Things Fall Apart

This is a change of pace, but I’ve taken to writing short stories. I hope you enjoy this – and I’d love constructive criticism. This story includes strong language.

The Second Coming 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre 
The falcon cannot hear the falconer; 
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; 
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere 
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; 
The best lack all conviction, while the worst 
Are full of passionate intensity. 

— WB Yeates 

°°°

FRIDAY IN BROOKLYN 

He remembers when New York was perfect – clean, vibrant, joyous. That was when his father was alive – a burly, sure man on the gym floor, spot checking machines and joking with customers. Those were the years of Christmas Eves at Rockefeller Center and days at the skating rink. When the snow stayed white even on the ground. 

Dan wakes up early today. Unlike his father, God rest his soul, Dan cleans every machine thoroughly, starting from the top and working his way methodically down across the weights, the pads, the springs. He mops the floor and re-mops it. Because there’s time left he goes into the locker rooms and patiently cleans each locker, using an old toothbrush and a cleaning solution in a spray bottle. 

Then he sits at the front counter, waiting for customers. Dan is used to waiting. Nobody comes in today. 

At 5:00 pm Dan goes into a locker room, showers and puts on a shirt and tie. He meticulously polishes his glasses with special solution and returns the solution to its storage place. Then he turns off all the lights in the gym. He locks the front door and walks to Jerry’s. 

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Jerry’s is the opposite of Dan’s memory of New York, yet also a cornerstone, because it exists exactly as it was when his father was alive (In fact, it’s where his father gave him his first beer, a rite of passage). It’s among a dying breed of New York bars, those with dusty windows and Budweiser on ice. Christmas lights and shamrocks strewn across the back of the bar in the least festive way. The first twenty dollar bill taped to the cash register and covered in dust. A sign reading, “No tabs.” It’s the kind of bar that would be ruined by thorough cleaning. Dan starts adjusting a stack of Miller Light coasters so they’re perfectly aligned, a tower with straight edges. 

“You’re driving me nuts with that,” says the aging, yellow-haired bartender, whose name is Sharlene. 

“Sorry. I want things to be perfect. I’m meeting a date.” 

“Here?” 

Dan orders a Budweiser. Why did he tell his date to meet him at Jerry’s? He hadn’t thought about it. Maybe he wanted her to know something about where he comes from. Still, he decides he’d better plan something more impressive than straightening coasters. He takes out his phone, thinking he’ll check the Village Voice to see if there are any events today. Instead, he finds himself at the website where he met the his date today. No new messages. Dan feels deflated. 

“Oh, this motherfucker don’t got my number saved… It’s Tiffany, but how come you don’t got my number saved?” 

The young woman at the other end of the bar is with a friend but talking to someone on the phone. 

“Hon, take that outside,” Sharlene says. 

“You wouldn’t say that to a white person.” 

“I treat everyone the same as long as they pay their tab.” 

“Whatever.” The young woman pays her tab and leaves.

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It’s true, Dan thought – Sharlene wouldn’t say that to a white woman. She’s pissed, though. She only calls people hon if she dislikes them. Sharlene takes a pack of Marlboro Lights from inside the cash register and begins to pack it against the palm of her hand, one, two, three, four taps against her wedding band. 

Dan suddenly feels as though he’s covered in hot, dirty, sweaty rags. “Excuse me,” he says to Sharlene (Sharlene doesn’t respond), and he walks to the men’s room, where he checks to make sure his fly is aligned with his tie and shirt buttons. He splashes cold water on his face and combs his hair again. When he returns to his place at the bar he feels like he’s seeing and hearing the world through a layer of water. 

This date is going to be a nightmare, Dan thinks. 

Television: “Grant… consistent improvement in the off-season… twisted ankle last March. He could really… most valuable free agents out there… you can’t top Grant for… Stay with us. Coming up: my top 10 free agents…” 

“Another fucking commercial,” Sharlene muttered, removing the unlit cigarette from her lips. “Just tell me if my Giants won.” 

Dan offers to look up the game on his phone and Sharlene threatens to cut him off. “Hearing it from the sportscaster is part of the experience. Looking it up on your damned gadget, that’s no experience.” She recovers the cigarette. “I’m going for a smoke.” 

