In the spring of 2009 the manager of my investment fund defrauded millions from a bank leaving me one day with $200 in my wallet and $3 in my bank account. He was a trusted friend from high school, coincidentally also the Alma Mater of Bernie Madoff, Far Rockaway High School. During the next eight months I fought the good fight, taking any job I could get, borrowing money from friends and running up credit cards. By December I was $60,000 in debt, my employer had folded, my lease was up and I could no longer hang on in the most expensive city in America. Even General Washington had to retreat from New York when the odds grew overwhelming. Florida, where my father left his sons a condo would be more hospitable than Valley Forge.
It was painful to leave the city of my birth, the city I loved, a place where I could rely on the comfort and support of friends. Most of all it was painful to leave Kyle, the 11 year old boy I had helped to raise since he was a toddler. I’ve never regretted life long bachelorhood but did regret not having children and after all these years I didn’t love Kyle like a son. I loved him as a son. A year before this financial debacle I had quit my job to focus solely on his education, taking him to summer school everyday, hiring tutors, suing the Board of Education and insuring he received the education he deserved. I could well afford to concentrate on his needs for a year. I lived off disbursements from my considerable savings. In an instant they had disappeared.
Christmas is a time when people give and receive gifts but I had other holiday priorities. What could I sell? What could I box up and store? What would I try to move? I spent an afternoon packing until everything headed for storage was in boxes stacked across the bedroom. When Kyle came over and saw the sealed cartons he was ashen.
“What are all these boxes for?”
“I’m moving them to storage…”
The color returned to his face and he wiped the back of his hand across his brow the way only cartoon characters show relief.
“Whew…” he exhaled. “I almost had a heart attack. (A phrase he picked up from me.) I thought you were moving all this to Florida.”
“Kyle, I am moving to Florida. I don’t want to. I have to.”
“You’re gonna miss Sidewalk Singers?” Sidewalk Singers was his after school singing group. They were singing carols in public the week before Christmas.
“I don’t know, Kyle. I may be gone by then. We’ll see…”
He cried out ‘Noooooo’ and started stripping the packing tape across the seams of the boxes. “NOOOO! You can’t leave! I won’t let you!”
I hugged him, told him how much I loved him and assured him that I would come back every few weeks to see him.
This recession was bad and it wasn’t only retailers who couldn’t move goods this holiday season. There were no replies to any of the items I posted on Craigslist. Not one. I wrote clear, attractive descriptions and all my postings were accompanied by photos. The prices I asked were more than fair but not one buyer was interested. On top of this everywhere I went–in the cab, on the street, in the subway, on my TV—were ads trying to get me to buy things I could no longer afford. The ear-to-ear grins of the models and actors seemed manic and mocking. I felt as if they were pushing drugs. Buying stuff will get you high, make you happy, bond families and lovers.
Ultimately in frustration I posted a note in the laundry room of my apartment building:
Santa is coming early this Christmas!
I’m moving. All is yours for free!
That night there was a knock at my door. It was an old woman from Costa Rica. Her English was not always clear but I understood the excitement in her eyes as she saw the dresser, the brass bed and the big screen TV. She said she would leave for an hour and come back with her friends. While we waited Kyle walked around the apartment saying goodbye to all the objects he had known since he was a baby. Several times he blurted in disbelief, “You’re not giving this away!? You can’t!”
But I did.
I lived in what is called an 80/20 building. Although it’s a luxury high rise and 80% of the tenants pay market rate, 20% are poor or working class New Yorkers paying reduced rents. The landlord gets a ten-year tax abatement in exchange for joining this program. I preferred living with a mix of neighbors. There were teachers, postmen and other municipal employees but also pensioners and others on some form of public assistance. I’d lived in buildings where my neighbors were venture capitalists, traders and lawyers, even movie stars. I preferred the sense of community in an 80/20 building
The Costa Rican grandmother soon returned with a United Nations delegation: twelve neighbors from the Caribbean, Asia and South America. I assisted an eighty-year old Mexican man without a word of English wheel the TV into the elevator and across the lobby back to his apartment. Through a translator he declared he would ship this quarter-ton television back to Mexico! They took everything that was not being sent to Florida and when the woman from Tobago asked if she could have the sundries from my two bathrooms I asked that she leave only the toothbrush and a bar of soap.
I opened the pantry. “Anyone here want tuna fish?”
Pasta, soups, canned meals?
When I offered the 36-roll package of toilet paper I’d bought at Costco it was like the riot at Patty Hearst’s cheese distribution center. I parceled out the rolls so everyone got a fair share.
I finally closed the door behind them accepting mixed “Gracias” and “Thanks”. It felt good to know that my stuff would continue to have a function, that someone new would appreciate that life-like TV picture or explore new dreams between the posts of my brass bed.
