ledbetter tat

Saying goodbye to my friends at Liberty View

Being a doorman in Manhattan is a position of prestige and pride, the front line of defense and friendship for the residents who pass by them every day, part of their duties is to make life a bit easier in a very difficult city. They are unionized. Being jostled through a subway commute, maybe even a nasty weather walk from your stop, then seeing a smartly uniformed man open the door with a smile while saying your name made a very tall building seem like home.

I was lucky in the place I happened to have chosen when I first shopped for a landing spot on a frenzied one-day apartment search for my relocation from LA.

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I hadn’t lived in a doorman building since the mid-90s when Billy and I moved to the city for a few years, and even then, we became friends with the guys downstairs. This latest move, back in March of 2015, gave me an even better sense of community because the men at the door and desk were warm, kind, and I was alone, so they were really the only people I saw outside of work.

When the lockdown came, I feared for their safety. They had to greet every delivery man, guest, or random person who came through the doors. They didn’t wear masks for the first week or two, those naïve days in mid-March, but quickly the building adapted to a very sad new reality and I only saw them three times a day when I walked Jim or went to the store.

Early on, when I first moved in, every time I would go shopping, I’d ask whoever was on duty what they wanted. Something to drink? Snack? Name it. I didn’t know if that was protocol, but it was my way of thanking them, and from that, I got to know them a bit better.

Sure, I had my favorites. Every single morning, most times before the sun came up, I’d see Chris when the elevator reached the lobby. Chris was young-dad-handsome, a small gap between his front teeth that gave way to a sparkly smile, dark curly hair with just enough product, glasses, and built for rugby. He worked the graveyard shift so he could spend more time with his kids, the oldest just entering high school.

“Hey Chris, you break up any parties last night?” and he’d smile at my daily greeting and shake his head, because we were in a relatively sedate neighborhood for Manhattan.

Carlos was nothing but sunshine smiles and flawless skin. The youngest on the staff, he started out as a maintenance man for the building and when one of the doormen retired, I was one of many who wrote to the management company to champion him as a replacement. With the build of a football player, he was the building’s teddy bear who I plied with popcorn or yogurt, his favorite snacks. I gave him a nice Samsung TV when I bought a new one.

I also gave Oscar one later on. Oscar was wiry with a slight Puerto Rican accent and he liked Gatorade. I never even bothered to ask what he wanted when I’d head out. He was consistent. He was also best friends with Carlos. There were always two on duty, except on Chris’s shift, one at the door and one behind the desk. When Carlos and Oscar were paired, you could see their camaraderie as they navigated everything thrown at them from sorting packages to fielding food delivery to greeting the guests of the residents.

There was Terrence, an elegant Jamaican with a wife and kids at home in Queens. When I first moved in, I’d jokingly called him “Terry,” but he wasn’t having it. He would barely look up to acknowledge me and I soon adjusted to his proper name. After that, we were golden. He was a healthy man who exceptional posture who favored juices.

Luis was the chief, the one who brought Carlos into the fold, and from day one, he helped me adjust from the whiplash of moving from my crazy old house in LA to my new reality on the 25th floor that had a killer view of the new World Trade Center. Luis liked soft drinks or beef jerky.

All of these men did me special favors, brought things up to my apartment when I wasn’t home, fielded installations or repairs with the maintenance staff, took care of my dogs when they came home from school every day. They were always there for me and they became my family in my new strange city, offering advice or direction. All of these men were my friends and I miss them very much.

And all of these men knew my secrets, the visitors I had over those five-plus years or my wobbly drunkenness after walking home from a neighborhood bar on a Friday night or in Chris’s case, one of my greatest shames when he saw me on a security cam outside the backdoor yelling at poor Jim when she wouldn’t pee during a cold driving rain when I was trying to rush to the gym before dawn.

“Are you okay, Terry?” he asked, his eyes dark with surprise and judgment. I nodded and rushed into the elevator with the dogs. We never spoke of it. I never knew how to explain as there was no explanation to be had other than my violent selfishness.