Television: “…get lean and fit the easy way with AbCruncher. Join millions of…” 

“Can you turn that thing off please?” Dan says. “Machines like that are why people have stopped coming to my gym.” 

“I’ll change it,” Sharlene says. “…authorities say he was a lone wolf acting without the support of a terrorist organization…” “…ran a populist campaign where he energized his supporters with a constant stream of Twitter updates…” “…latest update from a blogger…” “Give me a vowel, Alex.” “There,” Sharlene says. Then she leaves. 

“Just missed the bartender,” Dan says to a man who walks into the bar and sits down next to him. “Sorry.” For some reason he feels genuinely at fault. Why is that? 

“No pasa nada,” the man replies. “It’s OK.” He takes a pouch from the pocket of his loose flannel shirt and begins rolling what Dan hopes are cigarettes. 

“Are you just getting off work?” Dan asks with effort. 

“I make my own hours.” The man drives for Uber, does landscaping and makes furniture. He has big rough hands and a bushy mustache; he is a man. 

“I’d hate to have to do so much.” 

“It’s better that way. If I had to stay in one place all week I’d go crazy. Unfortunately, business isn’t good these days.” 

“Everything was better in the past.” 

The man with many jobs believes nostalgia, like religion, is a crutch for the weak. That just as there is no God, things were not really better in the past. However, he does not know how to put this into words so he only shrugs. “No pasa nada,” he says again. 

Sharlene comes back and gives the man a Corona. Dan finds himself straightening the stack of Miller Light coasters again. Sharlene picks the coasters up and moves them to the opposite end of the bar. 

“I remember my first date with Jerry,” she says, resting a hand and dish rag on her hip. “My girlfriend Molly set us up. She tells me, ‘‘There’s this fella from the neighborhood who’s seen you around and wants to meet you. I think he’s an asshole. Real player.’ He’d just gotten back from Vietnam; I figured he’s entitled to be an asshole. Still, I thought I’d better be careful, not go to any unfamiliar places with him, just use common sense. But the moment I see him he says, ‘Come with me. Just come with me. Trust me.’ He’s wearing a suit and tie and he’s got this big dopey smile. It turns out he set up a big Italian meal on the rooftop of his building with candles and paper plates on a card table. I knew in that moment that I’d marry this man.” 

Something about the story strikes Dan as beautiful. Two people meeting and falling for each other; two souls in a complicated world. He asks for another Budweiser. 

It’s 9 o’clock. Dan says he doesn’t think his date is showing up. He’s relieved but also disappointed, and anxious as he anticipates more online messages and more first dates. 

Sharlene gives him the beer on the house. “Plenty of fish,” she says.

One of Brooklyn’s worst slumlords is a man of many names

Landlord Barry Hers seems to use a variety of aliases to stay in business and continue profiting off of vulnerable families.

I’m about to tell you a complex, tangled story. It’s about a Brooklyn landlord whose history seems to include bankrupting an Israeli village, assaulting his own daughter, threatening tenants and leaving his buildings in deplorable conditions.

As his story unfolds, one thing becomes increasingly baffling: New York City’s homeless department seems to have either been indifferent to his heinous record or didn’t know about it when it entrusted hundreds of vulnerable families to his care.

This is the case against a man with many names. One of them is Barry Hers.

°°°°°

I first became aware of Barry Hers in August 2005 when the New York Times printed a front-page story on a shelter he ran in my neighborhood. The article described the 83-unit building, which housed both shelter and rent-paying tenents, as dire:

Beyond the unlocked front doors of 60 Clarkson Avenue in Brooklyn, the lobby is a half-lit cavern, its ornate plaster moldings and patterned floor smeared with dirt. The windows gape onto a courtyard dense with weeds and trash. On the days when it comes at all, the elevator smells of urine.

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According to the story, the building had 213 housing code violations in 2013. Hers told the paper there used to be more but he worked hard with the city to correct them. Hers had reportedly cut security guard services despite receiving city funding for a guard, and a detective told the Times the building was notorious at the precinct house.

The Times reported that Hers also goes by Barry Hersko and Barry Hershko. Remember those names.

