Death comes to us all but this is one that I feel acutely. For many years, I lived across from Frances on New York’s East 11th Street, but I was not very familiar with her long history of housing activism. Our relationship began in 1981 when, overnight, little green trucks began towing cars supposedly illegally parked all along the Silk Stocking District (on Manhattan’s East side) and dragging them into a garage directly across the street from my apartment building. The business sprouted abruptly like a mushroom. It was a Mafia operation, and had no variance to permit it to operate. It totally disrupted the street, between Second and First Avenues. There was a grade school at the end of the bloc at the intersection of 11th Street and First Avenue, so this also posed a danger to small children. This was a safe street, thanks to the presence of the mob, which ran a parking garage adjacent to my building, and had a “social club” at street level directly under my fourth-floor apartment. There was never a lock on the door to the building because a Puerto Rican woman on the first floor ran a numbers bank, so there was a constant coming and going of clients, as well as her Italian boyfriend. The building was owned by Ivan Nazarkewyc, a Ukrainian. I once complained to him that we needed a lock on the front door for security. But he said that was impossible, without going into details. He had an arrangement with the numbers bank and the mob. I liked living there.
But with the new green menace, that all changed. Some of the workers in the tow-truck garage were ex-convicts. One day one of them chopped the arm off another with a machete. Not the kind of neighbors one wants to have. That’s not counting the constant noise and commotion, from early morning to late into the night. I was so pissed off by it that I hung a banner on my fire escape demanding “Get Out!” Earlier, I woke up one day to find the entire street covered with small plastic Italian flags, and a few Israeli flags (for some reason I couldn’t fathom) noisily flapping in the wind. I cut down the ones tied to my fire escape. Who the hell did these people think they were to invade tenants’ space without so much as a by your leave?!
Other people on the block were also opposed to this intrusion of little green monsters, so we organized to fight it. It became a very New York story. Frances was the key organizer. Without her, this struggle, which lasted for eight months and involved a special hearing before the Board of Estimate and got plenty of coverage in local newspapers, would never have happened. The three people who were the main activists in the effort were Frances, a working-class Italian woman, and me. The Italian woman had an adopted black teenage son who had gotten into trouble for being caught by police with a gun. Like many Lower East Side citizens, she had gone to the social club in my building to ask for the mob’s help in resolving the issue. They told her they wouldn’t lift a finger to help because her son was black. She hated them.
So did the black workers at the garage next to my building, who kept their jobs only because of the support of their union. The racist Mafiosi hated blacks. But they had nothing against gays. One blatant fairy was a regular at their social club, and the numbers woman’s son once told me he had seen me on a cable show talking about man/boy love. Homosexuality was no problem. Blacks were a different story.
Our group of activists decided to close down the entire block and hold a block party. That put the mob out of business there for one day. We published a leaflet announcing the event in English, Spanish, and Ukrainian, reflecting the composition of the block. One day I walked into the social club with a pile of leaflets and asked them to distribute them. A few minutes later, as I looked down out my window, I saw one of their cronies toss them all into a trash can.
The police told me they supported our shutdown and themselves were against the tow-truck operation. Along with a paddy wagon of activists, I was arrested (my only arrest ever), in good company, including the local Democrat Party district leader and parents of the grade-school children, and a lesbian activist who lived in Frances’s building.
The court appearance for the dozen or so who had been arrested was a snapshot of New York. Almost everyone in the room were young black men arrested for trespassing and petty violations. Our large group was well dressed and consisted mostly of professionals. Our lawyers were Silk Stocking Republican congressman Bill Green and State Assemblyman William Passannante. The charges were dismissed, and following it we held a celebration in the grade school with them and block residents and school parents. I brought my fifteen-year-old black boyfriend.
One day the numbers woman’s boyfriend confronted me in the hallway and issued a threat: “One day they’re going to find you dead in the street and nobody will know who did it.” The reason: I had black boyfriends.
I told Frances about the threat, and she took it seriously. But owing to her long experiences in the neighborhood, she had more contacts than I did, and so arranged for a meeting with the local Mafia don. Michael Lanza, who ran an Italian restaurant on First Avenue called Lanza’s. Frances arranged for me, her, and her boyfriend to have dinner there one evening. It was a strange experience. The food was excellent, but we were the only people eating there. The waiter, a middle-aged man dressed in a black and white uniform, stood with a slightly menacing but professional demeanor about a dozen feet away waiting for us to order anything we might need. There was a steady stream of local Mafia runners coming and going into the front of the restaurant, where Mr. Lanza sat behind a waist-high barrier to transact whatever business they had.
When the dinner was over, he came over to our table, sat down next to me, and put his arm around my shoulder. “David,” he said, “I hear you’ve been having some trouble. Tell me about it.” I felt I was in a Godfather sequel. He was in his sixties or seventies, had a prominent crop of white hair, and was distinguished and polite. I told him exactly what had happened and described the man who had threatened me well enough for him to know who it was, even though I didn’t know his name. At the time, I was a fairly prominent gay activist and often appeared in newspapers and on television. I told him: “If anything happens to me, it will be news and could create problems for operations on the block. My friends are more important to me than family, and I will not give them up.”
He handed me a tiny slip of paper and asked me to write my phone number on it. “I will talk to that man and get back to you,” he said.
Meanwhile, I made sure to be seen on the street, not wanting to give the impression I was intimidated by the threat I had received.
A week later, I got a phone call. “Hi, David. Do you know who this is?” “Of course,” I said. “I recognize your voice.”
“I spoke to that man,” Mr. Lanza, said, “and you will have no more trouble. That man will be speaking with you.” I thanked him for his help.
A few days later, the man approached me on the street, with two or three of his colleagues as witnesses, and issued what was supposed to be an apology: “We hate niggers,” he said. “I’m sorry to hear that,” I shot back. “I like everybody, even Italians.” He said that I wouldn’t have any trouble from him. And that was that. From then on, whenever our paths happened to cross on the street, Mr. Lanza would yell out so everyone could hear, “Hi, David!” At the time, we banked at the same bank on Fourteenth Street and First Avenue, and I would see him depositing a bag of cash. I assumed that I would now owe him something in exchange for his help, but nothing ever came up.
I remained forever grateful to Frances for her role in this little New York drama. Later, she represented me with a book proposal I had, titled Forbidden Fruit. She got a very good publisher to agree to look at it, but I was too slow in producing copy, so the agreement lapsed.
Frances was one more determined red who helped make life better for her fellow citizens. I was honored to know her and to have collaborated with her in just one of the many struggles she led during her long, radical life.