EVEN now, four years later, people who know Simon Curtis still can’t believe the odd series of events that led him to spend the last year in jail. And although Mr. Curtis readily admits that he was living recklessly, drinking too much, taking drugs and spraying graffiti on the Lower East Side, he didn’t exactly see a state prison in his future when he went to an art opening on the night of July 14, 2001.
The show, titled “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” after a Flannery O’Connor story, was held at 31 Grand, a small, well- maintained gallery along a strip of paint-chipped warehouses in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was a group show, and a young friend of Mr. Curtis’s, a darkly beautiful photographer named Michelle Cortez, was among the artists whose work was on exhibit.
A good-size crowd had turned out, and a loose, partylike atmosphere prevailed. As the evening wound down, Mr. Curtis, then 31, found himself nearly alone inside the gallery and eyeing his favorite photo, a self- portrait of Ms. Cortez that showed her topless and wearing ripped stockings. He was feeling contented and mischievous and also a little drunk. It suddenly occurred to him that it would be funny to show up with the photo at Max Fish, a Lower East Side bar where Ms. Cortez had gone with friends. As a group of people stood outside smoking cigarettes in the sticky air, he reached up, plucked the photo from the wall and shuffled out.
It was a spur-of-the-moment act, a juvenile prank, but one that had far-reaching consequences. From the theft would spring a high-speed getaway, an alleged kidnapping and an assault on a gallery owner. Later, there would follow criminal charges and a grand jury proceeding, a blunt intrusion of law and order into a carefree world.
“I’ve run that night over in my head so many times,” said Mr. Curtis, who is to be paroled this month. “I think about it way too much.”
Everything Comes Crashing Down
Had Mr. Curtis chosen any other photo, he might have gotten away with the theft. But the self-portrait was hanging high on the wall, and he aroused the notice of Heather Stephens, an owner of the gallery. She had once worked in a record store, and was, as she put it, “used to chasing shoplifters.” As Mr. Curtis was leaving the gallery, he turned and saw Ms. Stephens and Michael Delmonte, another partner in the gallery, frantically running after him.
Outside, friends of Mr. Curtis’s were waiting, unaware, in a silver Mercedes sport-utility vehicle. The driver was Sam Salganik, a 24-year-old sometime D.J., and the car belonged to his parents. Sitting beside him was Ryan McGinley, an ambitious 23-year-old photographer whose visceral snapshots of his friends tumbling their way through an extended adolescence were starting to attract attention in the art world.
Mr. Curtis, trailed by the two gallery partners and a group of their friends, jumped into the S.U.V., and, as he later wrote in a letter from prison, the night devolved into “a scene out of ‘Dawn of the Dead.’ ”
With the gallery partners’ friends banging on the windows, the S.U.V. drove off. But not before Ms. Stephens either was pulled or jumped into the back seat - there is a difference of opinion over this - and Mr. Delmonte either jumped or was scooped onto the hood. The next few minutes unfolded with a dreamlike unreality.
According to testimony 11 days later before a grand jury, Ms. Stephens sat screaming in the back seat while Mr. Salganik barreled down Kent Avenue at upward of 50 miles an hour with Mr. Delmonte clinging to his hood. Finally, out of desperation, Mr. Delmonte punched the car’s windshield, causing a section of it to spider-web.
Mr. Salganik refused to comment on the events of that night, and Mr. McGinley did not return repeated telephone calls. But Mr. Curtis, in his letter, described what happened next: “Sammy exclaimed, ‘That’s it!,’ jerked his car over to the side of the curb, stopped abruptly, jumped out of the car, pulled his shirt off, raised his fists in a fighting stance, and said, ‘Now it’s on!’ ”
Speaking to the grand jury, a shaken Mr. Delmonte later described falling to the ground and being repeatedly punched by Mr. Salganik as he scurried, crablike, to the curb.
Amid the chaos, Ms. Stephens recovered the photo, which was priced around $500, and dashed out of the S.U.V. Mr. Curtis and his friends sped away to Max Fish as the mood inside the car shifted from giddy euphoria to shock to a queasy feeling that something terrible had just happened.
Graffiti Days and Rooftop Nights
Simon Curtis is tall and affable, with a shy inwardness befitting a teenagehood spent alone in the bedroom drawing comics and pouring over heavy metal and punk records. Even now, at age 35, his face is both stubble-marked and fleshy, a disarming mix of man and boy.
Friends often describe Mr. Curtis as “a genius,” “a crazy guy” or both. “Simon is the most ahead-of-the-curve guy I’ve ever known,” said Matt Sweeney, a musician and a founding member of the indie bands Chavez and Superwolf who has known Mr. Curtis since they were teenagers growing up in Maplewood, N.J. “He’s a tastemaker.”
