Sunday, December 4, 2011

Kid Shamrock

Last night I finally caught up with Bobby Cassidy Jr's wonderful little play "Kid Shamrock," based on the boxing career of his father Bobby Cassidy Sr., who was a light heavyweight contender in the 1970s. Staged at the TADA! Theater, an intimate space on W. 28th St., the play is both a tribute and a cautionary tale about "the Sweet Science." Cassidy Sr. was a Jake Lamotta style of fighter, a bruiser, who took a lot of punishment to get in tight and dole out punishment of his own. His career was cut somewhat short by what the play refers to as "the Irish disease" of alcoholism.

The novelty of the play is that acting in it are primarily ex-fighters and others who know the sport intimately. Retired fighters John Duddy and Seamus McDonagh play Cassidy Sr. at different stages of his life; the great former champion Mark Breland plays Cassidy's trainer; Wayne Kelly, a former fighter who is now a boxing referee plays a referee in the play; and "Kid Shamrock" is directed by Michael Bentt, former WBO world heavyweight champ. To top it all off, Cassidy Sr. himself opens and closes each act of the play by taking the stage to read from Rod Serling's classic "Requiem for a Heavyweight."

The play is timeless and heartfelt, with a scene-stealing performance by veteran character actor Patrick Connolly, and a walk-on by Vinnie Vella, the wiseguy actor who's face you will immediately recognize from "Casino," "Analyze This," and many other movies.

It was a great honor to spend time after the performance with the Cassidy's -- Bobby Jr., the playwright; Bobby Sr., the ex-fighter; and Chris Cassidy, a personal friend of mine who helped produce the play and is also a highly talented cameraman and photographer.

"Kid Shamrock" has been staged in NYC twice before for limited runs, and there is talk about trying to stage it again in Las Vegas or even in Dublin, where ex-fighters and native sons Duddy and McDonagh are renowned. If the play comes around again in NYC you don't want to miss it. If you admire boxing, it is a treat, and even if you don't, the play will capture your heart and imagination with its tale of dreams pursued, attained and lost, all of it staged and performed with great authenticity and sincerity.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


By T.J. English

One year ago this week I had the pleasure of producing and hosting an event in NYC called the Irish-Mexican Alliance. The night was designed to call attention to the plight of journalists, both Mexican and American, who put their lives on the line while attempting to report on the narco war in Mexico. We raised money for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which has set aside a special fund for legal representation of Mexican journalists forced to flee across the border into the U.S. seeking asylum from harassment, death threats and murder.

My interest in the issue came from reporting I had done in the Ciudad Juárez-El Paso borderland region for an article I wrote entitled NARCO AMERICANO that appeared in Playboy magazine (January, 2011.)

While in El Paso in the summer of 2010, at an outdoor plaza downtown, I happened to hear a local band called Frontera Bugalú. The band was relatively new, having been pieced together from a couple different local bands, but I was immediately struck by the originality and sabor of this band that mixed traditional cumbia (from Colombia) bugaloo (from New York City), and norteño music, which is specific to northern Mexico and the borderland region of South Texas and New Mexico. They also mixed in mambo and a few other Latin styles that were new to my ears. Led by the ubiquitous accordion of bandleader Kiko Rodríguez and the soaring vocals of Amalia Castro, they were fun and infectious, an eclectic mix of folkloric music, but with a sound and musical point-of-view that was very contemporary and hip.


I returned to NYC with the idea of devising a fundraising event that would call attention to the infernal narco war in Mexico. I also brought back the sounds of Frontera Bugalú in my head and in my heart. I knew that if we were to stage an event calling attention to the hardships being shouldered by people in the borderland of Northern Mexico and the Southwestern U.S., then it would need to have the appropriate soundtrack.

The Irish-Mexican Alliance event was sponsored by an organization called Irish American Writers & Artists, Inc, of which I am a co-founder and co-director. Earlier in 2010, we had organized a highly successful fundraising event for earthquake relief in Haiti. That event, called Island People Supporting Island People, created the template that we hoped to reproduce by using Irish and Irish American entertainers (musicians, bands, writers, and poets) mixed with the particular culture with whom we were interfacing for that event. For the Haiti event, we had some great Irish bands, both rock and traditional, on the bill alongside a muscular 20-member Haitian rara band that blew the roof off Connolly’s Pub in Times Square.

For the Irish-Mexican Alliance, again, we had some fantastic Irish music; a traditional Mexican mariachi band with members from around the NYC area; and, much to my delight, we were able to fly in all the way from El Paso the one and only Frontera Bugalú. Everyone in the room that night, which included not only Irish Americans but also activists from NY’s Latino Diaspora (Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans, etc.) marveled at hearing what we knew was an authentic voice of a very unique region of the U.S that is rarely represented in popular American culture.


