Sunday, December 29, 2019

442. The King of Harlem


When is a fraud not a fraud?  

Nothing new about my forthcoming nonfiction title until the holiday season is over and we're into the New Year.  But I'm planning already for entering it in book contests (with caution, since some of them are frauds) and soliciting reviews from trusted sources (with caution, for some of them are frauds).  Indeed, what is and what is not a fraud can be debated forever.  Everybody wants an author's $$$, and if you see them all as self-serving frauds, you'll end up miserably alone, your books unknown, unreviewed, and unsold.  So you get info from online sources (with caution, for ...) and take your chances.

For information about my published books, go to my Amazon Author Central page.


The King of Harlem

He swaggered on the streets with a look of bold command.  The street kids watched in awe, envying his custom-made suits and shoes, his full-length leather coats, his designer sunglasses and flashy ties.  Everything about him said money, power, success. When he drove about in his Mercedes-Benz or his Cadillac, there was often a beautiful woman beside him, and she was not his wife.  He was said to be fabulously rich and to have Mafia connections.  

         Rumors held him responsible for the heroin pouring into Harlem, and even into the rest of New York State, and into Pennsylvania and Canada as well.  His investments included gas stations, travel agencies, and apartment complexes.  If a police surveillance team tried to follow him as he drove through the streets of Harlem, he led them on a merry chase and often shook them off.  He was indeed the King of Harlem, but having beaten several charges, he was known by another name: Mr. Untouchable.

         Anyone familiar with chapter 11 of my book Fascinating New Yorkers: Power Freaks, Mobsters, Liberated Women, Creators, Queers and Crazies, will have recognized this swaggerer as Leroy Nicky Barnes, the Mafia’s agent in Harlem in the 1970s.  My book recounts Barnes’s ongoing story, climaxed by his appearance, under the name “Mister Untouchable,” on the cover of the Magazine section of the New York Times of Sunday, June 5, 1977 – a cover that I remember well.  

          That cover, with the dapper, clean-shaven Barnes projecting a look of smug invulnerability, so angered President Jimmy Carter that he ordered his attorney general to "get" Barnes, and get him he did.  Trial and conviction followed, with Barnes sentenced to life in prison without parole.  Then, learning that his former associates were squandering his fortune, he testified against them, leading to 44 indictments and 16 convictions, one of them for an ex-wife.  In return for his cooperation, Barnes got his prison sentence reduced to 35 years.

         So why, 42 years after his arrest, am I mentioning the former King of Harlem?  Because it has just been revealed that he died of cancer in 2012.  And why is this revealed only now?  Because, when he was released in 1998, after serving 21 years, he entered the federal Witness Protection Program and lived quietly under an assumed name.  As well he might, since his former associates had put out an eight-million-dollar contract on his life.

The New Nicky Barnes

The post-prison Nicky Barnes was not the swaggerer of yore.  Bald and limping, he wore baggy dungarees and drove to work in an unpretentious used car.  As of 2007 he was working 44 hours a week in an undisclosed job in a middle-class white neighborhood in an undisclosed state, content in his anonymity and routinely taking home doggie bags from restaurants.  And how was this known?  Because in that year, 2007, he published a memoir, Mr. Untouchable, written with journalist Tom Folsom.  
          "Nicky Barnes's lifestyle and his value system is extinct," he said that year in an interview.  "I left Nicky Barnes behind."

          He didn’t want the memoir to glorify him.  Being on a tight budget, he just wanted to make a few bucks.

          While in prison, Barnes had done more than learn humility.  He earned a college degree, taught other inmates, and won a poetry contest for prisoners.  He had indeed left the old Nicky Barnes behind.  Except that the old Nicky’s story could bring in a bit of needed cash.wo

          The key lesson of Nicky Barnes's story:  If you're up to your ears in crime, hunker down.  The last thing you should want is to attract attention.  The smart Mafia men know this; we rarely hear of them, don't even know their names.

          For a sketch of Barnes’s life, see chapter 11 of my book Fascinating New Yorkers.  You will find more about that title in my post BROWDERBOOKS; scroll down to the NONFICTION section.  It is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Source note:  This post was inspired by Sam Roberts's obit of Barnes in the New York Times of Sunday, June 9, 2019. 

Coming soon:  Two possibilities:

  • A world-famous explorer and scientist whom Jefferson and Goethe came to know, and who was hailed in New York by 25,000 people marching in the streets, and in Berlin and Moscow and Buenos Aires and Melbourne as well -- a man most of us today have never heard of.  
  • The world's most savage killer, responsible for the death of Alexander the Great, the Visigothic king Alaric, Oliver Cromwell, Lord Byron, and some 52 billion other humans over time.  
Both subjects can be linked, however tenuously, to New York.

