Sitting together with my boyfriend in the living room alcove, in front of the window with its breathtaking view of the East River, Dave turned to me and exclaimed, “I can’t get over the change, Joshy. You guys did a fantastic job. It’s a whole new apartment!”
“You helped with a lot of it, you know,” I replied. You did more than your share of the work. Not bad for someone who thought a screwdriver was a hammer a short time ago.” We both laughed, thinking back to when he said that.
It certainly wasn’t anything like the apartment my dad purchased nearly a year ago last fall. When we first moved in, it looked like the original mid-twentieth century apartment it was. Built originally as middle-class housing for garment workers, in addition to the original owners, who were elderly and aging in place, the co-ops now served a tenant population of and young and middle age professionals who were attracted by its relative affordability. Of course, most people in America would think spending nearly a million dollars on an apartment was absurd. There were plenty of cities and towns where one could buy a humongous mansion for less than half that, but being able to buy a large, three-bedroom apartment in Manhattan for less than a million was virtually unheard of. The only problem was that it needed a lot of work.
Although it was evident that the refrigerator had been replaced recently, the stove actually had a pilot light and was obviously original to the apartment and there was no dishwasher or microwave built-in. The countertops in the kitchen were old-fashioned Formica with steel trim, the cabinets were small and rounded and the lighting was a bare circular florescent bulb. All of the plumbing fixtures were original, with leaky faucets and water that came out brown when first turned on. In the bathrooms, there were old-fashioned wall-mounted sinks, set against thick tiles, and the toilets were more like what you’d find in a public restroom, with a lever that flushed them loudly. The main bath had a tub with lots of rust stains and the master bath had a shower that was way smaller than the available space. The bedrooms were large – too large, with tiny closets, and the living room and dining room were what my friend Freck referred to as ‘epic’, but what good was all that space? Even with my three sisters and my Dad at home, there was more than enough room to spread out, yet not enough room to keep our stuff. Dad’s tool chest was still sitting out in the living room, with no place to stow it. It wasn’t like we did a lot of entertaining either.
However, looking at the apartment now, it was like something out of a fashion magazine. Everything was bright and modern, with an open kitchen in the very center of the apartment and a small breakfast nook with a window overlooking the courtyard. All of the kitchen appliances were brand new and sleek with a stylish black stainless finish. Of course, now there was a dishwasher and a built-in microwave as well as dual wall-mounted convection ovens. There was a gleaming six-burner gas stovetop, over which was mounted a fancy range hood that came down from the ceiling. The bathrooms were enlarged and modern, with glass tile, vessel sinks and sleek hardware. The bedrooms were smaller than before, but they all had large walk-in closets and a lot of built-in storage. There was a linen closet that ran the entire length of the bedroom hallway and the coat closet was augmented by wooden coat hooks along the entry hall. Everything was elegant and modern, and we’d spent a fraction of what contractors would’ve charged because we did all the work ourselves. Not only did we save money, but we could take pride in that we did everything the right way rather than the expedient way. Renovating our apartment while we were still living in it, however, wasn’t easy, but it was the only way we could afford it.
When Dad got a job as an assistant professor at Manhattan Community College, we no longer had a reason to live in Manhattan Beach, on the east end of Coney Island. It had been my home for fourteen years, but other than the fact that it was mostly populated by Russian Jewish immigrants like my dad, the only thing keeping us there was that it was where Dad met Mom – and where Mom had died. As a freshman at Stuyvesant High School, one of New York’s elite public specialty high schools, I was already commuting ninety minutes each way, from Brooklyn into Manhattan every day. My middle sister, Stacey, had it even worse, ’cause she was a sophomore at the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and the Performing Arts, right by Lincoln Center, and my youngest sister, Robin, commuted to the Salk School of Science, which was an elite public middle school in Gramercy Park. Even though my oldest sister, Sarah, was a junior at Brooklyn Latin School, another one of the elite public specialty high schools, getting there meant taking the subway right through Manhattan. It only made sense to move to Manhattan, but Manhattan was expensive!
Thanks to the advice of a colleague, Dad found a fantastic apartment in Co-op Village on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, but it cost nearly a million bucks! Even so, Dad thought we could afford it. I was shocked when the realtor said we could get a million for our tiny matchbox-size house in Brooklyn, and she was right! The people who bought it planned to tear it down and build their dreamhouse on the lot – a very narrow three-story dreamhouse like so many of the other teardowns on our street. They even paid our asking price. I couldn’t begin to comprehend having the money to spend close to a million dollars on a house, just to tear it down and start over. Anyway, our new apartment had unbelievable views of the East River and Williamsburg Bridge, and we could even see a little bit of downtown Manhattan.
When I told my boyfriend Dimitri about the planned move, however, he broke up with me, just like that. I told him I’d come back to see him every weekend, but he said, “Joshy, it ain’t gonna work. You’ll be in Manhattan and I’ll still be here in Manhattan Beach. You need to find someone new… maybe someone who goes to Stuyvesant too.” It was tough breaking up like that – we’d been together since the sixth grade – but he was right. Now, I have Dave, my little sister’s best friend, and he lives right in the neighborhood. I met him at Robin’s thirteenth birthday party, back on Valentine’s Day. He went to Salk with Robin last year and he’ll start at Stuyvesant in the fall, assuming we have school in the fall. It’s still anyone’s guess as to how school’s gonna work until there’s a vaccine for Covid-19.
Not long after I celebrated my fourteenth birthday, back in late December, I met and became friends with a group of gay kids who also went to Stuyvesant High School. I met them on a bus while going to shop for home theater gear for our new apartment, and it turned out they were audiophiles and knew where to get the best stuff. Among them was a thirteen-year-old boy with red hair and copper-framed glasses who was utterly cute. He went by the nickname ‘Freck’, ’cause he had a ton of freckles, but whereas I was a freshman, he was already a senior. He was a true genius and could speak dozens of languages. His passion, however, was architecture and in particular, sustainable architecture. After getting degrees in Architecture, Civil Engineering and maybe business, he hoped to design entire cities and take on the problem of climate change. What an amazing kid!
When I told Freck about our plans to renovate our apartment, right away he offered to put together all the architectural drawings that would be needed. He even offered to help us submit all of the required paperwork to the NYC Buildings Department. He had some really cool ideas for what we could do, based on what he knew about the layout of our apartment, but that was no substitute for actually sitting down with us and looking at floorplans. Therefore, we bribed him with the offer of dinner in our home. We invited his boyfriend too. Kyle was also a senior at Stuyvesant and a genius with a potty mouth and a wicked sense of humor. As tall as he was, I would’ve never guessed he was only eleven.
My sisters and I went all out in preparing a feast for the two boys. We heard that they didn’t often have a chance to enjoy a real home-cooked meal, so rather than prepare a gourmet meal, we did just the opposite. We served meatloaf with mashed potatoes, sweet and sour meatballs, chicken tetrazzini, baked ziti and salmon patties with creamy mushroom sauce. We served string beans, creamed spinach and broccoli Hollandaise. For dessert, we served homemade peach cobbler and pecan pie with a choice of ice cream. There were enough leftovers to last us a couple of weeks at least.
As we were finishing dessert, Freck began with, “I loaded my laptop with architectural software and entered in the actual floorplan that was used in building your apartment. Of course, the building’s settled over the course of the last sixty-odd years and I’ll need to make more precise measurements before we actually submit our architectural plans to the city…”
“We have a top-of-the-line laser level,” I interrupted. “Would that help with that?” I asked.
“Um, yeah,” Freck replied. “That would save me hours of measurement by hand. Instead of spending a whole day on it, I could probably take the measurements in an afternoon, after school.”
“Cool,” I replied.
“Let’s start with the dimensions from the original blueprints,” Freck continued. “They should be accurate within an inch or two. First of all, I understand you wish to live here while you do the work.”
“We don’t have any place else to stay otherwise, and we can’t afford to live for months in a hotel,” I responded.
“I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that the existing physical layout is wasteful,” Freck responded. “The rooms are huge, but the closets are tiny and storage space is woefully inadequate. The bathrooms are barely big enough to turn around in and the kitchen is more appropriate for something you’d find in a motorhome. Fortunately, with the exception of that one support right there,” he said as he pointed to a rectangular column in the kitchen, and another in the wall between Josh’s bedroom closet and the linen closet, the only interior wall that can’t be removed is the one between the kitchen and the bathrooms, because it contains all of the plumbing.
“If you are willing to demolish all the existing interior walls, we can do a lot with the space. I can give you a modern kitchen with a breakfast nook, larger bathrooms, walk-in closets in every bedroom and loads of storage space, all while retaining the basic layout. However, if you do it piecemeal, some things just won’t be practical, and it’ll add at least a month to the construction time. What I strongly recommend,” he went on, “is that you put all your furniture in storage with the possible exception of a chest and maybe a wardrobe to keep your clothes in, and construct a temporary bedroom in an out-of-the-way corner of the living room. Then, we could demolish all the interior walls at once and put up the new ones very quickly. Once you get the sheetrock up, you could move back into one of the bedrooms, so you’d only need the temporary bedroom for maybe a few weeks at most.”
“Where would we store our furniture?” Sarah asked.
It was Dad that answered, “There’s a Manhattan Self Storage nearby, right off the FDR. If we only need it a month or maybe two, it wouldn’t cost all that much, and we could rent a U-Haul to move all the furniture ourselves.” Of course, the estimate of a month or two was wildly optimistic to begin with, and Dad had no idea we’d be dealing with a global pandemic and a hurricane along the way.
“What did you have in mind for the temporary bedrooms?” I asked. “Would we use steel studs and sheetrock, and then take it down when we’re done?”
Laughing, Freck answered, “Nothing that elaborate. We’d purchase concrete blocks, ’cause they’re cheap, strong, and recyclable. You’d use layers of blocks upon which you’d set four-by-eight-foot plywood sheets. You could either use air mattresses on top of the plywood, or your regular twin mattresses, but if you do the latter, you’ll need to be extra careful in making sure everything’s sealed airtight. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a thick layer of plaster dust covering your sheets at the end of the day.
“If you’ve ever seen pictures of the old Pullman railroad cars, this’ll be very similar. You’ll have a couple of stacks of makeshift bunkbeds, completely enclosed using heavy plastic sheeting. It won’t be pretty and there won’t be much privacy, but it won’t be for long and it’ll make a huge difference in what you can do.”
“What about the bathrooms?” Dad asked. “We can’t get by without at least one working toilet and a sink.”
“What you can do is to replace one toilet at a time, so that you’ll always have at least one working toilet,” Freck replied. “I would recommend replacing them with wall-hung models with the tank in the wall. That’ll give you an extra foot or more of space in front of the toilet, and it’ll be quiet. A contractor would tell you you can’t hang the new toilets until you close up the wall, but that’s utter bullshit. It’s the height of laziness. It only takes maybe ten minutes to rehang the toilet at the end of the day.
“Same thing with the sinks,” Freck continued. “We’d tackle them one at a time and mount your old sinks temporarily while waiting on the inspection. Bathing will be a bit more of a problem, as we’ll hafta remove the bathtub during the demolition, and you won’t be able to do anything with the shower until you’ve had the inspection. I’d recommend getting a prefab shower enclosure and using it temporarily until after you install the new bathtub, and then selling it when you’re done.