All of this is a very discursive and round about way to inform you, dear reader, that Frontera Bugalú now has released its first CD, entitled simply FRONTERA BUGALÚ. If you happened to catch this band in NYC at the Irish-Mexican Alliance event, or if you are a fan of Latin dance music in all its many shadings, or simply a lover a great percussive instrumentation and vocals, than you must check out the new 7-track CD. You will want to be among the growing number of people who can honestly say, “I discovered this group! I have their very first CD!”

From the opening track, “Sácame a Bailar,” the band announces itself as something fresh and original. A cascading piano solo by Joel Osvaldo leads in to a brief duet with the harpist, Adrian Pérez, and then – bam! – the band’s signature instrument, the accordion, played by Kiko. The vocals are spare, as the entire 8-piece band coheres around a sultry, sensual groove that continues through every song of the CD, regardless of tempo.

“Embarazar” is a classic cumbia, with lyrics written and sung by Amalia, whose voice ranges from the folkloric to jazzy, with an extended scat (yes, you can scat in any language) right out of the Ella Fitzgerald playbook. On this cut and others, the musical transitions are tight, based around the funky Latin bass of Ramón Villa-Hernández and smoking percussion by Jesús Güereca (congas and timbales), Mykol Nelson (guiro), and Louis Speaking Eagle Sarellano (bataría.)


Frontera Bugalú is, above all, a dance band. It is nearly impossible to listen to their music without moving, the rhythm taking hold of the body like a spectral spirit, as was certainly the case at the Irish-Mexican Alliance event in NY. The dance floor that night was a rainbow-colored, multi-cultural mix. In some ways, to get the full Bugalú experience you need to see the band live, but, on the other hand, the CD – with the benefit of studio time and multi-track recording – is layered with instrumentation and depth of sound not present at the live shows. This is most apparent on a cut like “Rompe Las Cadenas” – my favorite on the CD – which is rooted in Cuban son, familiar to most New Yorkers as salsa (and I don’t mean the condiment!)

Without being preachy or pedantic, Frontera Bugalú is, by nature, a political band. Comprised mostly of Chicanos, they have chosen to preserve certain cultural traditions in their music, to honor those traditions, to promote and celebrate them, which is, by its very nature, a political statement. The fact that they can do this and still be, first and foremost, a contemporary party band dedicated to the principles of rhythm and booty shaking, is a testament to the power of the music. Frontera Bugalú is a celebration of life in the most universal sense, meditative music, hypnotic, designed to inhabit the spirit, work its way through the body, and bring about a physical expression on the dance floor that will leave you with the sweet kiss of human perspiration on your brow.

To listen to a few tracks and to purchase FRONTERA BUGALÚ, as a CD or a computer download, go to the following link:

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Bulger Beat

In the coming months I will be writing a series of articles relating to the upcoming trial of mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger for Newsweek magazine ( The first of those article, WHITEY'S PAYBACK, appeared in the September 19, 2011 issue, and is also posted on the Daily Beast website.

Bulger has been indicted on 19 counts of murder, and in his 20 years as the boss of the Boston underworld, he destroyed many lives, especially in the neighborhood of South Boston, or "Southie," which served as his base of operation. In 1995, he was tipped off by friends in law enforcement that he was about to be indicted on federal racketeering charges. He went on the run and remained on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List for 16 years, until he was apprehended last June 2011.

Bulger is now 82 years old. Whether or not he receives the level of justice that is commensurate with his crimes remains to be seen.

In WHITEY'S PAYBACK, I interviewed a family member of one of Bulger's murder victims, a few of his former criminal associates, retired FBI agents, criminal defense attorneys, and journalists, all in attempt to get a sense of how Bulger's prosecution might play out.

Stay tuned for further posting on the Bulger saga as it unfolds, and check in with the Daily Beast/Newsweek website to keep up with the latest.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

James "Whitey" Bulger

This article by T.J. ENGLISH appeared on The Daily Beast website on June 25, 2011...

When legendary mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, 81, was nabbed earlier this week, after nearly 16 years on the lam, it appeared to some as though the door slammed shut on the longest running show in the American underworld.

Even in his prime, from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, Bulger was a throwback. His criminal reign harkened back to the days of Jimmy Cagney and the Warner Bros. gangster movies of the 1930s. He was Irish American, his racketeering operation rooted in the insular, Old World neighborhood of South Boston. Though sometimes charming, with a carefully cultivated reputation as a “gentleman gangster” who looked out for the neighborhood, Bulger was, above all, psychotically vicious.

Even while in his sixties, with a stature that afforded him the opportunity of designating underlings to do the “dirty work” for him, Bulger preferred to kill people with his own hands. One of his more recent killings was of a young woman, the ex-girlfriend of his criminal partner. Whitey allegedly strangled her with his bare hands. Another murder victim of Bulger's, after being shot in the head by Whitey at close range, had his teeth pulled out of his head by the aging mobster with a pair of pliers, so that the body could not be identified by dental records.

Whitey was violent, but he was also thought to be wily. Part of his legend had to do with the fact that, unbeknownst to even his closest criminal associates, he had served as a Top Echelon informant for the FBI. Whitey provided information to the Feds, and they in turn provided information to him. Armed with inside information, Bulger outmaneuvered rival Mafiosi and dodged local criminal investigations. To some in the Boston underworld, it appeared as though Bulger was more powerful than God.

