going on thirty years.

This is a man whose story should be told, I think. This is the real Detroit. These people and places hidden from the spotlight, living their lives, keeping the city proud and alive. They are the interesting ones, not us. The way everyone here welcomes us in makes me realize that once you get through Detroit’s tough outer shell, get to the heart of its people, and show that you are committed, they embrace you. They want you. But you don’t get the community just because you walked through the door. You have to do the time on the barstool. You have to earn your way into this city. You have to prove that you come correct, that you are here to participate, not because you want to change this city or you wish it were some other way. But because you love it as much as they do.

As Kevin takes the last photograph back from me, I notice the man in the corner of the bar looking at me. When he asks if he can touch my hair, I feel the tension rush through the Elbow. This irony — that these conversations usually go in the reverse — is not lost on anyone either.

Kevin tries to shush the man, tells him to leave me alone.

“It’s OK,” I say. “You can touch my hair.”

The man walks over and stretches out his hand. His long fingers stroke my straight brown hair, flattening the flyaways just like my mom used to do.

“I’ve never touched white hair before,” he says. Then he stumbles off.

Amy Haimerl is the author of Detroit Hustle, out May 3, about her experience leaving Brooklyn to rehab a historic home in Detroit. She teaches journalism at Michigan State University and lives with her husband, Karl; two pit bulls; and a stray cat named Jack. A launch party for Detroit Hustle will be held on May 13 at 7 p.m. at Atelier Roquette in Red Hook.


Giddy Out: Will New York’s Federation of Black Cowboys Be Sent Packing?

It was a breezy Saturday afternoon in March when I first visited the Federation of Black Cowboys in Queens. I met Kesha Morse, president of the FBC, to talk about the looming loss of the Cedar Lane Stables, which the group has managed for almost twenty years. Cars rushed past on Linden Boulevard and a faint scent of horse manure hung in the air. A slice of pizza in one hand and a pink lemonade in the other, Morse was wearing a fringed leather jacket that brushed her knees and a brown baseball cap with a silver horse medallion above the bill. Long, thick braids swung down her back, grazing her thighs.

Morse started hanging out at Cedar Lane in the Eighties, back when the FBC had a significant presence but was not yet managing the stables as an incorporated organization. Her love of horses came from her father, who began riding at the age of thirteen along the horse trails of Prospect Park. When he wasn’t traveling the world competing in rodeos as a reiner — a category that involves maneuvering the animal through complex riding patterns — he was teaching his daughter horsemanship. She never let it go.

The FBC has allowed Morse to share her passion with the Howard Beach community for the past thirty years. Now, she says, because of recent hardships, its membership has dwindled and it is able to carry out just a fraction of its once robust programming; opening hours for the stable have also grown unpredictable.

"Mama" Kesha Morse: The Black Cowboys are about keeping kids "out of trouble."
“Mama” Kesha Morse: The Black Cowboys are about keeping kids “out of trouble.”

Members of the FBC have spent two decades attempting to tell the true story of their heritage: that of the Black American West. During the glory days of the Western Frontier in the 1870s and ’80s, 25 percent of an approximate 35,000 cowboys were black, a fact largely ignored by publications at the time and later by Hollywood and history books. Black presence was erased from the annals of the West, its stories and legends routinely appropriated by white culture. The Lone Ranger, for example, is considered by some historians to have been a black man by the name of Bass Reeves, not the chiseled white guys usually seen on screen.

The FBC honors and shares this legacy through youth programs, rodeos, and school visits while also using horsemanship to teach local youth life skills such as patience, kindness, and tolerance. Members are known for their neighborhood rides, dressed in ten-gallon hats, boots, and leather jackets with fringe, often stopping to let children pet the horses or hop on for a ride. Morse describes their mission as one of keeping kids “out of trouble.” She says that the FBC seeks “to use the uniqueness of horses as a way to reach inner-city children and expose them to more than what they are exposed to in their communities.” In an area plagued by drugs and violence, the FBC is considered a safe haven — but eighteen years after its official incorporation, soon it may have to close its doors.

The FBC’s recent troubles began in 2012, when six horses in its stables died within a short period. In the aftermath, Morse believes that papers ran skewed articles without including the real reasons for the horses’ deaths. Two of the animals, which had lived in the FBC stables for most of their lives, were in their late thirties and died of old age, she says. Another had laminitis, a sometimes fatal inflammation of the hoof, and a fourth died giving birth — when it was admitted to the stables, she says, no one informed the FBC it was pregnant. The last two, Morse adds, were both privately owned by an individual who leased a stable stall, so the FBC had no oversight of their care; according to her, even the vet couldn’t identify a cause of death.

In addition to the deaths, there were calls to the city from private boarders reporting poor conditions in the stable, including a lack of water and hay for the horses. One horse was allegedly eating the wood shavings from its bed in lieu of food. Morse insists that the stable conditions were satisfactory, but in the end, the city forced the FBC to evacuate and pay for renovations. Morse found the closure unfair and financially crippling and says it upset even the private boarders whose reports precipitated it. “That was a buckshot into the organization,” she says.

When the organization reopened in 2013, official membership had fallen to an all-time low, down to twenty from around fifty. Boarding fees provide the majority of the FBC’s income, so a financial tailspin took hold, a situation that is ongoing — and compounded by the upcoming loss of the license agreement for Cedar Lane Stables.

"Mountain Man" Ellis Harris: "I had cowboy in me all the time."
“Mountain Man” Ellis Harris: “I had cowboy in me all the time.”

“Hey, ya bum!” Morse yells across the stable yard as a large, heavyset man with white hair approaches.

“Show this white man some love,” he responds.

She laughs. They hug.

“How ya been?” she asks.

“Like dogshit,” he says, “I’m all over.”

Tom Hannaberry is a jovial horseshoer who has worked at Cedar Lane for over thirty years. Trailing behind him is his protégé, Marquise Jemmott, a buff young man in a pink T-shirt. He disappears into the stable and returns with a horse, tying it off a few feet away to hammer a nail into its hoof.

“You have to file them evenly,” Jemmott says as he wrestles with the horse’s leg.

Jemmott has been a member of the FBC since before he was born. His mother, Simone, was one of the first women to join, hanging out at the stables when she was pregnant. Now twenty-two, Jemmott was in the saddle by age four, and when he turned seventeen, Hannaberry hired him and taught him the craft of shoeing horses. He now travels the country earning a living as a shoer. Of the dozen or so kids Jemmott grew up with at the stables, seven left their membership behind by the time they were teenagers. Now, he says, they are all either dead or in jail.

“Where would I be without this place? It saved me,” he says. “I’ve been making a living from this all my life, and I’m going to make a living from this for the rest of my life.”

Although few of the youths the FBC has worked with have gone on to make a living in the field, the organization has still reached thousands of kids. For several years it partnered with the Department of Education on a dropout prevention program in the Bronx where children were rewarded for good attendance and behavior with Saturday trips to the stables. It hosted barbecues with pony rides and horsemanship lessons that brought in as many as 1,500 kids over the course of a day. The organization even turned out for block parties in the neighborhood and spoke at schools and museums. “[When] young children see us with the fringe jackets and the boots,” Morse says, “that’s an impression that stays with them for life.”

In 1998, when the FBC officially incorporated, it signed a license agreement with the city’s parks department to run Cedar Lane Stables as a “concession,” one of approximately five hundred city-owned parkland parcels operated by private food service or recreation organizations. Holding a concession requires an annual fee, which is often divided up monthly. The city is careful not to call it rent, but the arrangement is almost identical.

When a license agreement expires, the city releases a public Request for Proposal (RFP) for the concession. It is a convoluted sealed bid process, and the factors the city deems favorable for an applicant — the potential for capital improvements, green building design — can require substantial financial resources, implying a “highest bidder wins” situation. Historically, the Federation was the only bidder for Cedar Lane and won back its land by default. But in August of 2015, when the most recent agreement ended and a new RFP was issued, the FBC was one of three bidders vying for the property. In February, the city informed Morse that the FBC didn’t make the cut.