“Now what I have in mind is to shift the kitchen away from the exterior wall, opening it up, enlarging it and repositioning it in the very center of the apartment. The bedroom hall will open directly off the kitchen, separating the bedrooms from the living room. We’ll take a little of the wasted space from the living room and use it for a walk-in closet off Josh’s bedroom. That’ll give you a cozy nook by the living room window where you can have some chairs for studying or meeting with friends. It’ll also give you a wall in which to place the refrigerator and built-in ovens. The space by the kitchen window will become a breakfast nook, with a built-in bench, wrapped around a matching table. We’ll add a window air conditioner, so the kitchen doesn’t get so hot in the summer…”
It took a long time to get all the approvals to begin the work, and then we disassembled most of the furniture and stored it. We walled off a corner of the living room with heavy plastic sheeting and set up temporary bedrooms with air mattresses on top of concrete blocks and plywood bunks. Of course, by then, a global pandemic was rapidly spreading around the world and New York was an epicenter of infection. Unfortunately, no sooner had we gotten started than the city went on lockdown. We’d already gutted the kitchen and bathrooms and we kept working for a time, but building materials quickly became scarce and then the co-op management imposed a freeze on all construction projects. The intent of course was to prevent anyone from bringing outside workers into the building, but we were doing all the work ourselves.
We’d managed to install the new wall-hung toilets and associated plumbing before the moratorium went into effect, and we temporarily hooked up the bathroom and kitchen sinks too – otherwise the apartment wouldn’t have been livable, but that still left us without any kitchen appliances, nor even a working shower. Dad arranged for the stovetop and refrigerator to be delivered ahead of time and he hooked them up in the gutted kitchen, which at least gave us a way to prepare meals, and he purchased a prefab shower from Home Depot and hooked it up as well.
In the meantime, my boyfriend Dave’s mom, who was a nurse and had been taking care of coronavirus patients in intensive care at Bellevue, came down with the virus herself and was admitted to one of the intensive care units where she’d been working. I couldn’t stand the thought of Dave being all alone in their big apartment – like me, he was only fourteen – so I broke his quarantine and moved in with him. Dad wasn’t too happy about it, but once done, he had little choice but to allow it since I then had to self-quarantine too and there was no way to do so in our torn-up apartment. I couldn’t say I minded sharing his bed, but Dave was too worried about his mom for us to do much of anything. Fortunately, Dave’s uncles flew in from Seattle to help us out, and they stayed on after his mom was discharged, to help out during her prolonged recovery.
I wasn’t complaining though. Thanks to my boyfriend, I could sleep with him in a real bed, and although Dave didn’t have any experience in working with tools, he proved to be a big help when it came to helping us with the renovations when they resumed, once his mom was out of the hospital and he was off quarantine. I hated to sound sexist, but testosterone makes a big difference when it comes to muscle mass and Dave could lift more than twice what any of my sisters could.
An opportunity for Robin to escape our torn-up apartment opened up when Freck’s boyfriend, Kyle, was savagely beaten by the police during a Black Lives Matter protest, right after Memorial Day. He ended up suffering a serious head injury and although he’s expected to make a full recovery, it could take as long as a year. Freck’s mom has an accessible brownstone on the Upper West Side and so Kyle has been staying with his boyfriend’s family while undergoing intensive rehab. However, the added work of caring for Kyle put a strain on the family and their live-in housekeeper couldn’t cope. When Freck asked Robin if she’d like to earn some money working as a nanny to Freck’s twin sisters, she jumped at the chance. Who could blame her for bailing out on helping with the renovations? In the brownstone, she could sleep in a real bed, and besides which, her boyfriend Larry lived on the next block.
No sooner did our co-op lift the moratorium on construction projects than we got back to work. First and foremost, we needed functioning bathrooms and a functioning kitchen. We therefore wasted little time in replacing all of the original plumbing with copper. The only thing we didn’t replace ourselves was the gas line for the stove – that wasn’t something to mess with – so we had the co-op install a new line and valve. At that point, we were supposed to wait for the Buildings Department to send an inspector to look at our work, but with the lockdown, there were no inspectors available.
Unable to close up the walls until the inspection was completed, we moved on to the rest of the demolition work, which was grueling. We leased a dumpster, which was kept on the ground floor, and we had the co-op pad the elevators. Every bit of concrete and plaster that needed to be hauled away had to be brought down the same passenger elevators that we all used every day.
We removed all of the original doors, which were made of laminated particle board. I didn’t even realize they had such a thing back in the fifties. Next, the original door frames and baseboards needed to be removed from all the interior walls, as well as closet rods, shelves and the like. Dave and I used crowbars to pry anything and everything loose that wasn’t cemented in. It was backbreaking work as Dave and I filled several small barrels, which we then took down the elevators to the dumpster. Without the benefit of air conditioning, the apartment became stiflingly hot and so Dave and I worked in only our shorts and sneakers. I couldn’t say I enjoyed the heat but watching Dave’s bulging muscles as his sweat glistened on his bare chest was a very nice bonus.
In the meantime, Dad and my sisters demolished the walls, which were solid concrete, four inches thick and covered with plaster. While Dad swung a sledgehammer, Sarah and Stacy used an air hammer to break up the concrete where it met the ceiling, floor, exterior walls and doorways. They gingerly separated the concrete from the embedded electrical conduit, which could then be removed. We finished up all the demolition work on Friday, July 31, just in time to return the dumpster at the end of the month.
The co-op didn’t allow construction work to be done on the weekend, so Dave and I made the most of our weekends together. At the beginning of August, New York City was in phase three of reopening from the pandemic, which meant there weren’t many things to do on the weekend besides staying home and watching TV.
Restaurants were open for takeout and outdoor dining only, with most of them remaining closed altogether. Those restaurants that could, were allowed to expand their outdoor seating, not only to make use of the sidewalks in front of them, but the parking lane of the street as well. With alternate side parking rules still suspended, they didn’t need to worry about street cleaning, but already there’d been accidents from cars, bicycles and pedestrians all trying to go around the resulting obstructions.
Most shops and stores had reopened, but there were strict rules for social distancing, with the number of patrons allowed inside strictly limited, and of course, masks were required at all times. The major museums in New York were still closed, with plans to reopen at the end of August, provided the pandemic remained under control as we entered phase four. Movie theaters would also reopen then, under strict social distancing rules and with the wearing of masks being mandatory. Broadway and Off-Broadway theater planned to remain closed at least through the end of the year.
New York might have been the original epicenter of the pandemic, but that was largely because it was the gateway from Europe to America. By the time anyone realized the virus was here, it had already spread widely. Although sometimes criticized for the initial delay in making the decision to close things down – a delay that likely cost thousands of lives – the Governor’s subsequent actions resulted in not only flattening the curve, but we’d kept it flat by reopening gradually, based on achieving specific milestones. Even though California had been much more proactive initially, they blew it by reopening too quickly and had since surpassed New York for having the largest number of cases of Covid-19.
Worst of all were places like Arizona, Texas and Mississippi, which were all having major outbreaks, and Ohio, Indiana and Kansas were reportedly not far behind. Then there were Georgia and Florida, with their braindead governors who were taking their cues from the President and insisting on fully reopening, even though their numbers were among the worst in the nation. Both had insisted on in-person schooling, which could only lead to new outbreaks.
In Florida, the theme parks were open, the beaches were crowded, the bars were filled with young singles and the retirement communities and nursing homes gave credence to the image of Florida as a place old people went to die, sooner rather than later. I couldn’t fathom why my dad adored the President the way he did. As far as I was concerned, the President was gonna take the whole country down with him. I wouldn’t be able to vote in the coming election, but I’d be eighteen in time for the next presidential election and I was looking forward to finally being able to vote.
Dave and I slept in on the first Saturday in August, savoring the opportunity to do so, given that we’d been getting up at 6:00 every morning. We’d already showered the night before, and in fact had taken to showering at night, since we were always covered with grime at the end of a day of renovations. Dave’s uncles had brunch waiting, having ordered an impressive spread from Russ and Daughters. Dave and I each had a multigrain bagel with cream cheese, locks and capers, as well as other traditional items such as smoked whitefish, cucumber salad and potato pancakes. Of course, there was fresh coffee and it was excellent.
Dave’s mom was doing better all the time, but she’d really been thrown for a loop by Covid-19 and it would be a while before she was strong enough to go back to work. Her sick leave and vacation time had long ago run out, but her employer, New York University, provided short-term disability insurance and that would carry her well into the fall. Hopefully by then she’d be ready to return to work. Dave’s Uncle Alan was a section head at Microsoft and was able to work remotely, even from New York. His other uncle and Alan’s husband, Peter, had been one of the engineers who developed the ill-fated software that contributed to the 737 Max crashes that grounded the entire fleet. He was furious that executives had decided to use his software on a plane for which it had never been intended, but of course he was the one who got canned. He was still looking for a job, but the prospects in the aerospace industry during the pandemic were grim.
“So, do you boys have any plans for today?” Dave’s mom asked as we ate our brunch.
“Oh, we thought maybe we’d take in a matinée at the Regal Theater at Essex Crossing,” Dave began, “and then take the F train up to 63rd and Lex and walk to the Met. After that, we’ll take a nice stroll through Central Park and then have dinner at Tavern on the Green. I’ll see if we can get a reservation before we leave. From there it’s a short walk to Lincoln Center. We have a friend whose dad is one of the principle conductors of the New York Symphony, so I only hafta send him a text to get tickets. And then we’ll grab an Uber and come home.” What had my boyfriend been smoking? Not only were those things well beyond what we could afford, but none of them was open. Obviously, he was joking.
“Very funny, Dave,” his mom responded. “Now tell us what you’re really doing.”
Laughing, I replied, “Well, it really is a nice day. A bit hot and muggy, but not bad for August. I think we’ll walk down Grand Street to SoHo, maybe stopping for ice cream at Ferrara’s in Little Italy along the way…”
“How can you even think of eating ice cream after eating that huge brunch?” Dave’s mom asked.
“They’re teenagers, Sandy,” Uncle Alan interjected. “They’re always hungry.” We all laughed at that.
“So after that, we’ll browse all the shops and then later, look for a place to eat,” I concluded.
“Do you guys need any money?” Uncle Alan asked.
“We always need more money,” Dave answered, “but I think we’re good. I have more than enough from my allowance for an afternoon on the town, such as it is.”
“What about school supplies and clothes for the coming semester?” Dave’s mom asked.
“Most of that stuff we’ll get online,” Dave answered. “SoHo’s too expensive. New York is too expensive. Maybe we’ll take the Path Train to Newport Centre Mall in Jersey City, but I wonder if it’s even open.”
“Yeah, it’s open,” Uncle Alan noted, “but rather than take the Path train, why don’t I drive you there tomorrow? I’m sure the prices are cheaper in Jersey and you won’t have to worry about taking public transportation.”
“I think we’ll take you up on that,” Dave told his Uncle Alan. “They have much better stuff at better prices than we’ll find anywhere in Manhattan. More than enough to justify the tunnel toll. Today, we’ll just check out the boutiques and maybe get some ideas.”
It was very hot and humid out, so we set out in tank tops, cargo shorts and sneakers with lowcut socks. Ten minutes later, we entered Chinatown, with countless shops selling all kinds of produce, meats, fish and trinkets for tourists. The smell wasn’t altogether pleasant, but there was a kind of fascination with walking through an area where the signs were all in Chinese. When we crossed through Sara D. Roosevelt Park and passed the Grand Street Subway, it was fascinating to people watch as old men wearing masks played chess and children ran around, playing games of their own design.
