Richard Grayson

 

Conselyea Street

“Man, he wants you for that apartment,” Lance is telling me as we’re driving on the Prospect Expressway on the way to a job out in Midwood, to some Russian Jew’s mini-mansion on Ocean Avenue. You can’t believe they way they’ve taken these old houses and renovated them, adding on whole wings and rooms that were never meant to be on such small pieces of property. But that’s New York in the twenty-first century, where every conversation seems to begin and end with real estate. I guess it was that way in the Eighties and Nineties, too, but back when my great-grandfather brought the brownstone on Conselyea Street, there was no such thing as real estate, just homes for families to live in. And that’s what we did.

My great-grandfather died before I was born, but when I was growing up, my great-grandmother had the apartment on the top floor, my grandparents had the one on the third floor, and Mom and Dad and Ralph and I were on the lower two floors. It was a tight fit, but the house was ours. It’s still ours—mine. Ralph got the beach house in Greenport, which was fine with both of us, because his wife loves her beach, and when Mom and Dad were alive, Marilyn got used to having her summer rental without paying Hamptons prices. So I got Brooklyn. Probably the brownstone (I still don’t like to call it “my house”) is worth more on the open market than the Greenport house, but Ralph doesn’t say a word. He’s a real estate lawyer, and Marilyn’s a lawyer, too, and though they’re in the middle of putting the kids through college, they’re only paying SUNY tuition. Their oldest, my niece Nikki, is graduating Binghamton this spring with a useless major in English and when she comes back to the city, they’ll have to support her for a while. Still, Ralph and Marilyn have enough for their timeshare in St. Maarten and the boat and God knows what else.

I keep my eyes on the road and my hands on the truck’s steering wheel and my mouth closed, so Lance says again, “He’s only after your apartment.” Lance’s 24, straight, engaged to be married, and he gets away with murder with our boss. His boss, actually. My relationship with the Tri-State Gating Company is that I’m an independent contractor. Everything I earn is under the name of the Williamsburg Lumber Company, which Grandpa Mazzeo started, and which long ago became nothing more than a shell corporation with Ralph and me as the only officers and shareholders.

I’ll never forget the day Ralph called from Atlanta and said, “I’ve seen the future, and it’s this place called Home Depot.” Family lumber businesses were dead, but we were sitting on valuable land—real estate—and eventually we sold out for a couple of million. Most of my share – it’s a lot, lot less when taxes are taken out – I lost by stupidly letting the financial planner from Smith Barney Salomon invest in things I had no business investing in, but who didn’t come home and watch CNBC every day when the market bubble was at its peak? I got a hungry young lawyer, and she sued the brokerage house—with the judge I played up the dumb blue-collar angle pretty good—and we got a decent settlement, but it was probably a tenth of what I’d once had. Easy come, easy go, I guess. I should have just bought a condo in Florida and a house on Long Island; I’d have a lot more money now because real estate is only going up.

So I have to work for the foreseeable future. We kept the lumber company as a convenient way for me to bill the gating company. All these mini-mansions and estates have to have gates, of course, and the electronic systems are now so complex and delicate that when we’re not installing them, we’re troubleshooting when they don’t open, don’t close, don’t go up, don’t go down. Lance and I spend the greater part of our day stuck in traffic actually, switching the AM dial from to NewsRadio 88 to 1010 WINS every few minutes to hear how horrendous the tie-up on the LIE is going to be or what’s the least worst crossing to Jersey. We’ve done everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Howard Stern to that bitch Martha Stewart. The jobs mean money—but for me, it’s not a good thing. I’d rather be doing anything but working, but what else am I going to do? Sit around all day and read true crime stories?

We’re on Ocean Parkway now. If you time the lights right, you can make all of them to almost Quentin Road, but otherwise you’re screwed and have to stop at just about every cross street. Lance, of course, was one of those little kids who was maniacally patient with his magnifying glass when he was torturing ants, and not hearing me say anything in reply to his two previous questions—because I didn’t say anything—now says, “Doesn’t it bother you?”

I shake my head no. “Sometimes you don’t time the lights right,” I tell him. “It’s just a matter of luck.”

“I was talking about Neo,” Lance says, exasperated. As if I didn’t say what I said to piss Lance off in the first place.

Of course it’s my own damn fault for telling that moron Lance anything about my private life. But I get lulled by the fact that he feels he has to tell me every detail about his big fat straight life, from the problems with his fiancee’s family to stuff about their sex life that no normal gay guy wants to hear about. Lance talks way more than any two gay men I know. And he loves to gossip. And to go shopping. His fiancée has him talking about things you see in those home and design magazines my sister-in-law devours. Man, the Fab Four wouldn’t change a thing about Lance.

After Lance met Neo that one afternoon I got stupid in that bar in the East Village, Neo asked me if it ever bothered me, spending the whole workday riding around and working on gates with “such an attractive guy.”

“Lance is an asshole,” I said. “And he’s about a zero-point-one on the attractiveness scale.”

