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Aging angels

Angels distributing 911 flyers on a Queens street
Ralph Gardner Jr.
Angels distributing 911 flyers

So what was I doing patrolling the soggy forlorn streets of Queens with the Guardian Angels on a Monday night, when even the bars were deserted because the Yankees playoff game had been rained out? I was trying to drum up Substack subscribers, of course.

A few weeks earlier I’d been contacted by Anne Kadet, a former Wall Street Journal colleague, welcoming me to Substack. It’s an online platform that allows writers to make money through paid subscriptions. Anne’s a rising Substack star because of Café Anne, her weekly newsletter about the quirkier aspects of life in New York City.

The journalist had this wild, selfless idea that I join her on patrol with the Guardian Angels. She’d publish her account of our evening on my Substack page and I’d publish mine on hers. I say selfless because Anne has well over four thousand subscribers while I, at last count, had a mere seven.

I was frankly less interested in the Guardian Angels, a volunteer crime fighting organization whose heyday was back in the 1980’s along with padded shoulder power suits and legwarmers, than I was in getting tips from Anne about how to grow my Substack presence. At least into the double digits.

Anne suggested we meet at Amazing Grace, a Filipino restaurant under the elevated 7 train’s subway tracks. She was scheduled to rendezvous there with Bruce, the nom de guerre of the Guardian Angel’s Queens patrol leader.

Anne Kadet interviewing The Guardian Angels in a Queens restaurant
Ralph Gardner Jr.
Anne Kadet interviewing The Guardian Angels in a Queens restaurant

The Angels weren’t unfamiliar to me, and not just because they’d long been a fixture on New York City subways and even more so in the media in their jaunty red berets and matching windbreakers. (Their founder, right-wing radio talk show host Curtis Sliwa, is perhaps most famous these days for losing to Democrat Eric Adams in the 2021 mayoral race and for living in a 320-square-foot apartment with his fourth wife and sixteen cats.)

But also because I’d written about the Guardian Angels, and Lisa Evers, Sliwa’s second wife, at the dawn on my career, and also hers. Lisa joined the organization in 1981 and quickly became Curtis’s karate-kicking second-in-command. Back then Lisa, who would go onto various jobs as a fashion model, professional wrestler and hard-working reporter for Fox5 News, portrayed herself as a rough tough street kid.

Coincidentally, I’d met her only a few months earlier at a Park Avenue party. Fresh out of college she was trying to find her footing in the art world. Lisa denied her privileged provenance and the resulting story allowed me to lay flimsy claim to being an investigate journalist.

But nobody remembered that story – it appeared in the long defunct Soho Weekly News -- and I certainly wasn’t going to mention it to Bruce (as in Bruce Lee) who joined Anne and me as we were finishing our barbeque pork skewers with rice.

Anne had interviewed Bruce at Amazing Grace during the pandemic. They’d apparently hit it off; so much so that not only had he invited her on patrol this particular evening but also given her a non de guerre: Sparkle.

We were joined by Guardian Angels C-4 , Krab, Azreal, and Chage. The name means “lethal in kicks” in Korean, I was told, and that Chage, the only female on patrol that evening, had more than earned the title. They all seemed to be coming from work.

When I last wrote about the organization the average recruit was a teenager. Bruce, Krab and C-4 may well have been among them. Bruce, who’s 58, said he joined at sixteen. C-4 started at 14, left and returned recently. He’s now fifty-one. “I had to finish what I started,” he told me. “I didn’t understand maturity.”

There seemed an element of melancholy to the enterprise, the old fire replaced by an impulse towards public service and a desire for relevance. The evening’s assignment wasn’t to fight crime, of which there’s an abundance of it in New York City these days, but to enlist store owners to post leaflets supplied by the Angels.

They instructed citizens to call 911 if they witness a conflict, or someone in the throes of a mental health crisis, or overdosing. Not exactly the stuff of Marvel superhero comics. “We’re not looking for a fight,” explained Krab, a 63-year-old former United Nations public information officer. “We’re looking to stop a fight.”

The group was greeted on Ditmars Boulevard in Astoria – it’s a conservative red enclave that voted for Sliwa in an overwhelmingly blue metropolis -- with appreciation, nostalgia and complaints about the cops. “Are you Guardian Angels?” a passerby asked. “Why don’t you come to East Elmhurst? There was a stabbing. Why do we have cops? The left wing progressive agenda has ruined this country.”

The mission that evening seemed to falter and not just because of the rain. Merchants with little faith in the NYPD were being asked to post flyers to call the police in case of emergency. “It takes them two to three hours to show up,” complained an employee at Alba’s, a pizzeria.

Bruce had a ready answer: a second flyer, a Guardian Angels recruitment poster, with Bruce’s contact information at the bottom. “I need guys,” he told anyone who would listen. “Everyone loves us but they don’t join us.”

By then it had started to rain in earnest so we took shelter under the awning at the Thirsty Koala, an Australian restaurant, and Bruce took stock of his life. The Angels felt a bit like those Japanese soldiers who emerged from the jungle years after World War II ended, believing time had stood still.

Bruce said his children tried to dissuade him from going on patrol because of he suffers from chronic lung disease. He disregarded them. “I don’t want to die in bed,” he told me. “I want to die for a cause.” Sliwa had even purchased him a $3,000 oxygen concentrator, Bruce confided. “He did it out of his own pocket, from the bottom of his heart.”

The rain let up so we retraced our steps along Ditmars Boulevard. “We’re going to call it a night,” Bruce announced. “We end at nine sharp.”

There was one matter of unfinished business. I hadn’t been awarded a non de guerre. I demurred, insisting I hadn’t earned it. I wasn’t being modest. I’d often hung back on the sidewalk while Anne diligently followed the Angels into bars and restaurants.

Bruce agreed with me. But Azreal “the angel of death,” and at 24 the youngest member of the night’s patrol anointed me Marcus Aurelius, after the Roman emperor, for reasons that remain obscure.

Anne and I boarded the train back to Manhattan and I was in bed watching MSNBC by ten. The only problem is that we didn’t encounter any drama. Even with Café Anne’s support, I fear I’m going to have to find another way to gin up Substack subscribers.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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