They didn’t look like hoods, more like mid-career bureaucrats, fortyish, chubby, thick glasses. But they’d brought two good-looking molls with them; I can’t imagine they were even 18: blonds, Marty and Will. It fell to me to keep the boys entertained while my brother retired to his bedroom with the two Mafiosi for what was to be a very, very serious conversation. My brother had warned me that there was a good chance they’d kill him, and, without spelling it out, that if I was on hand my own health might be in jeopardy. We were very close at that stage. I loved my brother, more than anyone in the world, and didn’t have anywhere else to go.
I wasn’t all that much older than the blondie boys: 21. But these were two very silly, giggly kids, and dumb as posts. They didn’t find me terribly amusing either, and made something of a show of it, joking between themselves. But they liked their soda and nuts, so I kept all that going on: my brother was always long on ginger ale and pistachios.
From a distance of more than thirty years, it feels, in the writing, like fiction, hard-boiled fiction some of it. But it isn’t, none of it is. My brother would be dead inside six months, but not that night. The three of them were in the bedroom a long time. I had no idea what I’d do if they killed him. I was there to give what’s called moral support. I would have said then, and now, that my brother was a nice man through and through, truly decent, and wouldn’t hurt anyone on purpose, unless they weren’t nice or provoked him. But he sure did get himself into some shit.
My brother always had unsavoury friends. His nickname in high school was ‘Gangster’, mostly because he was from north Jersey and we had gangster neighbours. ‘Gangster from Gangsterland’, they’d tease him. But he also carried the tag because he was tough and found his way into all kinds of fights when you’d never have guessed there was any fighting to be done.
He wasn’t a big man; he was short and square-built. But he was powerful and fast and he learned to get the most out of that body, in the street, and wrestling competitively, first in high school then at college. Once when he was at high school and hanging around Central Park, he learned of a boy his own age, a bully boy, reputed to be the toughest kid in the park, and with a title to boot, something like ‘king’ or ‘prince’, along those lines. My brother went out of his way to find the boy, who was sitting against a tree surrounded by admirers, and said something provocative to him, and as the kid made ready to stand up, my brother hammered him, snapping the boy’s head back against the tree trunk. Fight over. Gangster from Gangsterland.
He was much admired by his peers, for such feats involving recklessness and pluck, but also for his good humour, his sense of fun and his kindness. It may not seem very kind to insult a stranger then smack him in the head with all your might, but the other boy was most assuredly not a nice boy and my brother had probably heard ill of him somewhere along the line.
Also, he was clever. He knew that if the other boy managed to get up and make it a fair fight the result might well be different. It was a calculated gamble. A dangerous gamble. Above and beyond anything else, my brother was a gambler. A professional gambler until his death at 27. Poker. High-low was his action. He was a major leaguer in that line and regrettably there’s a formidable attrition rate as regards high stakes and its lifestyle equivalent.
But it was high stakes from the start with my brother: 48 or 72-hour marathons with thousands of dollars changing hands; all before he was 20. He played a lot of poker during his time at the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce in Philadelphia during the early 1960s: he played usually with an older crowd that included Sonny Liston’s and Joey Giardello’s handlers and associates. How a 19-year-old at Wharton wound up playing with these thugs is beyond me, but my brother never lied about these things. If anything he soft-pedalled his more outré associations or simply neglected to mention them.
He did manage to get his degree. Also, he escaped Philadelphia without being killed or killing anyone else, a narrow escape on both fronts. On one occasion he threw some big palooka who was beating up his girlfriend through the plate-glass window of a shop. Then the girl came after my brother; and then the palooka, shaking the glass off. But my brother was a speedy guy, too. Another time, he somehow got into it with several greasers late one night at a restaurant-dive. He took care of a couple of them but the third one got behind him and cracked him on the noggin with a piece of crockery. I forget how he got out of that one without a knife in his back, but he did find himself struggling with his statistics homework for a while.
Another time when he was home from college on a spring or winter break he called my father from a White Castle hamburger joint and told the old man he’d got himself into a situation with a dozen or so greasers and could my father maybe drive over and rescue him. Of course, my father loved shit like this and dragged me along, aged 14 or so. Well, we get there and it’s looking pretty tense inside the restaurant. North Bergen certainly had, and probably still has, its rough edges. So my father starts honking his horn and making violent hand gestures, sticking his finger in his teeth, flashing the V sign, the cuckold sign, bouncing up and down in the driver’s seat, looking like a crazy person. As the greasers took in this spectacle, pie-eyed and with some concern, my brother made his exit. On the drive home, my father gave forth with some extreme editorialising about my brother’s predisposition to trouble. But the old man got a thrill out of it. He and my brother had their problems, not least because they resembled each other in their belligerent behaviour, but they loved each other even more on account of it, I think.
It could get a bit primal around the house, before my brother eventually left for college in order to devote himself full-time to trouble. The difference between them when they’d go off was that my father had an unmanageable temper and my brother, when he was fighting, was very cool. By the time he was 16 he was already a champion wrestler and seasoned street-fighter, and could handle my father pretty well. Oh, the old man would knee him in the balls and pull all manner of Jersey City stunts, but my brother would prevail and not take it out too badly on the old man.
My brother was not only tough and self-destructive, he was handsome. He was fit as hell – hundreds of push-ups and the rest – and he had a good-looking mug: good bones, a nicely shaped head, straight nose, brown eyes, full mouth. A bit like the young Marlon Brando, in fact, especially around the eyes. In this good fortune, he took after the men on my mother’s side of the family. Me, I got stuck with the other.
In retrospect, for someone that good-looking and wild, he didn’t have a lot of girlfriends at school. Yes, he got into trouble when he was 15 or so when my folks found out that he and a buddy had been visiting whores in some bad neighbourhood or other. But I suspect he liked the ambience and proximity of danger. He was also experimenting with heroin around this time and, not much later, found some of those very early LSD-laced sugarcubes. Quite the pioneer, my big brother. But there weren’t that many girls.
