Best of Manhattan 2002: Manhattan Living


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Fulton Fish Market, Weekdays Before 6 a.m.

Something Fishy, Perhaps. After an evening of downing a number of sophisticated alcoholic products, our boyfriend decided we weren't ready to go home and ordered the cabdriver to drop us off at the Fulton Fish Market. The Fulton Fish Market is one of those places one never sees unless one's cousin is staying and he brought the Frommer's, and subsequently we'd heard about the Fish Market, we'd driven by the Fish Market, we'd even been to the Tokyo Fish Market, but never before that moment had it occurred to us to make the rounds of the Fish Market, especially not at that very late hour when one feels emulsified like glutinous Raisinets. But our boyfriend wanted lobster. He had the idea that the perfect thing for us at that moment was to buy oysters and lobsters in bulk, cook them up and serve them to our friends in the morning.


He left us to go look for Malpeques, and so we stood there alone, sniffing up the brine and entrails. And then we noticed them, around us, working, sweating, like a Janet Jackson video, men, yes, the kind of men we'd never seen in any of the almost hundred places we tended to patronize in the city. They were broad-backed, thick-fingered, the whole thing, and the fish buyers and chefs, as we think some of those men must have been, had, in the words of Andrew Marvell, a "vegetable" quality to them, square and crouched like beets. We fantasized that these were chefs who had been to jail, who pulled in a million a year and wore their Converse hightops and their duct-taped North Face jackets. These might just be our fantasies, but women, we're telling you, if you're looking, you're looking in the wrong places, because those men are hot.
Best Surviving Pocket
Of Old-Fashioned
Midtown Sleaze

"Southport"

Is That a Crackpipe in Mickey's Pants? We spent much of this past year living right across from the Port Authority on W. 40th St. Those of you still bemoaning the Disneyfication of 42nd St., please believe us when we tell you that the old sleaze hasn't vanished. We know this from intimate experience. It just got pushed south and west, along 8th Ave. and on several blocks of cross streets between 8th and 9th Aves., the last old-time sleazy porno ghetto area in midtown Manhattan. A hood, one wag friend of ours jokes, that The New York Times and the realtors will soon dub "Southport" (South of Port Authority) when the 42nd St. redevelopment inexorably spreads there.


You want a taste of the old Deuce? Stroll our block of W. 40th between 8th and 9th Aves. after dark. Our building's immediate neighbors included two porn shops, a greasy Chinese takeout for crackheads, the scariest bodega in Manhattan, the worst fast food joint on the planet and a bar. We passed a dozen more porn shops every day on our walk to work. How many porn shops do you need? Walking home every night we ran a gauntlet of filthy, mean-tempered crackies and drunks, plenty of hoze and lots of just generally bad-looking dudes up to absolutely no good. Every morning, we went out to the lovely aroma left by the bums who'd pissed on our front steps that night. Not to mention the puke in the gutter. Most nights around 4 a.m. we were awakened by the inhuman yowling of the crackies clustered on the parking lot under our window, who'd run out of cash and rock and were coming down loud and hard.

And that's just our one block. There are several square blocks of good old-fashioned New York City degradation and depravity left in Southport, for you nostalgists willing to go look.

Best Second Chance


Graduate School

Tickled in Our Ivory Tower. During a recent visit to our undergraduate alma mater we bumped into a woman who had been in our art history class. She asked what we'd been up to these past few years. Graduate school, we told her, starting next week in fact, after several years of the "real world" of work. "That makes sense," she said. "You were always so good at school." Really? All we remember are binge eating, body dysmorphia and a constant misuse of the word "phenomenology," but we thanked her anyway. No, we thought later, we were not good at school, but this could be our second chance. This time around we'd go to office hours. We'd do all the required reading. We'd rewrite our term papers for extra credit. We'd ask our professors for recommendations before they forgot our name. We'd do everything right this time around because we're lucky, lucky, lucky, so goddamn lucky to be in school.


Even as we write these very words we sit cramped in the back of a coffee shop, lovingly fingering our syllabus for "War, Peace & Strategy." Who could have explained to us how good we had it those four years of college? Parents and administrators colluded in one perfect system that assured us we wouldn't have to worry about anything that would impinge on our ability to relax. It was as if they had sent us into the woods for four years with the sole task of polishing a stick.