In sunny Santa Monica, CA, just a few blocks from the glistening Pacific Ocean, Bulger and his longtime girlfriend, Catherine Greig, 60, had seemingly found their Shangri La. Under the assumed names of Charles and Carol Gasko, they strolled the beach and along the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica like any number of mature couples who had left the urban hustle of their native cities behind to retire to the gentle climes of Southern California.

The fact that there was a bounty of $2 million on the head of Bulger and his girlfriend did little to mitigate the banality of Bulger’s life on the run. After disappearing in 1995, facing multiple racketeering charges – including 19 counts of murder – Whitey became the proverbial ghost in the closet. His criminal career was routinely profiled on TV shows like “America’s Most Wanted” and “Unsolved Mysteries,” and still he remained at large. The FBI task force assigned with the job of tracking Bulger down periodically announced that there were “credible sightings” of the mobster in locales as widespread as England, Ireland, Canada, Prague and southern Louisiana. But now we are told that he was hiding in plain sight, living at the same location -- a modest apartment complex near Washington Avenue and Third Street in the City of Angels – for the last 15 years.

According to the FBI, the capture of Bulger came as a result of a new strategy, recently launched, to shift focus from Bulger himself to his girlfriend. A media campaign commenced; photos of Greig and information about her personal habits were circulated in the media, with a phone number to call with information. The $2 million reward was also mentioned.

In a press conference announcing the pair’s capture, an FBI spokesman claimed that the task force was contacted with a tip about a woman who appeared to be Greig. They staked out the apartment where the woman in question lived. Lo and behold, they had indeed stumbled upon Greig and Bulger. Greig was arrested on the street outside the apartment. Bulger was lured outside and arrested without resistance.

Inside the apartment the agents found $800,000 in cash and also an arsenal of thirty guns, including semi-automatic handguns, rifles and a sawed-off shotgun.

To some, it was hard to believe that Bulger had been captured. With his bald head and full white beard, he appeared grandfatherly and harmless, though, upon closer inspection, his mug shot reveals the same cold and steely blue eyes for which he was famous on the streets of Southie.

By Friday, Bulger was back in his native Boston standing before a federal judge who asked, “Can you afford a lawyer?” Answered Bulger, “Well, I could if you gave me my money back.” Bulger was referring to the cash seized in his apartment. Authorities contend that Bulger has untold millions in criminal assets stashed in bank accounts around the globe. A recent FBI account estimated his worth at $50 million.

Among those seated in the courtroom at Bulger’s hearing on Friday was his brother William “Billy” Bulger, 78. For decades, there was no politician in the state of Massachusetts more powerful than the younger Bulger, who rose from being a representative from Southie to president of the state senate. His rise to power in state politics paralleled the rise to power of his gangster brother, leading some to surmise that Billy had to be “connected.” Frequently investigated but never indicted, Billy was, in 2004, forced to resign from a cushy retirement job as president at the University of Massachusetts because of his brother’s tawdry reputation.

In the courtroom, the two Bulger brothers -- who, presumably, have not seen each other in 16 years -- shared a glance and a smile that seemed to encapsulate the mostly unspoken bond between the two that has spanned a lifetime.

The story of the two brothers has always been, and still is, deeply intertwined, as is the story of another man who was not present in the courtroom. John Connolly, also a child of Southie, was an FBI special agent who acted as Whitey Bulger’s handler with the FBI. Connelly is currently is prison in Florida on racketeering and murder charges stemming from his relationship with Bulger.

There are those in Southie and elsewhere who feel the FBI never really wanted to catch Bulger, given what he might know about the nexus between crime, politics and law enforcement in the state of Massachusetts and the Boston office of the FBI. As Bulger appeared in court, the entire city quivers in expectation of what he will do next. Will Whitey cooperate with the feds and begin supplying information about what he knows about 30-plus years of corruption in the city and state? Or will he plead not guilty, thus bringing about a massive criminal trial that would be one of the most sensational court proceedings in the history of the state, an epic casting call of gangsters, victims, cops, agents, politicians, and fellow travelers spanning over nearly a half century of Boston history.

It may be true that with the apprehension of the most wanted gangster in America, the final chapter has been written on the criminal career and lamster’s life of James Bulger. But the epilogue to that story has the makings of a historic coda.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Grammy Award statement

Press conference, Nuyorican Poets Cafe, May 22, 2011

Led by Bobby Sanabria (band leader, master drummer, composer, educator), an unprecedented collection of musicians, academics and artists gathered at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe to deliver a strong statement of protest against the decision of the Academy to eliminate 31 musical categories from consideration for Grammy Awards. The categories include what are mostly "ethnic" genres of music and include Mexican music, zydeco, some blues categories, contemporary jazz, and Latin jazz. Among an illustrious panel that included Latin jazz legend Larry Harlow, Mercedes Ellington (granddaughter of Duke Ellington), David Amram, and many others, author T.J. ENGLISH, representing New York City's literary community, delivered the following statement....

