When our landlords asked if my lover and I knew any "nice people" looking to rent an apartment because one of their properties had just become vacant, we were more than flattered. We considered it a bit of a gay civil-rights coup.
At least at first.
About a year and a half ago, my lover and I decided living in separate cities had become intolerable, and I moved to New York City so we could be together. Our search for affordable living quarters larger than the typical matchbox-size Manhattan apartment took us to the boroughs. After some legwork, we found a deal we couldn't turn down in Astoria, Queens.
Though separated from Manhattan merely by the thin sliver of water that is the East River, in some ways Queens is a totally different world. One of those ways is how open people are about homosexuality.
Our neighborhood has long been one of working-class Italian and Greek families. In more recent years, it has seen a flood of new immigrants, from Latinos to Arabs to Koreans to Croatians. Recently, National Geographic magazine pronounced parts of Queens as the nation's most diverse neighborhoods.
It's certainly not Chelsea or the Castro or Boys Town or Dupont Circle. And that's one reason we like it so much. Every day seems like a cultural adventure waiting to happen. The plethora of restaurants and shops offering new and exotic foods, clothing and knick-knacks seems endless. Even something as mundane as a trip to the corner produce stand is a lesson in international affairs. Every time I go, I come across some fruit or vegetable I've never seen or tasted before.
Still, the comfort level in being out is a little less certain than if we lived in Manhattan, or some other big-city gay ghetto. We recognized that when we moved here, but decided we were both too far "out" to modify our behavior. It's not like we make out on the street corner ( although we do occasionally hold hands ) , but we go about the neighborhood in ways that make it clear we are a couple. Mostly, that just means we show up together all the time.
In our neighborhood, we've frequently been able to tell when the light bulb goes off in someone's head and they realize we are a gay couple. No one ever says it that blatantly, of course, but you can just tell when someone figures it out. We wondered how people might react when it dawned on them. For the most part, we've been pleasantly surprised.
The Italian father who owns the local deli and who now calls us "the gentlemen" picked up on our relationship rather quickly, as we always went in shopping together on the weekend. He also figured out it was my lover who is the cook, and now, if I go in by myself on a weekday, he's likely to say, "Hey, tell your friend I've got a special on the shanks. He'd like them."
We've seen similar reactions by the Sicilian women who operate the bakery across the street, or the Lebanese brothers who run the corner shop that sells us our hummus, pita bread and falafel.
But how our landlords reacted was far more important than anyone else. A bad relationship with the landlord can make you uncomfortable living in even the nicest apartment. The couple who own the building are Italian-Americans with college-aged kids. Like most of the other second- and third-generation American immigrant families in the neighborhood, they speak Italian as well as English, and identify strongly with their native homeland.
Our landlords knew from the beginning, of course, that we were gay. Early on, the wife tried to let us know it was cool with her when she told us she was glad she rented all the apartments to "stable couples. I don't like to rent to people who are just roommates, you know, because one of them is always moving out on the other and then we got rent problems. That's why I like to rent to couples."
The gesture was appreciated and taken in the spirit we know it was intended. But my boyfriend and I still sometimes got the feeling that we're a conversation piece at her weekly bridge party, or something. We can almost hear her saying, "Well, you know that nice gay couple who live in the upstairs apartment ... I did tell you they were gay, didn't I? But you know, they're really nice boys and they keep the place good and clean ... ."
And of course, there have been awkward moments, like when their 20-something-year-old son, who doubles as the handy-man around the place, came into the apartment to work on the air conditioner, and got visibly nervous in our bedroom.
That's why we were particularly glad, at first, when the husband recently asked if we knew anyone looking to rent an apartment. One of their properties had just become vacant, and they were looking to fill it with "good people." My boyfriend and I took this to mean not only that they considered us specifically in that category, but that they considered gays and lesbians in it in general. Though it was all unspoken, we knew that in asking us to refer friends, they knew we might suggest another gay or lesbian couple, and that was OK by them.
As we stood by beaming momentarily at our "arrival" in the community, our landlord continued outlining the qualities he looks for in good residents: that they be mature, and have decent jobs, and be neat and tidy. "And of course you know the two most important things, don't you?" he asked, as we stood in ignorance.
"Skin color and nationality," he said matter-of-factly. "We want them to be white and Americans, not foreigners."