Harris Pankin clearly recalls his first brush with publicity. It was 1987, and he and the members of his punk rock band, Letch Patrol, were at the famed New York venue The Saint when they spotted Village Voice music critic Michael Musto.
“So we cornered him and said ‘Hey, you should write about us,’” Pankin says.
Musto mentioned Letch Patrol in his next article, and Pankin began receiving attention around town. At the time Pankin owned a black leather jacket with his band’s name splashed across the back.
“I was in this one place, and I heard someone behind me say, ‘Hey, that’s the guy from Letch Patrol,’” he remembers. “That was the first time I knew the thrill of getting your name in the paper. It’s really quite a feeling. And it’s quite addictive.”
Now a sidewalk book vendor on West 4th Street, Pankin, 47, is a short, thin man with large glasses and a ragged beard shadowing his haggard face. He has been homeless since his East Village bookstore closed in 1999. He speaks in a nasal voice that sounds channeled through a static-plagued old radio. His abundant surplus of personality seems always threatening to burst the constraints of his frame. He wears a bulky blue coat and keeps his hair under a shapeless black hat. Depending on the topic under discussion, his mouth can break easily into a wide smile—revealing the conspicuous absence of his upper front teeth—or twist into a sneer. He claims acquaintance with such underground rock icons as Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and Vernon Reid from Living Color. As he tells it, his life is a thread of near brushes with fame. From bandleader to street salesman is not a tale of failure or even unfair circumstances but of gallantry, sportsmanship, and business acumen. Pankin presents himself as one of the unsung heroes of New York.
Born in Detroit, he traveled with his family all over the country as his father, a college professor, changed jobs. Pankin came on his own to New York from San Francisco in 1985 “because this is the place.” He had come up with his band’s name ‘Letch Patrol’ while living in California, and once in the City he immediately set about making the band he envisioned into a reality.
“I wanted to be a musician. It’s what I wanted to do. And I went out and accomplished that.”
Pankin initially stayed at the White House, a hotel on the Bowery, and then squatted in various locations in and around the East Village. All the while, he met and assembled musicians for his group. Once together, Letch Patrol attempted to establish a name for itself by pulling pranks at events.
“Near the start of the band, we used to show up at benefits with our guitars and drumsticks and announce we were on next when we weren’t scheduled at all,” Pankin says. “We’d go out and do three songs and say ‘we’re Letch Patrol.’ And that’s how we got a reputation.”
Pankin is particularly proud of how the band’s ‘auto-biography’ got into an anthology magazine called The Rockstar Scrapbook.
“There, next to Madonna and David Bowie and all those other rock artists, was Letch Patrol. But it was a totally fake story. It said we went to England in the ’70s and influenced The Sex Pistols and The Clash and had a rare album,” Pankin laughs.
“Now, I shouldn’t be telling you this, but the Letch Patrol rules always were that if you were talking with a reporter you must mention Letch Patrol three times and throw in a few outrageous lies,” he says, recalling the band’s code of interviewing etiquette.
Pankin recently completed a documentary about Letch Patrol entitled The Greatest Band in the World, clips of which—mostly showing live performances—can be viewed on YouTube. The band was noisy and technically inept, but Pankin’s nervous on-stage energy and occasional outbursts of anger lent their shows a distinct and unmistakable intensity. Pankin has taken this same approach in editing his film.
“There are no transitions—by that I mean no dissolves, no fade-to-blacks. It’s all boom-boom-boom.” Pankin asserts. “The thing is, in making a movie, you don’t want it to be perfect. There’s gotta be a sort of feng shui to it. There’s gotta be a few little mistakes.”
The film, according to Pankin, is awaiting the renovation of the Yippie Museum on Bleecker for its premiere. Although creating a retrospective about the band might seem like posthumous treatment, Pankin denies that Letch Patrol has disbanded, insisting instead that they are merely “on hiatus.”
“I played a show in 1998 and I wasn’t happy with it, so I decided not to play another one for a while,” Pankin says, adding that one of the group’s guitarists had a child around that same time. But in recent years, that person has been playing with the band of Letch Patrol’s other guitarist, and Pankin says he joins them for the occasional show. He expects the group to reunite shortly after the release of The Greatest Band in the World.
Pankin was involved in the 1988 Tompkins Square Park riots. That summer, the New York Police Department imposed a 1:00 A.M. curfew on the park. This met with protests and demonstrations from those who hung out or slept in the park late at night. Pankin was in the area on the occasion of the worst violence, the early morning hours of August 7th.
“It was a typical Saturday night in New York City,” Pankin recalls. “I was just hanging around Avenue A and 8th. The Park was officially closed, and there were about 400 cops around keeping everybody outside.
