REAL ESTATE EXILES
By Terence Hughes
On August 20 Carl Storti received the news most New Yorkers dread when they lie awake at 4 AM, harried by demons and by the angry drunks closing the bars. His building, a five-story 1898 walkup with inadequate heating and dangerous wiring was to be condemned, torn down and replaced by a glittering tower of 66 stories, with apartments starting “from only” $4.45 million (a large studio with a small terrace, it was said). The tenants would have to vacate the premises by December 31 of this year. One could get a special “insider” price on a new condo, which amounted to a 1% discount with a 25% down payment. Carl had less than $56,000 in the bank for his “retirement.” He couldn’t move back in after some sort of Babylonian captivity. He was looking at a permanent Diaspora.
The neighbors, none in the “from only” bracket, met and raged. There were many disparaging remarks made about Bloomberg: “This is the little dictator’s way of sticking one more last shiv in our back,” because he was in cahoots with Big Real Estate, as always. But in the end a lawyer among them, Ed Feldman, said, “Real estate is king and we are its serfs.” He explained that everything was being done to the jot and tittle of the law. There was no recourse. The message: Find a new place to live, fast. Angie, a public leftie who lived on the first floor, sneered, “Oh, Mr. Feldman, Mr. Attorney, you’re so reasonable and calm. I bet the fucking developer put you up to this. I bet you’re getting some schmancy apartment in the new building.”
“Put me up to what?” he wanted to know. “I live here too, Angie. Where am I gonna go?” He went on to explain that none of them were statutory tenants – rent-stabilized and such – but they were rents that were well below – he said “well below” again in an emphatic bass voice – market value. Ahmed, one of the three taxi drivers who shared 2C (studio, airshaft-facing, first floor), asked, “What is rent market value?”
All fell still. Ed cleared his throat. “Well, my place is typical. One bedroom, one bath, almost no storage and an antique kitchen – let’s say I pay around $1700-1900. At market value -- $3500-4000. For this shitty building.” In this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.
Carl was among those who cried out in dismay, in horror. Everyone started babbling about who could pay that much, you have you move to the Bronx and who wants to do that, they’re driving us out of the city, etc. Avoiding that letter for ten days – well, he was finished with that. He had to figure something out.
He invited everyone but Angie up to his place for wine and taralli.
He invited everyone but Angie up to his place for wine and taralli.
The other tenants expressed their disapproval of the way Angie had treated Ed, who was effectively the building’s 35-year-old kid brother, or son. Or grandson. They got sidetracked into a long discussion about Angie’s tendency to see things all black and all white. They deplored it, and Mrs. Nussbaum, who kept trying to fix up Ed and her favorite grandson, Corey (“he’s a physician, you know: a specialist”), fed him her home-made ruggelah until he excused himself, looking a little green. For that bitch session Carl had spent about $50 in decent Italian wine and those dried-out Italian treats and gotten no private legal advice.
After they all went home (bitter word), Carl sat and drank on his own. He attempted to consider his options and plan a course of action. He couldn’t stay focused. He had a beer and fiddled around on Facebook until bedtime. The next day brought no internal calls to action, and he got caught up in his friends’ soap operas and a long conversation with an old boyfriend, lonely Leo, who lived in Florida. Leo kept telling him, “Honey, you should come down here. It’s a blessing to be out of New York, plus I got a dog! I got coconut palm trees. It was 88 degrees today!” Carl noted how they all had to tell you the temperature as soon as they hit the Sunshine State. “It’s paradise, Carl.” He listed all the people they knew who had moved to his apartment complex. To Cark it sounded like a Who’s Who of gay has-beens. Leo laughed, “There’s even a resident alligator of all the damn things.”
Carl went for a walk along the Hudson in what felt like the first splendid day hinting at fall. He was a sedentary man of 68 and all the walking, plus all the tension over that letter, left him exhausted. He conked out early; and somehow another day was done.
It was painful for Carl to consider what had to be done, maybe more than for most. He had an entrepreneurial bent, though not the skills (ruthlessness) of a successful entrepreneur. He had won and lost various hands of fortune, mostly recently lost a social media company aimed at retirees who owned classic cars. If it weren’t for his Social Security checks, he didn’t know where he’d be or how he’d live. Florida, maybe, where you went when you gave up on life. To go there meant he would have to dumpster-dive to keep himself fed, he thought melodramatically. At least he wouldn’t need a winter coat.
Soon after, on Labor Day morning, he looked around his living/dining/office area and saw the dust in the air and the frays in the rugs. The bookshelves sagged. The dining table was scuffed and scarred and almost invisible under a pile of papers and books that only reminded Carl of the drudgery of moving. He couldn’t recall the last time the landlord had painted the walls. The place wasn’t much, but at least in 30 years he’d had the luxury of letting things slide.
