Portrait of an Immigrant Detainee as a Young Man

Meet New York bike-scene fixture Pablo Airaldi. He made friends with everyone—except ICE officials.

Then in 2010, everything started going well. Pablo knew there was a problem.

In the traditionally Polish area of Greenpoint, there is also a lively cast of diverse neighborhood characters that has sprung up along the northern end of the area’s main strip, Manhattan Avenue. Like Victor, a/k/a the “Mayor of Greenpoint,” a Puerto Rican gentleman who is block-famous for wielding a drain snake and being the first person bodega owners yell for when their sinks choke. Or Christina Mattus, the 30-year-old Caucasian Long Island–raised proprietor of the nascent Usha Veda Yoga studio. Or George Zeigler, a/k/a “Ziiggie,” a 56-year-old half-black/half-Jewish subway musician whose guitar is his bank account and who currently sleeps in a tent.

Instead of ignoring such colorful personalities, as is so often the case when shithead twentysomethings stick their buffalo-plaid flags into gradually gentrifying areas and play tourist pioneer, Pablo very quickly became a spectacular part of the ensemble. Last summer, a local business owner brought him to open the neighborhood’s first cycling store, Greenpoint Bikes, and he worked 24 days straight setting up the shop, sometimes so late he would sleep there. Pablo spent his breaks palling around with his new neighbors, putting Ziiggie to work in the shop a few times and once letting Victor, who needed money, pawn his bike at no interest until he could afford to buy it back.

In turn, the local characters welcomed him. “Right away, it was like we had known each other forever,” Ziiggie explains recently at Manhattan Avenue’s Acapulco restaurant, over French fries and a pint of blackberry-flavored brandy he had smuggled in his coat. “If he had tits, I’d fuck him.”

“They knew I wasn’t trying to change the neighborhood, but to help it out,” Pablo offers. “I didn’t want commerce to come in and change the whole face and feel.”

Pablo says he had “a premonition” something would go wrong on October 13, which was in every other respect just a routine court check-in. Everything in his life was just going too right. “I was like, ‘Something’s gonna fuck up. My love life is amazing, my friends are fantastic, everything was perfect.’ This has never been my life, ever. I’ve always had to struggle somehow. I’m not comfortable being comfortable,” he says solemnly. “With the shop, I felt for the first time I was finally really able to make an impact—just from simply continuing my beliefs, without having to compromise. With the shop, I was immediately affecting things. I was watching them change for the better, in front of me, right in the community. It was exciting.”

So on October 13, Pablo chose his outfit deliberately. Black dress shirt. Patchwork pants. Most crucial of all, white underwear—go into custody wearing anything else and you run the risk of your drawers being confiscated, a threat he learned the hard way. (“The last time I got taken in, I went without underwear for a month and a half. They called me ‘raw squirrel’ every time I tried to do laundry: I had to wrap something around my waist and walk around for an hour.”) He also, on a whim from the federal building’s waiting room, texted his best friend, Becky, and asked her to come get an extra key to his bike lock. “My bike is worth $4,000—custom Italian track bike—and I was like, ‘If I’m gone, please take my bike.’ ”

And then he was gone. ICE picked him up with no explanation, after his appointment with the judge.

“I was kind of devastated,” remembers Yatika Starr Fields, an artist friend who painted a mural inside Greenpoint Bikes, about when he heard ICE took Pablo. “It was just sad. I know personally how he felt and what he was working on, and that his dreams were happening. He was on a roll right now—and this happens. He was doing good stuff and then he gets shat on.”

His Greenpoint friends got active quickly, circulating petitions around the neighborhood, orchestrating the Production Lounge benefit, and scribbling letters to the judge who’d be hearing his case. “I am sad for the community to have one less person who really cared and wasn’t too afraid or too lazy to show it,” wrote Christina Mattus in an open letter posted to the neighborhood blog New York Shitty.

“I live in Greenpoint, I work in Greenpoint, I write a blog that is primarily focused on Greenpoint—I’m in a position to judge,” says “Miss Heather” Letzkus, the human behind New York Shitty. “Pablo has proven to be civic-minded. He is an immensely popular person here. He has also managed to do this is in a very short period of time.”

Miss Heather was one of the 22 supporters (including Ziiggie) who showed up in court for Pablo’s first perfunctory hearing in custody, held at 201 Varick Street on November 29. Recounting the experience, she posts, “The judge presiding over Pablo’s case opined (while thumbing a rather thick stack of letters advocating that Mr. Airaldi be allowed to stay in our fair community/country) that he was happy that everyone who sent in letters did not show up. If I had to hazard to guess: 1) He was impressed! 2) 201 Varick Street, Room 1140 was probably host to more tattoos and piercings this morning than the previous 364 mornings combined!”

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