From their perches in Central Park, two quiet New Yorkers let their signs start the conversation.
On a sweltering Independence Day, Clare Hogenauer, 66, sits on the same park bench she has occupied in Central Park’s Strawberry Fields many times over the past decade. Wearing a brace on her right knee to relieve her arthritis, Hogenauer relies on a rolling walker to assist her to and from this bench, which serves as something of a second home to her penthouse around the corner. She sits here in silence, a fixture in a peaceful patch of shaded greenery designated a city “quiet zone” in honor of John Lennon. Hogenauer allows one of her homemade signs, a flimsy poster-board with a blunt message scrawled in capital letters, to speak for her:
“PLEASE HELP ME END THE BARBARIC DEATH PENALTY.”
On other days, one bench over, a wiry man young enough to be Hogenauer’s son sits behind a message of his own, hustling for a different kind of change:
“1 DOLLAR, 1 JOKE,” the plastic, A-framed sign at Joey McDevitt’s feet advertised recently, as he silently sought to earn a buck from passing tourists and other moving targets. “MONEY BACK IF YOU DON’T LAUGH. ALL JOKES WRITTEN BY ME.”
Hogenauer the activist and McDevitt the comedian keep quiet, yet each engages the public by provoking them to pause, interact with a stranger, and walk away affected. This subtle routine has become business as usual for these two unrelated native New Yorkers, who have met only in passing and seldom interact despite their park-bench proximity. Separated by age and ambition, both pursue passions rooted deep in childhood: While Hogenauer advocates against her government’s practice of capital punishment, McDevitt hustles to survive by “killing it” at his homegrown laugh craft.
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As a young girl living in the Bronx, newspapers had a way of cluttering Clare Hogenauer’s house. The news of the day seemed to come from everywhere, including the television, something present in only about half of American homes by 1953, the year Hogenauer turned seven. That TV, it turned out, exposed Hogenauer to the death penalty for the first time. It was a few days after her birthday in June of that year, she remembers, when she learned that a local boy her age was about to lose his mother and father. They had been convicted of spying for the Soviets and sharing American intelligence on the atom bomb. That week, the day after the couple’s fourteenth wedding anniversary, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed at Sing Sing prison. “It was very heavy,” Hogenauer remembered. The deaths inspired her to demand why, or how, her own government could do something so brutal, so barbaric. It was a question she would ask for the next sixty years.
“I’m not religious,” Hogenauer explains from her park bench, her tone direct and matter-of-fact. “But I realized when I saw Christ on a cross when I was a kid and went to Christian services, that was the death penalty, too. We just didn’t call it that.”
Years after the Rosenberg executions, while a high school student, Hogenauer gave a class presentation about Eddie Lee Mays, who had been convicted of killing a woman at a bar in Harlem and was sentenced to death by the electric chair. Following her speech, Hogenauer rapidly flipped the classroom’s light switch to evoke the startling and disturbing image of what would be Mays’ final moment. The state executed Mays a year later, in August 1963, sealing his fate as the last inmate put to death in New York. Hogenauer, now retired after a long career as an attorney, has worked to keep it that way ever since.
Though New York has not executed anyone in almost 50 years, the state’s 1,130 mandated deaths still rank third-highest in U.S. history, behind only Virginia and Texas, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. Over several generations, New York’s capital punishment methods evolved from death by hanging to burning at the stake, firing squad, and finally, the electric chair. Lethal injection became the official method when New York reinstated the death penalty in 1995, but the needle was never used. The State Supreme Court ruled the capital punishment statute unconstitutional in 2004, and Governor David Paterson later closed the state’s death row at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora.
It was an Off-Broadway play in 2003 that rekindled Hogenauer’s childhood obsession and ignited her activism, which has since taken her to execution vigils in several states, where she meets with families of murder victims. “The Exonerated” featured a Q&A session with several people wrongfully convicted, jailed and eventually cleared of capital crimes by either new DNA evidence or cases of contradictory eyewitness testimony. Inspired to action, Hogenauer soon became a fixture at several federal death-penalty trials in Brooklyn. Outside the courthouse, she rallied to spare Ronell Wilson, who killed two undercover police officers in 2003 and would have been the first person executed on the federal level in New York since the Rosenbergs fifty years earlier. With his 2007 death sentence later thrown out, Wilson remains in prison as prosecutors decide how to proceed with the case.
