Toes of an Architect: Zen Client Fondles Feet

On a weekday morning in mid-June, Steven Lazen answered the phone at Slade Architecture, a small design firm in lower Manhattan. The caller said that his name was Marcus. Marcus told Mr. Lazen that he had a Brooklyn property to renovate: 2,200 square feet, $650,000 budget. The firm set up a meeting for later that afternoon.

Before getting off the phone, Marcus made one last request: He was a devout Japanese Buddhist, he told Mr. Lazen, and he believed in the spiritual importance of feet. As such, he would need the Slade employees to strip out of their shoes and socks upon his arrival. At that point, Marcus explained, he would perform a Buddhist foot blessing for all of the men in the office. Not the women. Just the men.

“He didn’t say whether or not there would be any touching or anything like that,” Mr. Lazen said. “But that’s a good-sized project and a decent budget. So we thought, ‘Hey, we could do something like that.’”

Slade was not the first New York firm to hear the foot-blessing pitch, nor the only one willing to consider it.

Matthew Bremer, a principal at a small firm called Architecture in Formation, received a phone call from Marcus in the summer of 2004. Marcus told Mr. Bremer that he had inherited some money from his uncle and had bought an apartment in Brooklyn, which he wanted to convert into a Buddhist sanctuary of sorts.

“He said he really loved the relationship between space and spirituality,” said Mr. Bremer. “He knew just enough about how to talk to an architect to pull it off.”

Shortly thereafter, a barefoot Mr. Bremer greeted Marcus at his offices in midtown and looked him over. The would-be client was a short African-American man in his late 20’s or early 30’s.

“He came across as the most eccentric, quirky little character,” recalled Mr. Bremer. “His most distinguishing feature is that he’s just incredibly gaunt. He almost seemed crippled.”

Under Mr. Bremer’s watchful eye, Marcus walked around the office, greeting each of a handful of male designers before dropping to the floor to bless each one in turn. For several long minutes, he rubbed and caressed their naked feet.

Like several other designers who have met with Marcus, Mr. Bremer said there was nothing overtly sexual about the foot blessings. There was no grunting, no heavy breathing. Just some good, clean hand-on-foot action.

The firm never heard from Marcus again.

The story has played out over and over, with minor variations. Eric Gering, an architect with a solo practice on Madison Avenue, went through the Marcus experience in 2005. Come foot-blessing time, Marcus requested that Mr. Gering close his eyes and remain silent. “I didn’t feel threatened by him,” said Mr. Gering. “He seemed harmless.”

Gordon Kipping, a principal at G Tects, met with Marcus about two years ago. “I was convinced that when he walked in, it would actually be a friend of mine holding a camera and working on a newspaper article called ‘What Architects Will Do to Get a Job!’” said Mr. Kipping.

Instead, Marcus showed up at Mr. Kipping’s offices sporting a pair of white basketball shoes and a short Afro, which Mr. Kipping described as “not very stylish.” Mr. Kipping proceeded to walk Marcus around the office, introducing him to a team of barefoot designers.

At one point, Mr. Kipping asked Marcus what he did for a living. “I can’t remember exactly what he said,” said Mr. Kipping. “But it was something that didn’t equate with having a million-dollar apartment. He said he had recently moved here from the Bay Area.”

Half an hour later, Marcus left without blessing a single foot. “Maybe I wasn’t cute enough,” Mr. Kipping said.

Ronald Evitts, an architect with an office in midtown, halted the foot-blessing routine himself. “Our little conference area is not very private,” said Mr. Evitts. “Others were observing the proceedings. It might have even progressed to taking off my shoes. I started getting a little worried. Basically, I dismissed him.”

With interior designer Doug Stiles, Marcus never made it past the phone call. “At first, I was excited about the possibility of doing something very Zen,” recalled Mr. Stiles. “With the spirituality, it sounded like the project had a nice backbone to it.”

“I kind of realized at some point in the conversation that he wasn’t playing with a full deck of cards,” added Mr. Stiles. “My intuition told me, ‘This is nuts.’”