It was two weeks since That Letter, and he was beginning to see what he could do about finding a new place. He had no clue how to proceed. He called one of his steadiest friends, and co-investor in the late business, Avram, who reacted to the news characteristically.
“You’ve waited HOW LONG? Are you INSANE? You’ve got to start immediately and I mean TODAY, Carlo.” Avram ran down the list of sources of apartments on his unseen fingers and said, “I’ll be there SOON. CIAO.”
Carl puttered about, finishing the breakfast dishes, setting out a plate of cookies (Avram would eat every one of them while explicating WeightWatchers points) and making coffee that he hoped would be half strong enough to please his finicky, gargantuan friend.
Avram was as good as his word. He showed up in an hour and started showing Carl printouts from real estate sites. He sat at the computer and waved off Carl’s offer for coffee and cookies, and ridiculed him for not having wifi. “How the hell do you connect to the INTERNET?” Avram demanded, rhetorically of course.
Carl mumbled, “Dial-up?” Avram threw up his gorilla-like arms.
“CARL! What is WRONG with you? It would be a BLESSING for you to leave this DUMP and get up to DATE.” Avram calmed down, accepting the plate of cookies (“these are only 4 points each…”), eating two-thirds of his daily allotment of points in five minutes. Between bites he asked Carl his criteria for a new place, how much his Social Security was each month, what other funds he had available for security deposits or a move. The answer was, Carl sighed when a deep shrug, “Nothing. Not a penny, Avram.” There was the $56K, but Nonna always said don’t tell anyone everything.
Avram ignored him and tore through a large number of web sites, wrote down some key listings and phone numbers, and searched industriously as Carl felt himself sinking into a certain knowledge. He would have to leave New York. Meaning Manhattan. “Carlo,” Avram said, “are you THINKING about Queens and BROOKLYN.” He might as well have said Arkansas or Lithuania. Carl blinked at him like a fish out of water, if fish could blink.
Avram, hunched over the screen, looked up and went, “Hm,” in not too promising a way. Then he said, “I’ve put you on a senior housing list.”
“In Manhattan?” Carl perked up.
“Seven years’ wait. I think you need a place SOONER than that, right?”
“Some time next year.”
“At the end of THIS year, Carlo. Wake UP.”
Carl gaped at his big friend with the outer-boroughs body. He was numb with fear and uncertainty. “Avram, what am I gonna do?”
“You’re going to INWOOD, that’s the FIRST thing you’re gonna do.
Carl had heard of Inwood, but in his 68 years, he hadn’t been closer to it than the City College campus at 135th Street. He used to joke that Inwood was a suburb of Albany. Ha. Ha. His stomach fell as he clambered up the 1 train stairs at 215th Street, followed by a lumbering Avram, who cried out, “My KNEES! Wait – I gotta… catch my… breath! CARL, I’m having a HEART attack!”
When Avram had recovered, they wandered around, trying to find the right building on the right street; the Manhattan grid came undone that close to the Bronx. To Carl everything looked like public housing. Despite the large park near by, the place had a cheerless quality. Maybe because it was 10 miles from the heart of Manhattan.
Avram checked his papers and said, “Here.” It was a yellow brick edifice that had the air of a county jail somewhere. He pressed the super’s buzzer and in a minute they were admitted into the drab 1930s lobby. No doorman. “Only $1300 a month?” Avram asked, shining with hope.
“Fourtee hahndreh,” said the super, nodding while he gave Carl a none too friendly once-over. He looked uncertainly up at Avram. Maricones, that’s what he thought. Avram caught it and said, “It’s for my FRIEND here. He lives ALONE.”
The super’s severe gaze softened just un poco. “I show you aparmen.” It was directly behind the super, and he opened it to them. Avram went in first, Carl following reluctantly behind. It was all he feared it would be.
First of all, it looked out onto the airshaft, so even on this sunny day it was twilight dark. Everything from the walls and floors to the kitchen and bathroom fixtures seemed original to the Thirties. It smelled of cabbage and cheap cuts of fried meat. It appeared clean, but when Carl opened a cabinet door, he disturbed a roach settlement, and the angry natives stormed his shoes.
“If I had to live here, I’d be dead in two weeks.”
Carl gently chided his friend for wasting his time to see something so much worse than his current home. He said, “You know, Avram, I’d put up with someplace really small to live closer to the action. Not way up here. And what a dump that was.”
Avram was chastened and admitted that he didn’t blame him. “Maybe I SHOULDN’T use Craigslist.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t,” Carl said peevishly. “I expected to see AIDS needles in that dump.”
