Michael Rosano, the Ultimate City Hall Insider, and a Dear Friend

Written by William Bryk on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

The first
month honors Janus, whose two faces let him simultaneously contemplate past
and future. I suspect most of us look backwards, contemplating time spent, which
increasingly for me is marked by death.

In my college’s
quarterly alumni newsletter, nearly 25 years after my graduation, an increasing
number of familiar names appear among the obituaries. I was throwing
old papers in yet another failed attempt to clean my office when I noticed an
obituary clipped from The New York Times. Michael Rosano, who was and
still is my friend, died a little more than a year ago, on Oct. 13, 2000. He
was 42 years old. He was a rarity: a political animal who was also a human being.

I first
met him 20 years ago this month. On Jan. 1, 1982, I attended the inauguration
of Andrew Stein as Manhattan borough president. I would work for him, on and
off, for the next 11 years. (My rabbi, Walter McCaffrey, introduced me to the
Stein staff. Walter is neither Jewish nor a religious sage, although one would
always be better off for heeding his wise advice. According to Lardner and Reppetto’s
NYPD, this use of the word "rabbi" is peculiar to New York,
dating from the late 19th century when some Irish Catholic police officer first
used the term to refer to the senior officer or politician, usually also Irish
Catholic, who was his mentor, protector and counselor.)

as I was by then a self-taught editor and speechwriter, I ended up in the Borough
President’s press office, where Michael’s desk was conveniently located
in the far corner, out of the line of sight of anyone bursting in the door to
see the press secretary. Michael and I both came from Albany County: he from
the city of Albany and I from Latham, which is, as F. Lee Bailey once said in
a courtroom speech, "an unincorporated hamlet." It is the last fortress
of upstate yellow-dog Democracy. Among the family legends is my grandfather’s
explanation of an infected hand: he had accidentally brushed it against the
GOP lever on a voting machine. Even Michael only once admitted to voting for
a Republican, although he was excused his apostasy because she was a woman and
an Italian, and she lost.

was darkly handsome, gentle and dryly humorous. He often claimed that, although
born of Italian heritage and a gay man (someone once called him "the capo
di tutti frutti"), his soul was that of an uppity Jewish woman from the
Upper West Side. A few weeks ago, while watching Robin Bartlett’s wonderful
performance in Richard Greenberg’s Everett Beekin, I found tears
in my eyes because, somehow, her manner and intonation vividly reminded me of
my friend’s manner of camping it up.

We both
took politics seriously while taking politicians lightly, so we hit it off.
He had studied English literature at New York University and written for the
school’s daily paper. Occasionally, after the second or third drink, he
murmured about interviewing Sid Vicious at the Chelsea Hotel. "Mr. Vicious,"
as Michael insisted on calling him, had received Michael in the squalid room
the singer then shared with Nancy Spungeon. Sid was nearly stupefied when he
opened the door to the boy reporter, and his answers were increasingly tangential
and then incoherent. Finally he fell asleep between one sentence and another.
Michael called the musician’s name a couple of times. The only replies
were snores. Michael picked up his notebook and stole silently away.

entered politics in 1976, when he volunteered to work for the great Bella Abzug
in her Democratic primary campaign for the U.S. Senate against Daniel Patrick
Moynihan. Michael was unusual for an 18-year-old in politics: he was efficient,
hardworking and enduringly patient, and Mrs. Abzug’s managers took note
of him. After his graduation from NYU, Michael briefly worked at Channel 13,
where, as with most not-for-profit organizations, the infighting might have
tested the political skills of the Borgias. Then he came to the Manhattan Borough
President’s office.

was the first openly gay man whom I knew well. He told me that he had known
from childhood that he was gay (I found nothing odd in this: I knew I liked
women at the age of six, although I could not have told you why). His family
loved him; his colleagues trusted him. Nonetheless, he felt alienated, with
a mild sense of always being the Other nearly everywhere save among his friends
or among gay people. Despite his gracious manners and self-control, he bitterly
resented anyone who did not accept his right to live as he wished without criticism
or discrimination. In particular, he developed an antipathy to organized Christianity
in general and Roman Catholicism in particular, although his relationships with
individual priests and ministers were often quite friendly.

