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Stories of survival on Buffalo's streets

A powerful story about a Buffalo debt collector published in The New Yorker magazine last October has drawn the interest of a television production company owned by actor Brad Pitt.

Buffalo native Jake Halpern wrote "Pay Up," which detailed the life of an ex-con and street savvy debt collector operating in the Bailey-Delavan neighborhood.

Halpern, who will speak on his career and writings at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Villa Maria College Student Center, 240 Pine Ridge Road in Cheektowaga, is the latest journalist to successfully mine Buffalo's street people for stories.

"I can't find these stories anywhere else, and I don't know why," admitted Halpern, 35. "Part of it is I have contacts in Buffalo, people I've gone to high school with. My friend Aaron Bartley is totally plugged in. He is always feeding me amazing ideas, but that doesn't explain the whole thing, because I have connections elsewhere. I lived in Boston for 10 years.

"Another component is that Buffalo is often overlooked," noted Halpern during a phone conversation from his home in New Haven, Conn. "The national press does not think of going to Buffalo, which I think is a really deeply interesting place. It has an amazing past as an industrial powerhouse with institutions from that era, and it is transforming into something else."

Another Buffalo story written by Halpern was published in June 2010 in the New York Times Magazine. "The Freegan Establishment" followed a group of dumpster-diving outcasts who squatted in a turn-of-the century mansion on the West Side. Halpern credits Bartley, executive director of PUSH Buffalo, for the idea. Halpern and Bartley have been friends since they met in the eighth grade at City Honors.

"Part of the beauty of Buffalo is its edgy character and originality of the people," said Bartley, whose extensive work rehabilitating West Side neighborhoods puts him in contact with many urban characters. "I connect Jake to people. He develops the ideas. He's got a great gift for narrative and detail and color."

Halpern has written two nonfiction books: "Braving Home" (Houghton Mifflin/2003) and "Fame Junkies" (Houghton Mifflin/2007). His fantasy trilogy "Dormia" was co-authored with Peter Kujawinski and published in 2009.

He also has written for the Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, GQ and Sports Illustrated, and contributed to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and "This American Life."

His latest radio project -- about a Buffalo man who faked his own death -- is planned for "This American Life."

"I almost wonder why I am living in Connecticut," he said. "In the last year, I must have made five trips back to Buffalo, which is a lot when you consider I have two little children."

Halpern was a senior at Yale University when he met Kasia Lipska, who had emigrated from Poland at age 14. The two were married in 2003 in northern Virginia, where her parents had settled.

"We met in an old-fashioned way -- at a dance -- and we danced a lot, in a room that must have had dim lighting," Halpern recalled. "Because when I asked her on a date and showed up on her doorstep, she said: 'I guess you are pretty cute so I will date you.' "

They have two children: Sebastian, 4, and Lucian, 2. Halpern is a fellow of Morse College at Yale University, where he occasionally teaches journalism. Lipska, who kept her maiden name, attends Yale School of Medicine.

Halpern spends weeks researching his subjects, some of whom are reluctant to be quoted for national publication. For the Freegan story, Halpern tracked a group of outcasts who rejected society.

"That story took a lot of explaining," Halpern said. "The New York Times is about as establishment as you can get. I gave them copies of a book I wrote on homes. I told them I was from Buffalo, and I'm very proud of that."

Halpern is working as a consultant on the HBO pilot project for "Pay Up." Short story writer Wells Tower has been hired to write the pilot episode. That process could take a year, according to Halpern, who compares it to the HBO series "The Wire," filmed in Baltimore.

"Like Baltimore, Buffalo is its own universe," Halpern said. "It has become a magnet for alternative artist types who can live here inexpensively. All of these factors bubble together and create this place in upheaval, where people are searching for identity and trying to make use of the great houses.

"Other cities don't have that. There's no one in Phoenix asking who they are."

e-mail: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com

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