When last we left 15 year-old Mr. Wow, he’d just stepped off the subway, onto Times Square, determined never to go home to Hollis Queens, anymore–Yeah, the old Shangri-La’s song was deep in my brain! (In case you’ve forgotten where you left off, check “Mr Wow Leaves Home” in April.)
I had yet to discover Greenwich Village, so I kept myself to the 42nd Street area. It was pretty sleazy, but I was hardly Green Garson. I gave myself no airs. Nor did I pretend to have fallen down this icky-sticky rabbit hole by mistake. I’d jumped right in. Sleazy was okay by me. Or at least it was nothing I didn’t relate to. I’d seen “The World of Suzie Wong” and “Walk on The Wild Side.” (Who didn’t want to be Jane Fonda’s Kitty Twist in “Wild Side?” Or Susan Kohner crooning “Empty Arms” in “Imitation of Life.”)
I spent Christmas ’68, New Year’s and my January birthday shivering on the streets and trying to figure out a way to make this way of life my way of life without it becoming my real way of life. That is, how to avoid everybody who drank, took drugs, and seemed determined to become terrifyingly hard and rip everybody else off. I was interested in—believe it or not—a home-like situation. Somebody to take of me. Not in grand style. Just a roof, food, and a person who’d put up with the general emptiness of my soul. This took some doing. My initial experiences were helter-skelter. A night here, a week there. Once I scored a whole month. But he was way too demanding. I hadn’t left home to be told what to do and when to do it! I became well-acquainted with all the flop-houses. Five bucks for the entire night. I ate sparingly. It didn’t seem to matter much. I was more concerned about my teeth. I stole a toothbrush from the drugstore and tried to brush as often as possible. (I later came to have quite a career as shoplifter, and never felt the slightest guilt.) Also, when I’d left home, I was still a bit husky. A healthy boy. Within two months I was a waif. I didn’t even realize it until one night after doing the deed with…somebody, I’d gotten out of bed and passed a mirror. I was shocked. I could see my ribs! I was tiny. Yeah, I was thrilled. I was anticipating Victoria Beckham. It hadn’t occurred to me till that moment why I spent so much of my time hitching up the waist of my now-pretty-grimy slacks—the ones I’d left home wearing.
Soon after, as luck would always have it with Mr. W., I met a guy who was appalled by the condition and fit of my clothes. He bought me jeans that fit, a dark blue shirt, a denim jacket and a little neckerchief thing. He thought that was a cute accessory for me. And it was. (I didn’t bother with underwear. I’d discarded them three days after leaving home, and soon became uncomfortable wearing anything under my pants.)
But he also thought I was way too young to be seen coming in and out of his apartment for any length of time. Still, he was awfully sweet to have bought me those clothes. He also advised me to shave the peach fuzz that had now darkened. I was loathe to do this. I didn’t want to shave, for heaven’s sake! I wasn’t a man, I was a boy! But he was adamant, especially because my cheeks were also blemished with teenage acne. He just took me into the bathroom and, whoosh! Didn’t even need shaving cream. But it was done. That cherry had been popped. I would have to tend to my beard from then on.
Years later I ran into him again, in a bar. He was trying to score with the youngest boy in the place (not me, any longer.) He wasn’t having any luck. He recognized me right away though, which pleased me—I was holding onto my freshness. I was still hustling, but I never needed money so badly I couldn’t return a favor. We went back to his place and did it for old times sake—for that neckerchief. And the shave.
In the chilly spring of 1969, I was living perilously, despite my scaredy-cat precautions. I’d had a few close calls that I escaped through some intelligence but mostly by being young and nimble—I could jump from a slow-moving car, when I had the chilling feeling I was being driven to something pretty awful. But I wanted off the mean streets. I didn’t mind spending a good deal of my hustling money going to the movies instead of eating (I saw “Funny Girl” ten times at the old Criterion Theater on Broadway. Then I’d linger outside, waiting for the next pick-up.) Still, Babs aside, I knew for all my wary ways, I was on a slippery slope, one way or another. I’d already been arrested at the Port Authority for “loitering.”
