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Nicole Gelinas
Criminal Mischief
The New York Times romanticizes violent felons into impulsive hipsters.
24 May 2005

“A crush on a pretty photographer, a stunt gone awry and a Lower East Side artist . . . lands in unhip prison green,” the New York Times intoned on the front page of its May 22 “City” section. “Even now, four years later, people who know Simon Curtis still can’t believe the odd series of events that led him to spend the last year in jail.”

Readers might find themselves intrigued at this point: Curtis’s tale must be a Kafka-esque one of an innocent man thrown in jail for no good reason and unable to clear his good name, right? But as they read on, they’ll soon discover that Curtis is in fact an impulsive, violent criminal with a reckless disregard for human life. So with New York now into its second decade of renaissance, made possible by elected leaders who pledged to call criminals criminals and enforce the law to throw them in jail, the Times still feels compelled to romanticize a segment of the criminal population, personified in this case by an overeducated Manhattan lowlife the paper calls an “unmerry prankster.”

First, the facts. In July 2001, Curtis, an alcohol and drug abuser, attended an art opening at a Brooklyn gallery. He liked a $500 photograph on show there, a semi-nude self-portrait of the photographer, whom he knew. Curtis, drunk, stole it off the wall. The gallery’s proprietor, Heather Stephens, spotted him, however, and chased him out the door, with her partner, Michael Delmonte. Curtis climbed into a waiting getaway truck, driven by his friend (and fellow lowlife) Sam Salganik. But just before Salganik could drive away, Stephens jumped or was pulled into the back seat of the truck and Delmote splayed himself on its hood. Salganik and Curtis then endangered their robbery victims’ lives—and the lives of pedestrians and other drivers—by careening away at 50 miles per hour through the streets of New York. Delmonte banged on the car so desperately that he smashed the windshield.

Finally, Salganik stopped the car and repeatedly assaulted Delmonte as Curtis stood by; Stephens ran off with the photograph. The police eventually tracked down Curtis and his driver and arrested them. Salganik served a prison sentence, but Curtis skipped court. A couple of years went by, while he hid in plain sight on the Lower East Side, spraying graffiti. Eventually called to account, he pled guilty to robbery and is now serving a one- to three-year sentence in an upstate prison.

If Curtis and his accomplice were a couple of poor black kids who stole $500 worth of cigarettes from a bodega and assaulted the store owner as they made their getaway, they’d hardly get a two-page color spread in the Sunday Times. But Curtis and Salganik, you see, are tortured Lower East Side artistes. So Times reporter Steven Kurutz, enabled by his editors, depicts the anti-social behavior of two now-convicted criminals through a rose-colored lens. He treats their story as another chapter in the never-ending tale of the raucous, over-aged “youth” who supposedly make Manhattan so cool and fun for the rest of us.

Kurutz describes Curtis as “tall and affable, with a shy inwardness befitting a teenagehood spent alone in the bedroom drawing comics and pouring [sic] over heavy metal and punk records.” The now-35-year-old Curtis (“a disarming mix of man and boy”), we learn, grew up in affluent Maplewood, N.J. Then, unlike many of New York’s other convicted criminals, he enjoyed the luxury of a college education at the expensive School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.

But after graduation, Curtis had no interest in a life filled with such bourgeois goals as a steady job, so he and his friends spent much of the decade leading up to the 2001 crime taking drugs and defacing apartment buildings with graffiti. To hear the Times tell it, though, Curtis bravely hung on to his youthful spirit well into his mid-30s, hanging out with drug-abusers and shoplifters, courageously moving back in with his parents when he ran out of money. “It’s not easy staying hip,” Curtis told Kurutz.

The Times’s romantic gloss on Curtis’s unproductive life is bad enough. But the paper’s depiction of the 2001 crime is shocking. Kurutz mildly refers to the violent robbery as a “juvenile prank” on a “fateful” evening—an evening that ushered in “a blunt intrusion of law and order into a carefree world.” Kurutz also describes the crime as a “spur-of-the-moment” thing and a “crazy stunt.”

Kurutz doesn’t seem to realize that lots of crimes, even serious ones, are “spur-of-the-moment”—the thugs who allegedly killed Nicole DuFresne on a Lower East Side street earlier this year, for instance, have told police that they didn’t set out to murder anyone that night. An inability to control impulse has never excused criminal behavior, and it’s no justification either for a 2,700-word narrative about how “downtown meets the real world.”

The Times expresses little concern for gallery owner Stephens. Shortly after the crime, she began seeing a therapist. “Have you ever been kidnapped? Have you ever been assaulted? . . . I’m sorry. I’m having flashbacks about it right now,” she tells the paper. Stephens, with a real career and a productive life to live when she isn’t being robbed and—as she believes, though this charge wasn’t pursued—kidnapped, isn’t as thrilling as Curtis and similar miscreants, it seems.

Nor does the Times expect Curtis to apologize to his victims or to society in general, or worry overmuch about his rehabilitation in prison. Curtis has spent prison life listening to the Velvet Underground and Slayer and reading Vice magazine to stay in touch with what his reprobate friends are doing. With these activities, he has “taken his sentence in stride,” the Times informs us approvingly. “I think about it way too much,” Curtis said of the crime, not because he feels bad for his victims or ashamed of what he did, but because, it seems, he still can’t understand why a prankster like himself ended up in a state prison. It’s obvious that Curtis hasn’t made much of an effort while in prison to re-examine his life or change his ways after he is paroled later this year.

The paper of record just can’t hide the fact that its reporter and editors think Curtis is better than the other criminals who share prison life with him. Kurutz notes that Curtis has had to attend vocational classes, “despite his college degree.” The horror! The Times neglects to mention that since Curtis never parlayed his expensive degree into a law-abiding existence before his conviction for a serious crime, perhaps some vo-tech might do him good.

The article is a reminder to all those who have worked so hard to overcome destructive liberal nostrums over the past two decades and take New York back from the criminals. Smart urbanists can never stop paying attention, not even for a second. The Times is still willing to let the worst of New York bring the rest of us down, and then write romantic stories to tell us all about it while we cower in our graffiti-covered apartments.

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More by Nicole Gelinas:
All the World’s Not a Stage
Progressive Impatience
New York’s Next Public Safety Revolution
More . . .
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