When the countdown to my relocation back to LA started, I felt an urgency to let them know how much I cared for them as individuals. I long forgot to see them as <i>my</i> doormen. And after three months of the lockdown, it was time for me to leave. I wanted to hug each one, get a silly selfie with them that I’d treasure, but that was no longer possible. So I meekly asked each if I could take their picture. I only got four of them just because of timing. When lockdown happened, they spread out their shifts so only one was on call rather than the pair.

I’m now in another high rise in downtown LA, but the doorman game here is so very different. They are more security, batting away dealers and prostitutes. They may look up to greet me when I pass by, maybe not. But I think back on my Battery Park building and the uniformed friends I made there, and I only wish I could continue to thank them as I will always remember their kindness.

ledbetter tat

IloveyouBillLedbeter

I knelt and brushed away the brown cut grass from the dark gray granite, pulling a few stubborn green blades that encroached on the dates that anchor the bottom corners––the left side is August 2, 1962 and the right states January 21, 2002. While doing this busy work, I prattled on.

“Get out of here, stupid grass. There we go, baby. Much better now. Wait. Let’s get this.” I licked my thumb and rubbed the oval porcelain photo––the shot I took of him on the boardwalk one random day never knowing it would end up being so definitive––removing a few whites specks with my thumbnail. “There. Handsome guy.”

I brought more than I normally do on my weekend morning visits, because today was special. Along with the usual two bunches of baby’s breath, the Today, Tomorrow, Forever heart-shaped balloon, and a blue windmill, I bought a silvery mylar Happy Birthday that had someone’s idea of a festive cake printed on it.

For gifts, I had a few key chains in my pocket, one from a recent stopover in Chicago and one from Montreal, the city where Billy proposed to me in 1998. I’d fit those onto branches of his tree later on, but now I had arranging to do.

I fluffed one of the bunches into a giant snowball that stuck out from the vase centered over him, jammed the windmill into the ground to the right of the headstone and the birthday one on the left.

Crisscrossed lines from the grass etched my knees as I stood and walked the ten paces to Billy’s bench. The tree was overgrown, it’s branches flopping down in a way that startled me every time I drove up, afraid I was going to find that the park had trimmed them away, and all of those key chains that I’d woven into its branches over the years would be lost.

I untangled the other bunch of tiny white flowers next to the bench, another summer snowball, putting the heart balloon next to it, but decided it looked better swaying in the center of the unpolished front edge with WILLIAM LEE LEDBETTER engraved across its length. I took the newspaper that’d wrapped the flowers, wadded it up, and wiped a few white bird droppings away.

I looked up into the tree; the sun flickered through the moving leaves, a disco in the park. It was cooler there, and I tore open the Hostess Cupcakes package, a brown plastic bra, turned it over to tap one out, and laid one of Billy’s favorite snacks on the upper right hand corner of the bench.

After inserting a red-striped candle, I lit it with a match, cupping my hand to keep the flame alive. Water filled the inside of my Revo lenses as I bent over to blow it out.

“I hope you’re dancing right now, baby.”

I sat on the other side of the bench and polished off the twin cupcake, staring toward the downtown skyline that seemed a hundred miles away, the silence broken only from my pleas for none of this to be true.

ledbetter tat

2556

“What do you think you’ve missed out on the most?” It’s a question I’ve wanted to ask Billy for the past few years, and I’ve endlessly pondered his possible answers.

“The iPod!” He blurted it, his lower lip jutting out, his arms huffily folded.

“You know you would’ve gotten one right away from me.”

“I know.”

“What else? Do you miss dancing?”

“I still dance.”

“Oh.” Well, of course he did; nothing could stop that engine from running.

“And the house! You know I’d love that house even if we had to give up Venice.”

“I bought it with you in mind. I always imagined how much you’d like it. And what about Stephen and Eddie? They’re no Bob Slobbers, but¬¬––”

“I sent Eddie to you! And I can’t believe you bought a house in Saint Elmo! I told you that you’d like it there!”

“I should’ve listened then, huh.”

“Yes” He paused and looked down at his feet. “Maybe. I dunno what else. I guess just having your arms around me at night.”

“That’s what I miss the most, too, Guyster. Wrapping you in my arms and holding you tight, real tight, and never letting you go.”

