Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Out and About in the East Village

In this weekly feature, East Village-based photographer James Maher provides us with a quick snapshot of someone who lives and/or works in the East Village.

By James Maher
Name: Robert Shapiro
Occupation: Founder & Director, Social Tees Animal Rescue
Location: 5th Street, between First Avenue and Second Avenue
Time: 6 p.m. on Monday, May 18

I was born in Woodside, Queens, in the mid 1950s but my parents moved to Howard Beach – the citadel of racism, Selma of the north — when I was young. Howard Beach was really Howard Beach man.

I got really lucky. I had a wonderful art teacher when I was in junior high school and he encouraged me to take the test to go to High School of Art & Design. So I went and I met all these city kids and I realized how vapid my existence was. I swear to you, I cried. I remember my father consoling me when I was a kid. I was really upset then. All these other kids were cool and they knew things and culture and going out and my parents never left the house. They were hardworking, blue-collar people.

It takes a certain type of person to have an ego that makes you want to leave your home. I had a lot of teenage angst then. I left home at 17 just to move to the city. I really liked it. I got a job at a department store in the pet department while I lived with my parents. I met this guy who was also this struggling artist. He rented me this little tiny room in his basement that I was able to afford and I could still commute to high school. That was it. I never moved back.

I’ve always loved animals since I was a child. I used to go to the Staten Island Zoo all the time because they had a lot of reptiles. I would also pet Leo, the lion that they used to have there. I used to lean over the rail and he would kind of come up to me. I was always afraid, but he started purring one day, so I started really getting into petting him. I used to cut school all the freaking time to go to the zoo and pet this lion. Petting a lion in the middle of New York? He would purr and he was great and he would lick me, zero fear. Then I got a girlfriend. Next year, I came back to see him ... and I went up to him and he almost killed me. And she never believed any of the stories about me petting the lion.

I still work with animals, but [animal rescue] is a privilege. You can’t just start a rescue unless you are retired from doing something that made some kind of money, because it costs a fortune. So Social Tees was a t-shirt fundraising company. We raised money for human rights organizations all over the country. Schools would sell my shirts. The kids would sell the t-shirts through a catalogue that we would provide. The schools got paid in advance, they sold the shirts retail, they paid us wholesale.

I write a little bit and when I first started making t-shirts, my first line had a terrible name — it was called Global-uh-wareness, and it was all information on these t-shirts about the environment. It was... really cool. It didn’t sell. Nobody cared about it.

Then one night I’m walking down 6th Street, right between 2nd Avenue and 3rd Avenue. I don’t dress to impress but I don’t look like a slob. I was clean-shaven and I’m alone and a woman sees me. She’s not really paying attention and she sees me, clutches her purse, and crosses the street. I thought, ‘that’s a pretty smart thing to do. I don’t have any problem with that.’ I wasn’t offended at all, but then I realized, if I was black, I would have been really hurt. Even though she did it because I was a guy, I thought, man that must suck.

So I made three t-shirts that month. The first shirt said, ‘No, white lady, I don’t want your purse,’ which became, you would not believe how popular this shirt became. Spike Lee bought them for his stores and sold them all over the world. It was crazy. That’s when Social Tees started.

My shirts were humorous even though they were a little bit confrontational. I realized that I could make shirts about things I really cared about, and that’s when Social Tees really happened. From 1991 until around 1998, my whole life was business. It’s funny, when you’re a certain age and you start something, you’re hungry. There were things I cared about, like I would do street fairs and promote my stuff. I would do conventions all over the country where there were school conferences. I would travel by myself with everything. I was hungry.

But I gave it all up. All of a sudden my great idea became not such a great idea. I was selling thousands of shirts a day all over the country. I mean, I had thousands of salespeople selling my shirts, right? Great idea, right? There was this one day where I had to leave my little shop, which was on Bleecker Street, and hire a staff and then trucking and the art department. I needed to expand to make even more money. I was never meant to be a businessperson.

So instead of selling the business like a normal person would, I just gave it up. All that was happening is that everyday I would go to work and I would make more money and I would put the money in the bank and then I would wake up the next day and make more money. I’m not going to live forever, how much money do you need? Money’s great, don’t get me wrong ... It’s so great to be over that. I was miserable even though I had this successful business plan that worked.