"I am here as author of the book HAVANA NOCTURNE and other works, and also as the co-founder and co-director of a non-profit organization called Irish American Writers & Artists. I am also here as a concerned citizen and lover of all music, and as someone who appreciates, celebrates and cherishes the role that music plays in American culture.
The diversity of American music is our greatest gift to the world. The creation of this music, and the importance of it being heard around the world, is larger than the Grammy Awards. The diversity of American music is a fact that is larger than the Grammy Awards. And this music will survive and flourish with or without the Grammy Awards.
But what the Awards do, quite frankly, is call attention to the practitioners of this music -- the musicians. And what these musicians here today will tell you is that even the most renowned and celebrated musician in the United States is still, and will always be, a working class musician. Because to make a living as a musician, you must perform nearly every day. And especially for musicians who perform music in genres that are considered to be outside the mainstream, life is a constant hustle. And recognition by your peers -- in this case, recognition by NARAS -- is often what makes it possible for musicians to continue this economically perilous pursuit and struggle of attempting to be an artist in the Unites States of America.
So what the Grammys do is call attention to the practitioners of the music and help make it possible for them to survive as working class musicians. That, to me, is why this statement we are making today is so important and essential. Yes, with the Grammy Awards, we celebrate the music. But most of all we celebrate the musicians. And as deserving as Beyonce or Bruce Springsteen or Alicia Keyes may be, the truth is, their adding another Grammy Award to their trophy shelf is not nearly as vital and necessary as the recongnition by NARAS for the practitioners of certain types of Mexican American music, or the blues, or zydeco, or Latin jazz. A Grammy Award, in many cases, makes it possible for these musicians to survive as musicians. And that, in a nutshell, is why we DEMAND the reinstatement of these musical categories.
Thank you."

Monday, April 25, 2011

THE SAVAGE CITY comes to Harlem

WHEN: May 10, 2011, Tues., at 8pm

WHERE: Hue Man Bookstore, W. 124 St. & 8th Ave. Harlem, NYC

This is a very special presentation and discussion of the New York Times best-selling book THE SAVAGE CITY by T.J. ENGLISH.

In a one-time appearance only, T.J. will be joined by DHORUBA BIN WAHAD (pictured at his arrest in 1971), a central figure in the book. This discussion will be moderated by Harlem legend HERB BOYD, journalist, author, and editor of many books (including "The Harlem Reader.")

THE SAVAGE CITY is a non-fiction narrative that explores the racial turmoil in New York City in the 1960s and early 1970s. The story is told through the experiences of three people: George Whitmore, a 19 year-old black male who is framed for a horrific double murder he didn't commit; Bill Phillips, a corrupt cop who eventually becomes an informant and testifies at the Knapp Commission hearings into police corruption; and Dhoruba Bin Wahad, one of the founding members of the Black Panther Party in NYC.

Do not miss this opportunity to take part in a discussion of NYC during one of its most difficult recent eras, and add your view as to whether or not this history is still relevant today.

Books will be available for purchase, and T.J. English will, upon request, sign a copy of your book.

Friday, March 4, 2011


Throughout March, April and beyond, author T.J. English will be making live appearances and doing radio and TV interviews to promote his new book THE SAVAGE CITY. Below is a list of events and radio interviews. This list will be updated as new events are added to the schedule. Please come to one of the Live Appearance events and T.J. English will sign a copy of the book for you.



Lower East Side Tenement Museum
108 Orchard St., NYC 6:30 pm

WOCM-FM 98.1 (National)
Bulldog and the Rude Awakening Show
LIVE RADIO: 8:40am - 9am EST.

WVTL-AM (National)
The Bob Cudmore Show
LIVE RADIO: 9:05am - 9:20am EST.

WCBQ-AM 1340
The Paradise Radio Network
Dr. Alvin Jones, host
LIVE RADIO: 9:30am - 9:40am EST.


WOCA-AM 1340 (Daytona Beach, FL)
Morning Show with Larry & Robin
Larry Whitler, host
LIVE RADIO: 7:35am - 7:45am EST.

WWRL-AM 1600 (New York, NY)
Morning Drive Show
Progressive Talk
LIVE RADIO: 8:05am - 8:15am EST.

WAMV-AM (Lynchburg, VA)
LIVE RADIO: 8:30am - 8:45am EST

KWLM-AM (Willmar, MN)
LIVE RADIO: 8:50am - 8:59am EST.

KMA-AM (Kansas City - Omaha, NE)
The Chuck and Don Show
LIVE RADIO: 9:20am - 9:30am EST.

KCTA-AM (Corpus Christi, TX)
LIVE RADIO: 9:30am - 9:39 am EST.

WESB-AM (Bradford, PA - Jamestown, NY)
Live Line with Anne Holiday
LIVE RADIO: 9:40am - 9:49am EST.