We had no idea what it was like out there. People warned us but we didn't listen. But now we're back! We're back to a place where doctors are free, shrinks are free, lifestyle is damn cheap and we can go home and take a nap most days of the week. Soon people will ask for our opinions on the IMF. We're in fancy school! And afterward, when we leave this place, well-rested and bursting with self-esteem, loaded down with a master's and a certificate proving our excellence in all things Slavic, the U.S. government will pay us, as experts, to shoot the shit with people just like us.

Best Annoying Form
Of Transportation

The NYU Bus

Busing Issues. We've all seen them around, clogging the streets and sullying the air?those purple and white "New York University" shuttle buses. The idea seems simple enough?flash your student ID, hop aboard and ride for free. Fine. But it wasn't until early this year that we really started to think about those buses. And the more we thought about them, the more irked we became.


Who's riding these things? And why? Are they afraid to walk the streets or ride the subway? Do they think they're better than us? Are they precious, delicate flowers, too sensitive to bear the awful burden of life in this crazy town? Enfeebled in some way? If confronted, would they plead poverty?

First of all, if they're going to NYU, they'd better not try to plead poverty. You have to wonder why some kids would attend NYU?clearly in part for "the New York experience"?only to ride around like some cowardly tourist. We also have to wonder how much money NYU is spending to maintain this fleet of buses in order to protect a bunch of sissies who daren't bother themselves with something as gauche as "walking" or "taking the subway."

Goddamn little pantywaists.

Best Way to Feel Like a Scumbag


Expanded Syringe Access
Demonstration Program
Rite Aid, Westhampton Beach, NY

?and the Damage Done. We won't soon forget the look on the frowsy old cow's face when we stepped up to the pharmacy counter at the Westhampton Beach Rite Aid and asked her for some 12-cc insulin needles. A bag of 10, please. We were trying to be polite, urbane, well-dressed. We were trying to be normal, trying to ignore her look of disgust and dismay. She actually staggered back on her feet, shocked by the gravity of our request. We were used to this sort of reaction, for our loved ones?and our love for anyone definitely belonged in the past tense, now that we were getting high again?routinely buckled and brayed whenever we turned up, pin-eyed, lino-slick and brimming with false bonhomie. We're longtime needle freaks, so we understand and expect pity and fear. We know that you plan on burying us. Or, at the very least, you plan on reading a small item about our sudden demise in the local paper.


But bitch, you work in a pharmacy that volunteered to take part in the Expanded Syringe Access Program. Pharmacies in New York state can sell anyone over the age of 18 a maximum of 10 syringes?all that's required from the buyer is proof of age. If that. We know the law, friend, and this isn't an illegal transaction.

After a few moments of rifling around in the back, she reappeared and slammed a bag of works on the counter.

"These are short spikes. You got any regular length ones?"

"Ten dollars," she huffed.

Ten dollars? In the city, or in Riverhead, a bag of 10 usually goes for $3.99 or less. And the Third Worlder behind the counter is polite. And Norah at the needle exchange on Allen St.?dykey, jaunty, infinitely patient Norah, who directs the sad, hurried traffic in and out of her office, who calls gizmos "flavors" and doles out advice on how to shoot up in a way that minimizes the risk of abscess and OD?now, she treats needle use like the sacred ritual it wants to be. "I know you're dopesick," she says to us, as she hands us a package of needles and cottons. "So get out of here." We catch a look at ourselves in storefront glass as we beat a hasty retreat. Even a blazer, Fendi shades and a silk scarf can't cover it up.

Meanwhile, back at Rite Aid, we were too ashamed and paranoid to continue the conversation, so we paid up, rushed out of the pharmacy, struggled onto our bike and cussed all the way back home to the bathroom.

Up until that afternoon of desperation?buying works in Westhampton! The treacly realm of stone-faced cops and anorexic moms the color and texture of blanched bone?the Rite Aid nazi had been friendly and flippant with us whenever we came in to buy nail polish and cigarettes. She always had a rash, funny remark about our tan, our clothes, our weight. Or lack thereof. But now she knew our game and we would never go back to that Rite Aid. The nerve of her! But what choice did we have? We were carless and out of works, as usual, and there was no way we were going to make it to the CVS in Riverhead, where junkies and steroid freaks in need of clean gizmos are in vast supply, and the girl behind the bulletproof glass doesn't miss a beat when we ask for a bag of needles. We would be in the South Bronx tomorrow, re-upping our supply of dope and coke, and we would hit a Duane Reade, where they had the syringes we liked and a smile for us when they gave us our receipt.