Avram looked stung and muttered, “I’ll do better the NEXT time.” He dug up more apartments for Carl to see, all in Carl’s price range – Avram was strict about that – and these places made his old/current one seem like a mansion of spaciousness and amenities. And then one day, after a week of non-stop appointments, Avram came upon a one-bedroom with a terrace in the West Village. By private inquiries.
When he heard this news, Carl put his arms around Avram’s vast girth and burbled, “This is the one, I feel it!”
Avram smiled his multi-chicleted smile. He reminded Carl ANYTHING could happen when they got there tomorrow. “Let ME do the talking when we GO there, okay?” Carl promised to keep his mouth shut.
Before the appointment with the landlord of the Morton Street property – property? palace! haven! – Carl’s imagination ran away with him. He deliciously imagined himself in a new dwelling, one with a view of the river and a half-bath in case a visitor needed to take a poop and not stink up his own personal en suite bath. This bath he imagined with marble floors and walls, a double-sized, glassed-in shower, maybe a bidet for that Eurofeel. And in the kitchen – a dishwasher! Yes, a dishwasher, which would force him to use more than the same cup and sandwich plate and mustard knife over and over. In fact, he saw himself throwing the whole drawerful of silverware (so called) into the dishwasher just for the sheer hell of it. He hadn’t hosted a nice dinner party in, oh, fifteen years. He used to love that. Now – why not?
And oh how he wanted oak floors. Not the standard New York parquet, and certainly not wall-to-wall, which collected magnetized dirt and could never be adequately vacuumed. But real hardwood floors that would make the apartment feel like a home, and not a place to squat for thirty years. Or however much time he had left.
Carl even dreamed about the new apartment, and in the dream he shook hands with the refined, smiling landlord who said, “When can you move in?” With a benevolent clap on the back.
This was what watching HGTV could do to a generally sensible man.
The next day was overcast and a bit depressing, although it would take a hailstorm raining frogs and blood to dampen his mood. He met Avram outside the 1 train station on Christopher Street. Avram looked at him tenderly. “You know, Carlo, you MIGHT not GET it. Don’t set yourself UP…” Carl waved him off, chuckling, as Avram led him over to Morton and a brownstone that didn’t look as expensively redone as the others on the block. Avram let out a faint, “Hmmmm.”
“What’s the apartment number?”
“It’s 5-A. Walkup.”
“I don’t need an elevator."
“Come ON, Carl. You’re 68.”
“Shut up,” he snapped. One thing about Avram – sweet and helpful as he was – he was relentlessly negative. And this fixation on his age!
They trudged up five dark, narrow flights, Avram whispering, “Now let ME do the TALKING.” The fifth floor hall was so narrow Avram nearly got stuck in the doorway. Avram put his finger to his lips: “Shh!” They saw that 5-A was open. Avram led the way: “I KNOW this man. Let me do the TALKING,” he whispered again.
“Hello, hello, DUVVUD (the way it sounded to Carl), it’s Avram.”
“Hello, hello, DUVVUD (the way it sounded to Carl), it’s Avram.”
David was in the kitchen and came to greet Avram with real warmth. He was wearing a yarmulke. He was a trim little man of Carl’s age.
“Good to see you, boychik. How’s by you?” He talked some more, none of which Carl truly understood. He sounded like he was from Yiddish translating everything first; maybe it was Yiddish. Avram, looming above him, stuttered shyly. “I’m okay. Here’s my friend, Carl. He’s the one looking for an apartment…”
Carl presented himself to David, who gave him something like the malocchio. “What’s the last name?”
Avram began to speak but Carl cut him off. “Storti. It means twisted in Italian. I think one of my ancestors had scoliosis!” Carl laughed a horrid laugh, too uproarious for the occasion.
David looked startled. “Good to meet you, Carl. Well, Avram was right, you look like a dependable sort.” David was speaking with a normal American accent now. Carl wasn’t sure what was going on. “Go look around.”
Carl had been studying the living room/kitchen – parquet floors in the dinky living/dining area, new but dejected-looking linoleum in the kitchenette, emphasis on the -ette. One small window looked out at another small window not ten feet away. But it was freshly painted, probably no roaches. Cramped but doable, he thought.
David led him into the bathroom – the bathroom – a memorial to the 1950s. It was clean and not too moldy. Hardly enough room to turn around in. It did have a window, a tiny one perched over the tub. Something outside blocked the light. The sea-green porcelain and shower tile gave it a death-pallor atmosphere.
There was a tiny linen closet, as wide as a roll of toilet paper– room for three, four towels oft-folded, he guessed. Carl’s hopes were getting dashed by the second, and then they came to the bedroom.