Don’t miss Brad Trent’s behind-the-scenes look at his Village Voice photo shoot.

A few weeks after my first visit I return to the stables with Morse to meet other FBC members. It’s a warm day with clear skies, and as we cross the stable yard a gaggle of geese rears up to charge us, stiff-necked and squawking.

“Don’t test me!” Morse yells at them without looking down.

First, Morse introduces me to Mountain Man, the grandfather of it all. Ellis Harris is 78 and burly, with a large beard and blue eyes. His wide-brimmed Stetson shadows his features, but his eyes are bright as he recounts his time with the Federation. Mountain Man came to New York from North Carolina, where he’d worked on farms. Once in the city, he attended the first black rodeo in Harlem, in 1972, which led him to the Federation of Black Cowboys. For years he competed in rodeos around the country, including FBC rodeos. “I had cowboy in me all the time,” he says, telling stories of broken ribs and ankles from competitions and taming wild horses.

But those days are over. Now he is considered the official cook of the Federation. A purist, he practices Western-style cooking, using only charcoal, wood, and cast iron. “I’ll fight you if you bring a paper plate on my scene,” he says with a grin.

Next I meet longtime FBC member Arthur “J.R.” Fulmore. We’re standing near the wooden fence that runs along Linden Boulevard. His hair is bundled in a blue cloth under his hat, his eyes obscured behind dark shades. Like Mountain Man, Fulmore is a Southern transplant: Originally from North Carolina, he moved to Brooklyn when he was ten years old. His voice is deep, with a lingering Southern drawl.

Fulmore starts reminiscing about the old days, back when Morse was the only woman in the FBC. The men used to tell her the wrong meeting time for a ride, only to find her waiting for them at the stables.

“We’d try to duck her, we can’t duck her,” Fulmore says, laughing. He worked with the children at the stables back when the FBC’s programming was robust and far-reaching. When I ask him if he knows Jemmott, the young shoer, he responds quickly, “That’s my son.” That’s not technically the case, but Fulmore claims Jemmott as kin nonetheless, having watched him grow up in the Federation, taught him to ride, and accompanied him on trail rides along the East Coast. I learned early on in my visits that the FBC isn’t just a club. Many members have spent most of their lives together and refer to one another as brothers and sisters. Everyone knows Morse as “Mama.”

In June, Cedar Lane Stables will transfer to GallopNYC, a nonprofit whose mission is to aid adults and children with disabilities through the use of therapeutic horsemanship. Now in its eleventh year as an organization, GallopNYC has five locations throughout the city, and Cedar Lane Stables, soon to be renamed Gemini Fields, will be its sole dedicated site. The group serves more than 350 riders each week; compared with the FBC’s current count of twenty members, there’s no competition.

When I contacted the parks department for this story, a spokesperson identified GallopNYC’s demonstration of “long-term financial solvency,” along with “a solid operational plan” that will positively affect the local community, as background for its decision to award GallopNYC the license agreement. Within the terms of the RFP, the parks department sought applicants that could accommodate the FBC’s continued presence at the stables.

GallopNYC and the FBC are currently discussing a boarding agreement to keep the FBC at the stables. The parks department is encouraging the conversation, but it is still in the initial stages. Whether or not the FBC will be able to afford the boarding fees presented to them is yet to be determined.

“We’re happy to work with the Federation of Black Cowboys, and we hope we can reach an agreement that works for both of us,” Alicia Kershaw, executive director of GallopNYC, tells the Voice.

At the end of my last visit, Morse drives me back to Downtown Brooklyn. The windows are down and East New York passes by on either side. Music from nearby cars hums beneath our conversation. Morse explains that the parks department has been instrumental in helping the FBC negotiate a potential extended stay at Cedar Lane Stables, and she is hopeful that her group will be able to continue their work in the years to come. Right now, however, she has no idea.

As we consider the possibility of an end, I ask why she first chose to ride at Cedar Lane thirty years ago, when there were other stables in the city closer to home. She explains that, from the start, she found kindred spirits and a family in the Federation. “It’s about more than riding,” she says. “Cowboy and cowgirl to me is something of the heart, something in the spirit.”


The Heresy and Evangelism of Bernie Sanders

Asked about his religious life by CNN’s Chris Cuomo during the February 23 South Carolina town hall, Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders distinguished himself from his competition by declining to praise the God of Abraham. Instead, in his signature phlegmatic Brooklyn staccato, the senator discussed universal human solidarity, lifting his arms for emphasis: “We are in this togetha.

“That’s not just words,” he continued. “The truth is, at some level, when you hurt, when your children hurt, I hurt. I hurt. And when my kids hurt, you hurt. I believe that what human nature is about is that everybody in this room impacts everybody else in all kinds of ways that we can’t even understand.

“It’s beyond intellect,” he concluded. “It’s a spiritual, emotional thing.”

Commentators who had previously criticized Sanders for downplaying his Judaism were underwhelmed by his mostly secular response. “Sanders may be focused on uniting Americans for a better future,” argued the Jewish Telegraphic Agency newswire, “but some Jews would clearly like to hear him acknowledge his past.”

Those Jews were eventually given voice through the unlikely agency of Anderson Cooper, who, during a March debate in Michigan, referred to Jewish leaders who were “disappointed” that Sanders keeps his Judaism “in the background.” “Look, my father’s family was wiped out by Hitler in the Holocaust,” came Sanders’s reply. “I am very proud of being Jewish, and that is an essential part of who I am as a human being.” Finally, Sanders was giving commentators what they seemed to want to hear from a Jewish candidate — a reference to the Holocaust. Vox‘s Zack Beauchamp said the response “nearly brought me to tears.”

We shouldn’t be surprised by this insistence that Bernie invoke the Holocaust: Museums, school curricula, and the culture generally have so diligently cultivated the image of Jews as primarily survivors or victims of the Holocaust that we’ve learned to see this, and not all that solidarity talk, as properly Jewish. But Sanders carries on a Jewish tradition much longer, and more sacred, than merely paying lip service to the Holocaust. His every utterance about universal health care, economic inequality, and social justice relentlessly embraces Judaism; it’s just a Judaism many people no longer recognize. Bernie Sanders is a Jew of a different era — the kind of Jew that Zionists would very much like us to forget.

The New York of Sanders’s childhood was full of Yiddish socialists. Often, these were Jews of Sanders’s sort, their spiritual practice less fixated on giving glory to God on high than fighting for emancipation here on earth. Although that interpretation of Judaism may seem profane, even blasphemous, at first blush, it has a firm basis in scripture.

The Torah repeatedly reminds Jews that, because we were strangers in Egypt, we are obligated in turn to welcome the stranger in the course of our lives. Scripture also tells us that our religious ceremonies are not ends unto themselves but a means through which to fortify our spirits for earthly liberation work: From Isaiah, we learn that our fasting on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, is not for the purpose of “mak[ing] your voice to be heard on high,” but rather “to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke.”

The centuries of racial oppression and marginalization Jews have endured should reinforce these commandments, not weaken them. It is essential that we publicly enact this aspect of our Jewish identity — and choose wisely the political and social agendas we mobilize our Jewishness to advance. As Warsaw Ghetto uprising leader Marek Edelman said, “To be a Jew means always being with the oppressed and never the oppressors.”

