White Line Fever


Miami is one of those cities with its own peculiar odor and you smell it most distinctly during the hours before dawn. There is salt in the air, of course, a nod to the abiding presence of the southern sea. But on certain nights when a desultory breeze blows east from the Everglades, a more powerful essence soaks the dark air: the ancient memory of the swamp. It’s as if all the tar and concrete, all the gleaming hotels and banks and shopping centers, the tract houses, schools, churches, and restaurants are some dull afterthought. In those humid after-midnight hours, the modern city is overwhelmed by a primeval compost of decaying vegetation, rioting flowers, fetid water, the remains of beings that die with thrashing suddenness in the night.

And on almost all such nights, it does not take much imagination to detect something else drifting on the Miami wind: the sweet rotting stench of corruption.

No other American city has melded its natural odor so perfectly with the dailiness of its human activities. If you move around the city, you sense the pervasiveness of the corruption: the cop smoking a cigarette in a doorway, like a supporting player from Red Harvest; the chaotic sprawl of weather-stained commercial architecture, evoking deals and variances and the purchased approval of second-rate materials; young men driving Porsches and Mercedes and Caddies as if they owned the nightside streets. Corruption is most tangible, as blunt as an ax, in the bars, discos, marinas, that sleek urban scape so accurately reflected in Miami Vice. This world is not fiction; its treacherous glamour is an undeniable element of modern Miami. And the citizens of that world, adorned with Naugahyde-like tans and encrusted Rolexes, rubbing their eroding noses in unwilled salute, are walking symbols of the city’s deepest reality. The truth of a time and place is, of course, always illusive; but no historian can tell the story of Miami in the last decade without acknowledging one gigantic fact of municipal life: cocaine.

In the late 1970s, the Miami Herald estimated that drugs had become the largest single industry in southern Florida, accounting for a billion dollars a year. Today, in spite of numerous photo opportunities starring George Bush, increases in various antidrug budgets, and some hard dangerous work by the more than 800 state and federal antidrug agents, there is no reason to believe that anything much has changed. Drugs are to Miami what cars are to Detroit. As opium was for some Brits in the 19th century, cocaine has been the essential building block of great Miami fortunes. Narcobucks have erected shopping centers, financed housing developments, built vast mansions, stocked racing stables, paid for boats, cars, and more fleshy trinkets, created and maintained banks (some law enforcement people believe that there isn’t a clean bank in the state), and so worked their way into the fabric of life here that nobody will ever be likely to separate the clean money from the soiled.

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In almost every way, cocaine dominates the culture of Miami. It is part of the city’s power structure, the engine of its economy, the unacknowledged grease of its politics. In Miami, as Christine Evans of the Miami Herald has written, “drugs are cheaper, purer and more abundant than anywhere else in the country. Doctors use them. Lawyers use them. Data analysts use them. Rich kids get them from their parents’ secret drawers. Poor kids score cheap on the street.”

One recent study estimates that the citizens of Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties spend $1.69 billion a year on illegal drugs. Employers spend $744 million a year on health care for their druggies or for repairing the messes made by people who go to work loaded. Cocaine — 75 per cent of which enters this country through Florida — is at the heart of a vast capitalist enterprise, a rude democratic industry that follows the most primitive laws of supply and demand while promising great rewards to those willing to take risks. The odds are almost all in favor of the outlaw. Since its inception in 1982, the federal South Florida Crime Task Force has racked up more than 9500 arrests, seized tons of drugs. The result? Drugs are more available than ever before and cheaper by half at $30,000 a kilo. Few street-level dealers are ever touched because the courts and jails are jammed; crack houses operate openly almost everywhere. And the big dealers — the importers and wholesalers — are virtually immune in their Brickell Avenue condos and Coral Gables mansions. The drug business is a very successful American enterprise. Everybody knows this: ordinary citizens, reporters, politicians, schoolchildren.

But the cops know it better than anyone else. And in this world of dirty money and deep cynicism, it is no surprise that some of them have eaten the forbidden fruit. These notes are about some of those cops.

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The Miami River meanders out of the interior, sluggish and dense and hidden from view, crawling to the sea for 5.5 miles under the city’s bridges like a huge, flat worm. It passes through a wilderness of boat yards, docks, skiffs, houseboats; it eases past areas full of twisted, anonymous steel, past rusting gas pumps and sun-blasted soda machines, past tiny stores selling shrimp and cigarettes and cold beer, past bars where tattooed whores arrive before noon to service the fishermen. Miami is never thought of as a river town, but its river serves admirably as municipal metaphor: dirty, furtive, lawless.

Sometime after midnight on the river last July 28, six men were unloading 300 to 400 kilograms of cocaine from a beat-up old 40-foot scow called the Mary C. This was in itself not unusual; the river is sparsely patrolled by police, whose jurisdiction is split between Miami and the larger Metro-Dade police forces, along with 30 other agencies charged with its regulation (Dade County alone has a bewildering 27 separate police departments totaling 4500 police), and the river is frequently used by smugglers of everything from drugs to Pakistanis. The six men worked quickly, moving their precious cargo from boat to waiting van. It seemed like another smooth night’s work in Miami.

Then, at the entrance to the boat yard, an unarmed night watchman named Bob Downs was suddenly brought to attention by an urgent banging on his door. He was told to open up. He did, and saw at least six men, two of whom were wearing police uniforms and caps. They said they were police and that this was a raid. Downs let them in.

The new arrivals hurried into the yard with guns drawn. Someone among them yelled, “Kill them!” Panicked, cornered, afraid, the men who were unloading the drugs dove into the filthy river. Downs then was ordered to unlock the padlock on the cyclone fence gates, which he did, and the loaded van was driven away. Three of the men who leaped into the river — Pedro Martinez (described later as one of Dade County’s biggest coke dealers, with a fleet of five steel-hulled boats operating from the Bahamas to Florida), Adolfo Lopez-Yanes, and Juan Garcia — never were seen again alive. Their drowned bodies were fished out of the river the next afternoon.

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The following December, arrests were finally made: Armando Estrada, Roman Rodriguez, Osvaldo Coello, Arturo de la Vega, Ro­dolfo Arias, and Armando Garcia. All were young. All were Latin. All were, or had been, Miami cops.

Estrada, Rodriguez, and Garcia were arrested at dawn, each charged with three counts of first-degree murder; under Florida’s felony murder law, anyone who kills another in the process of committing a felony can be charged with first-degree murder. The others were picked up later. In addition to the murder charges, all five were charged with cocaine trafficking, racketeering, and aggravated battery; individual charges included armed robbery, conspiracy and solicitation to commit a felony, and possession of marijuana. Two of the surviving civilians who were unloading the boat were also arrested and charged. But the cops got all the attention. When four of them were brought to court, the whole country saw them blowing kisses, giggling, rolling their eyes, sniggering at their pictures in the newspapers. They flexed their muscles as they moved, looking like bags of bowling balls held together with steroids.

Within days, details about these men began to emerge. All were weight lifters, all made the disco scene, both in Little Havana and in the anglo joints out at the beach. They liked to adorn themselves with gold chains, spend money on expensive clothes, women, flashy cars, all the props of Miami Vice. And in police jobs paying $10 to $14 an hour, they apparently supported this lifestyle in the only way possible: through crime. They started small, taking drugs from motorists stopped for traffic offenses, and keeping them. A few openly muscled small-time peddlers. And eventually, investigators believe, about 10 cops bonded themselves together into a group the prosecutors call “The Enterprise.”

The major target of The Enterprise was the drug dealer. As cops, they would learn on the street (or from straight cops) who was dealing, when big buys were taking place, and then they would go in with shields and guns and take the goods for themselves. Some simply invaded the homes of suspected dealers at gunpoint, a variation of the old crap game stickup. Obviously, if you’re not supposed to be doing something, it is very hard to call the cops when you’re robbed. It’s even harder if the cops are doing the robbing.

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When they weren’t robbing drug dealers, the rogue cops were working for them. The key man was a short dapper 42-year-old Ma­riel refugee named Luis Rodriguez, who had gone from two 1982 arrests for possession of burglary tools and firearms, and four arrests in two years for possession of narcotics (for which he did no time) to the obligatory Mercedes, beeper, and cabin cruiser of the successful drug dealer. Like many drug dealers, he moved around a lot, seldom staying at his Coral Gables apartment, spending nights in various hotels, traveling on occasion to New York.

But Rodriguez was not exactly a master criminal, some Cuban wedding of Professor Moriarty and Meyer Lansky. In fact, he was pretty damned dumb. An example: on March 1, 1984, while driving south on the Jersey Turnpike, Rodriguez and another man were stopped by a trooper for driving 70 miles an hour. The trooper searched the 1981 Chevy and found two bags of cocaine, $14,000 in cash in the trunk, $5000 in the glove compartment, and $44,000 under the dashboard. Rodriguez pleaded guilty to cocaine possession then changed his mind, decided to fight the case, and went back to Miami to wait for trial. He obviously preferred the warm embrace of the Miami legal system to the chill vastness of the North. After his last period of probation in Florida, for example, Rodriguez asked the judge to give him back his 9 mm. Browning. I mean, what is a drug dealer without his piece? And Miami being Miami, Circuit Judge Ted Mastos agreed.

