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standing tallby Ernie Koy, JrIt’s a question that will face nearly every reporter if they hang around this dirty racket long enough: how do you write about a Legend? Especially when you go back like we do— way back, to the basketball & handball courts, the pizza parlors & lechoneras, the ominous stairwells & bachata blasting nights of our native land, the Bronx. Meet Christopher J. Sullivan, pure Bronx Irish out of Kingsbridge; meet Ernie Koy, Jr., a wayward Filipino octaroon originally from Hoe Avenue, filing this from the Morrisania Branch of the New York Public Library: East 169th Street, shalom! People often ask why Tha’ Boogie Down doesn’t have its own library system, like the Brooklyn & the Queens do? The Sullivan knows but he ain’t saying; the Koy knows also but there’s three people waiting to get on this terminal, so I better speed things up. Librarians in the Bronx ain’t playin’, damn.

Hunt’s Point StompMost of us on the other side of this life— the other side of the Broadway, the 145th Street, the 3rd Avenue & the Willis Avenue bridges too— had seen it since the late 1970s: white boy has style. It wasn’t until the 1990s however, when Sullivan began to write for New York Press, that the rest of the city figured it out. While much credit goes to Sullivan’s editor, John Strausbaugh, for recognizing the still somewhat raw talent, it was C.J.’s own hustle & diligence that made “Bronx Stroll” among the most important newspaper columns of its era.

While Sullivan’s politics were always somewhat ambiguous— like Walter Matthau in Charley Varrick, C.J. could be rightfully be called the Last of the Independents— the simple fact that he was hitting the Bronx hard & writing about both its glory & its darkness was a radical act. Check the magazines, check the newspapers, check the blogs: Tom Robbins of the Village Voice, Gary Axelbank of BronxTalk & a few others excepted, yeah, the great fake “liberal” media of New York City is falling all over itself to report from  Tha’ Boogie Down, so who could possibly care if Sullivan is— ooooh, ‘politically correct’? Your mom loves him, my mom & mami as well: that’s what matters in the streets; the rest is pure jealousy.

wild man, wildAlthough his association with New York Press sputtered to an end a couple years ago, Sullivan today is more active than ever. He’s contributed stories to the Brooklyn Noir series; compiled  the boggling 1001 Greatest Things Ever Said About New York collection; wrote the epic Bronx-essay for New York Calling & is a widely admired part-time crime reporter for the New York Post. (Sullivan’s day job is at Kings County Supreme Court.) Most recently, Sullivan is the author of Wild Tales From The Police Blotter, a brilliant, often funny, sometimes poignant survey of all the things criminals get caught doing & occasionally get away with too. A few knuckleheads have complained Wild Tales is “episodic” but that seems to me way more like an accurate observation than a criticism. If they mean to say Wild Tales stands with the finest episodes of The Honeymooners, The Untouchables, F-Troop, The Odd Couple, McLoud, KojakKolchak The Night Stalker, Barney MillerTaxi & The Rockford Files as examples of irreducible American Genius, then alright.

Seated on a bench in St Mary’s Park in Mott Haven one late summer afternoon, Brian Berger & C.J. Sullivan, sweating profusely,  spoke of many things. Paul Newman wasn’t dead yet but they goof on Fort Apache anyway: Respect the X.

Brian Berger: Before we walk over to the schoolyard on Brook Ave & I take you in handball, let’s talk about Kingsbridge, where Young Sullivan, son of two generations of firefighters, first got his Irish up, as they say.

C.J. Sullivan: My grandmother came to New York in 1908 when she was 24, as did her husband did around the tag thissame time so that side of the family kept the Irish spirit alive in the family.The Sullivans were a more roustabout crew and their adventures are lost to time. What is and was great about my family is that they never bragged. My Dad— as was his dad as was his dad— were all FDNY and they never walked around like they were saints. They put out fires and saved lives as their daily course of business.

Brian: Did you go to public school or Catholic school & what was that like?

C.J.: I went to all Catholic schools and got a great eductaion. I was introduced to Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

Brian: Interesting. How old were you when you started to explore the Bronx & the city on your own, & did you have notable thrills or misadventures?

