The Man Who Wrote Too Much
Before dawn, while the rest of the nine-to-five world huddles in bed, Harvey Slavin is already up and ready for action. He doesn't jog, fish, or schlep himself to the sandy beach outside his oceanfront apartment building for an early swim. Slavin writes. Every day. And more often than not, his words offer a hearty thrashing for anyone or anything Slavin sees as unjust, dishonest, or just plain slimy.
His regimen begins each morning at 5:30 a.m. After he brews himself a pot of Publix Colombian decaf, he sits down at his glass-topped dining room table to read three newspapers: The New York Times, the Sun-Sentinel, and The Herald. Once a week he'll add local weeklies like The Digest, City Link, and New Times BrowardPalm Beach to the mix, and he always flips to the editorial pages first. Perhaps he'll punch in some jazz on his digital cable TV.
Then, clad in gym shorts and a T-shirt, with pen in hand, he abandons his beachfront-bourgeois life for a few hours. As he scratches his cramped longhand missives onto the yellow pages of the legal pads he buys in 12-packs at Office Depot, Harvey Slavin, mild-mannered entrepreneur, becomes Harvey Slavin, the undisputed king of unsolicited opinion, the scourge of letters-to-the-editor pages in South Florida and beyond.
And when Harvey Slavin writes, the media listen. Sort of. They also roll their eyes, groan, and laugh out loud. For the past 30 years, Slavin has shot off letters covering every topic imaginable to Florida newspapers. He's written about how Ronald and Nancy Reagan paved the way for America's downfall and how the U.S. Postal Service is in need of a collective lobotomy.
He has labeled Miami "the rudest city in the entire universe" and branded many local politicians as scumbags. He writes about the evils of the Republican Party and the Palestinians' quest to destroy Jews and the state of Israel. He slams sports commentators and restaurant columnists for banal observations and myopic reviews. He feels The Herald is good only for wrapping fish and the Sun-Sentinel reeks of hypocrisy.
Yet he keeps on reading -- and writing. "If something sticks in my craw, I write about it," says the 53-year-old Slavin. "It's good for the adrenaline, and it gets the blood flowing. It's better than taking speed.
"And it's good therapy," he adds. Slavin holds back nothing during his self-counseling sessions. A regular reader might find a thin sprinkling of praise within his letters, but only rarely. Most of the time, his tone ranges from critical to insulting to bombastic. Yet he writes with the passion of an iconoclastic monk jailed in a castle tower, and his letters are never snoozers.
"Stupidity and hypocrisy are always things I take stabs at," he avers. "I don't try to be politically correct in what I say. Why should I be? I don't want to be, and I don't have to be. I say what I think."
What makes Hanon [sic] Ashrawi, the female Christian used by the Palestinians to mollify such Western press dupes as the Sun-Sentinel's Editorial board, one of the "more rational Palestinian leaders"? That she is not a typical camel jockey towel head like Arafat makes her a more "rational" Palestinian leader? More rational than whom?
-- October 7, 1997, Sun-Sentinel
Outside the Flashback Diner in Hallandale Beach, Slavin rummages through the metal bin of New Times BrowardPalm Beach. "They don't have the new one in here yet," he says with a touch of disappointment.
While his scribbled rants might conjure an image of the writer as a wild-haired, frothing-at-the-mouth maniac, someone who might gladly pluck out the eyeballs of his enemies with his ballpoint, Slavin looks more like a pediatrician. He's a portly man, today wearing a charcoal dress shirt and matching slacks. A pattern of tiny blue roses adorns his black tie, and his thick silver hair is brushed neatly back from his forehead. When he orders a cup of decaf and a bran muffin, his voice is even, his intonations quiet enough that at times the clatter of the diner drowns out his sentences.
"I believe everything that I write. It's not theatrics. I'm a passionate A-type personality," Slavin says. His small eyes shrink further behind the hexagonal expanse of his brass-and-greenrimmed glasses. Slavin slices a chunk of muffin with his butter knife before explaining the disparity between his sedate demeanor and the often raging tone of his letters. "I don't see any purpose in sitting here with you yelling and screaming," he says. "I just believe in freedom of speech."