Rodriguez ran a joint called the Molino Rojo Bar, on 3084 NW 7th Street, where drug deals were often made (according to court documents) and where Rodriguez himself was once nabbed with two bags of cocaine. The bar was usually packed (even a brutal double homicide one night in December 1984 didn’t keep the customers away) and among those who came around were the young cops.

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Luis Rodriguez had a 49-year-old assistant, a hustler off SW 8th Street known as Armando Un. In the bar, Un got to know the cops and apparently he was a good judge of character; in 1984 he suggested they work for Rodriguez. And they were willing. In an affidavit, Un said that the drug thefts began in September 1984, the period cited by prosecutors as the beginning of The Enterprise. Soon the young weight lifters were moving drugs around the city for Rodriguez, often in patrol cars, sometimes peddling on duty. They didn’t always work in combination. Officer Estrada, Un said, once gave him a kilo of cocaine in mid-1985 and took a $2000 down payment; that sounded like a private deal. Some other jobs were small; The Enterprise even helped collect gambling debts, the public servant functioning as private muscle. But according to Un, in mid-1985 be helped plan a successful 300-to-400 kilo ripoff at the Tamiami Marina, with six cops doing the heavy lifting. And then they started going after even bigger deals. In the anarchic world of Miami drugs, business was good, although Metro-Dade homicide detective Alex Alvarez later told reporters that business wasn’t always very smooth; there were, for example, too many men involved — at least 10 — and they began to squabble. Said Alvarez: “Everyone wanted to kill everyone else.”

Immediately after the Miami River arrests, there were expressions of surprise and rage. But the Miami establishment should have known. The police brass. The politicians. The prosecutors. They should have smelled the rotting odor, drifting in the Miami night. Way back in February 1985, a banker whose own activities were under investigation said that three masked men broke into his Coral Gables home, robbed him of $100,000 in cash and jewelry, and threatened him with death. The thieves were “built like body builders,” and that April, after his own investigation, he told the cops that one of the three was a Miami police officer who worked out in a gymnasium near Bird Road. Coello and Garcia owned a gym on Bird Road. The cops investigated but did nothing. They were busy elsewhere.

On July 9 last year, a group of men invaded the home of a Miami weapons manufacturer, shot him to death, stole jewelry and a safe; neighbors said men who looked like “off-duty cops” had been seen casing the home. On the day of the Miami River deaths three men in a blue Cadillac flashed a police badge, kidnapped a woman, took her to her home and robbed her husband of $50,000; a car matching the description of the Cadillac was stopped two weeks later. Officer Osvaldo Coello was driving. He had borrowed the car, he said. Nothing happened. On August 17, two days after he resigned from the police department (after an investigation into allegations that he was using cocaine), Coello was stopped doing 120 miles an hour in a $59,000 red Lotus. He was carrying $4500. As a cop, he earned $10.40 an hour. He was not locked up. The police brass saw no evil. On August 26, two cops were arrested while trying to sell police badges, radio scanners, and automatic weapons to a drug dealer. On October 7, Miami police admitted that $150,000 had been stolen from a safe in the office of the Special Investigations Unit (the real name for the Miami vice squad) right in police headquarters. On October 10, a Metro-Dade officer was arrested for being part of a home-invasion gang; he specialized in posing as a mailman. A week later, two cops were arrested for possession of cocaine. The following month, two former Miami cops were charged with stealing (while still on the force) 150 pounds of cocaine from a 1000-pound seizure also made on the Miami River. In February, a cop was arrested while driving a stolen $40,000 Porsche. The next month, a cop was arrested for using a police car in the ripoff of a drug dealer and then planning the man’s murder. The cops in the Miami area were rapidly acquiring a substantial collective yellow sheet of their own.

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The most obvious questions were asked first: Who are these people? What kind of cops are they? The answers were sketchy.

All became cops in the aftermath of the bloody 1980 riots, when the Miami force was expanded from 630 officers to 1050 over three years. To reflect the changed ethnic composition of the city (42.3 per cent of Dade County’s 1,771,000 inhabitants are now Latin) about 80 per cent of the new officers were black or Latin. Some veteran cops insist that to attract the new officers, standards were lowered. And one result was that some bad apples ended up with badges and legitimate guns. Former Police Chief Kenneth Harms says, “Instead of taking the cream off the top of the barrel, we took the whole damn barrel.”

There are some indications that the contents of that barrel were drawn from a Miami generation to whom money was holy, its acquisition sacramental. This is, of course, in the grand American tradition. These, after all, are the children of immigrants, the same kind of people who — in the old days in a dozen American cities — made up the soldiers of the police and the Mob. Many came from the same neighborhoods. Two members of The Enterprise went to Miami High together. Three were in the class of ’81 at the Police Academy; all were known as “aggressive” cops, muscular machos who volunteered for tough assignments, actually preferring the high-action midnight shift. They also moved around with a certain swagger, letting everyone know they were hard guys — as hard as anyone else on the street. They worked at this, wearing muscles as if they too were a kind of uniform. Bodymasters, the gym owned by Coello and Garcia, attracted a lot of police officers; investigators now believe that while pumping iron at Bodymasters, members of The Enterprise also planned some of the drug ripoffs. But it’s not clear when these young men went bad.

Some Miami cops told me they believed the baddies became cops in order to enrich themselves, knowing that access to police intelligence and the gossip of informers would help them locate potential victims. Since the victims were also criminals there were few ethical problems. There might never have been ethical problems.

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“Look, there have always been bad cops,” one cop told me. “They’re usually cops for years and all they see is the scum of the earth and a court system that doesn’t give a rat’s ass and after a while they might say, ‘Hey, why don’t I get a piece for myself?’ In Miami, a cop can make a few grand by looking to the left instead of the right. But these young guys weren’t cops long enough to have that happen. I think they were bad from the day they went to the academy.”

If Rodriguez (through Un) was the corrupter, the relationship with the young cops didn’t last very long. At 5:30 p.m. on July 30, 1985, the day after the murders on the Miami River, in a field about a mile from the Dolphin Expressway, someone dumped a pine box that was three feet high and three feet wide. Inside the box was the body of Luis Rodriguez. He had been shot quite a few times. When the cops found the crate and opened the lid, Luis’s body popped out, and for a brief time his death was happily known to cops and reporters as the “Jack in the Box” murder.

Investigating the murder of Rodriguez, the cops heard that Officer Estrada had been around the night before the drug dealer disappeared, saying he would have to kill him. In a taped conversation after the killing, Un said to Officer Estrada: “I could care less if they killed Luis 40 times over. He had to be killed. If they had not killed him … ” On the tape, Estrada finished the sentence for him: “We would have killed him.”

Officers Arias, Garcia, and Estrada have been charged with conspiracy to murder Rodriguez, but nobody has yet been charged with the actual murder. The larger story of the Miami River murders (or, as defense attorneys call them, “suicides by drowning”) seems to have eclipsed the death of Luis Rodriguez.

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At some point, crime and politics always seem to intersect. This can be seen most clearly in the town of Hialeah. A stranger could cross from Miami into Hialeah without knowing that he has crossed any boundary; it’s like traversing the frontier between Brooklyn and Queens. But to those who know the place, Hialeah has its own special character these days. It is the second largest city in Dade County, with 180,000 residents (more than Fort Lauderdale). The city’s centerpiece is the once-lovely, now rather shabby racetrack that bears its name. In the old days, famous hoodlums came each winter to the track, carting along their fancy women, each northern don protected by a flying wedge of pistoleros.

In those days, there were almost no Latins in the town; those Latins who did live in Hialeah were third-rate jockeys, exercise boys, vendors, and petty hustlers who made a living off the track. Hialeah in the ’50s was a redneck town, full of hard-drinking shit-kickers who loved to batter each other on a Saturday night while Webb Pierce or Lefty Frizzell sang counterpoint on the jukebox. Then, after Castro took power, at first gradually and soon in a great rush, Hialeah began to change; vowels replaced consonants; Joe Cuba and the La Playa Sextet shoved Hank Williams and Merle Haggard off the juke. Today, Latins make up 80 per cent of the population and in 1983 finally took control of the city council. They have come to dominate an ugly, sprawling town, predominantly working class, whose main artery is 49th Street with its fast food joints and used car lots and grungy shopping centers. They have also inherited a ripe tradition of corruption.

“Politicians steal,” a Miami cop said to me. “That’s their business. But in Hialeah, they think they’re supposed to steal everything.”

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For years, the press and the prosecutors were after a Hialeah mayor named Henry Milander, citing various cases of alleged malfeasance. Milander brushed them away as if they were visiting fruit flies, until at last in 1970 he was convicted of grand larceny. Even that didn’t change Hialeah very much. The following year he was again elected mayor. Other pols, a visitor is told, made fortunes on developing the town, ridding the land of farms and open spaces, planting fields with warehouses and factories, jerry-building housing so unrelentingly ugly that it might even have offended Joe Stalin.

Into this fast-buck heaven have arrived many of the new-breed hustlers, and among them was a man named Alberto San Pedro. Born in Havana in 1950, Alberto was four years old when his parents brought him to Miami. In recent years, he called himself a developer, and hosted extravagant parties each December 17 in honor of his favorite saint, the wonderful San Lazarus, who is not recognized by the Catholic Church anymore but remains big among Cubans. The last two of these $50,000 parties were held at the posh Doral Hotel in Miami Beach, and among the guests were Hialeah mayor Raul Martinez, Representative Claude Pepper, Miami Beach mayor Alex Daoud, WSVN-Channel 7 weekend anchor and reporter Rick Sanchez, Miami police major Jack Sullivan, ordinary cops, political fundraisers, lawyers, various right-wing bravos, and a load of judges. San Pedro brought along a nine-foot statue of the saint, dressed himself in a tuxedo, was flanked by bodyguards, and posed with the assembled celebrities.