C.J.: From the time my feet hit the sidewalks I was out and about. I was riding subways by myself at ten. There were plenty of wars we got into on the subways with other packs of young hoodlums. New York had quite a lot of tough white ethnics back then and it was a more dangerous city.

south south bronxBrian: Right, right— Style Wars, dude. Speaking of which, you’re coming up in the Bronx right along with the flowering of subway graffiti, which could be great or an awful mess. Did you know any writers personally or have an interest yourself in graffiti? I get the idea were aware of things but more of a sports & streets guy.

C.J.: Yeah I wasn’t down with the whole grafitti thing. I knew lots of guys that tagged but it always felt destructive to me. My safe ticket in the Bronx was playing basketball. That kept me out of trouble— for the most part. The city was a blight back then and grafitti just made it look worse.

Brian: What were soem of your favorite parks growing up? Did you or friends ever sneak onto the High Bridge? Crotona never scared me man, tho’ I can understand why others might be shook.

C.J.: I grew up in a neighborhood [Kingsbridge] without parks so we would sneak onto the Fordham campus. Later I came to love Orchard Beach— still do.

real power is sheepleBrian: What sports did you follow? We’ll talk about this more later but, while I fucking despise everything about the Yankees organization and their politics— including Rudy Giuliani, Randy Levine, Mayor Bloomberg & every cheap whore on  the City Council who voted for the new stadium deal (see Neil deMause at Field of Schemes for more)— as a New Yorker, you can’t kill that ‘70s & early ‘80s era, both on the field & off, &  in the broadcast booth, with Bill White, Frank Messer & Phil Rizzuto on the mic.

C.J.: I was a Mets fan in the Bronx but I didn’t hate the Yankees. Listening to Phil Rizutto while smoking pot was some of the funniest TV I ever heard. I think the only teams that are automatic are the Knicks and the Rangers. I am not a hockey guy but I love the Rangers.

Brian: Are you old enough to remember the ‘72-‘73 Knicks and tell us some of your favorite basketball players? I gotta give it up for Bernard King, out of Fort Hamilton High, who was the first awesome player I was old enough to appreciate.

C.J.: I loved Clyde but yes, Bernard King was my man. I tried to mimic his quick release on a jump shot.

Brian: Back on the streets, did you ever feel scared in the ’70s or was it just how things were and, if you were street smart, hopefully you stayed out of trouble? Did you parents feel things had gotten worse in their years in the Bronx?

cypressC.J.: You would be crazy not to be scared. I have found dead bodies, have had guns pulled on me but fear never froze me. I knew that the Bronx was like an ocean and I had to be a shark and keep moving. I have never been mugged but they tried. I teach my kids to “walk like you are going somewhere” and you will get by.

Brian: In New York Calling, you told that story of running into Grandmaster Flash early when you worked for the Parks Dept. What concerts did you go to in the ’70s & ’80s, were you ever into punk music, or at least the Ramones?

C.J.: I loved the Ramones saw them countless times. I never did the punk trip but I liked the music.

boogie ballBrian: Did you go to the Times Square of kung fu movies, peep shows and discount stores &, if so, any fond memories? Not knowing what it had been two decades earlier, I have to admit I found Times Square of the 1980s great, although you did have to watch your back. Were you aware of the Westies at the time they still ruled Hell’s Kitchen?

C.J.: I stayed out of that part of Manhattan. I had enough trouble dealing with the Bronx. I knew the Westies were down there – knew some of their cousins but I wanted no part of criminals— a motto I keep to this day.

Brian: You don’t have to get into details but I think it’s fair to say you were familiar with most aspects of NYC street life of the ‘70s & ‘80s. Crack was something else again, however, even worse, in some ways, than heroin had been. When did you first see/think that things were a little out of hand?

C.J.: Crack hit just when it looked like things were getting better. I saw heroin ruin my neighborhood but I saw crack ruin a city. It was terrible and I hope it has gone away.

puerto rican goldBrian: Unless you live in Riverdale & hide from the rest of the Bronx, it’s impossible to not recognize the Boogie Down as The Spanish or Latino Bronx; not completely, & the immigration has gotten more diverse but we have to start with the BX as El Barrio. What similarities, & what differences did you see as Irish-Am? You’ve noted— accurately, I think— that some Catholics (Irish, Spanish) got along pretty well in some ways. What about the Italians? Did you know many Jews or had most of them left already?

C.J.: Everyone was pretty cool in the Bronx. We had some Jewish guys and they were down like everyone else. The Bronx didn’t have that bad racist vibe other boroughs had. We did not have brotherly love but we weren’t out to kill each other.