The simultaneous Jewishness and irreligiosity of Edelman’s definition is itself traditional. In 1958, Isaac Deutscher, the great biographer of Trotsky and Stalin and himself a secular Jew, identified the lineage of the “non-Jewish Jew” as spiritually descended from a heretic, Elisha ben Abiyuh, nicknamed Akher (“the Stranger”). In the Midrash, an essential rabbinical exegesis on the Torah, it is written that this heretic provided theological tutelage to the revered Rabbi Meir, to whose words Jews still turn for insight: One Sabbath, Rabbi Meir and Akher were traveling and arguing, as was their custom, the heretic riding a donkey and Meir, forbidden from riding on the Sabbath, walking beside him. Meir listened to his tutor’s heretical wisdom with such intensity that he didn’t notice when they had reached the ritual boundary beyond which doctrine prohibited Jews from venturing on the Sabbath. Akher announced, “Look, we have reached the boundary — we must part now: You must not accompany me any farther — go back!” Meir returned to the Jewish community while the heretic, despite the respect he’d shown for his pupil’s orthodoxy, rode on — “beyond the boundaries of Jewry.”

This scene puzzled a young Deutscher, an Orthodox student, who wondered why Meir had listened so intently to the stranger. “My heart, it seems, was with the heretic,” Deutscher writes. “He appeared to be in Jewry and yet out of it…disregarding canon and ritual, [he] rode beyond the boundaries.”

This within-and-without position is essential to Sanders’s relationship not only with Judaism but with politics, too. He is a longtime Independent member of Congress who caucused with Democrats. He is running for the Democratic nomination, but with the endorsement of further-left organizations such as the Working Families Party and the Democratic Socialists of America. Throughout his career, Sanders has related to the Democratic establishment but never joined it. He is an essential fixture of Vermont politics but, as a transplant from Brooklyn, lacks even a hint of pastoral New England–ness. He titled his own political biography Outsider in the White House.

When pundits complain that Sanders is not being publicly Jewish enough, what they are really complaining about is his refusal to fall in line with the philosophy that has come to define Jewish life in America. They are disappointed that Sanders has not aligned himself with Zionism.


‘Good and Bad Jews’

Last fall, news from Mediterranean Europe, dramatized by a photo of a dead toddler facedown on a Turkish beach, thrust our country into a heated debate over the ongoing refugee crisis. To counter rising right-wing xenophobia, humane people took to social media to remind us that Americans indulged a similar impulse when we rejected Jewish refugees on the eve of World War II. In both cases, though, the racist reflex contained a political component as well. Just as Islamophobia today is intimately connected to a political fear of Shariah, wartime anti-Semitism was intensified by fear of a foreign specter that would contaminate democracy: bolshevism.

Under the influence of Mein Kampf, radio priest Father Coughlin, Donald Trump’s forebear in hateful demagoguery, warned of the “Judeo-Bolshevik threat”: a conspiracy between Lenin, Stalin, and the rest of the Soviet leadership (all Jewish, according to Coughlin) and Jewish bankers (communist capitalists, evidently) to destroy Christianity. His counterpart across the Atlantic was no less than Sir Winston Churchill. That revered leader at least had the discernment to draw a contrast between “Good and Bad Jews,” the latter of whom, he wrote, formed a “world-wide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation.”

Opposite the “Bad Jews” of Churchill’s paranoid fantasy stood Zionists, who he said would “vindicate the honour of the Jewish name.” (Incidentally, Churchill couldn’t help but notice, the Zionist project “would be especially in harmony with the truest interests of the British Empire.”) So when the State of Israel was partitioned to life, anti-communist politicians and business interests in the West, especially the U.S., set out to destroy the left, a thriving core of Jewish life, and reorient Jewish American thought toward an increasingly reactionary Zionism.

In 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act banished communists from labor, historically a hotbed of American Jewish activism. Senator Joe McCarthy’s Subcommittee on Investigations and the House Un-American Activities Committee convened witch trials that exploited the strength of the Smith and McCarran acts, which criminalized communism. McCarthy espoused the same brand of wild-eyed condemnation and suspicion that had marginalized Jews for centuries, and the implications of his prominently targeting Hollywood and labor unions, homes to both communism and Judaism, were not lost on the Christian public.

Although this crusade made Zionism look appealing by comparison, many Jews still veered left: Thousands joined the civil rights movement, appalled by the treatment of black people in the South, building on the legacy of the Jewish CIO organizers who had helped lay early groundwork for the sit-ins and freedom rides. Despite being limited in number in American society, Jews were overrepresented in activist circles: It is not a coincidence that a rabbi, Abraham Heschel, walked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, or that two of the most prominent murder victims of the movement, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were Jewish. A young Bernie Sanders was among them, too, committing civil disobedience in protest of housing discrimination in Chicago.

Many American Jews, however, took a stand on the wrong side of those struggles. In a single generation, formerly working-class Jews who’d been concentrated in the Lower East Side, Grand Concourse, and Flatbush had spread out to Great Neck, Scarsdale, and New Jersey, becoming suburban homeowners and “professionals,” assimilated into that American Dream of upwardly mobile whiteness. The “there goes the neighborhood” attitude that attended white flight boiled over during the 1968 NYC teachers’ strike, which pitted mainly suburban Jews against the black communities that had replaced them in what was now the “inner city.” At the same time, but thousands of miles away, Israel undertook an aggressive expansion and occupation in Palestine, making manifest the country’s ideological shift toward right-wing Zionism. That Zionism found voice in this country as well, becoming the most salient and powerful political philosophy for American Jews.

The magnitude of this change is difficult to overstate. The internationalism of the pre-war American Jewry was supplanted by nationalism. Our egalitarian commitment was replaced by exceptionalism. Our agitation against war was undermined by ceaseless colonialism in Palestine. Jews have been instructed that the cluster bombs and night patrols blanketing the Holy Land are necessary to preserve our heritage. We have to wonder: Has the shift to militant nationalism robbed us of a Jewish heritage worth preserving?


See how artist Wesley Bedrosian sculpted Bernie on the <i>Village Voice</i> cover <a href="" target="_blank">here</a>.
See how artist Wesley Bedrosian sculpted Bernie on the Village Voice cover here.

The Shambolic Evangelist

Zionism has given us a Judaism that bestows placards, awards, and honorary doctorates on the unrepentantly racist — lawyer and businessman Donald Sterling, for example, or the far-right political funder Sheldon Adelson. Theirs is a Judaism that, far from obligating us to oppose all atrocities everywhere, tells us that our long history of victimization actually entitles us to commit our own. The sieges and land-grabs and imprisonment sprees in the land of Canaan are undertaken to protect this Judaism, not the Judaism of Akher or the Yiddish socialists or those civil rights workers.

And yet it is the non-Zionist Sanders who is criticized for insufficient faith, even as wealthy right-wing Zionists ostentatiously parade their donations to Holocaust Museums and prestigious congregations. These gestures are supposed to fulfill the sort of public obligation Judaism imposes, but next to Bernie Sanders’s dogged agitation for universal equality and justice, decade in and decade out, Zionist chest-thumping looks like a cheap substitute.

This contrast was at its starkest when Sanders declined the opportunity to join every other presidential candidate in addressing Zionism’s most exalted assembly: the annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Instead, he addressed the question of Israel at a high school in Salt Lake City, Utah, in a speech that included such taboo-breaking observations as “There is too much suffering in Gaza to be ignored.”

Such heresy reminds us of an earlier Judaism. When Sanders says, “We are living in a world which worships not love of brothers and sisters, not love of the poor and the sick, but worships the acquisition of money,” he is not hiding his religion, but espousing it. He is evangelizing. And if his gospel is going to catch, it will most likely be among the young people who have flocked to his campaign.

My generation is already primed to abandon Zionism. For one thing, it is harder to convince people who grew up on the World Wide Web to commit to a nationalist program. For another, we have come into political consciousness seeing Israel as a violent occupying force, and responded accordingly: The number of anti-occupation, non-Zionist, and anti-Zionist Jewish youth initiatives gives a glimpse of what Jews without Israel might look like, driven not by fear of the Other but by an embrace of the Strangers of our times.