San Pedro’s father was a delegate to the 1984 Republican National Convention, and Alberto San Pedro was cleared for an audience with Ronald Reagan in Tampa in 1985. The son told all inquisitors that in addition to his activities as a developer, he was also a bookkeeper and salesman for his father’s business, the San Lazaro Racing Stables at Calder Race Track. These occupations obviously rewarded him handsomely: according to Jeff Leen of the Miami Herald, Alberto San Pedro’s six-bedroom mansion in Hialeah has eight and a half bathrooms and bulletproof windows.

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The windows should have been the tipoff that there was more to Alberto San Pedro than his own resume might indicate. He was, in fact, leading a far more interesting life than the one he presented to the public and seems to have studied for it with the same respect for basic texts that a seminarian would reserve for Thomas a Kempis. Leen, whose wonderfully detailed profile of Alberto for the Herald is the basis of many of these notes, also learned that Alberto kept a hardcover copy of The Godfather in the bathroom closest to his bedroom and a biography of Al Capone behind the desk in his office. It was in that same office that police set up a hidden microphone and learned many things about Alberto’s other, perhaps more characteristic, life. As we learned from listening to the Watergate tapes, the bulk of a hoodlum’s day is consumed by bullshitting with other hoodlums, and the San Pedro tapes — recorded in thousands of pages of transcripts — are a fascinating journey into the true underbelly of life in a corrupt town.

For these tapes, the police say, show that Alberto San Pedro was a major corrupter, a fixer, the classic cacique who works behind the scenes to secure power and wealth and enforces his presumed right to both with fear and violence. Among the institutions he is accused of corrupting is the Hialeah police department. It was a task he had trained for all of his life.

We don’t know if Alberto San Pedro’s reading of Mario Puzo moved him to see his life as a novel, but if so, the early  chapters followed the traditional pattern. In junior high school he learned that force can be rewarded. According to a Florida Parole and Probation Commission case analysis quoted by Leen, “Subject began extortion in the 9th and 10th grades, making the other students do his homework or work projects.”

By age 20, San Pedro, like so many other characters in this squalid story, was into weight lifting. And he began to take karate lessons from a Hialeah cop named Leo Thalassites. On the tapes, San Pedro says that he spent much of his youth beating up people for 50 or a hundred bucks (“that’s how I made my money”). By the time he was 21, his yellow sheet was lengthening: three arrests for aggravated assault, one for resisting a police officer, two for assault and battery, another for buying and possessing stolen property. In 1970, police reports said, after being flattened by a hard block in a sandlot football game, an enraged San Pedro stabbed the blocker, then went to his car, took out a machine gun, and sprayed the field. In all of these cases, he was either acquitted or had the charges dismissed. He wasn’t properly nailed by the law until 1971, when he took part in a drug rip-off and discovered that the subjects of his attention were undercover cops. He was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and given three years probation.

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

Even this didn’t convince San Pedro to go into a quieter line of work. In 1972, he was in trouble again, charged with armed robbery and assault with the intent to commit murder. His victim this time was a hooker’s John. There are clearly marked roads to heaven. But the customer wouldn’t testify and San Pedro got off. Three years later, he almost got off the earth when a hit man shot him five times. San Pedro survived. The hit man disappeared. And San Pedro began to give his annual thanks to Saint Lazarus. He also began to think more about the style of his life and the reach of his ambitions. On a July 26, 1985, tape, he says:

“I’m not a doper. I dedicate myself to my business. I was fucking broke when I was a kid and I got the shit beat out of me by the cops and by … the whole group. That’s what made me think there’s only one way to get around in life here. That’s politics and money.”

San Pedro was correct; the grand old American combination of politics and money is certainly not unique to south Florida. But there was something else going on in Hialeah. By last year, the police chief was a man named Cecil (“Whitey”) Seay, whose earlier career didn’t seem to shape him for extraordinary moral leadership. In 1970 he was accused by a drug dealer of trying to cut himself into a $150,000 marijuana smuggling plot (no charges were filed); he was indicted in 1971 after a Dade County grand jury investigation demanded by 70 Hialeah officers who said that nine officers, including Seay, didn’t meet ethical standards (he was accused of thwarting a burglary investigation, but when the chief witness against him changed his story the charges were dropped); in 1973, a teenage girl appeared before the city’s personnel board and claimed that Seay had forced his attentions upon her (no investigation was made). At the hearings that led to his choice as chief, Seay said: “Those guys who have a clean record have never done anything.”

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One of Seay’s most important officers was San Pedro’s old karate instructor and still his good friend, Leo Thalassites. He was now a sergeant. Leo suddenly found himself in the newspapers on January 30 when he threatened to kill two detectives named Eddie Preston and Tom Nevins. He made this threat in the lobby of the Hialeah City Hall in front of three other officers. Preston and Nevins were in the intelligence section of Hialeah’s police department, and Thalassites accused them of sending anonymous letters to various police organizations and the media accusing Leo and some other Hialeah veterans of corruption. Although the two cops denied this, Chief Seay and Mayor Martinez backed Thalassites. One fine morning, the two detectives found the locks on their office changed, with their personal possessions and pending cases still inside. They were then shifted to other jobs, one washing police cars, the other pounding a beat. Hialeah’s intelligence section was disbanded.

But the story didn’t end there.

The Metro-Dade police were already looking hard at Alberto San Pedro. An undercover agent, posing as a corrupt cop, had ingratiated himself with San Pedro and had a series of meetings and telephone conversations with the man. All were recorded. More than anything else, San Pedro told detective Nelson Perry, he wanted to get rid of the rest of the records of his youth so that he could obtain a full pardon for his youthful crimes and become a U.S. citizen. He planned to do this, he said, with money.

“Everybody’s got a friend and everybody needs friends,” he said on an August 30, 1985, tape. “Everybody likes to be loved and everybody wants to be loved. Money, everybody loves money. Everybody likes to spend it … And unfortunately, politicians are the worst motherfuckers in the world … They only look at one thing, how much can I steal as long as I’m there.”

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Among the records that San Pedro wanted destroyed were accounts of his dealing with a middle-level Gambino family hoodlum named Joseph Paterno. Police recorded conversations in April 1985 indicating that Paterno tried to buy from San Pedro two silencer-­equipped guns for use in the killing of two of his own cousins in New Jersey. San Pedro didn’t refuse; his price — $4000 for each piece — was simply too high for Paterno’s budget, according to Arthur Nehrbass, commander of Dade’s Organized Crime Bureau. Almost immediately after this conversation, Paterno was arrested.

The cops took a closer look at San Pedro. In June, he offered $5000 to a police informant to get the Paterno transcripts and tapes. The cops then sent their undercover man to San Pedro (setting up the meeting through San Pedro’s bodyguard) and listened to his various offers, and accepted sums ranging from $2000 to $11,000. Over a period of time, the cops fed San Pedro a combination of real and fictitious police material, and listened to his bragging, his philosophy, and his schemes. Those schemes were not empty; San Pedro was the real thing. They knew, for example, from the Hialeah records chief, Lieutenant Thomas Bardon, that San Pedro’s file had disappeared three times from that city’s police department. A narcotics intelligence file on San Pedro also disappeared. And his records were missing from the Dade Circuit Court clerk’s office and the State Attorney’s office. San Pedro was clearly attempting to create a new personal history through elimination.

Nelson Perry, who was president of the Police Benevolent Association (which began representing Hialeah cops in September 1985), says he started smelling the rot in Hialeah when he was approached by a 350-pound political press agent and community newspaperman named Don Dugan (later indicted in a separate case for being the bagman in a bribery case in Opa Locka). Dugan told Perry that he could earn “a personal profit” if he stayed out of Hialeah police affairs. This shocked Perry, who told his superiors of this; they assigned him to pose as a corrupt cop. He soon met San Pedro for the first time at the Treetop Restaurant in the Miami Springs Holiday Inn. They continued to meet for weeks. At two of Perry’s meetings with San Pedro, a Hialeah cop was also present. It was Sergeant Thalassites.

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When police overheard San Pedro in February talking about killing two men who owed him a total of $4000, and conspiring to sell a kilo of cocaine, they decided to move. On February 13, San Pedro was arrested on bribery charges, and rearrested March 2 for murder, conspiracy, and cocaine trafficking. Hialeah erupted. Within weeks, Chief Seay resigned. Thalassites went on paid leave. Some of the tapes were released, littered with the names of various politicians who were claimed by San Pedro as friends or property. TV reporter Rick Sanchez was heard discussing an exchange of favors with San Pedro; good old Alberto had found a job in Panama for Sanchez’s uncle; Sanchez, who served as a non-voting adviser to the board of the First American Bank & Trust, got a share of San Pedro’s business for the bank. (What a reporter was doing serving on the board of a bank — and sucking after customers on behalf of that bank — nobody could answer; Sanchez also was granted a paid leave but his superiors at the TV station said they saw nothing wrong with his connection to the bank. The ethics of Miami strike again.) It was then remembered that Sanchez had emceed the 1984 San Lazarus party and had led the group in prayer. Someone else noticed that Hialeah had a 29.6 per cent increase in crime during 1985 and the joke was that this was “not including cops.”