He was a great brother, if somewhat elusive: busy breaking noses, hitting home runs, building model airplanes, racing in the soapbox derby. Sometimes, when he was older and going into the city all the time, I’d climb into his bed and wait up until he got home. I remember the smell of his pillow. When he finally arrived I’d badger him with questions until he’d chase me back to my room. Then, if I was lucky, he’d play tap-tap with me, a sort of Morse Code game, on the common wall between our rooms, until he got bored.
He never hit me in anger, though he hit me plenty. Our relationship was physical from the time I was big enough for roughhouse. I did get hurt pretty often, but he didn’t do it on purpose: six and a half years older, he was simply bigger and stronger.
Verbally, too. When I was seven or eight he told me I was ‘obnoxious’. He’d called me all sorts of synonyms for ‘obnoxious’ in the past but this, for some reason, was devastating. I even remember where we were, what room. I didn’t know the meaning but I knew what he meant. It was such a grown-up word. It was as if he’d punched me in the stomach. That was the moment at which I resolved to become a man of letters. If there were words that could be as punishing as this, I wanted my quiver to be full of them. As with the physical roughhouse, he never played to wound. And he had affectionate names for me, too: one was ‘lover-boy’. He was physically affectionate, as well. He’d always give me a kiss, even if it was after bloodying my nose.
We engaged in all sorts of games and contests, but until I was grown up enough to give him some competition it must have been frustrating for him. We’d make bets: whoever lost would have to tickle the other’s back, the wager being in minutes of back-tickling. I’d usually lose, big-time, but he paid up when he had to. I was never particularly thrilled at having to tickle his back for 30 minutes but it was one way of being close to him and him not growing bored and running off after five or ten minutes.
One summer I grew up, filled out. My brother, who by that time had graduated from college and was working as a financial analyst for a New York firm, was at the house in Jersey, visiting. It was summer. We were eating dinner out on the porch and he was checking me out, appraising my arms and shoulders. ‘I think we need to get hold of some boxing-gloves,’ he announced. Of all the things on earth that my family didn’t need, it was boxing-gloves. No one in that household needed that sort of encouragement. My father, naturally, thought it was a perfect idea. My mother, quite sensibly, asked why we needed them, but it was a rhetorical question, and delivered in a resigned tone of voice.
The gloves arrived not long afterwards. It was warm still, a couple of hours until dark. After dinner my brother and I had our gloves laced up by what struck me as an over-eager father. I wasn’t especially keen, quite the contrary. As my parents sat watching from the screened-in porch, finishing their dessert, my brother and I marched down the back stairs and into the yard – the after-dinner entertainment.
It started well enough: I was in good shape then, 16 or 17, a wrestler like my brother, with a similar build, but nowhere close to what he had been in his prime. His deterioration had already begun, from the cigarettes and drink, the late nights, desk job, irregular life. We touched gloves and went at it. My butterflies (which had been more like chrome-plated bats) vanished. I’ve always enjoyed that about sport and fighting: the moment when the adrenalin kicks in. We were jabbing a bit, feeling each other out and then we began mixing it up. I had him on his heels, banging away as much out of fear as anything else; as long as I was hitting him, he wasn’t hitting me. And then I nailed him, with a left hook, a shot that stunned him and knocked him back a step. I waded in, emboldened, to see what further damage I could do.
The next thing I remember is my mother standing over me, screaming, ‘What did you do to your brother?’ while my father, with a jovial smirk, checked my brother’s split lip. ‘Look what you’ve done to your brother,’ my mother hollered. ‘How can he go to work on Monday looking like that?’ My brother looked down at me, most amused at my being reprimanded while prostrate and semi-conscious. Of the three of them he was the one most likely to have given me a hand up, but he was entangled in my mother’s frantic ministrations.
My brother had been living in the city for five years or so when he told me he was queer. He’d lived first in the London Terrace complex in Chelsea, then down at the bottom of the West Village, on Charlton Street, off Sixth Avenue. Over the years, I’d visit him and we’d get high, go out to dinner, goof around. It was always a thrill for me, a season’s highlight. He knew how to have fun, like a big kid with a fat wallet: a sweet, dangerous, hedonistic delinquent.
It would have been 1970, the fall, I think. A transitional time of year, at any rate. I had dropped out of college, and had been knocking around the continent pretending I was Jack Kerouac. My folks weren’t too thrilled with me, so when I came to town I stayed in the Village with my brother. He had begun to take more of an interest in me now that I showed signs of developing into a fully fledged fuck-up.
I remember the particular day and evening because I’d visited his doctor to be looked after for a venereal complaint, and he went along too to have a vitamin B12 injection, like JFK used to get. He had a cold and said he had a large evening planned, which, to my surprise, involved me.
The programme that evening was to drop some acid and go out, see what the night might hold in store. We’d gone this route before. You can imagine what fun it was tripping with someone like my brother: I mean, on top of everything else money was never any object (no matter how deep his gambling debts) and he knew all manner of charming sociopaths who couldn’t be nice enough to his baby brother.
When we dropped acid my brother liked to smoke a little weed first, and as the initial LSD rush was coming on, to enjoy a jolt of amyl nitrate. Well now, that was blasting off in style. The only downside was my brother’s taste in music: he’d insist on listening to Pink Floyd as these Mission-to-Control sessions came to a climax. I had my own ideas about an appropriate soundtrack, but he was the master of ceremonies, no questions asked.
It was a nice apartment, comfortable, a one-bedroom facing onto the street. He liked nice things: a teak coffee table, carvings, captain’s chairs, a great big maroon couch (where I crashed), long bookshelves, packed mostly with science fiction – he figured Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land were the cat’s cuffs, real works of genius. I remember when he was a teenager he’d become infatuated with certain books: Look Homeward, Angel, Nigel Dennis’s Cards of Identity, Steppenwolf, The Dwarf by Pär Lagerkvist, A Separate Peace. He’d be in a trance for days. He wrote poetry, too, well into his college years, maybe a year or two after: violent, dark stuff, stripped down, not much in the way of figurative language or fancy stepping. I suppose it wasn’t very good; in fact, I know it wasn’t. But I identify it with him so regard it as sui generis.