The two cops who nabbed me were not impressed by my claims of being 19 and my phony name—Tom Kelly. I thought it sounded Irish, since most people took me for Irish in those days. (I’m Irish/Italian) It was scary. I was put into the PA holding cell, crammed in with a filthy clutch of truly skanky, dangerous-looking, full-grown men. Lots of leering and groping and remarks that made it clear—wherever I was going that night, I wasn’t going to be getting any sleep. And I certainly wasn’t going to be paid for anything I had to do.
They still had paddy-wagons back then; we were piled in, and driven downtown to the Tombs. Just before we were all scheduled to be incarcerated, the arresting officers took me aside. “Look, kid. You’re not 19. What’s your name? Who are you? We’ll call your parents.” I was adamant. Garbo never gave such a performance. The cops sighed. “Okay, look. You want to spend the night with them?” indicating my salivating fan club of petty and not-so-petty criminals. I said I’d rather not. “Well, we can put you by yourself, nobody will bother you.” I thought this was a nifty idea. “But” (uh-oh) “you be nice to us, and we’ll be nice to you.” Nothing more needed to be said. I promised to be “nice.” And I was. Much to my surprise, they kept their promise, too. I was alone for the night. (I know, I know. I was taken advantage of. It was rape, abuse! Eh. I was doing it anyway, and they were, I have to admit, both rather attractive. Maybe it was the uniforms. In any case, I chose this path. And these were the potholes. )
In the morning there was some weird, brief, courtroom scene. I was on the streets again within two hours. And after laying low for a few days, I was back “loitering” in and around the PA. (The same two cops would re-arrest me a year later, to a far different outcome.)
I was ready to “settle down.” But how? Salvation came one evening when I was lounging against the lockers on the first floor of the P.A. (these are long gone.) I was wearing my jeans and denim jacket and an unseasonably skimpy tee-shirt. Oh, and the eternal Converse sneakers, in dark blue. My hair was growing long, and I kept blowing one wayward lock out of my eye. I’d seen Marilyn Monroe do this in a movie, and of course, whatever MM did…It was also wildly effective and cute.
A short, stocky guy passed me. He gave me the eye. I have him one of my butch-er looks and shifted my weight from one skinny hip to the other. I blew the hair out of eye. That did it. He came back. He wasn’t good-looking, but he looked nice, kind. And he smelled freshly showered, which indeed he was. (Later I would learn he was, aside from myself, the most showering person on earth.) His name was Jack Santos and he thought I was just the cutest thing he’d seen. He asked me my age. I told the truth. I always did. Except for dealing with the cops, who wanted to be older? Youth sells. He blanched. “16, really? I don’t know, I don’t know.” “Fine,” I said, giving him a bored profile, pretending to dismiss him for the next trick. (Age doesn’t treat the profile kindly. But back then, balanced with a thick head of hair, it was attractive.) “No, no. It’s okay, let’s go to my place. But if anybody asks, say you’re 21 and my nephew!” Who would ask, I wondered?
“His place” turned out to be The Alamac Hotel on West 71 Street on Broadway. I’d come to learn that the West 70’s were just chock full of gay men. I recall laughing once when somebody was driving me up there and I saw from blocks away the big clock on the top of the bank on 74th street. “Does every gay man live up here?!”
The Alamac (which is now a condo) was then a kinda beat-up residential hotel. Right across the street was the infamous Ham ‘n Egger diner, which was open 24 hours and was really hopping around 5:00 am, after the bars closed. The area was run-down and in its “Panic In Needle Park” mode. In fact, I watched parts of that movie being filmed up there.