Then in mid-March, the Herald tossed a few more bombs into the discussion.

Reporters Leen and Sydney P. Freedberg discovered that in 1979, Florida’s former attorney general, Robert Shevin, and the state’s esteemed Congressman Claude Pepper had written letters to the Florida parole board extolling San Pedro’s character. They now claimed that they didn’t really know San Pedro, couldn’t remember him; since their letters claimed that they did in fact know San Pedro either the letters or the statements were lies. The former attorney general certainly should have known something about San Pedro. His law partner, a Democratic fund-raiser and adviser to Governor Bob Graham named Ronald Book, represented San Pedro during his 1983 application for a full pardon. Pepper and Shevin spluttered, suffered from amnesia, hung up the phones.

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Even more bizarre was the story of San Pedro’s access to Governor Graham himself. Last December, when there were cops all over Hialeah investigating San Pedro, a woman named Marcia Ludwig emerged to support San Pedro’s application for a full pardon. Marcia Ludwig was once Marcia Valibus and in 1957 she was queen of the Orange Bowl; in Miami there is always an element of the surreal. Later Marcia Valibus was a runner-up in the Miss Universe contest and had a screen test at Paramount Studios. She was also a classmate of Adele Graham, the governor’s wife, and over the years they had remained friends. For more than a decade, the Herald said, Marcia Ludwig has been an intimate friend of one Robert (Bobby) Erra, son of the late Pasquale (Patsy) Erra, who once worked for Vito Genovese. Marcia and Erra are often seen together, friends told the Herald, at the La Goree Country Club. More important, there are pages of conversations between Erra and San Pedro on the various tapes. On December 11, Ludwig sent a hand-written note to her friend, the governor’s wife:

“Dear Adele, This is a note for Bob’s mirror. A good friend of mine — Alberto San Pedro— has a case coming before Bob and his Cabinet on Dec. 18 … I appreciate you calling my words to Bob’s attention.”

On December 19, Adele wrote back to Marcia: “I placed the note on Bob’s mirror — so he’s aware.” This was the day after Graham presided over the hearing. During that session, he said: “Unfortunately, there continues to be this lingering question as to what might be in his background. I’m concerned that Mister San Pedro is sort of being cast under a shadow that he seems to be unable to extricate himself from and which shadow hasn’t yet, or after four or five years, moved to the substance of some action. It has been a long time since the criminal offense for which he’s requesting pardon was committed and he has an impressive statement of his community record.” Graham “reluctantly” moved to continue the case, stating that the next time San Pedro’s pardon was discussed, he would come to a decision. There is no indication that he checked with any of the cops; he certainly didn’t give San Pedro a flat rejection. What the hell: when you’re a kid in Hialeah it’s only natural to fool around with machine guns. Still, Graham didn’t say yes either. And his need to decide was made academic by San Pedro’s February 13 arrest.

The honest cops in Hialeah had long despised San Pedro and to some extent feared him. He was the shadowy man, the fixer, called upon for help by arsonist, hoodlum, dealer. On the day he was arrested, someone placed a note on the police department’s bulletin board. It said very simply: “The untouchable has been touched.”

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Obviously, every cop in southern Florida is not a crook. Most of the arrests have been made as a result of good tough police investigations along with continuing pressure from the Miami Herald. But it’s unlikely that corruption will soon vanish, the drug dealers joining the dinosaurs in the rot of the swamp. They won’t go away, and cops will continue to be corrupted because there is simply too much dirty money lying around. Cocaine will not soon be legalized: Americans won’t soon surrender their national lust for some form of chemical nirvana.

But if you wonder what happens to some of these men who briefly and luridly occupy page-one headlines, consider recent events in North Bay Village, another suburb of Miami. In 1971, a cop named George Staphylaris was fired from the Miami force for allegedly encouraging a police informant to rob a department store. He appealed the firing, was reinstated with a six-month suspension, then resigned. Six years ago he joined the North Bay Village force. He was soon known to many kids as Officer George, ran the drug education program at Treasure Island Elementary School, often took kids on trips to the Everglades, and had prepared a children’s seminar called “Just Say No To Drugs.”

On the North Bay force, he met another former Miami cop named William David Risk. He too was once fired, for battering a prisoner with a nightstick. He too fought his firing, was reinstated, and resigned in 1979. Last year, he was North Bay Village’s officer of the year, cited for his “superlative performance and dedication.” He was also a weight lifter.

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A third former Miami cop was on the North Bay force. This was Sergeant Fernando Gandon. He quit the Miami force in 1977 after being charged with aggravated battery. While interrogating a man on the street, the charges against him said, he shoved his pistol in the man’s mouth, rattled it around and broke some teeth. Five years ago, he arrived at North Bay and was again given a badge and gun.

On February 27, all three men were arrested by the FBI for selling protection to men they believed to be drug dealers. A Mob guy named Stephen Nahay told FBI agents (posing as drug dealers) in a recorded conversation that if they were moving drugs they should see the three North Bay cops. “They’ll help you out,” Nahay said. “In other words, if you want to kill a guy there … you just tell them the guy and they’ll kick him on to the coroner … ”

Clearly, redemption does not flourish under the southern sun. There are no second chances for such people, only the main chance. But nobody from New York can step back in self-righteous judgment at the sight of Miami police scandals. We have at least one such scandal in every New York generation since the mid-19th century. And late one night, sitting with a Miami cop in a place called Trainer’s, where judges and drug dealers both come to dine, I was asked, “How long can that mayor of yours last?” I wasn’t able to answer. The arrest rate at New York’s city hall hasn’t quite reached that of the Miami cops, but the crimes are about the same general thing: abuse of power for personal gain.

[related_posts post_id_1=”727098″ /]

In Miami, the corruption will go on and on, as long as millions of Americans maintain their passionate love affair with cocaine. Jesse Helms and his fellow yahoos should forget about corruption in Mexico for the moment and acknowledge the rot in a state that went fervently for Ronald Reagan. They might discover that drug dealers love conservatives in power; conservatives forbid things that racket guys can then sell. And while Americans keep buying expensive powders to shove up their noses, the bad guys will keep buying cops. How many. As many as they need.

A good number of Miami cops have the integrity to resist the lure of narcodollars. But just as surely, others will plunge into the swamp and rise covered with the kind of slime that will never wash off. They are there now, driving Chevies and longing for Porsches, dressed in baggy suits and lusting for Giorgio Armani, hearing preachments of denial, while drug dealers leave with the women, and the country at large throws roses to the greedy. They are men of the law but nobody in Miami would ever be surprised to see them leaving the sunshine in handcuffs. Their sweet decaying odor will not go away. ❖

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES

Documenting the New Towers of Old Hell’s Kitchen

The artist Gwyneth Leech has lived and worked in Hell’s Kitchen for nineteen years. Her installations and paintings record the dynamic changes in the skyline and spirit of her neighborhood. Currently, she is exhibiting works that take a detailed look at local construction sites, and how a new era is being shaped in an old ’hood.

On my way to the studio, I have a choice of coffee places: Empire Coffee and Tea (568 Ninth Avenue) or Corvo (542 Ninth Avenue). I like that they both use plain white cups without logos, which I prefer for drawing on them.

The best construction sites to watch at the moment are in Lower Hell’s Kitchen. I go out with my easel and paints and see how they change, with new shapes, patterns, light effects, and human dramas every day. If you’re out and about in the area, it’s good to know that Hudson Yards Park has a nice new public toilet!

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The construction site that I think is most interesting, though, is on Eleventh Avenue at 59th Street. I was actually on the street, painting, when a couple of tailors who work nearby told me there’d just been a murder there. After that, I found another site to paint for a while.

If you love to make art in this neighborhood, sooner or later you’ll find yourself in Garden Hardware (701 Tenth Avenue). It’s a treasure of a shop, with screws and wires and all kinds of bits and pieces in drawers, and enormous rolls of chicken wire in the basement. I was in there the other week, browsing around, and I ended up leaving with 24 mirror plates in a paper bag.

Photography by Esther Levine
Garden Hardware
701 Tenth Avenue
New York City

Esposito (500 Ninth Avenue) is another old-school institution. The guys who work there wear white jackets, which seems just how it should be. You take a numbered ticket, and they’ll talk with you about anything to do with ham hocks and Christmas turkeys. Nearby is Ninth Avenue International Grocery (543 Ninth Avenue), which has a terrific range of spices and beans and other things in barrels as well as spanakopita, baklava, taramasalata, and hummus. Every inch of space is packed with something interesting to see. There’s even produce hanging from the ceiling.

Photography by Esther Levine
Esposito Meat Market 500 Ninth Avenue New York City

Tulcingo Del Valle (665 Tenth Avenue) is the place to get chicken mole and fish soup, sitting at bright patterned oilcloth tables, and doing some people watching. It’s been in the neighborhood since 2001…and we’ve been going there almost every week since 2001! Lali (630 Tenth Avenue) is another Hell’s Kitchen classic. It’s a Dominican café, with the best pork and rice, and a lunch special that’s different every day. We sit up at the counter, with our backs to the bright lilac wall, and practice our Spanish. When my daughter Megan comes back from college, this is the place she wants to go to first.