“I didn’t like what they were doing, how they had treated the demonstrators earlier, so I ran and jumped over the gate. I got hit upside the head with a billy club by a cop who was standing just inside the park. Needless to say, I was bleeding and a little bit in shock.”
Pankin states that he staggered out of Tompkins Square and down the street to a local bar, where he cleaned himself off.
“I came out and looked back toward the Park. There were horse cops charging into the crowds. I thought that was a little unfair. So I went to a trash bin and got a couple of bottles and threw them into the street. I thought if I could distract the cops, they might stop charging into the crowds and charge me.
“The horse cops came after me, and I turned and ran. They did catch me, and they did beat me. They didn’t arrest me.
“After this—and I was still bleeding all over—I got up and walked down to right in front of First Avenue and 8th Street. There was a crowd. There was this young girl being choked by a cop. And I told him to stop. So he stopped choking her and started beating me.”
Pankin says that by the end of the night he was taken in a taxi to the hospital to get several stitches. Afterward, he again found himself the center of attention, this time in the local news.
“I was on tv so many times that week, it was ridiculous,” Pankin says. “It was a media circus. And I’m very good at media circuses.”
Perhaps this story is one of Pankin’s mandatory “outrageous lies,” but it is consistent with other accounts of the events of the night including Pankin’s own to The Village Voice and the New York Times 20 year ago. The Tompkins Square riots are still considered one of the most extreme instances of police abuse and brutality in the city’s history.
It was around that same time that Pankin began selling books.
“I was squatting over on 10th and A, and a junkie neighbor ripped me off,” he says. “My bass player said ‘Hey, I’ve got some books, you can sell them.’ So I did that. Then someone saw me selling them and came by and said, ‘hey, I’ve got a whole load of books, you can have them.’”
By 1989, Pankin was running a bookstore out of a loft space on Second Avenue between 4th and 5th. At one point he kept 6,000 books in the area upstairs and displayed more on tables in front of the building. In 1991, he opened a second location in Williamsburg, which quickly failed. He also maintains that for a time he was one of New York’s biggest wholesale distributors of comic books.
However, in 1999, escalating rents in the East Village forced him to leave this space. The store relocated to Washington Heights, but closed soon afterward.
He has been homeless ever since, keeping his supply of books and few personal belongings in storage, and selling his wares on the street.
About four years ago, he began migrating to Florida during the colder months of the year.
“The main reason I go there is the weather,” Pankin says. “It’s called ‘no winter.’ But I just love to travel.”
Having spent long stretches of time without a permanent residence, Pankin feels that most agencies and charities designed to address the needs of the indigent miss the point.
“All these programs we have treat the symptoms and not the disease,” Pankin complains.
“Homeless people don’t need to be fed, they don’t need medical care, they don’t need clothes, they don’t need people in vans going around asking them if they’re homeless. They don’t need shelters. What they need is housing.”
He suggests that the City give incentives to developers to reserve separate floors—complete with separate entrances and separate elevators—in new buildings for the homeless.
In 2003, Pankin played in the first ever Homeless World Cup, an event intended to raise awareness about the situation of homeless people living across the globe.
“I had stopped into a soup kitchen and I got a flier, and it kind of intrigued me, so I checked it out,” Pankin says. After several months of training, the American team—which consisted of eight New Yorkers—traveled to Graz, Austria to compete. Although they ultimately placed 9th out of 18 teams, Harris is exceptionally proud of the experience.
“I have bragging rights for life: for the u.s. Homeless World Cup Soccer Team, I scored the first goal ever,” Pankin declares. He notes the team’s impressive early performance. “We played three games the first day. We won our first game 9-4. After six games, we were 5 and 1. We ended up going 7 and 2.
“We only started losing after I quit-slash-was dismissed.”
Pankin cites clashes with one of the team’s organizers and with referees as the reason for his being absent from the Cup’s quarter-finals, blaming the organizers’ arrogance and the referees’ partiality for the conflicts.
A 2005 documentary by James Marsh called The Team follows the squad from training to competition. “I’m the star of it,” says Pankin of the film. Indeed, he is the film’s largest personality, but what the movie actually reveals is that, despite his obvious talent—which earned the Americans some important early victories—Pankin became increasingly aggressive and irrational with his trainers, teammates, and the game’s officials. His behavior culminated in his being sidelined and eventually undergoing a nervous breakdown.
In addition to being a musician, Pankin paints and writes poetry, and spends much of his time immersed in thought, describing himself as “a thinker” and “a damned intellectual.”
“I think I see things in a different way than most people do,” he says.
Most people would probably agree.
Will Bredderman is a student, journalist, and writer. He currently works for Politicker.com.