Undercover in a Locked Psychiatric Ward


7 1/2 DAYS
Reporter Kevin Heldman spent seven days undercover in the psychiatric ward
of a public hospital in one of NYC’s poorest communities

“Fine, powerful piece… hoping many people will read your story (including those who could improve the situation).”– Dr. Oliver Sacks, professor of neurology and psychiatry; best known for the books The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat and Awakenings, adapted into an Academy Award nominated film

* National Mental Health Association Award
for excellence in mental health reporting

* American Psychiatric Association Certificate of Commendation
“The entire judging panel was overwhelmingly impressed with your dedication and personal sacrifice for this story. This level of investigative reporting is certainly unique.”

Here’s the link:


Chinese Takeout Story — actually and really behind the bulletproof glass and out on deliveries — who the people are, what their lives are like

chinese take out 7

This is a snapshot of what life is like for one — and representative of many — Chinese takeout restaurants in New York City.  This is in an area where crime is high — Mott Haven, Bronx — and people in the restaurant, and people outside of the restaurant, may not have the opportunities to get out, move, make choices.

Takeout Story

Reporting On A Nudist Club (excerpt)

We arrive at the spa and sign in. Our car mates greet the other entering nudists with hugs and kisses on the cheek. There are couples, singles, the middle aged, twenty-somethings, older folks, all bundled up with coats and hats. We go into the locker room and the sudden onslaught of a sea of flesh is overwhelming (play it off, act natural, hi there). My eighth grade English teacher, the guy who fixes my car, my dentist; everybody is naked, walking by in a parade of immodesty, brushing hair, making small talk, pulling off underwear, bras. There are about a hundred people all stripping or stripped — the effect is like being struck by flesh-toned snow blindness.

A young, extremely shapely woman takes the locker next to me. Not possible. I had seen her standing in the lobby when I came in. High heels, lace stockings, miniskirt — must be the dance club bound aerobics instructor getting ready to leave as the nudists plodded in, I thought. I had assumed nudism was basically a support group for the nautilus-challenged, instinctively applying free market politics where the body is commodity; high quality goods wouldn’t be available so easily, for free. But here she is next to me taking off the skirt, the high heels, peeling off single leg stockings, panties, bending and reaching — why is she allowing me and others to see this, is what I can’t help asking.

I walk out with shorts on, towel in tow, uncomfortably cold. People are sitting in the lounge drinking wine, chatting. There are people covered with tattoos, with pierced body parts, obese women, here comes my dentist again bobbing toward the sauna. I walk into the pool area. The lifeguard hired by the spa is clothed in a bathing suit. I sense a vague superiority, similar to police who watch over a demonstration of activists with that silent smirking contempt. I try to saddle up to Bob who’s working the room, pressing the flesh as it were. He dismisses me and tells me to get involved, do something, then jumps into the crowded hot tub.

I pad around a bit, as people pass me wordlessly. Finally, I go to a nearby corner, pull off the trunks and walk across the deck. I feel the lifeguard’s eyes contemptuously upon my ass. Into the pool, I breaststroke around in an imitation of luxuriating copped from screen actresses who usually play these scenes with their long hair up in a modified bun while someone watches them on a terrace. I small talk with Phil. Phil wants to meet women here but he’s careful not to be blatant about it. More talk about trunk-less freedom. I meet a group of women in chest high water and we exchange pleasantries. A discarded social contract floats by.

Nine o’clock and time for the lingerie show in the lounge. It’s all camp and Tupperware party as the hostess calls out the models who wear the requisite Fredericks gear, men included. I sit naked as fellow nudists chat up the metaphysics of the lifestyle (“being nude doesn’t guarantee honesty and openness, but it helps”). Class distinctions are eliminated, apparel based categorizations aren’t readily available (love beads or pearls, work boots or sandals), so people get to know one another on a more substantive level.

Many of the people in the nudist or naturist movement (the latter being the more liberal) take pains to emphasize that nudity has nothing to do with sexual activity. Peter, who insists nudity itself is not provocative, tells the story of being on a nude beach when he spotted a woman there who was wearing a crocheted top. After a while he found himself watching her, waiting, hoping that she would move a little to the left or to the right so her nipple would come into view. He soon noticed there were a number of men on the beach doing the same thing. This in spite of the fact that there were hundreds of completely naked women all around.

My companion is still in partial dress at poolside, being talked to by bearded radical chic hustler — the others warn me about him. He’s eminently comfortable with his body and wants her to be. She tells him she still can’t seem to separate the idea of sexuality from nudity. A pause. This somehow does it for him. Following nudist etiquette he suddenly throws himself into the water, submerging his lower half, apologizing for his erection. At some point, he casually mentions there is a secluded spot in the women’s bathroom where sex can be had discreetly.

Later, I see her in the water backed up against the pool’s edge, three nudists treading water, forming a horseshoe around her in what looks like a game of sharks and minnows. I imagine them chanting over and over again “Is this your first time?”

I talk to a heavy-set woman in her forties who tells me it took her five summers of going to nudist beaches before she had the courage to disrobe. Now she feels free and good about her body, less self-conscious than if she were in a one piece. A number of women speak similarly, of women who’ve had radical mastectomies walking comfortably around nude beaches, of learning not to be self-conscious of their weight or their bodies because of nudity. I ask if they would go to an all-female nude pool party. They say it sounded like a good idea, they would. All the men I question about attending an exclusively male party ask what would be the point.

The shapely faux aerobics instructor, proud winner of the lingerie competition in her all white baby doll and garters now appears, inexplicably, wearing another lingerie outfit, wielding a whip and mock sashaying in the lounge. A man rushes up to her, prostrates himself at her high heels and says whip me.

She does, doing a little something with her lips and ass. The men guffaw, catcall, gather around, make jokes. She’s the finest one there and she’s playing it. The mood is broken, we’re in a centerfold now, the other women resent her attention grabbing. I resent her for reminding me of sex just when I was having such a good time.

