content warning: white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia
“What do you think I’d see, if I could walk away from me?”
— “Candy Says,” The Velvet Underground
I don’t want to know these people very well. I’d like to merely pass along documents that attest to their existence, not who they are. Forms. Photographs. But, no. Too little to edit.
There are three men and where all of this begins is where they’re from: Southeastern Nassau County, New York, or “a county away from Queens” is what I’d say to folks abroad. In this community, in the late Twentieth century, fathers would drag their sons into the one barber shop on Park Boulevard and demand that their boys get haircuts “like men.” When the long haired kids refused, they would be taken back to the family car and routinely whipped in the backseats with belts. Their mothers would watch on, sometimes crying. I didn’t know those people—not in that moment, I wasn’t alive—but, later, when I got my hair cut, just a trim, in the same shop, the oldest barber told me that story like he needed help living with it.
I know that place treated me well and told me I could go when I chose. I also had money, I am also a man, I am also gay, so they didn’t necessarily want to see my love on Park Boulevard at daytime, or the old people would have preferred not to, as well as some Republicans. Few people in this community wanted or want it presently to change in any way.
As for the three men, some years older than me: Anthony had the long hair, Ian would have liked to but had been too conscious of getting called a faggot (because he was one, well no faggot but) and Ken didn’t need to do a thing with his face or body to get attention, he had been stunning. You don’t choose the first people you meet, talk to, play with as a very small child. This was the basis of friendship for the three men. Somehow, they continued it for decades.
By the time I left in the mid-2010s, Ian lived in Ridgewood, Ken in a small-but-nice house in the more modest part of town north of the railroad tracks, and Anthony in a multi-story structure with columns out front and decks out back over a canal, an area locals called Nassau Shores. Ken was the only one to hoist a flag bearing the name of the 45th President of the United States, for all to see, on his block where everybody agreed with him.
I think there is a lot of talk about these people, too much, but it really doesn’t tell you everything. And I can’t, I’m only their son. But: I am their son and I don’t hate them—not for who they are, but I hate them for what they do, or more precisely, what they haven’t done. They won’t read this, but I just might.
[ 1 ]
Ian hated cafes. He was sitting at one with a colleague, a young Black woman who had just completed her doctorate at the CUNY Graduate Center and had a full course-load this semester, as an adjunct. They had run into each other on the department floor a few times, started small talk, and then got to conversation. She suggested that they meet here on a weekend. He was tenured and just felt older.
Ian taught Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man every other semester. This once felt radical and necessary for a young white professor to do, but as the years went on he really felt as if he were faking it, the students taking his lessons, him, as a sweet joke who gave them A’s.
Her dissertation had been on Shakespeare’s sonnets, she talked more about it this afternoon. “And another graduate student once told me how obvious it was Shakespeare wrote the sonnets for money, that they weren’t so serious as the plays. Embarrassing.” Afterwards, Ian couldn’t remember if they’d spoken about the “no stronger than a flower” line, his very favorite.
Eventually they spoke about Obama’s election in 2008—another one was coming up. Her family had been living just behind the Adam Clayton Powell Building on 126th Street, and saw firsthand the celebrations outside, ecstasy. Ian had been living in Brooklyn then, too, and remembered it well. Then he admitted offhand that where he was born, the night had most likely been quiet as any other.
They went back to talking about work, which departmental administrators could really be trusted, recent student activism to make the college divest from for-profit prisons, how much the trustees loved Zionism, and more. Out of nowhere, he wasn’t sure why, Ian began talking about something from home he admired.
“Candy Darling was a trans woman close to Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground, that New York scene in the Sixties and Seventies. She’s from where I’m from. I can’t imagine what it was like growing up for her, but then, I’m from there, I guess I really can. In the city she called her parents’ house her ‘country home,’ I think, but I try and see her waiting on the elevated train platform looking down on Park Boulevard, where she was born. I wonder what she saw. Or if she could look.”
They didn’t talk much after that.
But she did ask, “Do you still know many people there?”
“Yeah,” he said, knowing how they would vote. The two academics would become very close work friends, and always Ian expressed caution, he never wanted her to hear his childhood.
[ 2 ]
On Thanksgiving morning every year, Ken liked to take a walk and think about his many blessings. This is what he told people. For the rest of the year he spoke about it so much that, on the actual day, he would step out and meet the chill November air, his mind empty and sex prickling from the change in temperature.