Much of Slavin's writing touches upon local, national, and international politics, with Israel leading his pack of pet topics. Yet his background is steeped in neither religion nor politics. After his family moved from New Jersey to Miami Beach when he was two years old, Slavin's parents owned and operated a drugstore on Arthur Godfrey Road for 35 years. He was bar mitzvahed when he was 13 years old, but his family had already opted for the more relaxed worship of Reform Judaism. "We didn't keep kosher. It was a liberal Jewish upbringing; my parents were typical Jewish Democrats."
But they didn't talk politics. Slavin says he became attuned to current events in 11th grade after hearing about JFK's assassination during study hall and watching the ensuing television coverage. At the University of Florida, he graduated with a double major in political science and journalism before marrying into the garment industry. But his true political awakening didn't arrive until a full 12 years later, during a 1985 trip to Israel. Slavin visited Jerusalem, offered prayers at the Western Wall, and hoofed it all the way up to the centuries-old fortress of Masada. He toured the Lebanese border and drove through Golan Heights, where he saw the burnt-out shells of Syrian tanks left over from one of Israel's wars.
What struck him the most was the proximity of Arab nations. "When you see how close everything is...," Slavin begins, then trails off. He's finished with his muffin and picks up his butter knife to help expound his belief that the last thing Israel should do is give up one inch of hard-won land. "If you know people are sworn to wipe you out, and they live over there," he points the knife out the plate-glass window toward Gulfstream Park, "and you own the parking lot here," he swings the tip of the knife to the diner's adjacent lot, "why would you let them live here? Why would Israel give back such strategic strips of land?
"I'm not a very religious person, but it sure says in the Bible that God gave that land to the Jews. And you know what? Even if He didn't, they won it through defensive wars," he continues. "Israel can give back the land it won in wars the day after the United States gives back Southern California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to the Mexicans."
Slavin's guerrilla career in letters began in the early '70s. Living in Kendall at the time, he read about a local Christian organization sponsoring a business fair. "You know, come and meet your Christian plumber, insurance agent, this, that, and the other thing," he remembers. "I was offended. I thought that was absolutely obnoxious. I would never do business with someone because of their religion.
"I think I wrote, "Are you not good enough at your profession that you have to use your Christianity?' Slavin recalls. He's good at quoting himself and can recite lines he's written as recently as last week or as long as decades ago. He's saved only a few hundred letters from what would most likely tally up to thousands, and after he clips one from a newspaper, he dates it and throws it inside an old satchel. Slavin says he's never looked at the letters he's kept, and he laments the ones he hasn't.
"It's too bad I didn't keep them over the years. I could really have written a great book: Hate Mail from Harv."
... The Miami Herald has remained at the ebb of lowly journalistic aesthetics because they have stupidly refused to publish my letters for more than four years. (Just because I have called them rotten bastards, liars, phonies, and anti-Semitic Jew-haters in my mail. You'd think they would get over it. Nah!)
-- February 19, 1998, Miami New Times
For years, Slavin has been at war with The Herald.
"I hate them like poison," says Slavin. According to him, The Herald relishes keeping ethnic groups segregated and panders to power brokers and developers interested in making a fast and easy buck. And, claims Slavin, The Herald is blatantly prejudiced against Jews.
"Placement has a lot to do with bias," he explains, referring to what page a story is assigned. "When a Jew kills a Palestinian, it's on page one. When a Palestinian kills a Jew, it's on page seventeen next to the Fedco ad for Tampax."
So why does he include the daily in his morning reading? "I think it's important to know your enemy, and I think The Herald is the enemy of the people," he explains. He's also pissed off because he claims that The Herald has published only one letter from him in ten years. Yet a search through Herald archives shows that, until 1999, at least a few Slavin letters were published each year since 1984 in the paper's Neighbors, Sports, Broward, or Editorial section, as well as its now defunct Sunday magazine, Tropic.