Grace Amid Chaos and Desperation: Medic Inside A NYC Hurricane Shelter

I spent 41 hours over three days working for the city during Hurricane Irene.  I wrote about it for Capital New York.

This is what it was like:


heldman hurricane photo

Drug running, slang, and real talk on NYPD wires and gangs r us type sites

(May 18, 2012)

“A notorious drug dealer who got his start during the crack epidemic of the 1980s and was so good at hiding his whereabouts that he was known as “the ghost” has been arrested along with dozens of others on new charges, police and prosecutors said Thursday.

James Corley, 51, was charged with criminal sale of a controlled substance and other drug charges after a 15-month undercover investigation that used wiretaps and surveillance, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said. Forty-four other people were also charged with drug crimes in the dismantling of Corley’s operation, known as the Supreme Team, and another drug gang, authorities said.

Corley supplied cocaine to a second gang called the South Side Bloods, and low-level dealers grossed about $15,000 a week in drug sales, Kelly said. Burned by a wiretap before, Corley used at least eight different phones, authorities said.

The Supreme Team was run by legendary gang leader Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff, who reputedly funneled drug money into rap music label Murder Inc. He’s now serving life without parole for a pair of murders after a 2007 conviction.

It was a brutal drug gang that came out of the same Queens streets where platinum rappers 50 Cent and Ja Rule emerged years later. At its peak, the Supreme Team’s network of dealers was making $200,000 a day, authorities said.

After McGriff did jail time on a drug conviction, he was released in 1997 and aligned himself with neighborhood friend and music mogul Irv “Gotti” Lorenzo. The one-time street thugs produced one film: “Crime Partners,” a straight-to-video affair that featured Ja Rule, Snoop Dogg and Ice-T.

NYPD’s Detective David Leonardi put the case together, noting in the charges that the gangs used Supreme Mathematics” and the “Supreme Alphabet,” the language system used by members of the Nation of Islam offshoot group Nation Of Gods and Earths (also known as “Five Percenters”). Leonardi was able to decipher the coded language…”


I don’t know, I heard A is for Allah, B is for Born, etc in 1983, when I was 17 and three probated teens huddled together on a handball court reciting in a residential facility and I knew I couldn’t listen in, dog hair, Yacub, etc, but we were all buddies, really living together, so I did and they were cool, playfully pushing me away.  But slang terms for money, weed, and guns change every two months or so and with all the ridiculously complicated complex handshakes and hand signing thought up by bored in a cell teens all over NYC,  all also competing with raps to put together high level word play and metaphor after metaphor, neologisms every other line – – I think they and an old time veteran like Corley,  probably able to mix up something like 35 years of street talk, prison slang, institutional jargon, drug terms, and hip hop slang, could code deeper and more complex than something that’s all over urban dictionary and Wikipedia.  Something mixed up, nonsensical and easy, riffed without even really trying like:

Heads wearing Asolos violated in the bing ward playing the corner over static about Tony the Tiger (Blood repping ) on the cereal box lifted in the cafeteria and the program retreads shooting dope in the pocket because everywhere else collapsed and the dusties drinking cranberry juice to detox, and the Lincoln Hall irks kidding on the square, saying the only hardrocks are in graveyards in the money makin’ (mighty whitites racistly twisting it to monkey makin’,) in the burnt out, and the girls saying Lets prep in the clubs stepping all over his British Walkers, the 94Bs and masons fraternizing with the civilian dishwashers tricking on their lifer NCO husbands overseas and hit em cause they beat me freaks anyway — grown ass men long after the PINS petition expired like Bosket and the toothpaste on menthols wore off and the WAM ran out and the cologne strained through bread got him too sick worse than the antabuse and he was back on the juggle no struggle seeing how low your money can go (4-5-6) on c-74 with the crazy little ones nice with their hands, yo put me down on that right quick, that’s menthol right.

And some people would understand every word and many more people, grown people with careers and no time to waste would run it past the web sites and after no hits would call it a foolish waste of time, mock it (wait for the teenagers somewhere to sift through it all because they can care back then about all that) and just move on with regular living and regular talk, y’know, foxtrot uniform charlie kilo indigo tango.

Sleeping Rough — Two Months Living in and Reporting on a Homeless Shelter in England



There is an attraction to the street life: those moments when you’re curled up on the pavement, freedom gear slung over your back, cocky in your rebel-as-loser pose. You’re the outsider who can sit on the sidelines and laugh at the misguided straights rushing by with their ridiculous attempts at charity (go ahead, try and help me), and at the parade of journalists, urban anthropologists, volunteers, caseworkers, clergy who are somehow dependent on you. If he, on the street, were to take the next step up and, say, get a job sweeping the footbridge instead of playing homeless on it, all the power and attention he commanded would dissipate and people would likely pass him by without a word.

But there’s also this side: he, that man on the street I was talking about – – When I last saw him he told me he was going to steal a van and seek out a community of witches in Wales and eventually fix up a derelict cottage to live in.

We became very alright with each other.  Before I left England I gave him my poncho and a tartan overshirt and we exchanged addresses. Less then a month later he died in his flat of a drug overdose. He lay there for three weeks, his dog barking inside the apartment, before his body was discovered.

The whole story is on my website JournalismWorksProject
at the link:http://www.journalismworksproject.org/simon-titlepage.html

The journalist and the ghetto article

So being a journalist and having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me I was going to write a story about a really crime ridden, impoverished section of the city.  I spent so much time there, days, nights, in projects, in cheap hooker motels, on the streets, in clubs, stopped repeatedly by cops and went through what you wouldn’t believe, talking to the mother of a shot girl, gun shot victims, activist groups protesting violence, the fellas on the street on and on — but then I thought what the hell is the point.

