New York Stories

Dinner at the Ragin’ Cajun Café

A Long Short Story by Altimexis

Posted June 8, 2023


It’s really amazing to think of how far I’ve come in such a short time. My name’s Asher White and I just graduated from Stuyvesant High School, one of New York City’s elite public specialty high schools. When I started there four years ago, I was a lonely fourteen-year-old boy living with my parents in a tiny apartment on New York’s Lower East Side. Although I could hardly be considered disadvantaged, my parents weren’t around much and when it came to friends, I didn’t really have any. It wasn’t that my mom and dad weren’t there for me, but they ran a very busy Asian takeout restaurant and so I was pretty much on my own. However, instead of taking advantage of all that New York had to offer, I spent most of my time in my room, reading or watching stuff on my tiny Chromebook. But then everything changed.

With nothing better to do on Halloween, I decided to go trick-or-treating one last time. Being half-black and half-Asian, with the addition of a golf bag, I looked a lot like a young Tiger Woods. Besides which, a golf bag could hold a lot of candy. I started to make my way from building to building, wing to wing and floor to floor, but then I came across a boy giving out candy who looked vaguely familiar. It turned out he too was a freshman at Stuyvesant High School, but we shared only our gym class in common and otherwise had never crossed paths. Because I’d done everything I could to avoid looking at naked and nearly naked boys in gym class, I’d truly never even known he was there. Otherwise, I’d have noticed his stunning looks for sure. Being the cautious sort of kid that I was and not wanting to be late for school, I usually took an earlier bus than he did, so we never rode the same bus.

Standing in his doorway and giving out candy for Halloween, his vivid green eyes, his curly, golden blond hair and his beautiful smile really stood out. I was captivated. He was dressed up as Captain Kirk’s son, David, one of the most obscure characters in the entire Star Trek television and movie universe. We were both big time sci-fi fans and Trek fanatics, so we got to talking and the talking led to in-depth discussions about space travel and the nature of life itself. We ended up spending the night together, talking and eating candy until his parents came home.

The boy’s name was Seth Moore and his parents had been attending the Governor’s Halloween Ball up in Albany. Seth’s dad was Frank Moore, who’s currently running for Congress, but back then he was one of the most powerful politicians in the New York State Assembly. Seth’s mom, who’s now an oncologist at the world-famous Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, was serving as Assemblyman Moore’s chief of staff.

The thing is, when I first met Seth, his too was a story of isolation and loneliness. His parents of course had to split their time between the district they represented on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and the State Capital up in Albany. Most politicians would have hired a nannie to take care of their kid while they traveled back and forth, but the Moore’s weren’t satisfied with being absentee parents. Instead, they took Seth with them as they traveled between the two cities, and he was home schooled through the eighth grade. Although he had the love of his parents, the constant traveling made it difficult to form lasting friendships, and so he retreated into his books and like me, became an avid fan of science fiction. Socially, he was just as isolated as I was.

That all changed when he was twelve and eligible to take the Specialty High School Admission Test, or SHSAT, a test given once a year to eighth and ninth graders who wished to attend one of New York’s elite public specialty high schools. Seth hadn’t even thought about taking the exam – it was his mom who suggested he take it. As she pointed out, attending a top high school could go a long way in helping him to get into a top university – maybe even Ivy League. At the age of thirteen, he could live with his Grandpa Paul on the Upper West Side and take the subway to get to school every day, whether he went to Stuyvesant, Bronx Science or Brooklyn Tech.

We didn’t learn until later that his mother was worried about how isolated her son had become. As a physician, she recognized that he’d essentially bypassed the social development of childhood. It wasn’t that Seth was shy or anything – he was precocious, but he felt more comfortable around adults than among other kids. Bypassing adolescence, however, was not an option. As difficult as the teenage years might be, they were critical to learning how to function in an adult society.

When she brought up the subject with her husband, he suggested sending Seth to a boarding school. Although Seth was perfectly capable of the rigorous academics of a place like the Phillips Exeter Academy, he’d be in with the sons of the rich and famous. On top of which, although he’d not yet come out to them, they were pretty certain their son was gay. Putting him in an environment of peer-discipline with snobbish kids who were used to getting their own way would have been like throwing him to the wolves.

However, Seth did very well indeed on the SHSAT and was one of some 700 kids who were offered a spot in the Class of 2022 at Stuyvesant High School, just as I was. Stuyvesant was considered to be the best public secondary school in New York and one of the best secondary schools in the world, public or private. Although the plan had been for Seth to live with his grandfather during the school year and take the subway downtown each day to and from school, Seth argued that by living in the family’s apartment on the Lower East Side, he could simply take the M22 bus, door to door. Seth was perfectly capable of taking care of himself at home alone, as he’d demonstrated on numerous occasions, and his grandfather would still be nearby whenever he needed him. Reluctantly, his parents agreed.

When we met, Seth’s family had recently moved from a two-bedroom apartment in Seward Park to a one-bedroom apartment in the East River Cooperative. The new apartment was on the top floor and had a phenomenal terrace with a view of most of Manhattan. Trading a bedroom for a view was something only a New Yorker could understand. It wasn’t until later that they bought the adjacent apartment and combined them into the 2,000 square foot, four-bedroom apartment where we live today. Back then, I lived with my parents in a two-bedroom apartment across the street, and Seth’s bedroom was literally shoehorned into a closet. It turned out that it wasn’t the only closet he was living in. I’d been living in the closet myself and on that fateful Halloween night, somehow we both found the courage to come out to each other, and we fell in love.

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Friday, June 24, 2022

“Do you have any idea what this is about?” I asked my husband as we walked the short distance from our co-op apartment, at the east end of Grand Street in Manhattan, to the new Essex Market, at the corner of Essex and Broome. Although I’d seen a few movies with Seth and our friends at the adjacent 14-screen Regal Theater, I’d never actually been inside the market before.

“I’ve no idea,” Seth replied, “but your dad implied it was urgent and couldn’t wait.”

“I thought maybe it had to do with reopening the Ragin’ Cajun,” I mused aloud, “but it’s been closed for two years and there’s nothing urgent about that.” The Ragin’ Cajun was a restaurant my family used to own, one of two we had before the start of the Pandemic. We still owned a small Asian takeout restaurant on Grand Street, which had been my parents’ first business after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America. Although it had been a struggle to make ends meet, it did particularly well during the pandemic. People in the neighborhood came to rely on it while other restaurants were shut down. We’d also expanded into the food cart business during the pandemic, partnering with a Middle Eastern food cart vendor who was looking for a new menu to breathe life into his struggling business.

The Ragin’ Cajun had fulfilled a dream my dad had always had to open an authentic Cajun restaurant, but it ended up being as much my restaurant as his. Just days before it was set to open, Mom was struck by a kid making a delivery on an e-bike while she crossed Grand Street. She suffered multiple orthopedic injuries and underwent numerous surgeries, but the kid on the e-bike fared far worse. After striking my mom, he veered into the path of an oncoming MTA bus. He was only fourteen. While Mom underwent six months of rehabilitation, Seth and I, with help from our friends, single-handedly got the Ragin’ Cajun up and running. Featuring my own experimental Cajun-Asian fusion recipes, we offered an all-you-can-eat buffet, a takeout buffet and an extensive à la carte menu unlike any other. Unfortunately, the restaurant was forced to close, not because of the pandemic itself, but because of a corrupt landlord and a political vendetta.

By the time New York started to reopen, school was taking up all of my time. I was a member of the Stuyvesant High School Men’s Chorus, which involved going to practice sessions, making public performances, singing in the winter and spring concerts and competing in city and state competitions. Seth was also very busy as a member of the school’s debate team. Thanks to our extracurricular activities, class projects, term papers, college applications and preparing for the advance placement exams, there was no time for us to even think about opening a restaurant again. My parents had their hands full with the Asian takeout place and the food cart business, so reopening the Ragin’ Cajun was just about the furthest thing from their minds as well.

Now, all of that was behind us. Seth and I graduated from Stuyvesant High School in a commencement ceremony held a couple of days ago. We even went together to the senior prom. I turned eighteen back in April and officially become an adult, and Seth turned seventeen a few weeks ago, but we were in the midst of final exams and had end-of-year projects due, so there wasn’t time to celebrate either birthday. Finally, we were done with high school and we had the whole summer ahead of us. Maybe now we could get serious about reopening the Ragin’ Cajun. If not now, when would we ever get the time again?

In the fall, I’d be attending the Stern Business School at New York University, considered to be among the best in the world. With my advanced placement, I’d have my MBA by the end of the fall semester of 2025, at which point I’d join my parents in the restaurant business full time. Seth would be going to Columbia University and hoped to go to law school there as well. After graduating and passing the Bar exam, he planned to follow in his father’s footsteps, going into public service. There wasn’t all that much time until Seth and I started college, but we could certainly help my parents find a new location for reopening the Ragin’ Cajun and perhaps do some of the preliminary work to get it up and running again.

Entering the Essex Market from the main entrance off of Broome Street, we immediately became aware of the hustle and bustle of the place. The facility was open and airy and infused with sunlight that streamed in through large windows in all the outer walls. The new market wasn’t at all like the old one, which was in a dilapidated, cinder block structure that felt oppressive and confining. Now, the vendor stalls were large, open and inviting, with elegant displays of every variety of food imaginable. I recognized some of the vendors from the old market, but the new space transformed them into entirely new businesses. The Essex Market would be right at home in any neighborhood on the Upper East Side or Upper West Side, or in Brooklyn Heights or Riverdale, or in the heart of the Financial District. It was decidedly high end, yet it catered to a clientele that included not only young affluent professionals, but day laborers and residents of the housing projects nearby.

Right by the entrance were an elevator and an open stairway that led up to a loft overlooking the market floor, and down to what the sign said was the Market Line, with even more shops. The ceiling sloped downward from the loft to the main floor of the market and I realized that it was the inverse image of the floor of the stadium seating in the Regal Theaters, which apparently were directly above the market. It was a very clever use of space.

“Where are we supposed to meet your parents?” Seth asked.

“We’re supposed to go upstairs and they’ll be waiting for us in something called the community kitchen,” I answered. We therefore proceeded up the stairs and followed the signs to the community kitchen.

There were many people in the loft, sitting at tables and along benches and chatting with each other as they ate food from the market vendors below. The entire east end of the loft, however, was roped off for some kind of event, with tables set with white tablecloths in a surprisingly elegant fashion. A sign directed us to proceed to the left to get to the community kitchen, and so we turned in that direction and approached a glass-enclosed space with many cooktops and ovens in evidence. How cool was that – a kitchen for general use by the community?

I opened the door and was immediately assailed by the most wonderful assortment of smells of the food cooking inside. No sooner had Seth and I stepped through the door, however, than a bunch of our friends jumped out from behind the counters and shouted, “Surprise!”

“You didn’t really think we’d let your eighteenth birthday pass without a party, now, did you?” Mom explained as Seth’s and my parents came up to greet us.

“Nor could we forget your seventeenth birthday, Seth,” Seth’s mom chimed in.

“Happy belated birthday, boys,” Seth’s Dad said, and then he added, “and congratulations to both of you on your high school graduations.”

“Shouldn’t you be out campaigning, Dad?” Seth asked his father. It was true. Frank Moore was one of several candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for a rare open seat in Congress, the result of redistricting. If elected, he would represent all of Lower Manhattan as well as a significant portion of western Brooklyn. Although not the frontrunner, Seth’s father had name recognition. Not only had he been one of the most powerful men in the State Assembly, but he and Seth had been in the House chamber, witnessing the counting of the Electoral College votes on January 6, 2021, when all hell broke loose. They’d both helped to protect the New York delegation from the insurrectionists and because of that, Frank Moore was called upon to serve as the lead council during the resulting impeachment trial.

Nevertheless, the New York primary election was just four days away and by all rights, Seth’s dad should’ve been out campaigning. However, he replied, “I’m never so busy that I can’t make an appearance at a surprise party to celebrate my sons’ graduations and birthdays.”

“Now if you’ll excuse us, we have a buffet to set up,” Dad interrupted. “You and all of your friends can wait outside in the roped-off section, and we’ll call you back in when the food’s ready.”