It was large – larger than the rest of the apartment. Much. It had wonderful light, thanks mainly to the double set of sliding glass doors that gave onto a beautifully tiled and well-drained terrace, which itself was larger than the living room and kitchen. The view over the West Village with its trees and quaint rooftops, and sort of toward the Hudson, was the stuff of genre paintings. It was breathtaking. It had a closet! It was $1500 a month. For this room and this view, Carl told himself, he’d go without food.
Avram was beaming. See, I’m taking care of you!
“Christ, this is fantastic, Avram. I could get a little fridge and never have to leave this room except to go to the toilet. I can set up a workspace over there – “
“You need a WORK space?”
Carl could see that it had burst out of him, and now Avram was apologetic and ashamed. He started to yammer. “You’re right, Avram. I’m a useless old piece of shit. I don’t deserve this beautiful eyrie in the West Village sky. I should be in a boarding house in Queens where the landlady beats me with her vacuum cleaner hose.”
Avram apologized. “I’ll negotiate for you, Carl, DON’T WORRY. You’ll GET this place!”
David was still in the kitchen, hands on the counter. The man scrutinized Carl’s face and then nodded when Avram made the “I’ll call you” gesture. When they were outside Avram got as angry as Avram could ever get. “Why the hell did you HAVE to tell him you’re ITALIAN? I had him believing you’re JEWISH. Boy, you BLEW IT. FUCK!!!”
Carl looked up at him. “Italian Jew?”
Avram stalked off but waited for him by the subway entrance. “Boy, Carl, you sure don’t make it EASY.” His voice had thickened. He seemed like he was ready to tear up.
Carl was baffled. He was sure there was something behind that statement, something more than disclosing his true ethnic identity. He brushed it off – who knew with Avram? Who knew with anybody?
The three-day wait that followed was among the most intense – filled with fear and elation, dread and confidence – that Carl had ever lived through. He had intense enjoyment thinking how he would decorate the magnificent bedroom on Morton Street, and he imagined symposia of friends on the even more magnificent terrace, drinking and discussing significant topics as the long summer evenings reigned like happiness over them. He supposed he’d have to invite Avram.
Carl imagined himself living in that Jane Jacobs paradise in the daytime too, descending to the ever-alive neighborhood, greeting the baker and the butcher and all the quaint tradesmen (who charged mightily for all that quaintness) in the morning. Shopping done, he would ascend those five little flights to his Shangri-la in the sky, where he’d eat a soppressata sandwich and drink a beer and read a real book for lunch on the terrace on fine days; somehow, he thought, they’d all be fine days.
When Avram appeared at the door the next day, all those tender imaginings were kicked into the gutter below. The face was long, the eyes evasive. “Carlo, I don’t know HOW – “
“Forget it, Avram,” Carl nearly sobbed. “What the fuck, huh?”
Avram advanced on him and wrapped him in a long hug. Carl got a good whiff of armpit. It smelled like a crowded bus on a hot August afternoon in the Bronx. Carl struggled to get free and managed to gasp, “Thanks, you did everything, Avram. You’re the best friend anybody ever had.” That brought on more hugging.
Carl kept it from Avram but he was seized by acute panic and despair. This refusal by Mr. Muggen Duvvud was the final sign – he would never live in Manhattan again, ever. Fifty years in this central borough, this haven of everything interesting and good -- done. Less than three months to go. Out on his ear: Get atta heah ya bum. Where? He had no idea, no vision of where he might end up. (Certainly not back where he came from, Belmont, in the Bronx.)
Camping out by a dumpster in Florida, beset by ants and palmetto bugs. That’s what came into view. That and nothing else. He ruminated over this and his state of affairs and then Avram suggested Brooklyn. He listened as Carl listed the ways Brooklyn would not answer. Expense was #1, followed by remoteness and unsuitability. “They’d kill me in a week out in East New York. Bensonhurst has been taken over by Chinese. Midwood is too Hasidic. Bay Ridge…”
Bay Ridge. Sal. Salvatore. Salvatore Figaddi.
That’s how desperate he was. That he’d even consider going to Bay Ridge to try and beguile Sal Figaddi to let him rent one of his bedrooms. But viable options seemed to dwindle by the day – namely the recent, dismal days schlepping around Queens with Avram. The awfulness of every neighborhood and every apartment gave rise to fantasies of living aboard a friend’s little sailboat at City Island – yes, in the Bronx – anything not to leave the only city he had ever known. So, yes, it was the draw of the familiar, if unloved, that drew him to Sal’s at the end of the line of the R train.
