The Rat Man of Elizabeth St.

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:21


    It's a primal neighborhood myth?this Joseph Kirsh-as-rat-boiler myth?and it persists as a joke among some residents upon Little Italy's now-affluent northern fringe. I was told the story by a resident of 239 Elizabeth St., a stately, and in fact Stanford White-designed, property that Kirsh?that long-haired and apocryphal rat-boiler, and a man who slouches as a woolly bearded bogeyman through the margins of downtown's recent history?used to actually own.

    Actually, it's more complicated than that. I was told the story by a resident of 239 Elizabeth St. who's currently helping organize her fellow tenants to keep Kirsh and his wife, Mara?who have been busy doing things like jail time for the last 11 years or so?from regaining ownership of the building. She inhabits the ground-floor apartment in which Kirsh used to skulk with his 20,000 rounds of ammunition?she shows me the hall where in 1988 the raiding cops stacked up his 49 handguns, his 13 rifles, the weird balance of his arsenal...but more on that in a bit.

    At any rate, it's perfect. Kirsh represents the return of New York's ugly collective repressed memory. He stinks of garlic; he hasn't shaved in a month; he owns mean dogs and his trigger's unlocked. Now Kirsh wants his building back. Number 239's about 40 yards down the street from Rialto; perhaps 20 up from Cafe Habana. Kirsh falls toward today's Little Italy like a chunk of rock falls from the sky. You'd have thought he'd have vanished into eternity by now. Who knew he was still in orbit?

    According to news clippings, the Kirshes first imposed themselves upon the city's consciousness in 1979, before they were property owners, when they were still just tenants at 224 Sullivan St. Here's a passage from a Villager article dated Aug. 23 of that year; the dogs in question are the Kirshes' pit bulls Shocker and Magnus. The article, by the way, is entitled "A Dogged Conflict on Sullivan Street":

    "...a plumber lost a week's work after one of the dogs attacked him through several layers of clothing, an old woman was pushed over, and a cat was killed... Mara Kirsh claims, however, that 'my dogs aren't hazardous,' and that those who state they have been bitten are lying."

    Mara?your nimble wit charms me. Here we have the distillation?here in New York, this island removed from things, where it's not supposed to happen, is it??of the all-American hillbilly nightmare, of that inexpungible American primordial presence of sewage and violence and mud and filth?and crazy longhairs with big, big guns.

    Jump to the next clipping in the Kirsh file, and it's 1988, and the Kirshes by now (since the meek, after all, shall inherit the Earth) have assumed ownership of 239 Elizabeth St.

    Okay, so gaps riddle our record here. What do these people do for a living? How did they scrape up the cash to buy real estate? Even real estate in what was then?amazingly, from our perspective now?a marginal neighborhood? Daily papers inform us that by April of '88 the city raided the building, arrested Kirsh and entrusted the seized property to the care of a city-appointed manager, known in bureaucratic jargon as a 7A administrator. Why? Kirsh had been overheard threatening to blow the building to smithereens. Whether Kirsh planned to remove his dogs, his wife, his self, his 20,000 rounds of ammunition, his 49 pistols and his 13 rifles from the premises before blasting the structure heavenward is unclear. (In another of the lapidary utterances for which the case should become famous, one of the weapons is referred to as a "varmint rifle.")

    The newspapers also inform us that the Kirshes had, before the actual raid, been convicted for siccing pit bulls on their tenants, smearing feces all over their apartment doors and kicking holes through at least one fellow's ceiling.

    No wonder the building's tenants' association would rather the building remain under the auspices of the city's 7A administrator. The tenants appeared in court last Thursday to request a postponement of the hearing until they can retain a suitable attorney.

    What's fascinating about the case, though, is how ghostly it is. Consider the anachronism of it. Kirsh, who's now in his early 50s, wears in the old news clippings a Saint-Anthony-in-the-wilds face, a face that bores into your forehead. It's a zealot's visage of the sort you just don't find much downtown anymore?particularly since Arthur Johnson, another great old wild-eyed Lower East Side longhair who loved guns, dropped dead on Clinton St. almost two years ago. Watch Kirsh watch you from the newsprint and you're somewhere else in time, boy?you're a decade or two back, at least, and Little Italy and the world are way, way different. Gray winter streets foul with pimps and dealers; violent summers full of sirens and the baying of hounds?like graveyard hounds, prophesying the city's extinction. Arthur Johnson's still hunkered down with his shotguns in his boarded-up flat, awaiting the cops' fire-axes at his bolstered front door. Kirsh sweats in his own bunker, oiling a rifle. Everybody's leaving town. In summer flies buzz and the city slobbers toward its inevitable grave, its consummation; shudders through its 1970s-into-1980s death-heave.

    Get dragged off by the cops, as Kirsh was, in 1988 and return to Elizabeth St. in 1999, and what are you going to think? Boutiques stand plump and full where, as recently as 10 years ago, there stumbled the last vestigial guidos on pills, and where hoods peddled smack to white dopers. And guys still got their heads smashed in alleys. And fat white dudes waddled toward conspiratorial Mulberry St. storefronts.

    And the Joseph Kirshes of the world emerged from bunkers to boil rats. It's too perfect. Kirsh returns now, a bearded, eldritch Christ come?whether he knows it or not?to torch the moneylenders and avenge his time.

    "Gunlord's fortress stormed," reads the headline of the April 14, 1988 Daily News. In the photo, the scraggly Kirsh squints beyond the photograph's frame, his face lit by sun while a pompadoured cop points into the distance. Their eyes share a path toward some distant vanishing point. They're both in on some weird joke. Both of them, after all?New York cop and New York madman?are acquainted with the bottoms of barrels.

    The testimonials written by Kirsh's tenants back the 1980s are mindblowing.

    "B??, the tenant who lived in my apartment before me," reads one, "was attacked by one of the dogs, which partially ripped his right arm off. He was in St. Vincent's hospital with extreme nerve damage, not knowing if he could ever use his arm again (he was a painter, like me) and the Kirshes found out he was thinking of suing. When he came back with his arm all done up, Joseph tried to strangle him... A guy...who lives across the street saw B?? stumble bleeding out the door."

    Another tenant accuses the Kirshes of "pounding on our door systematically three or four times daily, day in and day out, at all hours, even after midnight, accompanied by pitbull dogs... On June 25th (1987), again accompanied by at least one pitbull dog, they kicked our door in."

    The statement continues: "we have experienced the following:... opened our mailbox on three occasions to find ashes and evidence of fires inside; had our door locks jammed with broken off toothpicks, this occurring six times; had dog feces smeared onto our door and left at our doorstep numerous times, including on five occasions, having had the feces actually forced into our door locks and smeared over our door 'look-out' hole..."

    And then autobiographical testament of Mara Kirsh, in court papers: "...charged with sending threatening letters and having rifles in our possession which we were not allowed to have because of our prior state convictions... Joseph and I were ordered to undergo psychiatric..."

    Psychiatric what? Psychiatric evaluation? Why? You assume the temporal hole will close soon, and this man and woman will go elsewhere in time.