©   Clifford Browder  2019


Sunday, December 22, 2019

441. The Man Who Saved New York


In case you missed it last week, see my interview with Colleen Chesebro, novelist and word witch.  For the interview, go here and scroll down.  But the link to this blog will get you only to post #417, "Kill," since that was the latest one when the interview was done months ago.

For information about my published books, go to my Amazon Author Central page.

             The Man Who Saved New York

New York City Bankrupt?

It was 1975, not a good year for the city of New York.  Streets and bridges lacked basic maintenance, Central Park was littered with trash, its benches unrepaired, its plants untended.  Everything about the city looked shabby, dirty, neglected, and crime was high.  As a result, families were abandoning the city for the suburbs, shrinking a tax base just when more tax revenue was desperately needed.  Then, to make matters worse, citizens were startled by a shocking bit of news: New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy.  Not operating at a loss, as it had for years, but on the verge of real, actual, no-other-word-for-it bankruptcy.  Its bonds had fallen in price to unprecedented lows, sending the interest rates soaring.  But even at such bargain prices, who would risk buying them, if the city might default?  The banks, tired of 
making loans to a city that always needed more loans, had denied further credit. 

File:Dollar Sign.svg

         “Who’s been minding the store?” citizens asked, their eyes flashing bewilderment and anger.  The answer: a long string of mayors who, to avoid the unpleasantness of proposing new taxes to voters, had come up with this or that stratagem, kicking the financial can down the street.  For what official, with an election approaching, wants to tell voters that higher taxes and fewer services are desperately required? 

         It even got personal.  When I visited a friend in Washington, and the New York crisis came up in conversation, he launched into a testy diatribe, beginning with “You New Yorkers” – an appellation that I always resented, since I didn’t go around saying “You Washingtonians” or “You  Inside-the-Beltway People.”  He then informed me, “New York is done, finished, played out!  Financially a ruin.  It will never recover.  A hick town from now on.  Kaput!”  This too I resented, but could in no way refute.  His assertions  seemed to be reinforced by the headlines every day.  

         A great debate raged: should the city be allowed to go bankrupt, or not?  Some, including the president, thought that the bankruptcy would and should be no one else’s concern, since the city’s failure would not affect the wider economy; in short, it was New York’s baby to tend to, and no one else’s.  But others insisted that New York’s bankruptcy would have a devastating affect on the U.S. economy and global financial markets, therefore the city must be rescued.  Being a financial ignoramus, I didn’t know who was right, and didn’t want to let personal bias – my love of New York – sway me.  So to my Washington friend and others I proposed, “Since we don’t know how a bankruptcy will affect the nation, the only way  to find out is to let it happen.  So let the city go bankrupt, and we'll see.”  Not the most enlightened solution, but a challenge to those opposing it.  Meanwhile, a savvy employee at my local bank was telling clients in no uncertain terms, “Buy New York City bonds!  This is the chance of a lifetime.  You’ll never see these interest rates again.  New York is not going to declare bankruptcy.  They won’t let it!”

File:Dollar Sign.svg

         (In this controversy one sees, playing out yet again, the perennial conflict between upstate and downstate, New York City and Albany.  I have discussed it in post #18, “Upstate vs. Downstate: The Great Dichotomy,” which became chapter 21 in my award-winning nonfiction title No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World.)

Fekix Rohatyn to the Rescue

         So how did it all turn out, and why bring up now this painful chapter of the city’s distant past?  I bring it up because the man who saved the city – yes, it was finally saved – was Felix G. Rohatyn, and he died on December 14, age 91 (my age --  hmm), at his home in Manhattan.  That his obit in the New York Times begins on the first page of the front (current news) section of the hefty Sunday Times (very rare), and continues inside for a full page and a half, indicates his significance.  So who, younger people may ask, was Felix G. Rohatyn?  A hero to some, a villain to others, but he saved the city from bankruptcy.

[This is where you'd expect a photo of Rohatyn, wouldn't you?  Sorry, there ain't one.  Not without paying a fee.  Odd, since he was such a public figure, and photos taken by  government photographers in the course of their duty are in the public domain.]

         In 1975 Rohatyn was a well-connected and highly respected partner of the Wall Street investment firm Lazard Frères.  A financial wizard, he was often consulted by influential businessmen and politicians.  “Felix the Fixer,” they called him, not always as a compliment.  He was a deal maker, a mastermind of mergers and acquisitions.  Then, in late May of 1975, he was summoned to the Midtown offices of Governor Hugh L. Carey and informed that the city was about to default on almost $3 billion in loans: $900 million due in June, $1 billion due in July, and another $1 billion in August.  For these men of power, default was out of the question, and they convinced the president.  Rohatyn was appointed to an advisory panel that quickly proposed the creation of a Municipal Assistance Corporation (MAC) that would oversee the city’s taxes and spending, a creature of the state that would be independent of the city, with Rohatyn as chairman. 