We crossed over Bowery and a few blocks after that, entered Little Italy or, as Dave liked to call it, Very Little Italy. With the encroachment of Chinatown, it was down to only five blocks along Mulberry Street, between Canal and Spring Streets. We stopped at Ferrara’s, which is known for its calzones but caters mostly to tourists and is always jammed. I liked to stop there for their ice cream, which is homemade and very refreshing on a hot summer day, but decidedly overpriced. We took one look at the line, however, which extended all the way to Bowery, and decided against stopping. There wasn’t enough room to socially distance and spending an hour on line with tourists wasn’t exactly on our bucket lists.
So we started working our way up and down the streets between Canal and Houston Streets. When we got to the corner of Prince and Greene Streets, we spent far too much time inside the Apple Store. I’d been drooling over Dave’s iPhone since he got it, but I couldn’t justify buying anything more than an iPhone SE and even then, my current phone worked fine. By holding onto it for another year or two, I could get way more phone for the money, especially with 5G coming to the iPhone.
When we got to Sixth Avenue, we crossed Houston and into The Village and headed up Bedford Street to Christopher Street. Without any particular destination in mind, Dave asked me if I’d ever been to the Stonewall Inn, which of course I hadn’t. Living in Brooklyn and going to school in Battery Park City, it wasn’t exactly on the way.
“You never went to the Met before I took you and now, I find out you’ve never visited the most important historic site for gay rights in perhaps the world? Shit, Josh, it’s even within walking distance of where you live!” Grabbing my hand, he said, “C’mon, we’re gonna see the Stonewall Inn!”
“Yes sir,” I replied as he practically dragged me up Christopher Street. It was cool to see the sculptures in the park in front of Stonewall and its designation as a National Historic Monument, but I was blown away to discover it was still a functioning gay bar. We went inside but we couldn’t stay because of our age, and a couple of guys called me ‘cutie pie’ as did a woman I was pretty sure was a guy in drag. This being Saturday, the place was hopping and later there’d be drag shows and the like. I got the impression, however, that Stonewall was more of a tourist hot spot, but nevertheless, the sense of history was palpable. “Thanks for bringing me here,” I told my boyfriend, just before kissing him deeply on the lips. “I did that because I can,” I added as many of the patrons hooted around us.
After leaving Stonewall, we headed down Seventh Avenue and then veered off on Bleeker Street, arguably one of the most famous streets in New York. Known for its nightlife, even at this early hour the restaurants were jammed, with outdoor seating extending into the street. Of course, the number of patrons that could be seated was limited by social distancing rules, so there was almost no chance we could find a place to eat, even if we wanted to. I had to admit that I was a little bit hungry, but I wanted to wait to eat until later. Bleeker Street was also known for its shops. I’d been here once before with Asher, Seth, Freck and Kyle when I first moved to Manhattan. I was impressed with the shops and ended up buying some LGBT trinkets to wear to school.
Dave and I came to a leather shop called The Village Tannery that had some really nice leather bags hanging in the window, and so we went inside. The smell of fresh leather was unreal. The possibility of having a bookbag made of leather had never occurred to me before, but then leather was expensive and I probably couldn’t afford it. I was prepared to see a price of maybe eighty or ninety dollars, but when I looked at a really nice black leather backpack, I nearly had heart failure when I saw a price that was well into three figures. There was an older gentleman talking to Dave, who was also looking at a bookbag, and so I went up to them and asked, “Sorry to interrupt, but he’s just my boyfriend anyway. Just to confirm, is that a seven on this price tag, or is it a one?”
Laughing, he replied, “Yes, it’s a seven, but that backpack would be overkill for you. This bag I’m showing your boyfriend looks the same on the outside, but it’s only slightly over half the cost. Functionally, the two bags are the same.”
The bag Dave was looking at was a beautiful burgundy leather and on the outside, I couldn’t tell there was any difference at all between the two bags, so I asked, “Then what’s the difference?”
Taking the black leather bag I was looking at, he replied, “This one has a double layer of leather and it’s finished inside and out. You can see that the inside’s just as smooth as the outside. The one your boyfriend is looking at has only one layer of leather, but it’s just as thick. The inside, rather than being finished and smooth, is split rawhide, but who sees the inside of your bookbag other than you?”
“But does it wear as well?” I asked.
“Finished leather wears better over time,” the man replied, “but unless you spill coffee in it, you’ll still be using this bag when you graduate from medical school.”
“Who said I’m going to medical school?” I asked. The thought had crossed my mind, but I hadn’t even discussed it with Dave yet.
“You both are,” the man replied. “I sometimes get premonitions and I’m getting a strong one with you both. I bet you’re already thinking about it too.”
“I’d been thinkin’ about it even before,” Dave responded, “but my mom’s a nurse and ever since she got Covid and nearly died, I’ve been pretty sure I want to become an infectious disease specialist.”
“You’ll be the next Tony Fauci,” the man quipped as he squeezed Dave’s shoulder, then added, “and you will be a top neurologist,” My jaw just about dropped, ’cause I was definitely thinking about going into neurology. That was weird.
“You just want to sell us each a bookbag,” Dave countered. “Even the cheaper bags are a hell of a lot of money for us though. Do you have any kind of student discount, an installment plan, or maybe there’ll be a Labor Day sale?”
“I’m sorry, but most of my customers are students, and my rent’s not going down anytime soon. With the lockdown, I’m barely hanging on and the only reason I haven’t raised my prices is that everyone’s hurting right now.”
Checking my phone, I exclaimed, “I can get an even larger bag at Amazon for half the price, and it’s finished inside and out.”
“Nothing’s better for my business than Amazon,” the man responded. “Same with ebags.com. When your bags arrive, you’ll discover that the inside’s finished in nylon, not leather, and the nylon’ll wear through in no time. You’ll also note that the stitching’s all done on the outside by machine, and of poor quality. My bags are all stitched by hand on the inside, and their either made right here in my shop or they’re fair trade. Regardless, if they ever need repair, I’ll do the repairs at no charge for as long as you own the bag. That doesn’t include normal wear, but it includes all of the workmanship.
“Sure, you can probably find a cheaper bag in a discount store or online. You might find yourself spending even more than this at a store like Urban Outfitter, but it won’t be nearly as well made. I stand behind what I sell, and I guarantee that you won’t find a better bag at this price, anywhere. I’ll even throw in a free wallet.”
“I’d like to buy this one,” Dave announced. It was a nice-looking bag, but out of my league.
“I’m afraid I’m gonna hafta pass,” I countered. “I just don’t have it.”
After tapping on his phone for a bit, my phone chimed and I saw that Dave had gifted me the full price of the bag he was getting. Angrily, I responded, “I can’t accept this! You aren’t any more flush with cash than I am.”
“Then consider it a loan,” Dave countered. “I got a lot of money for my Bar Mitzvah, and although Mom made me invest most of it, I still have a chunk of it left, hardly earning any interest at all. Why not use a little of it so the boy I love can have a nice bookbag? You’d expect to spend, what, fifty dollars every year for a new bookbag?”
“More like twenty, plus tax,” I corrected Dave.
Rolling his eyes, he responded, “Okay, so pay me back 25 dollars per year, interest free,” he continued. “After eight years, you’ll have paid me back $200. If you don’t like the bag or it wears out by then, I’ll buy it back from you. If you decide to keep it, you’ll pay the difference.”
“No way it’ll last eight years,” I countered.
“Oh, it will,” the man responded. “If it doesn’t, I’ll buy it back from you.” As old as he looked, I wasn’t sure he’d last eight years, let alone the bag, but I couldn’t exactly tell him that. However, as if reading my mind, he added, “And in case you’re wondering, I fully expect to be here in eight years.” On the other hand, if the man was so confident in the quality of his bags…
“That’s not a fair deal, Dave,” I thought aloud, “’cause I’ll be getting the benefit of carrying a much more stylish bookbag around with me every day.” Then turning to face my boyfriend, I suggested, “Why don’t I pay back fifty dollars every year, starting today? In four years, I’ll pay you the balance, or you’ll buy it back from me. In eight years, if it hasn’t held up, we’ll bring it back here for a refund.”
“Josh, you don’t need to pay me that much,” Dave objected.
“Yeah, I do, and it’s only fair,” I countered. “Not that I don’t expect us to be together in eight years, but we might not even go to the same college, let alone get into the same med school. We won’t even graduate at the same time, after all.”
“I’ll take extra courses online, or do whatever it takes to catch up and graduate in three years,” Dave responded.
“Or maybe I’ll take a gap year,” I replied. “We’ll make it work, one way or the other, but this gentleman has other customers and there are people waiting outside, so let’s buy our bags and we’ll work out the details later.”
After blowing our budget on bookbags, we decided to look for a place to eat, but it didn’t take long to realize we’d never find something decent in Greenwich Village that didn’t already have a long wait for an outdoor table. Since there were several shoe stores along Houston Street and we both needed new shoes, we decided to try our luck there. Talk about sticker shock. $600 for a pair of Nikes? $1100 for Adidas? Who could afford to buy sneakers at those prices? Taking a look at Zappos and Amazon on my phone, I found the same exact Nikes that sold in the store for $500 were only $70 at Amazon. Unbelievable. We decided to wait to buy shoes until we went shopping with Uncle Alan in New Jersey.
Deciding to detour and check out the numerous restaurants in the East Village, we were delighted to find that our favorite all-you-can-eat sushi place had reopened for outdoor seating, and they had a table for two. First Avenue wasn’t exactly the most romantic spot, but the food was always excellent and although the cost was a bit of a stretch, it was a steal for unlimited sushi. An hour later, we were more than sated and headed home, showing off our new bookbags when we got there.
“What the ‘F’ is goin’ on?” I exclaimed. “I’d have expected it if we lived in Florida, but New York? This’ll be my third hurricane in less than a decade! What gives?”
“It’s climate change, man,” Dave replied as we cuddled up on his living room sofa.
“Try telling that to the deniers,” I responded.
It was Sunday evening and after spending all day Saturday in SoHo and The Village, picking up a pair of leather bookbags along the way, we’d spent most of today in Jersey City with Dave’s uncle Alan, picking out new clothes for school. Dave’s uncle insisted on paying for everything too.
But now we were watching CNN and tracking the progress of Tropical Storm Isaias. Evidently, it was gonna miss Florida entirely and make landfall as a Cat One hurricane tomorrow night in the Carolinas. It would then track up the east coast, all the way into Canada. It was expected to reach New York by early afternoon on Tuesday, and last into the early evening, spawning tornados, merging with the Jet Stream and doing far more damage than a tropical Storm or hurricane of comparable intensity generally would. I’d been through it all before.
Back in 2011, when Hurricane Irene hit, we had no idea what to expect. I thought it would be kinda cool, having a hurricane in New York. After all, I was only five at the time and never even considered it could be dangerous. We were under orders to evacuate, but Dad wasn’t worried and so neither was I. However, when the storm arrived, it was so loud and the rain was continuous, but the wind was something else. It almost sounded like the roof was bein’ torn off, which wasn’t far from the truth.