"He gets upset, but he's not an exception," says Zulay Dominguez Chirinos, a Herald editorial board member and the letters editor from 1990 to 1995. "There are people who would write every day. We're looking for all kinds of names. People who love to see their names in the paper tend to get offended because they tend to take it as a personal thing, and it's not."
Like many dailies The Herald has a 60-day rule that prohibits letter writers from appearing in the paper's editorial column more than once every two months. The rule is aimed at providing the newspaper's letters pages with a variety of voices, topics, and points of view.
"We published a letter of [Slavin's] not long ago, but he tends to write about one topic all the time," Chirinos says. "He often writes about Israel, and we've got a lot of people writing about Middle East affairs. We're looking for all kinds of names. It's understandable if we get a letter from Johnny Perez from Hialeah who's never written before, and we get a letter from Harvey Slavin, and the opinions are similar, we'll print the Perez letter to give someone else a chance."
Slavin thinks The Herald's policy is "bullshit." He claims a former editor once wrote him explaining that he cheapened what he had to say because he wrote so much. "You're saying to me you may publish my letters if I write less?" Slavin questioned. "I wrote her back and said, "What a great First Amendment foundation.' I said, "Stick it up your ass. I'll continue to write as long as I want to, and you can publish me or not.'"
This season-ticket holder hopes that the Heat doesn't raise its prices again just to accommodate this bloat at the top (his Lordship Pat Riley), especially since the team is still a bunch of overpaid sloths who think "defense" is something painted white.
-- September 24, 1995, Sun-Sentinel
Slavin has also attached his unflattering monikers to some of The Herald's staff: editorial writer Wyngate Payne ("Wyngate Pain in the Ass") and sports editor Edwin Pope ("a Southern cracker who's over the hill"). And don't get Slavin going about sports columnist Dan Le Batard, who also hosts his own national show on ESPN Radio, carried locally on WQAM-AM (560) Sunday mornings. "He's a pompous ass," Slavin snaps. "If he were any more double-jointed, he'd pat himself on the back. He has nothing to say that I don't already know."
A self-described sports nut, Slavin recalls playing intramural basketball and football while attending Nautilus Junior High School in Miami Beach. In the early '60s at Miami Beach Senior High, he followed the school's varsity basketball team all the way to the state championships, though he didn't play. His fervor for the games even sparked him to call in a prank on a local talk-radio sports program of the time, The Luther Evans Show. Slavin and a pal concocted a scheme in which Slavin called and rattled off a list of reasons why Beach High was superior to rival Miami High. Then his friend called and posed as a Miami High student who agreed with Slavin.
"We all thought we were wise guys," Slavin says. "In those days there was no pro basketball south of Philly, so they used to put on the Boston Celtics games down here. So I was a Celtics fan until the Heat came." He was enthusiastic enough about the 1988 expansion team to buy season tickets the very first day they were available. Slavin still holds his seats, but he's bitter about the prices and the new AmericanAirlines Arena, which changed his $29, seventh-row seats to 80 bucks a pop in the 18th row. Slavin cites lack of parking, uncomfortable seats, lousy acoustics, and owner Micky Arison's greedy need for high-priced boxes as some of the reasons the team's fan base appears to be dwindling.
According to Slavin The Herald's pro-arena stance was rooted in money: The paper owns land near the site. "Now they have power broker cronies of theirs pushing forward the [performing arts] center, so that their property becomes even more valuable," Slavin grouses.
Slavin further mocks The Herald for its recent television spots featuring sports columnist Le Batard. "It shows you how bad their sports department is. They refer to it as "the soul of sports,'" he sneers. "More like the ass-soul of sports."
Despite the repeated rhetorical spankings Slavin has given him, Le Batard lauds Slavin's passion and believes that the newspaper industry needs more readers engaged enough to respond. "He's relentless. He writes more than I do," says Le Batard. "He's certainly entitled to his opinion, and I love the Don Quixote in him, tilting at the windmills."