         Mayor Beame protested, local politicians fumed, and the city unions screamed, but the governor signed the bill and MAC became the city’s vigilant overseer, and would remained so until 1993.  Through financial legerdemain such as only he could orchestrate, Rohatyn got the city through its August obligations, but even that wasn’t enough; investors still didn’t trust the city, wouldn’t buy the bonds that MAC issued.  So Albany set up the Emergency Financial Control Board with Rohatyn in charge, to manage the city’s finances.

         In September, Governor Carey and his staff met with President Gerald Ford and his advisers in the Cabinet Room in the West Wing of the White House to discuss the financial crisis in New York: a good indication that more than the city was involved.

File:Photograph of President Gerald R. Ford and His Advisers Meeting with Governor Hugh Carey and New York Officials in the Cabinet Room to Discuss the Financial Situation in New York City - NARA - 7582447.jpg
The governor and his people on the left, and the president and
his people on the right.  Rohatyn in the middle on the left.
Hopefully, the coffee and snacks helped them reach a decision.
Suddenly, a hitch:  the president threatened to veto the federal loan guarantees proposed by Rohatyn.
This was reported memorably by the Daily News of October 29, 1975:
                                                FORD TO CITY:
                                                   DROP DEAD

The president was still convinced that a city bankruptcy would be temporary and tolerable.  He changed his mind only when Arthur F. Burns, chairman of the Federal Reserve, returned from a meeting with European leaders to report that his threatened veto would roil global financial markets.  So the president backed down and Rohatyn's plan went through.

File:Dollar Sign.svg

The Price That New York Paid

         The city was saved, but at a cost: it had surrendered control of its finances to the state.  Was Rohatyn a hero or a villain?  As an unelected official, he now had unprecedented control over the city’s finances.  To judge by photos, he was a sober, stern-faced man.  “I get called in when something is broken,” he explained in an interview.  “I’m supposed to operate, fix it up, and leave as little blood on the floor as possible.”  What made his intervention successful was his skill in negotiating, backed up by his access to power, his management of public opinion, and his adept use of words as well as numbers.  He extracted agreements from bankers and union leaders alike.  The result: police layoffs, higher taxes and transit fares, tuition fees for the City University of New York, and subjection to the solons of Albany.  Editorialists editorialized, politicians raged, and mayor after mayor complained of the time they had to spend in Albany, begging favors from the state.  But the city, at a price, was saved.  Only Felix Rohatyn could have pulled it off.  No saint, but a hero, not a villain, and that’s how he should be remembered.

         In time, the hardy souls who bought MAC bonds at depressed prices reaped a rich reward.  As well they might.  Think twice and three times before consigning to the financial trash heap the city of New York.  If it has the chutzpah to use it, the city has one resource always available: the power to tax, and millions of citizens obliged to pay.  (Unless, of course, they have the wealth and wits to hire a good accountant or financial adviser.)  But at times the city needs a Felix Rohatyn to plead, wheedle, and browbeat it into action.  And the city too, thanks to him, benefited.  MAC came to reap substantial surpluses, and Rohatyn channeled these funds into schools, transit, low- and middle-income housing, and the hiring of more police to deal with the crack epidemic of those years.

Felix Rohatyn: From Refugee to Wall Street

Rohatyn's career was spectacular.  Here are some facts about it.

·      He was born in Vienna in 1928, the only son of a Jewish brewer, his mother the daughter of a prosperous banker.
·      Hitler’s coming to power in Germany in 1933 prompted the family to move to France in 1934.
·      In 1942, after France’s defeat, German occupation, and the installation of the collaborating Vichy regime, Rohatyn’s mother, now divorced and remarried, fled Europe, taking few possessions with her.  She had her son carry gold coins stuffed in toothpaste tubes.
·      Resettled in Manhattan, Rohatyn learned English and majored in physics in college.
·      After time in the U.S. Army, he joined Lazard Frères on Wall Street and was with them for forty years.
·      Having met her by chance while returning from a trip to Europe, he tutored Edith Piaf in English in the Park Avenue apartment that she shared with other nightclub singers.
·      By the mid-1970s he felt nostalgia for the world of gentlemen’s agreements that he had known, which was then giving way to hostile takeovers, corporate raiders, and high-risk trading, operations that enrich only a lucky few.

File:Dollar Sign.svg

Source note: This post is indebted to Sewell Chan’s obit of Rohatyn in the  New York Times of Sunday, December 15, 2019.