And just as I reached out to demonstrate, he was gone.

guyster

Tiny dancer

I can’t remember whose idea it was for Billy to wear the red wig, but it looked funny with his bristle of a mustache sticking out and I remember he wanted to wear his shirt backward, so I buttoned it up for him. It was Billy’s first and last appearance on television. Our friend Mickey hosted and produced a cable access show that was a purposeful train wreck, and on this episode, she booked Francine Dancer as her guest.

Francine was an LA-famous, yet homeless woman with a fondness for garish clothes and bouts of spontaneous street dancing. I believe she had her own cable access show, too. Mickey asked Billy if he’d like to dance with Francine on the show, and while Billy said yeah, sure, he was still too shy to do it without some sort of disguise.

That Herman Munster laugh you hear in the background is mine, egging him on, proud as can be.

When Mickey gave me this clip a few days ago, I asked her when it was done. She looked it up and said it was November 21, 2001, which makes it two months to the day before Billy left. Two fucking months later…

And I still can’t believe it.

ledbetter tat

Happy Anniversary, Guyster!



They’ve called Ludlow a ghost town ever since Interstate-40 came along and destroyed its little Route 66 businesses. Sitting in the middle of the Mojave desert, sped past by most except those riding on the fumes of an empty tank, the only thing in Ludlow besides the abandoned diner are a gas station––a sign warns that the next fuel is eighty miles up the road––and the Ludlow Motel with its Vacancy sign always lit. In our house, though, the very mention of the name of that spit of a town meant, It’s time to shut the hell up and accept the fact that I love you, no matter how mad you or I are right now.

It was our time-out, or a safe word.

I spent Thanksgiving in Saint Elmo, Illinois, Billy’s hometown, where the business district is two blocks long, yet it’d make Ludlow look like a bustling metropolis, but once you get outside the town’s limits, there’s nothing but winter cornfields and an endless sky.

I drove to Mattoon, up north a bit, the next day to get my annual tattoo, a ritual that celebrates our anniversary. This year it was our sixteenth and while that number doesn’t have a particular meaning, I’d already designed what I wanted in my head.

His oldest sister Dixie asked me why I just got that name, Ludlow, tattooed on the back of my calf––I had it done in a classic sailor font with an orange fill. That night, we were at dinner with every member of Billy’s family except for that sister Deb whom no one likes (and I guess she feels the same way about them), and when Dixie posed the question, the table silenced, even little Jack, just thirteen days old, but old enough to know to hold his tongue when a good story was brewing.

“Well, when Billy drove out here to fix up Grandpa Hopper’s house…” I saw every eye on me, except for Kaeden and Kael, too young to know where they even were, and I felt like some exotic creature from that crazy big city out west, but I just continued.

Billy had called me in a panic, his little Toyota truck hadn’t made it more than two hundred miles away from home before it broke down. He was stuck at the gas station off the Ludlow ramp and the mechanic there told him all he needed was a hose. He’d already called an Auto Zone near our house and asked if I could drive it out to him.

Without thinking twice, I jumped in the car, bought the hose for five bucks, and got on the road for a nice long drive. It was about a half hour into the trip that the temperature gauge shot into the red––the only thing to do was turn on the heat so the engine wouldn’t burn up.

To make the story more exciting, and accurate, I emphasized to the family that it was a hundred degrees out, which made it cooler outside than inside the car, and I was sweating. Oh, and all four tires were as bald as the crown of my head.

I made it all the way to Ludlow, somehow, and found a dusty roadside motel and a gas station with one guy there who had no access to auto parts. Billy was sitting in his motel room with the door open waiting for me. When he saw me, he beamed and hugged me and said he could never thank me enough.

“Oh, yes, Guyster, there is a way you can thank me,” And there was. I thought of it while sweating over the past four hours.

Almost every bad fight we had, Billy would retreat into the corner of You don’t love me, you don’t care about me… and I would then have to find ways of reassuring him that he was, in fact, loved.

“OK, from now on, every time you think I don’t love you, I will say one word and one word only. Ludlow. The only reason I’m here, Bill Ledbetter, is because of love. Pure love. Love love love. Love drove that fucking car and love is going to drive it back. So. Ludlow. Got it?”

