In the late 1970s, when employees arrived for their shifts at the McDonald’s on East Fordham Road in the Bronx, it was best that they came prepared for a stickup. “God knows the amount of times there were robberies or attempted robberies,” recalls Don Chin, the assistant manager at the time. To avoid attacks on the staff, Chin advised new employees working the counter to leave “jewelry, rings, all that stuff” at home so it wouldn’t get grabbed when the till was lifted. His advice may have been informed by his time on the other side of such encounters: When Chin first joined the McDonald’s, he had just left one of the borough’s most notorious gangs, the Savage Skulls. In a restaurant that was “busy like Times Square,” pickpockets were rampant. To deter them, Chin says they would get on milk crates to see over the lines for the 13 registers and call out thieves fleecing the hungry and the drunk. To stop more ambitious crews from getting in through the roof, he recalls a solution emerging over time: German shepherds, “pretty big” ones, stationed on the roof and fed from the same menu as the patrons.
Crime in the city was surging to levels never seen before, and after a security guard at the restaurant was shot in 1975, Chin tailored his employment strategy to hire “people that are going to protect you.” So when a six-foot, 200-pound 21-year-old applied for a job as a night manager in 1976, Chin was impressed by the fact that the new recruit “never seemed to be out of energy,” even after the hour-and-a-half train ride from his home in Canarsie to Fordham Road. His name was Curtis Sliwa, but the crew began calling him Rock because of how hard he hit guys who messed with the staff. The restaurant’s hectic pace suited Sliwa, who took to heart Chin’s advice to build his night crew with people who would “not walk away.” He would not either.
During those years, the night crew became accustomed to a certain level of violence. But one shift toward the end of the decade stands out for David Galindez, a teenager from University Heights whose first job was at the McDonald’s. He was standing next to Sliwa when a troublemaker came in, looking for a fight. The man landed a punch right on Sliwa’s nose, but “Curtis barely flinched,” recalls Galindez. “He said, and I’ll never forget it, ‘If that’s your best shot, you best go home right now.’” The assailant took the advice, sort of. Later that night, he appeared with a pistol. “Curtis didn’t hesitate,” says Galindez. “He wrestled the guy with the gun and it went off.” The bullet didn’t hit anyone, but it left a dent behind the counter.
Galindez remembers the event as “the last straw” for the night-shift crew. Already, Sliwa had convinced them to join a self-titled group called the Rock Brigade, giving up time on their weekends to pick up trash in the business district around the McDonald’s. They changed their name to the Magnificent 13 and updated their mission: patrol the subway at night to stop the crime they’d been targets of for years. Composed primarily of his McDonald’s teens, the team had to update their name again in short order due to surging interest in their ranks. The 13 became the Guardian Angels but kept their Magnificent uniforms: red satin track jackets and red berets. Carrying a weapon was forbidden.
The first decade of the Guardian Angels — the most prominent in the organization’s 42-year run — coincided with a historic rise in violent crime in New York. In 2021, Sliwa is again leveraging the fear of another spike in crime — albeit one that comes on the heels of historically low murder rates — to advance his station, this time as the Republican candidate for mayor, citing his “decades of leadership” in the Angels to “tackle worsening violence across the Big Apple.”
Arnaldo Salinas, an original Guardian Angel who is still the group’s senior director, attributes much of his leader’s success to a natural form of magnetism. “He or she could use it for wrong or for right,” he explains. “You have your Jimmy Jones who was just as charismatic and got people to drink the juice, so to speak.” But Sliwa “made sure our moral compass was always facing north no matter what.”
It helped that Sliwa was fiercely loyal to the mostly Black and brown kids who heeded his call. Back in the Fordham Road clean-up days, Salinas remembers sweeping the sidewalk one day when his broom hit the shoe of a man who “cold-cocked” him. “Next thing I know, I’m looking up — it was the only time I was knocked almost out — and Curtis, he’s just head-butting people. Throwing people around like they’re rag dolls.”
With the Guardian Angels aiming to serve as a high-visibility deterrent to crime in a city becoming defined by it, Sliwa quickly rose to a level of local celebrity. The year after the volunteers got together, he appeared flanked by his volunteers on the cover of New York under the tagline, “A Help — or a Hype?” The next year, CBS broadcast a TV movie, We’re Fighting Back, clearly inspired by the rag-tag group: Vigilantes in headbands led by a cashier at a chain called Bronx Burgers guard the subways, stopping would-be muggers and rapists. In the real New York, the Guardian Angels’ ranks grew to around 1,000, the peak of their membership, according to leadership today.
One of the central lessons Sliwa instilled in his wayward followers was that they could not start a fight. Their presence, riding the subway in groups, was supposed to be enough to deter others from menacing the commuters; only if violence came to them could they defend themselves. (It was a rule they have largely, but by no means religiously, abided by.) If Sliwa himself was on patrol, he often stepped between the Guardian Angel and whoever was stirring up trouble. “He would rather get himself hurt than see us get hurt,” says Tony Ng, another original member.
But as Sliwa and his followers figured out the rules for their no-fight club, there was some leeway in how to approach a scuffle. When he and Don Chin first began riding the 4 train as proto-Guardian Angels, Sliwa would sit at one end of the car and Chin would take the other. Chin would wear steel-tip boots and a leather jacket, growling at anyone who messed with him. This often led would-be assailants to “pick on Curtis,” at which point the two would “battle our way out,” according to Chin.