When things worsened and the lights went out, Dad thought maybe we should all go down into the basement, but no sooner did he open the door to the stairway that led down than we all heard splashing water, so we huddled together in the kitchen and waited out the storm. Poor Robin was too frightened to even cry, and she was shaking pretty bad so Dad held her and told her everything was gonna be okay. Things started to settle down by twilight and so we cautiously went outside. I was very naïve, expecting things to be pretty much as they were before the storm. Instead, I was shocked by what I saw. There were trees down all over the place, even blocking the street.
In our back yard, there was standing water and our one and only tree, which I always thought was huge, was on its side, cracked in two just above the stump like a matchstick. I cried. Dad, however, was looking up and when I did, following his eyes, I saw that large sections of our roof were shiny and black. It wasn’t ’til later that I learned what I was seeing was bare tarpaper where the shingles had been blown off. Back inside, our basement was flooded, all the way up the stairs to just below the door. My eyes got wide when I saw that, ’cause that meant the water would’ve been way over my head if we’d gone down there. Only later did we learn that the water came up through the ground.
It was too late to do anything right then, but Dad was afraid people would buy up everything in sight and so he wasted little time in using his phone to order a bunch of stuff online from Lowes and Home Depot. I guess he paid extra for next-day delivery by truck, and so the first truck arrived early the next morning. By then there was maybe only a foot or two of water left in the basement. Dad had my sisters clean out the fridge and start cleaning up the yard while he and I started on the basement. Stacey was only six and Sarah was seven, so they weren’t much older than I was, and at four, Robin was more of a burden than a help and required constant lookin’ after.
Using a battery-powered lantern, Dad waded through the water. I watched from the stairs as he placed a plastic bucket on the floor and stood on top of it, and then wiped his feet off with a towel. “I don’t want to electrocute myself,” he said. I had no idea what he was talking about, but it definitely didn’t sound like something good. He donned thick rubber gloves and used a giant screwdriver to remove the front of a box with lots of wires inside. “I don’t trust these old circuit breakers after being submerged,” he added and one-by-one, he pulled each one out, removed the wire attached to it, wiped inside where it had been and then replaced it with a new one. He saved the big one in the center for last and once it was in place, flipped it and then started flipping all of the other circuit breakers and I could hear things start to whirr to life in the house above us. When the lights in the basement came on, I cheered.
After getting the power back on, we went outside and Dad got up on the ladder and spent a lot of time inspecting the roof. He ended up spending days working on the roof, wearing a huge mask thing on his face. He removed all of the original shingles from the roof and only later would I find out that they were asbestos. From what I remember, he did everything the right way – we just couldn’t afford to spend the money on professional asbestos remediation, which wasn’t covered by the insurance. He replaced some of the plywood that had been damaged by the hurricane, and put down all new tarpaper, and then he did something really smart – he installed ceramic tile rather than fiberglass shingles. That saved us from having to spend a fortune the following year, when Sandy hit.
Rather than hire a professional tree contractor, he rented a chain saw and a very loud chipper-shredder and turned our tree in to a huge pile of wood chips. He treated the chips with some sort of chemical preservative, probably borax, to prevent termites. He applied tar to the foundation and then spread the chips all around the house to deflect water and prevent the basement from flooding in a future storm. Inside, he sealed the basement walls and floor with epoxy and silicone calk, and installed an anti-siphon floor drain, not that I knew what that was back then. Again, that proved to be smart, as it kept the basement from flooding the following year from Sandy.
Yeah, the repairs we did after Irene saved us a lot of trouble when it came to Sandy. The storm surge sent water cascading down our street and flooded most of our neighbors’ basements, but ours remained mostly dry. Except for some minor damage to some of the tiles that had to be replaced, our tile roof remained intact too. At least we had the good sense to go to a shelter this time rather than ride the storm out at home. Unfortunately, there was still a shitload of damage from the wind and at the age of six, Dad considered me old enough to help with the repairs.
Now we were facing a hurricane yet again, or at least a tropical storm. Although we didn’t have a need to worry about securing outside furniture that could become a missile if picked up by the wind, strangely, our building was in a flood zone whereas Asher’s, Seth’s and Dave’s were not. At least the city was not ordering evacuations, nor were they expecting the need to with Isaias. The co-op management assured us that all the windows were rated sufficient for a Cat 2 hurricane, so there was no need to board anything up. So long as the power remained on, we might even be able to work right through the storm.
Even with the pleasant sound of the chime on my phone, hearing it was still a rude awakening at such an early hour, particularly on a summer day. There were so many things I’d rather be doing at 6:00 AM on a Monday morning in August… like sleeping! My boyfriend’s alarm went off just as I shut off my own alarm – we weren’t taking chances on not getting up. We were in the midst of renovating my family’s apartment and with a hurricane on the way and school starting back up next month – not that we had any idea how that was gonna work in the midst of a global pandemic – there wasn’t much time left to finish the work.
Stretching his arms over his head, Dave yawned and sleepily exclaimed, “Joshy, why do we have to get up so fuckin’ early!”
“Cause we have work to do, Dave,” I replied. “You know that. Wake up sleepyhead. There’s only about a month left before school starts back up and we hafta finish all the renovations before then.”
“Wha?” Dave responded, still half asleep.
“There’s a virus,” I explained. “Remember? A global pandemic? Your mom got it and she’s still recovering. Your uncles came here from Seattle to take care of you while she was in the hospital, and they stayed to take care of her until she’s well enough to go back to work. Remember?”
“Shit, we’re spending the summer renovating your apartment,” Dave responded as his brain finally kicked in gear. “We’re helping your dad and your sisters… except for Robin. Robin’s working for Freck’s family… and taking care of Kyle! Kyle was beaten by the police! We were at a Black Lives Matter protest.”
“Yes, you’re remembering,” I replied. “Welcome back to the world of the living.” I was not a morning person, but compared to me, Dave was a zombie until he drank his morning coffee. That wouldn’t happen until we got to my family’s apartment, across the street. Dave and I picked up breakfast for all of us every day at Zafi’s. Zafi’s Luncheonette was a neighborhood diner, located right in Dave’s apartment building and open seven days a week. It wasn’t in the same league as places like Russ and Daughters or Katz’s Deli, but it was convenient and a hot breakfast from Zafi’s was a great way to start the day.
Getting out of bed, we grabbed our boxers and made our way to the bathroom across the hall. After emptying our bladders, we washed up and brushed our teeth, and then returned to Dave’s bedroom to dress in t-shirts, shorts and sneakers. Grabbing our phones, wallets and keys, we quietly snuck out the front door and headed over to Zafi’s, where our breakfast order was already waiting. Today, it was French toast, scrambled eggs and Canadian bacon. Yes, we were Jewish, but none of us kept Kosher.
Carrying the food across to my family’s apartment, we set it down on the kitchen table and everyone dug in. Looking around, I saw how much we’d accomplished and yet how much we still had to do. We’d finished all the demolition work but were still waiting on the city Buildings Department to inspect the plumbing before we could finish closing up the common wall for both bathrooms and the kitchen. There was no point in doing any of the tilework until those things were done. In the meantime, we needed to fabricate and install steel studs where the new walls would be placed, install new electrical conduit and wiring, install new pre-hung steel doors and install sheetrock over the steel studs. We also planned to add ceiling fans in all three bedrooms as well as two in the living room, one in the kitchen and one in the dining room. We needed to add heavy junction boxes, fed by electrical conduit, in all of those locations. With a ceiling height of 99 inches, there was sufficient headroom to add shallow ceiling joists and sheetrock. Doing so would add a bit to the cost, but the tradeoff was that wiring the ceiling fixtures would be much, much simpler, and making modifications in the future would be more practical.
We weren’t allowed to start any work that would make noise until 9:00, but that was because any drilling or hammering into the building infrastructure would generate sounds that carried throughout the building. However, Dad saw no reason we couldn’t use our cordless drills and impact drivers to start assembling the studs that would underly all the interior walls. The building code required that we use studs made of galvanized steel rather than wood lumber, and we’d ordered them in pre-cut 92-inch lengths, which was standard for eight-foot ceilings. Laying the nominal two-by-four-inch studs out on the floor, we started joining them to 48-inch floor and ceiling rails using the appropriate brackets and sheet metal machine screws. With pre-drilled holes at standard sixteen-inch intervals, it was nearly impossible to do it wrong – even my boyfriend couldn’t screw it up. By the time 9:00 rolled around, we already had several stacks of four-by-eight-foot frames that were ready to be put in place.
We’d now reached the point where precision was critical. Dad had purchased a very expensive laser level that could be programmed to display the exact positioning of each and every mounting screw that would hold the stud panels in place. It literally drew bright red lines of light on the floor, walls and ceiling, showing where the new interior walls would go, and it drew a circle where each mounting hole needed to be drilled. Grabbing a hammer drill each, Dave and I got to work drilling the indicated holes. Once they were far enough along, Dad raised each panel into position and Sarah and Stacey used our impact wrenches, brackets and sheet metal screws to attach the ceiling and floor rails form one panel to the next. They then drove concrete anchors into each hole that Dave and I had drilled, firmly fixing the floor rails to the concrete below
When we came to a spot where two interior walls met, we used right-angle or T-brackets and sheet metal screws to join them. It took nearly the entire day, but we placed all the internal stud panels and mounted them firmly in place. It was a great start, but we still needed to place the ceiling joists and frame-in the doors. However, there was a hurricane on the way and we were hungry, so Josh and I said our goodbyes and headed back across the street, where dinner was already waiting on the table. If the weather in the early morning wasn’t too bad, we’d return in the morning.
The alarms on Dave’s and my phones went off right on schedule. Neither of us felt like getting up, particularly as a very loud, late evening thunderstorm had made it difficult to get to sleep. Stretching his arms high above his head, Dave got up first and peered out his bedroom window.
“Well?” I asked before he even had a chance to look through the blinds.
Turning back around and shrugging his shoulders, he replied, “Not much to see. The sky’s just starting to lighten and there’s a light morning fog obscuring the tops of the buildings. I can’t even tell if it’s overcast. It’s not raining, though.”
Pulling up one of the weather apps on my phone, we were still under a tropical storm warning as we had been since Sunday evening, but the warning had gotten more dire as hurricane-force winds were expected, even if Isaias arrived as only a tropical storm, as expected. Sandy had been downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it hit New York, and yet the destruction had been extensive. As with Sandy, Isaias was expected to merge with an approaching cold front from the west and, aided by the Jet Stream, spawn tornados and more serious wind gusts. At least the storm surge wasn’t expected to be more than one to three feet this time.
Widespread power outages were expected, affecting millions up and down the East Coast. During Sandy, all of Lower Manhattan was plunged into darkness and they didn’t get their power back until five days later. Parts of New Jersey were without power for two weeks. In Manhattan Beach, the flashing clocks told us the power had been out, but it was back on by the time we returned home. Even so, we weren’t taking chances.
Dave’s uncles had already made preparations for what we expected to be a brutal hurricane season, installing battery backups that could keep our computers and phones charged for weeks. Back in our apartment, we had enough 20-volt lithium ion batteries charged up to power our tools and work lights for days on end without recharging. However, Sandy had shown us how vulnerable the cellular network was in a storm. We could see Verizon’s world headquarters from my sisters’ bedroom, but scant reassurance that would be if the network went down.
