Kingsley Barham seems an unlikely candidate for king of crass. The once-handsome, now-haggard 56-year-old sleeps on a sofa bed in a ramshackle Delray Beach home from which he barely escaped eviction in 2001. The State of California is after him for more than $75,000 in back taxes. And creditors have won judgments against him for tens of thousands more.
Yet in the past few months, he's been accused of "desecrating sacred memories" on England's staid BBC. France's influential daily Le Monde cited a "Scandal in New York" after Big Apple Mayor Michael Bloomberg termed Barham's most recent project "disgraceful and despicable." And a newspaper in upstate New York opined that Barham "symbolizes the worst aspect of the entrepreneurial spirit."
What's it all about? Earlier this month, Barham began peddling "Heroes 09.11.01," a set of 202 trading cards featuring victims of the World Trade Center tragedy, the firemen and dogs who searched the wreckage for them, anthrax, American flags, and Little League. There's even a 15-card puzzle that pictures the towers collapsing.
Collect 'em all, kids.
Most of the set, for sale at www.sportscardswholesale.com, pictures the people who perished on September 11. The captions aspire to serious homage but generally offer only overheated, lowbrow twaddle. Take, for instance, this pearl of prose from the back of a 2.5-by-3.5-inch card featuring an ancient photo of a trade center victim in a wedding dress: "Like the Cyndi Lauper song, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Florence Cohen retained a zest for life's adventures and pursued them to their fullest. Whether curled up with an engrossing novel or traveling abroad, Florence made sure she had a good time."
They go, retail, for $2.50 a pack. Eight cards included.
It's not just crackpot capitalism, Barham ventures. Survivors will get 8 percent of the proceeds. "When I first started calling the families of World Trade Center victims and explained I wanted to honor their loved ones in a baseball-card format, six of every seven people slammed the phone down, usually after saying 'Fuck you' or 'You're an idiot,'" he recounts. "Once they get a look at the cards, though, those people do a 180. They tell me how wonderful the cards are."
Dozens of stories have been printed about him, and he's done about 20 interviews on CBS, CNN, MSNBC, and other networks. Most of these reports have proceeded the same way. "Tasteless and disgusting," some survivors say. "We're honored," others reply. "I don't call it a trading card; I call it a tribute card," Barham concludes, "a magazine in a baseball-card format."
Barham has received less play in the South Florida press than he has on television or newspapers outside his home base. The Miami Herald, for instance, recently published a story on its lifestyle page borrowed from another paper. The Sun-Sentinel did a single article months ago.
So on the day after the cards actually began selling over the Internet, I visited the two-bedroom house on Federal Highway where Barham sleeps and sells. It is literally stuffed to the rafters with boxes full of the cards. The man whom the New York Post termed a "WTC Card Shark Sicko" welcomed me and a photographer with fresh cookies. His black Labrador, Moose, slobbered on us in friendly fashion. He wore a blue dress shirt and black running shoes. His manner was nervous, his blue eyes intent. "Yesterday was the first day, and we sold $20,000 of the cards," he said after opening the door. "That's how well we're doing."
Soon he was referring to the anchors and commentators who have assailed his enterprise as "drunk" (the New York Post's Steve Dunleavy) and "idiots" (Fox News' Bill O'Reilly and MSNBC's Dan Abrams). "They put you in this little room and then they point a camera at you, and then they start attacking," he says. "It's stacked against you. You have to come up with a bright response."
Barham says he was born in Manhattan and grew up all over the world -- in Chicago, Jamaica, and Denmark -- because his dad was a mattress salesman who traveled a lot. He became an Eagle Scout, attended the University of Miami, graduated in 1975, then moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he says he spent most of the next 20 years. Chestnut Publications, his company, is named for the street he lived on in San Fran's Marina District.
It was in the Bay Area, while Barham was working as a stockbroker, that a client named Dwight Randolph gave him the big idea of selling unconventional trading cards. Such memorabilia, particularly vintage baseball cards, bring in millions from kids and collectors. Collectible cards were branching out back then; Barham recalls seeing trading cards of Corvettes, fire engines, even farm implements. "It was a $2.5 billion business in the early 1990s," he says. "Opportunity!"
It didn't work out the way Barham planned. He says he and a friend from Houston invested half a million dollars. Though handsome cards picturing vintage motorcycles like a 1913 Indian Twin were issued in 1993, sales were disappointing. He says Harley-Davidson double-crossed him after he called the company, as a courtesy, to report his plans. "They put together their own cards and sold 400 million cards in no time," he fumes. "It really put a damper on my business."
San Francisco court records show that his landlord at the time, the Woo Family Trust, sued to make him pay $900 in rent in June 1993. Though the dispute was settled a couple of months later, Woo won a judgment of $6,818 against him in September 1995. Around the same time, an outfit called KFH Land Co. sued Barham in county court in San Francisco, demanding $25,584. Barham defaulted on both. Barham says the Woos were after him because he led a rent strike over poor living conditions, and "I just walked away from it." He says he has no idea what the second judgment was about.
