After wandering in the urban wilderness for more than 20 years, New York Law School students finally have a dormitory of their own. The Promised Land is a brand-new 13-story building on East Third Street, where up to 99 law students will soon live and study amidst the music of angels.
Hell’s Angels, that is. The infamous motorcycle gang inhabits the building right next-door: a dingy, six-story tenement that has been the club’s local headquarters for more than three decades. Their comings and goings are heralded with throaty blasts from Harley-Davidson tailpipes, and their block parties are the stuff of legend. Though middle age has mellowed the Angels-their latest noteworthy weapons bust, for a couple of knives, a dagger and pistol, dates back to last year-it’s hard to imagine them baking cookies for the housewarming next-door.
“The fact that they tolerated this invasion of their territory is kind of amazing to me,” marveled George Bliss, who operated a pedicab hub adjacent to the Angels’ clubhouse before the dorm took its place. He recalled the days when tour buses would troll his block, looking for grit: Angels would rise to the occasion, hoisting bricks overhead and menacing the glassed-in out-of-towners. One prankster, he added, liked to crack a bullwhip on the hoods of passing cars.
“I’m sure they feel squeezed,” he said. “I still occasionally see those guys, and they have nothing but curses for their neighbors. The shit hasn’t hit the fan yet with whoever’s going to go in and out of that dorm building, and park their cars in front of that building.”
Indeed, the Angels are notoriously possessive of their parking. On the front of their clubhouse, a sign reads: “No Parking Except Authorized Hell’s Angels,” and they’ve been known to put cones and saw horses in the street to reserve room for their bikes. Cars have ended up with slashed tires.
But where some folks see chaos, Alta Levat, the associate dean for public affairs at New York Law School, paints a cozy (if eclectic) portrait of scholastic domesticity.
“The East Village is a wonderful place to live, full of students and young people and all sorts of wonderful people,” she said. Has she considered a certain subset of those wonderful people, the Hell’s Angels? “Well, we’re very familiar with the neighborhood, and we don’t have any concerns about that,” she said.
Ms. Levat added that the law school has been exploring the real-estate market for 20 years and that, to abate the housing shortage, some students have been bunking at Brooklyn Polytechnic. “When we located this building, it was just so ideal that we moved ahead with our planning and incorporated it with our plans for the new academic year,” she said. The school signed a long-term lease in May.
Students will start moving in on Aug. 1, and there’s already a waiting list for rooms. Rent will range from $1,000 to $1,600 per bedroom, arranged in suites with private kitchens and balconies-some offer a pleasant view of the Angels’ roof deck-all just a 20-minute commute from the school’s campus in Tribeca. The dormitory is strictly nonsmoking and, as Ms. Levat was quick to point out, it will be monitored by a 24-hour security force.
The students’ security system, however, will have nothing on the one next-door, where six closed-circuit cameras festoon the façade of the Angels’ lair. If that’s not enough to ward off interlopers, there’s a tiny peephole nestled into the socket of a leering skull on the front door, along with a brass plaque that bears a eulogy for ex-Angel (Big Vinny) Girolamo, 1948-1979: “When In Doubt, Knock ‘Em Out.”
The students and the Angels both have a vested interest in the law, and in a perfect world one can imagine a symbiosis taking root: The gruff but affable Angels would recognize that they’ve gained a valuable resource right next-door, in the form of free legal services. And the law students would acquire experience, and a dash of thrilling glamour, while defending the Angels in court.
Meanwhile, however, this is Manhattan we’re talking about, and so a local community group-Committee for Zoning Inaction-sprang up to protest the dorm’s height. They complain that the building’s developer used special zoning privileges to erect extra stories.
“This is sort of the Trojan dorm,” said Richard Kusack, who assembled the group. “People find it really out of scale.”
According to The Villager, on April 26 “a crowd of about 80 angry residents” gathered outside the law-school dorm, demanding that the city’s Department of Buildings revoke the permit and chanting, “Take the floors down!”
Community activists aside, do the law students need to be nervous about their neighbors?
