This city spawns so many fine writers and poets that the names often pass in a blur, noticed chiefly by those they touch with their words and life. Steve Mantin, 62, who died this month of cancer, was one of those local treasures. A member of the Playwrights and Directors unit of Actors Studio, he filled his plays and short stories with those he encountered as a cab driver, a public school teacher, and during his thirty five years living in the heart of the Lower East Side in Masaryk Towers on Columbia Street.
That’s where Mantin and his wife, Kito, joyously raised their multi-cultural brood: Rik, Jamal, Jahan, and Janeen. His plays, including “Pals,” “Acts of Faith,” and “Skirmishes in the Drug War,” celebrated his changing neighborhood and depicted the often dashed dreams of the rascals and radicals he encountered. At the time of his death, he was working on “Around the Way,” a play about veteran downtown residents contemplating their suddenly trendy area.
Like an earlier generation of socialists who walked those same streets, radicalism deeply informed his life, although his own definition extended from Marx to Melville to Monk. Raised in Long Island, Mantin graduated Wesleyan University in 1969, after a year abroad in Paris where he witnessed and participated in the massive 1968 student and worker protests there. Back in New York in the 1970s, he was one of the hippest of the many hipsters who tried to make a living driving a yellow taxi out of the old Dover Garage on Hudson Street, the site that inspired a famous television series. He was a union shop steward there, as well as an ever-upbeat member of a creative caucus called Taxi Rank and File Coalition, which vied with the late taxi union boss, Harry Van Arsdale, while urging fellow drivers to consider their potential roles in making a better world.
He later entered a much tougher line of work, as a teacher of special education at a Lower East Side school. He brought a big smile and an even bigger heart to his job where he excelled at calming and encouraging school kids written off as too tough to teach. After work, he was a passionate regular on the basketball courts south of Houston Street where his six-foot-plus frame helped his jump shot and where he was often one of the few whites on the court. His playwright’s ear was always tuned in, and the dancing language and humor that he picked up during and between games shaped many of his plays, including a one-act little gem called “Don’t Nobody Love the Game More Than Me.” “It was the most lyrical trash talk you ever heard,” said his friend, director Martha Pinson. In 2002, Pinson and Mantin made the play into a tight, nine-minute film short that could be the anthem for the hoop dreams of all city ballplayers, the talented along with the hopeless.
On September 19, a couple hundred family, friends and neighbors packed the old synagogue on Norfolk Street, now known as Angel Orensanz, to celebrate his memory. They sang, danced and reminisced. But mostly they talked about this rare bird from the Lower East Side who never stopped grinning and never griped, not about the wider recognition that escaped him, nor the tough hand he was dealt.