I imitated everything about my brother, down to his eccentric handwriting and way of holding a whiskey glass, mannerisms of his which, along with scores of others, have become my own. I often think that we’re all mere composites of our favourite people’s habits: the way we talk and gesture and laugh, how we comb our hair and walk. I’d dutifully read most of the books he found so wonderful, and enjoyed them in varying degrees, but our tastes, as with music, tended to differ, especially as I grew up. I’d kid him about the SF and Pink Floyd and in response he’d make a great show of his pity for my obtuseness and callow snobbery.
It was chilly out, I remember that; the clocks had probably already been turned back. It was dark. He surprised me when he said: ‘Let’s stop here a minute, I want to talk to you.’ There was a little public space on Sixth Avenue, round the corner from his apartment. He was never one for stopping, even at red lights. And talk to me? Something was up, and off.
Keep in mind the acid is coming on gang-busters at this point. So he asks me where did I think he went most nights; wasn’t I curious? True, he was vague about his comings and goings. I suppose I was a little hurt and confused to be left out of his life as much as I was. But I was so much younger: I idolised him and didn’t really feel worthy of his confidence, of being taken as an equal, a pal. He moved in a glamorous orbit of his own wild devising, an orbit in which I didn’t belong.
I shrugged and mumbled something. It was cold sitting there on a stone bench. The acid didn’t make it any warmer. Something funny was going on; he was different. He was also struggling. He wasn’t the type to struggle, or at least to show it. I was finding it all a little overwhelming, when, very agitated now, he said to me: ‘I’m a fairy. I’m queer. I’m a faggot.’ He said the last with particular revulsion. He was shaking. I couldn’t remember him like this before. We’d grown up in an emotionally precarious household, and I’d seen him distraught, but nothing like this. This was something else.
Given what was happening with the drug shrieking weird arias in my body and brain, this ‘faggot’ business seemed only another component of a larger event. But part of me, somewhere in there, understood the gravity of the moment, at least as it manifested itself at my brother’s end. He had probably been struggling with this for weeks. In retrospect, it must have been one of the most difficult moments in his life, up to that point a double-life. No other straight person knew his secret. Not one. And here he was, sharing it with his only brother, who worshipped him, imitated him, as best he could. He must have been terrified I would be disgusted and reject him. I doubt he’d have blamed me.
Well, there wasn’t much chance of that. I had no real experience of homosexuality apart from the occasional teacher skulking around the gym for no good reason or an effeminate classmate or two. I’d looked through books like John Rechy’s City of Night that my brother had lying around. It was mostly about low-life, pathetic guys jerking each other off in Times Square movie houses, near as I could tell. If my brother was queer, I thought, there was no doubt a lot more to it than that.
It upset me to see him so upset. I told him I loved him and that I didn’t mind one bit that he was homosexual, which I didn’t. It would never have occurred to me, or probably to anyone else, that he was, but frankly, he could have told me he ate a baby for brunch on alternate Sundays and I wouldn’t have given a damn. I just wanted to be around him, like always.
A year later I found myself retracing the steps we took that first evening, going from bar to bar. I almost certainly knew that it was too late but maybe there was an off-chance I’d bump into someone who’d seen him.
His evenings customarily began at a bar called Julius’s, near Sheridan Square. It seemed a lively place, slightly up-market, Ivy League casual. The only odd bit was that there were no women and a disproportionate number of the men were uncommonly good-looking, like the models you see in catalogues for men’s clothing. It was bright in there, noisy, the juke box playing some of-the-moment dance hit, and from the back an irresistible smell of hamburgers grilling.
It was a merry, friendly atmosphere. We ordered drinks. My brother always ordered ‘Cutty, one rock’. Then he introduced me to his friends, of whom he seemed to have many; all of them teased him about trying to pass off his latest trick as his brother. A couple already seemed aware of my existence, which I found flattering. To a one they checked me out, up and down. But it was a bluff sort of lechery, all in good fun. Julius’s provided the overture, the launching pad for my brother’s evenings. He’d have a couple of drinks, or three, or four, catch up with his friends, survey the talent on hand, and, after an hour or so, head west, usually to the International Stud.
He spent a lot of time at the Stud, so much so that the owner, who looked a religious type, with his beard and black fedora, turned up at his funeral, praying like mad in a big voice that drowned out the others. My brother would have a lot of Cutty, one rock at the Stud. And he fed an awful lot of quarters into the pool table. But the owner probably just liked my brother. There wasn’t much good to be found in actively disliking him, though I don’t recall him picking too many fights in gay bars. A scowl or two, maybe an invitation to step out on the sidewalk, but that’s all.
The Stud was more crowded and noisier than Julius’s. The music was louder; it wasn’t a conversation spot. The boys here were more serious about cutting to the chase, my brother, too. I remember a pair of young blond twins, acquaintances of his, cornering me on one of my first visits, and showing me their new tits. These were very girly boys and they were clearly giving me the business, aware that I was straight, but also well aware that they were cute enough, post-hormone shots, to give a straight guy serious pause. But mostly I amused myself at the pool table. One time my brother introduced me to a ‘famous English poet’, a tall, handsome-looking galoot in a T-shirt and leather vest, with lurid tattoos on his arms. He didn’t look like any sort of poet to me, more like a predatory sex addict. Had someone told me then that he would become one of my dearest friends I would have laughed in disbelief.
At this point in the evening my brother would begin wandering back and forth between the Stud and a place called Danny’s, a quieter venue, not really a dive, although you wouldn’t want to take your Aunt Grace there. It was at Danny’s that my brother would hook up with some of his gambling and underworld associates. I remember him asking the bartender if he’d seen so-and-so. I don’t think sex had anything to do with it. Money did.