Lali, Dominican Restaurant
630 Tenth Avenue
New York City

Now it’s just my younger daughter Grace at home; we seem to spend a lot of time at Pier 84. In the summer the Manhattan Kayak Club organizes free kayaking, or we just visit the dog park — it’s really more of a singles pickup place, but even so, there are dogs, and Grace Loves Dogs, so we like to visit. Afterward, we go to Underwest Donuts (638 West 47th Street), which is inside a car wash. You buy the donuts freshly baked and still warm, and watch the cars while you eat.

If your priority is dog watching — understandable — you should really go to De Witt Clinton Park (West 52nd Street to West 54th Street, Eleventh Avenue to Twelfth Avenue). There’s one section for small dogs and one for big dogs, and Grace knows a lot of them by name. A bit controversial, but just over the street, you can also watch the carriage horses going in and out of their stables (618 West 52nd Street). I find that fascinating.

Carriege Horse Stables
618 West 52nd Street
new York City

During the week, my favorite thing to do is walk from my apartment to Amy’s Bread (672 Ninth Avenue), pick up an Irish breakfast tea and a golden raisin oat bran twist, then sit in the Community Garden and draw. Afterward, I sweep the sidewalk.

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Anyone who lives in the neighborhood can get a key to the garden, but there’s usually a wait for plots. I was on the list for seven years. Being an artist, one tends to be in the studio alone for a big chunk of the day, so it’s interesting to have other things to do, like growing herbs and the odd cherry tomato, and sweeping the sidewalk, where you really experience the community. People see me drawing and get curious. Once a taxi driver offered me money to copy a Rembrandt.

If you volunteer for face painting at a neighborhood fundraiser, then Alcone (322 West 49th Street), which has been around since the Fifties, is the place you should know about. I pride myself on my glittery butterflies, and I always find the perfect colors there that will really stand out on all the different skin tones of the human rainbow of beautiful children I get to use as a canvas.

The Village Voice is exploring one borough per day for the week of April 2, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Neighborhoods Week 2018 page.


New York Plays Itself: Touring the City’s Celluloid History

If you squint hard enough at the Museum of Arts and Design, you can almost make out the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man lumbering up Broadway, across Columbus Circle, toward Central Park West. At least, that’s how it felt on the TCM Classic Film Tour. Over three hours, across a route spanning the Upper West Side through the park to the East River, this journey by bus past the cinematic landmarks of New York City references more than a hundred movies (Ghostbusters among them), dating from 1898 to 1998.

New York City, the birthplace of the American film industry (OK, along with New Jersey), is a massive, if unintentional, pop culture time capsule. Location scout Nick Carr’s blog Scouting New York appraises every nook and cranny and bodega of the city with an artist’s eye, documenting in photographs how famous film locations have changed throughout the years. And, unsurprisingly, there’s a thriving breed of tourism specifically devoted to pilgrimages to TV and movie sites, whatever your taste: Sex and the City, Gossip Girl, Seinfeld, superheroes, Real Housewives, or — if you don’t mind traveling beyond the Lincoln Tunnel, to the hinterlands of the Garden State — The Sopranos. This TCM-flavored expedition, offered through On Location Tours, specifically limits its purview to classic films shot in Manhattan.

TCM bus tour
John Cassavetes and Mia Farrow outside the Dakota in Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Actor and producer Sarah Louise Lilley served as tour guide on a recent Sunday morning. Lilley, who moved to the United States from England as a teenager, speaks with the slightest glimmer of a British accent — which, as she enthusiastically expounds on movie legends of yore, it’s easy to reimagine as a Katherine Hepburn mid-Atlantic lilt. (I’m not sure if this effect would hold true on On Location’s Sex and the City Hotspots tour, which Lilley has also hosted.) At times, there was an almost virtual reality–like quality to the experience, when Lilley’s commentary and film clips, cued up to play on overhead monitors when we passed the real-life locations within them, transformed the present-day city seen from the bus windows into a long-lost version of itself. As we passed through Columbus Circle, we saw a tour bus packed with bumbling out-of-towners in 1950’s Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town, the political rally in Taxi Driver where Travis Bickle plots to assassinate a senator, and the apartment building where Lois Lane resides in Superman. A little farther north, the Dakota’s facade had recently been cleaned, looking much less dark and foreboding than it did in Rosemary’s Baby. Had Lilley not pointed it out, the subway grate at 52nd Street and Lexington Avenue where Marilyn Monroe famously posed in The Seven Year Itch could have been any one of the city’s thousands and thousands more just like it, unglamorously trod on every day by locals and visitors alike. I wasn’t the only New Yorker on my particular tour, which also hosted a family of tourists from South Africa. Lilley and her fellow TCM guide Jason Silverman report attracting movie fans of all ages, from newborns up to Lilley’s own grandmother, then ninety-six. “I’ve had kids who were ten years old completely clean up in the trivia contest,” says Silverman.

TCM bus tour
Marilyn on 52nd and Lexington, in Billy Wilder;s The Seven Year Itch (1955)

Lilley and Silverman, residents of Washington Heights and Spanish Harlem, respectively, have been guides for TCM since this tour was first offered in 2013. (The tour’s blueprint has largely remained the same in that time, although movie-related news and anniversaries bring certain films and their associated landmarks to the forefront.) On January 30 at 8 p.m., they’ll appear on the Turner Classic Movies network to introduce four perennial New York–centric favorites: King Kong, The Producers, On the Town, and North by Northwest. As a lifelong movie buff, Lilley calls the experience of shooting with host Ben Mankiewicz a “dream come true.” Lilley, whose acting credits include The Mysteries of Laura, was “indoctrinated” into loving classic film by her father. She suffered from colic as an infant, and he discovered that the only way to stop her screaming was to pace back and forth with his daughter on his shoulder, old movies playing on the television. “He said by the time I was three months old, I’d seen Casablanca hundreds of times,” Lilley recalls. Silverman’s cinematic education began only a little later. “At the age of six, instead of watching whatever the latest cartoon was, my family was like, ‘Great, it’s time to watch Gone With the Wind,’ ” says the Chicago-native actor, seen in The Wolf of Wall Street as a quaalude-buying teenager. “I remember distinctly at the age of ten, on holiday break in Florida, my father sat me down and showed me The Godfather.”

The Ansonia (Three Days of the Condor, The Sunshine Boys, and Single White Female), once an opulent residential hotel that kept dairy cows on its roof to provide fresh milk for guests, casts its regal gaze onto Verdi Square, a triangle of green space bound by 72nd and 73rd streets, Broadway, and Amsterdam Avenue. This was once known as Needle Park, the title location for the Joan Didion–scripted, Al Pacino–starring heroin drama The Panic in Needle Park. “All those movies in the Seventies showed a really dark, dangerous side of New York City, and that’s so different than the happy little farmers’ market area that is there now. I love those stops that really give you windows back in time and spark your imagination,” Lilley says.

TCM bus tour
Al Pacino (center) in The Panic in Needle Park (1971)

We took in Lincoln Center’s Revson Fountain, immortalized by The Producers and Moonstruck. Then the TVs on the bus played a dancing sequence from West Side Story (soon to be remade by Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner), set among the soon-to-be-demolished tenements of San Juan Hill, the neighborhood that stood on the site of Lincoln Center’s campus until Robert Moses had other ideas. In most locations, the particular businesses that populated films’ famous shots are long gone, made ghosts by Manhattan’s breakneck pace of renovation and gentrification. You can still recognize the buildings by their bones, even if the Vitamin Shoppe and the now-shuttered Rita’s Italian Ice that currently stand at Broadway and 92nd Street didn’t themselves make cameos in Hannah and Her Sisters. The most recent movie featured on the tour is You’ve Got Mail, most of which was shot within several blocks of the Upper West Side. The children’s book store owned by Meg Ryan’s character was then Maya Schaper Cheese and Antiques on West 69th Street but is today a humble dry cleaner. The owner only learned his business had a Hollywood pedigree when the tour bus began stopping outside. Now, Lilley reports, he sells You’ve Got Mail DVDs on site. The tour doesn’t go south of the Empire State Building, or else Katz’s Deli, the site of Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm in When Harry Met Sally…, would surely make an appearance too.

Silverman typically takes charge of the Saturday tours and Lilley the Thursday ones, during which the streets are generally far most congested than on weekends. “When we hit traffic, it’s like a double-edged sword for me,” Lilley says. “I feel bad we’re running behind, but at the same time, now I can really talk at length about all these movies.” On any day, the most likely logistical challenge the duo faces is the city’s unpredictable road closures, but they can always adapt. “The worst possible circumstance for a classic movie tour is if the DVD player doesn’t work, and that’s only happened to me, knock on wood, once,” Silverman explains. (It made for a “unique” tour.)

Both Lilley and Silverman cited Sutton Place Park as their favorite movie landmark on the tour, a tiny, peaceful lookout onto the East River with a stunning view of the Queensboro Bridge. “We’ve taken so many New Yorkers on the tour that have never been there before. It’s so cinematic. I feel like I’ve taken numerous people’s holiday card photos there,” Lilley says. She isn’t kidding — nearly every person on my bus waited patiently for her to snap their picture.