Our friends were already exiting the kitchen through another door and so we turned around and Seth unhooked one end of one of the ropes to let us inside the roped-off area, re-hooking it once we were inside.

“So how’s it feel to be an adult?” our friend Dave Schuster asked as he approached. He was sixteen and lived in our neighborhood, and he’d just completed his sophomore year at Stuyvesant. He was with his boyfriend, Josh Arens, who was also a student at Stuyvesant and a good friend of ours.

“Actually, you’re not legally an adult until the age of twenty-one,” Seth countered, earning a ‘yeah right’ look from our friends. “Seriously, it’s the age of majority that’s eighteen, but you’re still considered a minor until reaching twenty-one. If you don’t believe me, look it up.”

“What’s the difference anyway?” I asked.

“At the age of majority, you acquire direct control over the majority of your rights. You can enter legal contracts, make your own decisions about medical care, marry without the permission of your parents, vote and enlist in the military, but you can’t buy or consume alcohol or cannabis, buy a handgun or rent a car in most places. When it comes to sex, the age of consent is seventeen in New York and although technically, you can’t consent to sex below that age at all, cases are rarely prosecuted unless the partner is an adult, age 21 or greater, or there’s more than a four-year age difference between two minors.”

“Did I hear something about sex?” Kyle Goldstein asked as he hobbled up to us on forearm crutches. He was with his boyfriend, Francis San Angelo, affectionately known to us by his nickname, ‘Freck’. Until recently, Kyle couldn’t get around much outside the home without the use of a wheelchair. It was just over two years ago that he was savagely beaten by one of New York’s finest while attending a Black Lives Matter protest. Kyle had looked a lot older than his eleven years of age and he’d acted as brashly as any New Yorker, but even so, there was no way the police officer should have reacted as he did. Still, the police have broad discretion when it comes to countering a perceived threat, even when at the hands of a child.

When we first met Kyle and Freck, they were roughly the same height in spite of their two-year age difference. Now, Kyle was several inches taller than his boyfriend. “You would be the one to bring up sex,” Freck chided his boyfriend.

“Happy Birthday, Asher,” Robin Arens exclaimed as she approached and gave both Seth and me tight hugs. She was with her boyfriend, Larry Sanders, who was a freshman at the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, another of New York’s elite specialty high schools. He was a true music prodigy, playing the piano, violin and classical guitar with equal agility. It also turned out by coincidence that Larry lived kitty-corner to Freck in a brownstone on the Upper West Side. Robin, who was Josh’s little sister, was fifteen and a freshman at the Bronx High School of Science.

“It looks like they’ve set up a huge buffet,” Dave noted, “and I’m starving.” Inside the kitchen, we could see our parents setting up what appeared to be an impressive buffet line, with the assistance of some of my mom’s relatives. Even Seth’s grandfather and his grandfather’s boyfriend were helping out.

At long last, Dad opened the door and called out, “Come and get it!”

It had been hours since Seth and I had last eaten, so getting some of the food was definitely a priority. With so many kids wanting to congratulate Seth and me, however, getting to the buffet line was another matter. What awaited us when we finally got there was something far more upscale than what we usually served at either our Asian takeout restaurant or at the old Ragin’ Cajun – more like the kind of food you’d find in a high-end white-tablecloth, sit-down restaurant. There were whole lobster tails, petite fillets, blackened salmon, glazed sea bass, clams on the half shell, bacon-wrapped scallops, escargot, braised rack of lamb and a huge assortment of sushi. There were several kinds of rice, twice-baked potatoes, sweet potato fries, smashed potatoes with garlic and new potatoes with mushrooms, onions and peppers. There were braised carrots, creamed spinach, a broccoli and cauliflower medley, pea pods, roasted tomatoes and asparagus. My parents had extensive training in preparing all types of food, but this was the first time I’d ever seen them venture beyond their usual Cajun-Asian fare.

The spread of food was truly amazing; I didn’t know where to begin. The seafood chowder smelled heavenly and of course I had to take a bowlful, even though it was probably enough for a meal by itself. Naturally, I took a lobster tail and a blackened salmon fillet, and although I rarely ate red meat, I had to try a medium-rare petite filet. I filled another plate with an assortment of sushi and rounded off the first course with clams, escargot and a variety of vegetables.

Seth grabbed a similar assortment of food but as we started to look for a table where a bunch of us could sit together, Seth spotted a couple of boys I didn’t recognize and headed straight for their table. The boys appeared to be brothers, with one of them being maybe fifteen or sixteen and the other one being barely into his teens. They were both strikingly handsome boys with unruly mops of brown hair that suited their looks perfectly.

“Hey, Zach, do you mind if we sit here?” Seth asked as we approached.

“Of course you can sit here,” the older boy responded as Seth unloaded his tray onto the table and I did likewise. Freck and Kyle joined us with Freck carrying both his tray and his boyfriend’s. Kyle rested his crutches against his chair and unloaded the contents of both their trays onto the table.

Once we were all seated, Seth said, “Zach, this is my husband, Asher. I guess this party’s supposed to be for us, ’cause of our recent birthdays and graduations, but several of our friends just graduated too.” Then turning to me, he explained, “Zach is on the debate team for Brooklyn Tech. He was by far the best debater we faced last year, so I recruited him to help with Dad’s campaign.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Asher,” Zach responded, and then added, “By the way, this is my brother, Jake. He’s been itching to check out the Essex Market since it reopened. I would’ve brought my boyfriend, but he had a family thing goin’ on, so I asked Jake if he’d like to come. It was also a chance to check out the new Jurassic World movie. My boyfriend decided to pass on it and in retrospect, wisely so.”

“The special effects were cool,” Jake interjected, “even if the science wasn’t exactly kosher.”

“Shall we say the plot was as thin as cheesecloth,” Zach agreed with a laugh. “It was the first movie we’ve seen since the pandemic started, and a rare chance to see a movie in 3D."

“It’s nice to meet both of you you,” I replied. “My parents still have a 3D-capable 55-inch plasma TV – if you can find a 3D Blu-ray disc to play on it.”

“Most 3D movies are still being sold on 3D Blu-ray discs,” Freck responded. “There’s a much better selection in Europe, though, but you can always buy them from Amazon UK and have them shipped here. You just hafta be sure the discs are region-free; otherwise they won’t play in an American player.”

“By the way, these are our best friends, Kyle and Freck,” I interrupted.

“Freck is just a nickname, isn’t it?” Zach asked. “My boyfriend has red hair like yours and even more freckles than you do.”

Laughing, Freck replied, “My formal name’s Francis Lynn San Angelo, which I used to hate, particularly when I started to realize I was gay, ’cause both of my given names are girl’s names. My father’s name was Frank, which was what my parents wanted to call me, but he was a real bastard. I wanted nothing to do with being called by that name, so I chose to go by Freck. Of course the bullies called me Freak but they were all losers, and I never let what they called me bother me anyway.”

Dave and Larry proceeded to pull up an adjacent table, turning our table for six into a table for ten. They were joined by Clarke and Carl. I introduced each of them as they joined us.

“Freck, was your father the Frank San Angelo?” Zach asked. How he made the connection, I wasn’t sure, but then he added, “I saw you on TV.”

“Yes, he was my dad, for what that was worth,” Freck answered. “He never gave two shakes about his kids. To him, we were nothing more than trophy kids – ornaments to show off with his famous, beautiful wife, his penthouse apartment in Battery Park City and his Bentley.”

“For what it’s worth, he did come through with a large donation to the American Museum of Natural History,” Seth pointed out. “That grant is what allowed my grandpa to get back together with his long lost boyfriend.”

“Your grandfather’s gay?” Zach asked in surprise.

“My grandfather is Paul Moore, the head of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History and the director of the Hayden Planetarium. His boyfriend is Jeff Franklin, a Nobel laureate who used to be the chair of astrophysics at UCLA. Actually, they’re both here today and I’ll introduce you if we have the chance. The two of them met as teenagers in a summer youth program at the University of Iowa, but then they went their separate ways, getting married and having kids of their own. It was some fifty years after they met in Iowa that they were reunited in New York. In the meantime, my grandmother died from MS and Dr. Franklin lost his wife to cancer.”

“Three years ago, Dr. Franklin gave a lecture at Stuyvesant,” I continued the story. “Afterwards, Seth and I went up to him to ask questions. I guess we musta given him heart failure, ’cause Seth looks just like his grandfather did as a teenager.”

“He asked me if I was related to him,” Seth went on, “and the rest, as they say, is history. Anyway, thanks to a grant from Frank San Angelo that established an endowed chair at AMNH, Jeff Franklin was able to move to New York, and he moved in with my grandpa. They used the money Dr. Franklin got for his house in L.A. to renovate their apartment on the Upper West Side. It has a really cool retro look, but it’s thoroughly modern. Freck did all the architectural work for the renovations —”

“Whadaya mean Freck did the architectural work?”

“I’m gonna be an architect who specializes in sustainable design,” Freck explained. “It’s my passion. Already, I have a full set of professional software on my iMac Pro.”

“Wow, that’s really cool.” Then after a noticeable pause, Zach asked, “There’s a rumor that your father died from a cocaine overdose and that the story of his dying from Covid was all a cover-up. My parents are Emergency physicians, and they hear things.”

“Although he was found with lines of Coke set up at his side,” Freck explained, “there wasn’t any cocaine in his system. His lungs were full of fluid from coronavirus pneumonia, so he really did die from Covid-19. Like with a lot of the younger victims, he didn’t even know he was sick. I’ve always been surprised that his history of drug use didn’t come out and I always figured whoever supplied it was someone with ties to people high up in public office. In any case, it doesn’t really matter now. What matters is that his billions are being used to support a cause he detested – climate justice. As far as he’d been concerned, climate change was somebody else’s problem. Now, I can help make amends for that, just as my mom’s doing with helping to end homelessness.”

“I think you mentioned she’s famous — Is she someone we’d know?”

“My mom’s Sophia Lawrence.”

“The fashion designer?”

“Actually, her own designs make up only a small part of what she sells,” Freck explained. “As with most of the major fashion labels, her real talent lies in identifying the top designers from around the world and assembling their work into a coherent fashion collection.”

“My mother spent a fortune on one of her dresses and the matching accessories, just to attend a fundraising ball for the hospital where she works,” Zach exclaimed. “She spent more on the dress, I think, than on the event itself, but it was one of those affairs that all the physician faculty were expected to attend. At least Dad could get away with renting a tux. I’m really impressed by your mom’s philanthropy, though. Not many people in her line of work give a fuck about the homeless.”

“She’s made my sisters and me proud,” Freck agreed.

“Do you two go to Stuyvesant with Seth and Asher?” Jake asked and both Freck and Kyle nodded in the affirmative. “Pardon me if I’m off base, but you guys look like freshman, so how did you become friends with them?”

Laughing, I responded, “Freck and Kyle are actually two years ahead of us and they coulda graduated in 2020. They’re very young and even at MIT, they’d’ve never been taken seriously by the other students, so they decided to take another two years of college-level courses through Stuyvesant’s affiliation with the High School for Math, Science and Engineering, up on the City College campus. That turned out to be just as well, ’cause of Covid, and then Kyle found himself at the wrong end of a police baton during a Black Lives Matter protest and ended up spending a year in rehab. He kept up with his schoolwork, though, and so they both graduated along with Seth and me. Next year, Ky will be studying astrophysics and Freck will be in the combined architecture and civil engineering program at MIT, where they’ll both be juniors.”

“Good god, how old are you two?” Zach asked.

“I’m thirteen and Freck’s fifteen, and we’ve been boyfriends since we were nine and eleven. You gotta problem with that?” Kyle responded in his usual brash manner.

“Hardly… that’s fuckin’ awesome!”

“As to how we became friends with Asher and Seth,” Kyle went on, “my brother, Roger, who’s around here somewhere, also just graduated from Stuyvesant. He’ll be going to Yale next year to study photography. Anyway, three and a half years ago, Asher and Seth invited Roger and me to celebrate Thanksgiving with them. Our father was having trouble accepting an out and proud nine-year-old and he expected me to pretend to be something I’m not while visiting relatives in California for the holiday. Turns out it was our dad who was having trouble accepting his own sexuality, but that’s another story. Now, we have two dads.