Fucking short spikes, we groused, as we slammed another barrel load into our arm. Fuck her.

Strangely enough, after our Rite Aid disaster, even the drones at the city Duane Reades started to hassle us.

Sunday afternoon in Times Square, at one of the only open pharmacies in a 20-block radius: "What you want for," asks the Paki at the register. "What you need eye-vee needles for?" Fear and disgust in his eyes too.

"For our cat," we say tonelessly.

He takes this in. "Cat. Okay." Ka-ching. Thank you. You have a hoop you want us to slink through? We're pretty jacked, but this prick is wrecking our high. Hey man, we got rights too. We watch this thought skulk in and out of our skull, and the next thought is an unpleasant one. It doesn't go away: Woman, you sound like a pathetic junkie.

We get the fuck out of the neighborhood as quickly as possible.

Best Post-Goal Jersey
Removal By a MetroStar

Mamadou Diallo

Ya Gotta Believe! If you've watched any soccer, you know that the mania for stripping one's jersey off after scoring a goal has caught on here in the States. But seeing what statement these players will make is half the fun. We've seen familial pride (a t-shirt with a photo of the player's child) duke it out with religious fervor ("Christ Is Lord"), but it wasn't until July that we witnessed a post-goal stripdown as a cry for help. When beleaguered MetroStars striker Mamadou Diallo scored on a penalty kick in a July 20 game against the New England Revolution, he tore off his jersey to reveal a handmade t-shirt that read: "NY Believe in Me." An arrow also directed fans to the back of the t-shirt, which read: "I Believe in You." Such pop psychologizing actually works wonders; Diallo led Major League Soccer in points per game by late August.

Best Cheesy 9/11 Tchotchke


Wink Wink. As longtime aficionados of religious kitsch, our favorite has to be Winky Face Jesus: a macabre, 3-D picture of Jesus' face while he's on the cross, his eyes opening and closing every time you move. On the heels of 9/11, we've seen a similar piece of kitsch: a picture of the Twin Towers on that same ridged, 3-D plastic that morphs into the Empire State Bldg. when you move. Think about how daring this is. Think about something else: after the first few weeks post-9/11, how many times have you seen the new southern Manhattan skyline on tv? Are we so frightened by the truth that the only way to see it is to be there, or buy this cheap tchotchke? Sweet, weeping Jesus.

Best Memorial Service
We Wish
Hadn't Happened

Don Gilbert's

Surf Surreality. The memorial service his loved ones threw for our friend and colleague Don Gilbert this August was like a movie scene. There was something unreal about it. Maybe it was just hard to believe it was happening.


It was on the wide, wide beach near his parents' place in Long Beach, LI, on a Friday evening. The sun was trying to set behind purpling storm clouds rumbling overhead. Blustery offshore winds kicked up an angry surf. The attendants were a thoroughly Gilbertian mix of surfer dudes, rockers, a couple of junkies, a large New York Press contingent, family and neighbors. The priest was in short sleeves. They set up Gilbert's surfboard standing on its tail in the sand with a portrait of him on it, and everyone put flowers around it. We left him a couple of smokes, figuring he might not be able to find his American Spirits wherever he is. Then we stood there looking at his photo, and told him how pissed we were at him for dying.

We clustered around the priest on the sand. The very instant he started the service, those clouds began to pour. Umbrellas up, rain pounding, everyone getting soaked, and you couldn't hear a word the man was intoning. Several people started shaking their heads and grinning at those clouds?"Fuck you, Gilbert, cut it out." And, of course, as soon as the ceremony ended, it stopped raining. His ashes were distributed among his family and closest friends, who tossed them into the surf. The rest of us threw flowers. Many of us shed tears. A friend of Gilbert's set up a boombox and put on some Gilbert-type music?the Ramones, Iggy. Iggy was just singing "I am the world's forgotten boy" when the boombox was knocked into the sand and quit. We figured it was Gilbert's way of telling us to cut it out, so we took it as our cue to straggle up the beach in the wind-buffeted gloom, some headed for the LIRR station, some for a nearby dive for a few last toasts.

You're not forgotten, boy.


