Related topics

Sliwa Forever a Guardian Angel

May 16, 1999 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ It sits balanced perfectly atop his head, as it has for two decades: tilted slightly to the right, twin black braids dangling down the back. At 45, Curtis Sliwa still can’t get out from under it:

His red beret.

The signature hat on the middle-aged head of the Guardian Angels founder conjures an odd vision. It’s like ... well ... it sort of resembles ...

``The Lollipop Kids?″ Sliwa inquires with a self-deprecating laugh, the ``Wizard of Oz″ reference dropped in an accent so thick he could serve as the official spokesman for Brooklynese.

ADVERTISEMENT

Sliwa has gone through 10 berets in the 20 years since he created the Bronx-born crime-fighting group. The group has since relocated; these days, their seedy headquarters sits on Manhattan’s West Side: The Angels in Hell’s Kitchen.

Sliwa, in a red satin jacket to match his beret, is reflecting on his life as ``Angel One,″ sitting at a small table one block west of Times Square. Want proof that times have changed? One of his Angels is discussing a child-care problem with Sliwa.

There’s a little less hair beneath Sliwa’s beret. That’s understandable: He has had a strange run since self-promoting his way to national prominence.

There were two failed marriages, an attempt on his life, a British soccer hooligan using his face as a dartboard. There was an unlikely radio career (complete with one firing), an admission that he staged several crimes (including his own kidnapping) for publicity, talk of a possible political career (Councilman Sliwa, anyone?).

The only constant is the Angels, conceived during the Carter Administration, back when Mayor Edward I. Koch was barely a month into office and The Knack’s ``My Sharona″ was the year’s best-selling single.

``People thought we would be a fad, a trend,″ Sliwa says. ``They thought we would go the way of trendy things from the ’70s″ _ disco, Whip Inflation Now buttons, Huckapoo shirts.

They were wrong. Sliwa and Co. endured and expanded; they now claim chapters in 20 U.S. cities and five other countries, with an estimated 4,000 members. There are the Urban Angels, Junior Angels for preteens, the Cyber Angels patrolling the Internet.

Critics called them vigilantes, popping up five years after ``Death Wish″ and five years before Bernie Goetz, a Sliwa pal in the days after his infamous 1984 subway shooting.

ADVERTISEMENT

But unlike Goetz and Charles Bronson’s vengeful character, Sliwa has never carried a gun. ``I don’t like weapons,″ he explains.

The critics? Sliwa has outlasted most of them. At the Angels’ 20th anniversary dinner, the dignitaries included Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and TV’s Judge Judy Sheindlin.

``Twenty years ago, if I had tried to walk into City Hall, they would have had me arrested,″ Sliwa says.

Radical lawyer Ron Kuby, who won a $43 million judgment against Goetz for a black teen paralyzed in the shooting, believes the Angels have evolved _ from Neanderthals to more enlightened beings.

``We despised the Guardian Angels when they first came,″ Kuby recalls. ``We grew to loathe them when they supported Bernie Goetz and other right-wing nut jobs.

``And in recent years, I grew to like them as I watched the real, unpublicized work that Curtis Sliwa does with young people.″

Unpublicized _ that’s a new trick for Sliwa, who pleads guilty to the criticism that he’s a little too media-crazy.

After he staged his own abduction in 1980, an official noted drily that Angel One knew by heart the phone numbers of every newspaper, radio and television station, reporter and editor in the city.

He was right, Sliwa says. ``It gets to be an addiction. And then you begin to abuse it.″

Sliwa now treats his publicity jones with a nightly local radio show, working with unlikely sidekick Kuby. Sliwa, a self-described ``populist and Catholic who values family life and law and order,″ plays right-wing foil to Kuby’s leftist lawyer.

Given his accent and admitted inclination to ``botulize the English language,″ the radio gig was surprising. But the nightly ``Curtis and Kuby″ show was New York’s No. 1-rated AM show in its time this winter.

With his ever-present cellular phone nearby, Sliwa still spends plenty of time in the Angels’ headquarters. Its walls are filled with awards and press clippings; an American flag hangs in the front window.

The downstairs door, with a smashed lower window pane behind a steel gate, has this simple message: ``Join Us Today.″ The shattered Plexiglas abuts the entrance of one of the neighborhood’s last surviving porn shops.

It’s a place where Sliwa, son of a merchant seaman, feels comfortable. He is a child of the outer boroughs, born in the Bronx and raised in Brooklyn, far from the glitz and glamor of Manhattan. His dad was Italian, his mother of Polish descent.

Sliwa never finished high school and wound up managing a McDonald’s in the Bronx, a frightening franchise where customers often enjoyed heroin or a hooker with their Happy Meals.

His destiny changed when he decided to personally take on subway crime. He bought 13 red berets at an Army-Navy store, and he and a dozen McDonald’s workers became the ``Magnificent 13 Subway Safety Patrol,″ and later ``The Guardian Angels.″

Initially, the Angels rode the No. 4 train through the Bronx, and the cops rode the Angels _ hard. Police viewed them as interlopers, often arresting them.

But Sliwa’s campaign took off when subway crime did the same. In the summer of 1980, subway crime was up 70 percent from a year prior _ front-page news in New York. That year, Sliwa sent between 200 and 350 of his soldiers into the city’s subway system each day.

To boost the group’s profile, and of course his own, Sliwa pulled the kidnapping hoax and filed five other phony police reports. Only a dozen years later did he admit the police reports were publicity stunts.

His admission followed the very real crime that nearly killed him. In June 1992, Sliwa was shot three times in an ambush on the Lower East Side. and underwent five hours of surgery.

He insists the shooting was the work of Gambino family associates upset by his nasty cracks about mob boss John Gotti, but no arrests were ever made. He says the experience changed his view of life.

``At the time, I was flying high and thought I was invincible,″ Sliwa recalls. ``After, you realize you are no longer the same person. You realize, `Gee, I’m a lucky son of a gun.‴

The luck didn’t last. Second wife Lisa divorced him in 1994, and the estranged couple’s morning radio show was canceled after a three-year run. Sliwa spent a brief, uncomfortable period on a city-owned radio station. He was slipping off New York’s radar screen.

But he returned to WABC-AM radio, on the 2 to 5 a.m. shift. Slowly, he worked his way back into prime time. In October, Sliwa will take his third ride on the marriage-go-round. ``I’m hoping to do better in that area,″ he says, knocking wood on the table.

Without his beret and Angels T-shirt, Sliwa says, ``nobody knows who I am.″ And while he has a sense of humor about the omnipresent hat, he’s proud of the look: ``I think we created a very strong symbol. It’s almost like when you wear the Red Cross symbol.″

Sliwa says he intends to wear the beret for many years to come.

``You think Guardian Angels,″ he says, ``you still think Curtis Sliwa.″