The R train to the end of the line, end of the city, end of civilization as Carl Storti knew it. An interminable trip to 95th Street, almost in the shadow of the Verrazano Bridge, itself prosaic but somehow ominous. As the R crawled with horse-drawn slowness to south Brooklyn, Carl remembered how he had hated taking the trip out there nearly every day when he was seeing Sal. Three hours out of his life each day so he could have some decent sex and listen to a raving maniac who wore lifts in his shoes. So he could have the privilege of walking Sal’s miniature Schnauzer, Tancredi, which quickly came to prefer the smoke-free, kindly Carl to the 5-packs-a-day, volcanically angry Salvatore. But he had seemed so charming at first…
Carl was of Italian (Abruzzese) descent and from the Bronx; Sal was 100% Sicilian and all Brooklyn. It was a clash of cultures. Destined to fail.
After six intense months in ‘99, they broke up not because Sal was still cheating on him with his married “ex” boyfriend (Sal owed him for that); not because he was foul-tempered (ditto); not because of the cigarette habit (ditto); not because of Sal’s drunkenness (see item 2); not even because Sal’s living room was weird with plinths and columns. No, it was because Sal’s fingernails and toenails were so deformed and hardened by psoriasis that they made him seem like a mutant gargoyle come to terrifying life. Carl would wake up in the evening after a drunken supper and see those talons coming after him, and he’d sprint to the subway station, a good mile away, like a fugitive from Dr. Moreau’s island. All right, Carl never sprinted anywhere in his life, never mind uphill the whole mile, but the impulse was there.
He had checked Facebook and found that Sal was still alive, so far as Facebook knew, in the same place on Shore Road. The apartment was a spacious 2-bed-2-bath unit with a neat little terrace overlooking the water. And it was on the third floor, so if the elevators were out you wouldn’t get a heart attack climbing up the stairs. The bathrooms were a little crumbling, as Carl remembered, and the kitchen was a New York kitchen, but he could live with anything besides those damn plinths and obelisks and columns, which ranged from 6 inches to 6 feet in height. A Sicilian temple dedicated to the phallus.
Yet Carl was counting on Sal to feel guilty about his nasty treatment of himself. He was counting on Sal to need help meeting the rent since Sal’s former high-profile employer (too big to fail) had defaulted on its pension plan. He was counting on Sal’s loneliness.
When he got to Sal’s block on Shore Road he slowed to baby steps. Could he go through this? Was it even the right thing to do? Desperate as he was, could he abase himself in this way? Quell the rising nausea? Smother the embarrassment?
He decided that he could. Homelessness was the greatest evil of all. He went up the pavement to the mid-century sleek entrance and the doorman got permission to send him up.
Sal didn’t open the door. His old beard, Jussie Liska, did.
“Well, hi! Long time no see!” Her patented PR executive’s hello of joy and warmth, heart-shaped mouth ready to be kissed. Buxom and blonde as ever, only maybe more so. “What are you doing out here, Carl? How’s life treating you? You look wonderful!” She stepped aside and let him in. Carl almost tiptoed inside the place, which, he saw right away, was virtually plinth-free. Inside of brazening exaggerated masculinity, the furniture and decorations cooed an excessive femininity.
“Does Sal still live here?”
“He sure does.” She lowered her voice. “He’s a bit diminished. He’s had three MIs and a stroke. He has to use a scooter.”
Carl was beginning to see nothing but misery ahead for himself. Was Jussie living here?
“If you’ll wait, I’ll see if he’s…” She went softly to the second bedroom. She shook her head. “Sleeping like a baby. Poor thing, he has awful nights. We spend a lot of time soothing his fears during the night.”
Jussie blushed and almost curtseyed. “Well, yes, Carl, I’m a married lady now. Doreen Fangboner and I tied the knot in 2011. She’s an Ohio girl like me.” Jussie showed him her diamond wedding ring. Well into AARP eligibility, she laughed a trilling laugh like a junior prom queen.
“Do you live here?”
Again with the trilling laughter. “Of course we do! We moved in three years ago, after Sal’s stroke.” She stopped in mid-trill. “You got an eviction notice, didn’t you?” Carl opened and shut his mouth: caught! “You’re not the first to appear on his doorstep, mealy mouth in hand.”
Carl stammered, “No, no, not at all. I was feeling a little nostalgic – “
“Bullshit.” Jussie had her arms on her hips as she lit into him. “You dumped him when he needed you – “
“He did not need –“
“You left right after the first heart attack! And fifteen years later you have the effrontery to come crawling back. Meanwhile, I have been here for Sal all along. No break in the action. I have been a staunch, steady friend. Not like you, Carl.”
A phlegmy bass voice called from the second bedroom. “Who’s there, Jussie? It sounds familiar.”
“No one, dear, just some door-to-door salesman,” she sang back.
“Then fuckin’ get rid of the son of a bitch! I’ll give that damn Mick downstairs a piece of my mind about this.” Sal didn’t sound all that diminished.
“That’s what I was about to do, dearest.”
