Don Heitman was my neighbor for almost a decade, at 57 W. 106th street, from the fall of 1982 until the summer of 1990. He had a big two-bedroom apartment on the 3rd floor at the front of the building, and I had a tiny two-bedroom on the 5th floor in the back. It was a walk-up, and I think my buttocks must’ve been rock hard because the steps were steep AF, and I went up and down them – especially after I adopted a rescue dog – numerous times a day. The neighborhood was awful in the ‘80s, but the rent was cheap; Don paid less than I did, $285 or $300 a month to my $400. Ultimately, I realized the apartment was a trap, keeping me in an area that was plainly unsafe (my apartment had been robbed twice), and if I had to carry any more bags of grub six long, hot city blocks from the only decent grocery store in the neighborhood, then up five flights one more time, I was gonna lose my mind.  

Don was born and raised in Kingston, N.Y., and knew where I was from, in the Catskills; it created a bond. He was an odd job guy, a carpenter and electrician, plumber, plasterer, doing work all over the neighborhood and city in better, wealthier buildings than ours. We didn’t socialize, necessarily, we never went out to dinner, breakfast, that sort of thing, but we would often meet in the stairwell or lobby, where we would chat. That lobby was truly frightening, a long, dark concrete corridor with a single dirty window at its end; I was held up there once by a couple of crack addicts I’d told to get the fuck out from lighting up under the stairwell. It ended well; they ran off when a woman and her kid entered, breaking the momentum of our short struggle. Phew. I only had two dollars in my pocket, but it was mine and I wasn’t giving it up. I went to see Don after that happened, and after my robberies, one and two. He was helpful and supportive; his apartment had been been robbed multiple times as well. I used to take regular breaks from climbing those stairs to talk to him, and occasionally he would invite me in, where we’d shoot the breeze for an hour or two. We were both in our twenties, trying to make sense of our lives to that point, and we were both in therapy. 

Don was smart, good looking, and gay, and in more pain than I could possibly fathom. He had a very gentle way about him, and had a great sense of humor, whatever else was going on with him, inside or out. Later in our friendship during those years, he would share with me that his father used to beat him, beat him for his queerness, trying to bludgeon it out of him. His father was old school Baptist, and I can’t remember exactly – it was so long ago – but he might also have been a pastor. And I will never know why, but people share shit with me, and one day Don told me about his dad raping him, all through his childhood, raping his sister, too. So, yeah, he was beating the gay out of him, and raping him at night, in his room, behind closed doors. I think his mother was dead? Maybe people tell me these things because they know I won’t judge them. How could I. How can anyone? 

Don also told me he liked to hire young, undocumented or unemployed Latino men, some of whom he also paid for sex. Several of these men robbed him, stealing money and tools, other valuables, from his apartment, and one beat him so badly after sex that Don was laid up for several months, ribs and nose broken, his arm in a sling. He seemed to think he deserved it; I disagreed, urging him to be careful, please. I don’t know if he made the connection to his past, repeating a toxic cycle his father had established, but he must have, right? We were friends, but we didn’t get into it that deeply. 

After I finally got out of there, out of that building and that unsafe neighborhood, we kept in touch, but vaguely. I moved two times in two years and didn’t reach out for another year at least, inviting him to see a show I was doing, letting him know I was back in the neighborhood, sort of, only seven blocks away, but in a building with an elevator, as I’d promised myself when I left 57 West. Months later his sister, who I had never met, wrote me back, telling me that Don was dead. It was 1992, or ’93, and I assumed he’d died of AIDs, as were so many of my friends, former classmates, and thousands upon thousands of strangers. I sent my condolences, and told her how sorry I was, how much I had loved her brother, and what a kind neighbor he had been, always. 

Later that decade, I went for a walk back on the old block, just to see it, to stroll down memory lane, and make peace with a few ghosts. I ran into a former acquaintance of mine, a friend of Don’s, another gay man and near neighbor who had lived in a much nicer building across the street. He was no longer residing there, his partner had died and the partner’s family, there were no legal protections then, had thrown him out of the apartment the two men had shared for over a decade. He too was walking in the neighborhood for the same reason I was, because it held memories for him; he too was trying to make sense of it all, past and present, and let go. 

He asked me about Don, did I know he was dead, which I confirmed that I did. Of AIDs, I assume? No, he corrected me, Don had committed suicide. Did I ask him how? I don’t remember, but he told me. Don had gone into Central Park with a shovel, in the middle of winter, where he dug a hole in the dirt, lay down in it, and froze to death. Up near the Great Hill, where I used to walk and play and nap with my dog, Lottie Lou Lenya Mueller. There is so much pain in the world. 

There’s an Italian Osteria now, on the block where Don and I lived, practically downstairs from our old apartments. Life and neighborhoods move on, decades pass, and loss is endemic, but I will never forget him, never. His brokenness, and his beauty, remain. 

*photo of the old ‘hood by my darling, dear Jeffrey Markowitz