It is long overdue. Already in the 1950s Deutscher could see that Zionism was outdated. Jews “did not benefit from the advantages of the nation-state in those centuries when it was a medium of mankind’s advance,” he wrote. “They have taken possession of it only after it had become a factor of disunity and social disintegration.” Perhaps, at long last, my generation is evincing Deutscher’s hope that Jews will abandon the nation-state and return to “the moral and political heritage that the genius of the Jews who have gone beyond Jewry has left us — the message of universal human emancipation.”

It will not be easy to undo the work of the past seventy years. Even now, we find fearmongering that invokes the old perils of Jewish bolshevism. But in our rejection of Zionism and our revival of socialism, young Jews are reclaiming our birthright — the right to belong to a Jewry worthy of our heritage. A heritage carried forward in the sacred heresy and grumbly evangelism of the 74-year-old Brooklyn Jew improbably running for president.


Low-Income Parents Are Caught Between the Growing Opt-Out Movement and the City’s Attempts to Clamp Down on Dissent

If you were looking for a sign that the reported truce in the war over New York’s annual public school tests wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, you might have gotten one earlier this month. That’s when news broke of Southside Williamsburg principal Sereida Rodriguez-Guerra berating a fifth-grader who’d passed out materials about refusing to take the standardized state exams. “You’ve got to get this opt-out stuff out of your head!” Rodriguez-Guerra snapped at the assembled student body. For his part, the eleven-year-old was sent to her office, where he burst into tears.

Since more than 200,000 school kids statewide refused last spring to take the tests — six-day affairs that are, depending on your perspective, either the perfect tool for holding failing schools accountable, or the death of public education itself — government officials have been in damage control mode, trying to stave off an even wider revolt: MaryEllen Elia, who’d replaced former state education commissioner (and now Obama education secretary) John King after he enraged anti-testing parents by dismissing them as “co-opted by special interests,” lifted the time limit on tests in January, saying she hoped it would reduce “stresses” on test-taking kids. The state board of regents, meanwhile, placed a four-year moratorium on using results to grade teachers, then selected a new chancellor, Bronx educator Betty Rosa (who immediately declared that if she were a parent, she’d opt her kids out).

But down in the trenches it’s been a different story. As city third- through eighth-graders ready their No. 2 pencils for next week’s kickoff of test season, numerous parents and educators say that battles are only heating up between critics of high-stakes testing and state and city officials who want to stuff the opt-out genie back in the bottle. Pressures are particularly high in the low-income schools in black and Latino neighborhoods that both sides in the opt-out debate see as the next battleground.

“The city department of education is threatening principals both directly and indirectly” over speaking out on the tests, says Jamaal Bowman, a Bronx principal who has nonetheless taken it upon himself to speak to parents at several low-income outer-borough schools about their opt-out rights. Ever since Elia, in one of her less conciliatory moments, declared last summer that opting out was “unethical” for teachers and other educators to support, he says, school officials have been making it increasingly difficult for parents in many neighborhoods to even find out their options.

In this light, the meltdown by P.S.84’s Rodriguez-Guerra, previously lauded as a bridge-builder who spoke out against “teaching to the test,” seems less like an aberration than the tip of an iceberg. When added to the pressures that low-performing schools already face in the age of school accountability, the stepped-up anti-opt-out campaign amounts to “psychological warfare,” says one staffer who works on testing and teacher evaluations for the central city Department of Education office, and who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution: “Opt-out here was so big that it really shook the system. If we were to increase that number this year, it has the potential to bring their whole crazy system down.”


The modern regime of public school testing got its start, like so many other dubious realities of 21st-century life, from the pen of George W. Bush. In 2001, the newly elected president signed the No Child Left Behind Act, which optimistically dictated that every student in every school in the nation be made “proficient” in math and reading for their grade level — and ordered states to impose new tests to gauge their progress.

To write its tests, New York State turned to British testing giant Pearson, which immediately earned parents’ ire for baffling questions: The infamous comprehension question on the 2012 eighth-grade reading exam about a talking pineapple that challenged a hare to a race and was eventually eaten became an instant classic; Louis CK’s instantly viral tweet, “My kids used to love math! Now it makes them cry,” pretty well summed up public reaction. Teachers, barred from revealing any details of the tests, took to online discussion boards to gripe about the process: “Two students raised their hands to tell me that a sentence didn’t make sense,” went one typical comment. “I had to agree with them.”

Yet the problem with New York’s tests, insist opt-out proponents, isn’t how well or poorly they’re worded, but how they warp the entire educational system. Bowman is quick to say he doesn’t have a problem with tests per se and that his school, the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action middle school in the Eastchester section of the Bronx, uses plenty of in-house assessments to gauge students’ individual strengths and weaknesses. Rather, his concern is about so-called “high stakes” tests, where results are used for everything from determining whether students advance to the next grade to teacher firings and school closings.

[pullquote]The stepped-up anti-opt-out campaign amounts to ‘psychological warfare,’ says one doe insider[/pullquote]

Such tests, critics argue, turn the educational experience into a massive exercise in gaming the system. (In testing circles, this is known as Campbell’s Law, named for a social psychologist who theorized in 1976 that the more a test affects important decisions, the more likely it is to lead to corruption.) At its most mundane, this can lead schools to spend the bulk of the year teaching to the test and students to learn how to parrot the formulaic five-paragraph essays that score well on test-graders’ rubrics. At its worst, it can encourage behavior like that of Harlem elementary school principal Jeanene Worrell-Breeden, who took it upon herself to falsify student test answers last spring — and who, when caught, threw herself in front of a subway train.

For all this, says Columbia Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas, who has written extensively on high-stakes testing, the tests may not even accomplish what they set out to do.  “They aren’t much help in determining whether a school is a good school or a teacher is a good teacher,” he says, or even necessarily a good predictor of students’ future performance. (While the state calibrates the tests to ensure that proper percentages of students earn passing grades, it hasn’t released any studies of whether the scores are a valid measure of students’ actual learning.) “I do think that Commissioner Elia is saying more of the things that parents and educators want to hear.” But none of the new measures, Pallas says, changes high-stakes tests’ biggest problem, which is that they’re trying to solve multiple problems with a single blunt instrument.

“Why are we engaged in this process?” asks Pallas. “Is it to try to identify precisely for individual students whether they’re above the bar or not? Is it to try to provide feedback to teachers about what students know in a timely way to help them revise their instruction? Is it, as it has been in the past, to try to hold schools and teachers accountable for students’ performance? What the ideal testing system might look like will vary depending on the purpose.”

Most of the initial testing uproar was centered in the sections of New York that might be called the Louis CK districts. An opt-out map published last summer by education news site Chalkbeat revealed red dots — marking schools where over 20 percent of students opted out — marching down through Manhattan and halting in brownstone Brooklyn, with the outer boroughs largely untouched. That demographic pattern was largely replicated at the state level: Over 20 percent of parents statewide opted out, mostly on Long Island and in majority-white counties upstate, but only 1.4 percent in the city. Those numbers have helped feed the belief that, as then–U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan proclaimed in 2013, the opt-out movement consists of “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — [worry that] their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”

Duncan’s suggestion that opt-out is a white helicopter-parent phenomenon drives Jamaal Bowman up the wall. Sure, opt-out numbers may be low in African-American neighborhoods, he says, but that may well be because “many parents are not aware they have the right to refuse the state exam.” After all, the City Council unanimously passed a resolution last year calling on the DOE to include opt-out information in its Parents’ Bill of Rights, only to see that request ignored by Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña. Bowman’s responsibility, as he sees it, is to raise awareness: “We’ve focused so much on annual standardized tests that we’re not focused on what research says works to close the achievement gap” for black and Latino school kids.