But like Slavin, Le Batard can't resist taking a dig. "The difference between his strong opinions and my strong opinions is that I get paid for mine.
"Give him a big hug for me when you see him," Le Batard adds.
As a Miami Heat season-ticket holder since the franchise's inception, I am pleased to see Nets management bring the disease known as "Sickle Seikaly Anemia" to New Jersey.
-- March 1, 1998, The (Bergen County, New Jersey) Record
Florida newspapers aren't the only ones to have received and published Slavin's scribbled vitriol. National media like Time magazine and CNN have taken their punches; when he lived in Michigan two and a half years ago, Slavin offered The Detroit News his (unsympathetic) take on a homeless Arab-American woman.
The Bergen County Record letter about long-time Heat center Rony Seikaly wasn't the only dispatch he sent to another NBA city. When Slavin traveled to Denver to visit one of his two grown daughters earlier this year, he managed to squeeze out a letter to The Rocky Mountain News thanking "the morons with the Denver Nuggets who traded for two Miami Heat bums." When informed that The News had published his brief diatribe slamming the traded Heat players -- Mark Strickland and Voshon Lenard, whom Slavin claims "plays defense like a screen-doored submarine lets in water" -- the serial letter writer seems pleased and proffers a not entirely modest smile.
"Really? There was one in there? I didn't know," Slavin admits. He's sitting at a table in Hollywood's Café La Belle Crêpe. Tanned and dressed in a pink-and-whitestriped polo shirt and Bermuda shorts, Slavin looks like any number of same-aged men dining on the restaurant's candlelit porch. He leans over and picks at his half-eaten chicken-and-asparagus crepe. He wanted the chef salad, but the leafy entrée is available only during lunch. ("Shame on you!" he said to the waitress with a laugh.)
Slavin eats out daily, and the café is one of his regular stops. His connection with restaurants probably comes from the eight years he's worked in the industry selling advertising to eateries in exchange for meal discounts for patrons. For the past nine months, Slavin has toiled for Advanceme, a company that offers restaurants and other businesses cash collateral based on their Visa and MasterCard sales. The burgeoning business keeps Slavin jumping, but he still finds time to write, whether he's in another Florida city or at his home base in Hollywood.
The Digest has served up its own local portion of Slavin-penned musings. Distributed weekly in Aventura, Hallandale Beach, and Hollywood since 1963, The Digest combines nationally syndicated writers and neighborhood news in its pages -- and of course a letters column. Publisher Daniel Bluesten estimates that his paper receives between 20 and 30 letters a week, a high number for a small local weekly.
"I loooove it. It's one of the most exciting sections in our publication," Bluesten gushes. "The Sun-Sentinel and The Herald either edit letters or refuse to run them because they're too controversial. The only letters we don't run are [those that engage in] personal character assassination."
This caveat hasn't deterred Slavin, who Bluesten says writes about three letters a week. The Digest runs about two Slavins a month, but Bluesten plans on reducing that number. Whether the paper publishes Slavin's letters or not, Bluesten says the staff reads them all and finds virtually all of them entertaining.
"Personally I think Harvey, instead of going to see a therapist, expresses anything that makes him angry through a letter," Bluesten says. "Harvey definitely adds a lot of controversy. I don't think he's going to win any popularity awards, but I don't think he really cares," he adds with a laugh.
Slavin says his friends kid with him about reading his name in the obituaries because he's ticked off the wrong person. He doesn't join political, activist, or business groups; he picks his own fights.
Once again... so-called restaurant critic Jen Kvetchnick (kvetch for being a pain in the ass) got it all wrong.... Karetnick is an effete snob and egomaniac who rarely takes the time to find out the real facts about things. Like Ronald Reagan, she's simply style over substance.
-- July 25, 1996, Miami New Times
"To somebody like me, where I sit now, I love letter writers," says Tom Finkel, editor of Minneapolis' alternative weekly City Pages.
