Remembering Wayne Barrett, Ass-Kicking Village Voice Journalist. Also My Landlord and Friend.
I first met Wayne Barrett outside New York City Hall in 1996. The first thing that struck me was his height — Wayne was a tall, conspicuous and relatively un-manicured man. In combination with his scraggly grey-brown hair, he cut an imposing and formidable figure that was impossible to ignore. Living under Wayne’s roof for a decade, I learned that Wayne was not only the fearless investigator and journalist many knew from his words on the page — he was also a man of personal resolve and thunderous kindness.
My objective on that warm day in March was to get the keys to my new apartment in Windsor Terrace, a quiet neighbourhood near Prospect Park in Brooklyn. I had actually spoken with his wife, Fran, about a week earlier on the phone. They had put an ad in The Village Voice and Fran had interviewed me and a few other potential tenants for the railroad-style apartment on the top floor of their brownstone. When I received the call from Fran that they were taking me in, I was delighted. Having my own, well-lit apartment in Brooklyn was a dream after living in a one bedroom flat on the Lower East Side with a friend (with whom I shared a Fulbright in Poland a year earlier).
I knew that Wayne was a writer. But I didn’t realize how well-known and how established he was until a few months of living in their apartment. I was on the F train heading back to Brooklyn when I noticed Wayne’s byline in The Village Voice. And then a few weeks later, there his name was again. Wayne was a senior editor at the Voice and was perhaps the most important and hardest hitting journalist in the city. He was famous for taking on mobsters, corporate graft, city politicians and Donald Trump — most notably in his best-selling book Trump: The Deals and the Downfall (1992). No one knew Trump like Wayne did and no one dug into Trump’s earliest finances and business affairs as much as Wayne had. (In fact, I recall Wayne being very proud of getting arrested after sneaking in to an event that Trump hosted in Atlantic City. It was Trump himself who called the cops on Wayne.)
I am not a journalist and I never visited Wayne at The Village Voice. But a few personal recollections may paint a more nuanced picture of who Wayne was as a truly human being.
Wayne and I actually kind of shared the top floor of his house. While he and his family lived on the first floor, Wayne worked in a small room adjacent to my apartment, where I painted and made websites and wrote. The walls weren’t particularly thick and the doors were paper thin; when I was home, I would often hear Wayne talking on the phone or clacking away on his keyboard.
Every few months, Wayne would have an issue with his computer. It’s not surprising, considering how often he was on it, which was pretty much night and day. After about 10 minutes of cursing, I would sometimes get the knock on the door. “Andrew, would you mind helping me with this fucking thing? Microsoft Word isn’t opening and I’ve got a deadline in 2 hours.” I’d walk into his office and, invariably, I could figure out what was going on; after a few escape-shifts and a good restart, he was on his way again. Wayne thought I was a computer god (which I wasn’t) and I loved helping him out.
I was painting a lot at the time and one room of my apartment served as a studio. While painting, I liked my music loud (probably some kind of Sonic Youth or PJ Harvey) and I tried to be respectful. But sometimes I wasn’t. Then Wayne would walk the seven feet down the hall and pound the door loudly. “Andrew, can you turn that down? Trying to write here.” “Sure, sorry.” It didn’t happen a lot but I think my music generally bugged the crap out of him. On the other hand, I never banged on his door telling him to speak more quietly; that would not have gone over well, and anyway, I was too scared of him to say anything.
Wayne was a runner. I’m pretty sure that he ran every day or every other day. I was always a bit surprised at how committed he was to it—Wayne didn’t exactly look like a runner with his crazy hair and grey sweatpants, but he was tall and svelte and I’m sure that those runs through Prospect Park kept him mostly sane. Outside his office/my apartment, I only saw one kind of running shoe — the classic New Balance 990 runners, to this day still made in America.
During my early years in that apartment, I was working at The Rockefeller Foundation as a research associate. I didn’t spend a lot of time at home and I didn’t see Wayne every day. But I was always happy to run into him. Sometimes he would regale me with stories about his recent investigations into the mob or Giuliani. Wayne stepped into a lot of shit along the way and he risked his safety and life for the sake of getting at the truth. A number of his stories involved him coming very close to being roughed up. Surely Wayne was on a hit list or two. I don’t know how much sleep I lost worrying about the house getting firebombed in the middle of the night or it just kind of blowing up “accidentally”.
