In January 2009, I spent a week playing poker tournaments at the Beau Rivage Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi. There was a conspicuous character dominating the events. A tall dude rocking colorful tracksuit tops with shiny sneakers and fitted ball caps—the guy had on fresh matching colorful gear every day. He was strutting around during the breaks. He contrasted so sharply with the opposition that it felt like he was foreground and the Gulf Coast locals were out of focus in the background.
In addition to some other deep runs, this dude made the final table of a $1,000 event that week. When the final table participants were introduced over the PA system, on his turn, the tournament director said “from Queens, New York, this gentleman is a world famous graffiti vandal.” LOL, wat? I observed some of the final table, and the guy played cards with a distinctive flair—his chips were flipped into the center of the table with a joie de vivre, as if each bet gave him a special opportunity to announce his presence. I liked this guy. It was Jeffrey Vanchiro.
Fortuitously, Jeffrey and I had friends in common on the tournament circuit. Maybe a month or two later, he was present during a group dinner and I drove him back to our hotel. I can’t recall if we were in Atlantic City, Connecticut or Las Vegas. I do recall the conversation vividly. This was a passionate person. A very passionate, very New York person. We were kin that way. His manner of speaking was wholly engaging. I felt myself consuming his energy, engrossed, connected. I was smitten.
This was early 2009. I had been traveling the circuit alone, by choice, for three years. The poker circuit gave me freedom but I also found it to be a lonely and alienating environment. My conversation with Jeffrey was an unexpected breath of fresh air. I needed a companion. . . I needed more of this guy! We talked about our shared love of poker; how we got into the game. Jeff said he came up dealing in a NYC card room, and before that he was at Riker’s Island after being convicted on graffiti charges (!!!)
Having worked as a criminal defense attorney in New York City, I knew that Jeffrey had probably just told a lie. You have to be a very persistent, notorious graffiti writer to end up serving a sentence. I’d never heard of such a thing. I went up to my hotel room and did obsessive amounts of internet research on my new mancrush. I discovered that Jeffrey Vanchiro was KORN, a legendary New York graffiti writer. My due diligence turned up tons of pictures of his artwork, fawning testimonials and a video in which Jeffrey trolled Fox 5 News with a blue plastic plate covering his face (I was duped too). Jeffrey was not bullshitting. He was not quite the Babe Ruth of NYC graffiti, but maybe the Stan Musial—if baseball was illegal and Stan The Man gave no fucks about risking life and limb to play ball. The full extent of the KORN legend was revealed to me months later, when Jeffrey and I were in a Duane Reade. Jeffrey was on line to buy a drink. A random teenager he’d never met cold stopped him and started raving and genuflecting. Jeffrey gave him a dap and a fatherly talking-to about things utterly foreign to me. I’m talking out of school when it comes to Jeffrey as KORN. There are already so many memorials completed, with more to come—it’s a testament to his impact on a large urban subculture.
Jeffrey and I grew up fifteen miles but worlds apart, the Queens/Nassau County border dividing us culturally. We still had a lot in common (both my parents are born and bred in Queens), and it turned out that Jeffrey liked me. My desired bromance became a reality. Jeffrey was my roommate and constant companion on poker tour for three years.
He was a true friend. We shared a mutual respect and admiration. He respected my opinions and I did his. We sought out and took advice from one another. We had actual conversations every day—we didn’t just sit there rehashing poker hands. We were true confidantes. We told each other things about each other that no one else knew. I am not ashamed to admit that I felt a sense of pride when Jeffrey would say something complimentary about me.
Rooming with him was the best. I came to love his idiosyncrasies. Jeffrey was more than fashion conscious, his clothing was an absolute point of emphasis. This was a man who wore OUTFITS—thoughtfully devised OUTFITS—every day. I enjoyed the fastidious arrangement of his beloved sneakers and fitted ball caps around the room, his consumption of (literally) gallons of water each day, his one-legged bunny hop to the bathroom when he had to take a leak in the middle of the night. Social outings were much better with him than without. He had a marvelous sense of the moment, a lyrical way of talking, and brought a true embodiment of the carpe diem mentality to my world. He often saw things differently than me, but he invited me to join him on his perch. Jeffrey wasn’t just offbeat. This man was a snare rip in an otherwise vacant stanza. Anyone who spent time with Jeffrey has Jeffrey stories. I have stories on stories on stories. I remember new ones every day.
Jeffrey could have been practically anything he wanted to be. He was not just a brilliant artist; he was straight-up brilliant. He DID things all the way, never halfway. When he set out to overcome his disability, he overcame it to such an extent that no one had any idea he was working with 1.5 legs. When he decided to become a NYC graffiti writer, he became one of the greats of the game. When he decided to learn poker, he became one of the better players in New York City. When he decided to get into better shape, he went so hard that his body was practically transformed. And when he decided to become a Brooklyn Nets season ticket holder, he ended up becoming the face of the franchise. I’m convinced that he was on his way to mainstream celebrity. I am also proud to say that his “Nets Neon Guy” persona would probably never have happened had we never met. . . I unwittingly lit the fuse that exploded into that entire thing. Believe it or not, Jeffrey did not like to dance when we met. Another one of my Jeffrey Vanchiro stories.
The memorials and tributes to his Nets persona also are flowing in as I write this; most of the mainstream media articles have been thoughtful and warm. I cannot provide better accounts. I can say this: Jeffrey LOVED the NBA. He would obsess over certain individual players. When we first met it was Brandon Jennings. Then he had his “Ricky Rubio is the truth” phase. I’ll never forget the time he insisted that we watch an entire Timberwolves game in our hotel room. I don’t recall the opponent. Rubio was quite bad that night; he shot about 2 for 12 from the field with a handful of turnovers. Jeffrey was undeterred. “Z, you see how he handles it? He has flair, but he’s efficient. It’s efficient flair, bro. . . Ooooh, who makes a skip pass there? Who does that? Ricky Rubio, that’s who!”
Jeffrey and I quit the poker tour around the same time, in 2012. I retreated to the comfort and stability of my old job. Jeffrey, of course, was onto his next new thing. In the fall of that year, the brand new Brooklyn Nets invited their committed season ticket holders to their brand new arena. No game was scheduled, the attendees had the mere privilege of a first look at Barclays Center. I was part of the group Jeffrey invited along with him. He strutted into the building and immediately began glad-handing the ticket-takers, ushers, the security people, concessionaires, other fans. . . everyone—like he was Borough President or something. “Hi, I’m Jeffrey Gamblero!” he said with each dap/handshake/high five. I was mildly embarrassed and asked him, politely, what in the hell he was doing. “Z, I’m going to run this place. This is gonna be Gamblero’s house.” Like I said, Jeffrey did things.
He’s gone now. Just like that. The shock is only now wearing off. Now it’s a prolonged devastation, gutting. I attended and enjoyed the Nets memorial, but something about it felt really somber for me. People should realize that “Jeffrey Gamblero” was a kind of performance art. Jeffrey Vanchiro, the son, the devoted fiancé, the adoring big brother and father, the fantastic friend—that person is also gone. I just wanted to write something in recognition of that Jeffrey: a kind, sensitive, loving soul.
I can’t believe that I won’t bear witness to what comes next. There’s no doubt that it would have been awesome to behold. R.I.P. Jeffrey Vanchiro. I will miss you, brother.