It’s nearly sunset when Donald and David walk up the road toward the old two-story house on Terwilliger Road, chatting with each other and carrying a bottle of cabernet as a gift. Behind them is a Bedouin-like encampment, a sprinkling of little tent villages in the sloping orchard across the street for the dozens of New Yorkers who have come up to this out-of-the-way nook in the Catskills on a late summer evening.
The occasion is an annual Labor Day party, known in some quarters as “the gay rave,” a tradition cooked up by Andrew Jacobs, a New York Times writer who now mostly lives and works in Beijing as one of the Gray Lady’s China correspondents. The host now only comes back to the U.S. every few months to visit family in New Jersey, but when he does he always makes time to drive up to the house he shares with two friends, here on what is called a mountain (really more of a steep foothill rising up from the Rondout Reservoir) that has come to be referred to by a growing number of New York City expats in certain overlapping circles as “Queer Mountain.”
At the front steps Donald and David each give Andrew a kiss hello, and they stop to survey the scene: 60 or 70 people are here by now, standing out by the grill in back, roasting fresh corn and grilling burgers, puttering in and out of the kitchen making drinks, or sitting on the front porch whose view always tempts people to linger—to look out over the tangled orchard that rolls down to the forest edge, and the mountain ridge beyond. Out in the side yard, clusters of men and women in their thirties and forties sit around chatting, some of them bedecked with DayGlo necklaces, already tapping their feet to the music emanating from the big white canvas tent set up next to the house, where the DJ is spinning house tunes. A few small dogs blend in to the scene as well, wearing DayGlo collars of their own as they race around the property. Donald and David walk around back, giving out greetings and hellos to friends along the way.
After 8 p.m., when the sun has fallen behind the mountains and many of the guests at the rave are floating toward the gyrating music on the dance floor, Donald and David say their goodbyes. Donald takes David by the hand and helps him down the steps toward their car, a Subaru Outback. Later that evening, and during the hung-over party-postmortem discussions the following morning, more than a few people would comment on the cute older couple who showed up, and wonder about the two octogenarians who met almost 30 years ago through a classified print ad in the New York Times and now live on top of a mountain together in a home they’ve shared for over 15 years.
Their home is up a hill at the end of what used to be known colloquially as Burris Road, but is now printed on county maps as Longview Lane thanks to Donald, a self-described busybody. The locals called it Burris Road on account of Mrs. Burris, an elderly woman who used to live in the first house at the turn in the road. Then, some years ago, the county alerted the residents that the new 911 directory required very specific directions and a number for any house on the road, and that if they couldn’t decide on a proper name, the county would do it for them.
“I tried zillions of combinations, because we wanted something original, not a name you could find in a nearby county or state. After all this back-and-forth we finally settled on Longview Lane,” says Donald of the quarter-mile stretch of dirt road they settled on 15 years ago in the southeast corner of Catskills State Park, in the tiny hamlet of Napanoch (pop. 1,650) in Ulster County, a two-and-a-half hour drive north from New York City. “And all the neighbors loved it. It’s very descriptive, there’s a long view from up here. It gives you this feeling of a very specific location.”
To get to that very specific location from points south is to travel through a part of the Catskills region still often described as the “Borscht Belt,” after the string of summer resorts in Sullivan and Ulster Counties that were popular spots for New York Jews from the 1920s up until the ’70s.
“You have the families who’ve been up here since the 1700s, these Dutch families who originally settled the place. Then for a century or more there have been successive generations of exodus of Jews, mostly German Jews, from the city. People always came looking for a utopia up here,” says Andrew Jacobs, who’s become somewhat of an amateur local historian since directing his first documentary film, Four Seasons Lodge, shot nearby and released in theaters November 2009. The film chronicles the last summer of a colony of elderly Holocaust survivors in the Catskills. “It was in the 1990s that the next wave started, when gay and lesbian couples and friends started finding weekend houses up here.”
In nearby Sullivan County—in more up-market towns like Libertyville, Jeffersonville and Monticello—a nascent gay community has been growing for the last decade or so, with the attendant gayfriendly bed-and-breakfasts and watering holes. But evidence is scant of any similar gentrification in the towns and villages clustered in the valley through which Route 209 runs: the main byway from the highway leading to “Queer Mountain.” And while “faded grandeur” is a term sometimes thrown around to describe the area, “abandoned grandeur” might be a more accurate description now, given the collapse of not only almost all of the Jewish summer resorts, but also the remnants of what was in its heyday a robust local manufacturing economy.
It’s here in this valley that a trickle of gay New Yorkers of less than extravagant means began poking their noses around over the last decade or so, and buying up relatively cheap land and houses to fix up as weekend homes in the mountains. And by most accounts Donald Isenman and David Kotick happened to be the first gay couple, pioneers of sorts, to settle down on one particular mountain in the southernmost corner of the Catskills State Park. Ask them about it, though, and they’ll tell you they never guessed they’d be part of a larger diaspora of urban gays who have come up here in search of a slice of Shangri-La in these mountains north of the city. They were supposed to be weekenders, too.