“I was in Ashe and Seth’s gym class and they got the two of us together,” Freck explained.

“Really!” Zach exclaimed. “I met my boyfriend in gym class too.” The intense crimson color of his face and his brother’s snicker said a lot about how they must have met.

“I’d planned to go to the Bronx High School of Science,” Kyle continued, “’cause they’ve graduated eight Nobel laureates, more than any other secondary school in the world and twice as many as Stuyvesant. But once I met Freck, nothing else mattered. He’s the first kid who ever got me, and vice versa. The amazing thing was that Asher and Seth treated us like their peers in spite of our young age. No one else did that. That’s why they’re our best friends.”

“Did I hear something about being on the wrong end of a police baton?” Jake asked.

“It’s definitely not something I’d recommend, not that I remember any of it,” Kyle answered with his usual sarcasm. “We all were attending a Black Lives Matter protest the week after George Floyd was killed, but we got separated from our friends. Seth sent a text for us to meet up at the bus stop on Fourteenth Street, but the buses couldn’t get through and were being diverted. A few minutes later, Seth sent a text to meet in front of Cooper Union. What we didn’t know was that a crowd of protesters from Brooklyn had swept across the Manhattan Bridge and was headed our way, right up Bowery. As a precaution, the police decided to empty Washington and Union Squares, based on some theory that well-meaning protestors inadvertently enable those intent on violence. After all, it’s so much easier to go after peaceful protestors than to arrest those who are actually responsible for causing mayhem.”

“Ashe and I got caught up in it and ended up spending the night in lockup,” Seth interjected.

“So we were squeezed between a rock and a hard place,” Freck continued the story. “We were determined to meet up with our friends and Ky wasn’t about to let a line of police in riot gear stand in our way. We think the officer who assaulted Kyle meant only to knock away his outstretched arm, but Kyle got shoved sideways at the last moment and the blow landed solidly on the side of his head.”

“You’re lucky it didn’t kill you,” Zach interrupted. “It coulda torn an artery, and those situations are almost always fatal.” When we all looked at Zach as if he’d grown a pair of antlers, he went on to explain. “My parents are both ER docs. They work at Wyckoff Heights Medical Center. It’s a small community hospital on the border between Brooklyn and Queens. It’s affiliated with the Columbia-Cornell hospital system. They’ve told me about cases like yours.”

“It very nearly did kill me, ’cause that’s exactly what happened,” Kyle responded. “The blow was to the left side of my skull and it tore the middle meningeal artery, causing an epidural hematoma.” I could tell from the look on Jake’s and Zach’s faces that they weren’t expecting such words from a thirteen-year-old. “Had it not been for the quick action of the paramedics at the scene and for my getting to surgery so quickly, the pressure inside my skull would’ve forced my brain through the foramen magnum, like squeezing’ on a tube of toothpaste. ’Course, I was unconscious and didn’t know what had happened until weeks later, when I came out of coma.”

“The good news is that it didn’t affect his cognition, and it only affected his speech for a few weeks, but it did a number on his motor function,” Freck went on. “It’s been more than two years since it happened, but until recently, Kyle could only get around in a wheelchair. He ended up moving in with me, my mom and my two sisters, into our brownstone on the Upper West Side. One of the first owners had a daughter with a disability, and he put in an elevator so she’d have full access to all floors. More recently, the house was owned by a quadriplegic attorney who made the place fully accessible.”

“It’s a lot easier, now that I can get around on crutches,” Kyle added.

“I’d just assumed you had a sprained ankle or something like that,” said Zach. “I had no idea what you’d been through.”

“I’m just glad he came out of it okay,” Freck responded. “Not that I wouldn’t have still loved him regardless, but it woulda been tragic if anything more serious had happened to him.”

“Larry, I believe I overheard something about you and your girlfriend going to Bronx Science? So, how did you guys meet Asher and Seth?” Zach asked.

“Actually, I go to LaGuardia. It’s Robin who goes to Bronx Science. We met in middle school at the Salk School of Science. She and Dave live in the same neighborhood as Asher and Seth, and I met them at her thirteenth birthday party.”

“Which is also how I met my boyfriend,” Josh interrupted. “You might have missed it, but Robin’s my sister, the youngest of three.”

“My older sister, Sarah, just finished her freshman year upstate, at Vassar, and Stacy just graduated from LaGuardia,” Robin added. “I’m sure she musta stood out, ’cause she always has vividly colored hair, has a nose ring and wears punk clothing.”

“That would describe a significant number of the girls at LaGuardia, and some of the guys, too,” Larry responded with a laugh. “Of course, being in different grade levels and different programs, we never crossed paths.”

“She was in the graphic arts program and in the fall, she’ll be a freshman at the Rhode Island School of Design,” Robin added.

“That’s epic, man,” Zach interjected. “That’s one of the top graphic arts schools in the world.”

“She’s already published two graphic novels and both are selling well,” Robin continued. “Anyway, Dave and I both rode the bus together to Salk, which is how we became best friends.”

“At first I was a bit jealous of Dave, but then I found he wasn’t interested in girls,” Larry added.

“What Larry didn’t tell you is that his parents are world famous,” Freck interjected as Larry blushed furiously. Freck went on to name Larry’s mother, who was a well-known soprano, and his father, who’s one of the top conductors. “With my love of opera and with my mom separating from my dad and moving into a brownstone on the next block, I spent nearly as much time at Larry’s place as Robin did. The only difference is that I never spent the night.” With that, Larry’s blush deepened to a fire-engine red as he covered his face with his hands.

“Carl, isn’t it?” Jake asked. “You look incredibly familiar. Unlike my brother, I’m a bit of a sports fanatic. As tall as you are, I’d say you’re a basketball player, but I don’t pay much attention to high school sports.”

“That’s ’cause he’s a freshman at Seton Hall, where he’s a star forward —”

“Of course!” Jake exclaimed. “I’ve seen you play on TV. You’re really good.” Then looking at Clarke, he asked, “Are you a student at Seton Hall, too? Is that how you guys met?”

Laughing, Clarke responded, “Actually, I just graduated from Stuyvesant along with these guys. The way Carl and I met was when I got suspended for beating Asher up —”

“What?” Jake exclaimed.

“My father was a racist, homophobic bully who expected me to be the same. Asher and I were paired up for wrestling in gym class during our freshman year. He was out and proud, and I’m embarrassed to say that his skin color also was a factor. I was furious when Asher beat me at wrestling and so I called him a faggot. When he said, ‘So’s your daddy,’ I just snapped and punched him out.” Then with a laugh, Clarke added, “Turned out my dad really was gay. How ironic. Anyway, Carl was working as an assistant in the office when I was brought in, and it was pretty much love at first sight.”

“Clarke won the Stonewall Foundation’s essay contest with his essay on bullying, and he’s been volunteering for them ever since,” I added.

“Wow! So are you gonna join your boyfriend at Seton Hall next year?” Zach asked.

Shaking his head, Clarke answered, “My brother just graduated from Columbia Law and he’s already got a job lined up with one of the most prestigious environmental law firms in the country. ’Course he’ll be starting as an associate and working for peanuts, like every aspiring attorney does. With his help and my grades, I got a full scholarship to Columbia, but I’ll still live at home. Seth and I will both start there in the fall, in pre-law,” he added with a nod in my husband’s direction. “When my parents went to prison for bribery and racketeering, we hired Carl’s mom to take care of the household. Naturally, Carl moved in with us.”

Blushing furiously, Carl explained, “Mom was a single parent who had me when she was still in middle school. Her boyfriend was a victim of gang violence and we lived in the projects up in Harlem, so she never went beyond high school, but at least she did graduate. Then we got a Section 8 apartment in the Two Bridges neighborhood, which was way nicer than where she grew up, and safer ’cause it’s right by police headquarters.”

“Carl’s mother’s more of a mom to me than my own mother ever was,” Clarke interjected. “My parents were educated; yet they used their education to crawl down into the muck, literally. Dad rose through the Department of Sanitation and became a union leader, throwing his support behind a dark-horse candidate for mayor he knew could win. Imagine, a racist closeted homophobic Irish Catholic Republican from Staten Island, supporting a far-left white Brooklyn Democrat with a black wife. Mom and Dad were rewarded with plum positions but even so, it wasn’t enough for them, so they resorted to bribery, extortion and taking kickbacks. I put up with hell from my father and still have the scars on my back to prove it, but by the time my parents get out of prison, Carl and I’ll be married with children of our own.

“I wanted Carl to go wherever he found the best opportunity for his education and for basketball, be it U. Penn, UCLA or Duke, and he got offers from all of those and more. He wants to be a lawyer, so going to a top university was essential. I’m just glad he chose Seton Hall ’cause it means we can still be together even though we’ll be at different universities.”

“It was an easy choice,” Carl chimed in. “Seton Hall’s one of the top Catholic Universities in the world and a degree from there is considered second to none when it comes to pre-law. They happen to have one of the best Division-one basketball programs in the NCAA too. They came through with a full-ride scholarship and even threw in a car, so I can still live with Clarke on Staten Island and commute into New Jersey. Besides which, I’d’ve been miserable without Clarke.”

“You guys are quite a group of friends,” Zach responded. “Everyone here goes or went to Stuyvesant, Bronx Science or LaGuardia. Like Seth said, I go to Brooklyn Tech, and Jake goes to the Baccalaureate School for Global Education, which is ranked third of all public middle schools in New York. Tech was my third choice, actually, after HSMSE and Bronx Science, but I’m not complaining. Had it not been for going to Tech, I’d have never met my boyfriend.”

“Unfortunately, I was in the lottery, which is the reason I’m at LaGuardia instead of Bronx Science,” Larry interrupted. “They didn’t even have the specialty high school admission test in 2020. I may have talent as a musician, but what I want to do with my life is to be a medical scientist. Thank God that at least Robin got in.”

“The problem with the SHSAT is that it only looks at one kind of academic performance without regard to your background,” I argued. “There were only seven of us ‘persons of color’ in Stuyvesant’s graduating class this year – that’s not even ten percent. What good is goin’ to an elite high school if the student population doesn’t reflect our diverse society?”

“The Supreme Court would probably disagree with you,” Carl commented.

“It’s likely the Supreme Court will strike down affirmative action this term or next,” Seth added. “However, the lottery system got around affirmative action by eliminating race as an issue entirely.”

“Which left a hell of a lot of super-qualified kids who didn’t get in,” Larry countered.

“That might have been true, even under the old system,” I stated. “Studies have shown that standardized tests aren’t a reliable indicator of the ability to succeed. That’s why schools like Stanford have made the SAT optional.” Sighing, I added, “It’s gonna take a lot more than a lottery to make a dent in minority enrollment.”

“Freck and I might not have been able to get into Stuyvesant under the lottery system,” Kyle interjected. “Priority was given to existing public middle schoolers. That would’ve left me out, ’cause I was a nine-year-old sixth-grader in a private K-through-8 school, and Freck was ten and privately tutored —”

“You were?” I interrupted. “You never told us about that.”

Sighing, Freck explained, “My parents would’ve sent me to a boarding school if they could’ve, but not even the best of them were willing to take a kid like me. I was too young to room with kids in my grade, yet too advanced to room with kids my age. My sisters had it much better, ’cause they went to a private Montessori school. I guess my parents never realized just how smart they are, but they ended up starting at Stuyvesant at ten, just as I did.”

“I was in Catholic schools,” Clarke added. “It would’ve been a fuckin’ disaster if I hadn’t gotten into Stuyvesant. The nuns would’ve kept looking the other way and Dad would’ve gotten away with abusing me until I went away to college.”

“And I was home schooled,” Seth added. “I don’t know what would’ve happened under the lottery, but I’d’ve probably been left out entirely. The bottom line is that by the time you get to high school, it’s too late to address racial disparities in education.”

“And fixing that will take a hell of a lot more than money,” Freck added.

“But Seth’s gonna try,” I interjected. “Just like his dad, he’s gonna go into politics and maybe even be the mayor someday.”

“And I’ll undoubtedly be blamed for the continued disparities in the New York City public schools,” Seth quipped.

“Did I hear you correctly when I heard you refer to each other as husbands?” Jake asked Seth and me. “You guys look way too young to be married.”

