Asked how he lost it all, Cawsey laughed. “Lost it!? I never ‘had’ it. I never owned a damn thing in my life. I was generating a ton of money, but the second it got to me, I spent it.”
His ex-wife sent me a picture a few days later, of her and Cawsey and their son in a cornfield in the Hamptons. Here is this beautiful family living a dream that looks like the right one. And here today is this man with a coffee stain on his nose, asking me for gas money to get back to the Heights.
HE HAD NO BUSINESS CARD until yesterday, but he has over 30 offices. The Lenny’s at Ninth street and Sixth Ave. The tops of newspaper dispensaries. Park benches in Abingdon Square. The bar by the Christopher Street PATH. A table in the back of the Fantasy World sex shop. Café Angelique, both of them. Doma on Perry. “I tell people to meet me on Perry. Ooh, Perry, they’ll say. But I have nothing to show them on Perry. In New York it’s all about the promise of a name.”
He has 10 different numbers. Turns out I had called one of them, and he called me back days later in a shroud of mystery—which is part of his game.
He posts fake pictures. A beautiful picture window overlooking gorgeous thick plank floors with a headline that says Charles Street Fireplace $3500. Jane Street Private Elevator $3500. Then you call his numbers and he tells you to meet him on Perry, and you don’t get what you saw, but maybe you get something real. “I am selling the Village, so I post seven different pictures that represent seven different types of buildings. I have been reposting the same ads every day for the last seven years, and then I sell you what you didn’t know you wanted.”
He picked me up on a cool Saturday morning. He was in a good suit with a red rose remembrance pin.
“Where did you get the suit?” I asked.
“From the morgue.” Really. A friend of his is a funeral director who used to pay him in his homeless days to go to Goodwill and pick up suits for corpses. This suit was meant for a dead man.
We saw an apartment on West 12th Street. It was pretty great. Walls of mirrors and a beautiful kitchen with a Miele stove. There are three levels and halogen track lighting and an entrance off of street level with a big terrace and a separate small office and a bedroom downstairs with a walk-in closet. $4,200. My friend later described it as the kind of place that you end the night in when you’re 22 and an older man brings you home, and you tell your friends the next day how cool the place was, and not much else.
Cawsey watched me fall in impossible love with it. Afterward he took me to lunch at Barbuto on his dime, because he had a stack of 20s. The chicken arrived, parsleyed and glossy. He stabbed the biggest piece and thumped it into my plate. “Fuck it, get the place,” he said. He glorifies risk the way my parents denounced it.
He told the waiter to take away our plates, because the moment he is done, he wants to go someplace else.
I asked him to show me where he lived.
We drove a thousand blocks up into the ungated heavens of Manhattan. The Starbucks and the FedExes turned into Noche Mexicanas and pawn shops. Divorces for $299. He pointed out the Popeyes where last week he bought a transvestite named Veronica Lake some fried chicken. The theater where Jimmy Cagney emerged from a Packard for the premiere of White Heat. Then we arrived at 172nd and Audubon. His room was above a Tu Sonrisa Restaurant and Then’s Laundry.
He danced down the street to the tune of Spanish music coming out of a bodega and I followed behind, past a throng of drug dealers.
He opened the door onto a chubby Honduran 12-year-old watching TV in a small humid room that smelled of boiling coxcombs. Cawsey said, “Is abuelo home?” And the kid shook his head no, surprised by my presence. Down the narrow hall, Cawsey showed me the room he pays $80 a week for. “From a castle,” he said, opening the door, “to this.”
The room was an old box. There was a window with a towel over it. There was a frame with no picture hung from the wall above the bed. On the other side, there was a picture of the son whose life he has been in and out of for 30 years. There are pictures of Cawsey as a strapping young man, smiling, dashing, posing with beautiful women. On a small table near the window there were sardines in water and loose Lipton tea bags and an ancient tube of hair dye and a jar of shoe polish the same color, along with the SparkNotes for The Great Gatsby.
As we drove back to the Village, he told me about his brother Ralph Waite, who played the father on The Waltons, and how they used to hang out with Al Pacino, Jon Voight and Martin Sheen before they were famous. About Max’s Kansas City and Elaine’s. How he was on the cover of Hearst’s short-lived Eye Magazine with Penelope Tree.
He asked if I was listening. I said yes, but I was mostly thinking of the apartment. He said, “You’re thinking about that apartment, right?”
Several weeks later, I was in the new apartment, aware of what every minute was costing. Cawsey called and asked how it was, and how I was doing. He was reading a stolen newspaper on the hood of his car, screaming at Edgar to get off the computer and start “kissing the buildings,” to lay his young working ear to the ground and listen to what New York was saying.
There were horns honking outside wherever he was, probably because his car was parked in the middle of the road. “I’m overwhelmed,” I said. “It’s better than being underwhelmed,” he said. Then he began to say something else and the battery on his phone died and I could no longer hear what New York was saying.