'The Wackiest Eviction of All Time': The Last Days of Manhattan's Troll Museum
This week, Lower East Side artist Reverend Jen Miller was kicked out of the rent-controlled apartment where she has lived and exhibited a beloved collection of troll dolls for years. We were with Reverend Jen as she and her friends packed up and said...
All photos by Leah James
Reverend Jen Miller, an artist and author best known for overseeing two Lower East Side institutions—a monthly open mic called the Anti-Slam and a resplendent troll museum that exhibits from her living room—has been homeless for five days. When I meet her in her former six-floor walkup on Orchard Street, she is sitting in the kitchen on a baroque, velvet pink couch with jaundiced stuffing tumbling out of one side.
The couch, a gift from a porn director, is exactly where she sat nearly a week before, freshly showered and clad in just a towel, when the city marshal notified her that she was being evicted from her residence of 21 years. Her best friend, an Anti-Slam performer who goes by the stage name CCJohn and who was convalescing at Miller's following back surgery, captured the altercation on video; in it, the marshal admits to telling Miller moments earlier that he wishes he had a gun to deal with her.
On this murky day in June, Miller has been permitted six hours to return to the premises and collect her belongings. "Welcome to the wackiest eviction of all time," she tells a female friend, who has begun packing toiletries. "How are you doing?" the friend asks. "Terrible," a very tired Miller replies.
Although Miller contends that she is being illegally evicted from her rent-controlled two-bedroom apartment at 122 Orchard (she co-signed the lease with her father, who died in 2009), her landlord, Misrahi Realty Corp, says otherwise.
"Miss Miller was evicted because she hasn't paid rent for a year," Misrahi's chief finacial officer, Rohit Samai, tells Broadly at the company's Rivington Street office. "She owes like $19,000 and change in rent. It actually took us a year to get her evicted. An entire year. So that's all we can tell you. I mean, the court has all the records of this. The court notified her [saying], if you make your payment, on this date you will be evicted."
Though Miller admits that she hasn't paid her $1590 monthly rent since approximately July 2015, she still says that she's never been served eviction papers. "They gave me no warning," she says, before giving the city marshal clearance to enter her home. According to Miller, she only received paperwork ordering her to appear in court on July 20, 2016.
"Of course I was behind on my fucking rent—my life went to shit this past year," she says, citing her boyfriend Joe's Stage 3 brain cancer diagnosis, her hospitalization for anaphylactic poisoning (caused by an antibiotic), a brief second hospitalization after she was wrongly labeled a suicide risk, losing her job as a sex surrogate, her roommate's defection to a cult last month, and various alleged harassments tactics employed by Misrahi (which she claims date back to the 90s). "But I'm someone who paid the rent on time for 20 years." She pauses to pick an orange wedge up off the kitchen floor. "Someone [from the management company]'s definitely been in here, since I don't eat fruit," she says. "It's too expensive."
As the packing commences, Miller, who is 43, seems shell-shocked, barely able to rise from the couch. "I've sort of given up," she says, wearing CCJohn's forest green Dartmouth sweatpants, a navy-and-white striped boat-neck shirt with gold buttons on one shoulder, a gold necklace, and salmon flip-flops that match her chipped manicure and pedicure. Her brown hair is tied in a ponytail with a red elastic, revealing the words "Art Star"—her affectionate term for her open mic attendees—tattooed in dark blue under her right ear. She vapes, occasionally drinking from a can of Budweiser and taking bites of the hot turkey sandwich CCJohn delivered hours earlier.
According to her 2011 memoir, Elf Girl—a graduate of Manhattan's School of Visual Arts, Miller once worked as a Christmas elf at Bloomingdale's—she began amassing the jeweled-belly-buttoned dolls in 1982. While stoned one night, she conceptualized the troll museum, which opened in September 2000 by appointment only, with free admission (and donations encouraged). Why trolls? "Fuck if I know," Miller says. "I started it because I lived across from the Tenement Museum, where I ended up working at [part-time] for 12 years, and I was like, 'Dude, they show people a tenement like the one I live in like everyday.'" Publications from The New York Times to the Smithsonian's website—as well as television networks in Spain and Japan—have spotlighted Miller's collection, which many say is a relic of New York's more eclectic, less gentrified past.
Miller's friends stuff white garbage bags with colorful canvases and the 400-plus trolls that comprise her collection. One woman, an ambulance driver, leaves to rent a van; although Miller has not secured a storage unit, her friend Victor's boss said she was willing to temporarily house Miller's wardrobe in her home's temperature-controlled basement. Singer Kimya Dawson of The Moldy Peaches helped by tweeting, "The Troll Museum & @reverendjen are being evicted TODAY!!! She needs help!!! Boxes/muscle/visibility/love/vehicles." Currently, Miller is crashing at a friend's apartment in Prospect Heights with her cat and beloved Chihuahua, Reverend Jen Junior. A former Tenement Museum colleague has been loaning her clothes.