I’m the houseboy,” David, 83, jokes, giving a tour of the house on a midsummer’s afternoon. A framed portrait of his niece and her partner sits above one of the bookshelves in the den, which are filled with collections by A.J. Liebling, his favorite writer. “I call it our view of Mt. Fuji,” says David, pointing out the little dots of clouds clinging to the mountains on the other side of the
valley. A large wind chime dangles right outside of the window,
jingling in the breeze. In the sunroom, the placemats on the table are
laminated photos of a bird’s eye view of the house, taken from a local
company that uses a helicopter to shoot the photos. One of Donald’s
baseball caps hangs off a hook by the front door, with IMPEACH CHENEY
embroidered on the front.
This day, like every day, starts with Donald brewing a pot of
coffee and delivering David a fresh cup in bed. Then David gets up to
prepare some freshly squeezed juice, oatmeal and a dish of sliced
fruits. They eat in the sunroom, read the newspaper, check email, talk
to friends on the phone, go for a walk down the hill and, before you
know it, it’s lunchtime, and then dinnertime, and the routine kicks in
variations in the routine exist, like when David goes to the Ellenville
library where he volunteers to teach English-as-a-second-language
classes, or the two take trips to the market. But for the most part the
weekday routine follows a well-worn pattern woven into the days, weeks,
months and years that they’ve spent living on top of a mountain. David
describes their state of health as “very healthy—healthy decrepitude.”
As they sit out in the
sunroom, the conversation turns to politics and the recent economic
collapse, and Donald, 80—who is wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with a
big red A (for “Atheist” presumably, as the name of Richard Dawkins,
the famous atheist, is printed below)—confides that on this and many
other matters he’s still very opinionated.
“He means he’s a big commie pinko!” says David,
poking Donald in the ribs.
“I’ve really been waiting for this for a while, this
state of affairs, 40 years of corporations doing whatever they want,”
says Donald. “Now it’s the very world that’s been predicted. Distant
wars that we just get announcements about every now and then.”
“Donald and I are really
only afraid of one thing,” adds David. “If there’s a revolution, it
might not be a left-wing revolution, it’ll probably be a right-wing
revolution, and the scapegoating will begin.”
The two then commence to
argue about the relative merits of Greece versus Costa Rica as a place
to live in exile, but both agree that anything beats Florida, with its
glut of other senior citizens. Barring armed revolution, they don’t plan
on moving anywhere, though, as this is the home they hope to live out
their lives in.
you meet at an older age, you do tend to look ahead a bit,” says David.
“A home is what you make of it. As long as we have each other, I don’t
The idea was
never to stay up here; like many of the younger crowd moving in now,
they had initially planned on using the house as a weekend refuge from
the city. In 1992, when David was away on business in London, Donald saw
an ad for the house
in the classifieds of the New York Times. One weekend soon
after, they drove up Route 209 north of Highway 17, past the Nevele
Grand Hotel, around the reservoir on Route 55a, up Lackawack Hill and a
few more other twists and turns before reaching the red-shingled house
in the clearing at the top of the hill. It was the first house in the
Catskills they looked at, and within a few months of finding it, they
paid for it in cash in the low five figures. It’s a modest onebedroom,
with a sunroom on the second floor overlooking the reservoir and the
ridges beyond. It is topped by an array of solar panels they purchased a
few years ago, to cut down on their electricity bills and prevent power
outages in the winter.
By the time they found the place, they were both mostly retired,
David from his perch as a foreign rights agent at Doubleday, and Donald
from his career as an accompanying pianist and a voice coach for
hundreds of Broadway performers. From the day they moved in, they fell
in love with the place and started coming up every weekend, stretching
more and more of them to three, even four days. Then one day in early
1996 a pipe burst above their bedroom in their Upper West Side
apartment, destroying many of their belongings. Eating breakfast in
their waterlogged apartment on West 76th Street the day after the flood,
Donald said to David, “Let’s just go.” They drove up to the mountain
that afternoon and never looked back.
It’s the Fourth of July, and after David blows out the
candles and doles out cupcakes to anybody not too stuffed to eat one, a
dozen or so very well-fed people trickle out onto the porch of the house
on Terwilliger Road, to watch the sparkle and pop of the fireworks from
the patchwork of little towns in the valley below. It’s the 44th
birthday of Shaffiq Essajee, an attractive, boyish-looking doctor of
Southeast Asian descent who is one of the owners of the house. A bonfire
on the side of the house is starting to show signs of life, and out on
the porch David sits down next to Beverly Gregan, one of his neighbors,
another full-time resident of “the mountain,” and a frequent partner on
his afternoon walks. Donald sits on the big couch in the middle of the
porch, talking to another occasional visitor to the house who is part of
the large outer circle that finds its way up here on the weekends.
Donald can be heard
over the hubbub, telling his new friend what he most admires about
David, almost as if David were not sitting within earshot. His
conversation partner sits smiling, seemingly totally engaged by details
of the life led by these two diminutive octogenarian men who speak about
one another as if they’d only recently fallen in love.