“He’s young,” Neo said. “And blond.”

“I’ve never liked blonds,” I told Neo. “Not like you.” I think Asian guys must have a thing for blonds since they’ve all got this jet-black hair.

Neo is an artist—performance and visual and I guess conceptual—who’s subletting a loft about ten blocks from Conselyea Street, in the part of Williamsburg where the yuppies are starting to encroach on the artists. And even worse than the single yuppies, families are starting to move into the neighborhood. Young couples who should be moving from Manhattan to places like Scarsdale are walking their strollers down Bedford Avenue. Rents just keep skyrocketing, despite the recession, and guys like Naotaka are screwed.

Yeah, Neo is from Japan originally, although his English is great, probably better than mine. At first when he told me to call him Neo I thought he thought I was too stupid to pronounce Naotaka, but it turns out he saw The Matrix like a zillion times and fell in love with it. The first one, at least, was a decent movie—the fight scenes were great—but you’d think an artist would like something a little more intellectual. He likes Keanu Reeves, who is okay, but I’m more interested in Laurence Fishburne.

I met Neo on AOL. I don’t really go to bars. I don’t drink anymore and that part of my life is over. Thinking about what I did in the Seventies and Eighties gets me tired. But then, one thing I didn’t do in the Eighties was die. I went to a lot of memorial services, though, but that shit is mostly over. Anyway, I need to get to bed early. I wake up like 5:30 a.m., no matter what time I’ve dropped off to sleep. I get up and think about all the people that used to live in the brownstone with me—I’ve never really lived anywhere else, since I took over the top floor when I was in my twenties and my great-grandmother was dead.

It’s just me on the bottom two floors now, and Marilyn’s friend Tina, the schoolteacher in the third floor apartment, and the top floor currently vacant since I finally kicked out Drew. He was living mostly in L.A. anyway since that Comedy Channel series of his took off, and of course he was paying me a fraction of what the apartment was worth since Mom and Dad couldn’t bear to charge market rents. What did Drew care? He was happy to mail me a check for $600 every month and use it when he’d fly into New York to take meetings or check out the comedy clubs.

Anyway, Neo: I’m not in love with him or anything stupid, but we’re more than just fuck buddies, I guess. He’s really cute in a rugged kind of way, not that he doesn’t know that and make me suffer for it. He actually has more chest hair than I do, and I’m three-quarters Sicilian. Before I knew him, I was so dumb I didn’t even know Japanese guys could have chest hair. He can’t quite grow sideburns, however. Mine are turning gray.

It’s nice to see someone close by in the neighborhood, too. I mean, we’re two subway stops from Manhattan, that’s what’s so great about this part of Brooklyn, but after a day of driving the truck from East Hampton out to the Jersey shore and up to Westchester, then back to the city, the ten minutes or so on the L train between Lorimer Street and Union Square seems like a schlep. Of course in once sense, it’s the same neighborhood; in another, it’s not. Conselyea Street is old Italian Williamsburg, where the Catholic guys carry around that seven-foot tower every July on the Feast of the Giglio. (We’ve been Baptists for generations, since they converted us back in Sicily.)

Mom died only a couple of years ago, and she wouldn’t recognize how things have changed. Even the poor Hispanics a few blocks south on Metropolitan Avenue are being displaced by the invasion of the anti-barbarians. God knows how the Orlando Funeral Home is going to make itself trendy enough to stay in business.

<>

Neo and I eat dinner at a new restaurant called Khao Sarn. It’s always a new restaurant these days, but this was a fairly unpretentious Thai place, with a decent calamari salad that made me think about Mom.

We don’t talk much during the meal. I look at his hands a lot.

Of course we can’t go home directly after because Neo’s got to drag me to this performance space on North 3rd, which is in what I think used to be some kind of a clock factory. We are watching something a buddy of his wrote—and I guess directed, if that’s what you call what they do with this stuff. The title of this piece is The Rise, Fall and Subsequent Dislocations of the Power Broker Robert Moses, as Performed on the Venice Boardwalk by the Boys of the South Bronx Under the Direction of the DJ Grandwizard Theodore. Or Moses/Grandwizard for short. I’m the working class hero, but I get allusion to Marat/Sade even if Neo doesn’t. Okay, I was a teen hanging out in the Village in the late Sixties—yes, I knew The Stonewall Inn; no, I never went in there and when I saw The Daily News headline about the bar raid and riot and “Queen Bees Stinging Mad,” I was naïve enough to think it was funny and not part of history. At a Starbucks in The Five Towns last month, Stonewall was the answer to the weekly trivia question for which you could win a free grande-sized drink, so I got to impress Lance, who’s too ignorant and too straight and too young. Like Lance, Neo didn’t exist in ’69—not even as a gleam in his salaryman father’s eye. Jeez, I’m so old.

But it’s not age that makes me want to nod off during this excruciating piece of shit. You’d think at least the rap part of it would keep me awake, if only because it’d be loud and annoying. But it’s just boring.