“You can marry at sixteen with the permission of your parents, and as young as fourteen with a court order,” I explained. “Not that we didn’t love each other and know we wanted to get married someday, but we did it to protect our assets. When Seth’s dad was indicted by the Feds on trumped-up corruption charges —”

“Wait a minute… is Frank Moore your father, Seth?” Zach interrupted. “I just assumed he was here, looking for votes ahead of Tuesday’s primary.”

“You didn’t know?” Clarke asked. “Shit, Seth’s dad kept us from going to war with Iran. He’s the one who leaked the story about what really happened during the Air Traffic Control disaster to the Times. Needless to say, the former president wasn’t pleased. The corruption charges were totally bogus. It was all retribution, man.”

“Politics is a dirty business and particularly so in Albany; hence it didn’t take much digging to find enough dirt to charge my dad with corruption and insider trading,” Seth explained. “However, it turned out that Justice had cherry-picked their data and the high-power attorney we hired was able to prove it – after we spent over a million bucks on him.”

Jake whistled on hearing that.

“The judge, an appointee of the former president, no less, threw the whole case out,” I added. “It was either that, or act on our attorney’s motion alleging prosecutorial misconduct.”

“Which wouldn’t have been the best move for a newly-appointed judge at the start of his career,” Carl added.

Sighing, Seth related, “It wasn’t in time to save my dad’s seat in the Assembly, but there was a silver lining, if you ignore the fact that our lives were in danger, Dad and I were in the House chamber on January 6.”

“Holy shit!,” Zach exclaimed. “You guys were heroes.”

“Which is what put him in position to run for Congress,” I added. “However, our restaurants ended up as collateral damage. Instead of protecting our assets, marriage actually put my entire family’s businesses at risk. That’s why the Ragin’ Cajun closed, and we nearly lost our takeout restaurant on Grand Street too.”

“Not to change the subject,” Kyle asked, “but is that a Star of David gay pride pendant you’re wearing, Zach?”

A Star of David Rainbow Glass Pendant

Taking his pendant out from his shirt and pulling it over his head, Zach handed it to Freck and explained, “My dad had this made for his best friend’s seventeenth birthday. He didn’t even know his friend was gay until he got AIDS. Unfortunately, he died before the pendant was ready. His own family rejected him and Dad was the only one with him when he died.

“Dad kept it all these years, and when he realized I was gay, he gave it to me for my fifteenth birthday. It was his way of tellin’ me he knew, and that he not only accepted me but wanted me to be out and proud. Had it not been for that, my boyfriend and I might have never gotten together. We’d kinda been sneaking looks at each other since school started, but I know I woulda never gotten the courage to come out to him, had it not been for the pendant. Even then, I kept it hidden under my t-shirt, but we shared gym class. His dad was the teacher! So when we dressed out for gym, he noticed the pendant. It turned out we’d both been crushing on each other and once we knew we were both gay, it didn’t take long for us to fall in love.”

Taking the pendant from Freck as he passed it around, I couldn’t help but admire it. It was made of brilliant gold with a Star of David and in the center, the Hebrew word ‘Chai’, which means ‘Life’. The pendant was inlaid with an iridescent glass that glowed with the rainbow colors of gay pride and it was stunningly beautiful. Turning the pendant over, it was inscribed with a poignant expression of Zach’s dad’s love for his best friend. “This is beautiful – it musta cost a fortune.”

Shrugging his shoulders, Zach said, “I was gonna give it to my boyfriend for his sixteenth birthday and Valentine’s Day, but then I realized it wasn’t really mine to give, so I found someone on Etsy to make a duplicate. It turned out my dad paid almost as much as I did, and $500 was worth a hell of a lot more back in the 1980s.” Jesus, the kid had money if he thought $500 wasn’t that much.

“That’s quite a legacy,” I said as I handed the pendant to Seth. “Do you guys live around here?”

Shaking his head, Zach replied, “My parents bought a century-old house in Greenpoint, back when the area was a dump, and fixed it up. Now, it’s worth something like four million, but it’s a tiny house on something like only a thousand-square-feet of land, sandwiched in-between a couple of apartment buildings.”

“It’s a semi-detached house with four floors, three bedrooms plus a small below-ground apartment,” Jake interrupted. “It has 2,200 square feet, two rooftop terraces and a private garden. It only looks small because It’s very narrow and flanked by large apartment buildings. We’re not crying poverty.”

“We’re not rich either,” Zach countered. “I know you probably think all doctors are rich, but my folks are still paying off their student loans. They could never afford to buy our house today.”

Laughing, Jake responded, “My brother thinks that $4k a month for his and my incidental expenses is living in poverty —”

“But we hafta save half of that for college. We hafta buy our clothes outta that. And just about everything else.”

“But it’s not like you have car expenses or are even saving money to buy a car. Our school Metro FareCards are free, as are our school breakfasts and lunches. Our parents pay for all our food at home, and for all of our dress clothes.”

“But New York’s expensive! A couple can qualify for a reduced-rent apartment, even if they make $180k per year!” The way they bantered back and forth, it was obvious the brothers were very close. It was at times like these that I wished I wasn’t an only child.

“My dad used to hear a lot about what’s really affordable when he was in the State Assembly,” Seth interjected. “He still does. Those subsidized apartments are in high-end luxury buildings, with a so-called ‘poor door’ for those who don’t pay market rate and aren’t entitled to things like a doorman or use of the health club. In case you haven’t noticed, eighty-story luxury buildings are cropping up all along the waterfront on both sides of the East River and along the Hudson. They’re building luxury high-rise apartments on top of transit hubs like this one, and in Jamaica, Queens. Building affordable apartments is the least the developers could do, but they’re still priced well beyond the means of those that need them most.

“Because of all the housing projects in the zip code where Ashe and I live, the median household income’s only $36,000 a year, which is a thousand less per month than what you and your brother get for incidentals. Yes, some of the people in the projects are on welfare and nearly all of them qualify for Medicaid and food stamps, but contrary to popular belief, the majority of them are working poor. The minimum wage is $30k per year, which is more than double the Federal minimum, but you still can’t live on that in New York.”

“I didn’t say I’m complaining,” Zach interrupted.

“No profession requires as much training, nor the commitment in time and in dealing with life-and-death situations that physicians face on a daily basis, especially in the era of things like Covid,” Seth countered. “Can you imagine what it was like taking care of the first cases, knowing you were at risk of getting it too? Believe me, I know. My mom’s an oncologist. I don’t begrudge physicians any of what they earn – it’s combat pay. A kid with an MBA can make a lot more money working on Wall Street, and at a much younger age. For that matter, a union stage manager on Broadway can make nearly as much without even having a college degree. Or you can become a high-priced lawyer and make a million dollars on a single case. When you’re in politics like my dad is, however, you can never lose sight of the fact that most of your constituents will never have the means to earn anything like what you take for granted.”

“There are many ways to look at wealth,” Freck responded. “I had more toys and gadgets than most kids could have dreamed of, yet I barely ever saw my parents and ended up smoking a lot of pot. Then one day, I got so high that I actually thought I could fly. It was only thanks to someone happening by that I didn’t take a leap off the top of the Battery Tunnel parking garage. The scary part is that I was only eleven and I didn’t even care if I could fly or not.”

“Fuck,” Jake said, just under his breath.

“My parents took out a ton of loans to get started in the restaurant business, and it was a struggle to make ends meet,” I admitted. “We didn’t really have much until after I met Seth. Like Freck, my parents were never around, but I had their love and I knew I could count on them, no matter what.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you, Asher, but I guess your dad’s black and your mom’s Asian?” Zach asked.

“Dad’s actually Creole and has a completely different heritage from African Americans,” I explained, “and Mom’s Chinese American, born and raised right here, in Queens.”

“How in the world did they ever get together, and how did a kid like you end up running his own restaurant,” Zach asked.

I answered, “It’s a long story about a Cajun boy and a Chinese American girl who had their own ideas about how they wanted to live their lives…”

<> <> <>

My dad grew up in New Orleans, the son of a proud black Creole restauranteur whose wife died in childbirth. Literally raised inside a restaurant, Gary White was born to be a chef and he dreamed of opening his own restaurant someday. To be a Cajun chef in ‘The Big Easy’, however, meant either catering to local or tourists’ tastes, and even the best chefs had to work within those expectations. Worse still was the rigid Catholic upbringing that was so at odds with how he felt. He wanted to live his own life and to try his own way of cooking Cajun cuisine.

To that end, he decided to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Located just outside of the city of Poughkeepsie, it was about a two-hour ride on a Metro North commuter train from Grand Central Terminal in Midtown Manhattan. Hyde Park was also the location of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Home, Museum and Presidential Library. Dad readily embraced the more progressive attitudes of the people that lived in Upstate New York, where even the Republicans were left of center.

My mom grew up in the large Chinese American community that dominates Flushing, New York. Located in the borough of Queens, it was substantially larger than the better-known, tourist-oriented Chinatown in Lower Manhattan. A branch of her extended family owned a highly-regarded Chinese restaurant in the part of Chinatown that had expanded into the Lower East Side. Because she could get there on her own by subway, she started working there when she was only twelve. Although technically not eligible for a work permit until she was fourteen, she was paid under the table and could easily switch to doing her homework if inspectors showed up. She loved working in the kitchen and in time learned how to make everything on the menu, but she always felt something was missing from the old family recipes.

It wasn’t that nothing was written down or that it took time and skill to learn how much of this and how much of that made for the best taste. No, by the time she finished high school, she could cook anything they served from scratch. It wasn’t that she didn’t understand how each ingredient gave a dish its own unique flavor, but she couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if she experimented a little bit or improvised. What would happen if she made use of ingredients that were fresh from the market, but not typical in Asian cuisine? Could she do that? Was it allowed? She tried it once, making grilled eggplant with garlic sauce, but her aunt threw it out without even tasting it. Only later did she find that there were recipes for such things on the internet. She too decided to go to the Culinary Institute of America, wanting to learn to be more than just another Chinese chef.

Sadly, neither of my parents felt at home on the CIA campus. Although there were a number of African Americans, Dad was Creole and he resented being lumped in with kids who had nothing in common with him. The history of the Cajun-Creole people was a complex one involving Acadians and Quebecois, indigenous tribes and Dominican refugees and their African slaves. They were infused with elements of French culture brought down the Mississippi River from the French colonies of the north as well as Spanish culture, from the period when Louisiana was a part of New Spain. Slaves, indentured servants and freed Creole of color often worked side-by-side in the fields and even the enslaved blacks were better educated than their counterparts in the British colonies. The Creole spoke the Creole language, which was a mixture of French and native American dialects, and they were Catholic. Further, the blend of native American foods specific to the region with French and Spanish influences resulted in a unique cuisine that was unlike any other.

Likewise, Mom found herself to be one of the few Asian students on campus, and of the others, a significant number were the adopted children of white parents who knew nothing about Asian culture or cuisine. Both of my parents quickly discovered they already knew far more about the cuisines of their heritage than their instructors did, and yet they kept an open mind as they learned about the preparation of a wide variety of different types of food with which they had little or no experience. Dad was shocked to discover that shellfish that were essential ingredients to his cooking could be prepared in markedly different ways that gave them a completely different flavor. Mom was stunned by how different Thai, Vietnamese and Cambodian cooking were from each other, and even more so when she discovered there were regional differences in Chinese food that were never even talked about in her family’s kitchen.

The coursework involved far more than food preparation. Not only did they learn the ins and outs of how to run a restaurant, but they gained valuable experience in every possible role, from bussing tables to serving patrons in a real restaurant setting. The campus included working restaurants and the locals had long taken advantage of the opportunity to enjoy gourmet meals at less than gourmet prices. My parents learned every aspect of opening a new restaurant, from obtaining building permits to handling surprise inspections, and even how to handle requests for bribes. They learned about hiring and firing employees, and the ins and outs of filing payroll, partnership and corporate tax forms. They covered seemingly esoteric subjects, like dealing with labor unions, responding to episodes of food poisoning and what to do when hit with a law suit. Because half of all restaurants fail within the first year and a large majority within the first five years, they studied the various types of bankruptcy and how to protect one’s personal assets from their business assets.