He and his wife agreed on politics but nobody was more passionate than Ken. He was very glad to have his man in the White House. A “real doer.” A “real man.” More than that—of course he didn’t represent the working class, Ken didn’t believe that, but the ways he satirized, mocked, and tortured the modest media elite thrilled him. Finally someone was in on the joke. Finally someone was telling them—the rich—that they weren’t the only people in America, that poor people were mocking them, that poor people could be rich too (compared to American corporate wealth, Ken considered himself poor). And more, he was making them and himself tons of money while mocking the fuckers endlessly. That took guts.
Ken wasn’t so stupid to believe that he had been treated necessarily unfairly in his home country, but there were things he wanted explained. His godson was the brightest kid he knew. For years, they said Columbia, Brown, Harvard. And he didn’t get in. Public opinion in town would have started to talk about sinister affirmative action, who undeservingly got in instead, and Ken would not have challenged them, but after all he really didn’t know what affirmative action was. The confusion made him frustrated. The frustration made him angry. And the only outlet he imagined for the anger was quick relief, like what money could buy—not more anger, not struggle, not challenge, not life. Then again, after arguing with left-wingers in his family, he would regain the provisional respect of some by asserting that no matter what, politics wouldn’t do much to change the lives of him and his people, his family gathered there, and above all they had to keep going to work and raising their children and so on. Ken didn’t know much.
Ken didn’t lack empathy—he just had no idea, and wasn’t looking for, how it could really be used.
What happened, normally, was that Americans selected one party to rule the government for eight years, and then, almost indifferently, or with utter impunity, sampled the other, maybe new ideas. To Ken, this hadn’t killed or tortured too many as of yet.
Ken’s friend, Anthony, saw no reason to voice public support for a Neo-Nazi sympathizer just because he disagreed with socialists and wished to keep all his money. For his part, Ken wasn’t sure if Anthony didn’t despise him, or if Ian was really a man.
Then, when they met—Anthony and Ken did so more frequently, alone, felt guilty about or uninspired to drag Ian out of Brooklyn—there was much they talked about, a little that they didn’t, but the depth of that little was, unobserved, immeasurable. Or could be only measured by the fact that nobody tried.
At a bar under the railroad tracks, closer to Ken’s, the two men sat at a cocktail table with glasses of pilsner that were tall, and cost nearly ten dollars each.
“Are you sure that, had the other side won in 2016, things would have been so different?” asked Ken out of nowhere, stirring shit.
“You’re doing it, man.”
“What’s wrong, then? What do you want to say?” Ken didn’t sound angry. But his face had also lost the stern non-smile adolescent males take on to prove they aren’t children or gay.
He didn’t look fragile—more startling was how what, in his inquisitive face, lay abject and bare wasn’t delicate at all.
Ken went on, “You live in this suburb and are protected by what you’ll call his bigotry. So why do you disagree with him?” The single-mindedness, the bluntness of his inquiry was impressive, like the neat twisting advancing line of a snake.
“And don’t you lie to me,” he challenged.
“Well then,” Anthony quietly attempted, “why does he have to say all of that? Why does he have to say that about Mexico, countries in Africa, Haiti, and the people there? There are groups of white supremacists with guns in this country who will rove around killing Blacks at will. And they think he, who’s in power, is their man. What about that?”
“Anthony—and I know the answer, so I’m being a little disingenuous—are you Mexican, African, Haitian or Black?”
“Why not? Why aren’t you? Well, you live here, for one thing.” Ken sipped his beer, as though he were continuing to present results of studied rumination. “I wouldn’t ask any of those people for anything, I’m fine by myself. So why am I supposed to imagine what my president, or my life, means to them? There are so many people in this world it’s hard to tell who’s really alive. I just trust that people look out for themselves, like I would do so for myself. And, extending that, for you.”
In the twilight of the stylish, badly-lit bar, from the door, if you looked back as you were exiting, Ken and Anthony did look almost like brothers.
“Ken’s just so stupid,” Anthony told Ian on the phone, later.
“Does it surprise you? You sound surprised.”
“I want to be.”
“Is it merely cupidity?”
“The fuck does that mean. Are you siding with him?”
“You know, Ant, you’re too fucking proud of yourself for knowing me. You’re so proud that you don’t care what I do or don’t do that, really, you just don’t care. Nothing more.”
[ 3 ]
Unruined millionaires, in the Twenties, had used their gilded fortunes to construct mansions on the North Shore of the Island, christening it the Gold Coast. Now some were repurposed as art museums. Ian went to an exhibit with a date from the city.
Examining the manicured lawn, wondering if they should buy sandwiches and eat there a little later, his date admitted, “Strange place for art this is.”