TCM bus tour
Manhattan (1979) with Diane Keaton and Woody Allen

Sutton Place is the swanky, townhouse-lined neighborhood that lies just south of the bridge. “The history of New York and the history of film is beautifully interwoven there,” Lilley says. In the early-twentieth century, the same stretch of East River waterfront was home to not only luxurious apartments with views to match, but poverty-stricken tenements and the gangs who inhabited them, as depicted onscreen in 1937’s Dead End. By 1953, Sutton Place had become the must-have address for the trio of enterprising husband-seekers — Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable, and Lauren Bacall — in How to Marry a Millionaire. But Sutton Place’s most memorable contribution to film history is as the setting of the most iconic image from Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Allen and Diane Keaton take in the early-morning view from a bench in the very park where we’d climbed off the bus to stand.

Woody Allen’s legacy, of course, is a deeply controversial subject. In general, Lilley and Silverman explain, they try to relate Woody Allen films to their physical locations without engaging any deeper with the subject matter of those movies. “I can’t imagine doing the tour and not making the Sutton Place stop, because it’s so iconically shot in Manhattan,” Silverman says. “But the content of the movie — especially what’s come out in the news over the past couple of years about the making of the movie [Allen’s then-sixteen-year-old costar Mariel Hemingway has said that he tried to seduce her] — I don’t really, can’t really watch Manhattan anymore. But I can appreciate how they filmed and shot this particular scene.”

For those who’ve never visited New York, iconic movie locations have likely done more to inform their conceptions of the city than any guidebook or exhaustively annotated history ever could. Silverman, for one, grew up “obsessed” with King Kong. “For me, King Kong and the Empire State Building are synonymous,” he says. “I went to NYU, and in my freshman-year dorm, if I poked my head out the window, I got a view of the Empire State Building. Being in the city ten years, doing this tour hundreds of times, every time I pass by the Empire State Building, this is New York to me.”

But there is also a singular pleasure to be found in discovering, or rediscovering, film landmarks lying in plain sight. “I really love having New Yorkers on the tour, because they’re always running around, head down,” Lilley says. “To give yourself permission to stop and take a look at a block you’ve been on maybe a hundred times and really see it for the first time, I think it’s magical.”

NYC ARCHIVES Scene Uncategorized

Thanksgiving Leftovers


Damp but Not Defeated: A Marathon Scrapbook

The weather for yesterday’s New York City Marathon was soggier than it’s been in recent years, but that didn’t stop the city from turning out in force to cheer on more than 50,000 runners on their exhausting five-borough tour. Shalane Flanagan became the first American woman to win the race since 1977, and Geoffrey Kamworor of Kenya won the men’s division.

We checked in on the race in Bay Ridge, Bed-Stuy, Williamsburg, Harlem, and the Upper East Side. At each location, all of the day’s usual block-party elements were in place — goofy signs and shouting day drinkers; little kids begging for high fives; neighbors handing out bananas, Halloween candy, salty pretzels, and sheets of paper towels — while dozens of bands and DJs all along the route kept things lively. The NYPD was out in force but kept things low-key, allowing people to have fun with the event.


Forget It, Jake: Exploring Cuisine, Immigration, and Chinatown’s Underworld

Heather Lee, preeminent scholar of Chinese restaurants in America and assistant professor at NYU Shanghai, and I, just a guy, were making our way through the dry storage of Pulqueria, a Chinatown bar, on a recent Friday night. We had just left Chinese Tuxedo, the high-end contemporary-Cantonese restaurant that opened in the crook of Doyers Street’s elbow ten days after the presidential election. With Trump’s hundredth day in office having just passed, much of the country was feeling like us: lost in a subterranean passage with no way out.

It was Lee’s idea to go tunnel hunting in the first place. In the early years of last century, as she well knew, an entire network of well-organized tunnels coursed through Chinatown, used by criminal gangs called tongs and serving as underground arteries for the illicit. Today, only one tunnel remains, and it is bricked up in the bottom-most floor of Chinese Tuxedo’s triple-basement space. Postprandially, we were searching for the open end.

But that Chinese Tuxedo, a dazzling nexus of succulents, suits, and sex appeal in a former opera house, contains the terminus of one of the last tunnels wasn’t even the reason we were there. We are living at the dawn of a new nativism, and I wanted to check in with those who know how this might affect the way we eat, now and in the future. There seemed no better place to do this than at Chinese Tuxedo, and no better person to do it with than Professor Heather Lee.

Few ethnic groups have been more baldly discriminated against in America than the Chinese, the targets of 1882’s frustratingly prescient Chinese Exclusion Act. As for Lee, a second-generation Taiwanese academic who grew up on the West Coast, she has spent her career compiling a massive database of Chinese restaurants of the past. Part of Lee’s scholarship has explored how the American government’s anti-Chinese immigration laws — inadvertently, perhaps — gave rise to the proliferation of Chinese restaurants across the country. As she explains over a bowl of fried eggplant as crispy and sweet as a churro but with a can-can pepper kick, in 1915 a federal court ruled that Chinese restaurateurs were entitled to a merchant-status exemption from the blanket exclusionary acts. “As a result,” Lee tells me, “the Chinese have a much greater interest going into the restaurant industry. In the early twentieth century, there was an explosion of Chinese restaurants.” Today, there are more than 45,000 across the country.

Most of the early restaurants weren’t fancy, but some were. One, in fact, was famous: Chinese Tuxedo. The original version opened in 1905 on the corner of Doyers and the Bowery. It was a cushy spot, judging from postcards, filled with what Lee calls “slummers,” gussied-up white folks looking for a little bit of the Other. (It is now, naturally, a Chase bank.) As for its reincarnation, “I think the naming of this place is really clever,” says Lee, looking around the room.

But the existence of the current Chinese Tuxedo, and really any restaurant in New York, would be unthinkable if Trump had his way with our borders. First of all, like all restaurants, it runs on immigrant labor. Add to that the fact that co-owner Eddy Buckingham, who looks like an elongated Patrick Swayze, is from Australia, weirdly among our new nemeses, and there’s simply no way Chinese Tuxedo would ever get going in the first place.

Even more fundamentally, without immigration we would have neither the original template for Chinese Tuxedo nor the flavors for Chinese Tuxedo’s chef, a Scotsman named Paul Donnelly, to play with. There would be no bigeye tuna in strange-flavored dressing or char siu pork with a glaze sticky like Grandma’s no-sit furniture. “Overgrown fear of immigrants means that not only are we depriving others of their opportunities,” says Lee, “but we’re robbing ourselves of our own opportunities, too.”

Other than well-done steaks, what would we have? Doyers Street itself tells the story. The growth of the tongs and the burrowing of their tunnels was also, partially at least, an outgrowth of the government’s relentless persecution of Chinese immigrants. Without legal means of protection, many Chinese turned to illegal channels such as the tongs. These, of course, turned against one another, and for a while Doyers Street was called “the Bloody Angle” for the death that flowed along its crooked hundred meters. In 1905, where well-heeled Tinder date shtuppers and trendy noodle slurpers now dine, the street ran red after a deadly massacre.

As any historian worth her salt knows, you need to mine the past for the veins of the future. So, after dinner, we entered into any promising doorway on Doyers that looked like it led to a deeper story. Eventually we ended up here, stumbling past Metro shelves in sub-basements laden with nixtamalized corn flour. “I think this is it!” exclaimed Lee, ever the optimist. For my part, I was going over in my head what I might say to a startled barback, if we ran into one.

Eventually, Lee and I ended up in a dead-end closet that petered out into nothing. We turned around, retraced our steps, and headed up a narrow flight of stairs and back into the dark night of the present.


How the High Line Changed NYC

There is no better illustration of gilded, internet-age New York than the High Line. Anchored on the south by the relocated Whitney Museum and on the north by the high-rises of Hudson Yards, the elevated park sits at the center of a real estate frenzy that has uprooted earlier generations of gentrifiers, art galleries, and even the city’s sense of who should control public space.

The story of how we got here, however, has evolved over time. Before it opened with a series of ribbon-cuttings between 2009 and 2014, the High Line spent a decade in gestation, developing as the idea of a group of Chelsea residents, then spreading to the city’s gala-hopping elites, and eventually winning the embrace of the Bloomberg administration. During this era, much of the public discussion about the park was old-fashioned boosterism, gushing about its high-design, post-industrial aesthetic, its magnetic pull on tourists, and its role as lynchpin for the mushrooming art, restaurant, retail, and condominium scene in West Chelsea and the Meatpacking District.

This type of cheerleading is epitomized by New York Post restaurant and real estate writer Steve Cuozzo, who earlier this year called the park a “masterpiece” and “true wonder of our age” that has enabled “limitless popular pleasure.” Anyone who has misgivings about the High Line, he said, implies “that the High Line is somehow a racist creation” and is sympathizing with “reactionary leftists who prefer the crime-and-decay-ridden New York of the 1980s.”

Inconveniently for Cuozzo, one person with second thoughts is Friends of the High Line co-founder Robert Hammond, who now thinks the High Line didn’t pay enough attention to low- and moderate-income New Yorkers, particularly those in public housing next door to the park. “We were from the community. We wanted to do it for the neighborhood,” he told CityLab in February. “Ultimately, we failed.”