Naturally, not all of their time was spent in the classroom or the kitchen, and so my parents found themselves with a lot of free time on their hands, yet they had nothing in common with the other students. Mom felt particularly isolated, as she didn’t even have a car but lived in a city that pretty much required one. At least there was a shuttle that made a regular circuit of the CIA, Duchess Community College, Marist College, downtown Poughkeepsie and the Poughkeepsie commuter train station. From there, she could take a Metro North Hudson Line train to Grand Central Terminal, and then a 7 Train to Flushing, but that was a four-hour trip each way. That was definitely not a trip she could handle more than a few times in a school year.

Dad had a car, but the last thing he wanted was to drive to a restaurant to eat alone or to a theater to watch a movie alone. It wasn’t like there was a lot to do in Poughkeepsie either. There was a children’s museum and there were big box stores, shopping arcades and malls. About the most exciting thing to do was to hike along the Hudson, walk across the footbridge over the Hudson or explore the many parks in the area. The only problem with that was that when he walked alone, most of the people he encountered were white and clearly suspicious of him. It didn’t take him long to realize that it probably wasn’t safe for him to go walking alone, especially at night.

Exactly how my mom and dad ended up dating each other remains a bit of a mystery to me. They each have their own stories of how it happened, but elements have changed over the years and there are many contradictions. I’ve always gotten the impression that they’re leaving a hell of a lot out, and as much as I don’t want to think of my parents having sex, I’m sure that sex had something to do with it. That, plus the fact that my dad had wheels and my mom didn’t, and they were both terribly lonely. Suffice to say, they spent nearly the entire four years they were at the CIA dating, both of them fearing the rejection they’d get from their families if they actually got married. Once they graduated, however, they both knew they wanted to open a restaurant and to spend their lives together. Sadly, Dad’s father hasn’t spoken to his son ever since my parents announced their engagement. Mom’s family wasn’t thrilled with the marriage either, but they remained cordial, although distant.

There never was any question that they’d open their restaurant in New York City. Given the strain in their relationship, however, Mom didn’t think it would be wise to open a restaurant in Flushing, where she grew up. That was a mostly Asian community and they’d almost certainly shun her because she’d married a black man. Dad’s dream had always been to open a Cajun restaurant, but they’d be facing stiff competition, both at the high end and the low end. It was Mom who had the crazy idea of opening a Chinese restaurant on the Lower East Side. Whereas her family’s restaurant served a very traditional menu to a mostly Asian clientele, further to the east were much more diverse neighborhoods with an appetite for Chinese food but a dearth of Asian restaurants. By taking what they’d learned at the CIA, my parents could serve up a much more inventive menu than typically found nearby in Chinatown, catering to a variety of American immigrant tastes.

Without the support of their families, raising the funds to start a restaurant was an enormous undertaking. Although Mom’s family wasn’t supportive, she was able to use her family’s connections to secure a business loan through one of the smaller Chinatown banks. Further, by buying an apartment in the East River Cooperative, they were able to rent retail space in the co-op at the insider’s rate. They bought the smallest, least expensive two-bedroom unit they could find, but even that cost nearly a half-million dollars. It was a ninth-floor interior unit with a partial view of the East River and the Empire State Building, and it needed a ton of work. They secured the mortgage with a $100,000 under-the-table cash loan and with Mom’s father’s co-signature.

The co-op had an empty storefront on the next block that was far too small to use as a restaurant, but they signed a lease for it anyway and bought a bunch of used restaurant equipment in Chinatown. Because of the small size of the space, they designed it as a takeout restaurant with a counter for ordering and picking up food, and with a few tables for people who just wanted to grab a quick bite. It was tough going at first, but the news of the restaurant’s exceptional food quickly spread around the neighborhood by word of mouth.

Over the next several years, they were able to repay their loans, renovate their apartment and start a family. Growing up, I spent as much time in the restaurant as at home and I started learning how to cook from the time I could safely reach the burners. At the restaurant, I learned how to cook all of the Asian dishes we served and at home, where Dad did all the cooking, I learned the ins and outs of Cajun cooking. By the time I entered my teens, I was cooking most of my own meals and began to experiment with combining elements of Cajun and Asian cooking. And then I met Seth.

In the early days of our relationship, when Seth suggested that his father could help my dad to realize his dream of opening his own Cajun restaurant, I pointed out the potential for scandal that could result if it became known that the assemblyman had used his political influence to help out his son’s boyfriend’s father. On top of that, I was justifiably concerned that by opening a second restaurant, we’d be putting our Asian takeout restaurant at risk. However, Seth’s dad knew of a landlord who’d recently had to evict a bankrupt tenant. As a result, the landlord had a fully furnished, empty restaurant that he was willing to lease at an exceptional rate, equipment included. Dad was able to negotiate a five-year lease that seemed to be too good to be true – and it was. We didn’t find out until after the Feds seized the building that, buried in the legalese, was a twenty-year noncompete clause that locked us into paying whatever rent the landlord wanted to charge.

Opening a new Cajun restaurant was a bit of a risky proposition, as there were several Cajun restaurants nearby, serving everything from fast food to elegant cuisine, and the higher end ones all had raw bars. It was my idea to offer an all-you-can-eat Cajun buffet, modeled on the Indian buffets that were common in the area. It was a new niche for Cajun food than had yet to be exploited. I also came up with the name, the Ragin’ Cajun. When a kid making a delivery on an e-bike struck my mom as she crossed Grand Street, Dad felt he had no choice but to declare bankruptcy. However, it was the start of the summer and I was convinced that my boyfriend and I could pull off opening the restaurant on our own.

It didn’t take very long for us to discover just what that entailed as we encountered everything from work-hour restrictions on minors to the reality of bookkeeping and the need for advertising. We learned a lot by trial and error, and we were so busy that we didn’t even notice it when an ordinary looking, overweight patron came in and ordered food from both the buffet and the à la carte menu. It turned out he was the food editor from the New York Times and after he declared our restaurant to have the best Cajun food outside of New Orleans, nothing was ever the same again. With long lines waiting for tables and takeout and with reservations booked for months in advance, Dad came to our rescue and we managed to add a few more tables, a larger buffet and a lot more staff.

In the end, the Ragin’ Cajun generated enough income to pay off all our debts and to establish college funds for both Seth and me that would allow us to attend any university in the world. Then the pandemic came, but ultimately it was greed, corruption and politics that resulted in the Ragin’ Cajun being closed. Reopening the Ragin’ Cajun in another location was not an option during the pandemic. However, the pandemic was very good for business at our Asian takeout restaurant. As the pandemic played out and restrictions were gradually lifted, we were approached numerous times by investors wanting us to reopen the Ragin’ Cajun, or even to franchise it, which was something I’d have never considered.

<> <> <>

With high school graduation now behind us, we finally had the time and the inclination to consider reopening the Ragin’ Cajun, with dozens of investors willing to take on all of the associated risk. There were numerous vacant storefronts available in prime locations, but we quickly discovered that the landlords were greedy, preferring to let a storefront go vacant rather than lower the rent. The pandemic had been particularly hard on restaurants and even my favorite restaurant in New York, the Good Stuff Diner, hadn’t survived.

I actually looked into acquiring the spot where the Good Stuff used to be, but there was a reason the entire building’s retail space remained vacant for as long as it did. The landlord saw rents for residential space doubling and saw no reason why commercial leases shouldn’t do the same. With so much revenue being generated by apartment rentals, the landlord could afford to sit on vacant retail space until a high-end Japanese restaurant ultimately took over the space, continuing the trend that was pricing family-oriented restaurants out of the Manhattan market. As far as I was concerned, New York didn’t need another high-end Cajun restaurant.

When Dad suggested Union Square as the new location for the Ragin’ Cajun, I thought he was nuts. Union Square is among the priciest parcels of retail real estate in the city, served by the busiest subway station in Manhattan. Dominating the southeast corner of the square was Zeckendorf Towers at One Irving Place, a distinctive luxury condominium complex, crowned by four shiny metallic pyramids that lit up the night sky. The shops and restaurants at street level enjoyed some of the heaviest foot traffic in New York, dominated by the Food Emporium, a neighborhood grocery that had served as an anchor since the towers first opened in 1988. During the pandemic, however, people avoided the subway and foot traffic was light.

Not only was the Food Emporium facing increasing competition from a Trader Joe’s down the block and from a Whole Foods Market across the street, but thanks to Covid, there was also stiff competition from grocery delivery services and from meal kits. The crowning blow came when Wegmans announced that it would open the largest grocery in Manhattan just a quarter mile away at Astor Place, where the old Kmart had been. Even though the Food Emporium still had a year left on their lease, they closed up shop at Union Square rather than taking a chance the store would drag the entire chain into bankruptcy.

Although the management at Zeckendorf Towers quickly secured a deal with Target to take over the space, the well-known retailer wouldn't open for at least two years. The lack of an anchor had a ripple effect and the Best Buy mobile phone store and Panera Bread soon closed their Union Square locations as well. There was a lot of vacant retail space in Manhattan and with the sluggishness of return to in-person work, Dad thought we’d have the upper hand. A condominium building couldn’t raise funds as easily as a rental building and hence the pressure to fill retail space was more acute. The problem for us was that there wasn’t much more space available than we’d had on Orchard Street, and it was fragmented.

The two available storefronts were in a high traffic area, located between two of the busiest entrances to the Union Square subway station, but they weren’t contiguous. There was a large two-story atrium that made it impossible to connect them and the only way to make the space work for us was to have two separate kitchens, with the dine-in buffet in one storefront and the takeout buffet in the other. In spite of all the problems with the layout and my own concerns about viability, investors were enthusiastic about the concept and so we proceeded to negotiate for the space, but the negotiations went nowhere.

Not long after we celebrated the Fourth, Dad had the crazy idea of leasing space from Target. In a last-ditch act of desperation, Dad approached the the project manager for the new Target at Union Square. What Dad proposed was to sublet a small portion of the west end of Target’s floorspace, adjacent to both the old Panera and the old Best Buy. Not only would it provide a corridor between the two retail storefronts, but in locating our takeout buffet within Target, it would bring additional foot traffic into Target. It was a win-win scenario and the project manager loved the plan. Not only did it solve our kitchen problem, but it opened up new possibilities for using the additional space. Perhaps I’d even have an opportunity to develop a separate, white tablecloth à la carte restaurant in addition to the dine-in and takeout buffets.

Negotiations were completed, both with the management at Zeckendorf Towers and at Target, and our lawyer went through both contracts with a fine tooth comb. Our investors were on board and everything was set to move forward, pending sign-off from the corporate management at Target. It was while we were waiting for that final sign-off, a sign-off that never came, that we were approached by a different group of investors, headed by one of the lead developers for the Essex Crossing project on the Lower East Side. What they proposed was a compelling alternative.

There was a high-rise building already under construction that was slated for completion by the end of the year, which was just five months away. There was a lot more space available and the developer was willing to let us configure it in any way we pleased, so long as we opened before the ball dropped on New Year's Eve. That was a crazy-fast schedule but with the resources the investors were willing to put into the project, it was doable. They were also looking for someone to open a high-end restaurant on a top floor that had incredible views of most of Manhattan, and they hoped we might be interested in that too…

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Friday, December 30, 2022

“I don’t know – this sure looks like a lot of tables to fill,” Freck said as he looked over the expanse of tables in our new restaurant at Essex Crossing. Kyle, who’d recently turned fourteen, towered over his sixteen-year-old boyfriend. Both boys were halfway through their junior year at MIT and we were all on winter break. Freck and Kyle were spending their winter holiday with Kyle’s dads up in Riverdale but thanks to busy schedules and missed opportunities, today was the first time we had a chance to get together.

As it was, Seth was spending the day with his dad, helping out in his local Congressional office, fielding requests from constituents with urgent matters that had to be addressed before the end of the year. It also happened to be an insanely busy time for me, as my parents were getting ready to open our new restaurant for a New Year’s Eve party, and then we’d open it to the general public for a New Year’s Day Sunday brunch. We were probably crazy for not allowing time to clean up after the party, but then I knew from past experience that if the restaurant was successful, it wouldn’t get any easier after that.