“I grew up here. Well, further South, but.”
“You do have the accent. Not always, but just now. You still know many people?”
“Mm,” he admitted, as if he’d been trying not to lately.
At work, in FiDi, Anthony liked being friendly with the interns. The male ones only, for no particular reason. But for just that reason nobody suspected him of being a creep. He took them out sometimes, if they seemed amicable, not too precocious, had a sense of humor. Took his jokes.
Once they sat at a table in the Lower East Side, near Essex Street, and Anthony went on for a bit: “I feel like people your age have experienced more, are worldlier, so, you know, like Louis Armstrong, it’s a wonderful life. There’s hope in that, right? It’s not all that bad.”
The intern hadn’t reported anything unsavory. Groomed, he shaded his eyes a bit, uncertain perhaps for the first time of a male superior’s intentions. He corrected, “I don’t know how to learn that.”
Ken, Anthony, and Ian decided to meet in Brooklyn for a change. Ken dressed up. The spot was just beside the new LIRR terminal on Atlantic Avenue, so the two Islanders could get home easily. Ian had to take a bus. Anthony got tied up at work. It was only two of them sitting there for a while.
Ian was, I mean, hardly ever alone with Ken. Not for some years anyway. But the guy was a permanent installation in Ian’s head; at work where all that was known or suspected about him was that he, not straight, was a professor, Ken had known him before those two things, or before they’d coalesced as Ian’s present phenotype. If Ian hadn’t known what he was before, he’d have trouble speaking with Ken. They did have trouble talking, but what I just described wasn’t the only cause.
If Ken, for Ian, was prehistory, then to Ken Ian was a shadow of a future he had yet to live. Not a possibility for him—Ian was somebody Ken didn’t want to be. But just the fact that they came from the same place, same street, meant they were connected, even now.
Every so often, above or between the window-blinds of talk, each peered at the other as if waiting for the domesticated animal to go rogue, do something indecent, say something controversial, reveal who each truly wished to be as the other could not have dreamt it.
“They’re making the city safer, I guess,” Ken stated as though he wanted to give a compliment, and Ian was the mayor. Ian remarked, in his head, that Rikers was on another island.
By the time Anthony arrived, the place was almost empty, and Ken was talking a lot more. He couldn’t tell if this was booze, or how far away from home he was, or, incredibly, placeless relief.
“I always wondered what it felt like to not have to be married, to be—freer—with who you slept with, because you can sleep with women too, right, while I can’t really sleep with men. And when you look in the mirror do you get a little turned on by your own image? That must help.”
On Ian’s face Anthony traced some of the attitude which had been conveyed in their last phone conversation. Seemed like Ian was exasperated, but all that allowed him to hold this feeling, like a wayward pride, was his will to keep listening. Like he was going to answer. And he did, sounding even, not cross, and indulgent instead of insulted. But Anthony estimated that the cost of such a concession—to nothing very deserving, could be said—came at a high price. But, then, who could talk Ian out of it without augmenting the shit? Ian’s wordy answer essentially came to, “I don’t think much about any of that.”
“But does it help,” Ken continued, nearly interjected, as though help was something Ian dearly needed, “to live in a place like the city? And not like Massapequa? We’re all the same people.”
“I don’t think—” started Anthony, wishing he’d interrupted.
Ian shook his head, which shut them up. “It’s unclear. Liminal. Grey. What you’d have as an answer, I mean.” The respect in that revelation—what it sounded like—elected not to draw attention to the flag waving over Ken’s lawn, scarcely visible at night but still there. Streetlamps.
Later, Ken said, “I think everybody should exercise their right to protest. And, something I’ve always wondered,” he sounded humble but that was fake because he didn’t know it was fake, “is why the left only protests, expresses their opinion—shouldn’t the right be out there as well, with equal numbers, with equal news coverage? With just as many brave young people? Then, maybe, the politicians and the different sides would get along better in this country. And we’d really have a country, you know.”
“I don’t—” Anthony started again, figuring that the staff here must be young people of color and hearing what Ken might say next would not bode well. But every time Anthony tried to interject, shut his friend down, the attempt was made with failing effort, as though it supplicated cowardice and conceded to nonsense.
Ineluctably, Ken finished his point: “And as for the young middle-class white people, like from Massapequa, who are marching with the Blacks—I think they’re mostly doing it, whatever they say, because they’re lonely.”
“Do you know where you are?” Anthony succeeded in asking, like a nurse.
“America, yeah? I can speak my mind.”
“You really can’t,” remarked Ian, and it wasn’t interjected as it belonged at the end of Ken’s answer.