There was also a little coffee shop my brother would hit late at night, a last-chance spot for tricks. It wasn’t much of a place, certainly no place we could hang out. But he seemed to have a fair bit of luck there before he’d call it a night. A more congenial cruising ground, at least in milder weather, was along Christopher Street. I enjoyed sitting with him on the stoops and taking in the world while he was taking in the talent. One time we were sitting there, probably around midnight, and two straight guys walked by, probably Jersey boys, and muttered something about faggots. They were looking at us. Big brother didn’t care for that one bit . . .
Now, it might seem odd, perhaps unsalubrious, that I should be tagging along with my older brother as he chased after younger men. But it was fun. My brother was fun. And what did I do when my brother found himself a trick to take back to his apartment? I’d get lost for two or three hours, probably somewhere east of Sixth Avenue, in the vicinity of Washington Square, at a more sedate watering-hole, with more wood than chrome, a juke box inclining more towards jazz and smokey-voiced balladeers than towards disco, where I might come across the occasional young lady.
Not long after my brother unburdened himself to me I wound up living with him for extended periods, setting up camp on the couch where we had smoked so many joints and eaten so many pistachio nuts. Of course, I was delighted by the arrangement. To my surprise, so was he.
What always intrigued me about the night world he inhabited was that, unlike the straight pick-up scene, the gay scene was a seven-night-a-week affair. True, Sundays and Mondays were a tad quiet, but this crowd seemed to be as indefatigable as they were incorrigible. While the rest of America slept, NORAD and these guys were on constant alert. Yet every morning my brother would get up early, put on his J. Press suit, rep tie and brogues, and head off to work. And every evening he would come home, light a joint, think about dinner, then head off up Sixth Avenue, ‘west with the night’.
It wasn’t only to Julius’s, Danny’s and the Stud. My brother, who had a pathological aversion to boredom, was never against improvisation. He always had his secondary, tertiary and come-what-may partying strategies. Nor was he averse to visiting straight clubs, if they offered any chance of extreme behaviour. Wherever we went, it seemed that we enjoyed privileged entrée. My brother always knew someone: the owner, the maître d’, the bartender, the bouncer. ‘And this is my little brother,’ he would say proudly, and I was allowed to follow.
He moved in a variety of circles, none of them, apart from his day job, particularly mainstream or wholesome. Figuring large were his gambling cronies, some gay, some straight, the high-stakes poker crowd and the bookies he bet ballgames against and the loan-shark hoods who patrolled these waters. I once saw a movie called The Gambler starring James Caan as a self-destructive university lecturer addicted to gambling. The protagonist has a fair bit of my brother in him, enough that when I walked out of the movie theatre in 1974, three years after my brother’s death, I was shaken.
Someone once suggested to him that he check out Gamblers Anonymous. But he’d have to put that one on the list with Alcoholics Anonymous, Drugs Anonymous, Sex Anonymous, Fighting Anonymous and Bad Boy Anonymous. There were no 12-step programmes in those days, nor did the terms ‘dysfunction’ and ‘denial’ exist. My brother and I were certainly familiar with the concepts, but pop psychology had not yet found its way into the American mainstream, blessedly. He did, on at least a couple of occasions, give it a go with a psychiatrist, but this never lasted very long. It’s not as if he didn’t understand that much of his behaviour was driven by desperation and self-hate; he wasn’t shallow or unreflective, quite the contrary. It was simply the way he was. He was born wild, born troubled. He wasn’t designed for the long haul; not everyone is.
For reasons of his own he chose to acquaint me with the wider spectrum of men at play. We visited the parked trucks down by the river under the West Side Highway, which served, late at night, as ad hoc motel rooms. He took me to a club that occupied two floors of a commercial building down by the river. There was a sullen guy at the entrance to check you were OK, then you took a freight elevator up to one of two floors: one floor for dancing and making new friends; the other serving a similar function but with a large back room, a crowded, very public arena, for those who had really hit it off. At one point my brother lifted me onto his shoulders so that I might have a better look at the action. This may have seemed odd, but no odder than the amorous free-for-all that was being played out in front of me, under a cloud of cigarette smoke, sweat and aftershave. We also went a little further uptown, maybe 12th or 13th, to visit a leather bar or two. There were some dangerous-looking guys there, not just fatties. The two of us would have stuck out in our civvies and my brother would have revelled in that and in any attendant menace it brought our way. It all struck me as sexual theatre: however brutal the interaction, the suffering party seemed more than complicit.
I was pleased to be out of there, but not ungrateful for the education – for a 20-year-old who was aiming to be a writer and thirsty for experience, it was a lot more interesting than a writing class. My brother, for his part, wasn’t trying to sell me the gay life. He loathed the fact of his own homosexuality and was hounded by it to the end. He also kept a close watch on me in case I was lured into something. But there was little chance of that: on the one hand, I was too inhibited; on the other, I was already terminally cunt-struck. I think he was merely trying to broaden my horizons. Expose me to some of the breadth of human behaviour. But also, I guess, to share his life with me, with someone he loved and could trust.
Unlike me, however, my brother did experiment, and on more than one occasion tried to get something going with a girl. I’m sure he was as attractive to women as he was to men. He may have struck the conventional gal as a bit crazed, but quite a few women go for that. There was nothing gay in his manner; he was a tough guy, a jock. It’s just that he preferred having sex with guys. But, as I said, he did experiment. One experiment was with a pretty lesbian masseuse named LouAnne, who lived with him for a while: dark, curly hair, my age. She spent her work hours jerking guys off at some club uptown. I think he found her in a lesbian bar. Maybe he was looking for a fight: I don’t know why else he’d be in a lesbian bar.