Don Muldoon is a retired cop who served the “Fighting Ninth” Precinct for 26 years and got to know a colorful assortment of Angels. They had nicknames like the Elephant Man, the Preacher and Mike the Bike, he recalled.
“They’re not the nicest people in the world. I mean, they would cut your leg off in a heartbeat,” he said. “But the funny part was, there was very little crime on their block, although we did find some unconscious people lying there once in awhile, you know? Of questionable moral fiber.
“You’ll guarantee these kids are from Neverget, Long Island, or Sheepshank, Idaho, or something,” he said. “And they’re living in the big city here.” He paused a moment to contemplate students from corn-fed America living cheek-by-jowl with the Hell’s Angels. “Oh … my … God,” he said slowly.
Mr. Muldoon left the force in 1991. Nowadays, the Angels fall under the jurisdiction of Inspector James McCarthy, the commanding officer of the Ninth Precinct.
“In October, I arrested one of the Hell’s Angels for attempting to break the window of my car,” said Inspector McCarthy. He explained that he’d been responding to a complaint-apparently, the Angels had wrecked a parked car by puncturing its radiator with a screwdriver. He’d crept up to the clubhouse in an unmarked cruiser, double-parked it and was walking back down the block when ….
“One of them was about to break my window when somebody yelled, ‘Police!’” Inspector McCarthy recalled. “He threw his hammer up to the second-floor fire escape, and somebody took it in. I arrested the individual. He was charged with attempted criminal mischief and possession of a dangerous weapon.”
The bikers are also possessive of their outdoor furnishings. During a recent visit, a burly fellow with a Hell’s Angels belt buckle cinched around his considerable waist emerged from the clubhouse to inform a reporter that she had been sitting on the club’s “private bench.”
“We don’t give interviews, and we’d like you to leave,” he explained coolly. “And that’s a private bench right there.”
Neighbors confirmed that the bench had recently received a new coat of blood-red paint. Under normal circumstances, it bears a sign that says: “GETAWAY [ sic]: PRIVATE BENCH.”
“Stop barking, Pollicino. Stop!”
Pollicino, a male Yorkshire terrier, was circling around Baroness Mariuccia Zerilli-Marimò’s feet. Through an enormous window behind the baroness, one could see Central Park blossoming. It was a breathtaking vision-though not as astonishing as the 79-year-old baroness, who was wearing a little red dress by Raffaella Curiel, bicolored shoes and a blue long-sleeve sweater laid on her shoulders, with thick caramel-blond hair that was surely styled by Sophia Loren’s hairdresser.
Baroness Mariuccia is the widow of Baron Guido Zerilli-Marimò, chairman of Ledoga-Lepetit, a Milan-based pharmaceutical empire. She was an employee at the company, a girl in her 20′s, when she married the much older Sicilian chairman. When the company merged with Dow Chemicals in the 1960′s, the baron retired, became a lecturer, an ambassador of the Order of Malta to Ethiopia and Portugal, and a member of the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques of the Institut de France.
Their marriage was a happy one: Pope Paul VI gave them a blessing for their silver wedding anniversary. (The couple had property in Castelgandolfo, the same town where the Pope’s summer residence is located; the land later became a golf club.)
When the baron died in 1981, the baroness inherited his fortune.
While she is highly connected in New York society-a donor to the Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall, the City Opera and the New York Philharmonic, for example-she is also an anomaly: She is conservative. She is reverently Catholic. She has never been chased by paparazzi. She had just one love affair, and it became a marriage.
“She seems to be frozen in the 50′s,” said a Rome correspondent for a prominent newspaper who didn’t wish to be named.
“She is really a benefactress,” said Antonio Monda, professor at the Department of Film and Television of the Tisch School of the Arts in New York, who appears as himself in Wes Anderson’s movie The Life Aquatic.
Her apartment is filled with hundreds of porcelains, red damasks, Mario dei Fiori paintings, a Baldwin piano and plenty of embroidered armchairs.
“I do the embroidery myself,” the baroness said. ” I do the petit point-a needlepoint worked in fine yarn on very small, single-thread canvas. It relaxes me. It’s like playing Chopin.”
