Curtis "The Rock" Sliwa, the "supreme commander" of the controversial Guardian Angels "safety patrol," is resting in a Sacramento, Calif., hospital after collapsing mid-sentence Thursday during an interview on radio station KGNR.
Dr. Jane Hamersley says Sliwa fainted because of "nervous exhaustion," and experienced flashbacks of an incident that occurred two weeks ago in which Sliwa says he was badly beaten and dumped in the Potomac.
Sliwa has been in California since Sunday to supervise the opening of new Guardian Angels chapters.
"I thought I was in Washington," says Sliwa from his hospital bed in Sacramento. "It took them a half-hour to convince me I wasn't there. I was having flashbacks of that night in D.C. when those dudes were choking me and hitting me. For a while there I thought the doctors were the assailants."
Since the birth of the Guardian Angels 2 1/2 years ago, Sliwa has been the talk of New York City. Mayor Ed Koch couldn't get rid of him and the media can't get enough of him. Muggers fear him. Grandmothers adore him. The Prince of the Subways. Angel of the Streets. In New York, the Rock is the Hard Stuff.
As he leads the Force One Gruardian Angels patrol up 183rd Street and over to the Fordham yroad subway station near his Bronx apartment one afternoon recently, the first of several elderly women stop Sliwa on the sidewalk.
"Dahhhlink," says the woman, pointing to Sliwa's arm. "Why are you in a sling? And you look so pale!"
Sliwa flicks his index finger and the eight Guardian Angels behind him dressed in "colors" -- red berets and official T-shirts -- stop and stand at parade rest.
"It's nothing to worry about," whispers Sliwa.
"But Curtis, dear, what happened?"
The Rock's jaw tightens.
Of the night when Sliwa wound up badly beaten and sitting in the muddy banks of the Potomac, he just shrugs and says, "Put it this way: I had a little accident in Washington."
Or put it this way: The Rock came south and the Rock got chipped.
Moving or still, the picture is everywhere and the same. Sliwa stands glaring straight ahead, arms crossed, surrounded by at least a dozen Angels in full colors. On the platform. In the train.At Bronx headquarters.
In real life, the picture is just as stern. On an afternoon subway ride up to Sliwa's place in the Bronx, the Force One patrol looks in control, the quality every Angel says is top priority. Eight of them in colors. A few hang a string of beads from their berets, a couple wear cheap kung-fu-suits. At every stop they lean out the doors to check the platform and make sure it's all cool. When they're on board, radios tend to click off, a joint gets snuffed. The old ladies smile but the Angels never do.
Call it prejudice born of ignorance if you wish, but these guys look mean and anyone with a working knowledge of "West Side Story" thought the same thing when the publicity started: "Another street gang."
But from the beginning the Angels said they were out to protect innocent people in that River Styx New Yorkers call the subway. Eight to a train, they ride the worst lines and so far claim 144 citizen's arrests of purse snatchers, chain rippers, farebeats. Sometimes they show up in Van Cortlandt Park or on 145th Street, but mostly they ride the trains. The LL to Lavonia Avenue.The 4 to East Harlem. The F into Times Square. Every night it's a tour through the Rotten Apple.
The 26-year-old Sliwa put the Angels together by himself and continues to rule them from his $200-a-month apartment. ("This is not a classic democracy," he says.) Although his captains, lieutenants and infantry are mostly Hispanics and blacks from the toughest neighborhoods in New York, Sliwa is an articulate white, middle-class kid from Brooklyn whose private-school smarts and street-wise wits have made him the star of the boroughs.
In another era he might have been a ward healer, maybe another Serpico. He's a natural actor of the Cool School -- James Dean with a cause. The dark eyes peering out from under the jaunty beret, the sleek torso. No doubt about it, Sliwa's got star quality and he's been on the air with them all: Snyder, Susskind, Koppel, Hartman. His picture has appeared in Japan, Australia, South America and "probably every country in Europe." The jury is still out -- kids and old ladies ask for his autograph while police officials compare his brand of charismatic leadership to Hitler's -- but everyone in New York knows Curtis Sliwa and spells his name right.