"You certainly don't expect to get fan mail. When we write stories, we expect to rankle people. Some of them turn whatever hurts them into a letter. People who write you regularly become like your friends."
Slavin's letters came to Finkel's attention during his eight-year stint at Miami New Times as managing editor. Even though he's worked at City Pages for the last three years, Finkel still recalls Slavin's ravin'. "I remember his handwriting, his exclamation points. Every sentence ended with an exclamation point," Finkel says.
Miami New Times editor Jim Mullin regards the letters section as one of the most widely read features of his paper each week, serving as a kind of community bulletin board that gives readers a sense of ownership in the paper. He recalls Slavin's letters flooding his offices. "There was a time several years ago when Harvey was writing so often that I had to put the brakes on," Mullin says, adding that Slavin called him once and demanded to know why the paper wasn't publishing his letters.
"He was just livid. He seemed to have some kind of territorial imperative," Mullin remarks.
One of Slavin's best-known sentiments is his antagonism toward New Times restaurant critic Jen Karetnick, whose reviews he has followed from the 1987 debut of Miami New Times to the founding of New Times BrowardPalm Beach in 1997 to the present. Through the years Slavin has branded Karetnick and her reviews "devious," "sleazy," "cheap," "rancid," "small-minded," "pedantic," "drivel," and "ass-kissing."
Slavin claims his inky war with Karetnick began in early 1994, when she criticized the service and food at Escopazzo, an Italian restaurant on South Beach owned by a friend of his, which had just received a four-star review from the Sun-Sentinel. "She trashed it, so I started writing letters. I started watching," Slavin says.
"At first I considered it a joke," recalls Karetnick, who was amused enough with Slavin's monthly letters to incorporate his pet name for her, Kvetchnick, in her e-mail address. Karetnick even decided to address a year-end roundup column ("Another Year Devoured," Miami New Times, January 2, 1997) in part to Slavin and a letter he wrote implying that the critic gave nothing but negative reviews.
Karetnick pored over her reviews from 1996 and discovered that she gave equal space to praise and punishment. She proceeded to feature her monthly faves and chided Slavin for his inaccurate perceptions. "But I'm ready to move on," she wrote at the end of the piece. "How about you, Harvey?"
Slavin wasn't. Instead, he sent his own, decidedly less good-natured response a few weeks later, calling Karetnick's column, "a cheap attempt to take a shot at me... [through] shoddy, low journalism of half-truths used by scumbag politicians and their spin-doctors.... Bury the hatchet? Yeah -- between your shoulder blades!"
Karetnick remembers that letter and another, more sinister one that was never published: "He became venomous. He left me a message on my voice mail that was so rude and frightening." After Slavin crossed the line, Mullin says he stepped in, telling the serial letter writer that his opinions would not appear in the newspaper for a while.
"Ever since then I sort of have considered him dangerous," Karetnick says.
When asked about the incident, Slavin shrugs his shoulders and guffaws. "That was a long time ago," he says. "I would never take physical action against somebody. I don't want to hurt her. I've never met her. I'm sure she's a nice person."
So is Slavin. At least that's what Mike Liebman says. Liebman, Slavin's former roommate and his friend for more than 15 years, says the two met through their children, and after both men divorced, they shared a duplex in Cherry Grove, a South Miami-Dade suburb, for about a year. The now-61-year-old Liebman witnessed Slavin's morning ritual firsthand. "One moment you may witness the venom of the pen," he recalls. "The next you may see a very kind and sensitive person that's buying someone lunch or concerned about someone who's ill or crying at a sad movie.
"He has many faces. Probably most people don't see all of them because he may be very verbal, but he's also very private when it comes to his personal life. It's hard to get to know the real Harvey Slavin," Liebman says.