We have
lived with AIDS as both a disease and a political question for nearly a generation.
It first became prominent during the initial year or two of our friendship.
Back when a citizen could still stand on the front steps of City Hall without
the mayor’s permission, ACT UP, the gay and lesbian activist group, chained
shut the Hall’s doors as protest against some forgotten municipal failure.
I was then inside the building, sitting at a desk. In common with most folks
in City Hall, I felt inconvenienced but not terrorized because being the target
of the public’s wrath was part of the job description. Probably we understood
that most City Hall politicos are, at best, hacks with good intentions. We would
have laughed to think ourselves as important as city politicians seem to think
themselves now–so essential to public life that they must be protected
by effectively barring the people from City Hall.

there was not much else to do until the guys from the Dept. of General Services
arrived with the bolt cutters. The telephone rang. It was Michael. From my point
of view, he was safely across the street in the Municipal Bldg.


I replied, "we’re being held hostage in City Hall by gay terrorists."

your case, they have a good reason," he replied, and hung up.

His experience
of seeing friends die radicalized and hardened him. He believed that the government
was responsible for solving the problem, in part because the public sector can
throw an infinity of tax dollars at a problem, which many believe will solve
it sooner or later; in part because he did not believe the free market would
devise an affordable cure for the disease in time to save his friends; and in
part because his political ideas were expressed through the rhetoric and legal
precedents of earlier civil rights movements, all of which had relied on state
intervention to further their agendas. He thus focused his talents on furthering
government intervention by learning how one quietly amended statutes or modified
budgets, the kind of practical political work that few ideologues bother to
master because it often requires years of heartbreaking work.

As Michael
gradually became an insider, he never forgot being an outsider. This meant his
more radical acquaintances hurt him more deeply than they could have known when
they called him a sellout. The best proof of Michael’s humanity was that
he could tell these idiots to go to hell, and mean it, and still take their
calls the following day.

He never
lost his humanity. A Democrat clubhouse lawyer told this Michael Rosano story
over drinks at Dusk on 24th St. This guy intends to marry his girlfriend at
a big formal event on Cape Cod in June 1991. He decides to go through a civil
ceremony in front of a judge in November 1990 so the girlfriend might share
in his health insurance benefits. They get the license from the city clerk.
Then the lovebirds realize they need two witnesses to the ceremony. For that
matter, they need a celebrant. On the morning of the blessed event, this guy
pokes his head into the office of the judge for whom he then works and asks
whether she would mind performing the ceremony that afternoon. The judge, whose
infinite patience is much taxed by this guy, replies, "Yes, I’ll do
it. You really believe in advance notice, don’t you?"

The would-be
bride talks her cousin, the pastry chef, into being her witness. The guy has
a busy day and understandably forgets about getting his witness until about
an hour before the big event. At the 11th hour, he knows there is only one man
he can rely on. Like several thousand people who outrageously impose on Michael
over the 20 years they know him, this guy is right.

He sprints
from the Tombs to the Municipal Bldg., takes the elevator up to the 15th floor
(there were no metal detectors in the lobby then) and sticks his head into Rosano’s
office. Rosano, as usual, is on the telephone. This guy asks Michael to stand
witness at his wedding in 15 minutes. "Sure," Rosano replies. "Thanks
for all the notice."

The judge
is conducting a murder trial when Michael, the pastry chef and the blushing
bride, in Dior suit and big hat with bouquet in hand, sweep up to the courtroom
door. A court officer asked, "Who’s getting married?" The bride,
who then and throughout her marriage to this guy is never at a loss for words,
seizes Rosano’s hand and replies, "Michael and I are tying the knot."
Michael and the court officer arch their eyebrows into their respective hairlines.
As the bridal party enters the courtroom, counsel asks the witness, "Is
this the knife that you saw in the hand of the defendant?" Michael turns
to the bride and pats her on the arm, murmuring, "So auspicious for our
wedding, dear."

He moved
from government to lobbying and back to government, ending his career as deputy
communications director to state Sen. Martin Connor, the minority leader of
the state senate. He worked harder than ever, and as do most who remain young
in spirit, neglected his health, certain that he would live forever. When he
was finally diagnosed with cancer, his condition was nearly untreatable.

was as principled in death as in life: his estrangement from the church in which
he had been born and raised was so profound that he requested no religious service
over his remains. Last spring, his friends celebrated his life at New York University.
Every seat was taken and there was standing room only in the hall. There was
some rhetoric, which he would have tolerated, having written a bit of it himself.
However, those who knew him best spoke of his hard work, kindness, wit and blithe
courage in the face of his own death, which takes some doing. One speaker called
Michael a foul-weather friend, and quoted Maurice Baring’s "In Memoriam,
AH," which seemed right:

No one
shall take your place.
No other face
Can fill that empty