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Our cover story this week is about the thousands of people arrested in New York City in recent years for possession of common folding knives.
Constructions workers, plumbers, coffee shop workers — even a bible camp counselor — have all been caught up in what many critics say is a distortion of a law first passed in 1956.
For a lot of people, a knife is a tool they use at work. But some people elevate knives to more than just a workaday thing. There’s a whole community of people for whom knives are a preoccupation bordering on obsession; they collect them, swap them, even make them in their basements. They are, for lack of a better term, knife nerds.
On a cool night in early March of this year, I travelled out to meet some of these guys — and “guys” is a term I use advisedly — at a meeting of one of New York City’s knife clubs.
The group has been around for decades, a loose group of friends and hobbyists and even some professional knife craftsmen. Once a month, they gather to shoot the shit, maybe drink a beer or two, and, almost as a secondary goal, trade and display their collections.
They’ve been meeting in the same place for years; a ramshackle VFW hall in one of the outer boroughs, with peeling paint and vomit-brown carpet that’s unraveling in ragged braids.
When I arrived, the place smelled like dust and the ghosts of a thousand spaghetti fundraisers, and about 20 people were milling around — mostly middle aged and white, mostly portly and exclusively male.
On about a dozen card tables, arranged around the perimeter of the room, knives were laid out on display, a ridiculous variety of them. There were “dressing” knives with buffalo horn handles designed for skinning game and sleek modern folders. There were ornate display knives and antique, multi-tool, Swiss Army-style jobs. There were knives designed for particular professions — electrician knives, for example, have a short stubby blade on one side and a screwdriver on the other.
Like any other serious collector, the men here are always on the lookout for that rare specimen. But to the uninitiated, it’s sometimes hard to tell what the fuss is all about. A worn-out looking old penknife might be sought after because it was made by some long-defunct manufacturer. Others might be attractive because of an unusual blade shape — drop point, clip point, tanto — or some innovative locking mechanism. A knife with a 60s-era Boy Scout logo might catch somebody’s eye.
There was a lot of banter and haggling and cooing over the new designs. Later in the night there was a raffle. All in all, the vibe wasn’t much different than a coin collecting convention.
The men in the room were part of what they un-ironically call the knife community, which is indeed a thing. Nationally, knife nerds have their own magazines, like Blade, which offers up product reviews and profiles of leading knife designers, some of whom are talked about in reverent terms.
While there were no obviously illegal knives on display that night, the group is well aware of the NYPD’s extremely strict interpretation of New York’s knife laws. In fact, perhaps no one outside of the legal profession has followed New York’s knife laws as closely as guys like this. And they are wary.
All of them have their own stories about friends being arrested, and can rattle off the enforcement actions they find particularly egregious. It took a promise not to disclose the club’s address to avoid being asked, very politely and apologetically, to leave the premises.
“A lot of us have been coming here for years,” a burly member with a thick white beard explained, “actually decades. For some of these guys it’s all they have. And we’ve been burned by reporters before.”
“Bob”, who agreed to speak if his name was changed, has been coming to club meetings for more than 20 years. With a checkered button-down tucked into his jeans and a neatly clipped goatee, he has an unguarded, boyish enthusiasm about the subject. A semi retired autobody mechanic, Bob made the leap from knife collector to knife maker, or “cutler,” a few years ago. He says his basement workshop is awash in grinding stones and blanks — unsharpened blades that he sculpts and embellishes into what collectors like him regard as works of art.
His wife tolerates the hobby. “She buys me a knife every year for my birthday,” he says with a grin. He estimates that he has several hundred knives at home.
The club is mostly a social gathering, Bob says, a chance to get out of the house and geek out over the latest models. Tonight he’s showing off an $800 custom folding knife of his own design, with an intricate blue pattern acid-etched onto the blade. Functionally it’s no different that what you find in a store at a fraction of the price, but aesthetically it’s something else, and the materials are about as high quality as it gets. He notes that because of a loose hinge, the knife he’s holding could now get him arrested.
No one in the room is eager to bash the cops. At least a few of the guys are ex-law enforcement themselves, I’m told, though no one volunteers to identify themselves as such. They don’t like the idea that people are being locked up for carrying pocketknives, and they think the department’s approach belies a poor understanding of what a knife is really for. But they’re also pretty old-school guys, politically conservative, supporters of law and order. They like aggressive policing. 9-11 is mentioned more than once.
Still, the city’s crackdown has caused headaches.
Bob recently tried to buy a kitchen knife online and found his order denied, he says, incredulously. After Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. raided retailers like Home Depot and Eastern Mountain Sports in 2010 for selling allegedly illegal knives, lots of knife sellers got squirrelly about shipping to New York State. Bob says he’s mindful to always keep his knife inside his pocket, with no clip exposed, since that’s how so many arrests happen.
The whole thing is a little silly, as far as he’s concerned.
“I’ve owned pocketknives since I was a kid in Boy Scouts,” he says. “And I used one every day at work for thirty years.” He shrugs, like it’s not that hard to understand.
“I just like knives.”