Another story about gangs, and teen beefs and cops behaving badly and drugs — what do I have to add, to teach anybody, to contribute — I can notice, point out, write out a few details that are intriguing, introduce you all to new slang, try to break your heart, make you outraged, blow up stereotypes, show folks as real people, diverse and human as you and I — but why, I (and so many other journalists) wrote so many of those articles and what? I got awards, I got flack, some good things happened, conditions changed, I got superficial praise at gatherings — “Wow, you do really serious interesting stuff, bye I’m going back to the guy or girl who loves me, makes me laugh, provides for me and likes watching The Office with me when we get home from Trader Joes.”

But write the article if you don’t really really have something to say that needs to be said and hasn’t been said? Try to find a sexy original way in like a graduate school lit paper — “Herman Melville and The White Whale — A racial trope in the service of a cautionary narrative of mythic bestiality”

Write the article because it’s my job?, it’s work, just like the guy who shows up everyday at the factory and works the lathe or the pediatric nurse who goes in every day and treats patient after patient.

Since I’m still 16 years old in my mind I think of journalism as a calling and doing  a certain type of reporting seems just as useless and useful as waking up and getting out of bed each morning. So what, stay broke until I have something to say? Work blue collar jobs until I have an article I need to write? I did that for years but gettin old and my back can’t hang — can’t unload those UPS trucks anymore, can’t shovel that snow for the city, carry those boards of sheet rock up those stairs, can’t hang from the rafters with one hand wielding a nail gun with the other.

As for the existential whining — Johnny Cash’s lyric, “I shot a man in Reno  just to watch him die” was originally “I shot a city editor just because he said hey welcome to the real world and sent me to cover a city council meeting and told me to use a punchier lead on a story and said ‘And use some humor, you every read Joel Klein in the back of Time Magazine, use him as a model, write like him, funny but he actually makes good points about society and culture.”

What would you do? And BTW, what is the meaning of life and why is the sky blue?

I’m serious actually, too damn serious. Why doesn’t Wolf Blitzer have these problems. Goddamn, is this what blogs are for? – shut down the damn internet and just give us all diaries.

Good-bye and Mea Culpa, or as they say in jail when they’re 15,

My Fault (though a lot of them do say, often,  “Don’t say sorry, it makes you sound weak).   But I’m not 15, not in jail,  not caring terribly about image of weak or strong, and didn’t mind when the Dixie Chicks talked.

However, I should and will just shut up and write (Dixie Chicks Shut Up and Sing reference…)  It’s 4:34 pm in NY, my computer says 10:34 (Albanian time) —  I will change that and shut up and write the damn/darn/fug-n story:  The end and the beginning of Albanian Transnational Crime.

Was, is a litte hard to concentrate, get motivated, but today I just Googled something (yeah, I just Googled something, I Googled my fu–) and found this reporter editor Mike Dang had me on a site, I think Bundle.com and/or LongReads and/or a Tumblr site called Dang and he said about a story I wrote (Chinese Take Out Story), “This was a terrific read” and there were 44 Notes/retweets/likes.

Yo, I’m so easy, that’s all it takes.  Means so much.  I worked hard on that story and it was appreicated — so here goes, back into isolation, let me write this Albanian story, bust my ass and go into my own world and act like this is the most important thing in the world, type until my finegers get clawed out and my calves get swollen (too much information) and my back hurts (every writer’s back hurts) — but hey, as Kershis told me in 5th grade about fighting or about smashing your closed fist into n a tree when you’re prone, on your stomach, zipping down a hill on an old school sled with the navigation handle up front controlled by your hands and you have to go between those two trees (of course we had to go between those two closely positioned trees and of course I hit my almost frozen fist on that tree one time) — he said the pain goes away, it alway goes away.  He was right.

So, good-bye, the next time you hear from me will be when I publish (knock on wood) this article on Capital New York. Hopefully it will be alright and I’ll do a good job.  So bye, back into lonely writer, drinking coffee and zero sugar Monster energy drinks world.

I don’t mind.  It’s a privilege really.  Shoot, I’ve worked in boring factories and done jobs that were atrociously boring — sand papered newly hung and taped sheet rock for hours and hours — practiced writing pieces of prose on the sheet rock to take a mind break, prose that I sand papered over and away, so I shouldn’t be complaining — it is a privilege to be able to write and to be listened to, have to remember where I came from, where so many others are — so here goes, bye for a while, wish me luck.


Kevin Heldman (reporter with literary aspirations/believer in hard work/heart on sleeve wearer/damaged but not broken by roughish life guy)


20 Year Anniversary — A Reporter’s Life. Motel Gypsy on the Road (motel beds and different local tv shows in different cities and brought in nearby convenience store food feels like so at home) Hermit-ing on the Story at your Garreted out Desk (writing it over and over again in isolation, trying to mold gibberish into verbal gold) — Ah, Bartleby, this little bit of a monk-like reporter’s life is so for me

Coffee mugs, filled up and rag-tagged reporting pads, criminal case files, maps, accordion files filled with contact info, notebooks filled with trial notes, red pens used for slashing through all those read aloud gibberish drafts attempting to turn stream of consciousness dumps into balanced sentence gold; the English to Albanian dictionary, the printed out guilty pleas and allocutions; in the field in and out of internet cafes, airport CPUs, random offices in other countries with thumb drives, lugging around  e-mails from anon sources with their names ripped off to protect identities;  folders with lists of alleged criminals; letters from prisoners and passwords and scores of resource info scotch taped to the wall above your desk.

Revising and shaping raw drafts of notebook dumps on a Saturday — I love this reporter’s life. I love it. Playing the computer keyboard, typing like it’s a damn Stevie Wonder piano.

Writing and publishing to make it realer, not real —  have to learn that and keep that idea protected and sure and hold that tight — the idea that it’s real already, the experience,  it doesn’t have to be a published article to make it real.

I got this Fred Friendly (RIP).  I got this James Agee (RIP).  I got this Pro Publica.  I got this AAN, Association of Alternative Newspapers (RIP).  I got this Dean Isaacs and Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. I got this Long Reads and Long Form and David Isay and all you submitting to Granta, the Beliver,  Ploughshares, this that and the other Review and small journal.  I got this old Village Voice.  I got this Hitchens (RIP, damn goddamn that’s a waste, all that intellect just taken away) and Orwell and Rian Milan and Izzy Stone.   I got this all you all who spent so much time in the field and accumulated  all those boxes of tapes and were going through hell transcribing with that foot pedal.  I got this Random Family and all you struggling with those 60 page, rewritten 20 times, rejected 11 times, book proposals.

