Book Scavenger: Street Smart (1982)

by Jason Toon

I've accumulated a lot of ridiculous books over the years - from thrift stores, flea markets, yard sales, and dumpsters - and I can no longer bear to hoard their weirdness for myself. Presenting the second in an occasional series exploring the far corners of the Toon library...because the world must know!

Vigilantism was as much a part of the '80s cultural psych-geist as parachute pants, arcade games, and phony Satanists. It was the age of Bronson, the era of The Punisher, the time when every red-blooded American was itching to take those "street punks" down a peg or two. Although they eschewed weapons, Curtis Sliwa's Guardian Angels offered a colorful real-world example of city dwellers uniting to take back the streets - sort of a Neighborhood Watch with cool hats. Starting with the teenagers on the staff of the McDonald's he managed in the Bronx, Sliwa created a street-kid-meets-urban-paramilitary image for the Angels that won them attention out of all proportion to their actual crime-fighting accomplishments. The Clash even wrote a song about the 1982 shooting of Angel Frankie Melvin ("Red Angel Dragnet"). Alas, Street Smart deals with almost none of this excitement. It's a pretty typical collection of crime-avoidance tips, of the type that you could find in little cheapo booklets on any supermarket checkout line circa 1982. What sets it apart is the Angels packaging - and a vision of city life that's paranoid even by the standards of this bizarre literary genre.

But first: the outfits. It's worth lingering on the cover, with its choice portrait of Sliwa in a button-down version of the Angel uniform. Note the tie visible under the t-shirt, the dress shirt's rolled sleeves, and of course the ubiquitous beret. This is a vigilante who's ready for the poolroom or the boardroom.

Off to the right we see a couple of wildstyle Angels either helping a young mother feed her baby, or breaking up the world's craftiest kidnapping.

The rest of the patrol is hanging out on the back cover, staring pensively in all directions for evildoers. And looking fabulous. Their berets festooned with medals, crisp white t-shirts tucked neatly in, the Guardian Angels understand what superheroes have always known: when you look good, you fight crime good.

Inside, we see the authors, Sliwa and Guardian Angels lawyer Murray Schwartz. Curtis's beret looks like it's been through a brawl or two.

For those readers wondering why they should listen to this Sliwa guy anyway, rest assured: he's vouched for by no less than Richard Nixon himself.

Having enticed us in with their flashy berets and hip urban style, Sliwa and the rest of the Guardian Angels promptly disappear from the book. In their absence, the city looms dark and ominous, with no Angels to guard it. I have no idea if New York in the late '70s and early '80s was really this terrifying. But the cityscape of Street Smart finds psychotic, often shirtless cutthroats lurking in every shadow and on every street corner, eager to humiliate and brutalize the innocent in pursuit of sick thrills. Maybe they're waiting at the subway station. Maybe they're in the laundry room of your apartment building. But they're out there. And they're wearing really short pants.

Then again, maybe the pants just seem short because they're pulled up so high. These high-waisted multicultural hoodlums obviously work as a team. The little guy on the right chases you down, the skinhead beats you up, and the big-boned one sits you into oblivion.

OK, this one even scared me. If the Angels bothered to warn people about the dangers of being shoved in front of a moving subway train, it must have been happening, like, fifty times a day. That's the side of the '80s that nobody talks about.

This ATM user was trying to follow the proper safety procedures described below. Then he realized that he was the suspicious-looking one.

Strolling home from a screening of Cocoon, these oldsters were in no mood to take any guff off of these hoods. Taste cane, punk! And put a shirt on!

Maybe you think it's overkill to inspect the area around your car with a flashlight before you get in.

Well, that kind of recklessness is just what the ankle-grabber counts on! What now, smart guy?

But hey, don't let the thugs keep you from taking advantage of your city's amenities. Feel free to follow your bliss, to stop and smell the flowers, to enjoy whatever strikes your long as you're ready for life-or-death combat at a moment's notice.

By the end of the book, the reader's new confidence will carry her safely past even the most high-belted street punks.

Silly and paranoid as it can sometimes be, I have to admit that Street Smart's urban populist stance is a lot less obnoxious than many of the racially-tinged expressions of fear from that era. Sliwa and Schwartz even have strong words against guns as an answer to street crime ("If you don't want to engage in a shootout on your block, learn that guns are not the answer...That is the truth, and Mr. Gun Toter, we want you to know it"). Despite its fearful vision of the city, the world, and life in general, and despite Sliwa's later career as a loudmouthed right-wing radio blowhard, the overall tone of Street Smart is upbeat, inclusive, and proactive. I just wish it had more pictures of Guardian Angels in action. Anybody know where I can get a beret, cheap?