Slamming and Jamming


As executive editor and then editor-in-chief of the National Lampoon for nine years (1973-1981), P.J. O'Rourke (b. 1947) is no stranger to irreverence. In his work he takes a biting and often humorous look at his subjects, which in the case of his best-selling Parliament of Whores (from which this selection is taken) is the federal government. Convinced that Washington's programs on preventing poverty and urban drug use do not work and in fact lead to despair among the very people intended as beneficiaries, O'Rourke searches for approaches that do have a chance of succeeding. He finds the Guardian Angels and accompanies them one night on a "slamming and jamming" patrol through two of New York's tougher neighborhoods - to visit a crack house.

From the book Parliament of Whores by P.J. O'Rourke. Copyright 1991 by P. J. O'Rourke.

[2960 words]

I called Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels. The Guardian Angels are, like Batman, Miss Marple, and the Baker Street Irregulars, unarmed amateur fighters of crime. Such groups are ubiquitous in popular fiction but never exist in real life. Unarmed amateur crime fighting would be useless in a lawful society and suicidal in a lawless one. In America, however, we have managed to produce a combination of vandalized wealth and spoiled want, police legalism and ACLU firepower that makes something as fundamentally absurd as the Guardian Angels not only possible but a godsend.

And it says a lot about the nature of American poverty that I went to see it with a group of young men trained in the martial arts and operating under military-style discipline instead of with a social worker.

Correct choice, incidentally. We got out of the subway in the Mott Haven section of New York's South Bronx just as some fellow down the block was shot stepping into his Cadillac. He was carrying a gun. Obviously his assailant was, too. And so were all the witnesses on the street. "Everybody had a gun," a cop said later, stringing yellow "crime scene" tape around the Coup de Ville.

Mott Haven was once a district of substantial apartment houses, comfortable if not luxurious, the tract homes of their day. These sheltered the Jewish middle classes on their way from the Lower East Side to White Plains. Now the buildings are in various stages of decomposition, ranging from neglected paint to flattened rubble. Abandoned buildings are office space for the local criminals, who deal almost entirely in drugs. (There's not much felonious creativity in a modern slum.) Scattered among the remaining turn-of-the-century structures and the empty lots piled with trash are various housing projects with large, ill-lighted areas of "public" space, dead to all traffic and commercial activity. Squalor and overcrowding are often spoken of as almost a single phenomenon, but in New York's poor neighborhoods the lower the population density, the greater the filth and crime.

The Guardian Angels walked through this neighborhood in single file looking for muggers and drug users. The Angels got handshakes, thumbs-up signals and loud shouts of encouragement from the old people. Women flirted with them. Little kids wanted to know how old they had to be to join. But the young men looked away or yelled - from a distance - "maricon" or "Charlie's Angels." It was interesting, the percentage of these young men who were visibly drunk at nine in the evening - 100. But it was also interesting to look through lighted windows here, in the streets Tom Wolfe picked to terrify his Mercedes-driving anti-hero in The Bonfire of the Vanities, and see freshly painted walls and bright curtains, pictures of Christ and the Madonna (the one who didn't get her video banned from MTV), cooing women with crying babies, families clearing away supper plates and kids eating ice cream in front of the TV - interesting to see how much tame and ordinary life goes on in the notorious South Bronx.

We walked on through the odd landscape, with its equal parts of the depraved, the deserted and the normal, down to one more decayed apartment house with the Bruckner Elevated Expressway nearly running through its back hall. The Guardian Angels had helped squatters here resist an eviction order. The building was clean but an utter wreck, and the squatters' small-time attempts at big-time repairs hadn't helped. The people in the building to whom I talked - an earnest sculptor, a couple belonging to some Muslim-type religious group and a neo-hippie - had a complicated tale of woe.

The building's landlord had offered tenants cheap apartments in return for help repairing the building, a so-called sweat-equity deal. But the leases the tenants signed weren't legally binding because the corporation that actually owned the building hadn't paid property taxes in ten years. Then the city took over. New York has so many laws about rent control, occupancy permits, real estate transfers, co-op conversions and so forth that a special housing court is needed to sort it all out. A housing-court judge appointed an administrator to run the building. The tenants went to another city agency, the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development, which promised them that in return for an enormous amount of bureaucratic frog-walking, they'd be able to buy the building themselves. But while the tenants tried to repair the building they thought they were buying, the court-appointed administrator went into cahoots with a real estate speculator who obtained the building off the back taxes and got the tenants (now squatters) evicted by the same housing-court judge who'd appointed the administrator.

If you've ever been to New York and wondered how a city where a decent apartment is almost impossible to find got mile after mile of abandoned, semi-abandoned and eminently abandonable apartment buildings, this is one of the ways it's done.

Mott Haven is by no means the worst section of the South Bronx. That's probably Hunt's Point, where we went next.