In a 1981 interview with David Remnick, then a reporter at the Washington Post, Sliwa described the dynamic as something of a trap for muggers: “We were connected by a doctor’s beeping system. I’d wait for someone to come up to me, and if they started hitting me or trying to rip me off, ‘beep, beep,’ I’d signal Don. He’d come charging in from the other end of the train. Meanwhile I’d throw a few sidekicks and we’d stomp ’em. Then we’d call the transit cops and place them under a citizen’s arrest. The first time it happened, the cop said, ‘There’s no way I’m handling this.’ The police were not prepared to deal with this.”
New York City Transit Police officers weren’t generally ready for the new uniformed force on the subway — or all that trustful of them. “The police thought we were vigilantes,” says Chin. “They didn’t know what we were doing. Curtis was an unknown commodity at that point.” It’s possible one such cop was Sliwa’s current opponent for mayor, Eric Adams, who also patrolled the subways in the years after he graduated from the academy in 1984. In the Guardian Angels’ early days, Mayor Ed Koch dismissed the group as “paramilitaries” and “vigilantes.” (Later, he would amend his opinion, comparing them to chicken soup: “Have they hurt? No. Have they helped? Yes.”)
“Could you consider us vigilantes?” Tony Ng asks today. “Yes, but back then for my sake I was living with my elderly grandfather and he got mugged twice, and that’s why I went out to help other people.”
It did not help that many of the Guardian Angels’ internal statistics weren’t always quantifiable. In 1980, when asked by New York’s Nicholas Peleggi to provide information on the 92 suspects they had placed under citizen’s arrest, Sliwa was not able to provide any names or corroborating details.
Sliwa has said he would hire an additional 3,000 police officers if elected mayor, but his relationship with the cops was antagonistic for many years. In 1980, he claimed he was abducted and assaulted by three transit officers; the next year he said he had been kidnapped, burned with a cattle prod, and dumped in the Potomac by four detectives in Washington, D.C. In 1982, two members of the Newark police department sued Sliwa for slander after he alleged that a white officer had shot and killed Frank Melvin — a Black patrol leader and one of six Angels to die in the line of duty — and then engaged in a cover-up. The officers were later cleared of wrongdoing by a grand jury. (Representing himself in court, Sliwa agreed to apologize to the officers, then tore up his apology, saying he did not mean it.) In an 1989 interview on the rowdy Morton Downey Jr. Show, Sliwa referred to cops as “hemorrhoids.” “Why is it that the police have been our major adversaries in the cities around America?” he asked, to roaring applause.
Subway muggers and the NYPD weren’t the only formidable adversaries Sliwa was prepared to take on. By the early 1990s, Sliwa was hosting an AM radio show on WABC, where he called mob leader John Gotti Jr. “America’s number one drug dealer.” That June, Sliwa got in a cab near his East Village apartment on his way to work at the station near Madison Square Garden. Once he was inside the taxi, a second man popped up from the front passenger seat well, and the back doors locked. Gotti soldiers shot him five times before he managed to scramble past his assailants and dive out the front passenger’s seat.
That November, recovered from his brush with death and believing himself “unworthy” of the public support he received, Sliwa admitted that he had made up six encounters over the years in which Guardian Angels had supposedly been mugged or saved subway riders. Many of the stunts were rehearsed inside the Fordham Road McDonald’s. The incidents ranged from “finding” the wallet of an elderly parishioner who had supposedly been jumped to convincing a member to pour gasoline on himself, then blaming the incident on a pair of pyrophilic muggers. Sliwa’s 1980 kidnapping by the transit cops was a lie, too. Arnaldo Salinas, then the organization’s coordinator, told the New York Times Sliwa was the “mastermind” of most of the hoaxes.
Two days after Sliwa’s confession, the Transit Police Benevolent Association announced that the union was filing a civil suit alleging the Guardian Angel leader harmed their officers’ reputations. (Sliwa recalls that after some posturing, the suit was never filed.) “I praise him for coming up, having the balls to say ‘I shouldn’t have, I did,’” Salinas says today. “It made him stronger, it made us stronger, but here we are, still being asked the same questions.”
But some original Guardian Angels don’t see much dissonance between Sliwa’s days of union lawsuits and his staunch support of the NYPD today. “Curtis has a lot of admiration for the cops,” says David Galindez, a conservative who believes Sliwa has a chance at victory this fall despite the almost seven-to-one ratio of registered Democrats to Republicans in the city, “because there are a lot of people who have had enough.” Salinas, the Guardian Angels’ senior director, cites the large number of ex-members who “eventually became cops” as an example of the harmony that now defines the Guardian Angel–NYPD relationship.
As crime rates fell in the CompStat ’90s, the Angels’ ranks slimmed and Sliwa’s media career flourished, including a controversial stint at WNYC where he talked to street captains via a walkie-talkie on his desk. But he remains the Angels’ “Grand Poohbah,” says Salinas. Sliwa still favors the beret, too. In late July, he made a rare interview appearance without it, showing off a serious tan line on his brow. Don Chin, who hired Sliwa 45 years ago, says, “I think when he sleeps is the only time he has it off.”
These days, Sliwa is more likely to hurl insults than haymakers as he tours the city as part of his old-school, glad-hand campaign for mayor. And with the Gotti family beef more or less buried, there are new adversaries to yell at in roughly edited videos, whether it’s Adams for his summer trip to Europe; Bill de Blasio for failing to deter violent crime; the cruel operators of the Central Park carriage industry for “horse abuse”; or Andrew Cuomo for reportedly trying to leave his dog behind at the governor’s mansion. But some things haven’t changed since his years trying to gain attention by cleaning up the Bronx. A few days ago, he extended a “bipartisan invitation” to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to pick up litter on East Tremont Ave. She didn’t show, but Sliwa did, condemning the decay in the place “where I started it all.”