After a bit, Donald walks
over to the side of the house and joins Shaffiq next to the bonfire.
Shaffiq bought the house in 2002, with his then partner, Andrew Jacobs,
and their mutual friend Tom Donaghy. They spent the first summer sleeping in a tent and rebuilding a house that was practically
falling down on top of itself. After Donald and David met them one day,
the two began to come by on Sunday mornings to drop off a copy of the Times,
after picking up a batch in Ellenville in the valley below. It
became a routine, their orange MG pulling up on Sunday mornings,
eventually making the house the last stop on the route.
“That’s how it started,”
were our senior paperboys.” Bit by bit, the older men got to know these
men half their ages, and when the house was in better condition, Donald
and David would stop by for dinner or to socialize with the growing
cast of weekenders who began to populate the mountain—like Mary and
Laurie, two women who bought a place on Longview Lane a few years later,
and award-winning playwright Jeff Whitty, who moved in down the hill in
2005. It was also in 2005 that Shaffiq and Andrew split up, and the two
had to negotiate a custody battle of sorts that involved going up on
we broke up, I think it was obvious to many that we were having
problems, and I remember this one time Donald came and told me, ‘You
know, you don’t have to be everything to each other all the time,’”
Shaffiq says. “And at that time, it really contradicted what I thought
it meant to be in a real loving relationship. I didn’t quite understand
what he was telling me. But the way Donald said that, it was just
clearly from a position of experience. And I’ve never forgotten that.
Because after 10 years, I didn’t see an after: This was the defining
relationship of my life. I was 40 years old and just psychically and
emotionally stuck, and they really helped get me unstuck. Part of it was
just the idea that here were two guys who met each other in their
fifties, and built a life together in the Catskills. I really don’t have
any other older gay men in my life.”
By the time they met, David
and Donald had both been through what they describe as a number of
“dreadful” relationships, and in 1982, thinking there wasn’t much left
to lose, they both placed classified ads in the New York Times. Almost
30 years later, neither of them remembers who responded to whose ad,
but they do remember in detail the many weeks’ worth of phone calls they
engaged in before finally meeting up for a date, at a Thai restaurant
on the Upper West Side, where they talked for hours.
Personal ads were how
people often met in an era before Match.com or Facebook. Not so long ago
you had to trust that the very few words describing height, weight,
appearance and personal interests were, at least, mostly descriptive of
the person you would end up meeting. So when David first appeared at
Donald’s doorstep he remembers his heart racing, jumping up and down
inside his chest— there was something he wanted to make clear right
away. Since he had initially placed the ad, he had gained one pound. He
was no longer 130—he now clocked in at 131. When Donald opened the door
to his apartment, this was the first thing David blurted out.
“I was so nervous, and so
eager to be truthful, I wanted to be on the up-and-up from the start,”
adorable,” says Donald later, when I ask him about the story. “I was
smitten from day one.”
That first date was followed by a second and a third, and before
they knew it one day Donald took stock of the closet and observed that
it was full of David’s clothes. “Well I guess you’ve moved in,” Donald
said to David.
the move-in was made official in 1983, it was Donald who suggested they
go to get rings together, at Tiffany’s, naturally. While David tells
the story Donald, wearing a T-shirt that reads Recycling America’s Old
Treasures, hovers nearby to make sure he gets it right, as there appears
to be a contentious debate as to how exactly this moment played out.
“I’m not going to let
him make something up,” says Donald, mock strangling a chuckling David.
“We wanted to go to
Tiffany’s because I knew they wouldn’t bat an eye,” says David. “So
Donald puts on this very butch voice at first, and starts to ask the
sales staff about different rings.”
David picked out a ring, a simple silver wedding band,
and if David is to be believed, Donald announced to the sales clerk in
the most nonchalant way possible, “Oh, I think I’ll take one, too.” With
a slight smile on her face the clerk boxed up the rings, and after they
left the store they both put them on right there on Fifth Avenue.
“From then on it was all
systems go,” says David, who hasn’t taken the ring off since.
All of this talk of rings
naturally leads to the question of wedding bells, but the concept of
marriage doesn’t particularly excite either of them. That said, if New
York State legalized gay marriage, they’d drive down to the town hall in
Ellenville the next day and get hitched.
“As far as I’m concerned, it has nothing to do
with marriage, it has to do with civil rights,” says David, who
remembers growing up poor during the Great Depression, when weddings
were simple affairs, not the massively expensive extravaganzas they can
be now. And as they’ve both already completed living wills for each
other and arranged for end-oflife care, the nuts and bolts, the legal
and economic incentives for marriage, have already been mostly ironed
out over the last 27-odd years together.
“It seems redundant to me,” Donald chimes in.
“We can have a party any time, we don’t need to call it a wedding.”
is an award-winning Brooklyn-based writer on politics and culture. Read
more of his work at: www.josephhuffhannon.com.