The New Yorker
To many New Yorkers, it has become axiomatic that the city is reverting to its bad old nineteen-eighties self. Crime is up, subway ambience is down, the Yankees are World Series starved. Further evidence: Curtis Sliwa, the founder of the Guardian Angels and a Koch-era tabloid fixture, is the Republican candidate for mayor. No one gives him much of a shot, though he has garnered slivers of media attention for sharing an Upper West Side studio apartment with sixteen rescue cats, and for doffing his signature red beret at a rally and thereby revealing a dramatic tan line above his brow, the effect of which, the Times said, “brought to mind a blackand-white cookie.”
The Guardian Angels, founded in 1979, remain with us, too. The organization is a civilian crime-watch group whose recruits became street icons for patrolling scuzzy subway cars, intimidating chain snatchers, making the occasional citizen’s arrest, and irritating the police. Some condemned them as vigilantes. Lately, the Angels have had a cozier relationship with both the cops and the public, although, as Arnaldo Salinas, the group’s longtime senior director, recently admitted, “we’ve gotten into our scuffles.” Membership waxes and wanes; it’s now around three hundred and fifty, by Salinas’s count.
The Angels still hit the streets and ride the trains seven days a week.
On a Friday evening, six Angels assembled in front of a bank on Canal Street for a patrol of Chinatown and its environs. Each wore the classic uniform of black pants, a red beret, and a white T-shirt emblazoned with the Guardian Angels logo: a winged version of the creepy Masonic eye on the back of the dollar bill. The captain was a forty-nine-year-old woman who goes by the name Madonna while on duty. (Like Batman or Elena Ferrante, Angels can be leery of sharing their identities with the press.) Madonna described herself as “American-born Chinese,” with family in the neighborhood; she said that she had joined up “because of all these Asian hate crimes here in N.Y.C.” She demonstrated an easy sense of command, cracking jokes as the group gathered but turning all business once on patrol.
Angel training involves lessons in street smarts. “If you don’t have street smarts, that’s just sad,” Madonna said. She elaborated. “First of all, don’t stand with your back to the street like you’re doing,” she told an observer, pantomiming grabbing a shoulder from behind and yanking a body down to the sidewalk. “You’re tall,” she went on. “If some girl wanted to mess with you, she’d come kick you in the shins. Watch for that.” Noted.
The rest of the patrol included Rook, the second-in-command, a muscular young man with an earnest air who, during the day, works a “desk job.” He said that he’d joined the Angels at the beginning of the year; like Madonna, he was angry about the rise in violence against Asian Americans. “I’ve always loved this neighborhood,”he said.“The fact that so many of its most vulnerable denizens were coming under attack was inconceivable to me.”
Smoker, a “retired technician” in his fifties, had been an Angel for only “a couple of weeks.” His reason for joining: “I’ve always loved the Angels. I remember when the trains were messed-up rattraps.”The origin of his Angel name became clear when he lit a cigarette. Madonna reminded him to take off his beret while smoking, per regulations. (No tan line was visible.)
Alex, the youngest, a gardener and a student, had shoulder-length red hair. He had been an Angel for about a year and a half: “I felt that I wanted to do something positive with my life.”
Before the group set off, Madonna patted down the one fellow female Angel, and Rook did the same for the males. Angel rules forbid guns or knives or anything else nasty. “No Tasers,” Madonna said. “No pepper spray. No brass knuckles. No nunchucks.”
The patrol walked south on Mott Street in single file, with Madonna in the lead, setting a pace that fell just short of brisk. The night was muggy, and Chinatown’s narrow streets were alive with pedestrians and humming dining sheds. To an untrained eye, there were no signs of trouble, just conviviality and commerce; 2021 was showing its good side. The Angels kept moving.
Across Canal Street, Little Italy was thronged, the second night of the Feast of San Gennaro in full swing. Here, too, the rivers of people were well behaved—even the drunks seemed mellow—and with a multitude of cops on hand the squad of Angels was perhaps superfluous. But people were glad to see them. Maître d’s waved. Passersby expressed gratitude. A toddler flapped his hands up and down with glee, as if he’d just seen a human version of the Paw Patrol.
Others took a more nostalgic pleasure in the Angels’ presence. An older man smiled and explained to his younger female companion, “That used to be a big deal.” A pedestrian shook his head with a mix of admiration and amusement. “Man,” he said. “That’s old school.”