But Mr. Curtis could also be erratic and difficult. “He’s the only person I ever hit,” Mr. Sweeney said. “He did not have control of his emotions and would act out. But I ended up missing him, so we made up. That’s been my relationship with him.”
Mr. Curtis moved to New York in 1991 to study photography at the School of Visual Arts, and in the years that followed, he fashioned an active, if somewhat unfocused, life in the city’s cooler precincts. He roomed with a former member of Nirvana, created a fanzine called Manzine that spoofed macho culture, hung out with the cast of the Larry Clark film “Kids,” appeared in a Sonic Youth video, spun records at clubs like the now-shuttered Moomba and started a clothing line, moving back in with his parents when he couldn’t pay the rent.
At the time of the fateful gallery opening, he was a member of the Irak crew, a group of graffiti writers and self-styled hooligans described by the downtown magazine Vice as “rude, illegal” and “always on the verge of losing their lives.” Mr. Curtis was known for spraying an image of a wiggling sperm cell on walls around the city.
“It’s not easy staying hip,” he said half-jokingly of his ability to keep pace with the downtown scene. “A lot of people give up or move to the suburbs. I always wanted to be where something was happening.”
In 1999, where something was happening was Mr. McGinley’s walk-up apartment on Seventh Street near Avenue A. The interior was both sparsely furnished and in constant disarray, as if every day were the morning after a party. Which it often was. As a house ritual, Mr. McGinley used to snap Polaroids of his visitors, and a wall was plastered with snapshots, a tribute to the parade of revelers that had passed through.
Along with Mr. Salganik and Mr. Curtis, the regulars included Ms. Cortez, who had attended the Parsons School of Design with Mr. McGinley; an Irak member and prodigious shoplifter called Earsnot; and Dash Snow, who grew up on East 13th Street and began doing graffiti in his teens.
During the years Mr. Curtis spent apartment- hopping downtown, he figured out which buildings had rooftop access, and he and the Irak crew used to stage midnight graffiti runs or hold parties on the roof. These were halcyon days, what Dash Snow called “a golden period.” No one had a full-time job.
“Everybody knew everybody,” Ms. Cortez recalled. “You’d think it was a small town.” As for what drew everyone together, Dash Snow said, “Not to say substances, but that was a big part of it.” (Dash Snow, who is 23, said he suffered complete liver failure last year and had stopped drinking and tagging because “I’m not trying to go to jail.”)
For the Irak crew, what would normally have qualified as a misspent youth became, by virtue of Mr. McGinley’s camera and, later, his role as the photo editor of Vice, an iconic happening. He would become the youngest artist to be given a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, bolstering his status even further.
“Hanging out with Ryan you feel like you’re part of an infamous moment,” Gavin McInnes, a founder of Vice, wrote in a New York-theme issue of the British magazine Dazed & Confused. “Like it’s going to end up in our generation’s version of Please Kill Me. Even when you’re puking or getting swastikas drawn on your passed out face you’re thinking, ‘I’m making history.’ “
If such thinking inevitably led to that night at the gallery, it wasn’t Mr. Curtis’s first crazy stunt. He and the Irak crew once descended on a house party and covered the host’s apartment in graffiti. Another time, he appeared near catatonic and high on angel dust on a cable-access television show called “The Kid America Adventure Hour.” (“That was a bad one,” Mr. Curtis said.)
“I think Simon was definitely begging for trouble,” said Mr. Sweeney, his friend from Maplewood. “I’ve worried about him in the past.”
Reality’s Harsh Lens
In the days and weeks after the theft, a certain individualism took hold among those involved.
The next day, as Ms. Stephens recalls, Mr. McGinley phoned her and tried to distance himself from that night, saying, “I was only catching a ride.” (Mr. McGinley was never charged with a crime.)
A few nights later, Mr. Curtis and Mr. Salganik spun records at a Knitting Factory party, but they parked the damaged S.U.V. several blocks from the club, and with good reason; the police showed up at the Knitting Factory several days later looking for them. Apparently, Mr. Salganik was not cut out for the fugitive life. About a week and a half after the theft, he turned himself in to the police.
When Mr. Curtis did not follow suit, and shaved off his long brown hair, Mr. Salganik phoned him repeatedly and called his elderly parents in Maplewood. Finally, Mr. Curtis went to the police, since, in his words: “It would be a good thing to do as a friend. After all, I did cause the whole thing.” In late July, he spent an unpleasant day going through what he called “bullpen therapy” in central booking. He was released and subsequently missed a court date that had been set for September 2001 - “stupidly blew it off,” as he put it, and spent the next two years ducking the charges.