Carl pushed past Jussie. “Sal, it’s me. Carl. Carl Storti.”
Pause. A laugh that ended in a coughing fit. “Come back here, you cocksucker!”
The first thing Carl noticed was that the bedroom was crammed with the heavy furniture the girls didn’t want, plinths included. The second thing was Sal lying in bed with his nightshirt hiked up around his waist. Old muffintop was on full view. It was in fine working order. The rest of Sal hadn’t fared so well – no hair, shriveled face, no false teeth in his mouth. The psoriasis had become crippling from the looks of it. Sal looked like an elderly satyr, knocked on his back by astonishment.
Carl blanched and said, “Well, it’s good to see you looking so fit, Sal. I have to get the express bus back.”
“No, Carl, stick around, have a drink!” Sal cried plaintively. “These girls are killing me! I’ll pull down my shirt!” Sal scrabbled around for his teeth and finally got them in. His nightshirt was still up a bit too high. “So what the fuck are you doing here, Mr. Manhattan? Do you know Tancredi looked for you every day for a year? It made me fucking cry, you crass son of a bitch.” He wept again for his dead dog.
Carl he had a strong urge to bring a plinth down on Sal’s head. “Look, it was a mistake coming out here. Sorry to disturb you, Sal. You look like you need some rest.”
Sal reached out and grabbed Carl’s arm. “I always thought about you, Carly, and I regretted being such a fuckhead – “
Carl was envisioning cloven hooves embracing him, but Jussie charged in and cried, “I guess that’s about enough, Sal, dear. And you – you have to go.”
Carl’s last view of Sal was him waving his hooves around, knocking Jussie out of the way. A bass wail followed him to the elevator.
Hope dashed. Disaster avoided. Carl had a long time to weigh them in the balance as he crawled his way back to Midtown on the R. For Jussie to put up with it all these years there must be money in it for her. What other reason could there be? That she “loved him for himself”? How would that be possible?
It made him realize how different Avram was, what a better person he was, and a superlative friend. Staunch and steady. His face felt hot when he recognized how cavalier he’d been with Avram.
Carl began looking at Avram in a new way. He’d seen him as a giant, kind-hearted bumbler. Avram wasn’t the bumbler – he was. Avram had a new, profitable home-based business brokering something from Germany to the US; Carl had never listened to his descriptions of it, much to his regret now. Avram had bought (with cash) a brand-new apartment with a Midtown view on a high floor in Hunters Point, Queens – part of that little skyscraper city that had gone up there in recent years. Just across the East River. And what did Carl have? Oh let’s not go into it again, he lamented to himself as the R crept homeward.
Carl began treating Avram with more deference and was nice to him even when an apartment they inspected was a terrible dump. Really, even pleasant apartments with yard access depressed Carl: “Avram, please, this is like outer Siberia here. It takes 30 minutes just to walk to the subway.” One thing he couldn’t afford to do was get a car; unless he lived in it. He flopped his hands against his sides. “Sorry, I know you’re really trying.”
As November crawled to a halt, real estate-wise, Carl grew almost resigned to landing in a shelter. At Avram’s insistence they began sorting and packing (mostly throwing out) the stuff in his apartment. Avram was very organized. “Carlo, come ON, keep the clothes for the SHELTER here and YOUR clothes THERE.”
“Yeah, I might find them next month at the shelter.”
Avram ignored this. “And you can’t take 30 years of books, so pick the 20 MOST MEANINGFUL. These coffeemaker warrantees dating back ten and TWENTY YEARS – THROW THEM OUT!”
Carl would have been too overwhelmed to approach it so analytically, and for the ten thousandth time he was grateful beyond words to this true-blue friend. It was December 1 when they finished. The apartment looked nicer than in years, and Carl opened a bottle of Prosecco to celebrate. “Avram,” he said, tearing up, “thank you for everything. Everything. I’m not shitting you when I say I couldn’t – “
Avram lifted his glass and smiled, “What are friends for, Carlo?” Carlo cried a little; Avram looked genuinely happy.
“L’chaim!” Carl shouted. Avram took up the cry, and they drank the cheap wine with gusto.
Later when they were eating their Sunday Chinese there was a lull. Avram spoke up. “You know, Carlo, it’s -- it doesn’t look like you’re gonna GET a place for January 1 move-in.” Seeing Carl’s shoulders slump, he said, “But all is not LOST. I THINK there’s a workable SOLUTION to your problem.”
Carl, downcast now and with no appetite for moo shoo, asked, “What? I see myself in a shelter next month. At least it’ll be cheap.” He really couldn’t see anything else. His imagination wasn’t up to it.
“Carlo, it doesn’t have to BE that WAY!” Avram got down on his knees and grabbed Carl’s hand. “I’m asking you to MOVE IN with ME for as LONG as it TAKES.” Carl saw the pleading hope in his face and felt humiliated.
