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The Guardian Angel of Queens
Bruce joined the Guardian Angels at age 55. Now he's a Combat Team leader.
Welcome to Issue #4 of CAFÉ ANNE !
First, a big thank you to author Rob Walker, who featured CAFÉ ANNE in the latest issue of his wonderful Art of Noticing newsletter, which I enjoy every week. And welcome to all the new readers who subscribed at his suggestion!
Second, Shira L. in Tudor City, referring to the profile of Brooklyn Heights pigeon Robert “Trevor” Robinson in Issue #3, emailed the following: “I have a question for ‘Trevor’ the pigeon. Is he single?”
Trevor replies: “Yes, I am single. Building a career and bringing over my elderly grandma from a falling apart Russian village country house, are my main priorities at the moment. I simply don't have any spare time to make meaningful contributions to a relationship, while still achieving my current priorities.”
Third, I hope you will enjoy this week’s feature story about Bruce, who joined the Guardian Angels at age 55 and is now leads the Queens Combat Team. His life story is truly bonkers, and he’s a real New Yorker.
IN THIS WEEK’S ISSUE…
• Weird Trash Heap #3
• Rubber Band Ball Update
• Feature: The Guardian Angel of Queens
Weird Trash Heap #3
A reader came across this fantastic tableau on Dame Street in Dublin, Ireland. It almost looks staged. But then, you know, Ireland:
Please send your favorite sidewalk trash photo to email@example.com and I will include it in a future issue.
Rubber Band Ball Update!
Readers continue asking about my doorman John Santiago’s rubber band ball, which first appeared in Issue #2. How’s it going?
“It’s gettin’ there!” says Mr. Santiago.
Current circumference: 17 inches
Fran B. in Rockaway, Queens emailed to ask, “Where will John the doorman get rubber bands big enough to grow his ball to the size of a basketball? Do they even exist? Is he allowed to cut smaller ones and tie them together? I am so curious as my exposure to rubber bands is pretty limited.”
Mr. Santiago replies: “They do have rubber bands that big that you can buy in the store. Listen. If it’s something I want, then I have to do it. At least the size of a soccer ball!”
The Guardian Angel of Queens
When I met Bruce for dinner last week, he was nursing a loose tooth. He’d stopped a mugging the night before on his walk from the subway to the bus in Flushing, and his reward was a kick in the mouth.
“I’m always in pain,” he said. “But pain is only in the head.”
The restaurant he choose for our dinner was Amazing Grace, a Filipino joint in Woodside, Queens.
The restaurant serves as the unofficial HQ for the Queens Combat Team of the Guardian Angels. As the team’s 1st Command Leader, Bruce is responsible for training the squad and organizing its bi-weekly citizen crime patrols.
He always sits in the back corner so he can watch the room, and greets everyone by name.
He looks great for his 57 years. “Punch this!” he commanded, flexing a bicep.
He’s not only the Combat Team’s leader, he co-founded the squad two years ago with his sidekick Captain Negro, after joining the Angels at age 55.
But this isn’t his first stint as a Guardian Angel.
Bruce was born in the Philippines and moved to New York City in 1969, when he was five. He grew up in Queens and the South Bronx.
“My father is one of those military, strict types, and that’s how I got into martial arts,” he says. “He was a drunkard, you know. He would beat me up. But it’s all cool. He’s my dad. That’s how I learned to be tough.”
“I was a bad boy,” he adds. “In every way possible. I was in gangs.”
But his toughness had a twist. A skinny kid who skipped two grades in his public school’s accelerated learning program, he had a soft spot for the “geeks and wimps” who got bullied. He made it his job to protect them.
He joined the Guardian Angels in 1979, when he was 15. “I just wanted the shirt, to get the girls,” he says.
But six months in, an incident made him take the role seriously.
Walking alone through the dark parking lot of the old Alexander’s department store in Rego Park, Queens, Bruce heard a shout and saw a man attacking a woman. The perp had her pants pulled down.
“Without asking questions, I just flew, started hitting him,” says Bruce. “And then people saw, the cops came. It’s all a blur. One of the cops stopped me and said, ‘Get out of here son. You did good, but get out of here. You could get in trouble.’ Cuz I messed up the dude. But the cop hugged me, the girl hugged me.”
It made a big impression. Bruce dedicated himself to the Angels until age 19 when he left his parents’ home. Now living on his own, he wanted to go to college but had to pay his own way. He couldn’t serve with the Angels while working his way through school.
A rough period ensued. At one point, while studying for his degree in management psychology at Baruch College, he was homeless for seven months, living in Central Park, on the B line in the Bronx and then in Van Cortlandt Park.
He spent another stretch sleeping on a cot in the fallout shelter of a martial arts studio, and stayed for a spell with two prostitutes who gave him a free room in exchange for his protection. “But I couldn’t sleep. It was too noisy,” he says.
Without a real address, it was hard to find work. He got fired from a job manning a Bronx sidewalk fruit stand after the owner caught him scarfing bananas. “That sucked, because I was hungry,” he says.