So and And:  Long live independent, long form, in-depth  journalism.  It’s not always about money, advertising,  getting paid.  Those guys and gals of IRE — not to be precious or high falutin because they’d hate that — are artists.  Even the guy much ridiculed for typing in pajamas and mom’s basement — I’m with him — it’s art and the First Amendment is not just a joke, lip service, welcome to the real world, yeah right free press dream on, get out of here you can’t come in here, you can’t see that — I believe  in it.  We stand at Cardinal games during the National Anthem and it’s not corny.   So I’m standing, taking my hats off and respecting and believing in our the First Amendment.

Home From Albania, Finally Home — A Long Long Journey from a side street (Siri Kodra) in Tirana to a fourth floor walk-up in Manhattan, New York

I don’t know how the hell I really did it, just wanting to do it badly enough and showing up again and again, but I did do it — alone, but with the enormous, very very generous help of so many — a random Turkish man I met on an Air Train out of JFK Airport late at night, a random Albanian worker (who is now a friend, true friend for life, Drita) who looked out of windshields through tough, crazy Albanian city and highway traffic and near collisions; to hugging Ana (a mother and father sick, alone in a small office helping people who are angry about lost and found bags); to that working kid who said “that’s nice” in NY about peace and cupcakes and saying thanks to a fellow worker; to that present I got from the grandmother and the sick, but going to do well Mom in Selvia, Thimi’s folks (thank you for cooking for me and allowing me to talk too sentimental  about things that are serious and private, health, life and death)…

To do all this with no real big budget, no real organizational backing, no team, no big structure —  yeah, let’s be transparent, no family, no grandfather giving you blue chip stock, no mom worrying over your eyes,  your job, your worries, no Uncle to hook you up with a job after school — no complaints, I’m free — but still — from lugging your gear down to the street to jumping into vehicles on another continent — pure muscle and will and luck — thank you guys who helped.

Somebody told me don’t go overseas like a lamb, wandering around.  But why not, if you do it with confidence and courageously and decently, why not.  If you look them, if you look people in the eye and tell them what you want, if you make it that personal, I’m fine with that and most people are — they are, you just have to go and do it.  Haters, what did I call them before hip hop gave me that tired  tv language — they’ve always been around, I remember them since elementary school, but also people who looked out, were nice and I was nice back, they were always around,; there’s a lot of us out there.

Glad I get to do this, call myself a journalist.  If you believe it and you’re straight and you keep yourself humble and able, I think it’s all possible, no matter who you are, how difficult or unlikely — I’m just gonna keep on trying like all you try, hang and be nice to regular people, because I’m regular people, no matter what I’m doing, what sucesss failure means (Lek, plata, dinero, genama, cash — it’s possible to do it without all that, harder, but possible) — what good is a free press if journalism is a hobby like fly-fishing, just to do on the side and only a few privleged get to do it good and in -depth.

I can’t sing, dance, play ball or earn money hanging cabinets or show up every day to do something I don’t like or care about and nobody’s recruiting journalists who have a poet’s eye or heart like crazy, nobody’s recruiting anybody for money any more it seems.  But I only get 75, 90 years — why not try and be special and useful, see who comes to my funeral or who reads my articles.  Thank you guys, good looking. Really thanks.  Good night; I’m glad to be home in one piece, finally.

Driving the roads, walking the streets in Albania November 2011

Yes, I am here and yes I will write, write the hell out of this place, this article. I’m 46, been to Nicaragua, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Thailand, England, Afghanistan, Korea, Brazil, Vietnam, maybe some others that I’m forgetting — I’ve seriously been to these places — reported there, went there on mission like energy, experienced these places deeply and intimately, not just touristy type thing — always being an American has been a serious liability. They’ve hated me, that I was American. Okay, I always thought — hate me, do your thing. I’m as an American as Donald Trump, Sumiko Obata, Jonas Salk and Christopher Hitchens — meaning what the hell does that mean that I’m American. I’m Kevin Heldman, as dissimilar and similar to those folks as can be. But yet they hated me. Here, and I knock the wood of the internet cafe cubicle as I say this — this is the first place where being an American has been something positive, people have liked me for being an American.

You don’t know how many times I’ve touched my heart and they’ve touched their heart back, how many thumbs up and how many times my back, my shoulder has been held and led gently. Damn guys, damn girls — thank you. I don’t deserve it, expect it, wasn’t anticipating it but it is so nice. Good looking, Albania.

Ketjol Manoku, Albanian locked up in prison. Krasnici brothers currently on trial. Mother of the Albanian defendant devestated after a guilty verdict in the New York courtroom… That Albanian shopkeeper, kind, older and really decent who I wrote about in my first article — I see where, if I can generalize, you all come from. Albania deserves a damn good strong, single, fist clasping shoulder type hug. You all got this. Your country– libertarian, free, a little wild– it’s good here. But come on, just let me in your prisons alright. I’m a crime reporter and I go to these places, but even so and still, didn’t they say you can judge a society by how they treat their locked down.

So on I go reporting and getting to know Albania and this story for Capital New York. Funded by The Fund for Investigative Journalism. I won’t let any one down — it’s been quite quite hard and I’ve roughed it, been in situations where it’s been rough, but that is my choice and my job, supposed to get in deep and sometimes that means getting dirty. I don’t have to swagger and be tough because I’m not a gangster and have nothing to prove, nobody to impress and I don’t have to run especially and directly toward fires or crimes or trouble like a cop or firefighter with that obligation but still I am a journalist and I am that kind of journalist — I’m supposed to go deep, investigate, be as particiaptory as possible, so I will. Me and my Albanian English dictionary and my rent a car and beat up body, doing pushups in the room at night to stay fit. And the kindness of this and the other Shqiptar helping, worrying over me in this difficult to manage infrastructure. Thank you, you know who you are.