KCMN-AM (Colorado Springs, IL)
LIVE RADIO: 9:50am - 9:59am EST.

SIRIUS/XM (National)
Cover to Cover with Maggie Linton
LIVE RADIO: 10am - 10:30am EST.

KCHE-FM (Cherokee, IA)
LIVE RADIO: 10:30am - 10:39am EST.

KWYK-FM (Albuquerque, NM)
Morning Drive Show
LIVE RADIO: 10:40am - 10:50am EST.

VOICE OF AMERICA (Internationally syndicated)
Hip Hop Connection
LIVE RADIO: 11am - 11:09am EST.

WTTB-AM (Vero Beach - Palm Bay, FL)
LIVE RADIO: 11:10am - 11:20 am EST.

KPQ-AM (Seattle, WA)
The KPQ Morning Show
LIVE RADIO: 11:25 am - 11: 34am EST.

Westwood One (Nationally syndicated)
The Dennis Miller Show
LIVE RADIO: 11:34am - 11:44am EST.

WPVM-FM (Ashville, NC)
Morning Drive Show
LIVE RADIO: 11:50am - 12 noon EST.

All Night with Joey Reynolds
LIVE RADIO: 11pm - 12pm EST



WBAI Radio
Radio Free Eirenn
On location at Percy's Tavern, 210 Avenue A, NYC
1pm - 2pm EST. Books on sale at the location.



9Snd Street Y Daytime Programs
200 Hudson St. NYC, 12 noon

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Comedy Central, 8pm & 11pm.
Also available on Daily Show website.


The Judith Regan Show
LIVE RADIO: 11:30am - 12 noon EST.


Barnes and Noble
Columbia University Bookstore
Lerner Hall, Columbia campus, 6 pm.


KBEM-FM (Minneapolis, MN)
Local NPR
LIVE RADIO: 9:30am - 9:39am EST.

KLBM-AM (La Grande, OR)
Your Voice
LIVE RADIO: 11:30am - 12 noon EST.

Culture Shock with Barry Lynn
Nationally syndicated
Progressive Talk
LIVE RADIO: 12 - 12:4pm EST.

WQUB-FM (Illinois)
Books and More
Local NPR
LIVE RADIO: 12:40pm - 12:55pm EST.

FRIDAY, MARCH 25, 2011

The Morning Bulletin
Billings, Montana
LIVE RADIO: 11:30am - 11:40am EST.



New York Public Library
Mulberry Street Branch, NYC



New York Public Library
New Dorp Branch, Staten Island, NYC



New York Public Library
Main Mid-Manhattan Branch
5th Avenue & 42nd St., NYC

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Interview with T.J. English

Author and journalist T.J. ENGLISH was recently interviewed by the web magazine Stop & Style NYC, currently posted online (Feb. 2011 issue). The interview touches on a number of subjects related to English's upbringing, his methods and career as a writer, and his feelings about NYC, both past and present. The entire interview, including introduction, can be accessed at

The Q & A portion of the interview, in its entirety, is posted below....

How do you choose topics for your work? Where do the ideas come from?

Ideas come from everywhere. I tend to draw my subject matter from real life, so ideas often come from reading newspapers, magazines, books, etc. Ideas also come from my travels. For instance, the current article I did for Playboy on the narco war in Mexico likely would not have happened had I not spent time in Mexico a few years ago at a Spanish-language institute learning Spanish. Yes, I knew about the narco war from reading about it and keeping up on the news, but there’s nothing like being right there in the country where its happening, experiencing it from inside the culture as opposed to viewing it from afar. Many of my books and journalism are initiated by a general cultural fascination with the topic, and then I try to think of ways to apply it to my own writerly point-of-view, which invariably leads me to the criminal underworld, organized crime and criminal justice issues.

Many of the subjects you focus on are relatively dark: mobsters, wars, human injustice, etc. Why do you think you are drawn to such genres?

It’s interesting, because my general interest in these topics usually has nothing to do with the so-called dark side. Years ago, for instance – in the mid-1990s – I did an article about a Jamaican drug posse based in Brooklyn that had roots in Kingston, Jamaica. I became interested in that because I had a deep affection for reggae music, which led me to make a trip to Jamaica. This led to a fascination with Jamaican culture. Okay, so you want to explore Jamaican culture and history, you’re going to find yourself reading about some horrible shit like colonialism, political exploitation, extreme poverty the likes of which sometimes leads to sociopathic or even psychopathic behavior. The truth is, writing about the human condition invariably, in my opinion, leads you to writing about the dark side, because the human social process is one of war, exploitation, violence, and death. The way cities, countries and nation-states are formed usually involves a group of people killing or forcibly dominating another group of people and then imposing rules and laws to keep them in their place. To me, writing about the human social process requires writing about the dark side, although, in some ways, I don’t even think of it as writing about the dark side. I think of it as writing about the world as it really is, not about how we like to pretend it is.

Is there any unattainable topic or subject that you wish you could gain access to and write about? A dream project perhaps?

