For two years I rented an apartment in Greenwich Village behind a novelty t-shirt shop on Bleecker Street, located just next to the purported address of the Marvel Comics multiverse explorer Doctor Strange. The apartment was on the ground floor. I could unlock the metal window gate of the large back window to climb outside into the garden.
One night after Letterman, I took the garbage to the curb but forgot my keys. I couldn’t get back in through the building’s front door. Even if I could, the door to my apartment had locked itself behind me.
And even though I lived in the Village on Bleecker Street, party central, a café on every corner, one bar after the next, I didn’t know anybody in the neighborhood. Nor did I know anybody in the building except for my neighbor, Dean the actor, who would stay out late until who knows when, maybe I could remember which bars he liked. But it could be a long wait and I had work in the morning.
In a city of skyscrapers, I rarely left the surface. From my ground floor apartment, I would ride the subway to a basement laundry room in an Upper West Side apartment building, where I had a job as a database programmer for the national operations center of an intelligence service with operatives in every major U.S. city. I could tell you more, but then I’d have to kill you with boredom.
So it’s quarter to one and I’m stuck outside and there’s nobody I can think to call, especially for calling collect because I didn’t bring any money with me, just garbage.
My friend Joe lived about 20 blocks away. When I first moved to New York, thinking that I had moved into the Situation Comedy Universe where neighbors pop in to exchange witty banter, I dropped by Joe’s place one night unannounced. He told me not to do that again.
I could call my folks in New Jersey, but no, I was trying to be an independent adult and it was too soon to call for a rescue. I had to figure it out by myself.
Why didn’t I know more people in the neighborhood or in the city?
I learned all sorts of things at college, but not how to make friends. Joining a fraternity as an 18-year-old gave me a turnkey social life, and most of my on-campus years were within that circle. Although we would open our doors and our taps to the women of Pittsburgh’s many fine colleges and universities, I didn’t make any new friends that way. Making friends wasn’t the point, drunken sex was the point. I was better at drinking than dancing, and better at passing out than hooking up. But at least I had somewhere to be and somewhere to go, and our gang of bold and boisterous and brilliant boys had many exciting adventures.
There was a price. Within a year of joining the Greek system, I lost my genius astronomer girlfriend from high school and the respect of my more independent-minded friends; within two years, I was overweight, odorous, and slovenly; within three years, suffering from a psychological rupture; and by senior year, unmoored from reality, culminating in a manic episode during finals week. I missed graduation due to another commitment, an involuntary one. But my timing was good. I earned a diploma.
I’m resilient. One year after college, I had a good-paying job and an apartment in the city. I didn’t want to jeopardize my footing by getting caught up in bar scenes. I just wanted to work and stay out of trouble.
Sure, I’d go out with my old friends, anyone who wanted to have a weekend in the city could crash at my place, I had plenty of room. I knew a bunch of sculptors working at a foundry in Trenton. They would often spend the weekend, and we’d hit the bars, galleries, and CBGBs. And then they’d go back to the kilns, and me to my subterranean world.
Dave from work was friendly and welcoming. We were hired as programmers at the same time. He was more of a Mac addict than me, maybe even more than Joe, and one time the three of us went out for lunch and talked about computers. Dave was also into musical theater, and a few months in, Dave told me he was gay.
“I was wondering how long it would take you to figure it out,” said Joe.
Figure it out? I didn’t figure anything out. Dave told me. That’s how I knew.
Dave invited me out with his friends at Club USA, a packed dance floor with a drag performer covering the Beastie Boys: “You gotta FIGHT! For your RIGHT! To be QUEER!!”
I was a bit envious of Dave. He had a community and they looked out for each other. I didn’t have anything like that, at least not since the disguised homoeroticism of fraternity life. And I was too clueless, insecure, and embarrassed to be a better friend to Dave by being an ally in the fight against discrimination, against bigotry, and against the epidemic that took his husband and so many of his friends. Had I been more open, the city may have felt more like home.
Note to multiverse self: The next time you join a college fraternity, make sure they fully support LGBTQIA+ acceptance and equal rights.
Out on the street, I remembered that the back window of my apartment was still open. I had been outside earlier that summer night and hadn’t yet locked the gate. Which means all I needed to do was go into someone’s apartment, out their back window onto the fire escape, and then down into the garden.
I hung around by the door and got lucky. A flight attendant lived on the top floor. She was just arriving home with her carry-on luggage and boyfriend in tow. I explained my situation to the couple. They were suspicious at first, but it turns out I can be very charming and convincing when I’m trying to get someone into bed, especially when that someone is myself and the bed is my own. The guy threatened to kill me if I was lying, and he had a gun, and yeah sure okay. They let me in.
Not long after, for no reason in particular, I thought it would be a good idea to create a new identity and leave the country. And to do that, you need to learn a language, and I picked French.
At the French Alliance/Alliance Française on E 59th, I learned some greetings, the alphabet, and how to conjugate. I used my discount to the FI/AF film series to soak in the culture.
I took a vacation and flew to Paris.