For all of Jack’s concerns, nobody gave the slightest notice to me and my “uncle.” Up the elevators we went and to his room, where, to my unpleasant surprise, was another young man. Let’s call him Paul. That might even have been his name. He was not 16. Or 21. About 25 I guessed. Dark and good-looking. Well-built. He’d been staying with Jack for a while. Damn! I had to deal with this? Indeed I did. After Jack and I swiftly did the deed. (He never lasted long) Paul decided he wanted a piece. He did last long. So long that I cried. He didn’t mind. Quite the contrary. (I’d already learned this about some men. They liked it when they knew it was painful.) Later while I was sniffling in the bathroom, Jack came in and asked me, with surprising concern, “Did he hurt you?” I was annoyed and bitchy: “What? Couldn’t you tell? I was crying.” I knew he was smitten. On the way uptown, on the train, I’d given him the full treatment—the big gray eyes, the wistful air of fragility, the sudden big smile. (My most prized physical gift—an amazing set of teeth.) He reprimanded Paul. “Can’t you see he’s just a baby?” I smiled sweetly over Jack’s shoulder. Paul gave me a look Medusa would envy.
For about two weeks we were crowded into that small hotel room. Jack didn’t have much money, so I hustled, but I had a roof over my head. Paul, on the other hand, seemed to do nothing but lay in bed. He was eager to have sex with me again, and I allowed it, but I was also aware he wanted me gone. Jack was his little gravy train. As for Jack, in those weeks I learned a great deal about him. He was Portuguese. He was about 47. He’d worked all his life at various odd jobs, including a lot of carnival and circus work. Although he hadn’t seen his family for years, he often talked of them, and felt sure if he ever needed anything, they’d be there for him. I doubted it. He wasn’t super-smart, but he wasn’t dumb. He was deeply prejudiced, however, which amused me. I came to think of him like Archie Bunker. In time I’d be his fey Michael Stivic, always challenging his ideas, and reminding him: you’re part of an oppressed minority yourself. But most of that was years later.
The most pressing concern was Paul, who daily reminded Jack that I was dangerous jailbait and that Jack would be imprisoned for life if anybody discovered my real age. (As if Paul wasn’t availing himself of Mr. W. at every opportunity.) Jack, always nervous, didn’t want to see me go, but I knew Paul was making headway.
Finally, one day when Jack was out for a few hours, visiting nearby friends, Paul took me by the shoulders and said, “Now, Wow, you know that Jack is a wreck about you. This is a hotel. The front desk sees you come in and out all the time. What you think they think?” I said: “I think they think he’s fucking me, and at least two at the front desk wouldn’t mind either.” My logic didn’t sway Paul. “Jack really left today because he wanted me to tell you, you had to go.” Oh?! “Jack’s so nice, he couldn’t do it. But you really have to go.” Paul, who had a handsome but hard face, was not handsome at all in that moment. It was all hard. And maybe older than 25. With his hands still on my shoulders, he guided me toward the door. “This is the best thing,” he said. As I stood forlornly in the hallway, I asked, “Well, look, could I at least have a couple of bucks?” Paul smiled. “Why, honey? You know how to earn your pennies.” Door slowly closes. Scene ends.
Out on the streets again. Damn. Although it wasn’t a total loss. I did finally discover The Village, The Stonewall, and having been taken to that iconic bar by a pair of gay brothers (not the fraternity type), also found the joys of being part of a community. Such fun, that first night at the Stonewall. I experienced the high-camp cinematic thrill of having a drink thrown in my face and being called a “tramp.” (The brothers weren’t too happy that I’d gone off dancing with dozens of others. Look, they’d gotten what they wanted already. I was only 16. No other excuse needed.)
Still, I missed the stability that Jack had seemingly promised. Two weeks after my expulsion from the Alamac, I went back uptown and “innocently” visited Jack’s friends, a couple to whom he’d introduced me. They were happy to see me, but asked, why had I treated Jack so poorly? Where had I gone? And with no notice? I explained. They said: “Jack’s coming to visit soon. Stick around.” I stuck around. He was thrilled to see me. I explained again—hadn’t he wanted me to go? Paulsaid so. We returned to the hotel. Paul was naked in bed, as usual, watching TV. Nothing in my life up to that point was as satisfying as watching his face fall as I came in. Or when he left. He called me a whore and said I’d get mine. I said I’d already gotten mine—you loser.
And so life began with Jack. We were at the Alamac for another six or seven months. His income was sparse and I often hustled for grocery money. I really didn’t mind. He was besotted. He thought I was smart and cute and funny and couldn’t believe his good luck. I couldn’t believe mine, either. At some point, he secured a better job. So much better that he moved us out of the Alamac and into The Beacon Hotel on 74th Street. It still exists, with the legendary Beacon Theater below. In those days the theater was still showing movies and tarnished by decades of neglect. But it looked fabulous to me. I spent many happy hours there.