Continuing to conduct business this way, he says, is “educational malpractice.” For Bowman, that’s putting it mildly: Last year, noting the continued educational gaps by race despite increasing numbers of assessments, he called standardized tests “a form of modern-day slavery.”


Jamaal Bowman with former students in his school’s Bronx neighborhood
Jamaal Bowman with former students in his school’s Bronx neighborhood

On one of Bowman’s first testing-talk visits, to P.S.219 in the Remsen Village section of Brownsville earlier this month, families slowly trickled in. “Waiting for the magic number — that fifth person,” he declared as the 6:30 start time ticked by. “You can start a revolution with five.”

Bowman’s spiel that night delved deep into the history of high-stakes tests, tracing them from their origin in No Child Left Behind through Mayor Bloomberg’s “accountability” push (“if I didn’t teach to the test, I may be liable to lose my job”). Parents sat up straighter when he put up a slide showing the dramatic racial disparities in test results: over 50 percent proficiency for white and Asian elementary and middle schoolers; under 20 percent for blacks and Latinos.

“While our kids are taking these tests, private school kids are creating the next smartphone, and then our kids are going to work for them,” he proclaimed, to a chorus of mmm-hmms.

The crowd had filled in by then, and parents had plenty of questions and complaints: What were the risks to their kids or their school if they opted out? Why weren’t test scores available until September, by which point kids might have already been held back for summer school?

Rhonda Joseph, a parent at nearby P.S.268 who serves on the District 18 Community Education Council, reported that the district superintendent had told her that parents who wanted to opt out needed to have asked their children’s teachers to start building a portfolio of student work back in September to use as an alternate evaluation — sparking a lively debate about how to ensure that students will advance to the next grade. (All teachers should have portfolio information on hand, say schools experts.)

P.S.219 parent Tamika Howell explained she’d rushed over to the meeting from work because she was worried that her son, now in fourth grade, should be doing better in school and the tests didn’t seem to be helping. “I couldn’t get the score until he started back in September,” she recalled, and even then “all we got was just the grade — it didn’t say where his weak points were, it didn’t tell you where his strong points are, if he needs more help.” Bowman’s presentation, she said, had been very useful: “Most of us were scared to opt out, because we don’t know what our rights are. We think if we opt out, maybe the school’s going to be penalized, my child may be penalized.”

A few blocks east on Brownsville’s Riverdale Avenue, P.S.446 is one of the outliers on the opt-out map — though far outside the anti-testing heartland, it posted a refusal rate of greater than 70 percent for the past two years, one of the highest in the state. Kerryann Bowman, a former PTA president and parent of a fourth-grader, says the opt-out push there was launched by school parents after they made contact with parent organizers from Brooklyn New School in Carroll Gardens. “As a parent, I don’t believe the test is fair,” says Bowman (no relation to Jamaal Bowman). “If it was a part of your regular curriculum, then I could see — test them on what they know. But if it’s a completely different thing, and you only prep them for two months, I don’t think it’s fair.”

P.S.219 parent coordinator Anthony Gordon, who’d invited Jamaal Bowman to conduct his testing forum after finding him on Twitter, says that parents there “have always been concerned with this high-stakes testing.” But, he adds, some may have been scared off when the NAACP and other civil rights groups issued a statement warning that it could “sabotage important data and rob us of the right to know how our students are faring” if too many families opted out. “I don’t know if Bill Gates or someone got to them,” Gordon jokes.

Gordon is quick to add that he’s officially agnostic on whether parents should opt their kids out of the tests. “It’s not like I’m for or against,” he says. “But as a parent coordinator, if a parent asks me, ‘What do you know about this?’ that’s part of the job. You have to let them know what’s going on.”


In many ways, the testing battle has turned into a war over information. But information is not always quick to trickle down, especially in poorer schools with fewer ties to the opt-out push.

At P.S.446, for example, where 70 percent of kids did not take the tests and parents continue organizing to opt out, the school administration has clammed up. Principal Meghan Dunn would not accept a Voice request for an interview, while parent coordinator Christina Yancey replied to multiple phone calls and emails with a single text: “We do not have an opt out campaign at our school. So we probably shouldn’t be in the article.”

Multiple sources in the city education system say responses like these are likely the result of a high-pressure state and city campaign to clamp down on educators who might publicly criticize the tests. The pushback began last summer, when, shortly after Elia’s comment that teachers’ trash-talking the testing was “unethical,” the New York State Education Department launched a “toolkit” for superintendents to make their own statements on the subject: Sample talking points included that the state tests “help ensure that students graduate ready to handle college coursework and 21st century careers” and “ensure that traditionally underserved students…are not overlooked.” It even provided sample tweets for educators to use in support of the tests.

(Asked how educators should use the blatantly pro-test materials if they weren’t supposed to take sides on the test, a department spokesperson replied only, “The toolkit is intended to help superintendents communicate with parents and educators in their districts about the value and importance of the annual Grades 3–8 English Language Arts and Math Tests.”)

Asked if the city DOE had stepped up pressure on educators to toe the line, spokesperson Devora Kaye points to Chancellor Fariña’s open letter to principals on March 15, in which she spelled out changes being made to this year’s tests to help “create supportive environments which allow all students to reach their greatest potential.” Kaye adds, “We’ve encouraged schools to work with their parent coordinator to facilitate conversations with students’ families to address any questions they may have.”

But multiple principals and other educators — mostly speaking to the Voice on condition of anonymity — say that the actual directives from Fariña’s office this year have been closer to a gag order. “I can tell you, every day I talk to principals who are fed up, frustrated, furious, and completely confused by the system, but no one can say anything,” says the DOE insider. “I know examples where really wonderful principals who spoke out bravely the year before were specifically called upon and told, ‘If you talk, you won’t get tenure.’ ”

In one much-discussed video, District 15 superintendent Anita Skop was asked at a public forum last December if educators could share their concerns about the tests with parents. “They shouldn’t,” she replied, “because they have no right to say, ‘This is how I feel.’ They have no right. It’s not their job.” Skop continued, “No person who is a public figure can use their office as a bully pulpit to espouse any political perspective, whether it’s telling who to select for mayor or whether or not you should opt your children out of the tests.” That sent a clear message to principals like P.S.321’s Liz Phillips, who had penned a New York Times op-ed in 2014 calling the tests “confusing, developmentally inappropriate, and not well aligned with the Common Core standards.”

Brooklyn New School’s Anna Allanbrook, another District 15 principal who has been outspoken in support of parents’ right to opt out, confirms that DOE officials told her in the fall that teachers should not speak to parents about the testing controversy. She also says she’s heard from at least one other principal who caught flak from the DOE after her school community put out a statement in support of opting out, something she says is “definitely a different attitude” from past years.

What’s causing this surge in principal-hushing isn’t clear. One previously vocal elementary school principal, now speaking on condition of anonymity, suggests that recent changes at the state level — the moratorium on using test scores to grade teachers and the switch from the widely disliked King to the less antagonistic Elia — may have helped get the city on board, after Mayor de Blasio had previously vowed to “do everything in our power to move away from high-stakes testing,” while saying of opting-out parents, “I understand their frustrations.” The principal theorizes, “The city feels like they have a good relationship with the state right now, and that they are able to have some dialogue with the new commissioner.”

For principals at low-income schools, the pressures don’t end with a talking-to from their superintendent. Both in public and in private, they express concern about a federal rule that allows some Title I funding to be cut off if schools fail to reach 95 percent test compliance — a threat that’s never been carried out but still sows fear. And for those running low-performing schools, which tend to be concentrated in poor neighborhoods, equally worrisome have been the test-based Adequate Yearly Progress rankings that have been used to determine which schools will be placed into “receivership,” effectively shutting them down. The federal education bill passed in December eliminates AYP, but many principals still fear their schools could be closed if too many families opt out. For a school already on the bubble, the fear of fewer kids taking the tests — or worse, high-scoring kids disproportionately opting out, driving down average scores — can be enough, says the DOE insider, to scare a principal into toeing the testing line: “He’s begging them to take that test because if they don’t, there’s a chance that the school will be put into receivership, and that for them is very real. It’s a rough, class-based issue.”


Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the DOE’s effort to clamp down on the flow of testing information is unlikely to affect schools in the opt-out belt: Principal Allanbrook says that though she and her staff have toned down their testing talk, most Brooklyn New School parents are already well-informed about the tests.

But in a city increasingly fractured along race and class lines, getting information on the tests can be extraordinarily frustrating. “My main source is the opt-out group,” says Diane Tinsley, a fourth-grade parent and school leadership team member at Teachers College Community School, the Harlem elementary school whose principal committed suicide by subway last April. “It’s so difficult to get information.” Still, Tinsley says, she expects more opt-outs at her school this year in the wake of the scandal. At a recent panel discussion with the District 5 superintendent, she recalls, “I said, ‘Maybe we can get the entire district to opt out!’ She [the superintendent] almost fainted — she started saying, ‘Oh, we can’t do that!’ ”

“Nobody is really having forums in the community,” complains Brownsville’s Kerryann Bowman. Most public discussions, she says, were “in places where you have to get on the train. And most of the district meetings are at night, when for most parents it’s difficult to go.” She says she hopes that the testing debates can be expanded to include disparities in educational achievement and funding levels.

That’s the discussion that Jamaal Bowman hopes eventually to spark as well — not just opting out, but what parents and educators can opt in to. “We can do so many amazing, innovative things with our kids, and opt-out is step one to getting that process going,” he says. When more than 200,000 parents opt out in one state, he continues, “that’s saying something. This is big, and it needs to get bigger.”



Manhattan Over Our Heads: On Atoms, the Void, and Art in an Anxious Age

Elwood G. Baker started traveling early, periodically running away from the eight-acre truck farm his parents owned near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. At age nineteen he married my mother, Naomi, and soon afterward, as the Korean War entered its second year, he was drafted into the Army and stationed at the White Sands Proving Ground, near the small town of Alamogordo, New Mexico. Corporal Baker maintained the communication wires that stitched together the blast bunkers, stationary rocket stands, radar dishes, and other facilities scattered over the vast reaches of desert spanning the middle of the state. On more than one occasion, as his jeep bounced around the cacti, he stopped at Trinity Site, a shallow crater roughly half a mile across that was covered with a thin layer of “Alamogordo glass,” or “Trinitite.”

Trinitite was created at 5:29:45 a.m., Mountain War Time, on July 16, 1945, when the world’s first atomic bomb, the fruit of the infamous Manhattan Project, was detonated atop a hundred-foot-high steel tower. A U.S. Geological Survey paper describes this strange vitreous substance, which exists nowhere else on earth, as consisting of a top layer “1 to 2 centimeters thick, with the upper surface marked by a very thin sprinkling of dust which fell upon it while it was still molten,” and notes that “the color of the glass is a pale bottle green.” The heat of the blast instantaneously fused the tawny desert sand into a porous, glossy-green crust, the color roughly analogous to the Gallo wine jugs my father began collecting in the late 1960s.

By that time my entire family was living in Alamogordo, after Dad switched from the Army to the civilian side of the military-industrial complex, working at what was now White Sands Missile Range as a field engineer for Westinghouse Corporation. At some point during my teenage years my father mentioned that he’d picked up a few flakes of Trinitite while in the service, but we moved often in those days and it remained buried in our many unopened boxes. I never did get a chance to see it, though as a kid steeped in war comics, I was extremely curious about the stuff, a literal by-product of the cataclysmic destruction — like something from H.G. Wells or the Bible — that had ended World War II. In high school I broadened my reading to such classics as Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and John Hersey’s Hiroshima and began to understand the war as an actual series of events, rather than a mere backdrop for the Hollywood epics my older brother and I enjoyed at dusk-to-dawn drive-in movies. The first of the two bombs used against Japan, “Little Boy,” was dropped on Hiroshima from a B-29 Superfortress with “Enola Gay,” the name of the pilot’s mother, painted on its fuselage. The roughly 75,000 Japanese citizens who were instantly vaporized by the explosion, or who died in the firestorm that immediately followed it, did not perceive the event as a fracture in human history, as we do now. It was simply the end of time.

In the 1980s I was busy with art school and had forgotten about my dad’s Trinitite, but WWII and its attendant horrors stayed with me. I was fascinated by an account of Harry Truman, recently ascended to the Oval Office, struggling with the decision to use the country’s secret atomic super-bombs in an attempt to bring the war to a swift end. “Believe Japs will fold up before Russia comes in,” he had confided to his diary. “I am sure they will when Manhattan appears over their homeland.”

That chilling phrase — “when Manhattan appears over their homeland” — tolled in my mind when I moved to New York City, in 1986, after receiving a degree in fine arts from the Maryland Institute. A couple of years earlier, President Reagan had joshed into an open microphone, “My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” The jocular warmongering of the Great Communicator was a reminder that the Big Apple was targeted by God only knew how many Soviet warheads. But the city offered its own solace: For a twentysomething who had spent numberless hours drawing bottles and studying still lifes by Cézanne and Chardin, the Metropolitan Museum held out hope for civilization.

In college, an insightful instructor had insisted that we study the work of Giorgio Morandi (1890–1964), whose small paintings of bottles, boxes, bowls, and other workaday objects failed to fire my imagination at the time. But over the years, Morandi’s stubborn pursuit of the ancient craft of painting in the age of photography and film revealed a reality beyond mere perception. By 2008 I was writing in the Voice about the way Morandi’s natura morta evoked the “mystery of representation — how the three-dimensional elements of our physical world can be distilled into daubs of pigment on a flat surface. ‘Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own,’ the artist once said. ‘Only we can know that a cup is a cup, that a tree is a tree.’ ”

Giorgio Morandi’s “Natura Morta,” 1955

I wondered if Morandi was aware that his statement echoed the philosopher Democritus, whose insights are known to us only through luck and a great deal of tenacious scholarship. As Richard Rhodes notes in his book The Making of the Atomic Bomb, “‘For by convention color exists,’ the Greek physician Galen quotes from one of Democritus’ seventy-two lost books, ‘by convention bitter, by convention sweet, but in reality atoms and void.’ ”

Both philosopher and painter were struggling with something profound yet fundamentally elusive, which accurately describes the experience of viewing Morandi’s small canvases. The painter captured in the simplest of material facts — bottles, cups, tabletops — the interplay of light on a surface, exposing a void at the center of the physical world.



On April 19, 2012, I received the following email among my usual batch of gallery press releases:

Friedrich Petzel Gallery is currently preparing for an exhibition by our Berlin-based artist Christian Jankowski. We are writing to you specifically as Christian has chosen you to hopefully participate in a specific work in the show. This work is titled “Review”…. In order to complete this work, the gallery is inviting a number of renowned art critics, journalists, and writers who Christian has chosen to write a review about the artwork, put it in an empty bottle and send it back to the gallery to become the artwork. Thus, ultimately, the work consists of a large group of bottles, each one with a unique review of the work rolled up and sealed with wax: The review makes the work, the work consists of the reviews.

The content of the review cannot be read without breaking the seal, and thus destroying the artwork. It will remain a mystery how the critics respond to the piece, and the piece can only exist once the critics respond to it.

The author's drawing of his father's bottle prior to its exhibition (right).
The author’s drawing of his father’s bottle prior to its exhibition (right).