“If it had been two delicatessen owners, there wouldn’t have been a death penalty,” Hogenauer insisted.
Drawing from her pro bono defense background on homicide cases during the 1970s and early ’80s, she began traveling the country to meet with families, urging them to find forgiveness rather than seek revenge. Though Hogenauer largely funds the travel expenses herself, she quietly accepts donations from her park-bench perch.
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Killing carries an ironic connotation in the world of stand-up—or, in Joey McDevitt’s case, sit-down—comedy. As comedian and actor Michael Ian Black defined it to Narratively, killing means “creating so much laughter that it inflicts actual, physical pain on an audience.”
“Imagine bullfighting without a cape,” added Felipe Esparza, the winner of the last season of NBC’s Last Comic Standing. “And the audience is the bull.”
The matador metaphor applies to McDevitt’s act, one he worked to hone for years down South and out West before returning home to make ’em laugh here in New York. Although his one-person/one-dollar approach never promises his customers will break down, McDevitt guarantees they will at least break even. Most walk away happy with their investment, though some—no kidding—have demanded refunds.
“Some people just stop with no intention of laughing, and I just wanna get rid of ’em,” he said in his measured, deadpan style, reminiscent of stand-up legends like Stewart Lee, Steven Wright, and the late Mitch Hedberg, his comedic heroes. “Kids are the toughest ones, ’cause I gotta be squeaky clean.”
On cue, a young girl clutching a dollar bill stops at the bench, stares at the sign, and looks up at McDevitt, whose Guinness T-shirt hangs from his compact, Irish-American frame. “O.K.,” he starts, seated on the bench’s top rung. He takes the wrinkled single, props his elbows on his knees, fingers the bill of his blue ball cap, and returns the girl’s eye contact. McDevitt has been making people laugh since he was her age.
“You know how when you listen to a seashell you can hear the ocean? I recently made a similar discovery,” he dryly reveals to her. “When you listen to a stick, it sounds just like a tree.”
The joke always killed McDevitt’s audiences at open mic nights in the East Village and Brooklyn and out in Las Vegas, where he got his start on the stage. And the squeaky-clean one-liner didn’t fail him this time, as the girl and her parents beamed and nodded and made their way east toward the collection of park-goers clumped together around Strawberry Fields. Transaction complete.
* * *
From her section of the park bench, Hogenauer’s signs boast that she has done her part to abolish capital punishment in New Jersey, Connecticut and Illinois, and prevent its return to New York and Massachusetts. In 2010 she attended the execution vigil for Teresa Lewis, the first woman put to death in Virginia in 98 years. Before that, she traveled to Connecticut to lobby against the execution of Michael Ross, a convicted rapist and serial killer. Her effort was not enough to convince the state to spare him and the defendant eventually gave up on appealing his case. After serving eighteen years on death row, Ross, in 2005, was Connecticut’s first inmate executed in forty-five years. (In April, Connecticut became the 17th state to outlaw the death penalty, although it still applies to those already on death row. This week, in the first case of its kind, five of those inmates are challenging this decision.)
Hogenauer tells both death-penalty opponents and advocates that she has a “compassionate connection with those on death row” because of her bone marrow cancer, which forced her early retirement from law. “I’m on death row,” she says.
A few years ago, at a Fordham University event, she finally met Robert Meeropol—formerly Robert Rosenberg, the local boy whose parents were executed in 1953. Through an assistant, Meeropol said he recalled talking with Hogenauer and admired “the intensity of her dedication” to her cause, which has included appearing in court to assist informally on twelve federal cases in Brooklyn and Connecticut.
Of her recent travels, Hogenauer notes, “Several judges will come up to me privately, whisper in my ear, ‘Keep up the good work, Clare,’ and give me a hug. So they didn’t become a judge to be a killer. The other reason I go is to get the personal experiences that help me speak from my soul, not just my brain.”