He nodded in agreement, went out to borrow tools from the attendant and fixed his truck himself. We went back into his motel room. It was dark and cool. We laid there in silence and then started to fool around. It was great being a fleabag motel room and we made the most of it. We fell asleep in each other’s arms. We woke up around nine at night, the sun had said goodbye, and it cooled off outside. I didn’t want to drive back the next day in the heat, so I kissed him, said “Ludlow” as a reminder, and left.

Ludlow became shorthand for love in our home. Ludlow is one of the many words engraved on his memorial bench that sits under the tree near his headstone. Ludlow.

ledbetter tat

Forever 39

“What do you want for your birthday, Guyster?”

“Nothing.”

“What do you want for your birthday?” I repeat the question with playful annoyance.

“I dunno.”

My thumb runs over the smooth glass, tracing his arm.

“How about I wrap up some dog poo and give it to you?”

“No.”

“I’m gonna unless you tell me––“

“No!”

I rub over his face.

“Okay. I’m going to take you to dinner and lavish you with expensive gifts that you’ll never use.”

“Whatever.”

“iPhone?”

“No.”

My forefinger wanders up to the silver-plated frame that’s lost its luster over the years; the words that Billy had engraved I’m Missing You are still visible. He’s shirtless, a beaming smile under his sailor hat, his arm outstretched and anchoring him to his bunk.

“Want to have a party? It lands on a Saturday this year.”

“Surprise me! Get me whatever you. I’m busy.” He noodles with his mixer, one earbud dangling down his left side. The whole conversation is silly, really, since I’ve already bought him that iPhone, and I have organized his friends to surprise him in the private room at Baja Cantina.

I give his smiling face a long wet kiss, the glass warm on my lips, and put the framed photo back in its place, by my bedside.





magic mountain

How January 21, 2002 should've gone.

I woke up gasping for air, my arms pushing straight out, which almost sent Billy flying against the wall.

“Stop it!” He grabbed the bedclothes and curled up into a protective ball with his back to me, armed for any further surprise attacks.

“I just had the most awful dream,” I said, still getting back my breath.

“What was it?”

“I dunno. I don’t want to say. It might come true.”

“Then go back to sleep. God!"

And I did just that, wrapping my right arm around Billy’s warmth, my hand resting over his heart in a pledge of allegiance.
guyster

I keep writing this over and over again. Maybe someday I'll get it right.

If you didn’t already know that we lived in a non-smoking house, the twenty flyers Billy had plastered everywhere would have given you a clue. It had been a week since he'd first complained that he was short of breath, and drawing on what I considered to be my encyclopedic reserve of medical knowledge, I had insisted we both stop smoking immediately. I hammered this edict home by buying a box of nicotine patches the same day.

It was the Sunday before a holiday, if you consider Martin Luther King Day to be much more than an interruption in mail delivery, and after I surprised him with breakfast in bed, two slices of egg-in-the-hole, he finally got up and ambled into the kitchen while I washed the dishes. He stood by the back door, lifted his shirt, and said, “Put my patch on.

I obliged, of course, still in shock that he’d taken to a non-smoking lifestyle with the enthusiasm of a recent religious convert. We’d been trying to quit for years, and sometimes we’d even go for a few months without a cigarette, but then we would get into a fight or a few beers would come along, and we’d be back to Kool Milds and Camel shorts–Billy liked his menthols while I chose my grandfather’s brand loyalty.

I put it on his bicep, telling him to press the patch once it was on, a trick someone had once told me that was supposed to make it work better, and he leaned against the dryer doing just that, rubbing it like a genie’s lamp before he pulled his shirt back down, the long-sleeved one I’d given to him as one of his Christmas presents.

I asked him if he wanted to go see a movie, but when I told him that it was Gosford Park, he made his stink face and said, “Too much talking.”

“Well, then what do you want to do?"

“I think I’ll go over to Hal’s.” When he said that, I knew I’d soon be eating popcorn. I hated Hal, a man given to too much cologne and too many drugs, who called other men “girlfriend,” as if he were still roaming with the boys in the band. In fact, there weren’t any of Billy’s friends that I liked to hang out with. Billy claimed I was a snob, but I just found his friends dull and cloying, people who couldn’t even name the current Vice President, not that that opinion wasn’t a source of trouble in our house. For nine years, when he spent time with his friends, he usually did it stag.

