During the unforgettable summer of 1981 I became friends, more or less, with two of my neighbors. Frank and Jeff both lived on the first floor, in two room suites, while everybody else made due with a single. Jeff was the superintendent and much older. Frank was my peer, an Italian-American native of Brooklyn who’d recently made the giant leap across the bridge.
We had an easy rapport. We talked about our shared experiences: Catholic school, boring office jobs, dreams of making it in Manhattan. Not the same dreams, to be sure. Frank was matter-of-fact about his sexuality but respectful of the fact that I wasn’t gay. (Though he pulled a puzzled face when I remarked about his ravishing younger sister, raven-haired and olive-skinned like Frank, after she stopped by one Sunday night.) Frank eschewed the macho costume that still predominated among homosexual men in the city at that time, the so-called “gay clone” look. He dressed in meticulous preppy style that highlighted his athletic build. Even I perceived that he was strikingly handsome. Frank resembled a male model, rather than one of the Village People.
Frank’s first floor digs resembled a regal suite compared to my Spartan studio. Or perhaps it just seemed more like an apartment, less like a cheap hotel room. The absence of a kitchen was better concealed. I basked in the rush of his air conditioner, openly expressing my envy of the extra space, much to Frank’s unconcealed delight. Configuring his spread, he had adhered to the classic living-and-bedroom arrangement. (Next door, Jeff the super slept on an exploded sofa in the front room, while his back room functioned as a bottomless closet.)
There was something earthy about Frank, and something earnest, too, for all his shows of presumed sophistication. Of course he could be too grand at times, affecting a lofty air, letting everybody know he was destined for far better things than our current humble surroundings. But the funny thing was, as far as I could see, Frank seemed to get around in pretty high style already — especially for a guy living in a dump.
Returning from work one humid July evening, I paused on Carmine Street and contemplated a budget supper at Joe’s Pizza. Out of the blue a loud and suspiciously familiar voice assaulted my eardrums. Mark Coleman! Hey Mark! It sounded like Frank but I couldn’t quite locate him until I turned to look at the long black limousine idling in traffic directly in front of me. Frank’s statuesque head and shoulders popped out of the open sunroof. He was literally cackling like a lunatic. Mark! Hurry Up! C’mon, Mark! Get In! When we turned north onto Sixth Avenue, Frank yanked me up through the sunroof. I felt pretty silly, and also wildly exhilarated, as we headed uptown, hooting and hollering. The only thing missing was the ticker tape.
A few weeks later I lingered on the front stoop of our building in the evening shadows, watching the two-lane pedestrian traffic flow to and from Washington Square Park. Slinky and suggestive, Grace Jones’ “Pull Up To the Bumper” was the song of the moment on WBLS. From my spot I could hear Sly & Robbie’s randy reggae rhythms in stereo, broadcast from passing radios on both sides of the street. Just as I got into the groove a discordant squeal interrupted my reverie. A lumbering, lumpy guy in an old army jacket entered my field of vision. He came straight out of the early 70s, complete with greasy long hair and drooping mustache. On his shoulder rested a huge boombox. As he passed, head down, I recognized the piercing sound of Lou Reed’s voice and John Cale’s viola. Amid all the disco songs I usually heard in the street, “Heroin” by the Velvet Underground reverberated like a funereal dirge, or a car wreck. “Hey” I shouted. When I looked for him down the sidewalk, he was already gone. It was Lester Bangs.
“Hey.” This voice was quiet, authoritative and unfamiliar.
Somebody had snuck up on me from the other direction.
“Uh, hey, yeah. Yes?” I turned to face the man at the gate.
He was thickset, graying blond hair, suit and tie. The likelihood that he knew somebody in the building was, in my estimation, slim to none. No way, this guy must be a salesman.
“So can I help you?”
“Could you open this gate? Mitch. I’m here to see Mitch.”
“Mitch? Look there isn’t anybody here named Mitch. Sorry.”
“Mitch, you know, he lives in the back apartment.”
I started to reply, and then stopped myself. Swinging the gate open, I stepped aside as he ambled up the stairs to the front door.
“The doorbells, ah, those buzzers don’t work.”
At this, he turned around and glared at me.
“Take a look at the names on the mailboxes and see if you recognize Mitch’s last name.” Now I was trying to be helpful.
When the front door opened, seconds later, I watched in amazement as Frank waved the man in. Shooting me a look, my friend apologetically rolled his eyes and slammed the door shut.