Heldman, uh me, on foreign TV; many are surprised; a few say it’s nothing

A TV station in Europe, yeah I’m going to to have to say Albania, says my name, says my name, says my- during the course of her broadcast and seems to make quite a big deal about a series of articles I wrote on a sort of organized crime. Kind of interesting to have happen to you – let’s hope she’s not slamming me and everything I stand for. She’s probably just doing her job,  Please watch it and act accordingly:


Response to hurricane article; on that special type of doubt that nags the aid worker and the journalist

There was a response to an article I wrote recently – – I spent three days working in NYC hurricane evacuation centers and shelters as an emergency responder and as a journalist during Hurricane Irene. Article is here

A blog, Aftershock Action Alliance, linked to the piece,”NYC’s Response to Irene Not Picture Perfect” quoted it and praised it, saying “Without these on the ground observations there is little chance the city will be better prepared next time when we might really need it.”

I thanked them, and I commented that with some of these things, when you’re involved in work like that (and I have been a lot), you’re never entirely sure whether you’re playing save-the-day hero and writing the equivalent of diary entries or you gave real useful emergency aid and did real useful journalism.

Enough validation comes your way and you can stop showing off to yourself and you can concentrate on properly serving the cause, the material. The latter part of that thought is a paraphrase of, I swear to you, George Clooney talking to Charlie Rose about acting. Now if I was a real hustler and go getter I would put Clooney and Rose in my tags to get this post read more widely, but, G-d help me, I barely understand what the hell a tag is and, honestly, I don’t know if all of three of my Facebook friends are reading what I write here or if it’s reaching the favelas of Brazil, the living rooms of Short Hills, New Jersey, the advisory board of The Dart Center. Them I’ll tag.

The Gambler: Down and out at the Raceway and everywhere else there’s Joker Poker,Jacks or Better, and an ATM (for all those who even for a minute felt they were gambling too much, or thought damn I could stay at this table forever… this one’s for you. Good Luck.

This is my old school writing, but some things never change and I knew this topic too well, too closely, so it’s worth revisiting.

Young un playing college dorm poker on-line; professional educator or medical technician who goes to AC once in a while but so so loves trying to win at those tables; the regular at that broken down harness track sliding card after card into the ATM because you can’t leave yet — you have to get your money back — it’s impossible to keep on losing on that machine, your luck has to change, it’ impossible to lose so many times in a row. The old folks saying over and over “it’s a night out, it’s just fun.”

I know, I watched you all many many years; many many times — I also got your ghost for a while. This is exactly what it feels like, what happens to you, who you become when you, some of you, play. I don’t boast too much and this isn’t even a boast really — I just know the head and the heart in the casino and at the betting parlour too well because I lived there for a long time; too comfortable and too curious.

So this, long and literary and the first paragraph filled with a little too much writerly showing off — this account about why and how we gamble when we gamble hard doesn’t get more definitive. Read it — if you’re a serious player or once were you’ll nod your head (guarantee: if this doesn’t happen, write me and I’ll write you a brand new essay on whatever you want, no charge).

So here you go,read about us as we really are or can be when you log on or slide that $20 into the machine and the thing lights up ready to play:

Caught between a war zone and a monastery; between the penitentiary yard and the Sound of Music

I’m a journalist and I once tweeted this:

“Wrote in my journ pad that every story that matters is worth living for+dying for beat my ass and I’ll just put it in the lede my shield law”

Now that sounds a bit like a loose cannon talking and I was actually told by a fellow journalist that an editor of mine once referred to me as a loose cannon. A magazine once profiled me and used the headline “The Risk Taker”   So just on the self reflection tip, I’m not really macho, I like show tunes and musicals, I’m pretty sensitive, I believe in all forms of welfare, charity, kindness, gentleness.  I hate bullies, wise-asses, sarcastic people, know it alls.  And I think listening to a person deeply is a really good quality.  My heroes are people like Dr. Oliver Sacks, my idea of demeanor to aspire to is Federal Judge Richard Howell of the Southern District Court in NY (Manhattan) in whose courtroom I covered a 3 week trial and stood for him eagerly and gladly when he entered and exited the room.  Also Andy Hardy’s judge father in those old films.  I can’t hit anybody in the face; I don’t like seeing people pranked or laugh when people slip and fall.  This train wreck business — that we’re supposed to be guilty pleasured into watching horrible displays on reality shows, that it’s compelling to watch people destroying themselves.  I can’t watch that, no desire to — I used to look away like crazy if a performer forgot his or her line in a play and I would be too embarrassed and hurt for them.

That said I’ve been wrestling and body punching, tackling, mixing it up, throwing people around, been thrown around on concrete, grass, barracks, jails — I love that contact.  Breaking up fights, I can’t not.  Cop chasing someone, I join in (true story, Southwest Yonkers, 1991 home of DMX and Mary J Blige, saw some guy running from the courthouse down the middle of a busy service road, two cops in pursuit, way behind, I started after him, we ran parallel for a while and then I grabbed him in the middle of the road, cars driving by, held him until the two cops arrived then threw him into their arms and they slammed him on the hood of a car (and I still got turned down for a NYPD press pass this year; c’mon DCPI).

I was also made a serial killer reporter for APB for two years and I covered a lot of crime, saw, heard, a lot of horrible things — but I can’t watch Nancy Grace or any of them, I don’t ever watch horror films.

I’m brave when I have to be because it’s easy — I become a different person, transported — if something is really wrong and bad and I’m in front of it, I get this righteous indignation spirit and I, I do anything, say anything, just confront it no matter how threatening or dangerous.  But give me some day to day — how to live, what people think of me, if I’m a good person, how to keep a job, talk the right way to the right people, job interviews, money issues, the possibility of boredom or shame, yeah that I’m not brave about — it’s scares me steadily, always.  Where do guys like me go when they want to live then, caught between a war zone and a monastery between the penitentiary yard and the Sound of Music.  I don’t — their is no home for that.  Journalism is the closest,  just watching and recording and telling other people’s lives and your life on the page — it’s what you have to do when you can’t live; you have to write.  It works.