Best Pick-Up Soccer

Astoria Heights Park
30th Rd. (betw. 45th & 46th Sts.), Queens
(R train to the 46th St. stop, walk two blocks north)

Don't Forget Some Cash. Dress a softball team in day-glo orange and they might as well be nine giant pylons. This is sport? For those who despair to see Central Park given over to sluggards with leather gloves, there is little choice but to head for the boroughs. Astoria Heights park is not pretty?in fact it's just a giant tarmac slab?but it's livelier than a summer of Sundays on the Great Lawn. Go on the weekend between 3 and 4 o'clock. You'll find women grilling chicken, men playing three-man volley and the best pick-up soccer in the city. The level of play is only middling (a lot of skill but a lot of big bellies too), but what makes the soccer stand out is the general decency of the players. They are mostly Colombians, Ecuadorians and Mexicans, and they are all quite gracious. Fights are rare, and if you're willing to wait 20 minutes you're almost certain to get in a game. Play is six-a-side, and don't forget to bring some cash. Losers pay $2. It would be distressing not to have the money on you.

Best Bullshit Slogan, Apparel

Seven Jeans, "For All Mankind"

Mankind, My Ass. Seven are lowrise jeans that became must-haves for Manhattan young women last spring. They're priced in the triple-digits. They don't make them big, or even medium. In fact, no one with a waist that's more than 32 inches around has a prayer of getting into Sevens. So obviously the "mankind" in the slogan doesn't refer to all humanity. The jeans are for waifs with cash, exclusively. So "For All Mankind" must mean that the jeans are pleasing to all men. Therefore, men who like big, broad, rounded butts are what?not men? Not a significant contingent within mankind? We'd like to bring Seven's executives down to our corner in Brooklyn, so the men who hang out there can explain in detail about what they call "The Badunkadunk." We think the fashionistas might find it to be a compelling argument.

Best Tip-Toeing Around an Issue

"9/11"


Euphemisms R Us. In the days and weeks following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the euphemisms were flying fast and furious as newscastermen and normal people alike were scrambling to come up with a quicker, easier way to reference the events as well as various things surrounding them (remember when "Ground Zero" was "The Pit"?). "The Tragedy" was popular, as were "The Attacks," "The Unpleasantness" and "The Horribleness."

It took a few weeks for everyone to finally settle on "9/11"?it was neat, it was clean, it was handy?and now there's no escaping it. Not a day has gone by when some news story or professional athlete or politician or movie star or guy on the train or television commercial hasn't bandied about the term "9/11"?sometimes for no apparent reason than to make whatever gibberish they happen to be pandering seem more profound, somehow.

We blame Franklin Roosevelt. Yet despite his "Day of Infamy" speech, the attack on Pearl Harbor never came to be known as "12/7"?it was always "The attack on Pearl Harbor." Maybe we just don't have that sort of patience anymore. Still, we would much rather hear people come right out and say "the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center" instead of the lifeless, bloodless and cold "9/11."

Best Reason No Mets Pitcher
Has Ever Thrown A No-Hitter

Karma from All Those Cheap-Ass Hits that Led to the World Championship in 1986

Is That Like the Curse of the Bambino? These same freakish anomalies off the Louisville Sluggers would infect the throwing arm of Mackey Sasser, who would have been the next John Stearns, and Keith Miller's glove in center, as he would have been the next Tommy Agee. The same goes for Sid Fernandez, David Cone, Al Leiter, Pedro Astacio, Steve Trachsel and the long-departed Rick Reed?the reluctant Twin who is about to enter the postseason in Minnesota.


Best Place To Get Depressed

"Misery Mile" (The Battery to Canal Street)

Zip Over to the Vietnam Memorial If You Have a Spare Sec. If you ever wake up and discover that you're just too darned cheerful, here's a bracing way to bring you back to reality. Take a nice leisurely stroll from the Battery to Canal St. along the Hudson River. It's a stretch of New York that columnist Jimmy Breslin rightly calls the "Misery Mile." Start at the memorial to all the soldiers and sailors killed in World War II and proceed north to the Museum of Jewish Heritage. As we all know, Jewish history is a euphemism for "endless joys and delights." After contemplating pogroms and Kristallnacht, stroll past the Irish Hunger Memorial to enjoy a facsimile of an Irish famine house. It's a vivid reminder of the thousands who starved to death even while those British scamps exported butter and beef from Ireland. Next up is Ground Zero, about which enough has been said. By this time, your good mood should be completely evaporated, leaving you in the right frame of mind for visiting your lawyer to make out your will, for buying your cemetery plot or simply for breaking your neck at that trapeze school. Cheers!

