Tony was one of the most civilized, generous, reasonable people I ever met. But he had one serious weakness which proved fatal. He liked rough trade.
“Rough trade” refers to violent underclass men. Tony picked them up in the Times Square district during that long-ago era before Times Square became a branch of Disney World.
I don’t know why Tony paid for sex, because he was good-looking, around six foot three, slim, good posture, well-dressed, charming, and worldly, having traveled extensively when in the Navy, and then as companion to wealthy men, one of whom was from a country Tony referred to as “Pseudo Arabia.”
Perhaps Tony tired of ordinary free consensual sex and wanted forbidden thrills, which probably also explained the Marquis de Sade.
Tony and I were neighbors and friends for 26 years. We lived in the same deteriorating apartment building near 9th Avenue on the edge of Hell’s Kitchen, New York City. Occasionally he invited me to parties in his pad, or homes of other people. He was Puerto Rican and sometimes brought me Puerto Rican food that he or members of his family had prepared, because he knew I liked “comidas criollas”, since I’d been married once upon a time to a Cuban.
He never made a pass at me, although we were alone on numerous occasions. He even became friendly with one of my girlfriends, to whom he gave an expensive bicycle he no longer used. He told me she was “very much in love” with me, which came as a big surprise, and indicates how obtuse I was and probably still am.
Everyone in our eight-story building of over 100 apartments knew that Tony liked rough trade. Often we’d see them entering or leaving the building with him. Nobody ever complained because Tony was well-liked, and everyone was all too aware of his own or her own personal weaknesses. There were many visitors, sleepovers and unconventional living arrangements in that building of mostly unmarried people. And New Yorkers mind their own business.
Tony lived on the seventh floor of the building, I on the sixth. One evening I was home alone, reading, when I heard a commotion on the stairs next to my front door. It sounded like horses galloping down the stairs, then they were gone. I didn’t think much about it because many strange people lived in the building, including me, and many odd events had occurred within its walls over the years, a few perpetrated by me.
Next morning I learned that Tony had been beaten nearly to death by rough trade who also ransacked his apartment. He was found unconscious on the floor by his roommate, who also was gay but they weren’t lovers. His roommate had spent the night elsewhere. The tumult I heard on the stairs apparently was Tony’s assailants fleeing the scene of the crime.
When Tony returned home from the hospital, he looked like a different person, gaunt, traumatized, facial features altered by his horrific experience, far different from the usual nonchalant Tony I’d known.
When I finally spoke with him alone in his apartment, he explained that he’d been home alone watching tv, his roommate having gone out, when someone knocked on his door. Of course, one of the big no-nos in Manhattan was: “Never open your door without looking through the peephole first.” But Tony broke the rule, because he assumed it was one of his friends who lived in the building, so he opened the door without looking. Two big guys were there, and proceeded to beat him to a pulp.
Tony told me he’d never seen them before, but I and everyone else in the building never believed that scenario. We assumed that two of his rough trade sex partners returned to do a number on him, and he enthusiastically received them until firsts started flying. They never were apprehended, by the way.
Tony’s personality was changed totally by the experience. No longer was he charming, happy-go-lucky, immaculate in appearance, good storyteller and raconteur. Instead he became morose, shaved sloppily, dressed haphazardly, often smelled as if he’d pooped his pants. He seemed to have suffered brain damage, losing around 20 I.Q. points, quite different from the sharp thinker I remembered.
Previously he’d been talkative, now barely spoke at all. I didn’t know what to say to him. Conversation requires at least two participants. Gradually our friendship fizzled out. We said hello when passing on the sidewalk, or meeting in the elevator, but that was it.
Then I noticed something strange. Occasionally when I left the building, I noticed Tony across the street, gazing gloomily at the entrance to our building, or looking up at the window of his apartment seven stories high. I didn’t know what to make of it.
Then one day I rode the elevator down, the door opened and I stumbled into chaos in the lobby full of my tenant neighbors, One of the women, Gina, stark consternation on her face, said excitedly to me, “Tony just jumped out his window!”
I looked past her through the door window to a body sprawled on the pavement. Gina explained that she was cooking something in her kitchen, when she heard a loud slam outside. Her apartment window was on the first floor near the entrance.
Somebody already had called 911. I still needed to go somewhere, despite this real-life human tragedy. Which meant I had to walk past Tony. I opened the door and stepped outside. He was lying partially on his side, blood pooling around his smashed head, most horrible sight of my life. I was stunned, stared, felt sick, couldn’t believe my friend and neighbor Tony lay crumpled there.
I couldn’t simply stand and gawk, nothing I could do for him, so continued to my appointment, don’t remember what or where. When I returned later, Tony was gone. The super had tried to clean up the blood, but a stain remained.
I had difficulty accepting that Tony actually committed suicide, and wondered what he thought as he dropped to the cement. Was he glad that soon his pain would end? Or did he think perhaps he shouldn’t have jumped, but it was too late? What terrible anguish passed through his mind during those final seconds? He had been raised Roman Catholic, and surely knew that Holy Mother Church considered suicide a sin. Did he fear the eternal fires of hell? Or prefer them to the hell he was living through on earth?
I don’t know what the moral of this story should be. Perhaps we should be more careful about who we sleep with, because they might be monsters beneath their sexy exteriors.
I’ll aways miss Tony because he was essentially good, unusually kind, remarkably insightful and intellectually stimulating most of the time. I hope the Catholic God took into consideration Tony’s essential goodness, because we don’t ask for our sex drives, which often are very difficult to manage. They probably cause us more grief than anything else, except the deaths of people we love.
So rest in peace, Tony, wherever you are. Sorry I didn’t visit you in the hospital, but you know how obsessive I can be about my novels-in-progress.
Often I don’t realize how much certain people mean to me - until they’re gone.
Very moving and well-written.
Very moving essay. Great writing. It makes me miss Tony, too, and I hope it will make me value my own friends more. Len has become one of my very favorite writers. Thanks for publishing this.
Hard-learned wisdom. Poignant remembrance.
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