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Press Release for Winners of Fund for Investigative Journalism Grants

I received one and am grateful and will work hard to do right by them.  Thank you FIJ board.

And yo, I should add because everyone, I mean everyone is telling me it’s so… (the Romanian waitress at the diner says “Albanians are crazy people, they kill people, they’re the most hot-blooded country there is, I wouldn’t go there, it’s chaos, like a jungle”), I should add: yo,  don’t hurt me when I’m running around Albania asking stupid or rough questions.  I’m just a journalist — we’re not all jerks. Though I know a lot are.  They don’t give a damn about their subjects and they let their editors do whatever they want with their copy and they say “what do we give a damn we’re not social workers” and they stick microphone in front of the faces of the just convicted and those who just lost a loved one.  I was taught that way too — in journalism school by my professor whose name is Ka– nah, let it go. I don’t do that kind of shit, and yes it is shit when it’s done like that.

So crooks and cops, don’t look at me as the enemy — I’m just writing what goes on so people know and we and they and you are not in the dark as much.


FIJ Awards Grants to Investigative Journalists

Thursday, October 6th, 2011

WASHINGTON – (October 6, 2011) The Board of Directors of the Fund for Investigative Journalism has awarded $40,000 in grants for nine independent investigative projects in the United States and overseas.

The grants cover travel and other reporting expenses for investigative stories that otherwise would not be told. Significant support from the Park Foundation, the Gannett Foundation, the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the Green Park Foundation, and generous donations from individuals made these grants possible.

This year so far, FIJ has awarded $118,000 to journalists working on 32 investigative reporting projects.

Journalists awarded grants in the most recent round are:

Idris Olalekan Akinbajo, investigative journalist from Nigeria

Ken Englade, non-fiction author specializing in trial coverage

Elizabeth Grossman, environmental science reporter

Lorie Hearn, Investigative Newsource

Kevin Heldman, New York-based crime and justice reporter

Chris Kromm, publisher, Southern Exposure

Paige McClanahan and Felicity Thompson, Sierra Leone-based reporters

Rocco Rorandelli, photojournalist with TerraProject, based in Italy and Catherine Segal, Paris-based journalist

Susan Southard, Arizona-based author

The topics of grantees’ investigations are confidential until completed. In addition to critical funding, grantees receive editorial guidance from mentors through a partnership with Investigative Reporters and Editors.

Recently completed projects include:

• Trevor Aaronson’s report, “The Informants,” published by Mother Jones, on sting operations conducted by the FBI in the War on Terror. Aaronson describes how FBI operatives use the threat of deportation to recruit informants, then use their informants to lure alleged terrorists into schemes where the means, the method, and the opportunity to commit acts of terror are cooked up by the FBI.

• An investigation by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting into the misuse of federal stimulus funds in Florida schools. The nonprofit news center found that schools shored up their budgets, which were sagging due to the recession, rather than making school improvements as intended. Now that the recession is continuing to depress revenues from local taxing bodies, the schools will have to dig themselves out of even deeper financial holes and make drastic cuts.

• “Render Unto Rome,” a groundbreaking book by Jason Berry, who has investigated sexual abuse and now financial abuses within the Catholic Church over his long, distinguished career. Berry’s most recent book reveals how bishops use their power to close parishes and sell off property despite the wishes of parishioners — even in cases of parishes that were thriving financially. Church property is sold to bail out other parishes with expensive legal bills and court battles over allegations of sexual abuse. Berry was recently the subject of a profile in the Washington Post, which focused on the tension between his Catholic faith and his dogged reporting on the Church.

• An investigation for The Guardian of the use of child laborers to pick tobacco in Malawi. The children are paid extremely low wages and develop nicotine poisoning in the fields, inhaling fumes equivalent to smoking 30 cigarettes a day. Malawi’s economy is dependent on its tobacco production, with 70 percent of its exports coming from this industry. The country also has the highest incidence of child labor in southern Africa, with 90 percent of all underage children working on farms.

• The Chicago Reporter took an in-depth look at the minority contracting program in Illinois. It discovered that work that is supposed to be designated for companies owned by people with disabilities instead goes to sheltered workshops – which employ disabled people in supervised settings and pay less than minimum wage. They also found that the state isn’t meeting its own goals for minority contracts, and that for those minority contractors who get work, it doesn’t necessarily expand their business in any lasting way – the ultimate goal of this set-aside program.

The Fund for Investigative Journalism is an independent, non-profit organization that has supported hundreds of public service reporting projects since 1969, when it provided funding for Seymour Hersh to investigate and expose the massacre of Vietnamese civilians by American soldiers in My Lai. His stories won the Pulitzer Prize.

Read more about FIJ-supported projects and instructions for grant applications at http://www.fij.org. The next deadline to submit proposals is Tuesday, November 1. Journalists with questions about the application process are encouraged to contact executive director Sandy Bergo by phone, 202-391-0206, or email, fundfij@gmail.com.

Going to Albania/the Balkans to report, seriously, on transnational organized crime; can I get a hand fellas

I spent over a year reporting and publishing on this topic. I applied for a grant (it was quite a package we were required to put together) and I just found out I received it.  It was from a very decent journalism foundation willing to support my trip and reporting.  I fly out of Newark airport on Nov. 9.

I’m happy as hell and grateful.  It’s an important story with a lot of national security implications.  It’s also a hard story to do.  To do right that is, not just some soft feature, get a few quotes, talk to a retired Interpol cat and some experts in the field.

I want to get the hell deep inside and tell the truth of their story, all of them, the cops and the robbers, the mothers, the gun slingers, the analysts, the guards, the beat up mob friend, the in charge shot caller, the hapless detective, the cop or prosecutor who works 14 hour days and is nailing this thing and no one really knows (I mean, damn, nobody ever knows about Albania here in the States) — no judgements — just a true story for posterity, history, so it will be documented, real.