We sat at the kitchen table with a large bag of croissants between us. I’d bought the bag a few days earlier, thinking Hell, what effective smoking cessation plan doesn’t include French pastry? I told him I was going to the movies anyway, without him, but he was more than welcome to join me if he changed his mind. He shrugged, chewed his croissant, and said he was going upstairs to mix music.

I might have asked him how he felt, or maybe I didn’t. Over the past week, he'd stated that he had chest pains, and a few times actually said, “I think I’m having a heart attack.” I even caught him saying so on videotape with the camcorder he gave me for Christmas.

After I made the bed and tidied up the front house, I made plans with our friend Tommy to see the movie, then bounded upstairs to see Billy and, as I expected, found him in headphones at his DJ stack, lost in his house music, dancing with the twelve-foot coiled cord swinging in time. All eighty pounds of Bob were sprawled on the couch, struggling to watch Billy as he slowly lost the battle to stay awake.

I mouthed, “Okay, I’m going,” which prompted Billy to un-cup one ear and ask what I’d said. “I’m leaving, Guyster,” I repeated, and asked him what time he’d be home. We arranged to have dinner together around five, and I left without stopping to kiss him goodbye.

I dropped Tommy off on the way back from the movie and headed to our favorite neighborhood Italian restaurant, a tiny place next to a 7-Eleven in a strip mall. Neither of us had a regular paycheck coming in, money was tight, but it was the night of the Golden Globes, so it was a forgivable splurge for us. I waited outside for the two orders of spaghetti with meatballs and mozzarella marinara, glancing at the convenience store where I’d bought my daily pack of smokes with just the tiniest bit of desperation.

The lights were off and it was chilly in the house when I got home. Bob was waiting in the green leather chair that he’d claimed as his own, his tail wagging as I opened the front door, and he slipped off the chair to follow me and sniff the bag I was carrying. I walked through the living room, left our dinner on the kitchen table, and climbed the stairs of the back house with Bob trotting behind me.

“Where’s Billy?” I asked Bob; he just looked back at me with his head tilted slightly to the left. I turned on the TV to watch Joan Rivers forcing women to show off their once-in-a-lifetime shoes, and took a couple of hits of pot from the wooden pipe that had been in our family for years. The bong that Billy bought me for Christmas was still downstairs.

I could hear footsteps on the stairs an hour later and the door swung open, Billy huffing as if he’d just run around the block. “Scoot over!” he said, and I sat up to give him room. He snatched the pipe from me, fired it up, and I asked him how his day was.

“I dunno. A day. How was your movie?”

“You wouldn’t have liked it. Too much talking.”

He took another toke, hopped off the couch, and went to the computer. “I have to post some more stuff.” Billy had started his own eBay business, selling random items he found in the neighborhood trash during his long walks with Bob. “But first I have to take some pictures.” He always gave a running commentary of what he was doing, just in case I didn’t notice or as if he needed to remind himself that he was doing it. More than once, he sat upright in bed while sleeping and proclaimed, “I’m tired,” to which my practiced response was, “Good thing you’re sleeping, then.”

It was cold upstairs, too, and I stretched out on the couch with a blanket over my legs, half covering Bob, who had curled himself into a black fur basketball at my feet. Billy worked on taking photos of his future sales, framing each one with Madison Avenue precision.

I looked over my shoulder, watching Billy set up his next shot, the tip of his tongue peeking out from his lips in concentration, and that’s all it took to bring it all back, that perfect, earnest magic he had, and with that, I fell in love with him again, finding him standing there as if I’d lost him in the fog of the overly familiar, as if anything could really hide that light. He was working hard to get his business off the ground and I was proud of him. The past several months had been very hard on him, on us, both unemployed and depressed, bad habits resurfacing, and still, there he was, on the other side of it. In that second, I could see how much he was enjoying himself, that he believed in himself, that he had his own future in control.

Nicole Kidman won, Moulin Rouge won, and the awards were over. For me, it was time for bed. “C’mon, Guyster, let’s go downstairs.”

“Okay.” He was back at the computer uploading pictures on eBay. “I want to finish up.” He flapped his hands shooing me away. “I’ll be down in a minute.”

“Come on, Bob.” Our dog trailed behind me as I shut the upstairs door.