The Beacon Hotel was a very nice residential hotel, plush by my standards—which were nothing. Jack said, “Now remember, you’re 23 and I’m your uncle.” 23, really? I was just seventeen, if you know what I mean (as The Beatles sang.)
I settled in as a young matron. Although the two room suite (with huge closets) was furnished, Jack bought a riotously gaudy red-velvet sectional couch. He thought it was high class. I thought it was high-camp and was amused by his innocence. (I would bring friends over just to laugh over the couch.) Jack was the kind of guy who thought the more expensive something was, the better it was. I came back one afternoon to find a new stereo and turntable and speaker set-up. It had cost several hundred dollars. I was aghast. (Give me that money!) He kept quoting the price and insisting it was the very best. I wasn’t picky and pointed out that we could have had the same for a lot less. Especially as I was the only one who ever played records. But it was a matter of pride with him, and in time I knew it was useless to argue.
We weren’t “lovers.” He didn’t demand fidelity. (Although he was actually faithful.) He just wanted to know where I was going and what I was doing and please call if I was staying out all night—or for several nights. I tried to be sensitive to those needs but often I found myself caught up in some experience and I’d disappear for days. He was always there, waiting and worrying, kind of parental and controlling. I knew I’d worried him terribly. He was quick to anger and yell, but as the years passed I was equally quick to respond, rather shrewishly. I saw he actually preferred me with more spirit. Then, he didn’t. But we were together a long time. He didn’t like cats. But when I brought home a Siamese kitten, he let it stay, because I cried over it. I called him Rodan after my favorite Japanese sci-fi movie. In time, Jack came love Rodan more than I did.
During those years I discovered drink and drugs and a set of friends. I also began to wonder what love was really like? Everybody around me talked of lovers and boyfriends and I continued screwing aimlessly. And hustling. Jack didn’t have oodles of spare cash, and I needed things. Mostly records and books and Marilyn Monroe memorabilia. And, to be honest, it was still a thrill to be wanted so much that people would pay.
As I moved into my twenties I became increasingly restless and dissatisfied. I had several major crushes on young men who were willing to sleep with me, but hardly committed to somebody who seemed committed only to a life to whoring, drinking, sleeping till noon, watching soap operas, and generally wasting my time. (It was great!) One of my crushes so effected me I turned into Lana Turner and/or Joan Crawford. Pestering, obsessive phone calls, crying, begging. Not pretty. And he’d already warned me that he didn’t know how to let people down easy. But I was determined to humiliate myself to the nth degree. In time, we parted. That is, he drifted away with determination. I think of him often.
At the lowest point of this “affair” I ran into B., again, whom I’d known for years as a casual, affectionate, playmate. In fact, he was going into the Beacon to meet some friends. I was a mess. I’d gained weight, my skin was broken out (more than usual) I was sullen. He was chipper and attentive and invited me to the party he was attending. I forget now if I went. I do remember how concerned he seemed. I thought little of it then. The rare sweet guy. With a great ass.
Jack watched warily as I paced restlessly from room to room, snapped at him, complained and spent even more time out and about, dragging my sorry backside in at any hour of the day or night and offering no explanation. Finally, a “friend” whom I would sometimes entertain at the hotel when Jack was out, came over one afternoon. He was older and paying me and kind of a drag, but I was floundering. After sex that day, I became extremely hostile. He said, “You know, you seem to be in need of some kind of help, why are you so angry?” I said: “Because of pricks like you, using me.” He ignored that and wrote out a name and number. His therapist! I laughed. “Have you discussed why you need to pay boys to have sex, when you’re only in your thirties?” He left me saying: “Go get help. You don’t know how bad off you are.”
But I did know how bad off I was. And within a week I was at the therapist’s office. “I can’t pay you” I said, after babbling out a few of my issues.
“Because if I did, I’d be paying you with money I got hustling, and I don’t think I want to do that anymore.”