Hers created his own nonprofit, We Always Care, to provide casework services to residents, flouting city rules requiring DHS to find an independent organization. Hers claimed DHS underpaid We Always Care for rent and services, making it hard for him to maintain conditions at 60 Clarkson.

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60 Clarkson Avenue

The city acknowledged that 60 Clarkson was a problem and made plans to stop using it as a shelter. Unfortunately, this made life even harder for residents, who received multiple notices giving them only 24 or 48 hours to pack their belongings in preparation for removal. Residents said at least one of these notices was on Department of Homeless Services letterhead. Each notice was withdrawn after a burst of protest and media scrutiny.

60 Clarkson stopped serving as a shelter in October 2015, according to Gothamist. Things didn’t improve for rent-paying tenants after the homeless families left. Residents reported their gas and electricity was mysteriously cut off after some of them entered into a lawsuit with Hers. New York State’s Tenant Protection Unit is currently investigating Hers for allegations that include harassing tenents and skimping on maintenance.

Meanwhile, the city acknowledges that it still has hundreds of families in Hers-owned properties but says it plans to relocate them by the end of June. Hopefully the media will continue its scrutiny and follow up on whether the city keeps this promise. I have little hope that the press will look into whether families’ lives improve as a result of the relocations or if they’re simply shuffled to equally dilapidated corners of the shelter system.

°°°°°

The tangle of names becomes confusing at this point: Gothamist reported that the nonprofit managing Hers’ property, We Always Care, was founded by one Isaac Hersko; and that residents of 60 Clarkson, their lawyers and housing organizers believed Hers and Hersko are the same person. Gothamist noted that Hers did not refute the claim that he uses this alias when asked about it. However, Gothamist later issued a correction saying state investigators think people identified in the story as Barry Hers and Isaac Hersko are two different people who are somehow related. An investigator also told Gothamist the state believed Barry Hers also goes by Barry Hersko and Barry Herskowitz. Further confusing things, the Times stated as fact that Hers, Hersko and Hershko are the same person according to records; the Times reporter clearly had extensive access to Hers and he didn’t refute this. A collection of stories about 60 Clarkson collected by the Legal Aid Society has people referring to him as Barry Hers, Isaac “Barry” Hersko and Barry Hershko.

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A photograph of a man identified as landlord Isaac Hersko

If all of this is giving you a headache, don’t worry. The point is that all of these names revolve around a single entity who identifies himself with either “Barry” or “Isaac” and a last name beginning with “Hers.” Since multiple sources say this person uses aliases, I’m going with the simplest explanation – that all of these names belong to the same person.

And he has a nasty history.

°°°°°

Even though Hers and 60 Clarkson have been the subject of multiple news reports, nobody seems to have connected the dots in regards to his past. A few simple Google searches reveal a pattern of violence, lies, and scams that seem to have been committed by Hers under one of his aliases or names that are similar to them. The problem might be that it’s hard to prove these cases are connected – the fact that they involve similar circumstances and men with similar-sounding names is only circumstantial evidence. But if Hers is using aliases he’s presumably counting on reporters being deterred by precisely that problem.

We can’t let him get away with that. So I’ll simply present what I’ve found and let you decide for yourself.

• In 2010 a developer in Cedarhurst, Long Island named Itzhak Hershko, also known as Isaac Hershko, was sentenced to a month in jail and fined for building code violations. The judgements were dismissed by a higher court on 2012. However, the judge and lawyers in the original case noted that residents had been threatened, that Hershko had failed to pay fines and debts, and that he had created a blight. “The last few years have been hell,” one neighbor told the judge. Cedarhurst is near Brooklyn.

• According to the same article, Hershko faces an arrest warrant in Israel related to his 2008 conviction for involvement in a real estate deal that bankrupted an entire village.

• The article also says Hershko was arrested in 2007 for assaulting his own daughter.

• Fast forward to 2014 in Nyack, New York: Employees at a high-end restaurant show up to work but find the doors locked, a stack of unsigned, worthless paychecks inside. The owner’s name was Isaac Hershko, and the article used records to link him to the Cedarhurst charges. One employee who is an immigrant said he gave Hershko  $25,000 as an investment but that when he asked about payments Hershko threatened to call immigration. Follow the link to watch a man identified as Hershko yell at a news cameraman and physically push him out of the restaurant. 