Despite the flattery, I was in no mood for such an amorphous undertaking. Barely a week earlier, my father had died. But I soon began to think that such an oddball endeavor might help me cope. So I contacted the gallery and learned that Jankowski wanted each participant to write the contribution by hand and then place it in a bottle of that writer’s choosing. Review amounted to a conceptual ouroboros: How do you review a show before you get a chance to see it, an artwork that will exist only after you review it? The exhibition opened at the Petzel Gallery, in New York City, in June 2012. It was shown again at Tel Aviv’s Center for Contemporary Art from February to April of 2014. Short of vandalism, iconoclasm, or social collapse, no one will ever read the words that I and the approximately one hundred other writers who collaborated with Jankowski agreed to provide.

Jankowski (born in 1968 in Göttingen, Germany) is a member of the cadre of nomadic international conceptual artists who occupy the realm defined in 1917 when Marcel Duchamp flipped a urinal on its back and titled it Fountain, instantly shattering the veneer of uniqueness, beauty, and craft that had long characterized our idea of art. Jankowski has dashed through that fissure, taking up residence in the space Duchamp vacated with his earthly departure in 1968. In one instance, he upped Duchamp’s “readymade” ante by partnering with an Italian shipyard to offer a yacht for sale at a premium if his own name was added to the stern, a stunt suggesting that the presence of The Artist was enough to transform an always depreciating luxury item into an infinitely appreciating collectible.

[pullquote]‘Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own’[/pullquote]

London’s Tate gallery describes another Jankowski piece, The Holy Artwork, as “a conceptual video work made in collaboration with Pastor Peter Spencer of the Texas-based Harvest Fellowship Church, which was filmed and broadcast as part of Spencer’s weekly televangelical show. It is characteristic of Christian Jankowski’s performative practice, where he works with people operating outside of the art world to question its value-systems and the problems associated with artistic production and authorship.” With Review, Jankowski was decidedly not working with folks outside the art world, nor with a group that spends much time questioning its own “value-systems.” But in asking the sly question “Can content forever concealed be considered an integral component of a work of art?” Jankowski has certainly adjusted one of those values: the relationship between critic and artist. If all of the writers involved did remain true to the artist’s concept, each creating a single handwritten, never-duplicated essay only dimly observable through the variously tinted bottles, their opinions will never see the light of day. So much for “authorship.” As one review of Review noted, Jankowski reportedly told a participating writer that if “she were to republish her review, the bottle would have to be removed from the installation and destroyed.”

Does concealment complete Jankowski’s piece? Or will that fall to some oligarch or hedge-fund manager or other cliché of the early 21st century’s collector class, who buys Review, cracks open the bottles, and reads the essays, thereby completing the work in an entirely different fashion? Because, let’s face it, Jankowski can set his own rules, but nothing can stop a self-styled artist (albeit one with more cash than most) from putting on a few finishing touches of her own.

Gone missing: Renoir's <i>Le Moulin de la Galette</i>
Gone missing: Renoir’s Le Moulin de la Galette



In an engrossing Art in America article from 1996, art historian Gary Schwartz tells the story of Ryoei Saito, a wealthy Japanese art collector who announced that when he died he would, as tradition dictates, have a number of dear possessions incinerated with him on his funeral pyre. Among them were to be Renoir’s Au Moulin de la Galette (a smaller version of the masterpiece in Paris’s Musée d’Orsay) and van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet, which Saito bought at Christie’s in 1990 for $82.5 million, at that time the highest price ever paid at auction for a work of art. Public outrage apparently dissuaded the businessman from following through on his megalomaniacal vision, and when he died — bankrupt, as it turned out — spokesmen for his company reported that the paintings were safe, although their whereabouts remain unknown to this day, lost amid rumors of predatory creditors, Swiss bank vaults, secretive collectors, and other archetypes of an overblown art market.

“Apparently [Saito] let himself be swayed by the feeling shared by many that works of art are not just chattel or possessions,” Schwartz wrote. “Great works of art deserve to outlive us. Artists make them for posterity; art immortalizes its subjects. Eternal life is the natural condition of art.” Schwartz then added, “If those were his reasons, he was misinformed. The natural condition of art is not to live on but to perish — usually sooner, almost inevitably later.” He went on to cite studies claiming that as many as 99 percent of panels painted in Italy between 1210 and 1310, and possibly 95 percent of fifteenth-century manuscripts, have been lost forever.

Gone missing: van Gogh's<i> Portrait of Dr. Gachet</i>
Gone missing: van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet

So what happens to all that art? First come the choices dealers and curators make as to what to preserve and what to consign to the fates. Vincent van Gogh was fortunate that brother Theo was an art dealer — few others wanted his paintings during his lifetime. Next, artworks are generally vulnerable: In 2003, after the American invasion of Iraq, stone tablets incised with some of humanity’s earliest known writings, along with clay pots and marble carvings dating as far back as 5000 B.C., were smashed or damaged in a frenzy of looting at the Baghdad Museum, as American forces concentrated on protecting Iraq’s Oil Ministry, a few blocks away. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed this cultural carnage as “Stuff happens.”

And then there’s the fate of pieces such as Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Abbey Graveyard Under Snow (1819), reproduced in one of my thickest art-history tomes in black-and-white with the notation, “Formerly Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin (destroyed 1945).” But Allied bombers bouncing the Nazi rubble in World War II is very different from what befell Graham Sutherland’s modernist, warts-and-all 1954 portrait of Winston Churchill. The two-time prime minister and Sunday painter reviled the work (“It makes me look half-witted, which I ain’t,” he remarked), which was unveiled before Parliament and never seen again. Knowing the pain the image of the tired old Tory occasioned in her husband, Clementine Churchill eventually had the canvas burned. (Both the Friedrich and the Sutherland continue to exist in reproduction, but stripped of any sense of the bodily presence oil paint brings to a subject.)

And much more could go missing if some series of disasters — rising seas, electromagnetic-pulse attacks, or even the garden-variety wars and plagues for which we have plenty of civilization-razing precedent — destroys or hopelessly jumbles our archives. Who will remember that a pile of bricks is a Carl Andre sculpture and not desperately needed building materials?

Yet New York, despite the scars of September 11, 2001, has never been sacked as Rome was, and it is always heartening to hop on the subway, stroll to the Met, and gaze at an incredibly delicate Greek vase, forever fragile but still with us after 2,500 years. And around the world, serendipity often plays a role, as when a farmer plowing his fields or weekenders exploring a cave stumble upon long-forgotten artifacts. We are plain lucky to know something of our kin from more than 30,000 years ago through their ivory carvings and paintings on cavern walls; some, such as the negative handprints created by blowing pigment around outstretched fingers, reveal astounding conceptual leaps. “I was here,” they communicate over the millennia, a gesture acknowledging the hope that there will always be future generations to discover what we have left behind.

Yucca Mountain repository in southern Nevada
Yucca Mountain repository in southern Nevada

Which summons to mind a perplexing art project I wrote about for the Voice in 2002 that had its origins in a most modern predicament. Because of the toxicity of spent fuel rods and other irradiated equipment, bureaucrats have for decades been trying to figure out a way to dispose of nuclear waste without setting us all aglow. Construction was begun on a vast underground repository at Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada, but that fell victim to politics and environmental concerns. Whatever the solution, it must push the limits of human time frames to take into account climatic change (will deserts become wetter over thousands of years and rust the waste containers?) and geology (earthquakes are rare only during our lifespans, not across geologic time). And it will need to be visible and comprehensible for those people tens or hundreds of generations down the line. As Frederick Newmeyer, former president of the Linguistic Society of America, points out, any language becomes “unintelligible to the descendants of the speakers after the passage of between 500 and 1,000 years.” (If that sounds like hyperbole, go crack open your Chaucer.)