Brian: What sorta things did Young Sullivan like to read, newspapers or books, both? It’s a different era, of course, but I don’t think anyone would say any New York paper is better, or more fun, today than they were in the ‘70s & ‘80s. I know we’re both great admirers of Jimmy Breslin.

C.J.: Breslin was the best. His Son of Sam stuff will never be equaled. We read the Daily News, back then it was a great paper.

Brian: While there are good reporters at all the papers, it seems many of them are hamstrung by their editors. The one exception to that seemed the old New York Press, which was like a twenty ring circus of acrobats, lion tamers, freaks, strong men, tattooed ladies, etc. It wasn’t all great but they definitely let people flourish, it seems, if they had the gumption to do strong work. How did you get involved with writing there? What happened after Strazz got fired? You hung on longer than I expected.

C.J.: That was a great paper. After Strausbaugh got canned there were a few editors— Jeff Koyen, Harry Siegel— that kept it alive but the owners down sized it and just cut the heart out of it. Yes, incredibly I stayed on longer than I thought.

exercises in handstyleBrian: Before we knew each other, I was an admirer of “The Bronx Stroll” column; at the time, I’d not spent a lot of time there— a few Yankees games as a kid and an Aunt who lived in High Bridge; I remember one of her sons, my cousin, who then worked as a cabbie had a few of the old Yankee stadium out on the fire escape. Later, however, when I was working in Mott Haven, I realized you had the place wired. How did you get started with the column?

C.J.: John Strausbaugh came up with the idea. The first one I did was on a mural of Big Pun and how a year fater his death no one had defaced it. It was great fun looking back on the Bronx and then taking it into modern times. I did one on how the Bronx was once home to 600,000 Jews and now it is like 30,000 and what happened to all the old synagogues.

Brian: During the short lived New York Sports Express, mostly edited by Spike Vrusho, you wrote about the Giants but I know you were a big hoops guy. I used to love the Knicks, especially listening to Walt Frazier, but once they became crazy dysfunctional— horrible third quarters, Charlie Ward & Allan Houston thinking the Creator gives a fuck whether they draw the foul or hit the three, etc— towards the end of Jeff Van Gundy’s time I gave up. Friends thought I was overreacting but clearly I was prescient.

C.J.: The Knicks have been mired in a malaise that they cant seem to get out of. It is killing basketball in New York.

cafe con lechon!Brian: With baseball, whereas the Yankees maltreated the city for decades with hollow threats & thinly-veiled racism, the Mets only got on board recently, after the NYC 2012 & West Side stadium fiascos turned Bloomberg a feckless bat boy. Personally, I can’t disassociate the business from the game, so fuck ‘em. I’ll watch cricket in Marine Park, handball at Coney, the horses out at  Aqueduct or, better yet, I’ll go to Rockaway— let these other schmoes come see me. How do you maintain your enthusiasm for the game, C.J.?

C.J.: I am slowly starting to lose it. Go Cyclones!

Brian: Your new book is Wild Tales From the Police Blotter, following a collection you compiled, 1001 … . Indeed– I know you’ve followed this a long time, and our mutual friend Jim Knipfel is a big blotter aficionado too. What were some of the discoveries you made during the research for this book?

C.J.: That sometimes crime does indeed pay but fot the most part it is carried out by sad and stupid people.

Brian: A lot of recent Brooklynites and New Yorkers have never heard of Ricky Pickett. Tell us about that story and why you think it’s significant. While violent crime has decreased, things are still pretty rough out there but the real estate shills don’t want people to know that.

C.J.: Ricky Pickett was a black thug gunned down on a subway after trying to mug the wrong white guy. The white guy got away and no one cared— black, white, Latino—  that this punk ass thug Ricky Pickett was dead. New York knew they got rid of a bad one and when that happened I knew this city was getting sick of crime.

gobble gobble heyBrian: Kids especially seem to love the chapter about cops and animals & I know, like the Wu Tang Clan, C.J. Sullivan is for the children. Have you had any animal “conflicts” yourself in New York? I remember the packs of Gowanus dogs that used to roam South Brooklyn & got stung by jellyfish at Rockaway a few weeks ago but otherwise, most of my animal stories are out of the city, with the wild turkeys of Staten Island being an exception.

