At first, this was a source of amusement. I would tell my friends, I can’t meet for brunch, I’m looking at apartments with my homeless realtor. I wouldn’t say Cawsey and I were friends, but it was becoming more than an apartment hunt. Seeing a place would get combined with a macchiato at Café Angelique. Faxing something merged into an hour at the bar next to the Christopher Street PATH that nobody I know has ever been inside.
One night, he picked me up from my apartment, he and Edgar, and we drove to a REBNY party, which stands for Real Estate Board of New York. I’d brought him a toothbrush and soap because he said he didn’t have any. Turning around to fully look at me even though he was driving, he said, “You gave me a toothbrush, like I’m homeless, you jerk?” Because he was not really homeless, not that week. He had rented a room for $80 a week up in Washington Heights.
The party was in the basement, where colored lights hung from the ceiling and a dance floor was dotted with realtors. Tonight, Cawsey was spiffy. He was dressed in a suit with his nice glasses on, and he walked through the crowd, tossing his trademark, “How AH you?” in four directions at once. Here was the head of Benajmin James, who was the first man who hired him, and also fired him several times. “This is the man,” said Cawsey, “who rescued me out of homelessness.”
The CEO smiled. “There is nobody like him,” he said, “in the entire world.”
We looked at the dance floor. “Most of these people,” Cawsey said, after dropping his pants once because I didn’t seem to be listening, “thought they’d be doing something else by now. Most of them also have second jobs.” He pointed to a girl in black patent leather platform pumps, double-fisting two glasses of wine with long red nails. “She’s a dominatrix in between showing apartments.”
A famous actor’s sister introduced herself in a jangle of bracelets and rich curls and handed me her card. She purred that Cawsey is the best. That in a city of appearances, he tells people what they need to hear.
This is true. With two gay men recently, he stood outside the building and held both their hands and said, “Do you know who lived in this apartment? Marlon Brando and his lover, Wally Cox!”
“Of course!” said Cawsey, “when he was doing Streetcar!”
They took the apartment.
To a blogger looking for a place, he said, Did you know Hemingway lived here while he wrote A Farewell to Arms? To a financial journalist seeing the same apartment, he said, Can you believe this was the apartment that made Joan Didion rethink the whole California thing?
At Trattoria Spaghetto on Carmine, Cawsey’s nephew, Gus Waite, who is also a broker, explained the illusion of the perfect New York apartment over a bowl of minestrone. “People come here, they say, ‘I’m going to live in the Village in a cool loft with trees outside my window and a hot guy living upstairs.’ What they find instead are sleazy landlords and brokers and a toilet that hasn’t been switched out in 15 years.”
YOU MEET A LOT of people in Manhattan, and their life stories, like rental apartments, are never as great as they appear. You find out the truth, then wish you hadn’t. Investment bankers say they own your favorite restaurant on Hudson Street, but it turns out they own 1/16th and the chef does not even know their name. Cawsey—whose full name is Bruce Cawsey Waite—is different.
He ran away from a troubled home in White Plains at 14. To survive, he found a job as a bumper at a carnival—hired to bump into people and pickpocket their wallets.
In his early 30s he became the owner of a chain of restaurants called David’s Potbelly, open from 8:30 p.m. until 6 in the morning. Madonna and Cyndi Lauper once worked for him, his brother told me. There was also a place called Shakespeare’s at Macdougal and Eighth Street, where he had a massive oil painting of himself hung high and Alec Baldwin waited tables.
Cash-rich, Cawsey would roll up to Elaine’s on a BMW motorcycle in brown leather pants, a Great Dane named Clay swiveling about in the sidecar. One night he saw a beautiful woman sitting beside Woody Allen, and he wrote on a matchbook, I’m going to marry you.
He asked her if she liked yachts and she said yes, so that night he went around to all his Potbellys and raped their safes. He rented a yacht for $20,000 dollars for the week, paid an extra $1,000 to have someone paint The Bruce Waite on the back of it, loaded it full of live lobsters and a private chef and sailed her and her friends to Newport.
Her name is Cydney, and it is years later that we meet for coffee on the corner of Lispenard. “As we sailed past Block Island, he swept his arm across the sea and pointed to it. ‘All of that,’ he said, ‘is mine.’”
She said she realized he was full of it early on, but she was already madly in love. They lived life on high, a red Mercedes and a few houses and horses galloping through cornfields on Hamptons estates. “I wanted to rent a summer house between David Geffen and Ron Perelman,” said Cawsey in his Nissan Quest. “So I would steal all my restaurants’ money and pay cash up front.”
They divorced after two years and one son.
“Image was really important to Bruce,” Cydney said. “He created a painting of what he thought his life should look like, but he couldn’t live up to it. It infuriated him that we needed more from him—intimacy, emotional maturity, commitment—none of the things he was capable of. Sadly, he thought the image should be enough.”