But that was only the beginning of his problems. In 1995 and 1996, Barham issued a series of trading cards featuring marijuana. They pictured California Red, Sri Lankan, Afghan... you get the idea. The buds look tasty. The prose? Well, how's this: "It has become a cliché in our times that Marijuana should be made legal and taxable... If the alternative amounts to a police state and/or police state mentality, then we must do something soon to change the status quo and the direction in which we as a society are going. We appear to be evolving into a circumstance that will be increasingly difficult to reverse."
He claims he sold 35 million pot cards. "Head shops and hippies, that was my market," he says. "Then Tower Records began selling them."
Even so, Barham's financial fortunes didn't improve markedly. In 1996, after he moved to a place at 210 Hillcrest Ave. in Berkeley, California, his landlord, Halcyon Ferrari, tried to evict him for unpaid rent. Barham made out an $83 check to the court. It bounced. In February 1997, a $6,800 judgment was entered against Barham and his roommate.
In 1998, Barham came up with yet another brilliant collector-card idea: tattoos and body piercing. He called tattoo shops around the country, gathered pictures of some of their weirdest creations -- think black-and-white-striped buttocks -- and assembled prototypes. From a card: "Tattoo Piercing and Body Modification appear to be an individualistic response to an increasingly conservative and predictable culture."
"These didn't hit the market that well," Barham says. "I got out of the business."
No wonder. In 1998, the State of California placed a lien against his property for $3,500 for unpaid taxes. The next year, the state added $21,100 more. And in May 2001, California filed a lien against Barham for $53,000. According to the state Department of Revenue, his company, InLine Cards, hadn't filed a state tax return since 1992 and can no longer do business in California. Barham blames any problem related to income tax on his accountant, who he says is now out of business. "I don't know what happened since I left California," he shrugs. "I never took any money from anyone, nor have I done anything dishonest."
Barham says he moved back to Key Biscayne in 1998. He worked for a time as a stockbroker. When his mother became ill, he moved north to Delray Beach. That move, as it happened, didn't pan out very well either.
In March 2000, a Topeka, Kansas, newspaper called him one of 30,000 "independent marketing associates" for a company, Renaissance: the Tax People, that was under federal investigation. This past April, prosecutors charged one top employee with being part of a conspiracy that defrauded the public of $100 million. Barham was not accused of participating in the misdeeds, which prosecutors have called a pyramid scheme.
A company he formed in March 2001 to match accountants with clients, Professional Referral Services, didn't do well either. When the landlord of the house where he now lives in Delray Beach tried to evict him in July 2001, he penned a pathetic, error-ridden letter to the judge pleading for time. "Our business projections fell perilously below the targets we believed could reasonably be reached... Dispute the 80 plus hour week efforts... we have fallen seriously behind in our rental payments... Never the less, we believe we have discovered the error of our ways."
In August 2001, Barham signed over a property he owned west of Homestead to the landlord and thus managed to keep the roof over his head.
Then came the idea for the 9/11 cards, which he believes will dig him out of his financial morass. He says it occurred to him just days after the World Trade Center disaster.
Despite opposition from friends and family, he raised the $250,000 he thought would be needed. Some of the money is his own. There are three other investors. "All I have is a house my mom left me in Maine, and I've leveraged it to do this," he says. "I live life like I'm in college."
The torrent of press and TV coverage Barham has received for the project is certainly the kind of publicity most rascals like Barham only dream of. He was called "ghoulish" on CNN Live. Articles questioning his project have appeared in France, Spain, and throughout the English-speaking world, including New Zealand and Australia. My favorite piece is an editorial by Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center, who took Barham wa-a-a-ay too seriously this past December 31: "Meaningful content can appear in many forms, including small slabs of cardboard. The First Amendment protects free speech, regardless of the format. In the end, it's about the message, not the medium."
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I wish Paulson could speak with Karyn Ricke, a Lake Worth graphics artist who sued Barham after she provided a design for the cards and he refused to pay. This past October, after Barham didn't show up in court, a judge awarded her $3,000 in damages. "I don't know if this guy has a pot to piss in," says her lawyer, Scott Chapman. "A lot of people are probably after his assets."
Despite all the press, it seems most likely that Barham's 9/11 escapade will fail miserably. His friends and business associates will be left holding the bag, as they have been in the past. At least one investor, though, isn't particularly bothered by the prospect of losing money. Bill Healey, who lives in San Francisco, says he has plowed more than $25,000 into the project. He doesn't believe the project is in bad taste, pointing out that these aren't really trading cards. If people receive duplicates, the company will replace them, he says. "I probably put in the first $25,000 because Kingsley is a friend," Healey says. "He has had a pretty tough time of it in the last 20 years. I'd like to see him have some security."
Barham says his tawdry record has no bearing on the 9/11 project. He contends that a chain of grocery stores in Pennsylvania and northern New Jersey recently agreed to sell the cards. And they are doing well on the Internet. "There is no question that I have gotten some bad advice, but I have never set out to harm or hurt or financially wound someone," he concludes. "Most of the people who have been hurt by me have been worth a lot of money."
East Bay Express Intern Helene Blatter contributed to this report.