So, in the early 1990s, teams of linguists, artists, engineers, archaeologists, and other experts were hired to design “Passive Institutional Controls,” meaning monuments that could wordlessly work as warning signs while surviving any climatic or geologic calamity. Recommendations included “massive, square-mile complexes such as ‘Landscape of Thorns’ (50-foot-high concrete spires with sharp points jutting out at all angles), ‘Forbidding Blocks’ (gargantuan black irregular cubes of stone, too narrowly spaced and hot to provide shelter), and other ‘menacing earthworks,’ all designed to convey ‘poisoned and parched and dead land, a place that’s really no place.'”

Anti-art, in other words.

But structures that deter some explorers will perversely attract others. You need only consider the waiting list to view Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field, a mile-by-kilometer expanse of 400 stainless-steel spears ranged across the western New Mexico desert — Shiva’s own bed of nails — to understand the futility of trying to discourage that most curious of cats, humanity.

Cueva de las Manos
Cueva de las Manos



We accept that the Venus de Milo, found in pieces, is mysteriously missing her arms, and that somewhere in the dim recesses of history, the Winged Victory of Samothrace was decapitated. Yet they remain beautiful works of art, even more beguiling through their survival.

No one reading these words now will be around to learn whether Jankowski’s bottles have that sort of staying power. As they break over time, will future curators flatten out the essays in vitrines next to the survivors? Or will they leave them rolled up, valiantly unread? Will the written language, given enough time, still be intelligible when the bottles finally break?

I wonder if Jankowski will accept the inevitable cracks in his artwork with the same equanimity as Duchamp, who, in 1926, learned that careless truckers had damaged The Large Glass (which he had labored over from 1915 to 1923) “after bouncing for sixty miles in Connecticut.” His reaction: “The more I look at it, the more I like the cracks because they are not like shattered glass. They have a shape. There’s symmetry in the cracking. The two crackings are symmetrically disposed and there’s almost an intention…that I’m not responsible for.”

At Petzel, Jankowski arrayed his bottles in clumps upon the gallery floor, as if gathered in mental tide pools, their obscured contents like a negative of the radiance emanating from Morandi’s still lifes. In reviews of the exhibition, which also included videos and other works, one critic lamented that “the fraught image of the many mute messages in their bottles imparts an unmistakable whiff of futility to the notion that critics’ discursive efforts have any audience at all.” Another noted that “just about the only thing we’re able to learn from these writers is what a wide variety of booze they consume.”

Indeed. And yet, through the alchemy of the art market, these homely, nigh-worthless bottles have sudden cachet and actual worth.

Which brings me back to my dad and his Gallo jugs. Over the years he had stored them in our various garages and basements, planning to sell them one day as candleholders or to outfit them as lamps by adding sockets. Finally, though, he decided to simply let them age into “collectible” status, even as I argued that they wouldn’t be valuable until long after any of us could profit from them. I also complained that the carton containing the Trinitite had been lost, suggesting that if we hadn’t been hauling those damned bottles back and forth across the continent, our atomic mementos wouldn’t have gone missing in all the confusion. He chided me, saying that the bottles would at least be suitable for storing water after the apocalypse — nuclear war with the Soviets, at one point in time, devastating global warming in one of our last conversations — and so would always be valuable.

In the way of sons since time immemorial, I rolled my eyes.

Dad died on April 11, 2012, and although I’m glad he never saw any of those sorts of catastrophes, he did live through the death of an older sister and a younger brother while he was still in his twenties, as well as the suicide of his alcoholic daughter, my sister, in February of 2012. Her name was Bonnie and she was kind and generous and unlucky, and, like too many people, she never felt terribly comfortable in this world.

The slippery artist Banksy, whose career thrives outside museums, once told an interviewer, “Graffiti’s always been a temporary art form. You make your mark and then they scrub it off. I mean, most of it is just designed to look good from a moving vehicle. Not necessarily in the history books. But maybe all art is about just trying to live on for a bit. I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.”

Strange, that “a bit later on,” from someone whose trenchant art will keep his alias (and, eventually, his real name) well-known long after he’s dead. But he’s a smart guy, and, after all, there is no actual person — not king or pharaoh, not god, not Democritus, never mind an artist — whose name has been said for anywhere near as long as those cave paintings have awaited rediscovery. Or for as long as America’s homeless nuclear waste will remain deadly radioactive. The history of civilization is so far very short.

Perhaps that’s why I mention Bonnie’s name here. Maybe by my calling attention to her, you might wonder briefly about her. And maybe sometime, unexpectedly and unbidden, in the near or far future, you will remember these small things I’ve said about her. I was in New Mexico to spread some of Bonnie’s ashes in the desert near White Sands National Monument — a place she and my entire family loved — when my wife and I got the news that my father had died. Earlier in the week we’d been at Trinity Site, a pilgrimage I’d long wanted to make, ever since I’d heard that for two days a year the Army opened the still operational proving grounds to the public. I’d told my father I would try to pick up a piece of Trinitite from the original Ground Zero, but I’d also warned him that I might not be able to, since it was against federal law to remove anything from the site, a regulation enforced by soldiers who roam the area during the Open House days. And anyway, most of the bomb glass had been plowed under decades before, for vague public-safety reasons.

The author visiting Trinity Site, April 2012
The author visiting Trinity Site, April 2012

While we were planning the New Mexico trip, poring over maps, my father had mentioned that Trinitite could be purchased at rock shops in the area, since ranchers had collected bits of it before it was illegal to do so. We both laughed when I said that we could finally make some money from his green Gallo bottles by melting them down to create counterfeit Trinitite. Three days before Dad died, I bought two small pieces of Trinitite at $30 a gram, and he was glad to hear that his lost fragments of history were going to be replaced.

Over all the years that I have pursued my own work, my father never fully grasped what I was trying to do with painting, drawing, video, and writing, but to his credit, he never discouraged me in my pursuit of art. He certainly liked having my landscape drawings of the farm of his youth hanging on the walls of the house he and my mother built on that same family land after they retired — the farm he had spent so many years running away from. Once, during a stretch when I was broke, he and my mother were kind enough to buy one of my abstract paintings, and hang it up to boot.

But Dad understood finance. He had once been a serious card-counter at the blackjack tables in Reno and Lake Tahoe. So while he might not have fully grasped Jankowski’s intentions with Review, he would have loved the fact that an art project had turned out to be a good bet to finally make one of his Gallo bottles valuable. He would have enjoyed thinking about that bottle being bought for one price and perhaps auctioned at a much higher one in the future.

And he probably would grudgingly have understood the particular stipulation I inserted about my own participation. To avoid conflicts of interest, I never accept anything from an artist I review, and so although Jankowski offered each writer a photograph of his or her bottle floating in the Hudson after he had sealed it with wax, as “a sign of gratitude for your collaboration,” I turned him down. Considering that my old colleague Christian Viveros-Fauné, now a critic at Artnet, recently deemed Jankowski one of the “10 Artists to Watch in 2016,” Dad would’ve just chalked it up to my usual financial acumen.

The author with his sister, Bonnie, Alamogordo, New Mexico, circa 1968
The author with his sister, Alamogordo, New Mexico, circa 1968

But that’s OK. All I want is for Dad’s bottle to travel through the world and the ages, vulnerable as all get-out, yet cared for through the aegis of humanity, which we can all hope will one day no longer need places like Trinity Site.

I sometimes speculate about what those other collaborating arts journalists wrote. Did they try to imagine the physical layout of the show, or focus on its conceptual ramifications? Did they ruminate on the meaning of criticism? The fragility of the bottles? Of civilization? Maybe one author wrote a love note to someone who will never know he or she was the beloved. What does one write to that conjured audience of the future, who ideally will never read the words, unless — see Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2003 — things fall apart?

Perhaps you are wondering what, exactly, I wrote on those pages that I stuffed into my father’s old wine bottle. The title, “Manhattan Over Their Heads,” as can be discerned through the green glass, is almost the same as the title for this story. The plan, of course, is that no one will ever compare the rest of those words with these.

If you are, I hope things aren’t too bad. 

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