Just beyond the wall of rickshaws facing the Dakota, aimless tourists saunter by and glance at the silver-haired woman, draped in an oversized shirt and sweatpants, flanked by the signs that boast her ambition—the same signs that have accompanied Hogenauer to death-penalty trials and execution vigils for the last ten years.
“You’re not talking about Grand Central Station,” she said of her stakeout in Central Park, packed on this Independence Day with people outfitted in American-flag T-shirts. “You’re talking about a location that tends to attract a more civil, loving people. I do tend to initiate interaction with anybody who pauses. If anyone pauses to look, looking like they’re reading it, I’ll gently say, ‘Where are you from?’”
* * *
“I’m shy,” McDevitt admits with a trace of Long Island accent, adding that he’d prefer not to even discuss his age. “I think if I was more aggressive I’d make more money, but that’s just not really in my nature,” he says.
Here’s how his hustling usually shakes out: most of McDevitt’s travel involves getting to the city from the apartment in Valley Stream, Long Island, he shares with a roommate. Only two things keep him home—rain and Mondays. Neither pays when your job requires street entertainment. On most days, McDevitt gets into Manhattan by noon and stays put in the same spot for eight hours if things are going well. A tough crowd in Central Park, however, might mean bouncing over to Washington Square Park or Times Square.
The pay is never consistent. A dollar a laugh adds up to between $40 and $80 a day, less than McDevitt pulled working construction for ten years in Clearwater, Florida, but enough to justify the hustle, which began when he was evicted from his apartment there, sold everything he owned and moved to Las Vegas.
“I had no money and I needed to eat,” he recalled, “and I didn’t want to, like, panhandle, you know? If I’m gonna be broke, I may as well be a broke comedian.”
In 2009, while working in the dry land of Vegas casino sprawl, McDevitt won his first open-mic contest; a big break. Soon, he began posting clips of his progress on YouTube, and encouraged viewers to offer feedback.
“His first time didn’t seem like his first time,” remembered David “Davyo” Thompson, who hosted McDevitt’s debut gig at A.J.’s Tavern in Las Vegas. “He just has a really great stage presence. He’s very much a natural with it. And he became my favorite comic, more so than comics that I’d seen for years and years. He got better right away.
Did he kill often?
“Oh, yeah. Most definitely.”
McDevitt, a small guy in big clothes, was beginning to win over audiences with the biting tone that visually contradicts his physical stature. But he was always broke. When he decided to move back home to Long Island in 2010 to work maintenance at the Belmont Park horse track, though the pay was better, he barely lasted a year. “Once I got the job,” he said, “I was like, ‘Man. I want my freedom back.’”
* * *
For someone who has pursued a cause built on compassion, Hogenauer remembers one night half a lifetime ago that tested her. It was 1974, and as the young lawyer returned home from a play, a man followed her into the lobby of her Upper West Side home. He robbed her at knifepoint, getting away with some money but leaving a lasting impression on Hogenauer. She says she had surprised herself by remaining in complete control during the confrontation, even as the kid demanded she get into the elevator. “Don’t worry,” she countered, hoping to calm him. “I won’t hurt you.” Hogenauer escaped unharmed.
The next day, at the police precinct, Hogenauer sorted through hundreds of mug shots until she happened across one resembling the guy’s face. But she couldn’t say for sure, and she didn’t request to identify him from a lineup.
Thirty years later, there he was. Hogenauer had been flipping through a law journal describing a 1987 triple-murder in the Bronx, and one face was unmistakable. She decided to travel 300 miles north of Manhattan to visit the robber in prison. Though she sobbed the day she learned he was incarcerated for life, Hogenauer smiles today as she recalls what the man told her from his cell.
On that long trip to Clinton Correctional Facility, Hogenauer’s intention had been to forgive, but also to find out why that young man, now grown, had repeatedly ordered her to get into the elevator that night thirty years before.