That’s what I mean by it’s a privilege to start the rescue. That happened organically. I remember I was with a bunch of friends in Chinatown. We were walking back from a great Vietnamese restaurant called Pho Pasteur on Baxter Street. I see this gleaming dumpster in Chinatown. What were sparkling were literally a million baby turtles. What they do is they buy the babies illegally by the millions for maybe a penny each and sell them for $10. They still do it. Most of the turtles die because they keep them in water and you can’t keep water turtles in water all of the time. They don’t feed them either. They just sell whatever they can and they dump the rest. A whole dumpster, if you can imagine, of turtles the size of a half dollar and smaller.

I took my t-shirt off and I spent like an hour and I found 35 out of these million baby turtles and I put them back in against my body because they were freezing. I took them home and rehabbed them. I think 34 of them lived. Then I was stuck with 34 turtles that were stinking up my apartment like you couldn’t believe.

So I found this guy who worked for the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society — yes there is one — and he was able to find a qualified place for these turtles to go. He ended up moving to Tennessee and I ended up taking his job of picking up turtles and other reptiles from the city and other reptiles — found, lost, abandoned, whatever — from Animal Control, where the dogs and cats are.

I used to pick up a snake here, a lizard here, then all of a sudden I’m seeing this line of animals being euthanized. So I started taking the dogs and cats home. That’s how it started. I didn’t know what I was doing. Now I’m fully licensed and I have all my documentation, but then I was like, take a puppy and take him home. I was learning on the fly. I had never even owned a dog until I did rescue.

That was the late 1990s but I didn’t start doing majority rescue until after 9/11. I took over someone’s lease and all of a sudden I went from having a shop that was one little room to seven big rooms. Now I have this little space and something miraculous happened because of all these amazing people who work for me. They turned it into a virtual shelter. It’s all done digitally. We have a crew who processes applications, and if someone is approved they get to meet the dogs here, but none of the dogs are kept here overnight. I get to do way more rescue.

People say, ‘How can you have freaking exotic animals like that? How can you have an owl in your shop?’ I say, ‘How can you buy cocaine so easily? How can you buy an Uzi?’ In the black market, animals are third, after drugs and arms. We had a baboon once; it was a baby. We had a mountain lion, which was the friendliest thing, in a giant dog crate and it was just rolling over purring. It was going to a rescue upstate with a guy who did wolves and mountain lions. That was the guy with the baboon. The baboons ride the wolves. The guy’s crazy. He looks like Clint Eastwood. I think he has alligators in his living room in a big pool and he swims with them. We’ve had anacondas, alligators and crocodiles. When you’re in New York, you get some crazy animals. Anything you can fit in that door will end up there.

James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.


Walter said...

One of the best interviews yet. This man is a true humanitarian and animal lover. I live a block west of his store and always make it a point to go look at the pets in his window. My room-mate lost her dog less than a year ago and is not ready yet to acquire a new pet, but once she sufficiently heals, that's where we'll get it from.

Giovanni said...

Great interview, as a former turtle keeper as a young child I can attest to the smell they can give off.

Unfortunately China and Chinatown just see animals for the money they can generate and not as living things. Every year in Chinatown I see tons of turtles being sold in small plastic bags and cages to families with children, but no one ever tells the kids about how to properly care and feed them since no one cares or knows. They treat these turtles like a toy, and once it gets broken and dies it just gets flushed down the toilet.

Thanks to Robert and the other animal rescuers who care enough to save at least few of the countless animals that humans abuse every day.

Walter said...

The Chinese are probably the most cruel people when it comes to animal welfare.

Anonymous said...

Great interview and an amazing man! Thanks to him and his staff for doing all the great work. Thanks for this profile.

One additional problem with the tiny turtles is that they're an awful disease vector (largely for salmonella) and hence are illegal to sell in the city. Having worked in communicable disease at DOHMH, I saw first-hand just how many infections we got from these tiny turtles (largely among children that hug, kiss their animals and don't practice proper hand hygiene). Yes, we even swabbed the turtles, the tanks, and the water - cesspool of pathogens. So because of its public health mandate, the city tries to crack down on the sellers, but, you guessed it, the poor turtles can't win. The fines the city can impose on the turtle importers and sellers are really low, so they go back to doing the same thing even after they've been fined.