“If that’s true,” Ken stated briskly, “then no, I don’t know where I am.”
At the same time they knew Ken was their friend, Ian and Anthony felt that the speeches were soiled clothes, wet, each of them fiercely wished to remove. But couldn’t in a public place, if you follow.
“You think they’ll never come for you,” Ian finished, and something in the clipped bass of his voice made it sound like Ken’s though quieter.
In his time, Ian had fucked a few guys from his hometown or near it and one, nice-looking, pleasant, younger, told him that a closeted dude in his class had grown up, met a thirty-something-year-old ten years his senior, gone out with him, broke up with him, or maybe hadn’t broken up yet but anyway, the younger one drove to the boyfriend’s house and literally stabbed him in his sleep. And the parents in town kept talking as if they were fascinated by how a boy could do that to his “lover.”
[ 4 ]
Anthony’s wife was a teacher. They’d always agreed on politics. Now wasn’t an exception. But something queer happened one evening, she came home, and like a part in her had moved away she’d told him, informatively, “It just makes me think of how many excuses we made for Bush, teaching the kids to respect their president, although we all knew that election was fucked as well. We told them to respect power, trusting that power would fix itself, and look at all that’s happened? It took our trust and made it pure evil. Which makes you think it was evil to begin with.” She then disappeared into their bedroom to, alone, unseen, change out of high heels and into slippers.
In a place he didn’t go every day, Ken remembered walking in on Ian and a friend of his in their junior year of high school, and just grinning, happy to see something happening, because who on earth would he tell, and why in hell would he have cared?
Ian, back then, had been skittish and shy and seemed to need people more. That need, Ken thought, if he had to, was less apparent now, as if it had been tried and proved futile so many times.
Drunk in a baseball field at night, on a night none of them remembered, under a full moon, I mean really drunk, the three linked arms walking back to their friend’s car and, talking, shouting, cursing, crying: nearly sang.
In Ken’s mind history was winning. Immigration, assimilation, World Wars, social mobility, suburbs, savings accounts, and soon enough retirement.
Anthony would have told you the difference between right and wrong was clear, only that people fucked it up—sounding as though he didn’t care so deeply about the people who exclusively fucked up.
Ian rarely liked the way men sounded when they talked.
One dude he fell for had been from money, but didn’t like it so much. He did the Fire Island and Hell’s Kitchen and Greenwich Village scenes but only sometimes—whenever he’d taken a break, had been sick, or invariably had let his body go a little bit and couldn’t for a night take the brutal censure and exacting toil of courting those aristocrats, he called Ian. When they came together Ian collected the gray hairs, sagging eyes, folds of belly over his waistline when he sat upright against the headboard like all so many gems in a bag. Like age and decay were, somehow, Ian’s condition of possibility; this wasn’t so for everybody. For everybody who was always young. But on those nights the man’s presence was dedicated to him, and it was the closest Ian would get to touching a dream.
Ken and some friends from work had planned a trip to the city. Had even booked a hotel room in the Garment District, so they wouldn’t need to worry about the last train. But all his friends got sick—the fuck?—and Ken, at six o’clock, was sitting at a bar on Thirteenth and B, scrolling through his phone, unwilling, for some reason, to go home. He told himself it was the peak train fare he’d have to pay. He called Ian.
Ian showed up at eight, and the two got drunk again, I mean stinking. Ken hadn’t slept in the city for years, and Ian wasn’t watching himself as he normally did with colleagues or on dates. The bar liked them; in Lower Manhattan it was sometimes rare to see people drinking together who had known each other from childhood, too many transplants. It took them both back to when Ken knew Ian and Ian, a boy, didn’t have to be gay.
They sat on the very same stools until three o’clock in the morning—they had good spots, near the bathroom, and the place for a weeknight didn’t get so crowded, but nobody could hear everything they said.
At some point after midnight, Ian took his hand and closed it around the scruff of Ken’s neck as you would a favorite dog, and said, kind of purring, “You can’t believe all the Nazi bullshit, I’m telling you—not now, because you’re sitting next to and drinking with me, and what’s on your neck is the hand of a real live faggot.”
The bartender chilled at the word “faggot,” but the middle-aged white men who had spent so much money laughed so hard after that they weren’t asked to leave.
Ian continued, just a little more, feeling as though some of Ken had transmitted to him. He conjectured, “At work I teach, I tell young people they have to think critically, but what is the point of that while there are people like you in the world and in power?”
Insults do convey a ton of information, and between adult males, especially older and of a certain generation, emit the affection of close embrace.