My older sisters were just emerging from the cocoons of their makeshift bedroom in the living room when Dave and I arrived with breakfast in hand. Dad was already up and dressed, making a fresh pot of coffee. Today, we brought Greek omelets with hash browns, sausage, bacon and rye toast. “Looks like the Mid-Atlantic coast’s already getting battered by Isaias,” Dave commented as he looked at his phone and then shoveled a forkful of potatoes into his mouth.
“It’s hard to believe from looking out the window,” my sister Sarah commented. “It looks so calm.”
“The calm before the storm,” my sister Stacey chimed in. “I can picture it now,” she continued. “In the first panel, we’re all sitting around, sipping coffee and eating breakfast. In the next panel, there’s a flash of lightening out the window, followed by an ominous explosion of thunder and we see that all our faces are contorted with fear. In the third panel, the wind is howling, and we see trees out the window, bent over from the onslaught. In the fourth panel, sheets of rain cascade down the windows as it turns ominously dark out. In the fifth panel, the lights go out, plunging us into darkness. One of us can be seen scrambling for a flashlight while another lights a candle. In the sixth panel, it’s bright outside and the sun is shining in through the window. Outside, we can see that trees are down everywhere. Some of the cars in the parking lot have been flattened by the falling debris…”
“And in the seventh panel, a giant tsunami swallows the entire East Coast,” I interrupted, “ending once and for all the blog of the mysterious girl with the fading pink hair.”
If it hadn’t been for Dad sitting at the table, I’m sure Stacey would’ve flipped me the bird, but instead she stuck out her tongue. The fact of the matter was that she was an extraordinarily talented artist and had a graphic blog that was subscribed by millions as well as a graphic novel in already in print. That was extraordinary for a sixteen-year-old. In the fall, she’d start her junior year at LaGuardia, New York’s premier high school for the Arts. Of the four of us, she was definitely the most talented. Indeed, her hair really was dyed bright pink, but with access only to a makeshift shower, her natural ebony hair color was growing out.
“Let’s get to work,” Dad suggested, and we all groaned as we made quick work in disposing of the remnants of breakfast.
The interior doors were all pre-hung and made of steel, which was necessary in an apartment without a viable means of escape from fire. As per current code, they were 36 inches wide – six to twelve inches wider than the ones they replaced. Starting with my bedroom door, Dave and I measured and confirmed the position of each cut that needed to be made and each stud that needed to be framed in, and marked them with tape. As the saying goes, we measured everything twice, so that we would only need to cut once. With the measurement and marking of my bedroom door complete, Dave and I moved on to my bedroom closet door and the main bathroom door.
A linen closet was planned along the entire length of the wall between my bedroom and the adjacent bedroom hallway. We’d installed the back wall of the closet yesterday, so we measured today for where to add framing for the bi-fold closet doors. By the time we finished that, Dad and my older sisters had measured for placement of the other two bedroom doors, the bedroom closet doors, the master bathroom door and framing for the master bath linen closet bifold door. By then, it was after 9:00 and outside, it was getting gloomier by the minute.
Dad got out his compact reciprocating saw and I grabbed one of the hammer drills, Dave grabbed the large impact wrench, Sarah grabbed the right angle drill and Stacey grabbed the small impact wrench. It was one of the rare times when all five of us were using power tools at the same time. We made quick work of framing in and hanging all the doors.
Ordinarily we’d have had the windows open by now, as it was hot and humid as hell inside the apartment, but it was clear that Tropical Storm Isaias had arrived. There was rain pelting all the windows and a constant howling of the wind. Instead we made use of every plug-in and battery-powered worksite fan we could bring to bear on our sweat-drenched, scantily clad bodies. For once there was nothing sexy about the sweat running down Dave’s muscular chest. Instead, he looked like a drowned rat, with wet hair plastered to his forehead, sweat running down his face in rivulets and a body that wreaked of his misery. I’m sure I looked much the same.
After stopping for a light lunch, we went to work installing the ceiling joists, which took the rest of the afternoon. By using four-by-two-inch galvanized steel joists, we’d ‘float’ the entire ceiling, leaving a one-inch gap between the tops of the joists and the concrete above. The resulting dead space would serve to isolate our ceiling from the floor of the apartment above. No longer would the sounds of clicking high heels, dropped objects, vegetables being chopped on the kitchen counter or the neighbor’s vacuum cleaner come through the ceiling. The only actual points of attachment of the joists to the original infrastructure would be where they met the outer walls. For those we used the laser level to guide us in drilling the holes for them into the concrete of the outer walls. In the meantime, Stacey and Sarah attached junction boxes for all of the switches and sockets at the positions indicated on Freck’s architectural diagrams.
By the time 6:00 rolled around, all of the joists were firmly anchored in place, and the rain had stopped, and the sun was out! Both Irene and Sandy had taken their time moving through the area, but Isaias had raced through as it passed up the coast. However, the scene that greeted us out our window was no less stark. Trees were down everywhere, with extensive damage to East River Park, visible even from our apartment. The courtyard between our buildings, likewise, was a mess, with downed trees and sections of the heavy wrought-iron fence that surrounded it lying on the ground. Shit, those had been imbedded in concrete pylons, sunk deep into the ground. Fuck, if a tropical storm could do so much damage, what would a Category 2 hurricane do to us? Or worse? It was sobering to say the least.
As bad as things looked from six stories up, the damage was even worse when seen at ground level. Tree limbs were down everywhere, and the sidewalks were blocked, forcing us to walk in the street. Although people were supposed to move their cars in a storm emergency, for some there hadn’t been time and hence there were still quite a few cars parked along Grand Street. Unfortunately, many of them had been hit by debris and sported cracked windshields and large dents. At least two of the vehicles we passed had been partially crushed by fallen tree limbs.
Fortunately, we never lost power and both buildings had working elevators. The big screen TV in the living room was on when we arrived back at Dave’s apartment, and it was tuned to CNN. Even with all the devastation, which would have led the newscasts under ordinary circumstances, the main stories were the ongoing pandemic and the continuing protests all over America. We did learn that there were more than two million people without power though. What had the world come to when not even a major tropical storm – one that did extensive damage and left millions without power – merited more than an honorable mention on TV?
Our last task before installing sheetrock was to install all of the electrical wiring. The electrical panel was mounted on the back side of a fixed vertical support beam in the kitchen, but less than half of the available spots were occupied by circuit breakers. Unbelievably, most of the wiring for the apartment passed through a single junction box above the kitchen light – a light fixture we’d no longer be using at all. Instead, the kitchen would be lit entirely by recessed LED downlights and under cabinet lights. There would be LED downlights in front of the built-in bookcases in the living room and in all of the closets, and there’d ceiling fans in every room.
As Dad liked to say, there are two ways to do most projects – the easy away and the right way. Perhaps better than ninety percent of electricians, paid by the hour, did it the easy way. By saving time, they could come in with a lower bid. The downside of that was that any future modifications required ripping out walls to get at the flexible conduit inside. Replacing ripped-out walls meant more business for their carpenter colleagues, who often referred them business in return. It was win-win for everyone but the homeowner. Seth Moore’s family certainly learned that the hard way when some of the wiring in their apartment shorted out and everything needed to be torn out and replaced. Doing it the right way meant installing rigid metal conduit, which cost more and took more time, but allowed for future re-wiring without the need to tear out walls.
We made quick work of installing all of the remaining electrical junction boxes in the interior walls and added heavy-duty junction boxes in the ceiling for all of ceiling fans, as well as standard junction boxes for all of the downlights. We quadrupled the number of junction boxes for sockets in the exterior walls and added outlets under each window to support window air conditioners. We measured, cut and installed rigid conduit that connected all of them, with several ‘home runs’ leading back to the electrical panel in the kitchen. That cut down on the number of wires in each conduit, making it easier to make future repairs.
We filled up all the available slots in the electrical panel with circuit breakers, making it possible to have multiple circuits in every room. There were multiple sockets on each wall and every outlet was wired independently and could be switched via a dedicated smart network. We also installed wires for things not usually found in an older apartment – ethernet cable, coax cables, speaker wire and wiring for security, which included cabling for smoke, fire, carbon monoxide and natural gas detectors. The enclosing conduit would make it easy to make future upgrades.
Two days later, most of the sheetrock was up, and the deadline had passed for the Buildings Department to complete their inspection of our apartment. We attempted to call them, but the phone only rang off the hook. A check of their website revealed that they were overwhelmed with requests, due to the twin disasters of the pandemic and the damage from Isaias. A quick check of the listing for our property, however, revealed that it had already been approved, pending an administrative inspection. Why hadn’t they bothered to notify us, and what the fuck was an administrative inspection? None of us had any idea, and the website wasn’t exactly forthcoming with an explanation.
It took hours of searching before we finally found an obscure reference online. It turned out that an administrative inspection meant having a licensed plumber inspect our work and certify that all of it was done to code. All we had to do was to download the form, fill it out, have it notarized and drop it off downtown. The co-op had a licensed plumber on staff and for a modest fee, we were able to schedule an inspection by him within less than a day. We could’ve mailed it in, but by filing it in person, Dad was given a certified copy and a license to post on our door. We were free to proceed with enclosing the common wall between the bathrooms and the kitchen.
Installing the wall tiles was a new experience for me, as they were all made of glass. Cutting glass precisely is way more difficult than cutting ceramic tiles. Ceramics are easy to cut with a band saw, a sabre saw or even a hacksaw, not to mention simply scored with a diamond stylus and cracked along the resulting line. We had a special tool for scoring and breaking glass tiles, but the tiles seldom broke as intended. Glass tiles could be cut accurately with the use of a wet saw, but with the pandemic going on, we had difficulty finding someone to rent us one and ended up buying our own at a cost of nearly a thousand dollars. However, for the two bathrooms and the kitchen backsplash, we were spending some fifty thousand dollars on glass tile anyway, so in a sense, the saw paid for itself. However, it was difficult as shit to use and I ended up breaking more tiles than I cared to admit. The overall effect, once the tile was all up and grouted, was stunning.
Once that was all done, we were able to install both vanities, with vessel sinks that looked really cool, the plumbing fixtures and the hardware. Finally, we were able to measure, order and install the bathtub and shower doors. In the meantime, Dad installed all the kitchen appliances and hooked up the plumbing. Dave and I helped install all the kitchen cabinets, but the granite countertop was on order and wouldn’t be delivered until October, so for now, we had a temporary plywood countertop in place.
With fully enclosed bedrooms, we dismantled the makeshift bedroom in the living room and moved the air mattresses to the appropriate bedrooms. However, I continued to stay with my boyfriend’s family so that my own bedroom could be used as a swing bedroom while work continued in the others. At long last we were ready to paint. With five of us working, it only took a few days to prime and paint all the walls and ceilings in all the rooms and even in the closets. Laying all new hardwood flooring took a bit longer, as we had to measure and cut each plank to fit and then glue it to the underlying parquet flooring. We measured, cut and nailed in place the shoe molding using fine brads. Finally, we installed all of the miscellaneous hardware, including closet rods, doorknobs, door stops, switch plates, socket covers and ceiling fans. The co-op maintenance staff installed all the window AC units into each room – a total of five of them.
There was still much work to be done, including projects such as replacing the bookshelves in the living room with built-ins, but those could be done at our leisure, as we had time. At long last, it was time to move everything out of storage and back into the apartment, and that was every bit as much fun as it had been the first time we moved in. With no reason to continue living with Dave’s family, I moved back in with my family as well, but with a promise of weekly sleepovers.