One time I came through town when LouAnne was living with my brother. I don’t know what had gone on sexually between them, if anything, but she was sleeping on the sofa, not in the bedroom. I took up residence on the floor, in a sleeping bag. I forget the dynamics but we turned out having a go. I’m not sure what was in her head; maybe she felt some kind of obligation to service the straight kid brother. Anyhow, it wasn’t much of a go. She certainly was a beautiful girl, if inert, and I was intimidated by her beauty. Afterwards, she suggested that I get myself fucked in the ass so that I could appreciate how she felt about having intercourse with me. Sweet, eh? Actually, she was. Sweet. A nasty mouth but sweet. I was besotted, putting all good sense far behind me then humming loudly so that it might disappear. My crush only inspired bewilderment and contempt on her part.
I wasn’t thinking of my brother when I had at her. I wasn’t thinking of much at all. Until I told him about the episode not long afterwards. It hurt him, I could immediately see it in his face. I don’t think he was in love with her but they had a friendship of some kind, and I think he held out the prospect of something romantic developing. They were both dead solid queer, or so it seemed to me then, and now. Maybe she’s a round, genial granny in Sheepshead Bay with grey curls, I don’t know. I do know he was desperately trying to straighten out and probably hoping LouAnne would be the girl to help him. I don’t suppose he thought I was stealing her; after all, they weren’t making it at the time, if they ever had. But I think he would have liked to have done. Then his piggy little brother mucked things up.
The gambling continued apace, especially the poker. At this point he was playing with some fancy characters, some of them professional. Even I recognised a name or two, and I have no interest in cards. Self-destructive though he was, my brother never set out to lose: not in a fight, where he never lost, and not at the card table, where he sometimes did. He knew betting on football and basketball was a mug’s game, but at poker, high-low, he was seriously accomplished.
The problem was he was forever in debt. Large sums changed hands. Sometimes he’d be up seven or eight thousand when he won, which was often, but he had difficulty collecting, so when he lost he’d wind up having to borrow. He was borrowing from Mob loan sharks.
I used to be able to rattle off the price schedule for assorted Mafia services: retrieving a loan, buying a judge, a contract killing. A hit was alarmingly inexpensive. If you had enough money you could buy your way out of first-degree murder. These guys owned everybody. You’ve seen the movies: you don’t want to be owing the Mob boys. My brother had a good job but that didn’t begin to cover it. Also, he was a free spender: he liked clothes and the good life, he picked up tabs.
He hung on at his day job. It says something about his discipline and perseverance that he lasted so long while hating it so much. I realise a lot of people hate their jobs, but not too many of them would have been getting whipsawed like my brother between his days and nights. These were big nights for a working stiff, late nights full of too much Cutty, too much pot, too many Marlboros, too many loveless tricks. Then there were the marathon poker sessions, the frantic leveraging of debts. In between there were the fights, car wrecks, broken bones. He started breaking bones quite young. He broke a leg, an arm, a hip, his nose. His knuckles didn’t look so good by the end, either.
One time he succeeded in getting the outfit he worked for to send him to San Francisco for a month or two. He was hoping he might take to the place, get clear of New York and all of the assorted messes he’d got himself into. But he didn’t care for it. He complained that everybody spent their time and energy talking about how they could never live anywhere else on account of how it was so wonderful in San Francisco.
Naturally, the first thing he did, on his way into San Francisco from the airport, was to tell the driver to take him to the roughest bar in town; he wanted to see what sort of trouble he could find on the West Coast. The driver probably took him to the waterfront south of Market somewhere; doubtless the place is all yupped up now. Anyhow, he found himself a pool game – and his Cutty, one rock – and lost. He told me later he had the distinct impression that if he’d won he wouldn’t have walked out of there alive. As I said earlier, my brother was not given to hyperbole. But he lost. He didn’t try to lose. He was just lucky.
We hooked up in Mexico one time. I’d been in Mexico City and the plan was for us to meet up in Acapulco where he’d booked us a couple of hotel rooms. It was fun. At night we’d drive to the red-light district, each going our separate way, then meeting up later. At the end of the evening we’d grab a cab up into the hills, way up, to a fancy gay bar called the Sans Souci. It’s a famous spot, I think: very pretty, with a view of the city lights, the ocean stretching away into the darkness, the stars glimmering above. It was a large outdoor affair under an impressive thatch. One night I saw my brother making out with a cute young Mexican kid. That unsettled me. I’d never actually seen him making out with a guy before.
One of his money-making schemes from this period involved going down to Mexico and sending home a few kilos. The first attempt didn’t go very well: some local con-artist drove him out in the middle of nowhere and pulled a knife. Poor man. My brother wasn’t sure if he killed him but said the Mexican was lying there very, very still for an awfully long time and turning blue after my brother had whacked him repeatedly in the head with a large rock.
Eventually he found someone he regarded as reasonably trustworthy to sell him a few kilos, which he had carefully packed and shipped, air freight, to Kennedy Airport, where he would pick it up. Regrettably, something seems to have gone wrong. He found himself amid a jovial band of the constabulary at the freight terminal. A felony conviction with probation.
Our parents got wind of that one, all right. I think my father may have had to show up in court. He wouldn’t have liked that one bit. Relations were none too good even before that. I don’t really blame the folks. They were always having to bail him out, figuratively and literally. He would borrow my father’s car and total it on the West Side Highway. He was always hitting my father for money or trying to get him to co-sign on a loan. By then my parents took it for granted that he was in trouble of one kind or another, and if he wasn’t at that particular moment, he soon would be. But they liked the fact that he put on a nice suit and tie every morning and went to a good job. Something they could tell their friends. About the rest, they didn’t want to know.
He didn’t always make that easy. I remember him turning up at their house one Sunday evening on acid with a couple of the nelliest faggots you could imagine. They were all a wee bit drunk and noisy on top of the rest. No reaction from Mom and Dad. Mom just wheels out the tea wagon with snacks. Dad, with hearty bonhomie, mixes them a drink. Years after my brother was dead I’d try to tell them he was gay but they would both simply look at me, blink, and pretend either that they hadn’t heard me or that I was a jibbering idiot.