C.J.: I once did a story in the Bronx Stroll on the wild dog packs of the Bronx. I got chased by them once— dangerous buggers.

Brian: You mention meeting Mike Tyson, at your day job at Kings County Supreme Court. I like the Champ, tho’ obviously he’s had some ups & downs. Have you met anyone else of note at work and what was the story? I know you mention being on the job during the tense days of large public protests, such as followed the murder of Yusuf Hawkins in 1989. Brother Al Shaprton was there, of course, & while sometimes runs a good line of bullshit, other times… I’m not so sure.

C.J.: Sharpton, off the record, is one funny guy.

keep runnin’ homieBrian: Understandably, there are quite a few mafia Wild Tales. I think, however, that the power of  the old Italian mob, especially recently— is highly exaggerated because it’s Hollywood: Godfather, Sopranos, etc. Even with all these grandstanding prosecutions & everybody wearing a rat jacket no matter how poorly it fits, there is nothing— not a solitary drug, weapon, man, woman, counterfeit whatever— we can’t get on the streets. Yet there seems very little interest in going after the Russians, Albanians, Chinese & others who are allegedly running the game. Not that I’m doing it either but, as a crime reporter, do you think the Italian thing is a little bit overblown by comparison to the world wide nature of Organized Crime?

C.J.: The Italian mob is a niche biz now and the Russians, Chinese, Jamaicans and others are now the bigger fish.

Brian: Wild Tales is largely— & understandably— sympathetic to the police, who are often put in dangerous or no win situations. I think one thing many people don’t understand is how fractious NYPD itself is, & that many good  cops are as dissatisfied with One Police Plaza, aka the Puzzle Palace, as some of the public is. Most of the problems we see can be ascribed to poor supervision, starting at the top, & a bureacracy as soul crushing as anything on the streets.

C.J.: Cops in New York are underpaid and under appreciated. Anyone knocking cops should walk a beat in Brownsville and see how they would react.

Brian: Coming from a FDNY family & often working with NYPD, what do you make of the rivalry between the two services? It usually seemed harmless but the divisions were really bared after 9/11.

C.J.: I side with FDNY on that one.

death ties offBrian: There’s some kind of movement to close the Brooklyn House of Detention on Atlantic Avenue. While there may be idealist critics of the penal system among these people, this strikes me as a ridiculous attempt at social control by delicate people with money. BHOD replaced the infamous Raymond Street Jail & was there l-o-n-g long before most of these people bought their condos or spent a million even two million plus on their precious so-called “Boerum Hill” brownstone or rowhouse. I’m still waiting to hear how many escapes there have been from BHOD, like it’s a real public safety issue— The Defiant Ones, please. There’s nothing to complain about unless you just prefer to keep the reality of city life, i.e. crime & justice, away from gilded eyes. The prison needs to be somewhere &— hello— being near the courts makes some sense.  Any thoughts on this?

C.J.: White people in this city now are a bunch of ‘fraidy cats. They move here and then think they are down with New York.

Brian: What are your favorite Bronx movies? For ridiculousness, it’s hard to beat Fort Apache: The Bronx: no wonder Danny Ailello got his pizza joint torched in Do The Right Thing, tho’ I must say Bronx-native Rachel Ticotin was pretty damn hot, especially for a junkie nurse. Beat Street is probably my fave Bronx flick however.

C.J.: Best Bronx movies: Marty & Carlito’s Way. Even though it is not the Bronx it could have been, Raging Bull; Jake Lamotta’s ring tag was “The Bronx Bull.”

Brian: Anyone spends time in the ‘hood is going to have some, ah, confrontations at some point. Do you ever get people jawing at you as the white boy & how do you react? You’re a fairly large man, physically, so that’s likely in your favor.

peddlin’ the truthC.J.: I just laugh. I get called White Motherfucker but the punks usually say it walking away. I find if you deal with people straight up, look them in the eye, have no fear you will get respect.

Brian: You’ve lived in all the boroughs except Staten, & I know you’ve been there plenty. Any thoughts on character of the different boroughs? Which is most prideful? I rep Brooklyn to the fullest but I have to admit, in recent years, there’s a lot of superficial BK boosterism that’s an insipid imitation the worst parts of clueless Manhattan provincialism.

C.J.: Brooklyn is by far the most boastful. The Bronx is sad to me now. Queens offers hope to strivers and Manhattan is a rich kid’s playpen.

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