He thought about this for a few seconds and then said, “ I can give you ten sessions free.” At the time, I didn’t realize what a stunning sacrifice that was for a therapist. I thought, maybe, all of them were this kind and concerned? Not really.
So I began. I told Jack I was seeking therapy which totally freaked him out. He was not sophisticated. And he feared (I knew) that I’d become more independent, find more fault in our relationship, leave him.
The sessions were intense, though I attempted to be casual and dismissive. I said—as I always say—that my experiences hadn’t been so awful, others had it worse, I was really okay about everything. He said, “I hate to tell you this, but I’m surprised you’ve survived as well as you have. Do you want to give yourself any credit for that?” Of course I didn’t.
Before and during my visits to this therapist, I
had been experiencing powerful dreams about swimming and driving a car. I couldn’t then, and still cannot do either. But the dreams were incredibly strong. We discussed them. In the time-honored ways of therapy, I was expected to decipher the dreams for myself. “Well, I can’t drive or swim. I’d like to do both. Both seem to be symbolic of taking control, of your body and of this big machine that represents freedom. You get in a car and you are off! You swim and you conquer great fears. You own your body. Is that right?”
“What do you think?”
“I think you should give me some help!”
“You have to decide what these things mean, I can’t tell you.”
And there were my movie star infatuations. I discussed my great obsession with Marilyn, but also, that although I was no less interested in MM, I was increasing fascinated by Elizabeth Taylor, on a less sentimental plane.
“Do you know why it is?” he asked.
“Elizabeth has very big hair and no taste?”
“Is that all?”
“I don’t know! I don’t know! Is it because Marilyn was a victim and Elizabeth is a survivor, and I want to be a survivor?”
“What do you think?
Eventually, it came to an end. The therapist begged me to continue. Not with him (he’d given enough free non-advice) but with others who’d take me for a minimal fee in a group. I was touched by his concern, which I considered genuine, but I’d already made my decision. A week after my last session, I told Jack I was leaving him. He was shocked, distressed, if not entirely surprised. (But I also sensed some relief. I had become a troubled young man. Who needs trouble?)
At the moment I told him, I actually had no plan. I was just sure that leaving was the best thing. But within two days, a good friend called to say he was about to leave his long-time lover, would I come in with him and share an apartment? It was a crummy dump down in Chelsea when that area was still a rotting pit. Rent was less than $100 a month. The place was a wreck. I took a look and said yes.
To meet my commitment for the first month’s rent I needed $50 bucks. I wasn’t going to ask Jack, who was till trying to persuade me to stay. And I didn’t want to do it the easiest way—hustling. So I sold my fairly massive Marilyn collection—books, magazines, stills. It was, even in 1975, worth a small fortune. Well, at least $2, 000. But the guy at the memorabilia store offered me $60 bucks, period. I knew I was getting ripped off, but I knew I had to do it. And in letting go of this precious material, I had my first lesson in the non-value of “things.” I felt cleansed and fresh. (Needless to say, in years to come, I replaced every bit of that collection, and then some. I couldn’t stay that cleansed.)
I left Rodan with Jack. I packed up my books and my records and my few items of clothing and I left The Beacon Hotel. It wasn’t easy, though I was sure I was doing the right thing. Jack was not resigned to my departure. In fact he was still in shock. “You can come back if this doesn’t work out.” And still, I felt he wasn’t shattered by my departure. He’d want me back if I came back as I was during the earlier years. Although I was far from a secure person, I was less compliant. And it did seem like I was living with a parent.
So my friend Richie and I moved to Chelsea. We painted all the walls and ripped up the rotting linoleum. Never in my life had I done anything like this. It felt pretty great. I even had my own room. Tiny, in the back of the apartment, no window, but it was mine. It had a door, and I had blessed privacy. Richie found a job for me, at a card store on 57th Street. Nearing my 24th birthday I’d never worked a day in my life, but the elderly couple who ran the store, Mr. and Mrs. Cohen, took an instant liking to me. (They thought I was a nice Jewish boy at first.) I had to learn the stock, but mostly I had to be charming and sell greeting cards. My “people skills” came in handy. I was charming. I sold greeting cards. The pay was low but the rent was super low, so I actually had a lot of spending money. And, let’s face it, when I went bar-hopped, I still expected to be noticed, flattered and bought drinks. After all, 24 is still pretty young.