Clarke and Carl were hosting an end of summer party and Dave, my sisters and I were planning to go. It was the beginning of September, and the weather had cooled considerably. It would likely be the last time of the season when we could go swimming. Even so, the risk of contracting the coronavirus hung like a pall over all of us that we couldn’t escape. My boyfriend’s mother had nearly died from Covid-19, and only recently had gone back to work as a nurse, part time.
We’d finally reached phase four of reopening, but New York was still limiting the size of gatherings based on the available space, and for the party, that meant no more than 25 people at a time, with social distancing. Masks were required at all times except while eating or swimming, and eating was still only allowed outdoors. Regardless, none of us wanted to be the cause of a super spreader event. We’d all seen pictures and video of thoughtless college kids packed into large parties, none of them wearing masks. That wasn’t gonna be us.
Clarke and Carl lived in a large house on Staten Island, with a back yard and a pool. We’d all tested negative for Covid-19 at one time or another and we were all asymptomatic, so statistically, the risk was small. Even so we were gonna take additional measures like limiting the number of people in the pool and eating at tables for two, spaced at least six feet apart. Clarke suggested that we bring our bicycles so we could go riding on the boardwalk and around Staten Island’s many parks. There was just one problem with that – Dave was the only one among us that owned a bike.
My sisters and I had all had bikes when we lived in Manhattan Beach, but we sold them when we moved to Manhattan, reasoning it wouldn’t be safe to ride them on the city streets, and that we wouldn’t have the space to keep bikes in our apartment. The former notion was quickly dispelled when we actually lived here and found that, not only are there dedicated bike lanes on most major streets now and on all the bridges, with bike paths along the rivers, but people actually used them. As they say, there’s strength in numbers. Still, there was no way we could find space for five bicycles in our apartment.
Initially, I thought we might rent Citi Bikes, which were ubiquitous in Manhattan, but that was a problem. The rental stations were all over Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, but there were none on Staten Island. I figured that was no big deal, ’cause there were a couple of kiosks nearby and a day pass only costs twelve dollars, but that was for an unlimited number of thirty-minute rides in a day. That was the catch – if we kept a bike longer than thirty minutes at a time, we’d be dinged four dollars every fifteen minutes. If there were kiosks on Staten Island, it wouldn’t have mattered, ’cause we could’ve dropped off our bikes at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal in Manhattan, picked up bikes at the terminal on Staten Island when we arrived and dropped them off at a kiosk near Clarke’s home. If we kept the bikes out the entire time, however, for perhaps twelve hours, it would cost us each $204 – hell, we could buy cheap used bikes for that!
After checking around, however, we found Williamsburg Bridge Bike Rental, which was a short walk away from our apartments. For only $26, we could get the use of a bike for twelve hours, and they even threw in a freshly-sanitized bike helmet at no additional cost. We were all old enough to ride without helmets, as we were all fourteen or older, but I for one intended to wear one. If a police baton was enough to put Kyle in a coma for a few weeks and leave him wheelchair-bound for perhaps a year, I could only imagine what hitting a lamppost at fifteen miles per hour could do to me.
An all-day bike rental was from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM, with an extra fee for the group for return after the 6:00 PM closing time. Asher and Seth came over to our apartment at 8:00 and had breakfast with us, as did my boyfriend of course. It was the first time that Asher and Seth had a chance to see our renovated apartment, and both were impressed by what Freck was able to do with the space.
Wanting to make maximum use of the bike rentals, we made quick work of breakfast, cleaned up and departed the apartment at 8:45, getting to the rental place just a few minutes before opening. Naturally, they opened five minutes late. The morning air was a bit nippy, but comfortable for walking. Because we’d be riding our bikes along the East River and possibly along the Staten Island Board Walk later on, we wore light jackets over our t-shirts and shorts. We all carried backpacks with sunscreen, swimwear and towels. The folks at the rental place were kind enough to adjust the seat height on each bike to the proper fit, and they fit the helmets to each of us. It was nice to see that each helmet was sealed in plastic wrap with a sticker affixed that claimed, ‘Sanitized with UV.’
As I was lamenting to my boyfriend about our space-challenged apartment and lack of space to keep a bike, the guy who was fitting our bikes, overhearing what I said, asked, “Have you considered getting a folding bike?”
“A folding bike?” I exclaimed. “You mean they make such a thing? Is it as good as a regular bike? How much does it fold up? How much does it cost?”
Laughing, he pointed and answered, “You see that bike over there? It has a full-size frame but small, 16-inch wheels. You can see there’s a hinge in the middle where it folds in half, and the handlebars and seat slide down into the frame. The same bike, folded up, is hanging on the wall above it.”
At first I didn’t realize what he was pointing to because it didn’t look like a bike at all. When I realized what it was, I gasped. “That thing unfolds to that bike?” I asked in amazement. “How long does it take to fold and unfold it? How much does it weigh? How well does it ride?”
Laughing again, he replied, “With practice, that model can fold or unfold in about a minute-and-a-half. There are some that take even less time… under a minute… but they aren’t as compact. That model comes with a backpack case and is designed for commuting. You’re not allowed to bring a bike on an MTA bus, the subway, Metro North or the Long Island Railroad during rush hour, but they can’t stop you from wearing a backpack.”
“That’s so cool,” I exclaimed.
“Now as to weight and ride,” he continued, “that depends on what you need the bike for and your budget. That particular bike is designed for commuters, so it’s very light weight, extremely compact and it has a very nice three-speed Shimano derailer. It’s fine for riding on city streets as long as there aren’t many steep inclines, but not very safe on dirt. It only weighs thirteen pounds which is one of the reasons it’s so pricey.
“That’s not bad!” Dave exclaimed when he heard the price, to which I responded, “Shit, what do you mean that’s not bad?”
“Your boyfriend has really a nice bike,” the bike rental guy explained. “You can find them used or online for considerably less, but if you bought one at a bike shop in New York, it’d run well into four figures.”
“Shit, Davie, where’d you get the money for something like that?” I asked.
Shrugging his shoulders, he replied, “It was a Bar Mitzvah present from Uncle Alan and Uncle Peter.”
Turning back to the bike guy, I asked, “Did you say there are folding bikes that cost less?”
“Actually, it depends on what you want,” he replied. “There are some basic bikes that weigh over twenty pounds and are single speed that cost less than two hundred. There are models that practically fold and unfold themselves and sport electric motors, and those can run well into four figures. A lot depends, though, on what you’re willing to trade off. One of my most expensive bikes is actually one of the simplest, but it handles as well as a decent bike. If you don’t need to carry your bike with you and just need something that folds up for storage, I’d strongly recommend you consider buying one. It has larger, 24-inch wheels, the frame is as rigid as the one on your boyfriend’s bike and it has a three-gear front derailer and a six-gear rear derailer, for a total of eighteen speeds. The tires are extra-wide, like those on your boyfriend’s bike, making it suitable for dirt as well as city streets. It’s one of the easiest and quickest to fold and unfold, but not nearly as compact as a commuter folding bike like this one. You’re limited by the 24-inch wheel size. I wouldn’t recommend it for carrying with you on the subway, but it’ll easily fit on a closet shelf, and it weighs only eleven pounds.”
“How big are the tires on my boyfriend’s bike?” I asked.
“They’re 27 inches,” he replied. “That’s common on a full-size bike.”
“I’m afraid to ask but how much does that bike cost?” I asked.
When he told me the price, I just about fainted. “If money’s tight, I can get you a reconditioned used one with new tires, new brake pads and a new chain for under a grand,” he suggested. “The resale value of those bikes, as you can see, is excellent.”
Now it was my turn to laugh. “If I get one, my sisters will want one,” I responded, including the one who’s not here today. I bet my dad would want one too. We all had bikes when we lived in Brooklyn. That’s five bikes and a hell of a lot of money.”
“If you buy them new,” the bike rental guy countered, “I can give you a substantial discount.” Getting out an old-fashioned calculator, he punched in some numbers and announced, I can knock a third off the retail price, and if you pay by cash or check, I’ll eat the tax.”
“Dad might actually go for that, Joshy,” Sarah suggested. Sarah was the quiet sister. She almost never spoke up. “If we all push for it, he really might do it. I know he hated giving up his bike, but he didn’t think we’d be able to ride them here. And there was no place to put them, but a folding bike solves that problem.”
Turning back to the bike guy, I asked, “Is there any way you could get us one to try out?”
“I wouldn’t sell you one without having you try it first,” he replied.
“Would you send me the info?” I asked.
“I’ll send it to the email address I have for you on file,” he responded.
“Guys, we need to jet,” Dave suggested.
“Before we do,” Asher interrupted, “could you maybe show me how to drive this thing?”
“You’ve never ridden a bike before?” Seth asked with incredulity.
“I asked my dad to get me one when I was eleven,” he responded, “and we looked at some used ones at Frank’s Bike Shop, but I was more interested in checking out another boy than in paying attention to looking at the bikes and in the end, I wasn’t willing to be seen riding one of the beat-up bikes we could afford. As it was, I was embarrassed by the clothes I wore. Money was tight back then.”
I hadn’t noticed that the bicycle rental guy had left us, but he returned wheeling in, of all things, a bicycle built for two. “It’s not unusual for us to get a couple of tourists, where one of them is an experienced rider and the other’s a novice,” he explained. “When that happens, we usually recommend a tandem bike. It takes some getting used to for both riders, but it’s a great way for a novice to get used to balancing on a bicycle while someone else steers and keeps it upright.”
I could see what the guy meant as I watched Seth struggle with Asher behind him on the same bike, but fortunately the ride on Delancey and the FDR access road to the pedestrian bridge over the FDR was short, and when we reached East River Park and the East River Bikeway we had plenty of room for the boys to get the hang of riding a tandem bike. With only two miles to the ferry terminal, the ride was short in any case.
I’d never ridden the Staten Island Ferry before and was shocked by the way we could just board it without having to swipe our farecards or tap our phones or anything. When I asked the guys how we were supposed to pay, I was astounded to learn that the ferry was free. What in New York is ever free? The views from the ferry were incredible as we saw the Brooklyn Bridge, Governor Island, Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, the cruise ship piers of Brooklyn, the enormous containership facilities of Bayonne and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. My only complaint was that the ride passed too quickly and before I knew it, we were disembarking at the St. George terminal on Staten Island.
Following the directions Carl had sent us on how to reach their place, we headed west on Richmond Terrace, a two-lane road with wide bike lanes that hugged the north shore of the island. For much of the way, the shore was hidden behind trees, but when we did have views of the water, all we could see where large storage tanks across the way. It wasn’t one of the more picturesque parts of New Jersey. We soon entered something called the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden, where we turned south, heading right through the grounds. We had little trouble finding Clarke and Carl’s house, which was on a short street between the grounds of Snug Harbor and Allison Pond Park. With the time we’d spent looking at folding bikes, the party was already underway when we arrived.
This was my first time seeing Clarke O’Malley’s house and the description by the other kids of it being a mansion was apt. The house had four stories and it took up nearly the entire lot. The front door was up a series of steps and was open, and we entered it into a large three-floor atrium. There was a formal dining room to the right, a large living room to the left and a kitchen behind an open stairway, straight ahead, with what appeared to be a family room behind it. A series of French doors off the living room opened onto a humongous deck that ran along the entire side of the house.
