Volume 74, Number 43 | March 02 - 08, 2005

Villager photos by Clayton Patterson

Fly, at rear, flanked by the Killer Banshees. At left is On Davis, a neighbor in Fly’s former squat.

Friends rally and party to support injured squatters

By Sarah Ferguson

Friends, fellow activists and even a few former foes turned out on Saturday for a party to benefit East Village artist Fly and squatter leader Michael Shenker, who were severely injured after being struck by a car on Jan. 12.

The eclectic crowd that packed Clayton Outlaw Gallery on Essex St. spoke to the enduring legacy of these two Lower East Side characters, who have become locally infamous in their day.

“Michael has made a difference in this community with his work on behalf of the gardens and the squats and CHARAS, so we need to show our support,” said Democratic District Leader and City Council candidate Rosie Mendez, who termed Shenker her “buddy.”

Also on hand were Judith Malina and Hannon Reznikov of the Living Theatre, where Shenker helped direct music; anti-gentrification campaigner Reverend Billy; and noise artist Pete Missing of Missing Foundation, who peddled graffiti art and CD’s, as veteran activists from a variety of causes — antiwar, the garden movement, New York Green Party — gyrated on the dance floor.

“The tribe is out here in force tonight,” said Howard Brandstein, executive director of the Sixth Street Community Center. Ironically, back in the 1980s, Brandstein was bitterly opposed to young squatters like Shenker taking over the neighborhood’s abandoned tenements. “I knew him when he was a snot-nosed teenager howling in a vacant building, something to the effect that it belonged to ‘the people,’ ” recalled Brandstein of the numerous demonstrations that Shenker helped spearhead.

“But we all have grown, and that includes me,” Brandstein added. “I think we’ve all come to realize that we do share a common vision of a socially compassionate, loving communiy that’s not about money and real estate — and this benefit is an example of that.”

K-rock’s Liquid Todd threw down tunes, as did DJ Chrome of the Blackkat Collective and Gringo Loco, a.k.a. local activist John Penley, while the Killer Banshees, a pair of Oakland-based video artists, flashed psychedelic images on the gallery walls.

Banshee Kriss de Jong, who helped produce the visuals for Fly’s tour of her recent book, “Peops,” said she and partner Eliot Daughtry first met Fly in 1990 when Fly was touring with the punk band God Is My Copilot. They’ve been close collaborators since then. “Fly is our family, and you always support family,” said de Jong.

Her sentiment was echoed by Ananda Bhairava, a.k.a. Steve Prestianni, a performance artist turned yoga instructor who lives with Fly and Shenker at their former squat turned low-income co-op on E. Seventh St.

“People may argue in our building, but when it comes to emergencies, we rally together. It’s extremely tight,” said Prestianni, who had been among those camped at Shenker’s bedside as he struggled to regain consciousness after the accident.

The outpouring of support was apparent at Bellevue Hospital, where Shenker spent nearly a month, including 11 days in intensive care, recovering from a severe head injury, which caused swelling on his brain, and broken ribs.

“He had enough visitors to drive the hospital staff mad,” said Prestianni. “You’re supposed to have two at a time, but he always had four or five.”

Although both Shenker and Fly are now up and walking, it will be months before their lives feel anything like normal.

Shenker says he still has problems writing and remembering things. “It’s scary. It took me five days to remember the word ‘oatmeal,’ ” he said.

Fly, who was released from the hospital after 24 hours, is facing weeks of surgeries to repair her shattered face and knees.

“They had to glue my nose together, my jaw was broken and my front teeth were knocked out of socket and back into my mouth. I couldn’t shut my mouth for over a week,” says the ’zine illustrator and mural artist, who just borrowed more than $2,000 from friends for oral surgery to reset her front teeth with a metal brace.

She still doesn’t know whether the teeth can be saved. She also needs arthoscopic surgery to repair the torn cartilage in her knees.

Always the advocate, Shenker says their struggle to recover is also a cautionary tale of how difficult it is for pedestrians who don’t have car insurance to get medical expenses paid following a traffic accident.

The Upstate driver of the Suburban S.U.V. that plowed into Shenker and Fly as they were crossing 23rd St. at Second Ave. is covered by no-fault insurance. But it could be weeks, if not months, before Shenker and Fly get reimbursed for all their medical bills. And even then, Fly’s not sure the notoriously stingy no fault will cover everything — particularly the extensive dental surgery she requires to rebuild her teeth.

“I just had two M.R.I.’s for my knees, and I have no idea if they will even be covered,” said Fly who has a Medicaid-sponsored health plan, but says it won’t pay for anything related to the accident because of the outside insurance claims.

Shenker, who is uninsured and makes his living as an electrician, says he can’t work and is going through his savings fast. His hospital bill alone could top $100,000. The two have hired a lawyer to sue for damages and expenses.

By night’s end, with an admission fee of $10 for the party, more than $2,200 was raised to help the two activists cover their bills while they await compensation. Shenker looked pale but happy, deflecting entreaties to go home early. “I’ve been dead for a months, or that’s what it felt like. Being with the people of my neighborhood and my friends, that’s living.”

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