The Secret to Finding My Chosen Family? Leaving the Gayborhood.

"I now invite people over to a place where sexuality is neither dismissed nor a defining mark."

Pictured above: Shirtless gay men outside of a café in the West Village, 1994.

It’s often said that New Yorkers are rude. Certainly not the type to extend a helping hand or care one way or the other whether you live or die or get hit by a bus, as long as the body doesn’t block the subway entrance (because that would be an inconvenience).

All of the above has merit—hey, we have places to be and no time to dawdle!—but it’s not the whole story, not even close. I’ve lived in the same Upper East Side high rise for 20 years and have found something I never had in Los Angeles—where I went to college—or even in my hometown suburb of San Francisco. I’ve found true neighbors.

And while the gay worlds of Chelsea and Greenwich Village were my original New York abodes, most of my community there was centered around gym culture and bars. Great meeting places, sure, but always lathered over with a slight sense of the beautiful food chain. The best bodies and the most expensive summer shareholders were on top, at least figuratively. I didn’t spend time with my actual neighbors; It was more like a daily existence in high school, minus the girls and curfews. AIDS made us all neighbors, but, there again, in the spiritual realm, undefined by elevator greetings or newspapers at doors or those races to get the last available laundry room washing machine.

I came to this part of town by accident, really. Abruptly kicked out of my Chelsea apartment by a roommate eager to turn the room into a pre-Airbnb corporate space, a close, gay friend said I could move into his apartment on East 86th Street. Or, as I called it, New Rochelle-adjacent. I knew of Elaine’s, right around the corner, and once had a boyfriend in the area whose apartment I avoided like the tundra that surrounded it. This was no-man’s land, a betrayal of every downtown pore that had taken over my New York skin. Now it’s home. Madonna and the Q train followed suit.

Central Park.

It took me a while to get used to the camaraderie embedded in the building, many of the residents having been here since the beginning, in 1971, or shortly thereafter. I didn’t expect people to talk to me, one of the few queer men roaming the halls, let alone give me keys to their apartments, ask me to walk dogs, babysit, celebrate Chanukah and eat a kosher meal, along with sit Shiva. I grew up in an atheist household and the only thing I ever sat for was the TV screen.

The neighborhood itself seemed gay-deprived, with only The Toolbox close by, a gay bar so seedy it reminded me of those dives that pop up in the hetero boondocks for the three or four queers so desperate to escape their family they’ll brave the bad drinks and dusty counters and dustier customers. In other words, it was in the exact right place.

On my floor, two elderly sisters lived at the end of the hall, and, across from them, a new couple, a doctor, his wife, and their infant. There was the Bulgarian couple whom I could barely understand and who introduced themselves by giving me an hors d’oeuvres tray that I still use, Michelle and Tom, about my age with one huge cat and an ear for the same music I liked, and Lily, a widowed chain smoker who scared me a little with her perfectly coiffed gray hair and conservative clothing and quiet, yet piercing, gaze. It was a far cry from boys in identical shorts and matching muscles.

Walter Leporati/Getty Images
NYC Pride, 1983.

Of the original group, only Michelle and Tom are still on the floor, as we recently celebrated a party for Lily’s move to Florida, after a fall left her in the hospital for months. I visited her in rehab, where she was stuck for Christmas, and where I told her I’d faithfully hung the bird ornament she’d given me the first year I had a tree-trimming party. She told me she was thrilled her family heirloom had a new home. We had become great friends despite our obvious differences. After she became pretty much housebound, my dog and I used to spend mornings on her covered-for-the-pooch couch, and she now knows more about me than half of my “age-appropriate” gay acquaintances. I miss her like I miss the Sunday paper.

9/11 happened shortly after I moved here, and I hugged the doctor’s wife while we both cried. They moved shortly thereafter to the suburbs of Connecticut, but good luck finding such homey neighbors. It would be years later that I, a recovering alcoholic, would relapse and knock on the door of a neighbor I barely knew and ask for help. Harry got dressed and took me to AA.

Once it became clear that I was a permanent fixture in the building—and especially after I got my pug and started working from home—knocks and cards under the door became common, get-togethers in each other’s apartments a custom, long conversations in the lobby over dog care and child-care almost daily.

Marnie, way up on one of the balconied floors, became my dog’s unofficial godmother and, having lost her previous canine, made him homemade biscuits she told me were so good humans liked them, too. I came close to testing her theory. Annie and Sam, whom I only knew from chats in the elevator, brought me cookies when my dog died this year (“I’m from the South,” said Annie, “We always bring food when someone dies”). And Bob, a single gay, retired man, one of the very few other queers in the building, made me his confidant in all things gay on the Upper East Side.

Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side.

When I was a kid in suburbia, my mother, a Minnesota native, believed that a home was a welcome mat, and friends and neighbors were always at our house, unannounced or otherwise. It was the “hangout” home, and our kitchen counter was like a soda fountain. Mom, with her always open ear, dispensed the goods and handed out advice or affirmations, whichever was required. I knew everyone’s stories, all the drama, who was being grounded and who’d just won a school trophy—never me—and what Mrs. Smith thought of Mrs. Jones’ new flower garden—not much. I was the fat, unpopular gay kid, the youngest of five children, who watched the neighborhood show from the box seats.

After years of exploration, I’ve finally brought that welcome mat to New York, with a homo twist. No longer on the sidelines, and no longer shopping in the husky section, I’m the gay man in charge, inviting people over to a place where sexuality is neither dismissed nor a defining mark. And unlike my childhood suburbia, that idealistic place people moved to in order to escape the city’s terrors, I don’t have to deal with the religious fanatic neighbors who cheerily told me I was going to hell, the guy who stalked my sisters, the “friend” who never returned items she borrowed, or all the kids who tormented me with chants of “faggot” on a daily basis. I love to live among these people. The relationship is give and take.

Every year I throw a holiday party, and every year I invite my own friends, whoever I know that doesn’t have plans, different people from the building, and everyone on this floor. New residents are often shocked, but they always come, and they’re often the last to leave. Granted, they don’t have far to “drive,” but still. Community is wherever and whatever you make of it.

I used to be one of those people who felt sorry for himself on the holidays because I didn’t have tons of fabulously queer parties to attend or enough fabulous friends to validate my worth in the world. None of that matters anymore. I have my neighbors to come home to.

David Toussaint is the author of four books and has been a professional journalist since the age of 15.