When Sliwa began training groups in Los Angeles in February and dispatched national coordinator Lisa Evers and 11 Angels to Atlanta in March to investigate the murders of black children there, the Angels went na;tional. Now Sliwa claims chapters in cities including Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Newark, and is training recruits in the martial arts and in cardiopulmonary resuscitation in Baltimore, Chicago and San Francisco -- 1,388 Angels in 22 cities.
The evidence of Sliwa's unsuccessful attempt to establish the Guardian Angels in Washington two weeks ago is obvious as he sits in his bedroom office, answering phone calls from confused patrol leaders, distressed crime victims and, always, the press. His right arm hangs limp in a pale blue sling; his left arm is covered with tiny, circular burns. A neck brace is on the unmade bed.
Sliwa, who usually looks so fierce is a little sallow and tired. He strokes his neck and begins to talk, quietly at first, without the usual bravado he's used so often on the 6 o'clock news. "My neck is killing me from that night in Washington. I'll tell you the story."
Sliwa was in twon for a meeting with Police Chief Maurice Turner to "try and set things up and clear things up about having the Angels come to D.C.
"I got a bad reception in Washington. It was an attitude of total defiance, even to the point where Maurice Turner was so asinine as to think we'd send New Yorkers in on the shutle every night to patrol Washington," says Sliwa. "But when I was on the street, 14th Street, there were a lot of people who came out and said, 'Hey, we need this bad.' Even the dudes comin' out of the bar half-gassed said the same thing."
Sliwa's trip was well covered on television, but he says he wanted to "go to 14th Street at night, without the cameras, without the reporters and check things out.
"The thing I remember most about 14th Street was that the main drag looked like S--- City, U.S.A. but all around it are these rehab brownstones. So I'm marveling at this and all the prosties. Anyway it gets around 1:30 in the morning and I'm ready to go back to where I'm staying on the Metro but I realize this isn't New York. The Metro's closed and all I have is $4 in my pocket, not enough for a cab."
Sliwa then says he was making his way toward the Lincoln Memorial when suddenly a van pulled up, stopped, and "four dudes all of them with pieces" slammed him up against a wall, identified themselves as police officers, read him his rights and dragged him to the van handcuffed.
"All four of them were white, I'd say in their thirties, and if you ask my opinion, they looked like DTs [detectives], cops," says Sliwa, demonstrating how his arm was twisted behind him. "They put me face down on the plywood floor of the van. This Chuck Norris-type dude puts me in a headlock, almost a sleeper hold around my neck. I figured my a-- was grass at that point so I tried to relax."
Sliwa says the men accused him of assaulting a woman in a parking lot behind the Capitol and began to taunt him. "They were sayin', 'I saw you on TV. You talk a lot of s---. You think you're pretty tough.' In the meantime, the Chuck Norris guy's playing 'Enter the Dragon' with my head."
According to Sliwa, the men poked his arm "8 or 12 times" with an electric cattle prod. "Then one of them takes out a pistol, what looks like a .38 special, like what police use. He shows me the empty chamber, then puts in one bullet and says, 'I would love it if this bullet smashed up your skull.' He showed it to me 10 or 12 times like he was Monte Hall or something.
"Finally they stopped, uncuffed me, took off my shoes and socks and they tied my feet up with my Guardian Angel shirt and my hands with my tie. They stopped the van and I could see water. I was like a sack of flour and they heaved me in the water. Right away I could feel the mud so I knew I was in shallow water. They laughed at me, threw a coupla beer cans at me and then took off."
Police found Sliwa early in the morning near the Lincoln Memorial and brought him to George Washington University Hospital where doctors not only treated his arms and neck but also tested him for possible drug consumption. "That really p----d me off most of all," says Sliwa.
U.S. Park Police are investigating the case, but Maj. Larry Finks says, "At this point we have no basis to believe police were involved. We have no suspects." Det. Ronald Schmidt of the Park Police has been working on the case and says, "We're conducting an investigation. What [Sliwa] stated to the press about being abducted was what he told us."
