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The Villager | New York | March 22, 2012

Frank Shiro and cat
Frank Schiro with a Shelter Cat Doll. Photo by Clayton Patterson

I recently finished reading a book called “The Mammoth Book of Tough Guys,” by Robin Barratt. In Barratt’s world the tough guy is a man whose livelihood is connected to his fighting ability, his knowledge of fighting techniques and the respect he has earned using his physical abilities. His tough guys are bouncers, bare-knuckle fighters, boxers, bodyguards, mercenaries, martial artists, crime bosses and so on.

In the end, though, for me, tough has more to do with character, overcoming life’s adversities and conquering personal fears, and less to do with physical size and fighting skills. And on the street there is often an equalizer. In the past, when drug dealers controlled the Lower East Side streets, when crime was rampant, there was always an element of danger close to the surface ready to explode. The streets, 24 hours per day, were embedded with just about every kind of criminal type covered in the law journals. Each street and drug spot had its own crew of enforcers.

And the enforcer could be of smaller stature, like a Charles Manson or a Sammy “The Bull” Gravano or a Larry Davis. I have seen two just-over-5-feet-tall dealers chasing, then shooting, a much larger person. You had no bodyguard; you had your own wits about you.

The people I think of as tough are the ones who were really tested in life, yet transcended the challenges and made some kind of a contribution to whatever part of society they belong to. One such person is Jerry Pagane: born premature, small, deaf, no ears, on Christmas Eve, and then abandoned on a church doorstep on Christmas Day. Yes, a hard start: foster homes, bullies, misunderstood, small but had to have the heart of a lion; then in junior high gets adopted by a professional family who wanted a troubled child, and Jerry was it. It took time, but Jerry found love, excelled in art, moved to New York City to be an artist.

When I first met Anne Hanavan she was about as deep into the dark side of the heroin world as a person could be and barely stay alive, never mind getting clean. And she survived, got clean and is doing great, and to me, that makes her a tough guy.

Then there is the group of tough guys — the firemen — who are always fighting something bigger than themselves and always something dangerous. Like when we had the fire next to our place in the M.T.A. substation at 163 Essex St. The substation’s subbasement contains a number of Con Ed generators. The electrical fire was hard to put out and a black, toxic smoke bellowed out of the place for hours. It turns out the Con Ed generators were from 1938, which probably meant they had carcinogenic P.C.B.s in them. Yet the firemen stayed there all day fighting the fire.

Immediately after the fire, neighbors complained of nose irritations and breathing problems. People speculated it was connected to the black smoke. Since it was an electrical fire, and the firefighters used foam as a retardant, foam was spread all over our side of Essex St. Dickie, one of our dogs, got a stomach rash from stepping in some foam. Our place stank of acrid smoke. Elsa and I decided we’d stay in our place, but we had to secure our pets somewhere else. It was on this day I got to meet another tough individual.

Francis A. Schiro and Darlene Margeta, his partner, had a work loft around the corner and they took in our two dogs. And it was then that I started to get a deeper understanding of who Frank is and what makes Darlene and Frank so special.

I think we met Darlene walking her dog in the neighborhood. And we had a street hello. I always felt she was a very good person. Later came Frank, a jovial, hello how you doing kind of guy. O.K., now you have my dogs, what up?

They are artists/craftspeople with a company called Dream Pillow. They survive by making lavender-filled sachets and custom pillows with images related to black history, themes from India and peaceful-looking dogs and cats. A real homegrown N.Y.C. industry. And, I find out, Frank also runs track — a recognized runner with an inspirational story like one of those guys you read about in a Reader’s Digest book.

In 1970, after high school, Frank had 21 athletic scholarships for track hanging out of his back pocket. He was the king of the world and he wanted adventure and a fast ride to the adventure — the faster, the better. He was attracted to the Lower East Side, which in the 1970s was an adventurous place to live; a place with action, energy and choices. Unfortunately, one of his choices led to a life of drug addiction. He was hooked on heroin. Mainlining. A true dead end in terms of running track.

Contrary to the popular conception of dope addicts some of the most standup people I have met have been junkies. And I am sure Frank was one of those guys. He did not have the edge to be a heroin dealer — that he told me. Eventually, he was able to work his way out of addiction without any permanent, disabling scars. In fact, a diary of his misery was included in a chapter in the 1998 book “Heroin,” by Humberto Fernandez.

One common trait junkies possess is their sense of regimen. Frank wanted to get back into track. He got started. Socially, it was a little difficult for him in the beginning — with his long hair, tattoos, a very direct personality — because in track, most of the older runners were mostly professional money people, like doctors, dentists and so on, those who had the luxury of belonging to a track club. Frank was determined and soon the sneers turned into cheers. Frank became a player.

As Frank told me in his own words: “I have been part of relay teams that established three world indoor records (age groups 40 - 49 and 50 - 59) at the Armory. Myself and two other men started our team, Sprint Force America, about 13 years ago. The team has had some of the greatest Masters (over age 40) track runners in the world and has set numerous world records. I myself have won national titles at 400 meters and in the 4 x 400 meter relay and the 4 x 800 meter relay. At one point, I held five world records; now, I hold three. At age 55 in the Empire State Games a few years ago, I set two state records — 25 flat in the 200 meters and 56 flat in the 400 meters. I have been dealing with some injuries the past few years but remain fit and plan my return to active competition carefully. I love track and field because it a sport where one is 100 percent reliant on themselves: If I don’t do the hard work needed, nobody can help me. It’s a very personal quest…it has purity for me. I also train many people, not just track runners, but everyday people who want to get the gift of fitness into their lives. Fitness is a gift we give to ourselves.”

I love Frank. He is so direct.

Frank has overcome, he is a survivor and has completely turned his life around. His positive outlook on life and his dedication to track has rewarded him not only with trophies but with self-esteem and love of humanity.

Frank and Darlene are also active in helping City Critters, which is run by a

dedicated woman named Holly Staver. This 17-year-old group has saved many, many animals from a life of suffering and/or death. Darlene met Holly several years ago when Darlene needed help rescuing some cats in our neighborhood.

Darlene and Frank have been in business about 20 years, and last year Darlene developed what she calls “Shelter Cat Dolls,” handmade dolls filled with a high-quality lavender. They are made of various fabrics and each one is unique. Darlene wanted to help Holly and City Critters out, and starting last year, donated $3 for every Shelter Cat Doll sold. Last year, Darlene and Frank donated more than $2,700 to City Critters.

“We feel very strongly about helping all animals in need,” Frank said.

Yes, my idea of a tough guy is different from Robin Barratt’s. Frank is one of my examples of a tough guy — a man who has overcome the odds and made a serious contribution to his community and to society.