Best Harassment of an
Arab in the Wake of 9/11

"It's My Fault. Just Kick My Ass." He's a nice guy who doesn't want any trouble, so we won't name names. But we'll take a polygraph if anybody questions this story's truthfulness:

It's two weeks after the World Trade Center massacre, and we're visiting our favorite pita place in the former shadows of the WTC. Maybe we're gullible enough to think that we're showing support for a local Arab-American. We ask if he's had any kind of harassment.

"There was this one woman," he explained, "who came in from The New York Times. She kept telling me that she understood if I hated America. I finally told her not to come back until she wanted to write about my business."

Best Blurring of the Line


Headset Cellphones

Hearing Voices. First several times we encountered someone using one of those near-invisible cellphone headsets, it caught us off guard. When they said "Hello" as we passed, we of course assumed they were merely being polite, so we said "Hello" back. Then when they started discussing (with nobody in particular, it seemed) "next month's business plan" and where they were going to meet for lunch, we quickly came to the conclusion that they were schizophrenic. We've certainly become familiar enough with people mumbling to invisible friends and demons as they shuffle down the street. But most of these people lately seemed to be dressed a little better than your typical New York bum. Maybe they just lost everything on the stock market, or maybe they'd scored at the Salvation Army. Who could tell?


Then we noticed the wire and the earplugs.

Our main gripe with the explosion of these "hands-free" gizmos (though for some reason the people who use them still insist on gesturing wildly) is the fact that it's suddenly become more and more difficult?if not impossible?to tell the potentially dangerous insane people from the mere assholes.

Best Moment


Yankee Stadium, 2001 ALDS, Game 2

Smoke Those Bugs Out. Paul Verhoeven's 1997 satire of American WWII movies, updated in accordance with Beverly Hills 90210 youth culture and interpolated into an American Empire's future, was widely misunderstood when it came out. Now that the country is at war, the film's black humor is even more biting, and more than a few scenes that five years ago seemed over-the-top have a ring of prescience. We very much appreciate that certain cable channels have seen fit to run Starship Troopers regularly for late-night audiences in 2002.


Exactly how brilliantly dead-on the film is hit us before that little revival began. It was October 2001, and a friend had scored playoff tickets. After a season of regular attendance at Yankee Stadium, Game 2 against the Oakland A's was to be our first post-9/11 visit to the Bronx. We knew it'd be different. We'd knew there'd be a lot of patriotic displays and added security. But like every New Yorker who witnessed the massacre, we were on board for all of that. We also knew that the President was supposed to speak that night. We figured we'd miss it.
But Bush's speech and subsequent press conference played live on Yankee Stadium's video screen. The game was delayed for half an hour while the President repeated his "smoke 'em out and bring 'em to justice" promise over and over (every time, we involuntarily pictured Bush dragging Osama to David Justice). The playoff crowd watched quietly. We were an audience of 55,000 intently focused on a giant talking head with an "America Strikes Back" graphic under it. It was inappropriate to joke or talk, let alone suggest out loud that we came to the playoffs to get away from this nightmare for a few minutes. The most surreal moment came when Bush recounted a litany of American sacrifice through the ages. The Greatest Generation stormed the beach at Normandy. The President's own generation faced Vietnam. Then he actually said the words "Generation X." Something like, "Generation X watched from the chillout tent at Lollapalooza while our Gulf War bombers struck with unprecedented accuracy?" You couldn't react.
Best Conquering Nail
Salon & Sign of
Chelsea's Overgentrification

Bloomie Nails
219 8th Ave.
(21st St.), 366-6199

170 W. 23rd St.
(7th Ave.), 741-0105

214 7th Ave.
(betw. 22nd & 23rd Sts.), 675-1516

294 8th Ave.
(25th St.), 646-638-2727

200 W. 18th St.
(betw. 7th & 8th Aves.), 366-4545

Further Gapification. We've always loved the convenience of the 24-hour bodegas and the wide range of restaurants in Chelsea. So when one of our favorite diners, Bendix, was shuttered this year to make room for yet another Bloomie Nails salon, we almost took out our shotgun to settle the score.