As a result of the incident, Sliwa missed his meeting with Turner, and attempts to reschedule it fell through. Still, Sliwa says the Guardian Angels will begin training sessions in Washington before Labor Day. "We'll get it together there, but we wouldn't be on the Metro," he says. "The crime there is on places like 14th Street and U Street, not the subway."
This is not the first time Sliwa has accused the police of harrassing him.
In October 1980, he claims he was abducted by three nonuniformed police officers who drove him to Jones Beach on Long Island where they read him "the riot act," demanding Sliwa disband the Guardian Angels or "get hurt." "They told me, 'The next time you take a ride with us, the only way you'll leave this car is if we carry you out, and if you do take another ride, it'll be to the morgue,'" says Sliwa.
In February 1981, Sliwa claims New York undercover detectives baited a patrol of Guardian Angels into a subway brawl and then arrested them for rioting. The charges against the Angels were dropped by a grand jury.
William McKechnie, transit division president of the New York Patrolmen's Benevolent Association (PBA) says he thinks Sliwa is "lying" about the two New York incidents and doubts that police were responsible for the Washington incident.
Ever since Sliwa began patroling the subway, three to a train, under the name "The Magnificent 13," Koch and police brass have not had kinds words for the Guardian Angels.
"The whole concept borders on vigilantism," says McKechnie. "One of my serious concerns has been the background of these individuals. I know for a fact that individuals who claims to be Guardian Angels have had previous arrests." Since May 29, an agreement signed by Koch and Sliwa calls for every Angel to wear an ID card signifying that the wearer is over 16 and has a clean police record.
For PBA president Phil Caruso, that's not enough. "It's a PR gimmick," he says. "It's false and misleading. What does it say? Why don't we get rid of the police and just give everybody a red beret, teach them karate and set them out on the streets?
"Mr. Sliwa is a publicity seeker and he does a good job of it," says Caruso. "When you start putting authority in an undisciplined group, it's not only vigilantism, it reeks of Gestapoism . . . Mr. Sliwa dictates who will be an Angel and Mr. Sliwa dictates where they will work. It'tes It's preposterous. I'd say to Washington, if they have problems with crime, hire more police and forget about cosmetics and the Angels. Period. It's a false economy."
And in the air-conditioned offices of the PBA, transit vice president Dennis Ahern questions Sliwa's motives: "He's showboating. Where's he going? What's he angling for?"
Sliwa has equally harsh words for the police. After answering a phone call from an old woman who asks him to do something about a few "hoodlums around the corner," he says, "The police here can't do what they used to do. So sometimes they say, 'Here, why don't you call Superstar Sliwa. See what he can do.' It's typical. The cops, all they are now are just two people in a patrol car with the windows rolled up and the air conditioning on. They're like aliens in the neighborhoods."
As for his own ambitions, Sliwa says, "Sure. If I put my mind to it, I could do anything. If I wanted to make money, I'd make pots. If I wanted it, there's not a political office I couldn't win. But I'm not interested. Sure, I've got the ability to rap, the ability to argue, maybe even the ability to chop your n--- off, but we also have the idea whose time has come. It's inevitable."
The walls of Sliwa's apartment are covered with press clippings as well as spray-painted Ku Klux Klan graffiti courtesy of a group of vandals that Sliwa says broke in six months ago. The place is run down, hardly the typical home of a media star. In the past few years an increasing number of muggers and drug addicts has moved into the deteriorating Fordham Road neighborhood. The gutters outside Sliwa's apartment are filled with trash, the hydrants are empty shells.
The Angels milling around the apartment are talking about their lives as Angels. John Speilberger, a pimply-faced student at Hunter College, says, "Someone's gotta stand up. I'd rather die than watch some of this stuff go on. A lotta people say we must be crazy, what if they got a gun. But I say there's got to be a point. "
Their man, The Rock, is the leader they never had. "Rock is to us like what the president is to the army," says R. "Train" Miller, who wears a black kung-fu outfit along with the colors.