“Most of them from Saxony. I always bring them with me, moving from one town to another.”
She used to live in Milan, in the English-style Perego Gardens, in a house designed by the architect Giò Ponti. “I sold the Milan apartment 18 years ago, when I decided to move to New York and dedicate myself to spreading the Italian culture in the U.S., which was one of my husband’s goals,” she said.
In 1987, for about $5 million, she purchased and renovated a 19th-century house a few blocks from Washington Square. She donated the house-which had once been the home of the19th-century American general Winfield Scott-to New York University, and it became the Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò, home of the Department of Italian Studies. The department hosts about 100 events each year.
“I do not have a family here; Casa Zerilli-Marimò is my New York family,” she said.
In Europe, she has her real family: a daughter, Maria Chiara Zerilli-Marimò, married to a Polish count, and a 17-year-old grandson.
The New York apartment is full of portraits of the baron. They married in Lausanne, Switzerland. She sobbed looking at a ring with the Zerilli-Marimò blazon set in a deep blue sapphire surrounded by diamonds.
“His partner in Lepetit was Roberto Lepetit, the heir of the family who founded the chemical company,” she said. “Roberto was deported to the concentration camp of Ebensee in Austria, after the Nazis discovered that he and my husband had been hiding medicines behind a wall for the Italian insurgents. He died in Ebensee the day before the Allies liberated the camp.”
The baron, she said, loved America: “In 1946, he flew here on a military plane. It took 48 hours from Milan to New York.”
Nine years ago, said Professor Leonardo Losito, who used to work with the baron, “the baroness asked me to go the airport and welcome her husband. ‘Which husband?’ I wondered. ‘Didn’t the baron die? Had she gone completely crazy?’”
“Please,” she’d pleaded, “go and take my husband home.”
Mr. Losito discovered that she was referring to a dark bronze bust, which now stands at the entrance of the Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò.
A fervent Catholic, Baroness Mariuccia is a member of the delegation of the permanent mission of the Holy See to the United Nations. When the former apostolic nuncio, Renato Martino, now archbishop, asked her to join the mission as a volunteer, she cheered. “I go to the United Nations and listen,” she said. “Every year, I print a book in Italian with a collection of summaries of the head of state’s speeches at the General Assembly.”
The baroness is also a Dame of Grace and Devotion of the Sovereign Order of Malta.
“It’s the oldest order of chivalry of Christianity,” she said. “Its principle is defense of the faith, assistance to the poor and care of the suffering. It was born at the time of the First Crusade. The Order is a sovereign subject of international law, with its own constitution, passports, stamps and public institutions. At just eight acres, the Order’s headquarters in Rome is the world’s smallest sovereign state, but it counts 11,000 dames and knights throughout the world.”
She disappeared for a moment and returned with a black cape with red lining, decorated by a white cross and four lilies. She said she wears the cape “on pilgrimages with the suffering, or at ceremonies.”
Does she cook?
“I don’t have time,” she said, noting that she has a favorite caterer, Jolanda Garretti, founder of Acquolina Catering on Third Avenue. In May, Ms. Garretti catered the Casa Italiana’s annual board meeting: risotto with pears and veal marinated in a tuna sauce.
“There was a fantastic cake with pineapple as well. I served me twice, which is not good for my weight,” the baroness said with a smile.
Sun was flooding through the Central Park South apartment. The baroness said that, with summer coming, she would soon leave Manhattan for Monaco, where she is a resident.
Whenever I’m invited to a dinner party, I get an idea of how it will go. I stare at the invitation and imagine the dining-room table in the sconce light. The wine is flowing and, like Italians, we will smoke after the meal. There are about a dozen of us. We tell tall tales and laugh our asses off. It’s nice. And then I actually go to the dinner party-only to find myself in a rented hall filled with 300 people. The food circulates on trays carried by pissed-off actors. These are the only dinner parties I ever get invited to, the ones for 300 people. But somehow the invitation tricks me every time. I should know better by now.
But I wanted to tell you about 376 Hudson. That’s the address of the United States Passport Agency. I had to get a new passport recently, and so I ended up there.
