Thursday, June 15, 2006

Brooklyn Shame

It was to be the most beautiful day of the month, to date. After seemingly weeks of clouds, cold and rain, we were finally blessed with singularly blue skies that morning. An impromptu invitation, tendered just days prior, summoned us to the borough of Kings where we were to take part in that yearly chimera, Pride.

The plan was to meet, greet, drink and snack at Bryce & Neil's new home, then head out to view the festivities. I was definitely on for the meet and greet, and even the drink portion. I wasn't so sure about the festivities to follow. I'm not a crowd person. I figured I'd be surrounded by my nearest and dearest and that way it would all be alright.

Our challenge was actually getting to Brooklyn. Stop snickering, please. Yes, I was born and raised in Brooklyn, but way out at the opposite end of town, out by the ocean. As a small child, I could to hear fog horns at night when I lay in my single bed. I've now been in my Manhattan abode much longer than I ever lived in the house I was raised in. I know certain neighborhoods, and how to get to the various landmarks of my childhood, in their current incarnations. So I consulted Mapquest to find that the address to which we were heading was indeed in the heart of a neighborhood I had lived in some thirty three years prior.

I hadn't been back. Well, maybe once. I didn't leave under the most auspicious of circumstances.

Back in the early spring of 1973 I followed William home on the train, one Saturday evening after the bars had closed. He didn't know quite what to make of me, this 18 year old trailing him down West 4th Street and onto the subway platform. He certainly gave no indication that he knew what I was doing. I followed, jogging behind him as the train pulled in. At the very last moment he locked eyes with me and reached behind to hold the doors open. I stepped in and fell into the seat next to him, smiled and said: "So, where are we going?"

I'd never been on this train line before, never set eyes on this man before.

In true William fashion, he seemed both annoyed and kind of fascinated with the stunt I'd pulled. He questioned me, asking what I would have done had he been in a relationship, or had no place of his own or just plain not interested. I shrugged. These were chances I liked to take then.

The neighborhood itself, one I'd never heard of, was called Fort Greene/Clinton Hill. He lived in the Clinton Hill section in a small double wooden house that had served as the servant's quarters for the Vanderbilt mansion on Clinton Avenue. The scant block and a half from the train station was fraught with danger, to the point where the blocks were impassable after dark. The sun was just ascending as we headed back to his house, and bed.

I spent the day and then the following weekend and then the better part of the next year until I convinced myself that I wasn't getting nearly enough attention and promptly went out and found more.

Though William and I maintained a tenuous relationship for several years, calling each other on our mutual birthday, I never returned to that beautiful terrible neighborhood. Well, maybe once, when a handsome artist took me home with him. But never again.

Until now.

Tim and I emerged from the train on Fulton Street, blinking in the bright sun, like the intrepid explorers we were. It took mere minutes for me get my bearings. I knew exactly where I was, and not much had changed. We wandered up to Waverly Avenue, to make a short pilgrimage to the place I lived. Strangely, little of the landscape had changed much, though the denizens populating it were quite different than what I remembered. I was almost giddy when I spied my former, albeit temporary, home, regaling Tim with ancient gossip and histories long past. We meandered along, admiring the architecture, as I mentally took inventory of the past.

At our host's beautiful and spacious home, we were greeted with surprise, as if we'd forded the Amazon to attend. We received an extensive house tour, and manned our station at the bar, fixing drinks for all who required them. Tim mastered the cranky blender and was soon sending out his trademark potent concoctions. I thought I might sip Bourbon through the course of the afternoon, to achieve a golden buzz to match the golden day. Cocktails in hand, we climbed to the roof, taking in the amazing views. We were suitably impressed by the Broken Angel building, which had not been there the last time I was in the neighborhood, and now loomed eerily above us. Tim was quick to point out the location of the Empire State Building, which thrilled our hosts to no end. My attentions were elsewhere.

Looking down Greene Avenue, I spied the former site of Adelphi Hospital. Back in 1973, my paternal grandmother, having lost her husband some months earlier, returned from the trailer park in Sarasota she and my grandfather had decamped to years before and came back to Brooklyn to die. It seemed to be her plan. There was ostensibly nothing wrong, she just didn't want to live, and so, wasted away. Learning that she was a mere two blocks from where William and I lived, I was moved to visit her. I'd neither seen nor spoken to her much in several years. We were emphatically not a close knit family. I spent a few evenings with her, mostly in light conversation, as it seemed we didn't have all that much to say.

Some years later, during one of the several unsuccessful reconciliations my father and I endured, he mentioned those visits to me, in concert with several other heretowith unknown and completely devastating factoids regarding my childhood and daunting adolescence.

Apparently he had visited his mother shortly after I left one evening. As the two of them lit up their respective cigarettes, my grandmother, a sort of Jewish gangster's moll in kewpie doll disguise, turned to my father and drawled:

"You know, Gene...your son's a fag".

All this came back to me, echoing loudly in my head all through that lovely afternoon, surrounded by all my wonderful friends. I laughed as I told the tale to all who would listen.

I've learned to compartmentalize the hurtful past, yet I'm still astounded that it retains the power to completely un-nerve me when it rears it's ugly head.

I went downstairs, grabbed the Maker's Mark bottle by the neck and poured a long golden stream.


Anonymous stephen said...

wow...those last 6 paragraphs...heartbreakingly beautiful writing. thanks.

9:02 PM  
Blogger David said...

Ah. The tottering is clearer now.

12:45 PM  
Blogger ROBOCUB said...

Oh cool, I'm from Brooklyn too (born & raised) and no accent to speak of.

1968-1971 Sheapshead Bay
1971-1975 Forte Green (S.Portland Ave)
1975-1977 Manhattan
1977-1981 Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn (some of the best years of my life)
1981-present: Manhattan

Excert from Saturday Night Fever (because it was soooo true to me in 1981 to the point of being culture shock):
You see that bridge (Manhattan Bridge) Tony? Right on the other side of that bridge is a whole 'nother world!

2:26 PM  
Blogger Joe.My.God. said...


It's a good thing you are already my friend, because after a story like that I would have to stalk you until you were.

Another gem, SuperDaddy.

11:16 AM  
Blogger MEK the Bear said...

Beautiful and sad, thanks for a lovely post!

12:31 PM  
Blogger Gayest Neil said...

Awww!!!!!!! Mark you never fail to make me want to sit down and write and write and write.

3:51 PM  

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