But it was my father who wound up finding him that morning. It was supposed to have been me. My brother had left me instructions and the key was waiting for me under the mat. But I didn’t get the letter until it was too late. I don’t relish the thought of walking into that apartment and finding him there on the sofa three days’ dead and sitting in his own shit. But he’d done plenty for me, and however bad he felt about it, the job was my responsibility. Neither of us would have wanted my father to find him like that. Our relationships with the old man may have been difficult, but we would rather have spared him that.
It was my fault, really. Not that he killed himself. He was going to do that, regardless. It would have been late November. I had a ticket to JFK from Vancouver. I knew what was about to go down. Maybe I thought I could stop him. I don’t know. You can’t stop people like him. Soon as I’d gone back to school he’d have done it, almost certainly.
But I didn’t catch that flight. My girlfriend had phoned up in tears the night before. She was sure she was pregnant. I didn’t really believe her. She said she’d got hold of a car and there was a cabin that belonged to a friend, up at Shawnigan Lake. She wanted me to go up there with her, hold her hand. She wasn’t pregnant, just a little late, a little needy. A nice girl; well, not all that nice: the estranged wife of a professional hockey goalie whose violent behaviour had resulted in him being dispatched to a farm team in the hockey wilderness – North Carolina, I think it was – where he could spear and maim and concuss to his heart’s content and get it out of his system.
So I didn’t make that flight. And it was another couple of weeks before I managed to find the money for another one: 8 December 1971, two days before my 22nd birthday.
My brother had fallen in love during his senior year at college. At the time it seemed only that he was unduly concerned about the psychological condition of a younger friend who had attempted suicide. I can’t remember the boy’s name or what became of him. My brother was changed by this experience. I don’t know what happened between the two of them, but something was altered in my brother. The relationship ended once he moved to New York and began working. I don’t know if he figured out he was gay during that last year of school, but he seems to have made up his mind by the time he moved to the city.
It must have been terrifying and exhilarating at the same time: the acceptance of his ‘pathological’ sexuality, on the one hand, and on the other, the boundless sexual opportunities available to a great-looking, engaging kid freshly moved to New York. Not to mention all the poker games and fights and general trouble a great metropolis could throw his way. He had a good job, money to burn – no wonder the family didn’t see much of him those first couple of years. And when he did visit, he was always in a hurry to get back across the river.
My heart used to sink when he’d run off like that after dinner. It was bad enough when he went off to college for four years, but now, when he was close by, I didn’t see much more of him, maybe less. I longed to go back with him to the city, share somehow in that exciting life of his, instead of being stuck at home in Jersey with the folks, wretchedly slogging through high school. But he did seem glad to see me, and was always affectionate, if not entirely present. He would have been running very hard in those first few years out of college. He must have been on fire.
One time he was visiting – I think he was still at college – and we were hanging out, teasing each other, good-natured stuff. For no particular reason, I said something like: ‘I know about your secret.’ I meant nothing by it, it was a game. But he became very agitated. His voice was wrong. He pressed it: what, exactly, did I know? At first I maintained the tease, coyly refusing to tell him. But he started to get seriously upset and, when I told him I was just kidding, he didn’t believe me. He began shoving me around, twisting my arm and the rest, our customary roughhouse. But this time he was meaner, out of character, a little desperate. For all his violent behaviour, he had almost no mean in him, especially towards me, but that afternoon was different. He let it all go, finally, but something had gone down that I didn’t begin to understand.
In the spring of 1971 I came to town without much going on: still out of school, out of work, out of money. As usual, I took up residence on my brother’s sofa. As usual, he seemed glad to have me around and to drag me along with him most evenings as he made his rounds of the bars.
Enjoying bars as much as I had come to do, I considered a career in that area, on the working side of the bar, and enrolled at the International School of Bartending, about eight floors above West 23rd Street. The milieu and ‘professors’ were somewhere between Preston Sturges and Damon Runyon, my fellow neophytes not the best and brightest. For two weeks I shook and stirred coloured liquids, exhibiting competence at the Singapore Sling but stumbling miserably in my attempts at the Ramos Fizz. The prospect of another four weeks of simulated cocktails began to get me down, likewise the job opportunities: the school, apparently, had an inside track with a chain of surf and turf establishments in Schenectady. As I had done with university and on too many other occasions, I dropped out.
My brother, meanwhile, was planning a significant crime, a state-of-the-art white-collar crime that would liberate him from his desk job for ever. By this time, he’d been working as a financial analyst for six years or so. From the beginning, he’d hated it. But it paid, and he needed money to play. The crime was to involve the computers at work and had something to do with siphoning off funds to a dummy corporation. Computer technology wouldn’t have been terribly far along in 1971; in fact, it was only that year that the prototype for the microprocessor first appeared. I shouldn’t imagine there had been much in the way of sophisticated computer crime.
I don’t remember the details, and even had my brother explained it to me it would have gone in one ear and out the other. He was always good with figures; I am hopeless. I know it involved another guy who worked for the same company but down in Baltimore: a straight guy with a family. How and when the two hooked up and conspired, I couldn’t say. I do remember my brother was delighted with the project. ‘Absolutely foolproof,’ he told me repeatedly.
It was good to see him so cheerful and excited: Gangster from Gangsterland. Really, he should have been a full-time criminal, it’s one of the few careers that might have sustained his interest. In an earlier century he might have been a gunslinger. He liked Westerns. He liked the notion of the outlaw, not the mean outlaw who is rude to the saloon lady, but the Robin Hood kind: the outsider, the existential hero, the lone wolf, the fellow who stares death in the face and doesn’t blink, that sort of thing. Poker fulfilled that role for him, I think. Check out The Cincinnati Kid some time. My brother liked that one. He liked the book better, but he liked the Steve McQueen character in the film, the gambler, the five-card stud player, the Kid who comes to town to take on the Man (Edward G. Robinson). My brother liked the notion of being the Kid, the hard living, hard loving, haunted, hounded Kid. Unfortunately, the Kid gets beat in the end. That’s part of the motif, you understand.