Riding with the DC police, I'd been in neighborhoods where there was a lot of drug use and even in neighborhoods where drug use was the dominant factor, more important in shaping the environment than weather or wealth. But there are parts of Hunt's Point where the actual numerical majority of the residents are drugged to the eyes. Hunt's Point doesn't look much worse than other lousy neighborhoods, but the people do - dirty, skinny, disordered base-heads yelling at each other and us and people who aren't there. American slums are usually stylish places, their residents far up the fashion scale of evolution from the sack-assed, Brooks Brothered princes of Wall Street. But in the crack neighborhoods, people are still wearing whatever they happened to have on at the moment the crack craze hit.

Here the women, too, jeered the Guardian Angels, and when our group had passed one gaggle of druggies on the corner of Hunt's Point Avenue and Lafayette, bottles and brick-halves were thrown at our backs. The Guardian Angels held their pace and disdained to duck or look over their shoulders as stuff smashed onto the sidewalk around them.

Farther down Hunt's Point Avenue the Angels' patrol leader, José Miller ("GI Joe"), went up to an old car hood leaning against a burned-out building and pulled it away to reveal a scarecrow-shaped addict piping down. Jose smashed the pipe. On the next block the Angels took drugs away from several large guys in an alley. The largest of the guys feigned a threatening gesture at the Angels, then rounded on his fellows shouting, "Just walk away! just walk away! They got...." He pointed at the Guardian Angels. "They got.... They got...." He couldn't seem to think what it was the Angels had that justified his backing down. "Just walk away!" he yelled and walked away.

Around the corner on Casanova Street, near the Spofford juvenile Detention Center, a woman on a porch stoop said crack addicts were smoking in the empty building next door. The Guardian Angels ran into the building with no caution and not enough flashlights, leaping across abysmal pits left by missing steps in the stairwells and pounding down wrecked hallways through smashed doorframes into black, stinking rooms full of burned mattresses and human shit. But the addicts had fled.

The building hadn't been derelict long. You could tell because only half the copper plumbing had been ripped out to sell for scrap. I found someone's photo album lying in the muddy courtyard. Snapshots of weddings and christenings and first communions had been carefully arranged beneath sheets of clear plastic and then just left in the dirt. It was the kind of orphaned possession you might find in the wake of a tornado or after a war.

José wanted to show me a couple of wood-frame houses on Casanova that the Angels had raided repeatedly. But when we got there, the houses were gone. The night-shift workers at a freight depot across the street said somebody had taken a bulldozer from a road repair site last weekend and crushed the homes. "We're beginning to have an effect," said José. Maybe. Or maybe not. In the gutter in front of the razed crack houses was a brand-new Porsche 928 flipped on its back and wadded like Kleenex.

That night the Guardian Angels invited me to come with them back to Hunt's Point. Michael Dixon ("Recon"), an Angel who specializes in dirtying himself like a dope user and scouting vile locales, had discovered a gruesome nest of drug behavior - a crack house, shooting gallery, dope bazaar, and place to get a cheap blowjob all in one. And the Angels were going to raid it.

At first I assumed this would be a privatized version of the police raid I'd gone on in Washington. But the Guardian Angels said no, that wasn't the point. The Angels weren't going to arrest anyone, because a citizen's arrest means - just as a cop's arrest does - days spent in court, only to see some scumbag released on probation. And the Angels weren't trying to convince any individual person to stop taking drugs. "There's plenty of education - everybody knows drugs are bad," one of the Angels said. What Sliwa and his men intended to do was wreck this crack house - break everything breakable, rough up the patrons and take their drugs and money away. The Guardian Angels call it slamming and jamming. The purpose is to show the flag of decency, to destroy the permissive atmosphere of the inner city and to provide, by main strength of hand, the social opprobrium missing in the slums. The Guardian Angels are trying to enforce the kind of propriety, the mores, that were usual in American society, at every income level, twenty-five years ago. They're trying to make the South Bronx as dull and bland and conventional as my mother's old neighborhood. But modern society has become so lawless and screwy that the Guardian Angels have had to start a street gang to teach people decorum.

Twenty-seven Guardian Angels went on the raid, most of them in a U-Haul-style moving truck and the rest in a van and a car. The Angels arrived in the Bronx about sunset and gathered in an Amtrak rail yard, where Curtis Sliwa scratched battle plans on the pavement with a rock. The crack den was in the basement of a large, empty building on the block where we'd had bottles and bricks thrown at us. The only way inside was across a board over a four-foot ditch and through a hole in the basement wall.

The Guardian Angels were divided into three squads. The first squad was to rush through the hole and grab all the dopies and immobilize them, that is, throw them against walls. The second squad was to come in behind the first, pass through the melee in the basement and fan out through the upper floors to clear the rest of the building. The third squad would secure a defense perimeter.

Speed was important. Crack houses are defended by armed enforcers, but the enforcers, to avoid being caught by police, stay several blocks away. Lookouts with walkie-talkies would send the alarm, and the enforcers would get there, the Angels told me, in about ten minutes. "I want this operation completed in six to eight minutes," Sliwa told the Angels.