I don’t think there is an “unattainable topic,” although there are many topics that I’m interested in that, to write about them in any kind of in-depth way or from an insider point-of-view, are so fraught with complications and dangers that the risks and difficulties outweigh the likelihood of getting the story. But this is all relative. In fact, many of the articles and books I have written are on subjects that others might have considered to be “unattainable.” Writing about the Westies gang from the point of view of an insider in the gang was considered somewhat unattainable. Thinking I could get inside Mickey Featherstone’s head – I was told by cops and other writers that it was crazy for me to even think I could do that. I wrote a book, Born to Kill, about a Vietnamese gang based in Chinatown that I think, as you’re reading it, will make you feel as though you are a member of that gang, because I tell the story from the subjective perspective of a gang member who was right there in the middle of things. I’m not mentioning this to brag about it; I’m just saying that one person’s “unattainable” is another person’s “challenge.” I suppose I could have failed at the challenge, but it seemed to me like a challenge worth taking on. I was driven by the belief that these unattainable subjects were, in fact, attainable.

I will give you an interesting example, however, of the only story in my career I was not able to get. I shouldn’t be telling you this, because it makes me look bad, but the truth is any journalist or writer who takes chances will have an occasion where they are not able to get the story they are trying to get.

In the mid-1990s I was sent by Rolling Stone magazine to New Orleans to do a story on the New Orleans police department. The police in New Orleans had been wracked by a series of outrageous scandals that had shocked the whole city, and it’s not easy to shock people in New Orleans. A female cop had killed her partner and executed an entire Vietnamese family while moonlighting as a security guard at a restaurant in town. Another cop had ordered a hit on a women who had taken out a brutality complaint against him; he brazenly ordered the hit over the police radio frequency. A whole bunch of cops – something like twenty – had been running a cocaine operation just like a criminal gang. It was incredible. Anyway, I go down there and set about getting people to talk with me, as I always do in these situations. I got some interesting stuff. Interviewed the new police chief, went into the infamous Desire Housing Project, which I think has since been torn down. But I could not get anyone from within the criminal culture of the NOPD to talk with me. I could not get any of the victims of crimes perpetrated by the NOPD to talk with me. In New Orleans, people were afraid to talk about police corruption. They were afraid they would wind up buried in a swamp somewhere and never be heard from again. There was no tradition of talking to a writer or journalist about this stuff. It was a criminal conspiracy I could not penetrate. I have written about all kinds of criminal gangs, written about them from an insider perspective that many people did not think was possible, but I could not penetrate the fear and long-standing tradition of silence surrounding the criminal conspiracy known as the New Orleans police department.

How do you get people to open up to you? Especially in your early days, before you had any best sellers backing you up. Do you think it has anything to do with your general demeanor?

Generally speaking, every person who talks to you does so for their own unique set of reasons, either they want to get out their version of events, from their perspective, or they want to get something off their chest, or they trust you, and when a person trusts you, sometimes you can’t get them to shut up. Believe me, I go through periods in my life when I am getting calls and correspondences from criminals, gangsters, calls from prison – its one of the reasons I sometimes have problems maintaining relationships with significant others. Not everyone is charmed by the idea of killers and gangsters calling at all hours of the day and night.

As for demeanor, yes, this is an interesting point. I recently had an interesting conversation with a group of retired FBI agents here in New York. Generally speaking, I get along better with criminals than I do law enforcement people, but I was invited to speak to a group of retired agents. It turned out to be very instructive, because we got on to this subject of how do you get people – criminals – to talk to you. Granted, it’s somewhat easier for a journalist or writer, because I’m not going to bust them and have them prosecuted, but still, it all has do with trust. And the only way that kind of trust can be established is if the person you are dealing with feels as though you are listening to them free of judgment. You are not judging them. This sounds like a simple thing, but in truth most cops or journalists or even most human beings are not able to do this. The average person feels as though they represent goodness and virtue. Cops, journalists, they are usually there as representatives of the system. They represent “the right side of the law.” Therefore, the person who they are dealing with is viewed as reprehensible, a criminal, a killer, a drug dealer, a scumbag. How could you even sit in the same room with this scumbag and listen to them tell their version of why they do what they do? Well, I find it fascinating. And the fact that a person feels like I’m listening to them without judgment makes them open up. And the truth is, I’m not judging them. I want to hear their version, and then I push them and probe and ask questions that maybe gets them to tell things they never thought they would. But it all starts with a genuine level of trust.

Have you ever gotten yourself into a bad situation while investigating a story or suddenly crossed a line where you felt like you might not make it out?