Anyway, both because of how nasty & inhumane that 'business' is and because of the health risks, please don't buy those small sidewalk / back-room turtles.

Gojira said...

I love this story. I love this guy. I have a couple of Social Tees cats I cherish, so it was wonderful to see the man who made it possible for me to share a life with them. Thank you, Robert, for all you do to help the helpless.

Greg Masters said...

Another marvelous profile, thank you, EVG and James Maher. I can't recommend enough a visit to Robert Shapiro's rescue shelter on East 5th (between 1st and 2nd Avenues) for some oohs and ahhs. If you're lucky, the giant tortoise will be out for a stroll "off the leash," munching on weeds by the police parking lot across East 5th Street.

Anonymous said...

A true asset to the neighborhood and a wonderful human being. Thanks for the interview and thank Robert, for simply being brave and true to himself, and being his authentic self. Thanks.

Stacie J. said...

I always look forward to James' Out and About, and this one is particularly awesome. Thanks James, Robert, and Grieve!

Anonymous said...

Really amazing interview and person. One of the best yet. Love, love, love the story about Leo the Lion.

As for the Chinese and animal welfare: as with most unfortunate human behavior in this world, it's a little complicated.

The Chinese word for "animal" (动物) literally translates to "moving thing". Take then, as a contrast, our English words: "animal", "creature", etc. Our words all infer the idea of animation, creation, life. There is a fundamental difference in the cultural outlook toward animals.

That, combined with a more relatively recent history of famine (both naturally and human-induced) and you will find less cultural sensitivity to the plight of animals in China. It's sort of the same reason why vegetarianism took so long to become understood in Japan outside of religious contexts. When you've been starving, it's difficult to shun food of any kind.

I don't condone the way animals are treated in Chinese culture (I have seen some horrific sights in markets in China) but I understand it a bit better now than I used to.

Laura Goggin Photography said...

A great neighbor with a good heart. Thanks for another inspiring interview.

~ evilsugar25 said...

Sweet! I got my kitty Muzz from Social Tees and he's fantastic! Always have the utmost admiration for animal rescuers.

Anonymous said...

got my dog from this dude. can't imagine life without him! (the dog)


Ursula Lux said...

Half the animals in my building are from Robert!

Anonymous said...

It's a shame that there are not more people like Robert who have compassion and truly make an effort to help animals.

Anonymous said...

Let me add to the chorus of praise for Robert .. also anything I can't use for my cats (which I would get from Robert were I ever in the market for a cat, which I've never been, people just foist them on me)I just give to him and he takes it. He's beyond awesome. Thank you for this.

bill said...

i know buddy for a long time well over 2 decades from so many things him coming in a restaurant i worked in to playing handball together to debating politics he is a good guy all the way around

Anonymous said...

Adore Robert and Social Tees!! Half the animals in my building are from there too -including my own cats. Thanks to him and all of his team for taking care of animals and keeping the EV real. Thanks Grieve and James Maher!

Anonymous said...

The only people better than Robert are all the volunteers who do great work for Social Tees everyday.

sakae said...

I've seen Robert around the neighborhood so long I can't even remember when I first met him. Maybe it was at 103 during the graveyard shift?

Regardless, I adopted my cat from Robert 14 years ago. At the time, Omar was the only cat there. I was so lucky to get him. He passed away last year, but I'll be dropping by Social Tees when I'm ready to adopt again.

Ike said...

This guy is one of my favorites. I often sit with him on the benches outside and watch people and animals alike stop to show him love and express their appreciation. He makes the world a better place.

Anonymous said...

Love this feature and love this guy- Robert found us our one of kind character of a dog 7 years ago and I can't imagine our lives without him (our beagle). So great to hear about Robert's interesting journey and see a light shined on the amazing work he does.

Walter said...

"Maybe it was at 103 during the graveyard shift? " Wow, there's another person who remembers 103. Used to eat there most every night. What a wonderful time and place it was. Makes me feel very nostalgic.

Lisa Kunz said...

While I no longer live in NY, I still occasionally hear about Social Tees. And I remember this amazing man I knew decades ago - a completely selfless advocate for those creatures who had no voice. And someone with a need to educate those of us who either did not want to know or were simply ignorant of the suffering that the human race inflicts upon these innocent animals. 'Robert' is a rare example of a man who truly believes in what he does, and doesn't suffer fools.