But back to Tricia and Angelo. They occupied the apartment above mine in a rehabbed, eight-apartment building on Sullivan Street in the Village. Her hair was as geometric as a well- trimmed hedge; his was artfully arranged over a bald spot. (Even then I noticed hair.) I’d been up to their place to look around the day I moved in. They were obviously pleased with how they had managed to make a basic studio into an artsy yet cozy love nest. Even after all these years I can still picture the stenciled koans, bright abstracts, and found sculptures – including a dining-room chair hung high on one wall. Tricia, she informed me, had come up with the concepts; Angelo – Ange, she called him – had executed them. She did the talking; he stood by looking pleased with himself, her, and with the results of their collaboration. It cost next to nothing, Tricia went on, and mentioned a sum that was out of the question for me. They were eager, I could see, for me to emulate them and bring the building up another notch in the fashion department. I admired their work, never letting on that on my salary as a graphic designer did not permit me to set down roots in the Village.
Not that they were exactly setting down roots. Over the next few weeks Tricia got to confiding in me whenever our paths crossed entering or exiting the building or on the stairs leading to the first floor. Perhaps this confessional attitude of women is where gay men and priests intersect – or, in some cases, are one and the same. It is amazing what a woman will tell you turned halfway around on a landing or walking the length of a short corridor. What I pieced together was that not only were Tricia and Angelo not married but that he had a wife and two small children on Long Island. Although he had grown weary of the wife, he loved the children and missed them and felt horribly guilty to no longer be living with them. (And maybe he felt guilty about the wife, too, maybe even missed her but had enough sense not to confide this to Tricia, whose only description of the wife was “impossible” with raised eyebrows lacking only a finger swirling about her head to indicate a loose screw.) Whether to stay with Tricia or return to the bourgeois raised ranch on the island haunted Angelo, and Tricia was equally haunted by his ambivalence.
Tricia was practicing metaphysical birth control – another nugget she let fall as we passed each other on the stairs. I happen to know that a few years later when she desperately wanted to become pregnant she wasn’t able to conceive, which goes to prove that metaphysical birth control works best on the infertile.
I developed more than a nodding acquaintance with the other occupants of the building when we each got a rent hike. A shriek began when frowzy-headed Fran on the top floor opened her mail on her return from work, and that shriek echoed throughout the building as one by one we opened our own mail. Tricia and Angelo called a meeting that very night at their place. We had to sit on the floor in the crowded space, and I could see that our host and hostess, although gracious, were fearful the whole time that California red might get spilled on their carpets.
Perhaps my next door neighbor Nathan also saw their discomfort; he offered his place for a follow-up meeting. Nathan was a balding, compact, sixty-year-old Jewish guy who after college became a Marxist and in spite of his parents’ desire that he become a professional – any professional, doctor, lawyer, professor – became a typesetter and proud union member. Instead of the three-piece suits his parents had imagined for him or the overalls that a Soviet Union worker might don, he always dressed in plaid shirts tucked neatly into spotless, permanent press khakis. He looked good. It was he, I believe, who suggested we stage a rent strike.
Ange, who it turned out was a corporate guy, not a true artist, and Fran, who was a paralegal, did the groundwork on setting up an escrow fund and instituting a court case; they kept the rest of us informed. Nathan, who as a communist believed above all in communal living, was in his glory. He’d had a long-suffering wife, who truth to tell agreed more with his parents but who out of loyalty or perversity had stood by Nathan in his ideology.
Now Nathan was a widower and his one daughter lived with her doctor husband in Westchester. Nathan had moved from Alphabet City to our building because he didn’t think it right for a single person to take up an apartment sized for three. Or maybe ABC was beginning to scare him the way it scared his wife the whole time they lived there. He didn’t say. But living with us once we became an “us” suited him personally and ideologically. He held coffee klatches in his place every Sunday morning, the door open so you couldn’t miss the invitation, and all of us fell into the habit of dropping in and maybe spending the rest of the morning there. Some brought bagels, others cream cheese, others lox, others fruit. It was like the loaves and the fishes. No need to go back to our own places for lunch. When the good weather came, Nathan pried open a window that led to a roof, and we sat out there on plastic lawn chairs.
I went to an early Mass in order not to miss out on Nathan’s coffee klatch. In fact, I went to an early Mass every day of the week because, as I mentioned, I was in the process of discerning a vocation. I attended the chapel at NYU’s Catholic Center, named for the brother of a notorious Mafia don who had contributed heavily to the building of the center. The atmosphere was reverent and consoling; the monsignor who preached a short sermon every weekday and a longer one on Sundays felt more like a father to me than my own old man did. I was idealizing, I know now, and even realized at the time because after Mass the monsignor was rather awkward socially and no more charismatic than the next guy.
Nathan caught on to my daily Mass schedule. He was as chatty as Tricia, and with apartments right next to each other, we couldn’t have avoided each other if we’d wanted to. Often when I returned after work, he’d hear my keys in my door and open his. He’d suggest we go out to supper together, and I often agreed. Aside from Mass, work, and the building, I didn’t have much of a social life and thought I wanted to keep it that way in case I suddenly decided to enter a seminary. We usually ended up at a particular Greek fast food place trying to pass itself off as a diner.