• In May 2016 a tenents’ rights group called Stabilizing NYC released a list of some of New York City’s worst property owners. Among the 10 worst slumlords, according to the group: one Isaac Herskovitz. (Recall that investigators think Barry Herskowitz is a Hers alias).

Isaac Herskovitz, identified as a Brooklyn property owner, bought five buildings in Manhattan’s up and coming Hamilton Heights neighborhood for $31 million. If this is Hers he seems to be expanding into new territory – look out, Manhattan. Herskovitz was reported to own two dozen properties in Brooklyn and the Bronx, according to records.

°°°°°

Like innumerable reporters before me, I’ve tried to find ways to contact Hers. A quick online people search turns up one Isaac Meleh Hershko, 58, in Hewlett, New York. Hewlett is only two miles from Cedarhurst. There are two Isaac Herskos in New York, both in Brooklyn.

Another directory lists a Barry Hers in Brooklyn with the phone number (917) 335-1537. The same number appears on a Legal Aid Society list of New York shelter contacts; the list says the number is for someone named Barry. The list shows this person is responsible for more than a dozen properties providing family shelter services in Brooklyn, including 60 Clarkson.

I have no doubt there’s more information out there – and more stories of human suffering.

°°°°°

It’s easy to demonize Hers – and we’re justified in doing so – but he’s successful because of a regulatory environment that doesn’t care about homeless people. Despite his abuses, New York City only took action about the horrible conditions at 60 Clarkson after sustained media coverage.

And Hers is only part of the problem. Approximately 3,000 families live in cluster site shelters, buildings like 60 Clarkson where the city pays landlords far above market rents to house homeless people in conditions that are often inexcusable. A city investigation in March found these types of shelters provide “nonexistent” security, minimal social services and poor conditions and are inferior to more traditional arrangements where the city owns and runs the shelter directly. This fits my experience as a social worker perfectly – if space permitted I’d share stories about incompetent, condescending caseworkers at cluster site shelters; unaddressed mold growing across walls and exacerbating children’s asthma; broken kids’ beds that don’t get replaced – all in apartments for which landlords collect more than they would if the city simply gave homeless people rent checks. It was in a cluster site building that I was assaulted while trying to prevent a sexual assault (the security guard hadn’t shown up for work yet).

Two additional things bother me here, and they both come down to the apparent carelessness with which DHS monitors abusive landlords. First, I can’t so much as take a leak without giving someone my social security number – was that not a prerequisite before Hers could start any of his projects? There’s a left hand right hand thing happening if Barry Hers and Isaac Herskovitz are the same person and he’s gotten permits under both names in New York City. It makes me think there should be a national database of landlords that all jurisdictions participate in.

Here’s my second concern: It took me 30 minutes to find all of this information and all of Hers’ aliases, using nothing more than Google searches. It’s upsetting that the city Department of Homeless Services wouldn’t invest half an hour on the Internet before entrusting the safety and wellbeing of hundreds of homeless people to a developer. Besides being immoral, it’s inefficient. Think how many hundreds of hours city employees have spent dealing with Hers’ crap – social workers for residents, housing court judges and lawyers, and other municipal employees are playing damage control because nobody did a simple Google search when Hers’ application to run the shelter was being considered. It was lazy, immoral and incompetent management on DHS’s part.

I can’t help but think that if we were talking about white middle class families in Park Slope the city would work harder to ensure their safety. Remember when I said the state Tenant Protection Unit is investigating Hers for abuses at 60 Clarkson? Well, that’s happening now that the homeless families have moved out and all the residents are fine upstanding rent payers. The unit was created in 2012, but they apparently couldn’t be bothered to investigate when it was homeless families who were suffering.

The fact that Hers is still in business proves we, as a society, are just as indifferent to those families’ plight.

Appendix: For anyone who wants to look into Hers further, here are all of the associated names and companies I’ve been able to find.

Barry Hers
Isaac Hersko
Shloimy Hersko
Barry R. Hersko
Barry Hers Clark
Barry Herskovitz

We Always Care
We Care
We All Care
Clark Wilson
Ettie Properties