Summer was divine that year. I didn’t think much about what I might “do” with the rest of my life, but for the first time, it really was my life. Those months were without a doubt the happiest of my entire life. I recall lazing out the fire escape, playing the soundtrack to “Funny Lady.” I was free, I was…well, maybe I was even worthy to be loved.
But, nothing lasts. Though my friend Richie never acted as an authority figure who told me what to do, his mere presence was enough to get me going in the morning, keep me on the strait and narrow. But one week he had to visit family in Florida. I was alone. I went out and partied. I had a hangover. I called in sick. And again the next day. And the next. By the time Richie returned I’d lost my little job. I needed a human presence. Being left to my own devices was clearly not a good idea. Within a month I had to move out. I would not/could not find another job. I stored my belongings in a locker at the PA, and hit the streets again, a wearier, beaten down, deeply disappointed person. Where had all my joyful resolve gone? Had it not been real? Apparently not. I did not return to Jack. I didn’t think it would be fair to either of us. I was bitter, angry at myself. I knew I’d take it out on him. He’d done enough for me. And, perhaps he’d moved on—somebody younger, fresher? That was something I didn’t want to face.
When do you lose hope? I lost it in the spring of 1976, when I left that little Chelsea dump, with my friend and my room and my independence. I resigned myself to life on the streets, in hotel rooms. I wasn’t depressed. Not as I experience depression today. But I was never ever going to get back on the horse that threw me. That did make me sad. And I was scared. I’d been around for a long time. I wasn’t anybody’s idea of the new boy in town.
And then, one night at a bar in the Village (Numbers, I think it was called then) I ran into my old friend, B. I’d lost a lot of weight. My clothes were tatty. I was trying too hard to be carefree. “Come back to my place, we’ll have something to eat.” So I went. I was appalled, as ever, at his incredible sloppiness. (The first time we’d been together, years before, I’d actually tried to clean his kitchen and generally straighten things up. I might have scrambled some eggs, too.) B. made spaghetti and steak. I ate. He didn’t. I figured he’d want something in return for his pasta—everybody wanted something–but he only said, “If you need anything, you can always drop by.” At first I was offended. Did I look so bad that I’d lost my appeal? But I dropped by the next night. (That steak was good!) I hadn’t lost my appeal. I never left.
The saga of me and B during that time is another story altogether. I’ll skip it for now. We lived in his place in Chelsea. Then on to Chicago. Then to Detroit. Then to Hoboken. These were his choices, attempting to advance his life and career. I was either on welfare or not working or working at little thrift shops or housecleaning. I didn’t have much say in our travels. But by then I’d fallen very deeply in love. I felt a tenderness and convern for him which I didn’t think I was capable. Not that I wasn’t still a childish little prick. (I will have to ask B.’s permission to tell more of our life. Neither of us are perfect people.)
For a while, after we returned to the tri-state area, I had a stint scrubbing floors up in my old neighborhood, the West 70’s. One day, while strolling up W 72nd, on my way to washing down a cruddy stairway, who did I see sitting outside a drugstore, checking out the customers wandering in and out? Jack. He was working there.
Usually very concerned about what “people thought” he just got up and kissed me, right there on crowded 72nd Street. I was shocked by his public gesture—so unlike him– but terribly pleased to see him. I gave him a rundown of the past couple of years. He said only, “Do you really love this guy, B.?” I said yes. And then he added, “But why are you scrubbing floors?” I explained—though he knew me well enough—that I hadn’t the slightest idea how to really become a working person. “I have to contribute somehow.”
He asked me to come back to where he was staying—with his old friends whom I’d met years before. He had fallen on rather sparse times himself. He was just getting by. We talked and then we went into his room. Of course we had sex. I couldn’t refuse him. He was no stranger. He’d supported me for years. I did care for him, love him, really. Often, sex is just another way of saying thank you. And then, he gave me money. I objected at first—that wasn’t what it was about, and his own situation was hardly plush. I meant it. He insisted. I was too down and out to be that proud. And why did B. have to know? This was hardly a hot infidelity with a cute young guy.