I went into the building between the first and second squads. Electricity had been pirated from somewhere for a couple of bulbs, and a sofa, half-burned and half-moldering, had been dragged off the street. On one damp-stained, scaly wall a skull and crossbones had been spray-painted above the words NO CREDIT. There were humps of garbage and rags, piles of busted cement and broken pipes and earth and muck everywhere in a retching funk of shit and drug-addict body odor. About a dozen crack-heads were down there, the men shrieking for mercy and the women just shrieking while they tried to pull their clothes back on over skaggy, mottled flanks. "My shoes! Let me get my shoes!" one woman yelled, and I thought this was an odd, feminine-vanity sort of concern to be having at the moment until I looked at the basement floor. There were hypodermic needles lying like spilled pretzel sticks all around the thin rubber soles of my Topsiders.

The Guardian Angels were shoving drug addicts and hollering horrible imprecations at them, then dragging them outside and making them kneel on the sidewalk. There the crack-heads had their pockets emptied; their drugs, pipes, needles and paraphernalia given the bootheel and their money torn up in front of their faces.

I was down in the terrible basement taking notes. The raid seemed to be a success as far as I could tell. But outside things were going awry.

When the second squad came through the basement, they found the stairs to the rest of the building had been blocked with rubble. They ran back out, hoisted themselves past the bricked-up first floor and went in the second-story windows. Meanwhile, the perimeter squad had, as Sliwa described it later, "gotten greedy." Seeing how some of the bystanders were obvious druggies, the Angels began grabbing people out of the gathering crowd and tossing them in with the kneeling crack-heads. The crowd grew and turned uglier, throwing things and pushing its way in on the defense perimeter.

After the second squad finished its sweep through the upper floors of the crack house - which were empty - they found themselves cut off from their fellows. They jumped down into the angry crowd, and putting their backs together, began to fight.

Sliwa gave the signal for retreat - a long blast on a whistle. When the remaining Angels in the basement and I ran out through the hole in the wall, all hell had broken loose. Bottles and beer cans and chunks of masonry were coming down like animated polka dots out of the pink evening sky. The enforcers had arrived from their outposts and were firing shots from a nearby roof. The fuddled crack addicts were tossed aside, and the first squad sprinted for the Guardian Angel vehicles while the perimeter squad fell in behind them. I had just dived into the van when something huge and heavy hit its roof. The van, truck and car took off with the street crowd running down on us. The three Guardian Angel drivers, winching on the steering-wheel rims as hard as they could, squealed around the block and into the backside of this same crowd, where the second squad of Angels was surrounded.

We were in the lead in the van and came through the drug mob at about twenty-five miles an hour, grazing several people and sending dozens leaping out of the way. In front of us two guys with complicated haircuts were pulling open their sports-team jackets and reaching into their waistbands, but the van's driver chased them up on the sidewalk before they could get their pistols free. The moving truck was right behind us, and as it came through, the members of the second squad jumped into the back. Just as the last Guardian Angel was being pulled onboard, his legs still dangling over the tailgate, some lunatic ran out of the crowd swinging an ax. The lunatic took aim at the Angel's foot but hooked his swing and only connected with the flat of the ax head. The two Guardian Angels bringing up the rear in the car smashed the lunatic's knees between their bumper and the back of the truck. Then we got the hell out of there.

The Guardian Angels were lucky. Only four of them were injured and only one seriously - John Rodrigues ("Hot Rod"), a young Angel on his first patrol. John's face was badly cut by somebody using a gin bottle as a shillelagh, but what was bothering John most was what his mother was going to say. The mob of drug lovers was not so lucky. I looked out the van's back window and saw a score of people staggering around in the middle of Hunt's Point Avenue holding parts of their bodies, such as groins and faces.

The Guardian Angels went back to the relative calm and safety of Mott Haven to get some sodas and first aid. At 138th Street and Cypress Avenue the block association was holding a street festival with a salsa band, and all the respectable citizens were out on the sidewalks with their children, eating cuchifritos and doing dance steps.

"This neighborhood used to be just like Hunt's Point," an Angel who'd grown up in Mott Haven told me.

"Before you guys started patrolling it?" I said.

"It's not because of us," said the Guardian Angel with remarkable modesty, considering the amount of adrenaline still in the air. "It's because of the support that the people here give to getting the scum out of their neighborhood."

And when the officers of the block association saw Curtis Sliwa, they insisted he come up to the bandstand and give a speech. Curtis tried to demur. He doesn't speak Spanish, and most of these people don't speak English. But that didn't matter to the crowd. The Guardian Angels had a real poverty program, one that could actually mitigate some of the horrible effects of privation. The people of Mott Haven didn't need to understand Curtis Sliwa's exact words, any more than they needed to understand every aspect of federal social legislation. They could see the results of government policy, and they could see the results of the Guardian Angels. They could tell what works.