But seriously, even in a neighborhood overflowing with well-to-do gay men and straight women, four or five Bloomies?we lost track?is far too many. The Korean women running these joints provide great (but overpriced) manicures and pedicures, but when nail salons start taking over restaurants it's a very bad sign for a neighborhood where rents?commercial and residential?have gone through the roof, and the only places more ubiquitous than Bloomies are luxury condos.
Best Proxy Setting for
The Arab-Israeli Conflict

24 Hrs. Mini-Mart in Flatbush

Where Else? Flatbush, ethnically speaking, doesn't make sense. Once a Jewish enclave in central Brooklyn?like Brownsville?the neighborhood is so ethnically agglutinated that the phonecard storefronts on Coney Island Ave. are inscribed in Arabic, the second language of choice at Andries Hudde Junior High School on Nostrand Ave. is Creole (ahead of Spanish, or Spanglish) and some of the most fearsome criminals are Russians come too far north of Kings Hwy. to be up to any good. The people's voice in Washington is the House Floor-rapping freak Major Owens, whose cardinal achievement is, pending Dick Armey's retirement, having the most bizarre name of any congressman. Nesting in the crags of Midwood High School's Bedford Ave. facade is a family of parrots, Caribbean emigres who also haunt the bell tower of nearby Brooklyn College.


Yet, as in Williamsburg, the Jews aren't giving up on Flatbush. Roots to the place run deep in the Jewish consciousness, especially in the concrete of Ocean Pkwy. and Coney Island Ave., and most visibly in the Pale of Settlement known as Ave. J. Yeshiva of Flatbush?alma mater of such Jewish sages as Leon Wieseltier?is still there, overshadowing a library branch where payess-rocking asthmatics in thick glasses borrow Chaim Potok novels and old baseball books. Mention Flatbush to Jewish residents of, say, Washington, and the most likely response is a wistful, "Yeah, that's where my father's from." The dancehall posters might monopolize the brick walls of the Junction, but on Ave. J, it's all ads for the new Uncle Moishe & the Mitzvah Men disc and Meir Kahane's despicable ponim.

Unlike in Borough Park, where the Satmar Hasids dream of the day when Yasir Arafat dunks his toes on the beaches of Tel Aviv, the Jews of Ave. J are determined Zionists. The deli counters host change cans where customers can donate quarters toward the purchase of, uh, "dogs" to defend West Bank settlements. There's a Jerusalem II pizza parlor (but do yourself a favor and eat at Di Fara's instead). And just like in Israel, the black-veiled women pushing baby strollers don't get lingering stares, but their presence is subtly noted.

Now, this is Brooklyn, after all, but the tension makes a lot more sense after two years of intifada and one year of a crater in Lower Manhattan. Determined to stick our finger in an open wound, we make sure we buy our Israeli papers and magazines at 24 Hrs. Mini-Mart, an Arab-run newsstand and bodega. Sure, you can get your copy of The Jerusalem Report at the Jew-staffed places across the street or next to the subway, but we'd prefer to pick up our Ha'aretz at a place where we can look an Arab in his eyes and see a Flatbush resident. The closest we may get to shaking hands is when we exchange money, but judging by the looks on each of our faces, at least we know where each of us stands. In a place this bizarre, peace is possible.

Best Corporate Name Change


Union Square Bank
20 Union Square E. (15th St.)

Best Everyman

Joseph Gray Jr.

Not Even Black or White. About a month before the terrorist attacks, an off-duty policeman named Joseph Gray Jr. ran over a family in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, killing a pregnant mother, her eight-month-old fetus, her four-year-old son and her teenage sister. The tragedy was a deep-trough moment for the NYPD who were, as yet, far from heroes in the eyes of the public. Each day following the accident seemed to produce another infuriating revelation as to who this cop was and what he was up to on the day in question. Gray, you will recall, claimed that construction barriers beneath the Gowanus Expressway overpass made it impossible to see the Herreras, who he said darted out in front of his van at the last second. It was already hard fact that he'd been drinking all day. In addition, his immediate and seemingly callous claim of innocence did not square with eyewitness reports, which had the family crossing from the other side of the street in plain view. Gray, innocent? Nobody was buying it.


