Talking Up a Storm

Radio host Joyce Kaufman wins fans by flaying a new enemy: undocumented immigrants

Kaufman's website lists select biographical details under irreverent titles like "Spic Specs." The bullet points read like a parody, making it difficult to distinguish truth from fiction. Under employment, for instance, she lists "Teaching of Learning Disabled Program Directors." Some information is outdated; for example, Kaufman is no longer a vegan. She adopted a vegetarian diet in 1969 and raised her kids on herbivore staples like tofu, all in the spirit of animal rights. But she's been eating meat since a motorcycle accident in 2005.

It's even more difficult to glean insight from an alternative biography on the website, told in narrative form. In this version, Kaufman was "raised by wolves." She protests the Vietnam War at the Capitol, gets 350,000 concertgoers into Woodstock for free, and takes credit for introducing Mia Farrow to Woody Allen. The camouflage lets fans get to know her without really knowing her. All they can be certain of is that she's nutty.

Over the phone one day, Kaufman does her best to lay out the basics. She grew up in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, she says, which was just like West Side Story. It was a mishmash of cultures and backgrounds, with kosher pizza parlors and interracial marriages. And street fights. "Very rough," she decides.

Joyce Kaufman, on the air, live and local.
Joyce Kaufman, on the air, live and local.
Supporters of amnesty for illegal immigrants protest in Los Angeles in August.
UPI Photo/Jim Ruymen/Newscom
Supporters of amnesty for illegal immigrants protest in Los Angeles in August.

She doesn't remember speaking English until kindergarten. Her father, a Jew born in New York to a Hungarian mother and an Austrian father, studied Spanish at Columbia University so he could better communicate with Kaufman's Puerto Rican mother. "My father thought it was a beautiful language," she says.

Aida converted to Judaism, but Kaufman says her mother held onto her Catholic beliefs. Kaufman says her own upbringing wasn't religious. No first communion. No bat mitzvah. Both parents worked, her father at the post office and her mother in luncheonettes. At 14, restless and rebellious, Kaufman left home. Then she met her future husband, Eric, and the pair went to live in a hippie commune in Vermont.

She eventually went back to school, getting a degree in special education from Hunter College and a master's in social work from the State University of New York at New Paltz. She worked with schizophrenics and autistic children. In 1978, she moved to Florida with her husband. She raised a family, got divorced, and started spinning music on the radio.

Derek Kaufman remembers growing up with a hard-working single mom who was active in things like community theater. He thinks of her as a positive, mellow sort of person who happens to take extreme positions. But, he says, he's noticed a change in her views since the motorcycle accident. She seems more conservative to him.

The accident was serious. On May 15, 2005, shortly after leaving the radio station on her motorcycle, an 18-wheeler made a sharp left turn that blocked Kaufman's path. She swerved onto a median to avoid the truck and found herself pinned to a piece of rebar. She remembers lying there for what felt like an eternity, staring at her right leg, which had been nearly severed three inches above the knee.

She had a vision of a 93-year-old aunt sitting on her motorcycle, telling her not to worry. Then a couple stopped to help — their names were Joyce and Eric. Although, Kaufman says, that couple might have been an hallucination too. By the time the ambulance came, she was pale with blood loss but still conscious.

The next thing Kaufman remembers is waking up at North Broward Medical Center with two members of Pompano's Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church praying over her. She saw that as a sign. "I knew instantly that everything was going to be all right," she says. And that she'd start going to church. Often. She asked Hopewell's pastor, Robert C. Stanley, to baptize her.

Kaufman believes the power of prayer helped speed her recovery. On her right leg, she had a broken ankle, tibia, femur, and shattered knee. Plus a gash on her thigh, which was deep and packed with gravel. The damage was so extensive that doctors contemplated amputation. She had a broken jaw too.

She was in a wheelchair for eight months after the accident, and she used a walker for 12 weeks after that. It took another year to ditch a sparkly purple cane, which was like a security blanket. "I really wasn't supposed to get up and walk when I did," she says, "and I certainly wasn't supposed to walk as well as I'm walking today."

But Kaufman is tough. She went on the air after the accident with her jaw still wired shut. Most of the scars are now barely visible, thin white lines. "There's nothing but metal in here," she says, tapping her right shin. Then she lifts her right pants leg to reveal a seven-inch depression above the knee. From the thigh down, she says, her right leg is numb. Her motorcycle-riding days are over.

It's a Wednesday evening, and around 200 people have come to Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church for its midweek worship service. There are perhaps five white faces in the sanctuary. Most of the church's members are black.

Bass notes spill from an organ as Willie Smith Jr., the minister of music, asks people to get on their feet and raise their hands if they came to worship the Lord.

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