He also made cash as a bowling hustler: “They see you bowling with your left, they see you’re bowling 150, 160. ‘Want to play? $100.’ That’s the usual bet. Then I take out my other ball, and bowl with my right.”
He took seven years to graduate. His first marriage, at age 27, lasted six months, but produced a son, Brandon, who is now 30 and serves by his side on the Combat Team. “He looks after me, I look after him,” says Bruce.
In his post-college career, Bruce has sold handbags at Gucci on Fifth Ave., served as a martial arts instructor, worked as motivational speaker for high school kids and did sales at a mattress store.
“After three months I became a manager,” he said. “Wooo! Hi! How can I help you? Welcome to Sleepy's!”
At most jobs, he got bored after a year and quit.
“Why didn’t you just become a cop?” I asked.
“Almost did,” he said. “Suffolk County. Passed everything. Then my [second] wife saw me trying on the uniform. She’s sitting there smiling, then bawling her eyes out. I go, ‘Baby what’s wrong?’ She says, ‘I don’t want you to be a cop.’ I go, ‘Then why did you let me go through all this? The physical and the tests?’ She says, ‘I never thought you’d pass the psychological exam!’’”
When his second wife got cancer, Bruce quit work to nurse her in home hospice. “I would wipe her, feed her through her stomach,” he says. He was 46 when she died. He fell into a deep depression. Unable to work, he lost his house, his cars and ran through his retirement savings.
Now back on his feet thanks to the care of his fiancée, a nurse named Yvonne, he’s renting an apartment in Fresh Meadows and working as an independent financial advisor and life insurance salesman from a rented office in Forest Hills. His life looks pretty normal. Except for the whole Guardian Angels thing.
His return to the Angels started with the news reports of random violence against Asians. Bruce started going out solo to patrol the streets. Alarmed, his fiancé said, “Didn’t you tell me you used to be a Guardian Angel? If I can’t stop you, at least be with a group!”
It’s far more satisfying to patrol with a crew, he says. Especially now that he oversees the recruiting and training. Bruce supervises a hand-picked crew of roughly 15 men and women ages 17 to 67. Their ranks include a physical therapist, an office manager and a tech salesperson.
Reluctant to reveal their identities for fear of being targeted, members go by code names. “Bruce” got his moniker when he was 15 thanks to his resemblance to Bruce Lee. Others on the squad sport names like “Cobra,” “Rogue,” “Panda,” and “The Punisher.”
“Could you give me a Guardian Angels name?” I asked.
“You?” he said. “‘Sparkle!’’ You’re not a fighter yet!”
Bruce says it’s hard to recruit for the Angels these days. Folks would rather play video games then patrol the streets.
And many who try out don’t make the grade. The volunteer role requires steady nerves, alertness, bravery and above all, heart, says Bruce: “That’s why we only take a certain few.”
90% of people who witness a crime on the streets or the subway do nothing to stop it, says Bruce. An Angel feels it is their job intervene. “All the criminals out there, the bullies, the gangsters. It’s a vendetta. I have to stop them,” he says.
While they do not carry weapons, Guardian Angels are street-combat trained—prepared to stop a crime, make a citizen’s arrest and hold the perp until the cops arrive.
The Combat Team’s most recent success involved a man who was harassing and kicking a young female street vendor on Roosevelt Ave., says Bruce. Bystanders summoned the Angels, who were patrolling a block away.
“We came in, I just gave the guy two quick hits. I didn’t want to incriminate myself,” says Bruce.
They held the man until the cops showed up minutes later and witnesses testified. The man was arrested. The street vendor thanked the Angels with bottles of hand sanitizer from her sidewalk stand. Bruce asked if she could throw in a pack of batteries.
The Angels don’t get as much action as you might expect. The squad has made three citizen’s arrests in two years. But their very presence, in their brightly colored tee-shirts and red berets, serves as a deterrent, says Bruce.
The Angels have resumed a higher profile these days as their founder, Curtis Sliwa, is the Republican candidate for New York City mayor in the upcoming election. Bruce says Mr. Sliwa would make a good leader.
“It will be a learning process, because he’s not a politician,” he says. “But one thing for sure is that him being a Guardian Angel, the streets will be cleaned up. For me, that’s all that matters. That’s all I really care about.”
Now that he’s older, Bruce has started going to church, where he volunteers as an usher. And he prays before patrol. “For my team,” he says. “If the bad happens, let it happen to me, not to my people.”
After dinner, we head over to a modest apartment building four blocks away, where the building super gives the Angels free use of a basement room for combat training. It’s to thank them for ridding the corner of drug dealers.
Bruce starts the team practicing Pektiti Tirsia Kali, a form of Filipino martial arts fighting.
“As fun as it is to hit the jaw, it’s much more fun to hit the ribs!” he advises.
The atmosphere is surprisingly friendly, with plenty of teasing and laughter between rounds. The guys are clearly having a good time, but it’s also serious business.
“Super heroes,” says Bruce. “That’s the way I picture myself and my people. Without rewards. We don’t have super powers. We don’t carry weapons. But we’re the true super heroes.”
Want to join Bruce’s combat team? Give him a buzz: 718-517-0335 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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