Lately, Hammond has been seeking redemption, pushing other high-profile park projects around the country to bake equity into their decision-making processes. Friends of the High Line has also been trying to make up for lost time, launching arts and jobs initiatives with residents of nearby public housing. Danya Sherman, former director of public programs, education, and community engagement for Friends of the High Line, details these efforts in her contribution to Deconstructing the High Line, a series of essays by academics, architects, and those involved in the making of the elevated park.

Equity initiatives are worthwhile, but Hammond’s recent conversion and Sherman’s essay evoke a sinking feeling that these good intentions are simply too little, too late. Before the High Line proffered progressivism through its programming, other contributors to the book note, it cast cold, hard capitalism in concrete.

In recent years, mountains of ink have been spilled about how the ills facing contemporary New York and cities around the globe have been exacerbated by the High Line’s complicity, including its fostering of income inequality and “growth machine” politics, inequitable parks funding, and private influence over public space. Other books about the High Line either don’t engage these critiques or only do so through the eyes of Hammond and Friends of the High Line co-founder Joshua David, who authored a book promising “the inside story” in 2011.

Hammond often says the High Line “gets too much credit and too much blame” for the redevelopment of West Chelsea. But this elides the fact that the High Line was joined at the hip with the West Chelsea rezoning, which did not include affordable-housing mandates. The park’s sleek design and elite supporters also place the High Line at the center of a “creative class” vision for a hyper-gentrified Manhattan, to the point that the neighborhood’s transformation has even priced out all but the most expensive art galleries.

Defenders often praise the High Line as a modern-day project on par with Central Park, but beyond noting the role both parks serve as iconic green spaces, few make the connections illuminated by journalist Tom Baker. Both parks, he says, are pastoral constructions of an idealized past — for Central Park, a rural vision, and for the High Line, an industrial one — serving as romanticized respites in the ever-quickening city. Picking up that thread, architecture professor Christoph Lindner also notes the irony that both parks were built with the goal of spurring real estate development: These spaces are meant to be experienced slowly, but are also designed to accelerate the surrounding city.

Yet for all the High Line’s flaws, there is a silver lining, argues anthropologist Julian Brash: It was built primarily with public funds and envisioned from the start as a city park open to all. “We need to see the High Line not as representing a new paradigm of public space, or as its betrayal,” he writes. “Instead, we need to see the publicness of the High Line as an unfulfilled promise.” Without this belief in the High Line as a public endeavor, there would be little space for the parks-equity movement to question the wisdom of using private funding to support discrete components of the parks system while parks in less well-off areas face continued budget cuts.

While academics and the public continue to learn lessons at the intersection of private interests and public space, the billionaires who made the High Line possible are continuing down the road of ever-greater private influence. Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg, who gave tens of millions of dollars to Friends of the High Line, have donated an even larger sum to the Hudson River Park Trust to build an elevated, undulating concert venue on stilts above the Hudson River at Pier 55. It would be open to the public but managed by a nonprofit created by Mr. Diller and his family foundation.

It’s this type of conspicuous, plutocrat-driven development that makes the High Line (and modern Manhattan itself) iconic, but it remains an example with limited utility to other places. Other elevated parks are either completed or proposed in Jersey City, Chicago, and Philadelphia, and essays in Deconstructing the High Line look at efforts in Queens, São Paulo, and Rotterdam, each with its own series of parallel and divergent tracks from the glitzy West Side showpiece.

While other cities pursue their own elevated parks, the High Line’s location in the backyard of billionaires makes it a powerful symbol at the center of debates over our increasingly unequal and divided society.

But sometimes, it’s just a nice place to take a walk.


Your Guide to Washington Heights: Living the High Life in Manhattan

Once a stretch of rural countryside home to the native Munsee, modern Washington Heights, a hilly neighborhood covering much of Manhattan’s northern tip, was named for the fortification where General George Washington’s army camped to keep an eye on the advancing Redcoats. The neighborhood has over the years been home to a rotating cast of newcomers: revolutionary British colonists, Greeks, Irish, German Jews after World War II, and, in the late Sixties, a surge of Latino immigrants, especially from the Dominican Republic.

Known for its large, affordable apartments, Dominican food, and a number of preserved pre-war buildings untouched by new development, Washington Heights has played host to several New York City firsts. In the 1890s, the first moving pictures were broadcast at Morris-Jumel Mansion. Professional baseball has roots in the Heights, too: The New York Giants played at the Polo Grounds near the Harlem River at 155th Street from 1890 to 1957 and the Mets in 1962 and 1963; and before the Yankees were the Bronx Bombers, they played at Hilltop Park (now the site of Columbia University Medical Center) as the Highlanders from 1903 to 1912.

The neighborhood, like others, has suffered the turbulence of northern racism. Highbridge Park, which hugs the Hudson River from West 155th Street to Dyckman Avenue, opened an officially integrated pool under Mayor Fiorello La Guardia that was long kept unofficially segregated by local Irish gangs; in 1957, one month before West Side Story opened on Broadway, a white teenager was killed near the pool by gang members from Harlem during a confrontation. And in 1965, Malcolm X was murdered at the Audubon Ballroom, on West 165th Street and Broadway.

Having weathered the ills of the crack and crime epidemics of the 1980s, the area continues to display a formidable resilience; residents of neighboring Inwood to the north recently fought down Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposals for a new housing development feared to be a Trojan horse for displacement. A walk through the Heights today reveals a dizzying array of cultural and ethnic diversity: Dominican markets, the greenery of Fort Tryon Park and its Cloisters museum, Central American fruit stands, kosher bakeries nestled around Yeshiva University, and Chinese restaurant delivery workers zipping up and down hills on mopeds. Practice your Spanish, hop the express A train north, and have a look around.

Malecon Restaurant

The tender rotisserie chickens from Malecon Restaurant are among Dominican New Yorkers’ greatest contributions to uptown, and probably to humankind. In a neighborhood with no shortage of kitchen-savvy abuelas, the restaurant draws regular crowds of locals, newcomers, and visitors alike, a testament to the allure of New York’s most beloved bird, roasted to garlicky perfection. The rest of the menu covers an array of Dominican staples — cuatro golpes and mango juice for breakfast; your choice of yuca, maduros, or classic rice and beans to go with an array of chicken and pork dishes; tres leches to top it all off. But the main attraction is the heaping piles of rotisserie, chopped and bagged to order from behind a window by the takeout counter. On a sweltering Sunday just hours after last summer’s Dominican Day parade, a massive Dominican flag was raised from the restaurant’s awning, matching mini versions that fluttered from back pockets of passersby. The menu is bilingual, but that day, little English was spoken. The line was out the door. 4141 Broadway at West 175th Street, 212-927-3812

Word Up Community Bookshop

Independent bookstores have struggled to stay afloat downtown, but a group of volunteers has managed to keep one open on an unlikely corner up in Washington Heights. Called Word Up, the shop operates more as a community library, with a deep bilingual inventory, sidewalk shelves, and a traveling cart full of free books. The place is a hub for local talks and author readings, writer meetups and kids’ story hours, many reflecting the neighborhood’s Afro- Latino focus. Word Up started as a pop-up in 2011, operating out of a donated storefront on Broadway and 167th; when the landlord advertised the space at market-rate rent, store volunteers did what any respectable startup would: crowdfund. Folks from around the neighborhood cobbled together over $60,000 to move the shop into a permanent location on Amsterdam Avenue and 165th Street in 2013 — which by then was badly needed, as the local public library was shuttered for almost four years for renovations. Word Up’s calendar proves that for black and brown folks in communities like Washington Heights, the resistance began long before last November. Join up. 2113 Amsterdam Avenue, 347-688-4456

Bodega Pizza serves up pizza and sandwiches, but it doesn’t take plastic

Bodega Pizza

After running Apt.78, a hybrid restaurant and weekly party spot, neighborhood favorite Jose Morales closed up shop and reopened in 2015 as Bodega Pizza, a gourmet brick-oven joint. The redesign comes complete with shelves full of the usual corner-store suspects: Café Bustelo, Tide detergent destined to a life of dust, the familiar “No EBT” sign. The ten-inch pizzas borrow names from ‘hood staples: a “Paid in Full” gets you jumbo thin-sliced pepperoni over golden mozzarella and a thin, just-chewy-enough crust; the “A Tribe Called Fresh” is topped with red peppers, onions, and sweet sausage. Fresh-made sandwiches, salads, and dessert calzones top off the dinner menu; return on the weekend for a bodega brunch: breakfast pizza, omelets, or jazzed-up bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwiches with an unlimited-mimosa special. Communal tables give the place a cafeteria feel; on a Friday night, expect to catch as many Morales loyalists — young creative types looking for a hangout — as you do families and teenagers in for a pizza, a beer, and the game. Morales did parties and brunch well, but he does clubhouse better. And like every worthy bodega, this place takes cash only. 4455 Broadway at West 190th Street, 917-675-7707

191st Street Tunnel

Once a musty rat haven, the 900-foot-long pedestrian walkway leading to the 191st Street stop for the 1 train now boasts a series of colorful murals. The redo was commissioned in 2015 by the Department of Transportation. (Though the corridor leads to a train, it is considered a city street.) Five artists, including veteran graffiti artist Cope 2, covered the tunnel, which connects Broadway to the subway station buried 180 feet below an intervening ridge, in bright colors and geometric shapes that nod to graffiti-covered trains of decades past. The beautification represents a win in a city that has allowed the loss of such street-art meccas as 5Pointz in Long Island City. The tunnel might still feel a bit dank, but city employees are now more regularly seen picking up trash along the stretch. And so far, amateur tags over the murals haven’t obscured too much of the artwork. Take the 1 to 191st Street and stroll the Crayola-colored bowel on your way to Bodega Pizza, just across the street from the Broadway entrance. West 191st Street and Broadway

