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BY HEATHER DUBIN | Questions of paternity are often whispered about behind closed doors. But when “Who’s Your Daddy?” is emblazoned on the side of a nearly 30-foot-long, bright-blue recreational vehicle, the conversation gets a little louder.
The roving mobile unit is the brainchild of Jared Rosenthal, owner and operator of Health Street, a Bronx-based DNA- and drug-testing company. They have two vans that go all over Manhattan, from the Village to the Upper East Side, as well as the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens.
Parked on Avenue A near Seventh St. on Monday, Rosenthal spoke about the tests he conducts in the van, and the real-life stories that come with the job. Numerous passersby interrupted as they burst into laughter, asked questions, and took photos of the RV, which was repainted by graffiti artist Tats Cru last year.
A woman walking by with two young children inquired about paternity testing for a man she knows.
“We do it right on board,” Rosenthal explained. “The cost is $350. You need the two people you’re testing, along with a photo ID from the dad, and an Rx from a doctor,” he added.
During the five-minute process, a cheek swab is taken, which is then sent to a DNA diagnostic center with an accredited lab. The results are returned within a week.
“I know who my ‘daddy’ is” (as in “baby daddy”), the woman said, declining to give her name. But she said she was trying to convince someone else to see if he was the father of a young baby.
“Every day you miss out,” Rosenthal told her. “Now is the time.”
Once she was out of earshot, Rosenthal explained that some people stop by with questions for “friends” only to come back later to take the test themselves.
Rosenthal’s RV has had a makeover since its original incarnation a few years ago as a drug-testing entity. It used to have a large urine cup painted on the side, during which he referred to it as “The Piss Mobile.” They still do accident drug and alcohol testing around the clock.
“We do work with the M.T.A. and can be called to do a Breathalyzer test in the middle of the night,” he said.
He has also pulled the van up to an office building and had about 30 employees file in, one at a time, to use the on-site bathroom for drug testing.
An immigration DNA test is also offered in the RV, at a cost of $425 for two people, plus $100 for each additional person. This test is administered to immigrants from specific countries sponsoring family members to come to the States, who must prove they are related. Rosenthal ships the kit to the United States consulate in that particular country, and after the family members there take the test, it is processed with Immigration Services.
“A lot of people don’t know where to go to do this,” he noted. “We go out into different immigrant communities to educate people and help them with what they need to know.”
Many people unload their emotional baggage when they get into the RV.
“We get involved in transitional moments in people’s lives,” Rosenthal said. “It’s crazy. Inside, it’s more intimate, and they tell us a whole story.”
However, what would seem to have all the makings of a Maury Povich television talk show is “really a lot more common than you think,” he said.
“Daytime talk shows have created this stereotype, and the reality is very different than that,” Rosenthal said of DNA testing.
He admits to rooting for the guy, and recalled a man who came in with a one-week old baby. When the man found out he was not the father, he did not want anyone to know, since he had already bonded with the child, and wanted to be the dad.
According to Rosenthal, “Ninety-eight percent of the time the dad is hoping he’s the father, and is involved with the kid’s life.”
He teaches his staff of 10 to take these situations seriously, and “give the people the dignity they need.”
Rosenthal has been trained to New York State standards in testing technique, which “is not a complicated process,” he noted, and he, in turn, schools his staff.
A “heritage study,” a percentage breakdown of a person’s ancestry for $500, is also advertised on the RV. Yet it seems a bit pointless, since it’s not allowed by the New York State Department of Health.
“Their rationale is it has to be through a doctor,” Rosenthal said.
About 10 tests a week are done on the RV — “usually paternity or sibling studies,” he noted. Rosenthal shared some sobering and positive tales of those who have come for answers to, what he called an “an in-the-closet type of the thing.”
For a paternity test, the cost increases by $100 per person.
“The most we’ve had for paternity testing was three,” he said. “And in that instance, all three [children, ages 1, 3, and 5] came up negative for the man who thought he was the dad.”’
In terms of siblings, some people find long-lost ones in their 30s or 40s. There is a recent case involving a woman who believes she was kidnaped when she was a baby.
“Now we’re testing them, and I’ve been talking to them,” Rosenthal said. “The stories we hear are just nuts.”
Another story involves a 24-year-old woman with three daughters and pregnant with a fourth, who thought her father was in prison for killing her mother when she was just 3 years old. Recently, someone told her that man is not her father, but that a different man in the neighborhood is.
“She was raised by her grandmother, and the kids could have a grandfather down the block,” Rosenthal said.
As opposed to amniocentesis, a prenatal blood test, costing $2,000, also can now reveal paternity, but the blood must be taken in a lab.
A woman who is married and nine weeks pregnant called about her test, saying she had, in fact, slept with two men. The men were different ethnicities, and that made her particularly nervous, Rosenthal said.
The second man was a no-show for the appointment. When it was rescheduled, the woman then said she wanted to test a third candidate.
“The came out of nowhere,” Rosenthal said.
“People say they know who the dad is, but it’s far from perfect,” he said.
Rosenthal noted that men base their assumptions on the children’s looks, while women think they know the paternity based on whom they were with.
A favorite story of his is about four sisters in Brooklyn who found out they had a fifth in Atlanta. That sister had previously lived in New Jersey, and when her father died, her grandmother handed her an envelope. It turns out her real father had abandoned her and raised her four sisters without her.
Although they don’t look alike, “They were like sisters, talking over each other,” Rosenthal said.
The women now visit each other, but the birth order has been usurped. Rosenthal said that the former eldest in Brooklyn joked that the new sibling, who is the oldest, is really the youngest because they did not know about her.
“The most important thing we do is bring closure to stuff,” he said. “It’s amazing how long people have had these unanswered questions.”
Rosenthal stays in touch with some of his clients. While he was elusive in his answer, he said there has “been interest” from TV in a show on his van.
A woman walking by with two girls and a man inquired Rosenthal about paternity testing.
“He doesn’t think my son is his. He’s blond,” she said of the boy. Rosenthal patiently answered her questions, and handed the man a paper with information.
He doesn’t get annoyed with people, and is O.K. with their questions 99 percent of the time. People are always snapping shots of the RV.
“It never stops making me laugh when people take pictures,” he said. “We’re surrounded by cameras.”
Rosenthal has been pulled over three times this year by police officers to take a picture of the RV. Firefighters on a fire truck did the same thing one day when they all jumped out to take a photo.
As the interview was concluding, a group of Argentinean tourists walked by, then doubled back to ask incredulously, “This is real?”
“It’s the only one in the world,” Rosenthal proudly boasted.
For more information about Health Street and the RV visit health-street.net.