Over the next couple of years, I’d see Jack sporadically. He was always the same, but kinda different. He’d come around to some of my old liberal rantings that used to enrage him. He wasn’t so ashamed or afraid of being seen as gay. He never used the words “nigger” or “kike” or “spic” in front of me. And he told me, every time, that he’d loved more than anybody else, and if only I’d stayed with him…
Yes, he paid me every time.
In 1981, I began my “career” as…well, I began my career. Real work. Sorta. And it began to pay. And soon I was a nine-to-five person, though my situation was hardly corporate—anything but! My life got bigger. I saw less of Jack. And less. And then months went by. I was too busy being the New Me. (Although it was really the Old Me, dressed up. Mutton, lamb—you know.)
One day, it was autumn, I had determined to go uptown and see Jack again. To let him know what crazy, unexpected changes had occurred. To take him to lunch or dinner. To see me as an adult—though that was just a pose, I was still quite childish, selfish and dependant. But it was a good pose.
I walked up Central Park West, and ran into one of his roommates, Michael (or Dion, as he preferred to be called.) “Oh, I was just coming over! How are you? How’s Jack?” Michael said, with unusual solemnity, and this guy was never solemn—“You haven’t been in touch in a while. Jack missed you.” I said, yeah, but…busy.
“Well, I’m sorry to tell you, but Jack died last month.” I remember exactly the spot we were standing. A woman in a blue sweater walked past and I noticed a Volkswagen parked nearby. “He had a heart attack. It was very sudden. It was fast. Jack never gave us your number. We couldn’t reach you.”
It wasn’t even sinking in. Though I certainly felt Michael/Dion’s disapproval and disappointment in me. “Where is he? Where is he buried?” And then it went from awful to unspeakable.
“His family didn’t want to deal with it. They just disowned him. They were ashamed of him. We didn’t have the money to bury him properly. He’s in Potter’s Field.”
Whatever one thinks about death or the hereafter or being buried or cremated or your corpse kicked to the curb–I couldn’t care less, myself!–I knew Jack cared. He was a proud man. He sought to be dignified even when the essentials of his life were quite the opposite. We’d spoken a few times about death and he always said he wanted a “good tombstone in a good neighborhood.” When he first remarked on this I said, “So I take it you don’t wish to be buried near any black people?” By then, we no longer argued about such things. He laughed. “Black people are okay. But I’ll still not sure about Puerto Ricans.”
And so he was dead and there was certainly nothing I could do about it. It wasn’t my fault. I shouldn’t feel guilty. I couldn’t. My life went on. I traveled and met famous people and sometimes I thought, “Oh, God—wouldn’t Jack be amazed at where I am?” (I also thought the same thing about my mother, who’d passed away in the same period.)
But the really good times ended more than ten years ago. I quit my job, then went back, but nothing was quite the same again, though there was still travel and famous people. I remained a man who could never get back on the horse who threw him. Depression, medications, and endless talk therapy: my childhood, Jack, B., my boss (Oy, my boss. Over and over, my boss!) I haven’t been myself—whatever that was or is—for a long time.
I found most of my therapists well meaning, but essentially prostitutes. Next! Next! Next! And don’t forget to pay. Money first! Next! Maybe I expected too much. After all, it’s a job to them.
But an exchange with one of them has stayed with me. It was toward the end of the session. I was joking around about winning the lottery and what I’d do with the money. He said, “Well, what would you do with the money, first off?” Without a beat, without thinking, I said—“I’d find where Jack is buried in Potter’s Field. I’d put him someplace nice, in a ‘good neighborhood’ with a tombstone.”
I’d shocked myself. I don’t know that I’d ever considered such a thing before. I began to cry. Really cry.
“What would you put on the tombstone?” the therapist asked, after his initial, grisly pleasure of seeing a “breakthrough.”
“I’d put, ‘Jack Santos. Thank You. I Love You. I Remember You.’”
And I would. And I do.