They spoke for two hours, face-to-face, three decades having aged their appearances and minds. Yet the man insisted it could not have been he who had robbed Hogenauer—he was in jail at the time, he explained, and didn’t carry a knife when he pulled crimes in those days. On her way out of the meeting, the man stopped her. “Call my mom,” he said.
That call sparked a bombshell. The kid with the knife that night in 1974, the man’s mother revealed, might well have been her son after all—her other son. She had identical twin boys, she told Hogenauer, and both were notorious in New York City around that time. They would force their way into the homes of the elderly, attack them, and make off with whatever money they could steal. Those in the South Bronx even had a nickname for the twins: “The godfathers of crib crimes.” The brothers had been in and out of jail more than a dozen times before their sixteenth birthday.
Hogenauer never located the twin, but she forgives him, a message she conveys to the people she meets around the country. Forgiveness, as she tells the families of victims she encounters, will deliver the closure a death sentence will never guarantee.
“The anger, hate, and revenge that you’re understandably feeling just eats you up,” she says. “And killing him will not change that. Holding out for the death penalty means that you’re going to be tied up for twenty years. The case can be over without killing him.”
On the day in July when prosecutors in Aurora, Colorado charged the movie theater shooter James Holmes with twenty-four counts of first-degree murder, Hogenauer recalls reacting in a way that might repel most: “I wanted to give him a hug.”
Meanwhile, her 70-year-old brother Alan, a well-traveled university professor who says he’s worked on all seven continents, disagrees with what he calls his sister’s “concern for the perpetrator.”
“The Chinese system of sending the family a bill for the execution bullet does the job and saves society the enormous burden of caring for said perpetrator,” he said.
Several years ago, Hogenauer, along with Alan and a second brother, Bruce, dedicated the park bench at Strawberry Fields to their father Nelson, a bank auditor who died when Hogenauer was 12, and their mother Laura, a special-education teacher. Hogenauer smiled as she remembered her mother, who had struggled with Alzheimer’s for more than twenty years and had been under Hogenauer’s constant care toward the end. As she spoke, Hogenauer’s gaze remained fixed on the newspaper in her hands. She ripped it into strips, her blue-grey eyes darting across every inch of copy, scanning for any mention of capital punishment. Most of the scraps went into the trashcan at her right, the keepers into a brown bag at her left.
* * *
“I’ve written thousands of jokes but I consider about a hundred and thirty of ’em good,” McDevitt paused, through a clenched jaw and tight lips, as he set up another one from his park bench. “This one’s actually pretty clean.”
“I got a friend request on Facebook from this girl,” he started, “and her only picture was a picture of her eye. So I sent her a message. I said, ‘Is that your eye?’ She said, ‘Yeah, that’s my eye. I’m watching you.’
“‘Oh yeah? How many fingers am I holding up?’
“I said, ‘That’”—McDevitt hesitated and looked around—“‘is not a finger.’”
The joke earns McDevitt another dollar. While Hogenauer gets maybe $20 an afternoon to help offset her travel expenses to execution vigils, McDevitt once collected the same amount from just one guy, who continued to peel off dollar bills.
“The only tough part for me is gonna be drawing a crowd,” he said. “Once I got a crowd, I feel like I can make ’em laugh. I’m gonna have to figure that out. But I will do it. I will find a way to get a crowd.”
Hogenauer, meanwhile, says she’s preparing for her biggest crowd yet. She will head to California in November, where voters will determine whether to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole.
“I have to reach 20 million people, not 200 legislators,” she said with a laugh.
Though their paths rarely cross and their causes couldn’t be further apart, Hogenauer and McDevitt coexist on their connected park benches in their own priceless way: without a word; not at first, anyway. Once the signs speak and interest is piqued, they both begin hustling for change.
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Patrick Flanary, a regular contributor at Rolling Stone and Billboard, has also covered music and politics for Entertainment Weekly, ProPublica and The Huffington Post. He lives in New York City and tweets at @Slow_News_Day.
Senait Debesu is a recent Tufts University graduate whose photography has appeared in GlobalPost, among other publications. She is a Narratively intern.