Despite the dirt that he dug and the mud that he flung, Wayne had an infectious smile and a sharp sense of humor. When I brought friends home, he always had something funny to say to them and he wasn’t afraid to crack a good natured quip or two at my expense. He also took a real liking to my ex-girlfriend who lived with me for a couple of years. Wayne and Fran liked her so much that, to this day, I believe she continues to garden in their backyard.
After a few years of living on my own, I met my future wife, who moved in with me in 2001. Wayne liked her a lot, too, and he would joke about her height (she’s 5’11”) compared to mine (let’s call it 5’8”).
Mostly, Wayne didn’t give a rat’s ass about what other people thought, even during the most emotionally trying moments. I worked in downtown Manhattan on September 11, 2001, and my Brooklyn apartment later became a refuge for me and my wife. Within a week of the towers falling, every house on our Brooklyn block flew an American flag. Every single house, that is, except ours. Wayne and his family conspicuously decided to eschew the great patriotic experiment that was post-9/11. It wasn’t that Wayne didn’t care about the thousands of victims, their families, the city or the country. Wayne just didn’t give in to pure sentimentality, especially that most egregious flag-waving kind that was on display.
My wife was pregnant at that time and I remember her being worried about how Wayne would feel about a baby living above him and, well, next to his office. Having known him for many years, I figured it wouldn’t be a problem. When we brought our daughter home in 2002, Wayne and his family were nothing but welcoming and neighborly, bringing us gifts and always asking about how we and our new baby were doing. Even when our daughter screamed all night (or all day, as she was a colicky kid), Wayne never made a comment.
The day after my wife and daughter came home from New York Presbyterian hospital, the power went out in the apartment and they were alone. (Somehow, I thought it was appropriate to go meet a client on the fourth day of my daughter’s life.) It was January and getting cold and dark quickly. My wife remembers Wayne calling ConEd and screaming bloody murder: “There is a lady upstairs who just came home with her new baby. You fucking guys better get someone out here right now!” ConEd arrived quickly.
You didn’t mess with Wayne.
On one particularly chilly morning, The New York Times hadn’t yet arrived. It was about 7 AM on a Saturday and the newspaper delivery guy was downstairs dropping off the paper, late. Wayne was obviously held up by it and when he saw him, the invective that spewed forth was sensational: “Where the fuck have you been, you mother-fucking, lazy-ass shit? I’ve been waiting all morning for the fucking newspaper. Don’t ever, ever deliver the fucking paper late again!” I’m pretty sure that the delivery guy never did.
My wife and daughter and I moved to Canada in 2005. We are fortunate to visit New York often and in the spring of 2012, we decided on a whim to pay our former home in Windsor Terrace a visit. When we got off the F train and walked the short block towards the apartment, there was Wayne on the street talking with a neighbor. He immediately recognized us and invited us in to see our old apartment and spend some time in the backyard. That was Wayne — a thoughtful and brilliant mensch of a man who remembered everything.
How was Wayne as a landlord? Wayne clearly did not aspire to be a member of the rentier class. Over the course of my ten years as a tenant, the rent barely went up. Wayne and Fran were keenly aware that I was an artist and that we had a young family. I was also very grateful to live where I did for the rent that I paid and rarely did I ask for things to be fixed or updated.
I’m writing this the day after The Village Voice decided to close its doors. It’s a sad, demoralizing day for journalists and for people like me who like their journalism straight and unencumbered. Wayne Barrett was a fixture at the Voice for 37 years. Now that both he and The Village Voice are dearly departed, the field is wide open again for investigative journalists and the publications and patrons that support them. At least that’s one positive spin on the state of journalism today.
Wayne passed away on January 19, 2017, the day before Donald Trump’s inauguration. My hunch is that he couldn’t stand to see the day that Trump became President of the United States. Having written two books and countless articles on Trump, it was just too much.
Wayne was a fearless reporter, a trenchant observer of life, and a kind-hearted soul. We all need a Wayne Barrett around when it’s getting cold and dark.