“At first I thought it was going overboard too,” I responded. “We were all set to sign a lease for prime space on Union Square when a group of investors approached us specifically about opening our new restaurant here. One Irving Place would’ve been a great location, but we wouldn’t have had much more space than we had on Orchard Street. Here, we can accommodate a much more diverse crowd in a variety of venues, and the developers were willing to build out the space specifically to meet our needs. As the investors put it, with the Lower East Side being hot as blazes, it would be foolish not to think big. My parents even sold the Asian takeout restaurant on Grand Street, so they could focus on this place, full time.”

Stopping dead in his tracks, Kyle responded, “You’ve gotta be shittin’ me. I thought that place was your bread and butter.”

“It was,” I explained, “but with the income coming in from the food cart business, even if the new place flops, we’ll walk away with enough money to land on our feet. Regardless, our attorney’s set everything up so that the risk falls entirely on the investors and not on us.”

“Just don’t you ever even think of selling the food cart business,” Freck added. “Not with all the effort I put into helping you get it started.”

Laughing, I replied, “I appreciate all the time you put into it, arranging fake interviews with struggling food cart vendors under the guise of doing a school project, but not one of those took us seriously when we proposed going into business with them. You might have planted the idea, but it was our partner who approached us about licensing my recipes. At least my dad had the good sense to insist on a legal partnership in which we supply the recipes and reap half of the profits. However, we don’t actually own the carts so there’s nothing to sell. As you know, we had to partner with an existing vendor to acquire the permits, but the risk is entirely on them and not on us. Creditors can take the carts, but they can’t take my recipes.”

“What’s to keep your partner from walking away from the arrangement, but keeping your recipes?” Kyle asked.

It was his boyfriend who answered, “They can’t, because it’s a legal partnership. They’d hafta dissolve the partnership first, and Asher’s family would be entitled to half the assets. Technically the recipes are part of those assets, but they’d still be under license.”

“And the licensing arrangement is valid only so long as the partnership’s intact,” I confirmed. “The moment the partnership is dissolved, the license arrangement is terminated. We made certain we didn’t make the mistakes we made with the original Ragin’ Cajun. We hired a top corporate attorney instead of just using my mom’s brother.”

Laughing, Freck added, “My father always said that nepotism never fails to come back to bite you in the butt. He carried it to extremes, though. I didn’t even know I had grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins on his side of the family, until after he died. It’s too bad, ’cause they seem like nice people, but they’re blue collar and my father had long ago distanced himself from his family. He poisoned any chance I might have had to get to know them.”

Walking around the restaurant, Freck continued, “I love the circular, open kitchen. This is just the way I would’ve designed it myself. I always liked the way you could watch the chefs at work in the old Ragin’ Cajun, but the kitchen was in the back and hard to see. Here, it’s right in the center, with the buffet line wrapped around it.”

“We have enough room for separate buffet lines for dine-in and takeout, as well as a deli counter selling prepackaged meals,” I added. “We used to have a surprising amount of theft from people who’d fill to-go containers and simply walk out without paying. Having separate lines avoids that. For New Years Eve, it’ll all be set up for dine-in service but otherwise our takeout buffet will be high tech. You tap your phone, watch or credit card to enter, and then your food is weighed as you take it, so there’s no need to weigh it at the end. It also discourages people from putting food back, as they’ll be charged for it anyway. You’re then billed when you exit the line. We won’t tack on or ask for a gratuity the way some places do, but then we’re charging $13.95 per pound.”

“Shit, it used to be $9.95,” Freck responded.

“And eggs were less than half what they cost us now, and I use a lot of eggs in my cooking,” I pointed out. “Everything costs more, and like I said, food theft has become a real problem, which is why we’re having patrons tap to pay at the beginning of the line rather than at the end. We have the ability to charge different amounts for different items the way we do at the deli counter. That would make it easier for patrons to cut their cost, but it could get confusing and so we decided not to do that for now.”

“What if you want to pay with cash?” Kyle asked.

“Not many people even bother to carry cash anymore,” I responded with a laugh, “but the city requires we take cash and I wouldn’t want to deny service to anyone. Cash-paying customers can order the same food at the deli counter, and they can pay for the all-you-can-eat dine-in buffet there too.”

“Now that you have all this space, are you gonna have separate lines for the standard and deluxe buffets?” Kyle asked.

Shaking my head, I explained, “We’re only gonna offer the deluxe buffet. Most people opted to pay the higher price anyway, and the few who didn’t often ended up taking food from the deluxe buffet. I’m not sure if they were confused or if it was intentional, but there was no good way to keep track without being intrusive. The reason we offered the standard buffet as an option was to keep the cost reasonable for those who lived in the neighborhood and wanted to bring the whole family. Instead, we’ll charge half-price for kids under four feet tall, which avoids putting kids in the position of lying about their age, and for anyone with a reduced fare MTA MetroCard or tap-to-pay account. We’ll be charging $24.95 and $12.49 for breakfast and lunch, and $34.95 and $17.49 for dinner, which is quite reasonable for the Lower East Side —”

“Holy fuck, are those electric stoves?” Kyle interrupted. “I thought you’d never use anything but gas!”

“The city won’t allow the use of gas appliances in new construction,” I explained. “They’re even planning to phase in a tax on businesses and apartment buildings for their carbon emissions. We’ll all need to switch to clean energy eventually. I’m just not sure where Con-Ed’s supposed to get the extra capacity, or who’s gonna pay for it. Perhaps the New York skyline will be filled with windmills atop all the buildings,” I suggested with a laugh. “Our co-op doesn’t even have 220-volt service and adding it will cost tens of thousands of dollars per apartment. Factor in breaking open walls to add the necessary plumbing and heat exchangers for the heat pumps and you’re getting up near a six-figure cost per apartment. It’ll take decades to recoup the cost – but I digress…

“Anyway, when I found out we couldn’t use gas, I was really steamed. Ever since I could barely reach the burners, I’ve always used gas for my cooking, but now that I’ve actually tried using induction cooktops, I’m totally hooked. Induction heats up and cools down faster, and you can set the cooking temperature precisely. It cuts my cooking time by about a third. So do the convection ovens, for that matter. Not only that, but there’s much less wasted heat that otherwise would have to be removed from the building, and there’s less need for ventilation too. Our energy costs will be substantially less than if we’d used gas. We’re using induction upstairs too.”

“What do you mean by, ‘upstairs’?” Kyle asked.

“Come, I’ll show you,” I said as I led my friends to a dedicated elevator that took us straight to the top of the building. We exited the elevator into cozy lobby with subdued lighting. Straight ahead was a podium with a sign on the wall behind it that read, ‘Ragin’ Cajun Cafe’. As I led Freck and Kyle inside, I explained, “Downstairs, we share the ground floor with a bicycle shop, a bank and the main lobby for the building. Up here, we share it with the mechanicals for the rooftop pool. Directly above us is the building’s health club, which leads out to the pool deck. Most of the other buildings in the Essex Crossing complex reserve the top few floors for penthouse apartments, for which they charge a fortune. However, this building is the only one with a rooftop pool, which is a huge selling point when it comes to renting the apartments here.”

“They aren’t for sale?” Kyle asked.

Laughing, I replied, “I wondered about that too, but home ownership lost a lot of its luster after the subprime mortgage crisis in 2008. Even in New York, it’s not the sure bet it used to be. It seems there are better ways to earn a return on your investment. On the other hand, few investments can appreciate capital gains, tax-deferred or even tax-free, but not that many people our age even think that far into the future.”

“Better to have a luxury apartment right away, I suppose, rather than saving for the future,” Freck concluded. “You just have to hope your income rises faster than the rent.”

“I always wanted to have an elegant sit-down restaurant, separate from the buffet, and now I do,” I continued. “Not only that, but it’s a ‘room with a view’,” I added as I led my guests out into the café, which occupied the entire west end of the building. Predictably, they gasped. The view was breathtaking, encompassing all of Midtown Manhattan to the north, the Financial District and World Trade Center complex to the south and the other buildings of Essex Crossing to the west. “Normally this space would be partitioned into two or three party rooms, separate from the white-tablecloth sit-down restaurant you see here, but for special occasions like New Year’s Eve, we can open the whole thing up to serve more people.”

Again, a central open kitchen dominated the space, but it was rectangular, which made for better use of the space when the café was partitioned to provide for party rooms. It also facilitated having a tasting bar along one end. “Is that, like, a raw bar?” Freck asked. “I thought you guys didn’t do raw food.”

“Not raw oysters and the like,” I answered. “We’ve hired a full-time sushi chef and she’ll be supervising the preparation of Cajun-inspired sushi and sashimi recipes with raw fish. What you’re seeing is not a raw bar but a tasting bar. At first I was opposed to the idea. Most so-called tasting menus consist of a succession of bite-size morsels that are far too high in fat to ever be served as an entrée for a regular meal. We’re talking about a fourteen-course, coronary-inducing meal, prepared in front of patrons by a name chef, for which they may pay a thousand dollars per couple or more.”

“Woah!” Kyle exclaimed. “I can’t imagine spending that kind of money on a meal.”

Turning red, Freck added, “Been there, done that. You have to remember that I used to be on my own while my parents partied it up with their clients and got high. I had my own no-limit credit card and all of the restaurants in Battery Park City and TriBeCa at my disposal, so yeah, I tried a good many of them. A few cost well over a grand for a meal, not including the tip I gave the maître d’ to look the other way when seating a kid without his parents. I was old enough to go to Stuyvesant, but adults get nervous when they see a pre-teen, out and about on his own.

“In the end, I came to prefer eating in the food court at Hudson Eats, not just because the food was better, but I didn’t feel quite as lonely there. I got to know a lot of the vendors and the security staff, and they watched out for me. They were ordinary New Yorkers making a hundredth of a percent of what my parents made, yet they cared more about me than my parents ever did. That was a true revelation.” I couldn’t help but notice how Freck shivered and Kyle slipped an arm around him and pulled him close.

“So what are you gonna do that’s different, Ashe?” Kyle asked.

“It’s hard to prepare a jambalaya or shrimp Creole over mushroom risotto as a bite-size morsel, so the whole concept of a traditional tasting menu doesn’t really work for me. Instead, I’ll serve a more traditional six- or seven-course meal with items not found on the buffet. Patrons will be served a soup, a salad, an appetizer, two main courses and dessert with coffee and an aperitif. We’ll still call it a tasting menu and there’ll be wine parings, but the cost will be a bit more reasonable – $300 per person or $500 per couple, gratuity included.”

“That’s still a lot of money,” Kyle exclaimed.

“Which is why seating at the tasting bar is limited,” I pointed out. “We’ll start out with twelve patrons per sitting and if there’s enough demand, increase it from there, perhaps just on the weekends. Of course when I’m in school, It’ll be my dad who’ll serve as the chef at the tasting bar. The profit margin on the tasting bar and the café will be so high that we’ll make nearly as much from them as from the entire buffet downstairs.”

“Will you serve the same food at all these tables?” Kyle asked.

Shaking my head, I replied, “Like I said, most of the time the upstairs will be divided into separate party rooms and a white-tablecloth café. We use movable partitions that don’t look like movable partitions. Patrons seated in the café will be able to order from an à la carte menu with entrées and sides that are more upscale than the items on the buffet, but not nearly as unique as what we’ll serve at the tasting bar. A typical meal will run around a hundred dollars, excluding drinks and gratuity. The party rooms will be available for a flat rental fee, with a prix-fix menu. Of course tomorrow, everything will be prix-fix.”

“What do you mean?” Kyle asked.

“Downstairs, people will pay $125 for a night with unlimited access to the buffet, unlimited drinks, including champagne at midnight, and dancing with a live band. Up here, for $225, people will be able to order from a prix-fix menu of more exotic items, with sit-down service and unlimited drinks. Thank God we got our liquor license, and just in time. There will be live entertainment and dancing too, but with a name performer.”

When I mentioned the name of the performer, Freck exclaimed, “Wow, she’s really good!”

“She’s a bit past her prime,” I explained, “but she’s still quite active on the New York music scene and she has a new album coming out in the spring. She plays mostly to small crowds in clubs these days, so this will actually be one of her larger gigs. We were able to get her for New Years Eve because it’s billed as a charity event. I’ll be preparing food at the tasting bar – a special meal to ring in the new year for twenty patrons willing to fork over a grand a piece, half of which will be donated to the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative, along with $50 per person from each table.”