In an hour, so drunk he was sober, Ian would turn back into a very cold friend. This was when, at last call, Ken said, “I think I’m so wretched, man.”
“I should say that—I use critical thinking to make myself feel better about torture.” “No, no—it hits me when I’m sitting here, in a strange place, but not that strange I mean, next to you, and you’re using these words and I can tell how little I know, and I’m so—such a bully about what I say I believe that—I don’t think I’m worth it, I don’t think I really have beliefs, I need someone else’s. But I wasn’t going to start spilling Obama quotes, was I?”
“Do I make any difference to you?”
“Why are you asking me that?” Ken didn’t sound confused, but helpless. People knew they would be leaving the bar soon, thank God. Also, the speech wasn’t so slurred so they could probably use the door okay.
Ken did this thing frequently, it now occurred to Ian, of forgoing patience for an answer like his question hadn’t been worth one, and trying to answer things himself, with contrived sophistication, failing.
“I didn’t even have more hope when I was younger. I was apolitical. And then when that wore off, when I realized I had to hope for something, I didn’t know what to think, so I—I wanted defense, instead, if only to defend how things were. I apologize to myself all the time but it does nothing to my regret. My family would be the same without me. There’s money for them.”
“I’m so—” Ian would have said sorry but his voice cracked.
“Do you remember that ancient movie Lawrence of Arabia? With Peter O’Toole? It feels like, I mean, remember the Arab guy who falls asleep or something and falls off his camel and gets left in the desert and you see him trying to run, catch up, only to have the sun overhead kill him anyway with waiting vultures. Peter O’Toole comes back and saves him, the prick. But—you wonder what it would feel like to wake up every day like that lost guy, who should be dead, all the conditions for death are there but you just aren’t gone yet, something’s keeping you going and you, you, don’t want to be there.”
“I like life,” Ian admitted, although he wouldn’t have believed it sober—that he’d said it, I mean.
“What’s ‘like’?” asked Ken, sounding so drunk, and they knew it was time to go. The middle-aged father seemed so morose and unable to hail a taxi that Ian helped him to the hotel, and then up into the hotel room, in which they stood, soon enough, wide-eyed, glaring, like it was their abrupt responsibility to deep-clean it all before dawn.
“I can’t even sleep here,” Ken said quietly.
I can’t even tell you how drunk they were.
“This feels like hell,” Ken asserted to the ceiling, and without knowing it Ian got in bed beside him. They lay just touching each other along the side for a few minutes, hands on their laps, like it was some rollercoaster. “This feels like hell,” Ken repeated, and I can’t tell you what happened, maybe each pretended the other was a woman, which loosened Ian’s tongue.
“You cannot use death—you cannot kill scores of other people to make your own death more real and palatable. But that’s exactly what you’re doing. You want to do it. You want to do it. You want—”
And sometimes when you say things you mean just the opposite, but the true statement would be too difficult to bear, and the action generated seems easier to exercise—then again, all that happened for now was a blowjob, which really isn’t that bad.
But Ken felt like the cum, which Ian swallowed, was the very price of his life. He let himself sigh, though that sounded feminine.
[ 5 ]
Anthony’s wife left him. That night, he went to the city.
“I have to change,” is what she said.
“Have you met somebody else?”
“I just might,” she informed him on her way out the door. It had all been slower, more excruciating than that, but such compression is what Anthony’s memory labored to achieve on the LIRR to Penn.
He wondered what he was going to do next. Because she, in her insecurity, had seemed certain.
He didn’t even think but walked up the stairs that lead you in front of Madison Square Garden, facing Seventh Avenue. He walked South a little to Twenty-ninth Street, out of the Thirties, and then headed east. Just crossing Madison and Fifth were his favorites, the most unreal. But he only turned at Second Avenue, going more south, to make a left at Twenty-third Street, busier, but less so the closer he got to water. He approached the river. They’d made it a park-like jogging trail, where you could see Queens and Brooklyn rising from the silver-black, and a little of the Williamsburg Bridge, and—for Anthony—two familiar men on a bench. Their backs were, to him, identifiable. Night had fallen.
“You pair of cunts,” is how Anthony greeted them, and Ken and Ian almost cried. All that lay in front of them was the Island, the Atlantic, and Old World.
Ken would burn his flag. For no clear reason, by incoherent logic, but a series of small decisions guided by direction only found with one foot in, Ken moved his family out of the neighborhood and grew quieter about politics because, and his wife liked it, he’d started reading. For years his children would struggle to describe what exactly happened, how their father became a man.