Yeah, so a little help — you journos, sources, cops, feds, marshalls, friends from the old days, criminologists, bag men, young muscle, retired big shots — tell me what’s up.  I’ll do it right.  You know my e-mail kevinjayheldman[at]yahoo.com

I’ll give you my damn phone number if it’ll help — 347 – 351, the rest is easy to find.  Tell me if you have something real.  I know this unorthodox but I don’t work for the Times or the New Yorker (I would though, Dave and Susan/Sam/Punch whoever hires there; but I’m not good punching a clock to be honest).  I’m grass roots, renting cars, borrowing money, hitting up old friend skip tracers for database help, hustling on my own so…I’m asking.  No shame — it’s an important story — I’m going to do it anyway.  A little help though fella’s.

Thanks, Kevin Heldman (check my credentials, I’m a pretty good reporter; I try to do decent work).  It’s hard out here for an investigative journalist who likes to get a little literary and doesn’t want to be Dateline, wait till everything is over and then get the nice little story with a bow.

What it feels like to be heard and why journalism shouldn’t die

There is a man named Samuel Rubenfeld, he covers corruption for The Wall Street Journal.  This series I wrote on Albanian crime, I worked to the point of exhaustion on it, I probably embarrassed myself a number of times begging and haggling for information.  I thought it was important so I hawked it, hustled it, marketed it like a, like a bad merchant.  And this Samuel Rubenfeld, he took to Pro Publica’s new website and wrote this:
srubenfeld This series on the Albanian mob is truly one of the greatest things I’ve read all year http://bit.ly/p6mxbL via @capitalnewyork #muckreadsa day ago by Samuel Rubenfeld, Reporter, Corruption Currents, Wall Street Journal

That’s a damn nice thing of him to say. Not ego or publicity going on for me really, just that I got to do something good and that there are people out there, better people than me, who will read this, what I wrote and think that I did something worthwhile, correct, useful.  I can hold my head up for a little while, that means a lot. Because heads, they go down so quickly and easily when you’re a journalist (I remember when Pete Hamill was kissed by Abe Hirschfeld and Pete said so.  Does anyone else remember this, where my ### people at).
So thank you reporter Sam Rubenfeld,  good looking out, hopefully someday I can return the favor. May we both continue to have the opportunity to do good work.

The nice guy mob sidekick who just wanted to hang out with the fellas – kidnapped, interrogated, beaten, guns to his head, flipped and wired by the government, facing federal prison. He’s employee of the month every month, the guy just wants to go home. Some things are damn sad.


Albanian Organized Crime -NYC/Detroit/Toronto/Albania

This is the culmination of about a ten month investigation.  Check the CapitalNewYork.com website periodically — I have follow-up articles in this series coming up.

Here’s what the story is about:

Remembering Albania 1997; interviews in the penitentiary in Michigan (the Albanian inmate with 10 sentences, six for life); with the FBI’s Balkan Task Force; riding down the highway with the Confidential Informant; in the Albanian coffee shops and community off 15 Mile Road Detroit; wandering late night on the streets and in the cafes, bars, pizzerias, strip clubs, and social clubs in the Bronx, Queens, Staten Island – – where rap groups The Bloody Alboz (TBA),  Rebel, Uptown Affiliates, Unikkatil, and singers Aurela Gace and Anita Bitri ring bells.

The Albanian civil servant with the silencer, the Uzi, the shotgun from Fat Tony, the kilos, the betrayals, snitches, cooperating witnesses looking for their 5K letter, wiretaps, pen registers and trace and traps, border crossings, bodies dumped on the BQE highway, the
reporter getting anonymous tips (credible) on fugitives and traffickers, the dead pop singer – – inside the on-going Federal RICO death penalty-connected trial in Manhattan.  Shqiptar.



Data based journalism vs. human interest based journalism — the most melodramatic tortured analysis possible while still being a click from valid, or something – what Fiona does it

I would’ve been a digital journalist or a data journalist, or a developer, I would’ve been always working on new platforms, or on open sources, or on programing different elements so they were connected, interactive, logical and transportive, I would’ve found new ways to tell stories but I was born, then I went to playgrounds and school lunch rooms, then I kissed someone, got hit in the face by someone else, applied for a lot of jobs, was in a hospital, was shocked and didn’t believe that somebody didn’t like me, that somebody else hated me, that somebody else lo…, got my self hacked and abused on you tube by some psychotic regular joe, found out Dylan was kind of dick and liked to fug with people, sat around in the 80s watching the Drummonds and thought am I crazy, they must be crazy, but all of them, no it must be me, then I found these pills and thought what!, why doesn’t everyone take these all the time, then later, oh, that’s why, then realized I had to slug through 85 years of this, so for journalism I just do really in-depth immersion/martyr/crash test dummy investigative mission like stories and I stay there —  got the heck out of that whole life business.

Crime Journalism Housekeeping Notes and reporters and police bumping heads

1) On this Albanian Organized, kind of organized, ridiculously corporate like big narco types crime story, the last installment where I went to Albania, covered federal trials here in NY met with everybody and went everywhere I could, the one I cried about and the one that wrecked me a bit because how much can you write on a topic and how do you put a world of facts into order, maybe there is no order but when do you give it up — but  I did it, proud of the article, not the usual feeling of just grateful it didn’t go really bad and blow up — it’s good and everybody behind it feels it’s good and all you prosecutors, defense lawyers, agents, people who talked to me from in the life, who gave me info to help, who took me into places and opened up, the guys and women I can’t name who treated me decently, yeah it will be out, published soon, — I know, maybe the mob will disappear or something bigger will happen and you all moved on, I know, it’s just the nature of this game, uh this business, uh this hobby of mine sometimes — so soon and it’s all out and sincere so at least en shallah that will be good.

