I was born in Colorado and for some crazy reason, when I was three or four my mother decided to move to the Bronx—right when the Bronx was the worst. Who the fuck moves to the Bronx in '77? She did, and that's where we grew up. My mother fell in love with this guy who was 30 years older than her who was a blacklist communist who got us to move to this hotbed of socialism, Co-op City.
My neighborhood had every race, religion, creed, color, and all of us were in it together. I grew up on the 31st floor and I was too short to reach the elevator button, so I had to carry a stick with me to hit the elevator button. This is 1977 and the middle of the summer and my parents were like, "All right, get out. See you at 7." And I was fine just running around the Bronx. I'd get home safe and fine.
The good thing about Co-op City was you never had to cross any streets. It's the world's largest housing complex. I'm not going to say it's a project because it's still nice. Growing up, when we'd leave Co-op City and go into the rest of the Bronx, I was always amazed. We thought we were awesome because we lived in Co-op City. We had swimming pools and we didn’t have to cross the street. When we'd visit our friends that weren't at Co-op City, in the regular Bronx neighborhoods, we were like, "Dude, your life sucks. You could get hit by a car."
I got my first job working at North Minneford Yacht Club on City Island when I was 14. My other idiot friends from high school all worked on City Island too. We were all dock hands. They'd drive launches to rich-guy yachts and we’d all get paid $200 bucks. We're millionaires, right? We're loaded.
Further north of Co-op City it's all industrial, and that’s where all the strip clubs were that we'd go to when we were too young. There was a strip club called Mickey’s and Anthony's that was right outside of Co-op City, and 20 of us walked up to the door of Mickey’s and Anthony's. The bouncer’s like "You guys 21?" "Yes, sir." "All right, in. Don't worry about it. In." So that was my first experience in a bar. It was not just a local shitty bar. It was at a local shitty strip club at the age of 14. It was awesome.
One night a good 20 of us, all early teens, were at Mickey’s and Anthony’s. The bar was shaped like a square and, you know, the entertainment was dancing in the middle, and on the other side, we all saw my friend's dad. His dad was this crazy, whacked-out Vietnam vet guy. Huge, goonie, scary, red-headed. He looked exactly like Sgt. Slaughter. We were like, fuck, this guy's gonna kill us. He knows all of our moms and dads. And so what my buddy did is he asked the bartender to come over and he said, "See that scary, goonie, Sgt. Slaughter-looking guy over there? Give him the frilliest, girliest drink, the fruitiest thing. Put pineapples in it, put umbrellas, the works. Give it to that guy." And the bartender's like, "You sure you want me to do this?" Drink goes over to this guy. He looks at it. He's like, "Who the fuck am I going to kill?" And he saw all of us and we waved at the guy and we owned it.
Stolen lobster is the best lobster. Fact.
We had total freedom in high school. A friend of mine had a boat and we'd sail around Long Island. Right across the water from us, there were all these really rich people on the North Shore who had docks and lobster traps. We used to go up to their lobster traps and poach their lobsters. We'd never steal from a fishery. It was always like, "Oh, this guy has a mansion and he has a lobster trap. Fuck that guy. We're gonna take his lobster." I'm pretty sure that the statute of limitations are over on that. We'd steal our lobsters and we'd bring them back to the Bronx to, we called it Mosh Beach. It's this little tiny horseshoe of a beach in the very back of Pelham Park. We named it that because we were idiots and we’d mosh there. It's that stupid. So we’d go to Mosh Beach and we would have clambakes: build a fire, put some seaweed on it, throw the lobsters in it with some clams, and we’d cover it up with sand. Stolen lobster is the best lobster. Fact.
I went to Lehman High School on Tremont Avenue, so all my friends were from Morris Park, Throggs Neck, Co-op City. Northeast Bronx neighborhoods. In the '80s in the northeast Bronx, there was a giant explosion of heavy metal. The guys from Anthrax went to my high school. My sister, who's five or six years older than me, was a punk rock chick. So I went the heavy metal route and there was lots of long hair and Iron Maiden.
I ran with a group of, without exaggeration, probably 150 kids. The metalheads were the rejects, so we were way more diverse. You had, like, the Puerto Rican kids over here, and the Italian kids over here, and the Irish kids over here, and we were the ones that were like, "Oh, you're a freak? Come hang out with us." We liked rock ‘n' roll and heavy metal, and so there were a lot of fist fights, a lot of getting punched in the head, and punching others. But we always felt that we were on the good guys' side 'cause we'd actually stand up for the kid getting bullied on. The freaks and weirdos kind of had their own guerrilla army.
We grew up with a couple of guys that got really involved in the world of drag. We'd go into the Limelight, which is now a little yuppie mall, or Save the Robots. We spent a lot of time at the Limelight, especially in the back part. Lots of nefarious stuff happened there. Lots of drugs, lots of sexual stuff. I learned a lot at a very young age. We would go down to where Niagara is now when it used to be called King Tut's Wah Wah Hut. When I was 18 I learned a lot about life in the men's room in King Tut's Wah Wah Hut. It was a good night.