Spotting us from the deck, Carl entered through the living room and approached us, saying, “Hi guys. Welcome.” He was dressed only in dark red speedos and a matching face mask. At well over six feet, he was one of the tallest guys I knew. It was easy to see why Carl had been on the varsity basketball team when he was still a sophomore. He’d be a junior this year, yet he was still only fifteen. “As you can see, there’s plenty of room to spread out, but we request you only eat outdoors and socially distance when you do,” Carl continued. “There are lots of munchies on the dining room table and drinks are set up in the kitchen. Clarke’s grilling out back, on the pool deck. You’ll find burgers, hot dogs, chicken breasts and grilled veggies. There’s also baked beans, potato salad and coleslaw.
“You can get to the pool deck by taking the stairs from the side deck or the back deck, which is off the family room, or you can take the stairs down to the rec room.” Then smiling, he continued, “There are changing rooms downstairs, so you might want to start down there. I’d suggest parking your bikes in the garage for safe keeping first, and you can enter the rec room directly from there.”
“Thanks, Carl,” Seth replied, and then he asked, “Who else is here?”
Responding, Carl said, “Well, Clarke’s whole family is here and will be staying here, at least for the start of the schoolyear. All the colleges are using distance learning, as is the Notre Dame Academy, where Clarke’s sisters go to school. All in all, there are nine O’Malleys, including Clark and his two brothers, Scott and Joseph, his oldest sister, Sarah, her husband and their baby, and his other three sisters, Jasmine, Connie and Ellen. Of course, my Mami’s here too.
“Besides you guys, we’ve got Freck and his twin sisters, Kyle and his brother and Robin and her boyfriend. Freck’s mom had her personal driver bring them in her limo,” Carl added in a fake haughty voice.
“Anyway, I’ll see you guys around,” Carl said as he headed back outside. We all moved our bikes into the garage and entered the house from there. We found ourselves in a large finished basement with a lot of comfy places to sit, a pool table, a Ping-Pong table, a foosball table and an air hockey table. Wow! In the corner there was a wet bar and behind it I could see Freck standing, looking down at something. Curious, I moved around to the side, where the bar was open on the end, and I could see Kyle in his wheelchair, but he wasn’t wearing anything.
“Hi Josh,” Kyle said. “Keep your distance, ’cause I don’t have my mask on.” Not only didn’t he have his mask on, but he wasn’t wearing his helmet either and for the first time, I got a look at his head. The whole left side was caved in. It was almost horrifying. Kyle must’ve seen the look on my face, ’cause he said, “Pretty gross, huh? I’m scheduled for surgery to replace the missing skull flap next month, but in the meantime, I still gotta wear a soft helmet whenever I’m out of bed. I can’t swim with the helmet, though, so I’ve got this hard helmet to wear instead. I hafta wear it over this knit cap to keep the water from macerating my scalp.”
Kyle held up a bright orange piece of fabric, and then proceeded to pull it over the top of his head, covering up the sunken part. It didn’t fill the space entirely, as I could still see where it was indented, but it did look more natural. Freck then pushed a tight-fitting cobalt blue hard shell over it that was form-fitted to Kyle’s skull, and was so tight that it stayed in place without being strapped down. “Better, huh?” Kyle asked and I answered with a nod.
Freck then brought a fancy-looking walker up to the wheelchair and Kyle used it to stand up. It took him a couple of tries, but soon he was standing upright. He’d grown! He was at least a couple of inches taller than I’d remembered, and down below, he was longer, thicker and harrier. He was starting to look like a teenager, yet he was a few months away from turning twelve.
“Shit Ky,” I exclaimed, “you look like you could be Freck’s age.”
“He functions like it too,” Freck chimed in.
“That’s TMI, guys,” Dave said from behind me. I hadn’t even realized he was there.
Freck held up a cobalt blue speedo with bright orange stripes that had less fabric than just about any speedo I’d seen. Any smaller and I’d have called it a thong. I got a glimpse of Kyle’s difficulties with movement when I saw how difficult it was for him to lift each foot and put it into the speedo. It was evident that he still couldn’t do it without Freck’s help. Damned if he didn’t look hot once it was on, though.
“Are you gonna be able to swim?” my sister Stacey asked.
Suddenly, it dawned on me, “You saw Kyle naked?”
“Well, yeah,” she replied. “It’s not like I haven’t seen a naked boy before. I’ve seen you, plenty of times, and it’s not like I have any interest.” As what she was sayin’ started to sink in, she added, “You’re not the only gay kid in the family, you know.”
“I didn’t know,” I responded.
Laughing, she answered me, “I came out to Dad when I was ten. I told my sisters about it, ’cause we share the same bedroom, but I never realized I never told you until now. I even have a girlfriend at LaGuardia, but she lives in Ozone Park, so we don’t get together outside of after school.”
“I’d no idea,” I replied.
“So now you know,” she responded. “Surely, you’re okay with it.”
“Of course I’m okay with it,” I replied. “Actually, it explains a lot,” I added with a laugh.
“In answer to your question, Stacey,” Kyle interrupted, “my physical therapist took me to Markus Garvey Park up in Harlem, to see how I did with swimming. It’s one of the few pools that’s open now. It turns out I do much better in the water than on land.”
“You knew my sister was standing there, and you didn’t say anything?” I asked Kyle.
Laughing, he responded, “I’ve never been modest to begin with, so if a girl sees me naked, it’s their issue, not mine. However, I knew about your sister anyway. I had her pegged the day we met, so I asked her. I think we all knew.”
“Was I the only one how didn’t know my sister was gay?” I asked of no one in particular.
“Looks like it, Joshy,” Stacey replied.
I turned to see that Asher and Seth had changed into their swimwear and were both in speedos. Damn, they were hot too. Asher was the spitting image of a sixteen-year-old Tiger Woods and at fifteen, Seth had a nice physique, and his curly blond hair and green eyes were sexy as hell.
“C’mon, Joshy,” my boyfriend interrupted my thoughts, “let’s get dressed, or rather undressed.”
There were separate Men’s and Women’s dressing rooms, so Dave and I headed into the men’s room while Sarah and Stacey headed for the women’s room. Inside, there was a small shower room with four showerheads, an open dressing area with lockers and a couple of urinals as well as a toilet stall. It was a really cool dressing room for a private house.
Dave and I were a bit more modest than our friends and wore traditional swim trunks that came down almost to our knees. Dave’s were bright red and mine were light blue. Getting out a tube of sunscreen, we took turns slathering it all over each other, which had the predictable result. “Maybe we’d better go in the stall and relieve the pressure before we go out there,” Dave suggested. It didn’t take long.
We put our masks back on and exited the rec room, heading out the open doors onto the pool deck, Clarke was busy grilling up a feast of various meats and veggies. There were already some people in the pool and the smell of the grill was driving us crazy, so I suggested starting with lunch. It didn’t take much persuasion for Dave to agree.
I grabbed a juicy burger with provolone cheese, added a tomato slice, a couple of strips of bacon, some lettuce, pickle slices and spicey brown mustard. Dave grabbed a chicken breast and added grilled onions. We both added baked beans, potato salad and coleslaw to our plates, and then headed upstairs to find an empty table on the back deck. I went inside, through the family room to the kitchen, where I found some lemon aide and grabbed a glass for each of us. We lowered our masks and dug in. My burger was delicious.
“God, I’m worried about the election,” I began.
“Always thinking about politics,” Dave replied. “I’ve never met a kid as fixated on politics as you.”
“Seth Moore is,” I pointed out.
“Yeah, well his father’s a state assemblyman,” Dave noted. “Of course, he’s tuned into everything political. I’d be shocked if he wasn’t. Same with Asher, ’cause he’s his boyfriend, or rather his husband. Their best friends, Freck and Kyle, are too.”
“Yeah, but this election’s different, you know?” I responded. “It’s kinda like the whole future’s on the line, you know?”
“Our future’s always on the line,” Dave countered, “but yeah, I get it. If the President’s reelected or even if he’s not and he contests the election, there could be trouble.”
“The Times did a sort of war game scenario of the election,” I responded. “They brought in a whole panel of experts. The only scenario that didn’t lead to massive, violent street protests was if the President lost by a landslide. The only way the President left office peacefully was if he lost in the electoral college by such a wide margin that there was no way to claim a rigged election. God, I wish I could vote,” I concluded.
“Not for another four years,” Dave responded, “but even then, it wouldn’t make a difference anyway. Not for president. New York’s a blue as can be. You’d need to move to Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin or especially Florida to make a difference.”
“Um, I don’t think so,” I replied. “We just need to get rid of the electoral college, and it wouldn’t take a constitutional amendment either. If a few more states were to join the Electoral College Compact, that would do it. If we flip the Senate, we can pass DC statehood too.”
“You can be sure if either thing passes, it’ll go to the Supreme Court and then it’ll be anyone’s guess as to how they vote,” Dave countered.
“Which is another reason the President can’t be reelected,” I responded. “We can’t let him appoint any more justices. I just hope he loses big and doesn’t contest the election. I’m worried he’ll declare Marshall Law…”
“Not gonna happen,” Dave interrupted. “My dad was military, you know, and soldiers take an oath to defend the Constitution… not the commander in chief, but the Constitution.”
“I wish I could be so confident,” I replied.
“No use worrying about it until the election,” Dave responded. “In the meantime, if you’re so concerned, volunteer to help the campaign effort in the swing states.”
“I’m limited by school,” I pointed out, “but yeah, anything that I can do from here, whether it’s stuffing envelopes or manning phone banks, I’ll do it.”
Both our plates were empty and so Dave asked, “Wanna go get more food?”
Truthfully, I was stuffed and so I replied, “Maybe later. I’d love to go for a swim, but we just ate.”
Looking over the railing, Dave responded, “It looks like the only ones in the pool right now are Freck and Kyle, so now would be a good time for it.”
“Don’t we hafta wait an hour after eating?” I asked.
“That’s an old wives’ tale, not that I’ve known many old wives,” Dave quipped. “My mom’s a nurse and she always said there’s no evidence for muscle cramps or drowning after eating.”
“Okay then, let’s go,” I responded. We headed back down to the pool deck, removed our masks and jumped into the pool. The outside air was a bit on the chilly side – maybe in the seventies – but the pool was heated, and the water felt wonderful.
Freck was busy swimming laps, which I guess he was no longer able to do very often since he and Kyle were living with Freck’s mother. He’d been on the Stuyvesant swim team, but I wasn’t sure if the High School for Math, Science and Engineering, where he and Kyle would be going this year, even had a pool. Freck was very good, but Kyle was amazing. He really could swim like a fish, even with his head injury. I could only hope his walking on land would catch up. In the meantime, Freck had climbed up on the high diving board, and then he jumped up into the air, did a series of summersaults and sliced effortlessly into the water before surfacing at what appeared to be just about six feet from Dave and me.
“It’s been a while since I could use a diving board,” Freck began. “I could always use the ones at Stuyvesant, but we didn’t have a diving board in Kyle’s house in Riverdale. It was an indoor pool and the ceiling was way too low for one. And of course, I haven’t been able to swim at all since Kyle returned from Baltimore. Not many residential pools are deep enough for a high dive, so I’m gonna take advantage today for sure.”
