El Jefe

Card Shark

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!"