Larry Selman devoted more than half his life collecting money for multiple charities, on the streets of New York, from total strangers. He did this for nearly 40 years, despite the fact he was developmentally disabled. Selman became the subject of filmmaker Alice Elliott's Oscar-nominated documentary, The Collector of Bedford Street. He died Jan. 20 at the age of 70. Manhattan-based reporter Jon Kalish has this remembrance.
I first met Larry Selman in 2004, when I was working on a story about the filmmaker Alice Elliott for NPR.
Selman would only consent to an interview if I took him out to brunch. Normally, I wouldn't agree to such a demand, but Selman had a charm about him that was difficult to resist, so I arranged to meet him at his favorite brunch spot where the waitstaff seemed to know him well.
During the interview, he told me he wanted Elliott to make another film about him, "a sequel, part 2. I would be so delighted," he said. But at the time, Elliott was deep into her next film, a documentary about two disabled women who were taking care of each other.
Still, Selman and Elliott continued to travel to screenings of The Collector of Bedford Street. One year they went to Qatar. Selman's neighbor, Sally Dill, who served as his traveling companion for eight years, told me Selman loved to travel and was good at it. Apparently, as a young man, Selman worked as a courier, running packages from New York to Washington, D.C., and Boston.
On Monday night, when Selman's neighbors were sitting Shiva at Elliott's home, Dill told me Selman used to address airline pilots as "captain" at the airport, and that often when he boarded a plane he stopped in front of the cockpit and asked them to set his watch to the time zone he was flying to.
Across from where I sat talking with Dill, there were framed pictures of Selman. I chuckled as I looked at a shot of him dressed up as Santa Claus; two firefighters were helping to push Selman into the back of a fire truck.
It was at about that time that yet more admirers of the Collector of Bedford Street rang the buzzer to Elliott's apartment. It was the first of two contingents from New York City Fire Department's Ladder Company 5, who came to pay their respects. The firefighters were in uniform, and everyone in the apartment got choked up because they knew of the deep bond Selman had with firefighters, collecting for the families of those who perished on Sept. 11.
One firefighter told me that Selman was known as "Larry the Raffle Guy" because he was often at the firehouse at Sixth Avenue and Houston Street selling raffles to benefit one charity or another. Later that night, Elliott told me a story about the time Selman was out in the East New York section of Brooklyn dressed as Santa Claus, appearing at a children's party at the local firehouse.
Of course, because Selman still had a lot of childlike wonder in him, the firefighters in Brooklyn took him out for a ride on a firetruck. While they were out, as the story goes, a call came in, and off they went with Selman on board to go fight a fire.
There was another photo of Selman in Elliott's apartment. He was looking spiffy in a dark suit as he was posing with former Secretary of State Colin Powell at a ceremony in Los Angeles in 2009. They were both recipients of the Caring Award for their volunteer efforts.
Dill told me that one of the first things Selman said to Powell was, "Do you want to make a donation for cancer?" After the photo-op, Powell walked up to Selman and gave him a folded up bill, which Selman promptly deposited in his envelope. At the end of the evening, Selman decided to count up the money he collected and unfolded what turned out to be the $100 bill Powell gave him. Dill said it was the high point of the evening.
Recently, I re-screened The Collector of Bedford Street and laughed when I got to the scene where Selman was asking a doctor for a donation as he was being examined. "Five dollars," he says. "Five dollars; it goes to Meals on Wheels and the Caring Community."
It reminded me of the time I went to his 70th birthday party in April. I went up to him as I was leaving and wished him a happy birthday. Of course, he asked me for a contribution "for animals."
The last time I saw Selman was shortly after Superstorm Sandy. I dropped by his tiny Greenwich Village apartment, which is across the street from Elliott's home, to interview him for a podcast I was producing for The Jewish Daily Forward.
I had heard that for the five days the neighborhood was without power. Selman's home-care attendant, Ganpat Sebrian, stayed with him around the clock and cooked him French toast for breakfast every morning. I stood next to Selman, recording him as he lay in the hospital bed that had been brought in to his apartment after he suffered a stroke in 2007.
I had already been informed of the sad news that his cat, Happy, died in the days after Superstorm Sandy. Selman wanted a new kitten and kept telling me he was going to the ASPCA to adopt one. He said that saving a cat's life was a mitzvah, a good deed. Selman knew about mitzvahs.
Selman's neighbors are looking for a new home for his beloved canine companion, Penny. A celebration of Selman's life will take place April 2, on what would have been his 71st birthday, at the Greenwich House Music School in Greenwich Village.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Larry Selman relished a good challenge. He devoted more than half of his life to collecting for charity - multiple charities, actually. But he wasn't a professional fundraiser. Selman prowled the streets of New York City approaching total strangers nearly every day for almost 40 years asking them for money to help others. He did it despite the fact that he was developmentally disabled. He was such a fixture in Greenwich Village that he became the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary called "The Collector of Bedford Street." Larry Selman died last Sunday at the age of 70. Jon Kalish got to know Selman and has this remembrance.
JON KALISH, BYLINE: Larry Selman was a relentless force on the streets of Greenwich Village.
LARRY SELMAN: Hello, sir. Could I see you one minute? Could I see you one minute? Hello, ladies. Could I see you one minute? Could I see you, young fella?
KALISH: In the 2002 documentary "The Collector of Bedford Street," Selman explains why he spent so much time collecting for others.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE COLLECTOR OF BEDFORD STREET")
SELMAN: I believe there's a God and I believe that he put us here for a reason. I believe that from going to synagogue.
SALLY DILL: He more or less is soliciting money all the time. That's his mission in life.
KALISH: Sally Dill was one of Selman's Bedford Street neighbors. At his 70th birthday party in April, she described a well-oiled, if basic, collecting machine.
DILL: The home attendants are very good about counting the money and putting it in the manila envelope so then I can record it. When Larry decides he's finished collecting for that charity then I can mail it in.
KALISH: Nearly 100 of Larry Selman's neighbors pitched in to help in one way or another - that's how much they cared about the short, pudgy man with thick prescription glasses who was told he'd never graduate from high school. When the uncle who looked after him died, they set up a trust fund to take care of Selman. Alice Elliott made a documentary to tell the world about the collector of Bedford Street and the world took notice, including a couple of New York politicians.
ALICE ELLIOTT: You know, there's this famous story of Larry sitting out at the gay rights parade and along comes Schumer and Koch, and they see Larry and they come over and shake his hand.
KALISH: The day after Selman died, neighbors gathered in Alice Elliot's home on Bedford Street to mourn. Steve Gould knew Selman for close to 40 years. He watched as the first of two contingents from the local firehouse stopped by to pay their respects.
STEVE GOULD: Guys from the FDNY are coming in here because after 9/11 he collected thousands of dollars for them and, you know, that's what he did.
KALISH: In 2009, Larry Selman received the Caring Award for what he did. The other honoree that night was Colin Powell. Even before they received their honors, Selman did not hesitate to ask Powell for a donation.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)
KALISH: Standing in front of several photographs of the collector of Bedford Street in her home, filmmaker Alice Elliot recalled how Selman used to love to dress up as Santa Claus at Christmastime. She says she'll miss the messages he used to leave on her answering machine. But even more than that nasal, unmistakably New York voice, Elliot says she'll miss seeing him on the streets.
ELLIOTT: I will never turn the corner of my street without looking for him. He's so much a part of my life here. We feel that Larry actually created this community and that we are all beneficiaries of that and I hope we can pass it forward.
KALISH: Larry Selman left behind his dog Penny. The last money he collected is going to a group that provides pets for senior citizens. For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.