Sometimes Sliwa denies it, but without him there would be no Guardian Angels. He is at the center and in control.
And he takes phone call after phone call from patrol leaders in New York and chapter leaders in other cities, he soothes, inspires, prods. Orleans. He says it's goin' real smooth. They've got 47 guys training . . .
Crack the whip, Brown! Kick a--! Are you ready to roll? All right, Blood! All right! . . .
And what about that reservation in Gallup, New Mexico? Do the Indians want a patrol? It's a whole new ball game out there. It's federal territory . . .
Take a spin in the park. There's a rock concert there. Make sure they don't kill each other. Oh, and are you going to tht funeral? Call me from there. Make sure the Angels pay their respects . . .
Sliwa never hesitates. A Hispanic man arrives with a bunch of photographs in his hand. His father is missing in Newark. Can Sliwa help?
Sliwa leans forward in his chair. "If he's Hispanic, he'll stick out in Newark. It's all blacks there," he says. No hesitation. Even if the answer is wrong.
A preppy-looking kid from Bates College shows up wanting to join a patrol. He has a summer job with Merrill Lynch. "I like finance a lot," he says. "But I'm not really set." A real gee-whiz number. Sliwa could easily laugh him all the way back to L.L. Bean, but he takes the kid seriously and sends him off him with a word of encouragement.
"The Rock takes care of business," says one of the
Ever since his appearance on "Romper Room" at the age of 6, Sliwa has had the knack.The gift, As a high school student, he won awards for single-handedly collecting five tons of recyclable paper in Canarsie, for running into a blazing house to save six people and for being one of the nation's top newsboys -- for that he got to shake hands with Richard Nixon. As a senior at now-defunct Brooklyn Prep, Sliwa was president of the student body. He says he won scholarships from Brown, Princeton and Harvard, but blew his chance at the Ivy League only weeks before graduation when he was thrown out of school for pressing the principal too hard on the dress code.
After his father demanded he either go back to school or get a job, Sliwa ended up working nights at a McDonald's in the Bronx and commuting home to Brooklyn.
"That's when I developed on the comcept ," he says. "I used to take the train home to Far Rockaway. At 3 or 4 in the morning, people'd try to sniff me out but I was too slick. I'd physically intimidate them right back. sBut it was my contentio that no one should have to feel inhibited from riding on the train."
So Sliwa and Don Chin -- a 6-foot-2, 240-pound friend from McDonald's -- got together. To work on the concept .
"I would sit in one end of the train wearing a gold watch, a three-piece suit, holding a $300 cassette radio," says Sliwa, leaning back in a folding chair, warming to the story. "I played the wimp. Don ws on the other end, dressed in leather M.C. boots, bandannas.
"We were connected by a doctor's beeping system. I'd wait for someone to come up to me, and if they started hitting me or trying to rip me off, 'beep, 'beep,' I'd signal Don. He'd come charging in from the other end of the train. Meanwhile I'd throw a few side kicks and we'd stomp 'em. Then we'd call the transit cops and place them under a citizen's arrest. The first time it happened, the cop said, 'There's no way I'm handling this.' The police were not prepared to deal with this."
Sliwa says he and Chin kept this up for nearly a year, slamming more than 100 would-be muggers -- and all the while he was reading Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Abbie Hoffman. "Finally, I felt it was defeating the purpose," says Sliwa. "The public didn't know who we were and the police were beginning to harass us. But we still had to set something up." Out of all this, Sliwa arrived at the basic Guardian Angels idea -- no weapons, citizen's arrests, travel in groups. "Don thought it was crazy. Kamikaze."
Chin ducked out but Sliwa didn't and, after a brief incarnation as the Magnificent 13, the Guardian Angels grew wings.
On Saturday night, the Angels come out full force, riding the trains until 3 or 4 in the morning. When they board a train, someone might say hello or thanks, a kid might even spit at them -- it happens, but the Angels don't go for the bait.