Kyle was perplexed. “Toilet paper?” he asked. “They were fighting over toilet paper?”
“Well, Kyle, some people aren’t as fortunate as we are,” I replied. “And toilet paper costs money. Look at how much you waste when you go to the bathroom.” He was notorious for wadding a quarter roll each trip to the lavatory.
“But toilet paper?” His repeated, eyebrow raised, mouth open, still not getting it.
I had helped the old Mexican man wheel the TV set into his apartment. It was a small studio, jammed with boxes, mattresses and cluttered clothing racks. With the addition of the TV I had to slide like a crab to get out.
Now, that was poverty. Whatever deprivation I was facing I also had the assets to pull myself upward: an education, (relative) youth, a career history. An eighty year old Mexican who can’t speak English? He had a twenty five-year-old cathode ray TV set. For me, poverty was a passing episode in life, a colorful digression I might reminisce about in the future (as I’m doing now). For them, it was life. And it was nothing to laugh at.
Shortly, there was another rap on the door. The grandmother had returned with all the other women.
“Por favor,” she asked. “You were so good to us. We want to pay you back. We clean your apartment for you. We bring all things for cleaning. You get deposit back.”
Kyle and I weren’t the neatest of roommates and the bathrooms, especially, would have made my mother gag if she were alive. I welcomed them in; Kyle went off to play with one of their sons and for the next hours they cleaned and scrubbed. When they were finished the apartment was spotless, ready for the rental agent. It hadn’t looked like that since the day I moved in.
“Merry Christmas,” we shouted back and forth as they left with pails and mops and towels. “Thank you. Gracias! Merry Christmas! Feliz Navidad!”
The apartment was quiet now, bare except for the few items awaiting the movers. The room seemed gigantic. The floor-to-ceiling living room windows looking to the Hudson, the Bronx and Central Park suggested an even larger feeling of emptiness.
“Why did those people do it?” asked Kyle.
“Why did they come and clean up everything?”
Our voices echoed around the naked room.
“Well, see, when you do nice things for people, Kyle, they want to do nice things back for you. That’s why we give Christmas gifts to each other on the holiday, to people we love, the ones we care about, those who helped us get through the year. And when you give a gift, the other person usually wants to give one back to you.”
“Are you going to get me a gift for Christmas? Are you?”
“Don’t I always get you something you want?”
“Yeah, but this year you don’t have any money. And you’ll be in Florida. Are you still gonna get me something for Christmas?”
I had to be out of the apartment before Christmas but I would surely buy something special for Kyle before I left.
“Poor Weechu” (his baby name for me, when he only spoke Portuguese), I teased. “What is he getting for Christmas? Are you going to get Weechu a gift?”
“Come, on…Christmas is for kids. It’s about parents getting kids gifts. Not kids getting gifts for the parents,” he said. “Wow, we can’t even watch TV. There’s no TV! I can’t believe it. Everything’s gone.”
“That’s okay, Kyle” I said. “You already gave me a great gift for Christmas …”
“Before you, I never had a son to love and I always wanted one. Now I have a son.”
Each time he says it he says it the same way, almost singing the same three notes. Sometimes it springs from anxiety after he’s done something bad. He says it in a whisper each night in bed, halfway between consciousness and dream. It’s the triplet that ends our phone conversations. He doesn’t say it by rote, but I know Kyle well enough to realize that it always doesn’t mean what it says. Sometimes it means: ‘Don’t give up on me.’ Sometimes it means ‘I’m scared. Protect me.’ Or ‘Please don’t punish me.”
I often tell Kyle that I know him better than he knows himself and I should. I was there since he was two and a half, sharing his nightmares and fears, teaching him to ride a bike, learn English, control his anger, helping him understand race, politics, how reality is different than a dream, why lying about the tooth fairy was an act of love (he caught on immediately—‘And what about Santa Claus?’ Is that something parents make up too?’), explaining why, even within the world of ‘Star Wars’ Darth Vader was not a good role model and that he was an even worse one in our world. I took him to live theater over and over hoping my passion was contagious.
As well as I know him, I understand myself too, well enough to recognize how much I enjoy hearing those words. Kyle can be an astutely manipulative boy and he recognizes the power these words have over me. Still, there are times when I don’t doubt their spontaneity and sincerity.
“I love you…” he whispered.
“I love you too…”
It was dark, no lights in the room. All the lamps had been taken away. We stood in the silence, gazing out the big windows, savoring the delicious view, knowing we might never see it like this again. With the furniture gone, it felt like we were suspended in air, floating above the city.
The blue arc lights from penthouses at the Time Warner Center and whiter ones up Broadway around Lincoln Center, the red taillights of cabs and the changing green-yellow-red traffic lights, lit up the city around us like a Christmas tree.