Meanwhile, I enjoyed a small windfall. My grandfather had left me about $1500. It was meant for something nobler, but I immediately booked a flight to Amsterdam in order to further my education. I’d never been to Europe and it sounded like there was some education to be had in Amsterdam. My brother thought it was a bully idea. Amsterdam sounded like fun, and he’d never been to Europe either. I’d found him noticeably more depressed on this most recent pass through town. He was brooding more about his homosexuality, and tended to blame a lot of his other troubles on it. His looks were starting to go, as well. He was losing his hair and carrying weight from all the Cutty. The Kid who had looked like a million dollars in jeans and a T-shirt only a couple of years before was beginning to look prematurely middle-aged. When he was in the dumps he would sometimes ask me, pathetically: ‘And when you have children, would you trust me to be alone with them?’
Europe was a hoot. I wasn’t there long and wound up having to move up my flight after getting into an altercation at the youth hostel in Amsterdam. I didn’t want to be on hand the next evening when those Eurotrash motherfuckers turned up again. They were Mediterranean types, Latin boys, and I figured they might try and cut me. They certainly gave that impression when we were separated the night before.
I phoned my brother from JFK. That’s when he told me about the Mafia guys coming over to pay him a visit that same night. The computer scam had blown up in their faces and they were sore. He really didn’t know whether they were going to dust him on the spot or let him try to talk his way out of it.
His scheme probably was foolproof. It was only a freakish stroke of bad luck that put the kibosh on it all. Unknown to my brother, the FBI had been tailing these two dopey hoods because of some Audubon paintings they’d managed to steal along the way. So when my brother went down to Philadelphia to meet with these guys, he was suddenly under the purview of the FBI as well, and they probably put a tap on his phone and found out that way about the fancy scam. I don’t know what role the hoods played in the scam but everyone was busted, and these two low-rent thugs wanted to know how come.
My brother lost his job, of course. Presumably, the roof came down on his associate in Baltimore, which would have been extra-ugly with a wife and kids on the scene. With a felony rap still outstanding, the FBI decided to take a serious interest in my brother, putting a tail on him, harassing him. I can just imagine some dumb bastard in a grey suit and fedora scoping him out as he played pool at the International Stud and hoping against hope that no one back at the agency would catch wind of his assignment. My brother’s situation must now have been desperate. I know he declared bankruptcy around this time to get himself clear of his legitimate debts, but most of his debts were below board and had to be paid off or he would receive another visit, one he wouldn’t walk away from.
For all the grief that had fallen on his shoulders, he remained good company and we still went out together, almost every night, to this bar or that. Then one night he said to me, in the responsible, older brother tone of voice, that I should go to Jersey and look in on Mom and Dad. It had been a while, and they had phoned him up and given him a hard time about it etc. In retrospect, he was getting me out of there. Things were going to hell fast and he didn’t need me around as a spectator.
As for Jersey, the debut performance of my return engagement chez Mom and Dad was a catastrophe, and I was up the next morning at four, hitch-hiking to Vancouver Island, back to college. On a pass through the region I had picked up an admission form at the University of Victoria, filled it out, and left it with the gal behind the desk. Somewhat to my surprise, they accepted me straightaway. So I had that as a back-up. It certainly wasn’t Plan A. And it struck me as more than a little bold to be standing on Palisades Avenue with my thumb out, headed for British Columbia, where I knew no-fucking-body and had no reason to be. Then again, I had no alternative. I stuck out my thumb and waited. I didn’t have to wait very long, really.
I spoke to my brother every few weeks, calling him collect (of course) from a pay-phone around the corner from where I lived, a tiny basement flat belonging to a pleasant family called Galitzine, the head of which was a relation of the Russian tsars, who cut a fine imperial figure and was given, on occasion, to theatrically imperial rages which I enjoyed through the ceiling.
It rained a lot that fall, sometimes in my room. But I was having a good time. It was something of a relief to be back in school, going to classes, reading the assigned literature. The regimentation was good for me after the chaos of the previous year. Also, I found it very pleasant to be around Canadian college girls. I had shed much of my shyness by then.
I’m not sure what the FBI thought they were onto with my brother. But they hounded him relentlessly those last few months, punitively; sadistically, it seemed. And they wouldn’t have been the only ones. His IOUs would have been piling up at an alarming rate.
For all his low-life associations, he never had a gun, or even a proper knife you’d use to hurt someone. Goodness knows, we had grown up in a household where there would have been multiple deaths if a pistol had been available. Imagine, growing up in America, in a neighbourhood with gangsters, and as an adult having all those associations with gangsters, and still not having a gun. Exemplary, I would say. I remember wishing my brother had a gun when those two hoods came over. At least I could have shot a teeny-bopper or two before I got mine.
He was beginning to sound more and more gloomy when we spoke on the phone, and had started sending signals, less and less vague, that he was making ready to check out. One time he talked about joining me out there in BC, taking a job in a logging camp, getting back into shape, some good fresh air and all the rest. Well, I’d done a spot of logging work after arriving on the island and knew it wouldn’t be his thing. He had a city boy’s notion of going at a big tree with an axe, developing his biceps, playing cards at night with the guys. It was chainsaws and skidders and chokers: hard, shitty, dangerous work and with some of the stupidest motherfuckers on planet earth as your bunkmates. Heroin, too, the recreational drug of the BC logger: just what my brother needed.
One time I called him and told him about a party I’d been to the night before that had got a little out of hand and turned into a fuck-a-thon. The idea of it was maybe more intoxicating than the event, but it was fun enough. This seemed to please him. He had always encouraged me to be more adventurous. When I told him about the party it was as if I was telling the folks I had got all A-pluses on my report card. But I could also hear the sadness in his voice.