Nathan was a good talker and a good listener. He took a paternal – more nearly maternal – interest in the other tenants in our building. He worried about Sherry from the second floor, who true to her name, overindulged in the fruit of the vine. (Note to new parents: avoid giving your baby a suggestive name.) “She didn’t leave her place all weekend,” he said one evening over kabobs and salads at the diner. “Devoted her whole weekend to the bottle.”
Sherry was about my age and attractive in a rather mannish way. Perhaps she was as unsure of her sexuality as I was of mine; perhaps that’s what ate at her. I pictured her trapped in a bottle, her weekend shot, breaking out in time to stumble back to her job in retail, spending the first few days of the new week in the company of a blinding headache, recovering enough by the end of the week to start drinking all over again. Would I as a priest have any idea how to counsel such a person? How could she possibly be happy? She didn’t have company come to her door and she didn’t often attend Nathan’s Sunday morning brunches. Should she enter a convent?
“What are you running away from?” Nathan asked, cutting into my reverie.
“Yes, what is you really want to do with your life? Why go to Mass every day? What are you trying to figure out?”
I didn’t think I wanted to confide in Nathan about my possible call to the priesthood. I didn’t think he’d understand. (I think now that he would have understood me better than I did myself.) “Why did you become a communist?” I asked.
He was quick with an answer, as though taken from a catechism of his own making. “Joy,” he said. “It makes me happy. Also, I love the idea of Marxism. Also, the world needs the Marxist philosophy if ever the downtrodden and oppressed are to rise up and live fully human lives.” He sipped his coffee. Unlike me, Nathan could consume caffeine right up to the moment he retired for the night and still sleep like a baby. “Does the Mass do that for you?”
I have to admit, Nathan’s Marxism didn’t make him narrow. He seemed genuinely interested in my answer and, like the good friend he was, wanted what worked best for me. He peered over his glasses, awaiting my answer. “Well,” I began, taking inspiration from his own declaration. “To me, Catholicism is what the world needs and I am a believer and so I am the one to spread that good news.” I felt my face flame brightly. I wasn’t used to talking like a holy roller.
“You’ve left something out,” he said.
“Left something out?”
“Joy, does your Catholicism give you joy?”
“Of course,” I said hastily. And I meant it.
“But you are not happy at the present time.” Because I did not answer right away, because he could sense I was stunned and possibly insulted by such an intrusive remark, Nathan looked up at the menu board and announced that he would be having some baklava for dessert.
In the following weeks, buds appeared on the tree of heaven that overhung the roof outside Nathan’s window; then the tree was in full leaf, then turned color. We continued to meet on Sundays whether or not there was anything new about our court case. We got to know each other better in a breezy sort of way. Most of us were still young. Most of us, it turned out, were far enough away from family and childhood friends and new enough to the city not to have a “crowd” of our own. Sunday mornings we were our own crowd and enjoyed a lazy comradery that we’d look back on with pleasure.
Liam was the only other older tenant and he wasn’t as old as Nathan, but his wavy hair, as long as a concert conductor’s, was prematurely white. He hailed from the Aran Islands and was as tall and broad-shouldered as a fisherman who could net and haul in a 40-pounder singlehanded. He was also a flaming queer, and although he dressed in jeans and tees his gestures and voice were as flagrant as a queen’s. He seemed to pick me out to aim barbs at, and it worried me slightly that he’d seen through my stridently straight presentation of myself. Like me, Liam was Catholic. Unlike me, he didn’t attend weekday Mass or Sunday Mass or any Mass at all except on biennial visits to Ireland to visit his mother. He did, however, have a deep belief in ghosts and premonitions and all sorts of other truck that I thought superstitious but had to admit were also genuinely Catholic. In recent weeks, Liam had taken in a stray black cat that he named after the “Free Angela” posters all over the Village. Evenings, Free Angela, the cat, would scritch-scratch at my door and when I opened it would stroll in to examine the premises, but she always returned to Liam’s to do her business and to spend the night. I rather enjoyed the sensation of having a pet that came and went.
One day, Free Angela set up a yowling outside Sherry’s door. Sherry was the only tenant who never opened her door to the cat. After a few minutes her door did open, a glass full of water splashed onto Free Angela, and the door banged shut.
“Ding, dong, dell, Pussy’s in the well.” Liam appeared and scooped up his cat. “What a naughty girl was that who tried to drown poor pussy cat,” he crooned. He tossed his head at Sherry’s door and walked away cradling the cat. “Who never did any harm.”
Robert was my age. He was clearly straight but had no luck with the ladies. In fact, Robert had no luck with much of anything. He didn’t know how to shop, couldn’t cook or figure out how to comport himself at the laundromat. His hair flopped all over his head as though he had a dozen cowlicks. He had grown up in New Jersey, Nathan explained, with a mother who did everything for him. He was in jeopardy of losing his job as a projectionist in a movie theater, and often complained on Sunday mornings of the unfair expectations his boss laid on him. “Do you always put the reels in in the proper order, dear?” Liam asked him one morning.