I’ve been in a few potentially perilous situations that made me sweat. In Hong Kong, doing a story on the Triads, secret criminal societies, I was in the Walled City, a hermetically sealed criminal enclave in a part of the city known as Kowloon. The Walled City was later torn down, after China took over control of Hong Kong in 1997. I was there in 1992. As I was getting ready to enter the place one afternoon, a taxi driver saw me; he stopped his taxi and said, “Do not go in there. It’s not safe. You will not come out alive.” Or something like that. It was a little unnerving. Because duty called, and I knew I had to go in there. The taxi driver drove away and I entered. Man, that place was wild. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was all closed in, like an underground city, with cables and dripping pipes overhead, and a maze of narrow walkways, dark and damp. Along these walkways were little stalls with all kinds of illegal businesses. There might be a guy selling illegal animals, snakes and other reptiles, and right next to that stall would be a stall with an illegal dentist. There was prostitution in there, women beckoning from the shadows, and little, old Chinese men selling opium and heroin. All kinds of counterfeit goods and illegal shit. It was like an underworld bizarre for vice and illegal goods. And the whole visual look of the place was designed to blow your mind. It was subterranean and spooky and dangerous-looking, like something out of Dante’s Inferno. I’m glad I had a chance to see it before it was obliterated.

I’ve been in some other situations that could have turned bad, I guess. I was in Denham Town, a shantytown in central Kingston that is probably as dangerous for an outsider as anything can be. For the Mexico narco piece I recently did I was in Ciudad Juárez, which is now thought of as the most dangerous city in the world. I was in Felipe Angeles, a colonia, or slum, in Juárez that is the home of the Barrio Azteca gang. I do not go into these places out of any sense of adventure or thrill-seeking. I am not a thrill seeker. I do not bungee jump or cliff dive or any of that silly shit. I have no desire to jump out of an airplane and skydive. I go into these situations because it is my job to do so. And whenever I do something like this, I take great pride in doing it the most intelligent way I can. I do my homework. I never wander into a situation unprepared. I try to set it up so I am never walking into an uncontrolled situation; I set things up beforehand. I usually have a guide or a specific reason for being there. And the idea is to get in there and get the fuck out. Although, yeah, I do sometimes get waylaid by a woman or the exotic nature of a place. But I try not to be stupid about these things.

When or how did you realize writing was your passion?

I guess grade school was when I first started to get positive feedback about things that I was writing. When you’re young, you tend to go in the direction from which you get the most ego gratification. If it had been a musical instrument I was good at, or singing, or gymnastics, maybe I would have gone in one of those directions instead. By the time I got to high school, I realized journalism was a great way to get out of the house, experience life around you, and sometimes stir things up.

At the Catholic high school I went to in Tacoma, Washington, where I was born and raised, my senior year I did an expose for the school newspaper about Pacific Avenue, which was the Red Light district in town. I interviewed street prostitutes and what were called “winos” back then; I went into Elmo’s Bookstore, a porn shop, and described in great detail what was in there. I’m pretty sure it was the first time – and maybe the last – that the word “dildo” appeared in the school newspaper. It caused quite a controversy, and I loved every minute of it.

How long have you lived in NY and what do you miss most about the way the city used to be when you first came here?

I arrived in NYC in 1981; I was 23 years old. I came here to experience life and, hopefully, become some sort of professional writer. I hustled for work as a freelance journalist, writing for an Irish American magazine and weekly newspaper, for the Village Voice, wherever I could get stuff published. In the evenings I drove a taxi, three, four nights a week, sometimes more, to pay my rent and living expenses, which I always kept lean and minimal as I could. In those years, I remember being like a feral animal, hungry, hyper alert, my aspirations as a writer deeply intertwined with the environment I was living in, which, since I was driving a cab, touched on all neighborhoods of the city, all economic classes and races.

That lifestyle of an aspiring artist, if I can use that term, the pursuit of a non-traditional career, living close to the bone, hustling – I don’t think that even exists any more in New York. I mean, having to have a computer and a fancy iphone alone would have wiped me out back then, and you can barely function without those things in the marketplace today.

Starting somewhere in the mid-1980s, New York City completely gave itself over to the business class, cutting back on city services, giving sweet tax deals for businesses and real estate entities. Smarter people than me have chronicled this; I’m not saying anything particularly insightful. But I watched the city I came here to be a part of become less and less interesting. Manhattan, in particular, is now a place for professional business people, lawyers, brokers, etc. The neighborhood where I have lived for 20 years, the Village -- you don’t want to go anywhere around there on a Friday or Saturday night. They say there’s a recession, but you’d hardly notice it in that neighborhood. Swarms of 20-somethings with credit cards, expendable incomes, auditioning for their own reality shows.

What is your favorite thing about living in NYC these days? Do you have a favorite neighborhood/restaurant/bar?

The one thing I like most about NYC hasn’t changed, and that is – pounding the pavement. I haven’t owned a car since I came here thirty years ago, pretty much my entire adult life. I walk most everywhere I go, if I can. The energy and diversity of the street life is still the best thing about the city. And no amount of gentrification can wipe that out. Because they still need immigrants (i.e. cheap labor) to feed the beast, and the city regenerating itself through waves of immigration is still the central narrative of life in NYC; its what makes walking the streets so beautiful and distinctive.