It's been a quiet night for the ywing Chung patrol. Ed "Fist" Morales, an "arts" expert (the Angels call the martial arts the "arts") and a member of a special "combat" force made up of ex-servicemen, says, "I wish every Saturday night was like this one."
A few of the Angels come across a derelict, stretched out on his seat, drunk and asleep. They wake him. As the man starts to sit up, his dentures fall out of his mouth, skittering along the sticky, grimy floor. No one notices for a few minutes. The man discovers his gold chain is missing and he accuses the Angels of stealing it. They didn't.
Finally the man sees his teeth on the floor, picks them up and pops them back in his mouth. Morales looks sick and the old man starts walking down the car, stumbling from side to side.
"Jesus," mutters Morales.
An old man dressed like Uncle Sam comes by. He's carrying a sign that claims he has written a new national anthem to be sung to the tune of a "Hungarian Suicide Love Song." But the Angels don't laugh. They see him all the time.
All night, Sliwa has been directing traffic on the phone as he does most weekends. The rest of the week he is out of town -- as he was this week in California. One week he's in Houston meeting with city officials, the next in Chicago hashing it out with Mayor Jane Byrne, or in Washington getting chipped.
Under a large wooden cross, Sliwa talks about his fame.
"People are constantly looking for the ulterior motive," he says. "They say I've gotta be racking it up with books, movies, like I'm the second coming of Art Linkletter.
"Sure, I'm guilty of taking the media attention whereever it is because I have a story. We have people calling every day wanting us to do things. All kinds of stuff. Endorse this, endorse that. Angel guard systems. Angel underwear. Walt Disney. Books. Lectures. But we don't do it."
He has a lawyer and his mother, Frances, does the public-relations work, but the only real money the Guardian Angels have come into was a $10,000 contract for a TV movie called "Fighting Back" -- Sliwa thought it was so bad he tried unsuccessfully to sue the production company for $10 million. He says most of the Angels are either in school or working. The group and Sliwa get by with private donations.
Sliwa takes great pains to remain anti-trendy. He'd rather not end up munching the Roquefort cheese balls at the latest incarnation of radical chic.
"I get invitations left and right," he says. "Come to this banquet, come to this disco, come to that premiere. I just can't do it. If you start reading about us on the society pages, unless its for a fund-raiser, we're finished."
At the 59th Street Station under Bloomingdale's, a few patrols of Angels are waiting around for an 11 p.m. rendezvous with Sliwa. At least a half-dozen older people congratulate and thank the Angels. Routine.
In the meantime, a few Angels are listening to officer Sal Conti criticize the Angels: "I don't buy the whole idea. I'd rather see people get their gratification through normal routes, through school, through their jobs. This is macho stuff, the red berets, the kung fu, the beads. It's glandular gratification."
A passer-by shouts that someone's been shot on the subway downstairs. Conti races down the long broken escalator and with the help of his partner drags a bloated man from the Lexington Avenue Local. He's not shot, just drunk or stoned. Conti makes sure he is breathing and somehow manages to get him to his feet. As he drags the man off, Conti makes sure he is breathing and somehow manages to get him to his feet. As he drags the man off, Conti looks over his shoulder at the dozen kids in red berets, and shouts, "You want Guardian Angels to do this kind of stuff?"
A few Angels mutter in protest, but there is no single, clear voice to respond to Conti. It's getting near midnight, and everyone's waiting for the Rock.
Now in New York, the Angels are still waiting.
At KGNR in Sacramento, Sliwa showed signs of exhaustion. News editor Mark Alexander says the afternoon talk show was nearly finished when Sliwa's head hit the desk. "The host, Jane Popp, asked Curtis a question and he didn't answer," says Alexander. "She asked him, 'Are you okay?' He didn't say anthing, and she said, 'No, I guess you're not,' and you could hear him collapse to the floor. He just passed out."
Former girlfriend Donna Kelly says Sliwa is known as "The Rock" for his ability to work "nonstop" while "living on pizza." "He's been at it all the time, but I think he's finally going to have to take a rest."