“How many people can afford even $125 for a meal?” Kyle asked.

“In New York? A hell of a lot of them,” Freck pointed out.

“I’d expect that in Midtown; it’s just hard to imagine you can get away with charging that much here,” Kyle countered.

“Like I said, the Lower East Side’s as hot as blazes, and Essex Crossing in particular has become a destination that’s attracting people from all over the five boroughs,” I responded. “We’re booked solid for New Year’s Eve, with a long waitlist. We filled our reservations for New Year’s Eve in under a day. Believe it or not, the tasting bar filled up in under an hour. We’ve already booked reservations out to May. Keep in mind that Williamsburg and Vinegar Hill in Brooklyn are two of the hottest neighborhoods in the New York residential real estate market right now, and they’re within walking or bicycling distance via the Williamsburg Bridge.”

“Where did they get the land for all this development in the first place?” Freck asked. “It’s not like there’s a lot of vacant land in Manhattan, after all. Where I grew up, in Battery Park City, there were vacant docks all along the waterfront that begged to be developed. Hudson Yards was built on what used to be a train yard. Where did they get the land for Essex Crossing?”

“Most of Lower Manhattan is built on fill,” I explained. “Con Ed used to have a coal-fired power plant at the end of Fifteenth Street and they dumped coal ash all along the East River. The plant’s still there, but it’s only a substation now. In fact, flooding of that substation is what plunged all of Manhattan below 34th Street into darkness during Hurricane Sandy. Coal ash is rich in heavy elements like arsenic, which is why our buildings were built without basements. With sea level rise, buildings with basements like in Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village are already having problems with toxic groundwater incursion. That’s definitely something the city’s gonna have to address, and soon.”

“Sounds like a job for someone like me,” Freck exclaimed.

“Definitely,” I agreed. “In any case, Essex Crossing literally rose from the ashes of the corruption and racism of the past. Most people know that the Lower East Side was once a thriving neighborhood of Jewish Immigrants living in tenements, but they know little else. Today, what remains of the tenement buildings have all been rehabbed, and they’re worth a small fortune. In the fifties and sixties, they were considered a blight on the city and were bulldozed to make way for modern high-rise apartment buildings. Entire neighborhoods were raised in the name of urban renewal, out of which grew the very cooperative apartments in which Seth and I live.

“Co-op Village represented a partnership between the unions and the city. It’s hard to imagine that our apartment, with its large terrace and vast views of the city, was originally built for garment workers. Our buildings’ parking lots and landscaped grounds are a true luxury, but even now, the co-ops are considered among the most affordable market-rate housing in Manhattan. Around us, huge tracts of public housing were built to provide for the needs of white working-class poor folks. Of course, the projects now house a diverse mix, mostly people of color, most of whom are working at minimum-wage jobs. Not that crime hasn’t been an issue, but the crime rate is much higher in Midtown Manhattan and violent crime is rare.”

“Tell that to the people who live out in the boonies,” Kyle interrupted.

“Half the country thinks New York’s a very dangerous place,” I agreed, “but violent crime’s much higher out in the boonies, as you put it. Actually, it was the ’68 riots and the rise of gang violence and the crack epidemic that ultimately caused public housing fall out of favor. The reality was that the buildings were poorly maintained and it was the lack of adequate investment in infrastructure and personnel that led to their demise. Not that absentee landlords have proven to be any better at maintaining their properties, but the pendulum has swung back to favor private development over large scale public works.

“A large swath of land along Delancey Street had already been demolished when the public housing boom came to an end and only the dilapidated public market and the subway station remained. For decades, the land remained vacant while the City Council, Community Board, local neighborhood associations and developers argued about what to do with it. There were allegations of blatant racism that were almost certainly true. Finally, a compromise was reached in which there’s a fifty-fifty split between market-rate and so-called affordable housing.

“This particular building offers luxury apartments with all the amenities one could imagine, but half of the apartments are income-restricted. They lack all of the frills of the market-rate units, but they’re still much nicer than anything in the projects. However, depending on your income, they cost a lot more. There are also a couple of floors of micro-studios based on a concept from Japan. Each apartment consists of little more than a sofa and a table where you can eat, work and watch TV, an open closet with drawers in which to keep your stuff, and a tiny bathroom with a shower. For sleep, there’s a Murphy bed that pulls down outta the wall. The studios are built around a community kitchen and lounge area that's designed to appeal to young single professionals.”

“It sounds a lot like our dorm,” Kyle noted.

“And as with a dorm room, it discourages holing up in one’s own private space in favor of socialization. Before I met Seth, I used to spend all my time in my room, watching stuff on my Chromebook —”

“Like porn?” Kyle interrupted.

“That too,” I admitted sheepishly, “but mainly movies and TV, and I read a lot. Like a lot of kids, I was lonely even though I was surrounded by a city of eight million people. I think the micro studios are a great idea. Everyone needs their private space to sleep in and for a special someone to spend the night, but everything else can and should be shared with people who can become your friends.”

Noticing that people were arriving and that there was beginning to be activity all around them, Freck commented, “It looks like you guys are getting ready for tomorrow.”

“And that’s probably my cue to get ready with my preparations too,” I agreed. “Anyway, it’s been great spending time with you guys.”

“I guess that’s a polite way of telling us it’s time to go,” Kyle responded with a laugh.

“When do you guys think you’ll next be back in town?” I asked.

“We’re coming down for Robin Arens’ sixteenth birthday,” Freck answered. “Her birthday’s on Valentine’s Day, but the party will be on the Saturday before – February 11, I think. Nothing’s definite yet.”

“We should hold it here,” I suggested. “I’ll have to ask my dad if we could do that, free of charge, of course. I’d be willing to prepare the food for it, too.”

“That would be fuckin’ awesome,” Kyle agreed. “Either way, we’ll see you in February.”

“Yeah, I’ll see you,” I answered as I walked my friends to the exit.

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Sunday, April 9, 2023

The tapping sensation on my wrist gradually woke me from what had been a restless night of sleep. I had to admit that being woken by the gentle tapping of my Apple Watch was much less jarring than being woken to the blaring sound of music from my phone, but it didn’t change the fact that I awoke to an empty bed. I never slept as well when Seth was away. Sighing, I got out of bed and got in the shower.

It was Easter Sunday and although I wasn’t raised with any religion at all, hundreds of our customers at the Ragin’ Cajun Buffet would celebrate the holiday with our famous Sunday brunch. We’d scarcely been open three months and already reservations for our Sunday brunch were booked through September. Long lines and wait times of as long as 90 minutes were common, so it was critical that everything move smoothly today. We hired more staff and were gonna do everything possible to move patrons through quickly without making them feel rushed. Yet I knew there would be long lines with wait times of perhaps two hours or more. It was unavoidable.

Next month, Mother’s Day would be even busier, but May was the end of the school year at NYU and there’d be papers and projects due, and final exams for which to prepare. Mother’s Day would be my parents’ problem. As they had always said since I took an interest in helping out in their restaurants, school comes first.

Seth was in Washington with his dad and although his family was no more religious than mine, there’s an expectation for politicians to show at least some deference to God and religion. It didn’t even matter if the religion was something other than Christianity – they could go to a mosque, a synagogue or a Buddhist temple, but there was an unwritten rule that they go somewhere to pray, as if being beholden to God made them any more beholden to their constituents.

Frank Moore was in his first year of his freshman term as a U.S. Congressman and his district included Lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn. His constituents included three key groups that were heavily religious and would be pivotal in his reelection campaign next year. The Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish communities in particular tended to vote as a block and he new he likely couldn’t win without them. Likewise, there were large Muslim and Italian American communities that needed to be on-board. On the other hand, the Chinese American community in Chinatown as well as the residents of Battery Park City, who tended to be non-religious, would keep a wary eye to any degradation of the separation between Church and State, so the congressman needed to walk a fine line. The safe thing was to attend services on Christmas and Easter, and so Congressman Moore would put in an appearance at the Washington Cathedral with his wife and his son at his side – a guaranteed photo-op for his reelection campaign – a campaign that had already begun. Of course as his son-in-law, I’d been invited too, but I had my own family obligation to the restaurant.

Neither Seth nor I were off during the weeks before or after Easter. Our spring breaks were both in late March. I suppose that scheduling the spring break, irrespective of religious holidays, was one way for elite universities to show that they didn’t favor any one religion, but it really sucked that we didn’t have the time off to spend with our friends who were still in high school. I actually took the day off last Thursday for the first day of Passover. I wasn’t Jewish, but for the past few years I’d been preparing a Passover meal for my friends who were. I loved to experiment with different types of cuisine besides the Cajun-Asian food that was my specialty, and I took great pleasure in researching the types of meals people ate in various places at various times in the past. Last Thursday night, I prepared a feast that could have easily been eaten by the Hebrews on the night before they fled Egypt. It was a lot of work, but it was fun!

As I shut off the water and grabbed my towel, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the way it would be for the rest of my life. After all, Seth planned to go into politics and I had a strong feeling he’d be the mayor of New York someday. How the hell was I supposed to run a restaurant and yet be at my husband’s side as the dutiful spouse, to smile for the cameras when protocol demanded it? Perhaps things would be different by the time that happened. After all, Jill Biden continued to teach, even though she was the First Lady.

The sun wasn’t even up yet, but I needed to get to the Ragin’ Cajun to oversee the preparations for the buffet. Thank God I didn’t have to make the rounds of the markets to buy the food for the restaurant. We were well beyond the size of a restaurant that could purchase its food from local merchants in Chinatown, the way we did when we were on Orchard Street. Instead, we had suppliers in Brooklyn and New Jersey who made deliveries on a regular schedule and although this was Easter Sunday, this morning was no exception. For the café upstairs and particularly the tasting menu, we still purchased some ingredients in Chinatown, but we had buyers tasked with that, all of whom were fluent in both Mandarin and Cantonese. We were also fortunate to have the extensive public market at Essex Crossing, right next door, and the merchants there often approached us with food they knew would be of interest.

I’d be spending most of the day as the chef at the tasting bar, preparing a feast for those willing to ante up $500 per couple for a specially-prepared, six-course meal with champagne. There’d be three sittings for brunch, at ten, noon and two o’clock. Dad would take over for the dinner sittings at four o’clock and at six.

On the menu today would be a plate of hand-smoked salmon with a lime and caper sauce, and hand-smoked whitefish with chilled popcorn shrimp, spicy turkey sausage and a creamy dill sauce. The second course would consist of a profusion of spicy sushi with ginger and jalapeño wasabi, and that would be followed by a plate of chilled asparagus on a bed of baby bib lettuce, with a creamy dill dressing and served with a cup of spicy lobster bisque. Next was Eggs Benedict on a home-baked bagel with Nova Lox and a creamy shrimp Creole sauce, served with an assortment of fresh grilled vegetables. That would be followed by a Maryland crab imperial, New Orleans style, that was guaranteed to taste unlike any our patrons had ever tasted. It was accompanied by a choice of a petite fillet or pan-seared ahi tuna, and an Asian vegetable stir fry over a wild grain medley. Capping off the meal was a Key lime mousse, served in an edible dark chocolate bowl, followed by amaretto coffee.

It was an easy ten-minute walk from our apartment to the restaurant and as I walked, I thought about a variety of things. Of course, school was never far from my mind, particularly as my first year at NYU was drawing to a close. Only a year-and-a-half remained until I got my Bachelor’s, and then I’d get my MBA in January of 2026 and begin working full-time in the restaurant. At the moment, though, there were end-of-year projects that were coming due and term papers to finish writing, and then final exams to take in early May. Back in February, we’d held Robin Arens’ sweet sixteen birthday party in one of our party rooms and I prepared all of the food for that, including a large Kahlúa birthday cake with home-made Kahlúa ice cream. And then I’d prepared the Passover meal for our friends and made some new friends at the Passover Seder, last Thursday evening. At the end of the night, Robin’s boyfriend, Larry, played his violin and damn, that boy was as good as any violinist I’d ever heard.