Coming soon: The King of Harlem.

©   2019   Clifford Browder

Sunday, December 15, 2019

440. Five Wonders I Will Never See


Don't miss this:


For my interview with Colleen Chesebro, novelist and word witch, go here and scroll down.  But the link to this blog will get you only to post #417, "Kill," since that was the latest one when the interview was done months ago.  

I'm now up tp my ears in SEO -- Search Engine Optimization.  This involves a whole bunch of new terms.  Do you know what any of these mean?

  • SERP
  • ROI
  • CTR 
  • CPC
  • PPC
  • ARC

The answers are at the end of the post below.  Once you see them, all will be clear.  In principle, at least.

                         FIVE  WONDERS  
                     I  WILL  NEVER  SEE

1.   a coral reef
2.   a painted bunting
3.   Lake Tear of the Clouds, Feldspar Brook, and the Opalescent River
4.   the pounding fury of a herd of wild horses galloping
5.   a huge mass of black ice rising from the polar sea and then sinking back into the water, perhaps never to be seen again.


1.   Oceanographer Jacques Cousteau has described coral reefs as resembling dwarf skulls, petrified mauve bushes, witches’ heads, white walking canes by the hundreds, and frozen parasols.  Coral reefs are inhabited by feather bonnets that explode into the stinging spines of the lion fish, and moray eels glowering from crevices and baring their savage teeth.  Who wouldn’t want to see such wonders, even at the risk of rapture of the depths, when the diver is tempted to explore mysterious populations still deeper, and risks madness and death.

File:Philippine coral reef.jpg

File:Coral Reef.jpg

2.   Our most beautiful bird, the male flaunting bold splotches of blue, green, and red.  Though recently he was spotted in Manhattan, I have never seen him, since normally he disdains the usual south-to-north spring migration path of Eastern birds that brings them to the Ramble in Central Park and to me.  Instead, he winters in southern Florida and points south, then migrates westward to the American Southwest, or to coastal Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.  And to make matters worse for birdwatchers, he is secretive and hard to observe.

File:Painted Bunting RWD.jpg

3.   The lake is the source of the Hudson River in the far north of the state, high in the Adirondacks.  Water from the lake pours into the brook and the river.  The very names of all three enchant me.

File:Adirondack Mountains, N.Y.- Lake Tear of the Clouds by Stoddard, Seneca Ray.png
Lake Tear of the Clouds

4.   I have seen such horses in the 1953 French film Crin blanc (White Mane), which shows them racing about the Camargue, a region in southern France bounded by the Mediterranean on the south, and on the other sides by the two arms of the Rhône delta.  Unknown to tourists, the Camargue has lakes and marshlands that are a haven for wild birds, but also, as seen in the film, herds of wild horses, and the French cowboys that try to capture and tame them.  
         Though I have never seen them, wild horses also run free in the American West, grazing belly-deep in tall grasses, often dotting the hills as far as the eye can see.  Having removed them from public land, where their grazing has depleted the grasses, the Bureau of Land Management stores 46,000 of them on some 60 private ranches at a cost that eats up much of the Bureau’s budget.  The horses’ natural enemies, wolves and mountain lions, have been eradicated, allowing the horses to reproduce to the point that the grasslands are overgrazed and in danger.  But for me, an Easterner who hasn't been on a horse since the summer camp of his childhood (and then unhappily), wild horses suggest a magnificent force of nature that we humans have yet to subdue.

File:Space Kadett Kyle speeding around.jpg
Not easy to find photos of them galloping.

File:Ani chevaux013 1024.jpg

5.   Such a phenomenon is described in Robert Macfarlane’s recent bestseller, Underland: A Deep Time Journey, of which I read a review.  He witnessed it in the Arctic.  (For more about him, see my post #416, "Descent into Darkness: Revelations, Fecundity, and Death.")

File:The polar and tropical worlds - a description of man and nature in the polar and equatorial regions of the globe (1874) (14591075859).jpg
Black ice in the polar sea, though not what Macfarlane witnessed.

          There will always be wonders that we hear of but will never see.  Word of them reminds us of what an incredibly rich, diverse, and complicated world we live in.  To deny or ignore such wonders is to deny life and let your sense of wonder atrophy.  Without a sense of wonder, life is dull, dead.

SERP.  Search engine results page.
ROI.  Return on investment.
CTR.  Click-through rates.
CPC.  Cost per click.
PPC.  Pay per clock.
ARC.  Advance review copy.

Now all is clear, is it not?

Coming soon:  "The King of Harlem."  The last word on a flamboyant dazzler and lord of heroin who almost got away with it.  Or maybe a scam alert, depending on how things go in the next few days.

©   Clifford Browder  2019