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What one person can do

The "glue" of a Greenwich Village neighborhood inspires an Oscar-nominated documentary.

©Associated Press
March 7, 2003

NEW YORK -- For Larry Selman, life has always been a struggle. Battling mental disability and diabetes, he lived on the edge of poverty in a tiny Greenwich Village apartment.

Yet the 60-year-old has collected hundreds of thousands of dollars for others in need, while making legions of friends in his Manhattan neighborhood.

On Oscar night, Selman will be sitting in the audience as the subject of The Collector of Bedford Street, a film nominated in the best documentary short category.

"He's the glue of our community," says filmmaker Alice Elliott, who lives across from Selman. "If you want to know what's going on with anybody in the neighborhood, you call Larry. He talks to everybody, he knows where they are, what they're doing, what they think."

While raising money for others -- $300,000 for various causes -- Selman has never asked for himself.

He was barely surviving until about five years ago, with only $10 to his name after covering rent and other necessities with his $639 monthly disability check. Then the 150-member neighborhood block association took action, setting up a $30,000 trust fund that brought many area residents together for the first time.

Elliott recorded their efforts in her 34-minute film.

"By helping Larry, we are building our community," Elliott says. "Larry is a mirror to what we should be, and what we should be doing."

The Collector of Bedford Street is vying for an Academy Award with three other films: Mighty Times: The Legacy of Rosa Parks; Twin Towers; and Why Can't We Be a Family Again?

"Cross your fingers!" says Selman, who got fitted for his first tuxedo last week for the March 23 awards show.

It's a long way from Brooklyn, where Selman attended school and worked summers cleaning parks. He lived at home until his mother died when he was 26; his father had died earlier.

"I had a nervous breakdown because, suddenly, I was alone," Selman says.

He lived with his uncle for several years, then found the Greenwich Village apartment, quickly befriending neighbors by talking to anyone and everyone on Bedford Street. Selman has lived there for more than 30 years.

The walls of his small home are a testament to his congeniality. They are lined with cards from friends, including one describing him as "the one who brings us the gifts."

Selman was a teenager when he first began raising money, collecting for the Police Athletic League.

His disability never stopped him. With a friendly "Hi, Mister!" Selman still cajoles strangers into giving.

Patients with muscular dystrophy and children with AIDS are beneficiaries of his work. But he has never asked for himself -- even after his uncle could no longer visit to help him cook, clean and pay bills.

The trust fund set up by his neighbors was collected over three years and is administered by the United Jewish Appeal Federation of New York. About a quarter of the money came from a matching grant Elliott received from a private foundation, which also allowed her to partly finance the documentary.

State disability money pays for Selman's home attendant, and the trust fund covers needs such as new bedsheets, an air conditioner and the care of his three pets -- a dog named Penny and two cats, Lucky and Happy.

Neighbors also arranged for Selman to attend a dance, where among the mentally disabled guests, he met a woman he now dates.

He's aware of his handicap -- especially while taking an IQ test to qualify for state aid as a developmentally disabled person. He scored a 62.

"I know that I'm retarded, and I have to accept it," he says. "But when I'm alone sometimes, I think, "Why was I born retarded? Why couldn't I have been a professional? Why can't I have a family?' "

Elliott points out that Selman's mind is sharp enough to remember a long list of friends' birthdays, including that of a woman who left the neighborhood 20 years ago for California. She has invited Selman to her home when he's there for the Oscars.

Elliott says she made the film "because I wanted people to know that one person can make a difference. And that it's not the size of your IQ that matters, but the size of your heart."

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