How does a defense team get that kind of client off? They didn't. Not even close. But in the nine months between the accident and the jury verdict that found him guilty of four counts of second-degree manslaughter, they did manage to cultivate a credible image of Gray as a monumental underachiever. This was not difficult to do. It was the only thing they could do. The raw material was already there, everything from the disheveled, Elmer Fudd-like appearance to the litany of incompetence. His driver's registration status at the time of the accident: expired. Why he refused to take a sobriety test: he suffered from vertigo and touching his nose would cause him to lose his balance. His whereabouts prior to the accident: a strip club. How many hours he'd been awake prior to the accident: at least 24. His relative sobriety: stink-ass drunk. The list goes on.

At the trial, we noticed that Gray's defense team seemed to be proactively ceding the character question. Aside from winning a pretrial ruling that forbade mention of the Wild Wild West strip club by name (a move we believe backfired), they did not go out of their way to try to build the man up with character witnesses and such. If anything, Gray's lawyer, Harold Levy, seemed to be passively promoting the idea of Gray as one of life's losers. Seeing the robust, tan, impeccably dressed Levy next to the sallow homunculus Gray only reinforced this idea. (Similarly, Gray's wife, who was present and prominent throughout the trial, smoked her husband in the looks category.) There may have been a purpose in playing to the diminutive. For when all was said and done, the circumstantial and forensic evidence, damning as it was, fell short of proving that the Herrera family had crossed from the unobscured far side of the intersection.

What the highest stakes in the legal case boiled down to was stories. Gray's story versus the eyewitnesses' stories. And what the defense strategy may have been leading to is this: If you could believe in Gray as a born loser, destined to a fate of perpetually subpar achievement, then you might also accept that he was capable of experiencing colossal bad luck, that the accident was, in fact, an accident. In other words, yeah, we can't say all that other stuff isn't true, but our guy's a bad-luck-Harry and this was a tragic mishap.

This, we assumed, was all that Gray had had to go on. But it wasn't. About two weeks after he killed the Herreras, as Sunset Park mourned and controversy brewed, bringing wider scorn and implication upon the NYPD, an elderly neighborhood resident by the name of Israel Perez walked into the 72nd precinct and said that he had a story to tell. He'd witnessed the accident, he said, and it had not occurred the way everyone was saying. Specifically, Perez said that he was walking along the southbound side of 3rd Ave. and that he clearly saw the family cross from underneath the overpass, just before they were struck by Gray's van.

Perez made a terrible witness. Ornery, derisive of the process, he refused to follow instructions given to him to wait out full translations into Spanish before he began speaking. When questioned by the defense, Perez's time on the stand was mildly amusing and largely distracting. In the cross examination, he defiantly tacked "Sir" onto each response to the female assistant DA, got angry and confused and seemed at times to gainsay his own testimony. Perez's story went down in flames.

In talking with the print and tv news folks it was not difficult to discern a general presumption of guilt. Joe Gray's was the first trial we'd attended. Often, we felt like pikers in their company, lacking that old salt, see-enough-of-these-things-and-you-know-how-it-is sensibility. But then the dailies have long since moved on. We still think about Joe Gray. We've done enough bad things in our life to know how certain behavior, and assumptions about that behavior, can wind up implicating a person that one time it isn't his fault. And so while we don't know, we still do wonder what exactly motivated Israel Perez to come forward after the fact and contradict his neighbors. We don't doubt that Gray is a poster boy for denial, or that he was drunk at the moment he struck the Herreras, or that he deserves time away for just being himself. But as to which side of the street the Herrera family crossed from?there, we're really not sure.

Best Place to Wish You
Hadn't Run into
That Guy You Know

206 Video
206 E. 14th St. (betw. 2nd & 3rd Aves.)
917-534-0377

"Hey, There's Sex Going on Here!" Things seem pretty normal when you first walk up the stairs to 206 Video. The place is like any other porn shop?except for that one area toward the back, where all those guys have gathered. Wander over to see what's so exciting, and discover that 206 Video is more than a porn shop. It's also the most popular place in town for guys to join other guys in video booths for...well, you know what guys do with other guys in video booths.


On a Saturday afternoon, the men will be circling that area like planes waiting to land at O'Hare at Christmastime. They'll be deceptively normal-looking men, too. We aren't saying that there's usually anything abnormal about gays. The deception is in how this store has become a particularly popular place for married men who crave the occasional masculine company.




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