I don’t know which phone call cinched it: when I knew he was going ahead. I remember telling him not to do anything ‘crazy’ until I got back. He said something sweet to me, I forget. It was done.
He got the pills from his friend Bobby, a cute, younger blond guy he’d tricked with over the years. I liked Bobby but he was a part-time hustler and a congenital thief. They were friends, Bobby and my brother, but whenever Bobby came over he’d boost something. I guess my brother regarded it as a surcharge on the friendship. Maybe Bobby asked him what he needed 50 barbiturates for. He probably knew. Bobby was one of those relentlessly cheerful, optimistic souls, and completely unscrupulous.
I knew where it was all headed when I walked across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan late that night. I’d missed the last bus. It’s peaceful out in the middle, with the lights of the city at your back and stretching south almost its entire length on your left, the Jersey Palisades in front of you, dark, in shadow, but for a few lights. The river black, sheeny, 200 feet below you.
I was walking home from a party in the city, or maybe a girl had thrown me out, I forget. I do remember I had a bellyful of hooch in me. So there I am, approaching the middle of the bridge, headed for Jersey on the narrow walkway, and two young black guys, maybe 16 or so, are headed my way from the opposite direction. ‘Oh, shit,’ I think to myself. ‘Here’s a chance to toss Whitey in the drink and no one’ll ever find out.’ I’m aggressive when drunk and dumber than usual, and I figure my time has come. I’m staring right at them now as they approach. As soon as one of them reaches in his pocket, I figure, is when I make my move, maybe my last. The poor kids’ eyes got big as saucers: ‘What are we doing out here with this crazy drunk white motherfucker’ is what their looks seemed to say.
I’ll spare you the funeral and mourning rituals. It was pretty horrible. The spectacle of a parent grieving for a child is tough to watch, especially when it’s your own parent. There was animal sound coming out of my mother, like a dog wailing, but softer. I’d never seen a corpse up close before. I wasn’t real thrilled that the first one belonged to my brother. Then there was the make-up and his icy cold cheek.
I’m not big on religious expression, unless the music is preternaturally good. The rabbi was a loathsomely unctuous character, most of them are. I told him he didn’t know jack-shit about my brother and to make it short or I’d make a scene. He obliged but gave me one of those pitying looks.
You know how they have big get-togethers after, all of these ugly old dirt-bags shaking their heads, tsk, tsk, tsk, drinking Scotch and stuffing their faces with corned-beef sandwiches. That didn’t sit well with me either. Then the phone rings. I’m hiding in the kitchen at the time. I pick it up and there is a tentative, shaky voice on the other end, almost like long-distance. He identifies himself as John, a friend of my brother’s. I never met John, or maybe once in passing at a bar. I seem to remember a face as I write this. John was my brother’s major love. I’m not sure how long it lasted. Given my brother’s nature and the nature of that whole scene, it couldn’t have been more than a year or so. But John was the important one. John wasn’t a trick. So I told John who I was and that I knew about him and my brother, and he just starts weeping and carrying on, telling me how much he loved him. It all started getting me going again. Most of the people who really loved my brother didn’t come to the funeral because they didn’t want to upset and embarrass everyone: you know, a bunch of weeping queers ruining it for everyone else.
When I returned to Victoria in January there was a long suicide note spread all over the floor of my little basement room. The kids upstairs must have got into it, the older of the boys only 14 or so. I don’t know whether they read it but if they did it must have bewildered or frightened them.
Mostly it was a lot of I’m sorry/I love you, along with instructions: key under the doormat, call the police and so forth. There were a couple of guys, he wrote, who owed him money. He wanted me to make sure they ponied up. Some family stuff. Brotherly counsel. You’ll get over it in time etc. You can imagine what these things read like after the fact. I saved it for a long time, taking it out of my drawer to read every couple of years or so. Then I tossed it.
The aftermath, once I was back in Victoria, wasn’t too bad. It was good to be four thousand miles away, to be sure. I vibrated a bit, like a guitar that’s been struck by a blunt object, but even that calmed down over time, unless I smoked pot. I more or less had to quit smoking pot. Making love helped, and there was a girl or two on hand to oblige me. I suppose there’s not much mystery in that: a little affection, a warm body to hold onto.
My professors had somehow got wind of it and treated me with kid gloves. It couldn’t have been easy for a couple of them whom I went out of my way to irritate, but they tried. Even Basil Bunting, the visiting English poet whom I revered but whose criticism was merciless, found a couple of encouraging things to say about a poem of mine, but it simply wasn’t in him to be insincere for more than one poem.
Before too long I was in a serious relationship, one that lasted seven years. I had made new friends. Every so often someone from back East would send me a message of commiseration or a note gently suggesting that maybe I should see a psychiatrist and talk things over. Both sorts of communication drove me into a rage.
One of the things my brother was most afraid of was becoming a ‘pathetic old queen’, as he put it. Like many good-looking young males, champion athletes, golden youths, he wasn’t destined to age well. People would say to me: ‘Too bad about your brother.’ Fuck ‘em, what do they know about it? I never grudged him what he did. He was in a lot of pain. A lot of people seem to think you’re on this earth to keep them amused. It never made me love him less or think less of him. If you ask me, it took guts. Most people simply hold onto life and rot.
I used to go visit him in the city when he still lived in Chelsea, not long after he’d moved to town. I was finishing high school. Maybe a couple of times a year, no more, I’d take the train downtown from the Bronx instead of going back to Jersey. I was wretchedly unhappy at school and at being 16, and I would confess to him all my anxieties, all my perceived failings and inadequacies. I couldn’t have made for very thrilling company. But he always acted glad to see me. He never put me down or pulled a disapproving face. ‘You’ll be all right, lover boy,’ he’d say, smiling. ‘Let’s go out and see if we can’t find ourselves a drink.’ I miss having someone like that in my life. I miss it like a limb.