While Mr. Curtis was hanging out on the Lower East Side, partying and continuing to spray graffiti, Mr. Salganik faced charges that included assault, petty larceny and unlawful imprisonment. He was eventually sentenced to a “6/5 split,” six months in Rikers Island and five years’ probation. In a letter he sent to Vice magazine from prison, Mr. Salganik warned readers to “be careful of the company you keep,” quoted the rapper 50 Cent and went on to muse on prison culture: “There must be like 400 Angel Nunez’s in here” and “The only cigarettes you can get are Kools.”
Beyond Mr. Salganik’s jailhouse deprivations, everyone caught up in the events of that night endured personal tribulations.
Throughout the high-speed getaway, Mr. McGinley had been furiously snapping photos from the front seat of the S.U.V. Years later, Ms. Stephens was still searching the Internet for the pictures he took, dreading that she might come across them, even though she heard that Mr. McGinley had destroyed them. She began seeing a therapist, and her friendship with Mr. Delmonte ended, largely because whenever they got together, all they talked about was that night at the gallery.
Ms. Stephens still finds it hard to relive the events of that evening. Sitting in her gallery one recent afternoon, she said somewhat defensively: “Have you ever been kidnapped? Have you ever been assaulted?” before growing quiet. She interrupted another conversation to confess: “I’m sorry. I’m having flashbacks about it right now.”
Ms. Cortez, upset that her friends had jeopardized her relationship with the gallery, distanced herself from the criminal proceedings. Some of the participants in the events of that night say she could have defused the situation, although Mr. Curtis’s lawyer said having Ms. Cortez speak to the authorities would have made no difference.
“To this day, I still get this coldness from Sam,” Ms. Cortez said. “I’m not the bad guy here.”
In June 2003, almost two years after the theft, Mr. Curtis was finally picked up by the police, this time for spraying graffiti on Avenue A. The authorities soon discovered the prior charges against him, and because he had skipped his earlier court date, he was deemed a flight risk and was unable to post bail. He spent a hot summer in the Tombs, the Lower Manhattan detention complex, where, with his hair once again long, the other inmates called him Howard Stern.
His friends occasionally visited. Mr. Curtis in turn befriended a gang member and had his hair braided by an inmate whom he repaid with Ramen noodles and a can of tuna. But his past life hovered literally within sight. “It was rough going up to the rooftop rec,” he admitted, “because I had a bird’s-eye view of my downtown stomping grounds.”
Because the violent nature of the theft had elevated the crime from larceny to robbery, and because Mr. Curtis had jumped bail, his lawyer advised him to plead guilty, to accept a one-to-three-year sentence and to hope for parole in a year. On July 22, 2004, three years after the night at the gallery, Mr. Curtis was processed at Rikers and eventually sent to the Cayuga Correctional Facility in Moravia, south of Syracuse. “The ride on the bus to Rikers,” he said, “wasn’t as romantic as they show in rap videos.”
Odd Bunkmates, Future Plans
One recent Saturday, Mr. Curtis, dressed in black boots and a green prison jumpsuit, sat among a crowd of inmates and their families in the prison’s visiting area and talked about the events of the preceding four years.
For much of the time he wore a sheepish expression, as if he were slightly embarrassed that someone had driven so far to see him. The distance from the city - about 230 miles - has kept most of his friends from visiting, although last fall Dash Snow organized a “Free Simon” party at a Lower East Side bar to raise money to buy art supplies for Mr. Curtis.
In prison, Mr. Curtis has bunked with a convicted murderer and been required to attend vocational classes despite his college degree, but otherwise he seems to have taken his sentence in stride. He spends his days reading and listening to Velvet Underground and Slayer tapes (CD’s are not allowed) and he gets issues of Vice sent from the city. Every week, he phones his girlfriend, Meredith, who he met shortly before going to jail.
Mr. Curtis’s friends say that he has become more clearheaded and concerned about his future, partly because of a prison-run drug and alcohol rehabilitation program.
“I’ve wasted a lot of time,” he said, in a tone that was uncharacteristically serious. “I’ve slept on a lot of opportunities and been satisfied with living a certain lousy way. I’d see people get a degree of fame and be jealous, but not understand all the work that went into it.”
Mr. Curtis has been promised a job upon his release. A friend who started a clothing label is opening a store on Hester Street, and Mr. Curtis will do graphic design for the company.
“Everybody has been getting serious, not partying so much anymore, trying to take things to the next level, ” Mr. Curtis said of the changes among his friends over the past year. Of his own aspirations, Mr. Curtis was more modest. “I’m trying to get a plan together,” he said