Also, in the last four or five years I’ve also really gotten into biking. It is one of the new things about the city that I really enjoy. Thirty years ago, even if you’d wanted to, there was no way to bike around the city like there is now. Making the city more biker friendly has made it accessible in new and exciting ways, and it’s a great way to stay in shape. Because if you wanna survive in NYC, you still need to stay lean and strong and ready to run like hell at a moment’s notice.

I don’t have a favorite neighborhood, but I do have a favorite eating establishment – La Taza de Oro, the venerable Puerto Rican diner at 8th Avenue and 15th Street, and a bar, the Distinguished Wakamba Cocktail Lounge, at 37th street and 8th Avenue.

Who are your favorite writers? What kinds of things do you like to read?

Well, the ones that led me in the direction of non-fiction writing, writers I read in college, were Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer and Joan Didion. I’ve gone through phases: the existentialists like Camus and Genet. Dostoyevsky probably shaped my consciousness more than any other single writer, particularly Crime and Punishment, but also Notes from Underground. I went through the classic American hardboiled phase – Hammett, Chandler, James M. Cain, and, most notably, Jim Thompson. I read fiction and nonfiction equally. Right now I’m reading an incredible novel, 2666, by the late-Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño. It is an absolute masterpiece.

Overall, much of my reading is dominated by whatever subject I am researching at any given moment. If you look at the last three books I’ve published – Paddy Whacked, Havana Nocturne and The Savage City – go to the bibliography section and you will see dozens and dozens of books I’ve had to read as research for those books. I hardly have time for anything else.

Besides your new book The Savage City coming out next month, what is next for you?

I hope to do a second article on the narco war in Mexico for Playboy. What’s happening in Mexico right now is the organized crime story of our time. And the United States is directly effected in ways that most people don’t think about or realize. I’m also getting together a collection of my crime journalism over the past twenty-plus years that I hope to publish in one volume, under the title, Season of El Diablo: And Other True Tales from the American Underworld. I’m also working on a movie project and have an idea for my next non-fiction book, but I have a policy of not talking about major works in progress until they are a definite thing. Nothing worse than talking up a project, or making a public proclamation, and then, months later, having people ask you, “Hey, what happened with that such-and-such project you were working on…” Then you have to go into a long explanation of why it didn’t come to fruition, how it didn’t pan out for one reason or another. Makes you look like – and feel like – a douche bag.

(The Savage City: Race, Murder and a Generation on the Edge by T.J. English will be published by HarperCollins in March 2011)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Playboy: Narco Americano

An extensive new investigative article by T.J. ENGLISH entitled "Narco Americano" appears in the newly published February 2011 issue of Playboy magazine. The article offers a disturbing assessment of the narco war in Mexico, focusing on the border region of Ciudad Juarez, near El Paso, Texas. Using the shocking double-homicide of a U.S. consulate employee and her husband last March as the central narrative of the article, English ranges far and wide, shedding light on issues of corruption, economic exploitation and gangsterism that have contributed to the unprecedented crisis in Mexico. The article shows how the U.S. and Mexico are inextricably linked in the so-called drug war, in which nearly 90% of the product coming from Mexico is destined for the U.S. marketplace of drug users and abusers. Thorough and thought-provoking, the article is not to be missed.

Monday, January 10, 2011

REVIEW: The Savage City


Race, Murder, and a Generation on the Edge
Author: English, T.J.

Review Date: January 15, 2011
Publication Date: March 15, 2011

Superior chronicle of the most violent decade in New York City history.

Through a crisp journalistic lens, English (Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution, 2008, etc.) retraces the tormented life of three men who proved pivotal in Manhattan’s “now-legendary descent into mayhem” from the early ’60s to the mid ’70s, as the struggling civil-rights movement battled a corrupt, brutal law-enforcement agency. Following the March on Washington in the late summer of 1963, two white Upper East Side women were found bound together, raped and brutally slashed to death. Police scrambled to bring the increasingly sensational double-homicide case to swift closure. George Whitmore, a naïve, 19-year-old, partially blind black laborer, was falsely identified as the perpetrator and coerced into signing a multiple-felony confession by the NYPD, then a primarily white-male “autonomous institution.” Whitmore spent a decade defending himself in the face of a merciless, unyielding justice system. English also provides a deep profile of Bill Phillips, a thieving, prejudiced, corrupt second-generation police officer, as well as of Dhoruba Bin Wahad, a fearless ex-convict and Black Panther Party. Culled from a host of wide-ranging interviews, memoirs, court-case transcripts, books, and documentary programming, the author effectively addresses key events like the 1963 Harlem Riots, the shockwaves of Malcolm X’s assassination and the Knapp Commission’s dogged scrutiny of NYPD corruption. Noting that the three centerpiece profiles he features (and the era in which they lived) are “largely forgotten today,” their separate legacies should serve as a cautionary reminder.

A comprehensive, still-shocking exhumation of racial discord in America.

16-page black-and-white photo insert. Agents: Nat Sobel and Judith Weber/Sobel Weber Associates