The moment I hit the door, I was crazy busy, inspecting the morning deliveries, supervising the cold storage of perishables and making sure all ingredients were fresh enough to meet our standards. As always, some ingredients didn’t make the cut and had to be discarded, necessitating last-minute revisions to the menu. Our egg order turned out to be short, which was going to be a big problem on Easter of all days. I could use substitutes in some of my recipes, but made-to-order eggs were a staple of Sunday Brunch and we couldn’t take a chance on running out. I made some calls and the supply was critically tight, so I sent some of the staff to raid Trader Joe’s and Target.

There was already a substantial line when we opened the doors at ten, the same time that the public market opened. We took reservations for half the capacity of the buffet, with the rest being open to walk-ins. Judging from the length of the line, I estimated that already, the wait time for anyone joining the line would be over two hours. We were jammed. All of the tables upstairs, which were by reservation only, were filled to capacity. The patrons for the first sitting at the tasting bar were already seated and had been served their first and second course plates by the time I made it upstairs, so I got right to work preparing the chilled asparagus and fresh greens, which couldn’t be plated in advance, and finishing off the lobster bisque, which I’d started the night before.

As I worked, I chatted with the customers as I often did. It had taken a concerted effort, but I’d gotten over my introverted nature and found I really enjoyed talking to people. As always, a few of the customers wouldn’t even acknowledge my attempts to make small talk with them. $250 or $300 for a meal was considered moderate by Manhattan standards, but I suppose some snobs felt a mere cook was beneath them. Perhaps it would have made a difference if I were white, or perhaps if they knew that my father-in-law was a U.S. congressman, or perhaps not. Most of the patrons were friendly and seemed to enjoy the chatter as I explained a bit of what I was doing and what made each dish unique.

With only two hours for each sitting, there wasn’t any time between sittings and so the dishes were still being cleared away and everything being wiped down and cleaned as the next seating arrived at noon. I recognized one of the patrons as a boy I’d met at the Seder on Thursday, who was one of Robin’s friends. He was with a boy in a motorized wheelchair who was particularly handsome despite his disability. We’d designed the bar to make reasonable accommodation, with a section that could be lowered to wheelchair height, but the boy didn’t need it as he deftly raised his wheelchair to a partially standing position that matched the height of the bar. He took up a spot at the left end of the bar and rather than have the two boyfriends separated from everyone else by an empty seat, I had the maître d’ leave an empty seat at the right end of the bar.

“Hey guys,” I greeted them. Then addressing the one I presumed to be an able-bodied teen, I added, “I remember you from the Seder the other night, but I don’t remember your name. You’re one of Robin Arens’ friends, right?” I didn’t know it at the time, but he was himself an amputee with a prosthetic leg.

“Yeah, we’re both on the chess team at Bronx Science,” he answered. “And Simon here will be joining us on the team next year. I’m Craig, by the way, and this is my boyfriend, Simon. I know it’s Easter, but we’re her to celebrate Simon’s fifteenth birthday.”

Rolling his eyes, Simon responded, “I still can’t believe you’re spending 500 bucks on me for my birthday.”

“It’s good to meet you, Simon,” I replied, looking Simon right in the eyes. I’d learned from Kyle that one of the things that bothered him the most when he was in a wheelchair was that people never looked him in the eye. As he put it, it was as if people thought they could catch his disability, merely by looking at him. “Are there any food allergies, or is there anything I need to do to make it possible for you to eat here, Simon?” I asked.

Although Simon’s speech sounded a bit strained, I had no difficulty understanding him as he replied, “I need to use my own utensils, which are adapted to my spasticity and will allow me to cut up my own food. I use a Steadicam that Craig rigged up to help me control the spasms when I eat. I use it on my left hand, which is why I seated myself at the left end of the bar. I may eat a bit more slowly than the others, but not enough to be noticeable. If it becomes a problem, however, I’ll have Craig help me out.”

“I wouldn’t presume to do anything that makes you uncomfortable,” I went on, “but if you’d like me to pre-cut your food into bite-sized pieces, just let me know. I can make the cuts so they aren’t obvious to anyone else.”

“I doubt we’ll need that,” Craig interjected, “but we appreciate the gesture.”

I got right to work placing the smoked salmon and whitefish plates in front of everyone, and then proceeded to prepare the chilled asparagus plates as the sushi, for the second course, arrived from downstairs. As I did so, I noticed how Simon used a curved knife that he rocked back and forth to cut up his food, and then used a gizmo with a tonged spoon on the end to scoop up his food and bring it to his mouth. His movements were jerky, but the gizmo kept the spoon steady and its movement fluid. Other than being a bit slower as he’d mentioned, he ate as easily as any of the other patrons.

As the meal progressed, I became completely oblivious to Simon’s movements as they faded into the background. I chatted a bit with everyone but perhaps spent more time with Craig and Simon because I already knew them. When I mentioned my experience with Kyle’s disability and the intensive rehabilitation he went through, it turned out that Simon knew of Kyle’s situation quite well. Although Kyle had been opposed to it, his family had been forced to sue the NYPD when their medical insurance rejected the entire claim for Kyle’s surgery and rehabilitation, based on the exclusion clause in the contract for participation in a riot. Kyle’s beating by a police officer occurred during a peaceful protest, but the insurance company had complete discretion on what constituted a riot and it was easier by far to sue the New York Police Department than to sue the insurance company. Simon’s father had been the lead attorney for the NYPD and had been instrumental in negotiating an out-of-court settlement.

When the time came for dessert, I stuck a candle in his lime mousse and lit it, and then sang Happy Birthday to Simon as I set it in front of him. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but he blew it out in a single breath.

“You have a great singing voice!” Craig exclaimed. “You could sing professionally.”

I could feel myself blushing as I replied, “I’m afraid my singing career ended with high school graduation. I might have been in the Stuyvesant Men’s Chorus, but baritones are a dime a dozen and besides which, I already have a career.”

“I’ve heard that in the restaurant business, it’s always a good idea to have a fallback,” Craig pointed out. “Even before the pandemic, some of New York’s most iconic restaurants closed as tastes changed.”

“Sad, but true,” I agreed, and then quipped, “Maybe with my MBA, I’ll try my hand at making a killing on Wall Street. Then again, maybe not!”

We all laughed as Craig paid the check, and then it was time for me to prepare for the third sitting at the tasting bar.

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To say the Ragin’ Cajun did well would have been an understatement. The buffet was always jammed on the weekend and particularly for Sunday brunch, but it was often packed on weeknights, and we did a very brisk takeout business at breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days a week. Reservations for the café and the tasting bar were booked for months in advance, but we always kept a few tables set aside for special, last-minute requests. The mayor in particular liked to take advantage of what he seemed to feel was a legitimate perk of his office, but then the news media often interviewed him in front of our restaurant, which was very good for business indeed.

When we decided to have party rooms, I wondered if they’d ever be used, yet they were solidly booked on the weekends, well into the future. We hosted weddings, bar mitzvahs, birthday parties, and just about every other kind of celebration. Even on weeknights, at least one party room was reserved and the others became a frequent venue for last-minute parties. The fact that we could accommodate a major party with a seven-course meal with only a few hours’ notice made us one of the go-to destinations for such affairs. The party rooms came to represent our biggest revenue stream, putting the Ragin’ Cajun Café on solid financial footing and rewarding our investors handsomely for their faith in what we could do. Already there was talk of adding a catering business.

Of course the food editor from the New York Times put in an appearance not long after we reopened, once again ordering from the à la carte menu and sampling a variety of items from the buffet. This time he didn’t even attempt to hide who he was. He knew he couldn’t get away with going incognito and besides which, I think he knew that we’d never give him differential treatment. I was more than a bit surprised when his review didn't appear for several weeks afterward, but I wasn't about to call him to find out why. I knew enough now to know that if he found fault with us, he’d have contacted us for a response before his review went to print. Something had to be up – I just didn't know what.

As it turned out, the editor made a second appearance on the evening of the Saturday before my nineteenth birthday. He’d registered for the tasting bar under an alias so as not to tip us off in advance. I hadn’t planned to serve as the chef at the tasting bar that weekend but when Dad saw him being seated, he quickly suggested I sub for him, and so I did. What I didn’t know was that the pastry chef had prepared a special chocolate peanut butter birthday cheesecake for me and he brought it up personally, to be served in place of the planned dessert at the tasting bar that evening. Not only did the food editor get to have a taste of it, but he participated in a round of singing Happy Birthday to me along with everyone else in the Ragin’ Cajun Café. Unfortunately, I was too busy and didn’t get a chance to actually taste my birthday cake until after we closed for the night. I had to admit that the cake was incredible.

Much to everyone’s surprise, the Ragin’ Cajun Buffet and Café filled a multi-page spread in the Sunday Times Magazine the following week, with a picture of my dad and me on the cover. Having a restaurant review as a feature story in the magazine wasn’t unheard of, but it was extremely rare. As busy as we were after that, we could’ve easily gone more upscale and raised our prices, but that would’ve destroyed the very qualities that made our restaurant special.

The Times review was followed by four- and five-star ratings in just about every culinary restaurant review, including Trip Advisor, but I assumed that the one that mattered most would take years to earn, if ever. Every high-end restauranteur craves a Michelin star and I’d have been lying if I said I didn’t, but Michelin-starred restaurants are so rare that people plan entire trips around them, which is the point. Chefs have been known to become suicidal at the loss of a Michelin star or even the downgrading in the number of stars. Michelin stars are a big deal.

A single Michelin star implies that a restaurant shouldn’t be missed if one is in the area. Just to get that rating would be a major accomplishment that would put the Ragin’ Cajun in a different league. A second star is awarded to restaurants worth going out of the way for, and a third star for restaurants worth planning a trip around. I knew that earning two or three stars was pretty much out of the question. We wouldn’t be the kind of restaurant I wanted us to be if we managed to earn three stars, but oh how I wanted to earn our place as a Michelin-starred restaurant.

We missed the opportunity to be in the most recent Michelin Guide for New York, which came out in 2022, but unbeknownst to me, Michelin posts updates on their website. Thus it was out of the blue when the New York Times food editor called me himself to congratulate us on earning a Michelin two-star rating for the Ragin’ Cajun Café. Although I knew he wouldn’t lie to me, I didn’t believe it until I saw the review on Michelin’s website myself. Excitedly, I called Seth, and then I called my dad. That night we had a party for all of the restaurant staff, without whom our success wouldn’t have been possible. The party began at closing time and it didn’t end until the sun started to rise, by which time we needed to get ready for the breakfast rush.

I was nineteen and Seth was about to turn eighteen, and we were both finishing our first year of college. We were teenagers and yet already I’d helped to build a Michelin-starred restaurant. There were many things to do ahead of us. I’d finish college and get my MBA, and then I’d work at the Ragin’ Cajun full time. Seth would get his law degree and then we’d figure out the best way for him to get into public service. At some point we’d adopt children, which would open a whole new chapter in our lives – but I was getting ahead of myself.

We had much planned for the summer. Seth was going to do an internship in his father’s Washington office, which meant we’d be apart for nearly the entire summer. Already, I missed him terribly, even though he hadn’t even left yet, but then I’d be too busy with the restaurant to spend much time with him anyway. The Fourth of July was coming up and with it, Freck and Kyle would be getting their bar mitzvahs. The service itself would be at their synagogue up in Riverdale, and it would be followed by a reception at Kyle’s house, which I’d agreed to cater. Before returning to school, Seth and I planned to take a week off to go hiking with Freck and Kyle in Glacier National Park, while there were still glaciers left to see. Yes, it was shaping up to be quite a summer.

The author gratefully acknowledges the invaluable assistance of David of Hope and Alan Dwight in editing my stories, as well as Awesome Dude, Codey’s World and Gay Authors for hosting them.

Disclaimer: This story is a fictional account involving gay teenage boys. There are references to gay sex and anyone who is uncomfortable with this should obviously not be reading it. The reader takes all responsibility for the legality of reading this type of story where they live. All characters are fictional and any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental. Although reference is made to the New York City Schools and the elite specialty high schools, any resemblance to actual facilities, classes, teachers or students is unintentional. As always, opinions expressed by characters in the story represent the opinions of the characters and are not representative of those of the author nor the sites to which the story has been posted. The author retains full copyright.