The two men still talk on the phone every day and share a meal about once a week. Liebman believes that Slavin's proficiency with the pen and his political knowledge constitute nothing short of a gift. But he also speculates that Slavin carries around a good amount of anger and passes it along to those he writes about and to the publications he faxes. Slavin's brand of zealotry draws readers, but the attention isn't what drives him. His motives are always personal.
Take Slavin's disdain for the state's Department of Children and Families (DCF). He refers to DCF administrators as "wacko socialists" and condemns the agency for its "neglect" and "incompetence." He came to these conclusions in the mid-'90s when he and his then-wife took custody of their three-year-old great-nephew.
Slavin says he fought for 28 months to keep the child out of the hands of his parents, who, Slavin insists, were unfit to raise the boy. After attempting to claim temporary custody, he says, he was appalled when the presiding judge, Steven Robinson, allowed the child to attend a family wedding with his parents, without the supervision the court had previously deemed necessary. "I said, "What, is this judge fucking nuts?' Look, just because he has a black robe on, he might [as] well have a white Klansman robe on when it comes to the welfare of this child," recalls Slavin.
Slavin spent countless hours and thousands of dollars slogging through the agency's red tape and even endured short-lived accusations of molesting the boy. Slavin says the charges were quickly dismissed, but the experience soured him toward the department. "It was like a nightmare, the whole power that these idiots have. I hold them in the lowest of esteem. There's a whole underbelly of this that goes on, and people get screwed to the walls," he says.
Slavin ultimately dropped the custody battle, primarily because he and his wife found the experience of raising a child powerful enough to incite them to adopt their own. Today, Slavin's six-year-old adopted son lives in Michigan with his mother (she and Slavin divorced in 1998); pictures of the boy roller-skating and posing with Mickey Mouse adorn the tabletops of his immaculate, tastefully decorated home. Slavin visits his son monthly and speaks to him practically every day, but his experiences with the DCF linger in his thoughts.
"It was a great awakening for me. I'd never had any problems, I'd never really seen how the system doesn't work. So I did everything I could to write about that."
So, perhaps the bigots at New Times can tell me why the term Jew was used in the headline of this story ("One Live Jew," Tristram Korten, August 10, 2000)? In the same edition, when you wrote about the cell phone antics of powerful Broward commissioner Lori Parrish, you didn't call the article "One (Tele)phoney Shiksa [non-Jewish woman]," did you? Of course not!
And I thought only Republicans were racist, bigoted, subhuman cretins. I was wrong!-- August 31, 2000, New Times BrowardPalm Beach
A little after 10:30 p.m., Slavin eases his black 1998 Toyota Camry into the only empty parking space in front of the 7-Eleven near his house. Maybe he got caught up with recounting his life over dinner, or maybe the banana-and-strawberry crepe with chocolate sauce he had for dessert went to his head. Either way, he's forgotten to buy Lotto tickets, and he's hoping it's not too late. "If my numbers come out this week..." He pantomimes a cutting gesture across his neck with one chubby forefinger, hinting at big trouble for the reporter who delayed his weekly purchase.
Slavin laughs and hops out of the car. He hurries inside because he also wants to catch the basketball game on TV. Flung over the back seat is a workout towel, and a suit jacket hangs from a handle in the back; the rest of his car is spotless, without a pad, pen, or angry word in sight.
"You know how people always try to find the good? I don't think that way. I think that people are happy when others suffer, and they don't wish them well. Basically people are nasty, and they have to overcome it," offers Slavin.
On the winding drive back to his A1A apartment, he mentions a letter he sent to New Times BrowardPalm Beach about the paper's election coverage ("One Man, One Vote," Bob Norman, November 30, 2000). In the letter, which he quotes, he derided the paper for reporting "stale news" and suggested the writer take a peek at The New York Times to learn how it's done. Slavin recalls how, at the end, he conceded that the article was written much better than most of Jen Karetnick's reviews and suggested that Norman give Karetnick a writing lesson or two.
When asked if he really thinks she needs it, Slavin hesitates for a second. Then he offers up his small curve of a smile. "Nah. I just wanted to take a shot."
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