He grabbed his hand back and Avram lumbered back to a sitting position. Chastened, Avram said, “That’s all I’m saying. Until you find your OWN apartment.”
Carl poured the last of the warm Prosecco. He didn’t look at Avram. “Thank you, my friend. Thank you very very very much.”
As the wrecking ball was poised to strike, so to speak, Carl and the last of the other tenants left the building on New Year’s Day. They nodded their goodbyes in the snow. Angie mentioned that Ed Feldman had moved into a snazzy new apartment on Sutton Place. Much snorting at that tidbit. “It should burn down around his ears,” she declaimed.
The weather was terrible but Avram had scheduled Netanyahu or one of the other local movers to schlep most of Carl’s things over to a storage facility in Queens. A few suitcases and boxes went with them by car service to Avram’s apartment, and ended in the second bedroom that was his gift to Carl.
“Stay as LONG as you need to find an apartment you LIKE,” Avram told him.
“Stay as LONG as you need to find an apartment you LIKE,” Avram told him.
Carl lay on the bed, listening to the storm gather force, feeling surrounded by it thanks to the apartment’s glass walls. In a snow globe. Suspended in the sky. Removed from the grubby chaos 36 stories below. He lay on the bed, homesick and heart-sick. Is this how a life begins its final descent? Camping out in a friend’s apartment – no view of anything but snow? Which struck Carl as Symbolic in the extreme.
Avram couldn’t coax him out of his self-pity for dinner or a glass of wine. “Let me KNOW, Carlo. I made MANICOTTI. I got BISCOTTI. And Medaglia D’ORO!”
Avram couldn’t coax him out of his self-pity for dinner or a glass of wine. “Let me KNOW, Carlo. I made MANICOTTI. I got BISCOTTI. And Medaglia D’ORO!”
Carl said he was sorry but he would turn in early. He was very tired.
Avram looked serious. “There’s no RUSH. You can take your TIME, Carlo.” That was the problem, Carl thought. Avram would gladly keep him there for company, as a focus for his loneliness, for EVER. It was suffocating. He had to find his own apartment.
So Carl went far out on various subway lines, again mostly into Queens. Without Avram, who had to tend to his own business anyway. He viewed at least 15-20 places, many disgusting beyond imagining, a few pleasant in a desolate, world’s end sort of way. They seemed to tell him, Move in and the entire world will forget you exist. You could sit for days in one of the bright, clean rooms overlooking the collapsed garage and the crab-apple tree and never see a soul.
January gave way to short but endless February. Carl had grown discouraged and stopped looking a week before. “Maybe I’m just too picky, Avram. Do you think so?”
“You think MANHATTAN is the center of all LIFE.”
Carl stared. “Isn’t it?”
Avram shrugged. “It’s great but – EVERYPLACE has its good points. Even QUEENS.”
Carl sighed deeply. “Boy, I feel – “ He waved his hand as of to say, I can’t express it. He seemed ready to cry.
Avram looked at him, considering something. Then he said in a different tone, “You know the difference in religion, it doesn’t MATTER. I talked with my MOTHER and SHE said – “ Avram’s face lit up with joy – “we don’t HAVE to get married by a RABBI. You only have to go to Mount Kisko for PASSOVER. But she EXPECTS you to be SUPPORTIVE of me on the High HOLIDAYS and come to BREAK-FAST. You DON’T have to go to TEMPLE. If you don’t WANT to.”
Carl was staring open-mouthed (what had he been telling Mamma?) when Avram leaned in to kiss him with ample tongue. He wrapped his arm around Carl’s waist.
Carl felt those big chiclets rubbing against his teeth, smelled Avram’s acrid sweat, and felt himself being slid over the leather cushion toward him. He decided to go limp, as when a bear approaches. Avram stopped immediately.
After a long stare: “Carl, I won’t bother you any more. I was wrong. I can see what you think of my mother.” There was a tremor in his voice. All joy had left his face. Stared at the light-gray builder’s grade carpet and said, “Maybe you better find another place to live, huh? Soon.” Avram spoke quietly and without his usual emphases. He adjusted his crotch and went into his room, locking the door.
Shame and alarm seized Carl in equal measure. Why couldn’t he have, for once, gone with the flow? Been in the moment? Paved the way to real estate security? He jumped up and ran to Avram’s door. “Avram! Avram! Please don’t be mad! Don’t leave me alone!” He stood there panting and gently knocked with his fingertips. Avram opened the door and gave him an annihilating look.
“PLEASE stop tapping on my door.” He went inside. He locked the door.