Several of Miller's fellow Art Stars arrive with food offerings, as if there's been a death: chocolate 7-Eleven donuts, sodas, water, a jar of chunky salsa. The edibles clutter her small round kitchen table, which is covered in thick slabs of dried paint. The kitchen floor is a mosaic of different black-and-white checkered patterns. A pair of off-white hand weights lolls from under the couch. In front of the stove, there's a fuzzy, cream-colored cat-climbing structure that's six feet tall. Atop the shelf above her stove, a black sign modeled after the MGM logo advertises the fictional "ASS Studios," Miller's acronym for "Art Star Scene." (In Elf Girl, she describes the scene as "full of people who desperately need therapy but can't afford it.")
Nine tall candles are clustered on the kitchen windowsill, next to a head scratcher balancing precariously on the figurine of a lemur family. Instead of a pantry, a door in the kitchen opens to reveal Miller's bathtub—her commode is off the tenement's living room, and she must brush her teeth in the kitchen sink. Above the sink is a pair of purple cabinets adorned with a two tiny rainbows. Tacked to the bathtub door is a box containing an "Inflatable Unicorn Horn for Cats." On a red canvas over the couch, "I'm really stoned right now" is spelled out in white hand-painted letters. Reminiscent of a religious panel painting, there's a vertical piece called "The Creation of Elves" kneeling in a corner. Christmas lights are strung along two walls. A fake cleaver, which Miller calls her machete, hangs alongside the kitchen doorway. A prehistoric-looking purple pendant inches above a pink entryway reads, "The enchanted forest. 15 miles west of Baltimore," where she was born. A poster of a kitten peeking out from under a sheet of newsprint is appropriately captioned, "Leave me alone! I'm having a crisis."
Panting from the trip down six flights of stairs to the van and back, Victor asks, "Could everyone grab something and we'll make a chain?" "I've been going up those 72 steps everyday, several times a day, for 21 years," Miller says. "I want out of this fucking apartment, but I don't want to be thrown out right away." Miller first began considering a move in 1997, when a fire erupted on the building's fourth floor; she couldn't afford to relocate. Then, in 2010, a steam pipe exploded in the building, causing Miller an estimated $15,000 in property damage.
A few hours into the move, however, Miller's tone begins to change. "I'm not fucking leaving," she says. "They can arrest me—I don't give a shit." On the hallway steps, a man in a backwards teal Yankees cap from Brownstone Management Services is waiting to lock up the apartment at exactly 4 PM. But he's sympathetic to Miller's plight—at 4:03, as her friends are scrambling to save her artwork, the man begins removing pictures from the walls of the toilet room. Later, after Miller peacefully leaves her old place, she will offer to buy him a beer across the street at Lucky Jack's. (He declines.) "There's a lot of things inside this apartment, huh?" he asks. "Yes, many years—a whole lifetime," responds a spectacled woman who's brought her camera to document the dismantling.
Once the living room walls have been stripped of their trolls—which, despite the overall liveliness of the décor, once dominated aesthetically—Miller's friends take in the space. The troll exhibition backdrop is replete with waves and flames in brown, orange, and red. The adjacent wall is Flintstone-esque, resembling both a stacked quarry and a looming arrangement of rudimentary flowers or semi-sophisticated omelets. Every surface is covered in paint, including the ceiling (rough orange brushstrokes) and the underside of shelves (in waiting-room-blue). Wood beads part to reveal the kitchen, and the entryway is also festooned with tinsel and Hawaiian flowers. A cheerleading troll hoists her pompoms from the front of a folder stapled lopsided to the wall, partially obscured by a yellow "GIULIANI is a JERK" sticker. Ascending a blue stepstool, one of Miller's friends removes a remaining pair of troll dolls from the light sockets of a small chandelier.
Miller has washed and dried her hair, applied makeup, and changed into a long-sleeved, knee-length dress with orange, red, black, hot pink, and gold swirls and flowers. Her twangy voice elevates above the din, making kooky, good-humored quips: "My Dark Crystal lunchbox is fucking important," "Q-Tips are awesome," "My mother went into labor with me in an amusement park."
For her final descent down the six flights of stairs, she's donned black ankle boots. Earlier this afternoon, Miller's goddaughter, Dylan, facilitated a call with Norman Siegel, former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. CCJohn also called the NYPD's seventh precinct to see if there was anything they could do—he was advised to call an ambulance to have Miller evaluated if she had psychiatric or health problems, an offer she dismisses. Instead, she encourages her friends to cull through her eclectic assemblage of books—multiple Hunter S. Thompson volumes, William Blake, Dr. Seuss, Cher's autobiography, a 1976 paperback called The Truth About Fonzie by Peggy Herz; in addition to Elf Girl, she's also written Reverend Jen's Really Cool Neighborhood and Live Nude Elf: The Sexperiments of Reverend Jen—and accepts a second $200 payment from her friend George, who purchases a painting of a large butterfly surrounded by troll animals, which bears a faintly Lord of the Rings aesthetic.
"Alright people, let's get the hell out of this she-bang," she chides at 4:22 PM. A few minutes later, they huddle on the stairway beneath a disco ball (that may have suddenly teleported there through space and time) for an Art Stars group photo. "Let's make the Lower East Side great again!" they exclaim as a reporter ignites his flash. The scene brings to mind one of the concluding passages from Elf Girl:
The city will give you surprises, patience, and arrogance. It will give you the best and worst sex, the best and the worst friends, and the best and the worst stories of your life. And it will actually give you a life if you don't already have one. In return, it will ask only for everything that you have.