I gathered the necessary forms at a post office and filled them out in advance. I wanted to be ready. And I had a pretty good idea of how it would go. Now, sure, I’ve seen the line that forms outside 376 Hudson. I didn’t arrive in New York yesterday. I knew I would be standing in that line. It would be shady, though, I correctly predicted, with the rising sun blocked by the building.
I could see myself going through the security checkpoint. I would probably set off the beep. I was prepared for that. They would run that radio-stick, or whatever it is, up and down my body, and it would make a staticky sound at my crotch. Then I would wait in another line, receive a number, and then it would be my turn to go up five flights of stairs.
The passport agents would not be like other bureaucrats. They would have a dash of elegance. They would enjoy their work. I would see them passing in the halls, chatting about this and that. One would mention the movie 3 Iron, and his colleague would reply with a wisecrack about Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Eventually, my name would be called. I would be sent to office No. 12.
I would pass green door after green door. Each would have a window of fogged glass. I would grab the doorknob for No. 12 and turn it. The office would be shabby, but it would at least provide its inhabitant with the dignity of privacy. A few volumes of an out-of-date encyclopedia would line a metal bookshelf-and over there, almanacs and telephone books. Beside these would be stacks of fresh U.S. passports, all of them blank on the inside.
At first, the agent would not look up at me. He would be wearing a white shirt, sleeves rolled up, tie knotted up to the neck, hair a little greasy. He would be staring down at the papers on his desk-my papers-as a fan turned on a swivel in the corner. Venetian blinds would make the sunlight bearable.
“Mr. Maynes, is it?” he would say, staring down at the sheet.
“Yes, it is.”
“Sure now?” He would lean back. The chair would squeak. He would tap the eraser end of his pencil on the metal surface of his desk. Crazy music would play in my mind.
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“Good. Have a seat. Planning a visit to old Mexico, are we?”
“Well, I am, at least.”
“Very good, Mr. Maynes. Know something? I haven’t taken a proper vacation in two years. Not one. Can you believe it? Here I sit, day after day, helping others visit destinations far and wide, and yet …. Ironic, don’t you think so?”
“I suppose it is.”
“Rainy this time of year in old Mexico.”
“All I know is what I read in the guide books.”
“And what do they say, Mr. Maynes?”
“They say the rains are more frequent the farther south one travels in that country. They also say that they are more likely to come later in the summer.”
“Is that so? Fascinating. Will you be going there for business or pleasure?”
“Going all by yourself?”
“I don’t see how that’s any of business of yours, Mr. …. ” I would take a look at the nameplate on his desk. “Mr. Chen.”
“Ah, but it is my business, Mr. Maynes. It is my business indeed. Guess you might say I’m Uncle Sam’s eyes and ears. Uncle Sam doesn’t ask much of us, but now and then he likes to check in with his ‘nephews’ and ‘nieces.’ I ask you again: Will you be traveling alone?”
“The wife. With the wife.”
“Very good, Mr. Maynes.”
He would study my papers more intensely and with a worried air. How I would squirm! But suddenly he would break out his rubber stamp and press it to the inkpad. With flying hands, he would make mark after mark on page after page. And then he would pass them to me.
“Your passport will be ready shortly, Mr. Maynes.”
“Don’t thank me. I was merely doing my job.”
“Thanks all the same.”
I would get up to leave. As I stepped out, he would say, “Mr. Maynes?”
I would look back at Mr. Chen one last time, saying, “Yes?”
“Have a nice trip.”
All of this was going through my mind at 376 Hudson as I stood in a large, featureless room talking to a man who sat in a tiny space behind a thick wall of bulletproof glass. The time was 2:13 p.m. The passport agent was one of a dozen or so bureaucrats seated in a row, all of them behind the bulletproof glass like mere postal employees.
“Mr. Maynes? Mr. Maynes?”
“I’m sorry, I …. “
“Go to will-call.”
“Can I get it today? I’m leaving in a couple days. I need the-”
“It says on your ticket.”
I checked the ticket and went over to the will-call area, where I waited in a plastic bucket chair for another hour and a half. Then I heard my name coming over a tinny loudspeaker.