The United Palace

Originally built in 1930 as a Loews movie theater and vaudeville house, the United Palace, in all its red velvet and borderline-garish gold-carved glory, bragged of bringing Times Square 133 blocks north. It was later converted to a church run by the first black televangelist, the Reverend Frederick Eikerenkoetter — known as Reverend Ike — a multimillionaire with a knack for flashy suits, sermons about the almighty dollar (Saint Paul was wrong), and an aggressive pitch for tithes. Reverend Ike’s son still runs a nondenominational church, the United Palace House of Inspiration, out of the building, which is also home to a cultural arts nonprofit. The theater now hosts films, music, plays, and dance performances — and still sports the movie house’s original seven-story-high organ. Beyond the events calendar, it’s worth visiting to marvel at the architectural decadence, a window into the overindulgence of New York City’s past. 4140 Broadway between West 175th and West 176th streets, 212-568-6700

Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance (NoMAA)

Formed in 2006, the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance has funded or sponsored arts organizations and events on the island’s northern tip (including Word Up Bookstore and the 191st Street tunnel restoration), all in the name of keeping uptown art, well, uptown. A formal gallery hosts rotating exhibitions, and the Alliance’s annual month-long Uptown Arts Stroll, held each June, floods parks and public squares all over West Harlem, Washington Heights, and Inwood with shows and performances, offering locals a walking tour of their neighborhoods, adorned with the art of their neighbors. 5030 Broadway Suite 723, 212-567-4394

Buddha Beer Bar

If you’re looking for a neighborhood do-it-all sports bar, Buddha Beer Bar is your spot. A low-key joint on a quiet street, it boasts a decent selection of craft beer at good prices, without the crowds common to trendier uptown hangouts like Tryon Public House and Dyckman Bar. There’s a night for everyone: ladies’ night, Mexican brunch, wing night, trivia night. You can catch most major sporting events and awards shows here on a row of massive televisions; when Ohio duo Twenty-One Pilots accepted their first Grammy Award pantsless, a bartender at Buddha removed hers, too, to cheers from the few dozen hugging the bar. Oh, and the bathrooms: They’re clean! 4476 Broadway, 646-861-2595

Jumel Terrace Books

Unmarked save for a wooden sign in the window reading “Word,” Jumel Terrace Books is housed in the basement of Kurt Thometz, a book collector who for years has managed rare-book collections for celebrities and socialites. Scan the floor-to-ceiling bookcases and you’ll find a wide variety of tomes, including lots on local New York City history, one of Thometz’s specialties. (He’s not a fan of the recent re-canonizing of Alexander Hamilton, whom he considers to have been a terrible misogynist; Eliza Jumel, who lived in the famous Morris-Jumel mansion just steps from his front door, was a far more interesting subject, he says.) A significant portion of the collection covers African and African-American history: the slave trade, black folks in the military, the civil rights movement, music and literature and psychology. This is fitting, given that around the corner from the quiet shop is not just Sugar Hill but 555 Edgecombe, an unassuming mammoth of an apartment building that has housed some of the most influential black musicians of our time, including Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Johnny Hodges, Count Basie, and a woman named Marjorie Eliot, whose parlor jazz concerts attract dozens of locals and tourists each Sunday afternoon. Jumel Terrace Books is open by appointment only these days — Thometz said he has more success renting the apartment to tourists and couples than selling books. But give him a call anyway and ask nicely. 426 West 160th Street between St. Nicholas and Edgecombe avenues, 212-928-9525

Aaron Burr slept here: the Morris-Jumel Mansion, Manhattan’s oldest house
Aaron Burr slept here: the Morris-Jumel Mansion, Manhattan’s oldest house

Morris-Jumel Mansion

Tucked inconspicuously behind a C-Town grocery store is Manhattan’s oldest house, the Morris-Jumel Mansion. Modest by modern standards, it was built as a summer estate by a British colonel in 1765, served as George Washington’s headquarters during the Revolutionary War, was the site of America’s first-ever presidential cabinet meeting, and was later home to the now infamous Aaron Burr (sir), the damn fool who killed Alexander Hamilton. (Washington Heights native Lin-Manuel Miranda even wrote two Hamilton songs at the mansion, in Burr’s old bedroom.) Local lore has it that the national landmark is haunted by Eliza Jumel, the last inhabitant of the house, a savvy socialite who was once married to — and divorced — Burr. While you’re in the area, check out the fifty row houses that make up the Jumel Terrace Historic District, including a set of nineteenth-century wooden homes on Sylvan Terrace, a former carriage driveway. 65 Jumel Terrace between Sylvan Terrace and West 162nd Street, 212-923-8008

Don’t miss the rest of the Village Voice’s guide to New York neighborhoods — by New Yorkers.


Neighborhood Stories: The Market Forces of Washington Heights

When a management company announced last winter that the drugstore chain Walgreens would take over the lease of one of Washington Heights’ major grocery stores, Associated Supermarket on Fort Washington Avenue, neighbors and elected officials rallied and fought back.

Their activism was mirrored in nearby Inwood, where residents fought the mayor’s plan for Sherman Plaza, a new housing development that they feared would accelerate gentrification. But perhaps the most enduring anti-gentrification efforts can be found in the narrow aisles of the neighborhoods’ many small grocery stores and meat markets, their shelves packed with Spanish-labeled products from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. These markets offer a selection of international items you might not find in faddish organic supermarkets — and at prices that are, by New York City standards, extremely reasonable.

On a typical weekend afternoon at Antillana Meat Market on the corner of 162nd Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, you’ll find kids dashing in and out with spices and rice and multicolored beans, on errands for their mothers and aunts and grandmothers. Passersby thumb through the shop’s produce selection outside under the awning, looking for quenepas, a tart, fleshy Caribbean fruit housed in a hard round green shell, and yuca, a Dominican-staple root vegetable. Inside, slabs of meat are chopped and bagged at a counter to the strains of bachata and salsa on the radio. Antillana and countless other stores like it help keep Washington Heights familiar to those who have long called the area home. And it will be the quiet defiance of these businesses that helps sustain efforts to keep uptown uptown.




Amy Sedaris: Your Neighborhood Ambassador to the West Village

(As told to Molly Bennet)

Amy Sedaris, comic actor

The Smoking Shop (45 Christopher Street), I really like. They sell those white matchbooks without any advertising on them, and I like going there to get those, because sometimes I give those away when I do events. I can make my own matches, so that’s a good place to get plain matches. But I really like the guys there.

The Greenwich Letterpress (15 Christopher Street), those girls just moved down the block. I’m always happy to go in there. Usually I try to make my own card, but if I don’t have time, they’re just quality-made cards. And they always have a little something there that I think, damn, I could have made that, like a book covered in duct tape, or little silver balls filled with toys. They just have little quirky stuff.

Joseph Leonard’s (170 Waverly Place) is a little lunch place I go to if I need to have a little business meeting or something. They’ve got a little bar area, so it’s kind of nice.

The post office on 10th Street (70 West 10th Street), I’d have to say that’s a place I frequent every day. And they like me because they saw me on The Good Wife. And I think that’s all it takes for people to embrace you at a post office: seeing you on The Good Wife, or Law and Order. That was my in. But they’ve really taught me well about how to tape up a box. There’s nothing more annoying than being in line and somebody gets to the counter and hasn’t even done anything right to their package. So I’m an A-plus student at the post office.

Life Thyme (410 Sixth Avenue), the health food store, I’m there every single day. It’s a good place to get dandelion greens — I have a rabbit, and that’s what she likes to eat.

Bigelow Surgical Supplies (414 Sixth Avenue) is hands-down one of my favorite places. I’ll go there before I have to go to a drugstore to buy Band-Aids or anything — I just like being in a surgical store. That’s upstairs from Bigelow Pharmacy, on the second floor. I love Bigelow’s drugstore, but the surgical supplies is a place I really like. You can even rent a wheelchair there, $15 a day.

Lighting and Beyond (35 West 14th Street): Back to my rabbit, when she chews a cord or something, they’ll fix it while you wait. I never knew that! I thought you just bought lightbulbs, but you can just bring your own lamp there, and they’ll just fix it for you! That was a good thing.

The Japanese grocery store on Sixth Avenue, I can’t pronounce it, but it’s Dainobu Japanese Deli Grocery (498 Sixth Avenue). They’ll also give a little something to bring somebody, like a little powder puff, or you go to their cosmetic department or laundry department, you’ll find little weird things you can give people.

Reminiscence (74 Fifth Avenue): I’m glad that’s still around on 14th and Fifth. The last thing I bought there was a square-dancing skirt. But I like them, because if you’re working on a show, and you need a weird pair of earrings or a Mexican outfit, you just run there and they’ll have it.

And Wigs and Plus (37 West 14th Street) — I’m there all the time as well. Like when I did the Simple Times book, instead of hiring a hair person, I just went to Wigs and Plus and I bought a lot of wigs, because they were already styled.