Carl went to his room. He sat on the bed, watching a splendid winter sunset of gold and red and purple glint off the spires of Midtown. A beautiful but cruel send-off, he thought. He sat there meditating until darkness had fallen. Carl texted Avram, who answered GO WAY and then blocked him.
Nothing left to lose. Given up on life. He shrugged but in his mind’s eye he raised his hands to his face and wept. At least he’d know Leo, him with the coconut trees.
For a man who had never driven farther from Manhattan than Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Carl handled the 1300 mile trip down the East Coast well. He got lost only 4 times (mostly around DC), got 2 tickets (one for illegal parking, one for speeding in Maryland, which didn’t really count) and was grievously overcharged only once, for a roachy motel room (“the Inwood Collection”) in the Savannah, Georgia area.
It was four o’clock now, with a long day’s driving behind him. He kept his phone charged in case Leo should call, or anybody else. No calls in response to his for a couple of days. In deep telephonic silence on a highway next to fields of scrub in a landscape of bunkerlike malls and warehouses decorated with palm trees. He didn’t know if he was exhilarated or the last, sad man on earth.
The GPS lady gave him relentless directions on some huge grid, and well before sunset he found himself at Coconut Estates. The place didn’t exactly live up to Leo’s billing, but that didn’t surprise him. The “estates” were 6-8 lines of sun-faded, two-story garden-apartment-style buildings decorated with trees and sunstroked shrubs. Mostly older cars and new Korean cars were lined up in the parking areas. Carl was relieved; he’d have worried about his budget if the lot was full of Lexuses and Mercedes. But Leo had arranged everything, the rent was doable ($1100), and the apartment was ready for him.
He made his way to MGMT OFF CE, taking care to lock up his sparse belongings. The office was a model apartment, and as he waited for the manager or someone to show up, he checked out the unit. He suspected they were all the same. One BR, one BA, small antiquated K and cramped LR. Furnished in haut-motel style; which he didn’t mind at all.
As he wondered about this, the door opened and a colorfully made-up woman of advanced years stormed in. She was wearing a tight skirt that played peekaboo with her crotch and support pantyhose that immobilized her cellulite.
“Oh hi! Carl? I was expecting you! Carl, I’m Nancy. Nancy Soares. I think we knew each other up in Belmont years ago. “ She shook hands, digging her talons into his skin. “They knew me as Canela in those days. Remember?”
He let out a bark of laughter because he did. Canela – one of the more ambitious local whores. He began, “You can take the Bronx out of – no, I’m sor – “
Nancy threw back her head in laughter. “I was quite the hot little number. Twelve-thirteen years old when I got started. And they got all these rules today against kids working – it’s bullshit!”
Glumly Carl thought, Red State mentality. “Are there many other New Yorkers here?”
Nancy did a double take. “Sweetheart, we’re up the ass with New Yorkers. Take a shit and it’s got a New York accent.”
She sat down and got him signed in, took his security deposit and first two month’s rent. “There, I think we’re all set, Carl. You can unload your stuff any time. Got a U-Haul or something?”
“No, everything’s in a regular old rental car. I got rid of stuff – wasn’t worth carting down here.”
Nancy nodded approvingly. “You want a new start. Even at our age we can get a new start.”
“So which apartment is Leo in?” Long pause. “Leo Lipsky?”
Nancy looked at him in a particular way.
“Oh, shit. Oh, Christ.”
She was nodding when he opened his eyes, “Three days ago. Dropped dead right in the parking lot. Trying to save his little dog from Barney – he’s our resident gator.” Her downcast eyes told him what happened to the dog. She said a brave neighbor chased the alligator away by throwing an Electro-Lux vacuum cleaner canister at it. “Those things have some weight to ‘em. Metal. It was very dramatic. Listen, Carl, I’m sorry. I knew Leo since 1958. A great customer even as a teenager – queer but God could he eat pussy. He was the one hooked me up with Posey and Rubiria, they were the core of my troupe of girls. Course he got a cut. We ran them fair and square, too. A real sweetie, that Leo. You know, for a Jew.”
Carl sat a few moments, his own eyes downcast. He got up and took the keys to the apartment. It was on the second floor. It was exactly like the model except that it had a small terrace where he could sit and see the splendid sunset over the Everglades. The tangled wild appeared exotic, and it made him smile for the first time all week. He laughed softly thinking, A new start. A pimp.
The light was spectacular now, the time when the clouds were changing to red and water glittered for the last time till morning. It must have rained a lot recently because there was a wide pool of water between the back parking area (no cars) and the next building. Some coconut palms were stranded in the water. The red sky reflected the palms into the water, which reflected back to him.
Someone banged on his door and clamorous New York voices begged him to drink with them.
Turning, Carl caught a ripple on the water, and of course Barney raised his head above the surface, jaws ready.