The high school years and college years were more about the East Village because at the time I hated the Bronx. Between 18 and 25, I wanted nothing to do with it. A lot of guys were dying. There were a couple of options growing up. One option is cop. Another option is fireman. Another option is construction worker. Another option is not the right path. I went to Cooper Union.
I worked really hard to sound like I wasn't from the Bronx. I wanted to not be like those idiots, you know? I was there for painting, drawing, calligraphy, etching, sculpture. I had three jobs in college. I taught for the Saturday program at Cooper Union, which for a couple of years paid me. Second job was working the coat check at Danceteria, which was fucking crazy. And I worked for the Roundabout Theater Company. I was building props and I ushered. The Roundabout Theater used to be on 45th and Broadway, right in Times Square. We used to go spend New Year's Eve sitting with our legs dangling off the Camel sign in Times Square, watching the ball drop. We’d also do other things behind the sign outside.
I spent a lot of that money going to seedy places in the East Village, which are now long gone. There's really nothing left in the East Village. There was this great bar called the Old Homestead Inn Inc., an old Ukrainian-Polish bar. There was this guy we used to call Jesus Miss Pac-Man 'cause he'd smoke a pipe, play Pac-Man, and talk about Jesus. That was his thing. These fucked up Polish skinhead guys would hang out at that bar next to these two old Polish ladies that had old Polish lady helmet hair. One was Barbara and one was Juta, and Barbara would sell coke out of those little metal money tins from a fair or carnival. There was a lot of shady business going on in the East Village in the '80s and '90s. No-Tell Motel, Baby Doll Lounge. Gone, gone. They're all gone.
After college I worked for this company called Elizabeth Dow on Spring Street and Sixth Avenue, where we made handmade wallpaper. It was $150 a yard wholesale. That's not to the end user, that's to the trade. I made handmade wallpaper for, like, a good seven years. Then 9/11 happened and I kind of said, "Fuck this." I wanted to get away from that 'cause it was close enough for me.
I saw the whole thing. Our window faced north onto Spring Street. I heard all these sirens—like, thousands of them—and looking north I'm going, "Fuck." Trucks are coming down Sixth Avenue, and Sixth Avenue goes north. I thought our building was on fire. I go outside and I look up. There's nothing wrong with our building, and then I see the first tower. It's smoking. The boss is not there so I'm the boss and I'm like, "You may want to come outside." So everybody comes outside and we're looking and that's when the second plane hit. It was a shitty day, man.
A good friend of mine, a kid I grew up with, was killed that day. He was a fireman. When he went into the department, he tried to get me to take the test. I didn’t, and now I’m here. After that, I really didn't want to be in lower Manhattan. The weeks after that there were checkpoints. There were guys with machine guns at, like, Canal Street and Houston Street that you had to go through to get to where you were going. There were straight up military checkpoints at 14th Street. Fuck that. That’s when I switched jobs to Ralph Lauren uptown.
I dated this woman who made me move to Williamsburg. We had half a floor, paying $500 a month. She still lives there. She's probably still paying $500 a month. The hipsterism started in the '90s, but it was still a little dangerous then. You could still get mugged, but now it's playland for mama's boys. I left Brooklyn five or six years ago 'cause I had enough. I lived in a huge apartment in Bushwick maybe seven years ago. It was half a floor. My cousin lived across the hall. I paid $700 a month. It was a flop house, a dump, but it was great. It was a perfect bachelor pad, but then one day I saw four blonde chicks jogging down the street and I'm like, "Fuck this. I'm out. Back to the Bronx," and I’ve been there since.
When I was growing up, if you looked slightly different, you were gonna get your ass beat.
Now I’m in Morris Park. It's predominantly Italian, but over the past 15 or 20 years, a lot of Albanians have moved in and it's much more diverse than it was when I was growing up. When I was growing up, if you looked slightly different, you were gonna get your ass beat. It wasn't friendly at all. We have coffee shops and we have our own Columbus Day parade where they paint the Italian flag on the street. They're serious about it and the more non-Italians move in, it seems like the Italian people are even more verbose about it.
There's this coffee shop that I go to and they don't speak English there at all, or they try not to. So I go in there at first and I'm like, you're not Italian. They were really rude to me and I just kept going back and now they tolerate me. At first they were like, "Ugh, it's that guy. He's here. All right. Whatever. Fuck you." And now they'll say hello, and my wife will be like, "Oh my God, they said hello to you." Morris Park is great. Quiet, trees, I have a flower garden. I'm like an old man at 43.
New York Narratives is a collection of first-person accounts commemorating, celebrating, and reflecting on the lived experience in New York City. Read more stories here.