“I’m sure he does,” Vera said, hastening to soften Liam’s rude question. Although it looked like rain, we were all on the roof, including Sherry, who appeared to be having an abstemious day, although I did wonder whether her mug held something in addition to Nathan’s coffee. Nathan had had to brew a fresh batch in a tea kettle after Robert put the electric coffee maker directly onto a burner and melted its base, creating the stink that had sent us all quickly to the roof. Vera and Clyde, her beau, sat side by side and hand in hand in flamingo-pink chairs that clashed prettily with Vera’s thick auburn locks. I had seen them earlier at Mass, she walking in with me from Sullivan Street, he arriving a few minutes later from wherever it was that he maintained a lair of his own. Although they spent much of the waking hours of each weekend together, Clyde had never stayed the night on Sullivan Street. Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, those of us who were still awake in the wee hours heard him leave her top floor apartment and descend the stairs to the street. I know some of the others were rooting for him to stay the night, but I felt secretly proud of those two for keeping up the Catholic ideal of waiting for marriage. Liam apparently agreed. “Vera’s not that kind of girl,” he had said to me once, rolling his eyes at the thought of how permissive our culture had become. “I just love a bride dressed all in white, don’t you.”
At six o’clock on Tuesday evening Fran entered the building and screamed up the stairwell. “A great injustice has been perpetrated!” Doors opened on every floor. “We won!”
“That is obscene, Francine,” Liam sang out.
A celebration was in order, a real party. We assembled a guest list, hired a guard to check the list at the street door, and cleaned up our apartments. Angelo and I shopped for wine at a discount place in the East Village. Everyone made or bought finger food to put out in little dishes. Tricia tactfully suggested that my apartment, being one of the first a guest would encounter, be the cloakroom. I took no offense.
Actually, my guests blended into the mix effortlessly, while I roamed the building like Free Angela, sipping sangria and drinking in the atmosphere. The rent strike and the coffee klatches had turned eight separate studio apartments into a community, a village in the Village. Nathan’s radio was tuned to classical music. Liam was playing Celtic tapes. At Vera’s place I sank into a beanbag sofa and listened to the Ray Conniff Singers on her hi-fi. Happiness is, happiness is, happiness is, different things to different people. That’s what happiness is.
I never did enter a seminary. I was called to a different sort of life, the one I was born to and that would allow for the intimacy that I didn’t think I’d find in the priesthood. We mustn’t let our hearts condemn us, John the Evangelist cautions. For God is greater than our hearts. I still live in the Village, all these years later, although not on Sullivan Street. I attend Mass on occasion. NYU has demolished the Generoso Pope Catholic Center and built a tiny chapel on the ground floor of the behemoth that replaced the original modest but welcoming structure. And so when I go to Mass it’s to St. Joseph’s on Sixth Avenue. From time to time, I walk by the Sullivan Street building. Angelo left Tricia to go back to his little family on Long Island. Vera and Clyde did get married but only after Clyde started spending entire nights at Vera’s. Nathan and Liam have died, of course, the one of a heart attack, the other of AIDS. I’m not sure what became of Fran. Tricia, as I’ve said, hoped for a child with a new, more available lover, and ended up adopting two baby girls from China. Sherry, I heard, joined AA and married a woman she met at meetings. Robert writes novels that are on the New York Times bestseller list. In his author photos, his beautifully styled hair lies flat against his head. You’d recognize his name.
As for me, when graphic design got taken over by computers, I became a hairdresser and hear as many confessions as a priest does – these days probably more – and in my fashion I offer absolution and spread the good news. After a few years of openly living my gayness, I found intimacy in a stable relationship that continues to this day. I am happy.
I was so captivated by your story. I had to read it twice. It was drawn into the group.
Love remembering that age and those times, the spontaneous communities, the off-hand, almost compulsive sharing that connected us, the comings and goings and coming outs — and the pain strung through those days of recovery from bad parenting that makes is so amazing how very happy most of us turned out to be!
A delightful read, Barbara
Your eye and ear is keen to the goings on of the human heart, and your characters pulled me in
right away; they are relatable and each has something to teach. Takes me back to my early days in a basement apartment when even the briefest of interactions were often the most interesting!
Excellent story–brings both a place and a time to life. And I love the advice about names!
Wonderful story!! Love the evocation of a particular time and place and the dry humor of the narrator.
Wonderful story, Barbara. I admire your daring in taking the POV of a young gay man headed for the priesthood. Entirely believable and a great evocation of a place and a time.
A delightful story. Thanks for sharing it.
I really enjoyed this! The characters are natural and a great mix of every day people.
Everyone has a story, and you told theirs well 🙂
Fascinating story. You wrote it so well that I got to know all the people in the building and never felt puzzled by them.
Thank you for a really good read.