2) That last blog post on slang (commentary like I’m Carrie Bradshaw on the police beat) I’m banking on two guys laughing appreciatively on it — Steve Hughes in Brazil and the smart funny JC who kept everyone in check and made being an intimidator like having a cool ass uncle in your corner — P from last period in jumpsuit land, but I don’t even know how to get him to a blog).

3) I just have to say this cop reporter relations thing here — maybe 9 months ago I applied for this NYPD Press pass, it used to be useful but post 9/11 it’s pretty worthless really, what police lines are they really going to let you cross with the card and what special courtesies are they really going to roll out.  I sent this whole long application in, my bio, clips,  sayingI’m not a daily reporter looking to do spot news but I thought it would be useful, especially for ID if say  cops stop me for —  what are you doing in school street projects, why are you in this deli, to rob it?  we have a report of you with a gun in the subway we have to converge on you  — true true true and it always comes up if I’m a snitch, undercover, informant, cop, really a reporter when I’m interviewing so a card would maybe help a little.

This detective in the public information office almost takes my head off in an e-mail, no exceptions, we don’t care, you don’t meet the criteria, you fail, you’re not a crime reporter, we don’t cover rikers, go to hell, we hate you, (paraphrasing here).  What the hell — I write her back, look I’m not trying to get into a fight, I’m just wondering if there was any way blah blah respect respect. Basically go to hell response.  I say thanks for trying, whatever be nice, squash it.  No response.

What is this? That’s how little you value what a good journalist not trying to do gotchas and take cops down just to get a byline.  What is this courting of enemies, cultivating enemies. This is your job , on press outreach.  So we should disappear? Who is willing to come to the guy’s defense when you throw a cop in the psych ward for a week because he’s too out of line with commanders and getting to be a pain about quotas?  Who’s going to really try to show who you are when you jump in the river for a rescue, take bullets, get stabbed with a screwdriver in the head.  You have any idea how things went when an undercover cop tried to summons/arrest me for a turnstile jump, misunderstanding, on my way to court, he said remember this when you write all your ticket fixing attack articles, I said I don’t do that kind of thing, I’m not out for your blood (and I know a guy at the News who does those stories and he’s not out for blood either) and I went to his headquarters the next day to say thanks for helping me out, keeping it vague but saying he was decent and everybody was good.  You have any idea what happens when I see cops chasing a guy and I’m walking by what any of us would do in that situation.  Or hear them make a racist comment on a construction job and not go crazy and hate them all or how I would help  like hell when they’ve had to wrestle down an emotionally disturbed rodeo guy on an EMS call when I did that job. I’m not saying I’m Mcgruff or cop-like or that I could even stomach arresting a person or testifying against them or being a police officer, but come on I’ve been in the crime, cop, prison, courts, institutions, streets world since I was a teenager — you really want to treat somebody who actually knows your world, actually knows how you talk, feel, what you go through, know many sides and has put in the time, listens and wants to convey that for real to the public — you want to treat that person like, what, nothing, and just give credentials to guys who need to get two quotes on an accident?  Where’s the intelligence, the flexibility, the creativity, the reason, the willingness to cooperate to make things work.  You really want to live in fantasy land bad cop show where the reporters are all sick evil jackals trying to hunt you down for gain and all the cops are swaggering guys with community college degrees who are crude and boorish.  I talked to your guy last night at 3 am, two out of their mind British tourists drunk, sick, miniskirted laying on the curb, hey, sorry officer, I know this is run of the mill sat nite and you’re not a taxi service but there’s these girls.  He’s normal, thoughtful, okay, where are they, yeah I’ll call a car and go there — cool, a man, another man, work together, no stereotypes.  Same in Mott Haven on the street asking about crime at night on this chinese take out story and when I called the community relations cop, the desk — hey just a heads up, I wrote this article, just wanted to put it on your radar– thanks, of course, we’ll take a look, thank you I appreciate it and they are, not sure why, but they’re out there now in force in Mott Haven and the streets are safer and that restaurant is safe.

I’m not going to be a jerk, a p**ck really, and call out a name on this but come on, isn’t there enough crap and chaos and tension and politics in this city, can’t you give a little respect when you’re given respect.  You’re the rep for them, all those men and women — we’re not all scum, looking to go against you.  Give some of it a chance and we can be on the same side, both do good in our worlds for each other.  I called DCPI maybe 900 times in my life and I was born and raised here and I’ve played deck hockey with probably half of you all on the force when we were 15 so come on, see who we are sometimes and we can do the same — alright, I appreciate you listening, be careful in those cars at high speed flying through intersections and in those dark rooms and on those shitty streets in the winter when guys flip out on you and decide let’s end it and you’re the way to do it and your backs and feet are probably sore as hell when it’s not calamity. peace.

SHOULD PUBLIC BE TOLD OF SERIAL KILLERS? Police and Citizen Interests Often Collide

Police and Citizen Interests Often Collide

By Kevin Heldman

NEW YORK (APBNews.com) — Are lives further endangered when local police withhold information about a possible serial killer — or when they release it?

This is one of the most contentious aspects of the relationship between communities and their police agencies during a serial killer investigation, according to veterans on all sides of the issue.

The debate has led to a number of conflicts:

In Milwaukee, Wis., at least 12 women have been strangled in
what may be the work of one person, but the police department refuses comment on any aspect of the case.

In Portland, Ore., a criminal investigator still refuses talk to
the local newspaper because 16 years ago the editor refused to run a composite of a suspected killer for fear the paper would be perceived as an arm of law enforcement.

Continue reading

Will Google link to every creative thought I’ve ever had

Maybe I should stop writing and just dream.

I used to remember a phrase that I read 20 years ago when I was a kid in the M-N volume of my World Book Encyclopedia or in an article in some small paper. I used to remember a lot of this and reference and link to these in my writing. But now there is Google and a lot more.  What I had was a useful, worthwhile body of creative linked knowledge in my head – – now my little niece can get at most of it with a couple of keystrokes on something that hangs from her keychain.

Read the whole essay here:


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