I was looking for an apartment, which in Manhattan means you have to sell your soul. Your W-2s are not signed in enough places; your hair does not make enough money.
You refresh Craigslist every 40 seconds and wait for virgin blue links. Doesn’t matter, because nothing is real. As in online dating, everything pretends to be a shade better-looking and younger. The West Village is the best and the worst. It’s where the smartest and the prettiest pay to live beyond their means and below their hygiene thresholds: celebrities with great dogs, public relations beauties, dark-haired analysts and models emerging from their rat holes on Bank.
I was moving out of Wall Street and I wanted to live in the middle of it. I wanted to thumb wrestle with the roaches. On Day Two, my phone rang.
“Hey you looking for an apartment in the West Village,” a questionmarkless question.
Who is this?
“Don’t worry about it. Meet me on the corner of Perry and Hudson, at 4 p.m. I will send a text to confirm.”
There were maybe 15 more words exchanged, but mostly it was me asking for answers he wouldn’t give. So I went to meet a man who wouldn’t tell me his name. He texted that he was two minutes late and then he arrived two minutes later, walking down the street, rippling in all liquid black like Johnny Cash, heavy in a way that meant he had once been fit. His hair was dyed the brown of pecans and shoe polish.
He introduced himself just as Cawsey and we shook hands and I followed him onto a block I loved into three apartments that hadn’t yet come on the market. The last was a sunny triplex that wasn’t for me, and when I told him why, I didn’t get the look I had gotten from other realtors, that of, You cannot have that kind of a kitchen for your budget in the West Village. The look of, You will not be happy, or even mildly pleased. You will pay more to have less and yes, that fire escape is outdoor space.
As we descended from the triplex and alighted on Grove, a younger man stopped him, palming some bills against my new real estate broker’s hand. Cawsey winked and said, “Don’t worry, dearie, nothing illegal. Get in my van.” And I did.
It was a 1996 forest green Nissan Quest minivan. It was dusty and the interior smelled of a lot of different owners. “Let me check the back,” Cawsey said. “Okay, all clear. Last client got in the van and there was a tranny hooker asleep in the very back. It’s hard to be taken seriously in this business when you smell like hookers.”
That was the first one. The first truthfictiontruth of the man named Cawsey, who said he was 70 but really he was 67, who indicated out the window, driving too fast, a wraparound second-floor on Horatio and called it his home.
Cawsey is the only realtor in Manhattan I know who drives his clients around, and I don’t mean from way downtown to uptown. I mean he drives you from Christopher and Waverly to Bleecker and Jones, from Horatio and Hudson to Barrow and Hudson.
The minivan gets towed on a pretty regular basis. Even more regularly, it runs out of gas on the Avenue of the Americas, and it is up to Cawsey and Edgar, the young man he calls his Tonto, to push the Quest out of harm’s way.
Edgar is 22 and has a rich, glossy, swirled 1950s baby pompadour. He walked off of the SUNY Binghamton campus, clutching his B.A. in economics tightly to his soul, and into a real estate company looking for a regular real estate job. Then he met Cawsey.
“Hey kid, you wanna work with me,” a questionmarkless question. He showed Edgar a W-2 form that said that last year Cawsey took home $350,000, and Cawsey said “You work with me and you will make that, Year One.” It wasn’t until a few weeks ago, when I was in the van with the two of them and Cawsey was suffering an honest hour did he admit to doctoring the W-2. From the back seat, Edgar said, “You fuck. You fucking fuck.”
IT WAS AROUND Day Four that I sent an email to my friend and she replied, “Please stop seeing this person.” On Day Five, I was moved by events to send a follow-up:
Cawsey had on the same shirt from yesterday and whereas some days he looks dapper, today he looked like a slob. So I asked to see his driver’s license, and he showed it to me; it was 40 Ann Street, which is the Coalition for the Homeless. I was pretty sure he lived out of his van. A homeless broker. Yesterday he asked me for two dollars, and today he paid me back from a roll of hundreds.
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.”
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.