Afterwards Neo will try to explain to me the “artist’s” intent, like he didn’t hammer it home as ploddingly as he did. Yeah, I got it: the performers—only two out of a dozen were actually black, by the way—were trying to show that in destroying neighborhoods to build the Cross-Bronx Expressway (a nightmare, but the best way to get to Jersey from the Island since you can bypass the BQE or the Belt Parkway), Robert Moses inadvertently led to the creation of the first rap music and the hip-hop culture and all that. So? I don’t hate all that hip-hop stuff Lance sometimes listens to in the truck. Rhyming “truth” with “F Troop” the way Ice Cube does is funny and clever. Moses/Grandwizard is just pretentious. But then, what do I know? So I keep my trap shut in the café while Neo and his painfully cool friends rave over what we’ve just seen. To me, all it was, was something I already know: in the end, it’s all about real estate, money and power.

I never read that huge book about Robert Moses that my sister-in-law, a Democratic district leader in Little Neck, takes out on the beach every other summer and uses as her bible to gain whatever power she can grab. But I’ve picked up a few tidbits about Robert Moses from Marilyn, like how he made sure the overpasses on the Meadowbook and Wantagh Parkways would be low enough so there wouldn’t be headroom for buses, and therefore blacks and other poor people wouldn’t be coming out to Jones Beach and overrunning the pasty-faced, pale-bodied hordes. I never liked the beach all that much, though the first time I had sex it was at night on the beach at Riis Park.

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Neo and I are in my king-sized bed. He’s getting real comfortable here, and I don’t mind having him around. Like I said, or should have, he’s easy on the eyes. Whether he’s an artist isn’t for me to judge. I don’t get Neo’s installations or whatever they are. Give me a Warhol silkscreen of Jackie Onassis or Marilyn Monroe and I know that’s art. I went over to that exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, the supposedly shocking one, and I found that some of the stuff was okay, even the Virgin Mary with elephant shit. I mean, if you didn’t know it was elephant shit, you wouldn’t have thought it was blasphemous. Shit is natural, it’s everywhere, it’s in you and me and Neo and Ralph and Marilyn and Lance and it was in my parents and grandparents and all the guys I partied with, fucked, drank with, the ones whose memorial services and funerals I cried at. Actually, that’s an exaggeration—I was never much of a crier.

I get out of bed, go up the stairs of this old brownstone, past the third floor where Tina is sleeping after another day teaching those cute, annoying Hispanic second-graders—she had me visit the class one day, and what can I say, I’m a softie when it comes to kids. I’ve kept the top floor apartment unlocked since I kicked Drew out. This was my great-grandmother’s apartment till she died at 99. I lived here when I was young. The view of the Williamsburg Bridge and lower Manhattan is amazing, but even though Drew has been out for months, I haven’t been able to make myself get over to the window to look. Till now.

Well, it’s not so bad. If you don’t think about how it happened, it’s not so bad. It’s like that fight I got into in junior high when Charlie Brancato knocked my tooth out. I kept running my tongue over the empty space because I was so used to something being there. Not that my tooth was beautiful, and of course I could replace it with a cap.

My great-grandmother used to look out and say “Che bella!” or something similar. (I regret that I don’t really know any Italian.) She lived to see them going up. Myself, I used think they were monstrous, but like a lot of monstrous things, you get fond of them if they hang around long enough.

The only reason I can say I’m glad Mom and Dad died when they did is that they didn’t have to experience 9/11. It was real estate, yeah, but it was people.

I could get maybe even $2500 in rent for this place. Of course, I’m not going to do that. My niece Nikki wants to take her useless degree and go into publishing. At Marilyn’s birthday party, Nikki said something about finding great writers who’ll make great books, and I noticed Ralph’s eyes rolling into the back of his head. Maybe Nikki wants to write a book herself one day. She’ll get paid peanuts to start. Most of those girls—it’s always girls, I think, maybe some gay boys—who start as assistant to the assistant editor have to be subsidized with trust funds. Nikki probably could use a cheap apartment close to Manhattan. What could be better than to be young in the hippest neighborhoods in New York? Of course, just saying “hippest” gives away my age and my utter lack of coolness or coolth or whatever term those people are using these days.

As I pad down two flights of stairs and get back under the covers, I think about the Japanese artist lying next me and how he could use that apartment, too. Maybe it’s the only reason Neo’s been hanging out with an old palooka like me.

I turn my head on the pillow, away from Neo, towards the windows facing Conselyea Street. I guess I’ll find out whether Lance is right about Neo after I tell him my niece is getting the apartment her great-great-grandmother once lived in. If I were a cruder guy, I might say that blood is thicker than cum.

But I’m not crude. And although it’s really late, I’m going to wake up before 5:30 a.m. It’s just as well. Lance will be here with the truck ninety minutes after that, and we’ve got to hurry up and get stuck in traffic.

I don’t like to keep these people waiting. When the gates to your five-million-dollar home are screwed up, you want them fixed right away.