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Memoir Part 4: My Family


I need to begin with my parents. Jack Heimoff and Gertrude Merson were both born in 1915, Jack in Manhattan, Gertrude, as I’ve mentioned, in Oklahoma, only seven years after it became a state. I grew up in close contact with Jack’s side of the family; my Heimoff cousins were like my siblings. Gertrude’s people, in the southwest, were distant, in an era when air flight was difficult and expensive, and so I never grew close to them.

Jack was Rose and Max’s youngest child. Lennie, his older brother, was their middle child; Ruth, born in Russia before Max and Rose emigrated, was the eldest. Ruth’s husband was my Uncle Teddy, a giant of a man, a legend in our family to this day—as my recounting of his bar mitzvah fisticuffs suggests.

Stories about Teddy abound. When the other dads drove Chevys or Fords, Teddy cruised around in a Lincoln Continental. Where others had to find parking spots on the crowded Grand Concourse, Teddy double-parked. He never got a ticket and we never knew why; an aura of mystery and power surrounded him. I never could figure out exactly what he did for a job. Larger-than-life, he would pick me up and throw me in the air, like a ball, and catch me on the way down. He only missed once; fortunately, I suffered no permanent damage.

Uncle Lennie was our family doctor, the success story, rising from the Depression to wealth and achievement. He worked on Gen. MacArthur’s anti-venereal disease program in the Pacific during the war, and returned home one of the most sought-after V.D. specialists in New York. He was president of the Bronx County Medical Society. To me, he was everything I’d ever wanted my own father to be. By the mid-1950s, Lennie could afford to move out of The Bronx. He bought a big, white, classical home in Teaneck, New Jersey, with a swimming pool and air-conditioning. We’d drive to Teaneck on hot summer days, so I could swim with my cousins. I hated the drive back to The Bronx, to our dreary little tenement, to the heat and humidity.

Unlike Lennie and Ruth (and my mother), my father never went to college. He could have, but chose, for some reason I never understood, not to. He never succeeded economically. Indeed, Jack’s financial struggles and drab career (he was a purchasing agent, with no pension) haunted my childhood, and grieve me to this day. He was a deeply unhappy man, aware of his inadequacies and ashamed of them. All the others of his generation, my uncles and aunts, were professionals who “made it” to the suburbs, to large homes with gardens and trees. Jack and Gertrude never got out of The Bronx, except for a brief stint in another apartment in Howard Beach, Queens (“Archie Bunker” land), to which they moved, in the late 1970s, because The Bronx had become dangerous. They finally retired to a condo on the poorer outskirts of Fort Lauderdale.

Lennie and his wife, my Aunt Esther (“Ettie”), had three girls, Maxine, Ellen and Rona, in birth order. I was very close with them. Today, Ellen, who lives in Malibu, and I remain close, but even closer, both geographically and socially, to me is Maxine, who lives just across San Francisco Bay from my home in Oakland. She is the one who convinced me to move to California, in 1978, at a time when my life was turbulent; that move changed everything, and I’ll get to it in due course. My three cousins on Teddy and Ruth’s side were Felice, Richard and Alan, again in birth order. Felice died years ago, the first of our generation to go, but then, she was older than the rest of us. Alan and I are close; Richard and I, less so. But those childhood bonds are strong, not easily rent.

Alan and Richard—“Ritchie”—were older and bigger than me, and a lot more worldly. When they lived in 760, we’d play under the stairwell in the dark rear of the building, where they taught me my first lessons in sexuality. We must have been five, six years old. It was all very illicit and secretive, and therefore exciting. This went on for years. I’m not saying they “made me queer.” Indeed, whatever happened was with my willing and eager participation. I would have been queer anyway. As for why I went gay and they didn’t–who can say?

At any rate, by the time I was eleven or twelve—before I reached puberty—I was on the hunt. For what? Boys. I knew in my heart and mind that I couldn’t be the only male in The Bronx who felt like this. Common sense suggested it had to be widespread. But how to spot a like-minded kid? Was there a secret sign? A wink? A head nod? For a while, I tried opening my mouth into an “O” and wagging my tongue from side to side whenever I encountered a cute guy. It never worked. Hundreds of kids in The Bronx must have wondered who this open-mouthed weirdo was.

I knew I was attracted to boys. Knew, also, that it was verboten, wrong, something to keep a deep, dark secret. This was my introduction to shame—emotional baggage I’ve carried all my life and tried, not always successfully, to overcome. An incident involving Barry, Elsie and Dave’s son, showed me the necessity of secrecy. As I wrote, he was six years older than me, a tall, lean, good-looking kid with sharp cheekbones. Barry and his gang of friends allowed me to hang out with them in front of 760, where they’d lean against cars, or throw a Spaldeen around, talking about sports and girls. I’ll never forget the time Barry told them a story.

He was in high school, failing a class. He went to see the teacher. “Is there anything I can do—anything—for you not to flunk me?” Barry asked. Why, yes, as it turned out, there was. The teacher, a middle-aged man, told Barry he’d give him a passing grade if Barry let him suck his cock.

“Oh, wow,” his friends gasped. They reacted with shock, horror, revulsion. “That’s disgusting!” “Somebody should lock that old faggot up!” I may have been a dumb little nine-year old but I wasn’t stupid. “That’s what I am,” I thought. “A faggot.” I might have substituted “leper” or “Communist” or “murderer.” I instantly understood that I must never, ever, under any circumstances breathe a word of this to anyone. It had to be my secret; to reveal it was to risk being rejected, hated, beaten up. That was the moment I stepped into the closet, slammed the door and locked it shut from the inside. There I remained for the next twenty-five years.

One Autumn day in 1959, at thirteen, the magic moment came: Puberty! Jonathan had reached it first and told me about it. One afternoon, alone at home, I tried humping a pillow. Bingo! Oh glorious feeling, oh exalted physicality, oh most amazing pleasure, oh my God, this life-affirming thing a boy could do! I had discovered Mr. Happy.

* * *

My sexual life sped up. The Bronx teemed with boys and young men, not just Jewish, but Irish, Black and Puerto Rican; and the Ricans were my first “lovers,” to use that term generously. I really liked the Puerto Ricans. So did my mother (although for vastly different reasons), who taught them in her Junior High. She’d say to me, “I wish you were as nice as my Puerto Ricans.” They had a sweetness, a vulnerability that was non-existent among my Jewish friends. This is probably why, to this day, I feel such a close connection here in California to Latinos, and Mexicans in particular (and is another reason why Mexican-bashing Republicans so disgust me).

It was easy to meet Puerto Rican kids. A connection could happen in the bushes of Franz Siegel Park or, more likely, on Sheridan Avenue, above the train yards, where at night the streets were deserted, while the New York Central trains chugged and clanged below. Years later, I learned that what I was doing was called “cruising.” It came instinctively. I’d tell my parents I was going out at night to play with friends—a form of the truth, if you think about it. Gertrude and Jack didn’t care, as long as I was back by, say, ten. I’d go down to Sheridan Avenue and walk the street, watching, cautious, ready. A boy or man would pass. Eye contact. One of us would lead the other to a darkened place. It was dangerous, hell yes. But the danger was part of the excitement, a frisson of sexual thrill. I’ve never understood this connection between risky behavior and sexual heightening. On the downside, I’ve never managed to achieve the trusting oneness of couples who have been together for a long time. When I think about what I’ve never had—and I often do–I feel sad. But you can only play the cards you’re dealt, and make the best of them.

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