Architect Martin Finio, a principal at the Tribeca-based firm Christoff:Finio, also put his foot down. “He told me that he would bless my feet, which would give me three months of prosperity,” said Mr. Finio. “I told him, ‘With all due respect, I have plenty of prosperity as it is, and I have no interest in taking off my shoes and socks in your presence in my office.’”

Slade Architecture also fell through for Marcus. After getting off the phone, Mr. Lazen and his co-workers turned to the Internet for a crash course on Japanese Buddhism. Someone in the office typed “Buddhist foot blessing” into a search engine, which turned up a post on the Gutter, a New York architecture blog, warning readers “Guard Your Feet.”

On the site, an anonymous architect described Marcus caressing a co-worker’s feet while “grunting in pleasure.” Several readers had tacked on comments describing their own Marcus encounters.

When Marcus called back a few hours later, Slade cancelled the meeting. “We thought it was really funny slash a little creepy,” said Mr. Lazen.

Afterward, James Slade, one of the principals at the firm, sent out a group e-mail to other designers in New York warning them about Marcus. “I assume most of you will want to stay away from him,” wrote Mr. Slade. “If not, let me know how it goes.”

To date, in seemingly every encounter with architects, Marcus has been careful to leave behind little more than footprints: no e-mail address. No working cell-phone number. No business card.

At one point, Mr. Gering asked Marcus if he would leave his contact information so that Mr. Gering could send him some follow-up information. On the back of one of Mr. Gering’s business cards, Marcus wrote, “Marc Stevens, 207 Prospect Park, S.W. Brooklyn, N.Y. 11218.”

That address leads to a boxy brick apartment building overlooking Prospect Park. None of the building’s 40 or so mailboxes bear the name Marcus or Marc Stevens. The most recent Cole directory for the building also fails to show any “Marcus” or anyone with the last name Stevens. The building’s super said that nobody by that name lived there. One tenant, according to the super, vaguely matched Marcus’ physical description. But upon further investigation: no Marcus.

Unlike some other foot enthusiasts, Marcus has also avoided the jailhouse. This past spring, police arrested a foot-licking Brooklynite for forcibly grabbing, stroking and kissing the feet of various stricken women on New York subway cars. Around the same time, the cops picked up another young Brooklyn foothound who had grabbed the legs of several women on the street, manhandled their feet and run off with their shoes—all while wearing a Superman costume.

According to a spokesperson for the New York County District Attorney’s office, nobody matching Marcus’ description has been prosecuted in the area.

Dr. Louis Schlesinger, a professor of forensic psychology at John Jay College whose area of expertise is sexually motivated antisocial acts, said that Marcus’ behavior is most likely driven by sexual desire more than a simple love of good architecture.

When briefed on Marcus’ modus operandi, Dr. Schlesinger said it was the first time he’s heard of a man ritually targeting other men’s feet. “Most of it is men obsessed with women’s feet,” said Dr. Schlesinger. “But he could be gay.”

In Dr. Schlesinger’s opinion, Marcus is toeing the line between the slightly creepy and the outright dangerous. “Will it escalate into something more serious?” said Dr. Schlesinger. “Who knows? But could it? Yeah. This is beyond the realm of fantasy; it’s even beyond the realm of engaging in this type of behavior with a consensual person. He’s acting out. And he’s doing it in a slick, sort of manipulative way. This is what is gratifying and stimulating to him. He won’t get enough of it.”

Or is Marcus actually just trying to bless people’s feet? That’s not likely, according to Dr. Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University. Over the years, Dr. Thurman has become a Buddhist monk, fathered Uma Thurman and befriended the Dalai Lama. But he has never witnessed a Japanese Buddhist foot blessing. “I never heard of such a thing,” he wrote via e-mail. “Totally made up. Amazing foot scam!”

So Marcus remains at large, free to pursue footsy with whatever firm may take his call.

“Given that we’re all young and hungry enough and kind of architectural whores, when somebody calls and says they want a Buddhist Zen monastery slash cool, bitching apartment—and have a half-a-million-dollar budget—we usually return their phone calls,” said Mr. Bremer. “And if they want to touch our feet, well, fine.” Toes of an Architect:  Zen Client Fondles Feet