February 2012
Elizabeth Greenwood

The Invisibility Artist

Frank Ahearn Can Help You Disappear

Discussed: The Particular Funk of a Roller Rink, A Hells Angel–ish Aspect, Multipurpose Expletives, The Essence of an American Story, Liars for Hire, Calling Britney Spears, The Wisdom of Hiring Single Moms, Downsides to Cracking Scrips, The Famous Manhattan Coffee Shortage, A Measured Look at Empire, Hot-Dog Fortunes, Princess Di, The Siren Call of the Infinite

In Manhattan's Garment District, the fumes of idling trucks and deliverymen's cigarettes smudge the edges of everything. The sidewalk reflection in the plateglass window blends into strips of sequins, boxes of Rit, feathers, and cloth swatches on the other side. Here you could design a disguise; here you could be anyone.

A brown skuzzy lobby that smells like a roller rink shares an address with a fabric wholesaler, and upstairs there is a honeycomb of offices belonging to a drag-queen costumer, a modeling agency, a fashion PR company, and Frank Ahearn, a forty-nine-year-old man who helps people disappear. Ahearn resembles a Hells Angel. Faded tattoos spot his thick forearms, and he keeps his long gray hair in a ponytail. The word freedom is tattooed across his broad shoulders, and, with little provocation, he will remove his shirt to flaunt it in TV interviews. In person, he is much more relaxed than in our paranoid exchanges (he blew off interview requests for six months because he thought I was going to serve him papers) and warmer than he looks in the menacing author photo on his book How to Disappear, in which he is lit from the side like an aged Marlon Brando in tinted glasses. Ahearn's book is a how-to for people who want to "vanish without a trace," and it bills him as "the world's top expert" on the subject. Despite the book's large print and Ahearn's liberal deployment of the word fuck as noun, adjective, and verb, he has written an exhaustive guide to disappearing in the twenty-first century, and it sells over 150 copies per week online. Disappearing is on the minds of many.

Talk is Ahearn's gift, and he talks big and fast, in a squeaky voice that belies his hulking size. He is an aesthete in the art of high bullshit. Not the kind of bullshit that is necessarily lying, but the kind involved in knowing how to seduce anyone, anywhere. He endears himself to you by telling a million stories—from growing up on the city's mean streets to scoring criminal records from a pay phone—and by inserting your name into one of the million hypothetical scenarios he constructs to illustrate his dark work. Ahearn's speech is prone to Bronx inflection, and he begins many sentences with the phrase It's fahked up becowse... He uses profanity in a way that borders on Zen poetry: "Some days, life is a shitty piece of shit." And even though he doesn't believe in politicians' platitudes ("I think the government blows, in plain English. They're a bunch of lying mothafahkas"), his is an American story elevated to mythology, replete with up-by-your-bootstraps redemption, self-made entrepreneurship, and protection of individual privacy. And a little bit of bullshit.

He refined this art over the course of his fifteen-year stint as a skip tracer. A skip tracer, in Ahearn's words, is "a liar for hire." Skip tracers locate people and uncover their most private information. The difference between a private investigator and a skip tracer is that a PI must be licensed. When a PI can't find someone legally, he will subcontract a skip tracer like Frank. Ahearn has tracked down deadbeat dads and subpoenaed witnesses, and accessed the checking accounts of financiers suspected of embezzling money. He worked with tabloids targeting celebrities. One of his main clients was a U.K. tabloid that used Ahearn to locate famous people, and in 1998 it sent him the unknown name Monica Lewinsky. "I had no idea who she was," he said. He called her home, saying he was from UPS with a water-damaged package for Ms. Lewinsky, and that it would be sent back if the address couldn't be verified. The housekeeper who answered the phone told him to just leave it on the doorstep. Ahearn broke the story. "My client told me to watch the news that night, and when I did I discovered who she was." As a practical joke, he would page his friends with celebrities' phone numbers, having them unwittingly call Britney Spears or Nick Nolte.

Ahearn has obtained criminal, phone, and banking records, and even scored intelligence from the FBI and Scotland Yard. "All a skip tracer needs is charm and a telephone," he said. Ahearn could access any record by posing as someone else and providing false pretenses (like posing as the UPS man), a routine he dubbed "pretexting." If a client wanted the phone records of a cheating spouse, for example, Ahearn would simply call the company and say, "How ya doin'? This is so-and-so, and I just want to make sure I'm on the best calling plan."

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Elizabeth Greenwood is a writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in the online editions of the Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker. She teaches essay writing at Columbia University. Visit her at elizabethgreenwood.wordpress.com.

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