Dave and I horsed around for a while, and then Asher and Seth joined us in the pool, followed moments later by my youngest sister, Robin, and her boyfriend, Larry. Robin immediately asked, “Hey, you guys wanna play a game of pool volleyball? Clarke said they have a net.”
“Won’t it be a bit unfair?” I asked. “You’ll be the only girl, so whatever team you’re on will be at a disadvantage.”
I knew that would get my sister’s goat and sure enough, she responded, “Oh, you are so gonna regret saying that, brother.”
Larry had Clarke set up the net for us and he got out the ball. We played the younger teens, Larry, Robin, Freck and Kyle, who was an honorary teen, versus the older teens, Asher, Seth, Dave and me. I figured the younger teens had the advantage, given that Freck and Kyle were experienced swimmers, even though Kyle was recovering from a head injury and even though my sister didn’t have a boy’s wider shoulders, but it wasn’t even close. What I didn’t realize is that girls have a lower center of gravity, which not only makes them better at gymnastics, but also at aquatic sports. Robin was by far the best player, earning more points than the rest of us combined. I knew she’d never let me forget that either, but it was all in fun. We had a blast.
We played a couple of games and then seeded the pool to a game of the four O’Malley girls versus the three O’Malley boys. I had a feeling the boys were gonna get trounced. In the meantime, Carl came up to us and asked, “You guys interested in a bike ride? Staten Island’s stunningly beautiful and a bicycle’s a great way to see it.”
“Don’t you wanna play with your boyfriend?” I asked, but then blushed when I realized how that sounded. “I mean, don’t you want to play volleyball with your boyfriend?”
“Nah,” he responded. “I can play with him any time I want, day or night,” he added, wiggling his eyebrows. “Besides, you guys need a tour guide.”
“You interested?” I asked Dave and he replied, “Sure.” In the end, it was Dave and me, Asher and Seth, my three sisters and Larry that agreed to go. With a little cajoling from his boyfriend, Freck agreed to go as well after Kyle assured him he could get around just fine on his own – he just wasn’t ready to go on a long bike ride.
Robin, Larry and Freck didn’t have bikes, so Carl commandeered appropriately sized bicycles from the O’Malley household. We all rinsed the chlorine off in the changing rooms and changed back into our t-shirts, shorts and sneakers.
I didn’t realize when we set out just how far Carl was gonna take us or that we were going on an hours-long loop tour of the eastern end of the island, the boardwalk and the many parks. He was right, the views were incredible. We started out by heading back up into Snugg Harbor and along the bike path on Richmond Terrace. When we got back to the ferry terminal, we rode along Front Street and then took Bay Street to the Gateway National Recreation Area, passing under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and then rode along the boardwalk. The views of the ocean were amazing and seemed to go on forever. I grew up in Manhattan Beach, with views of the ocean, but there was always the constant roar of jets taking off and landing at JFK nearby. The Gateway National Recreation Area was much more pristine, and the view of the ocean seemed vaster somehow. Unfortunately, there were a few spots where the boardwalk had yet to be repaired from damage done by Sandy, even eight years later. How pathetic.
We continued on into Great Kills Park, ending up on a narrow peninsula between Great Kills Harbor and Lower New York Bay. We then backtracked a bit and followed the greenway along Riedel Avenue. “There’s so much more to see, but we’d need all day,” Carl exclaimed as we rode onward. “I’d love to take you to Fresh Kills Park, which was reclaimed from the infamous Fresh Kills landfill and has a view of the entire island. Then there’s Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve, William T. Davis Wildlife Refuge and Willowbrook Park. Instead, we’re gonna enter LaTourette Park in a moment, and then we’ll ride through Cloves Lake Park, Silver Lake Park and Allison Pond Park. They’re more or less contiguous and have some of the best hiking trails in New York. You really need to come back here to check them out.”
We rode for quite a while, mostly in silence, riding alongside or through greenspace nearly the entire time until we were back at their house. Along the way we saw numerous lakes, marshes and wetlands teaming with wildlife. I’d never dreamt Staten Island had so much parkland but then realized that with sea level rise, the wetlands would ultimately grow to engulf most of the island. Nevertheless, I was glad we’d gone on a bike tour of it. By the time we got back, however, I was starved. The smell from the grill was heavenly and after we put our bikes away, we went out to the pool deck to find Clarke grilling ribeye steaks and lobster tails, along with veggies on skewers. What a feast!
Clarke asked us how we wanted our steaks done, so I told him I wanted mine medium, and Dave told him to make his rare. We each had our steaks with a lobster tail, grilled sliced green peppers, onions and mushrooms and a foil-wrapped baked potato with sour cream. The meal was truly amazing. I would’ve liked to have gone for another swim, but by the time we finished eating and after talking from a distance with our friends, it was nearly 7:00 and the bikes had to be back by 9:00.
Saying our goodbyes, we hopped on our bikes and rode back to the ferry terminal. We were lucky and got on the ferry, just before it left. The sun was just setting as the ferry pulled away, and we passed between the Liberty and Governor Islands just in time to see a fiery red sky behind the Statue of Liberty. It was a magnificent end to a perfect day.
With his arm around me, Dave said, “Enjoy it while you can, Babe. Soon it’ll be back to school.”
“You do know how to spoil the moment,” I replied.
“There’s still a chance the teachers’ll strike though,” Dave related. “Although I’d like the summer to last a bit longer, I’d hate to see any further delays. It’s tough enough as it is with remote learning and staggered in-person schedules. I sure hope they get their shit together.”
“There’s a good chance there’ll be another delay so they can complete coronavirus testing in time to get the results back on all of the one million of us,” I replied, “and there’s still some question about what to do with some of the older schools that lack proper ventilation.”
“Mark my words, there’ll be a strike,” Dave responded. “Either that, or the superintendent will back down and we’ll have online instruction only.”
“That’s a shame,” I related. “Most of the kids who are smart enough to go to Stuyvesant will do fine online, but there’s no substitute for doing the labs with the right equipment. The kids in kindergarten through maybe the third grade need in-person instruction. They’re too young to learn online and making them stay home four days a week means the parents can’t go back to work. After that, it depends on the individual kid, the access to broadband, the need for school lunch and the ability of the parents to watch over them. There are nine-year-old fourth graders who are responsible and can safely be left alone and there are eighteen-year-old twelfth graders who won’t do the work unless they’re supervised.”
“What a fuckin’ mess,” Dave agreed.
The ferry pulled into the Manhattan terminal and we disembarked and headed to the East River Bikeway, taking it all the way back to Delancey. In no time at all, we were back at Clinton Street, right in front of the rental place, when Asher suggested, “Guys, we still have plenty of time before we have to turn the bikes in. How about we head across the bridge and take in the views of Manhattan?”
“That’s a great idea,” Dave agreed, and so we crossed over the eastbound lanes of Delancey and entered the Williamsburg Bridge bikeway. There were a dedicated footbridge and a dedicated bike bridge that ran over the roadway, affording unobstructed views of Brooklyn and Manhattan. At the midpoint across, the footbridge and bike bridge came together on an elevated platform and we were able to see up and down the East River, taking in the shimmering lights on both sides at dusk. The views were spectacular, and we all stopped to take photos with our phones. We then headed back to Manhattan and turned in our bikes.
Walking back to our apartments, Seth said, “What a perfect day. The only thing more perfect will be making love with my husband all night.”
“You boys are so gross,” Sarah responded.
“What do you mean?” I asked my oldest sister. “I think Dave and I will do exactly that, as soon as we get home. It’s the perfect night for a sleepover with my angel.” Dave snuggled up with me in response.
Sighing, Stacey said, “If only my angel weren’t such a long subway ride away. Why does getting together with her hafta be so difficult?”
“Why don’t you spend the night with her?” I asked.
“Her parents don’t know about her and would freak of they found out,” Stacey replied. “There are places at LaGuardia where we could sneak away to be intimate. It’s been months…”
“Now that I spend so much time with my boyfriend, why don’t you have your girlfriend stay over when I sleep over with Dave?” I suggested. “I’m sure Dad would be okay with it… after all, he lets me have sleepovers with Dave whenever I want, and you know he knows Robin and Larry are sleeping together.”
With a snort, Sarah added, “Dad even set her up to get birth control pills.” Woah, I hadn’t known that.
“Are you saying you’d let me use your bedroom for sex with my girlfriend?” Stacey asked.
“Absolutely,” I replied. “As long as you wash the sheets,” I added to much laughter.
Then looking at my other sister, I realized she’d never spoken of a boyfriend or a girlfriend either, and so I asked her, “Sarah, what about you? I’ve never heard you mention a boyfriend or girlfriend either.”
“Well, Joshy, it’s not that I’m not interested,” she replied. “I guess it’s just that I’m shy and it’s not like the boys even notice me. Brooklyn Latin is such a serious place to begin with. A lot of the boys are nerdy like me too, and too studious and too shy to ask a girl out. I guess I’ll probably not date until I go to college.”
“Love won’t happen unless you put yourself out there,” I responded. “That’s true now, more than ever.”
“I know that Joshy, but It’s not easy for a geeky girl like me,” Sarah related.
“I take it you like boys?” Asher asked and Sarah nodded her head. “Seth and I know a lot of juniors and seniors at Stuyvesant, if you’re willing. It wouldn’t need to be a setup either. If we find the right guy for you, we could have him over with a group of other kids, but it would help to know what makes you tick.
“Please don’t go out of your way for me,” Sarah replied. “It’d be too embarrassing.”
“Which is why we’d host a party rather than set up a date,” Seth replied. “What kind of books do you like? What’s your favorite movie? What do you like to do when you’re not in school?”
“I do read a lot,” she answered, “but not what most people like to read. I’m passionate about classic Greek and Roman literature. That’s why I chose Brooklyn Latin, even though I could’ve gotten into Stuyvesant. I like that it’s a smaller school too. In fact, I’d really like to go to Vassar next year, if I can get in.” I hadn’t known that she’d passed on Stuyvesant.
Looking at each other, both Asher and Seth turned to look at my oldest sister. “I think I might have someone you’d like,” Seth suggested, “but if anything, he’s even more shy than you are. He’s Jewish too, and he’s a senior, and lives right in Williamsburg.”
“He’s shyer than I am?” Sarah asked for confirmation, “and he likes Greek and Roman literature?”
“With a passion,” Asher replied.
“Okay, as long as it’s not a setup,” Sarah responded, much to my surprise.
“I’ll see what we can do once school starts back up,” Seth confirmed.
We arrived back at Co-op Village and went our separate ways. I texted Dad to ask permission to spend the night with Dave, and getting it, headed off with my boyfriend.
“You ready for a night of making love?” I asked as I took his hand.
Leaning forward, he kissed me and responded, “The perfect ending to a perfect day.”
Leaning up against him as we walked, I added, “The perfect day, followed by the perfect night.”
“I can’t wait,” Dave agreed as I pulled the boy I loved close against me.
Disclaimer: This story is a fictional account involving gay teenage and pre-teen boys. There are references to gay sex and anyone who is uncomfortable with this should obviously not be reading it. The reader takes all responsibility for the legality of reading this type of story where they live. All characters are fictional and any resemblance to real people is unintentional. Although there are references to political figures as inspired by current events, any resemblance to a particular figure, past, present or future, is intended to be coincidental. As always, opinions expressed by characters in the story represent the opinions of the characters and are not necessarily representative of those of the author nor the sites to which the story has been posted. The author retains full copyright.