By Mark Allen
My friends avoid it like the plague, but I still use Grindr.
When the sun sets, I fire it up.
It’s now eight hours past sundown, during which I’ve repeatedly checked Grindr on my phone, often while pacing around my uptown Manhattan apartment. You can see a visibly worn path on the hardwood floors where I’ve done this most nights. It’s exercise. Actually, smartphone hook-up apps have always seemed to me like maps of the city I can control within the palm of my hand. I can scroll with my finger “uptown” or “downtown,” bookmark guys I want to revisit, or make vanish those I don’t. The screen’s checkered grid pattern is like a shrunken palimpsest of the streets and bars of New York City’s gay cruising legacy—in its day a ritualized matrix synonymous with eye contact, urban adventure, and electric night air. Now? The central air in my new high-rise “eyesore” keeps me climate controlled as I power-walk through push-button sex convenience. It’s a future I never imagined at my age and a seasonable ritual that distracts me from the fact that I’m a forty-something gay man with perpetual insomnia. Like the city itself, I spend a lot of time worrying that I’m not as exciting as I used to be, so I never sleep.
I quickly finish douching.
Running to the foyer to answer the door, I look through the peephole at tonight’s Grindr trick (Steve, who can’t host or spell) and wonder how he got past the doorman.
Some men like to meet in public first. Not me. Too much wasted time in bad lighting. Besides, I like door-to-door delivery. Sometimes it’s not exactly what you’d expected, but it’s late and you’re hungry, so you eat it anyway.
I hit the remote control on the electric candles in my foyer, opening the door to scan Steve’s expressionless and gorgeous face for a reaction.
“Can I have a glass of water?” he blurts out while brushing past me to walk straight into my bedroom.
I don’t react.
Rude, weird, young, and stunning. Maybe high? Definitely has BO.
The hottest guys on Grindr reliably have red flags signaling potential drama. As far as I’m concerned, fucking someone who doesn’t have red flags is like arguing with someone who doesn’t read books. Locking the door as I turn to watch him sit on my bed, I step toward the kitchen. The foyer, bedroom door, and kitchen of my “design-focused” apartment meld into one area you can traverse with a single step, like an airplane bathroom.
“Want something besides water?” I yell from in front of the refrigerator. “A beer?”
I lean over on one foot to poke my head outside the bedroom door and ask, “Pot?”
He doesn’t answer. I see only the back of his head facing away from me, reflected in the bedroom window. A freezing December wind gently rattles the glass. I have a splash of vodka and grab a water for him. Walking into the bedroom determined to liven the mood, I announce, “Did you know fucking someone who doesn’t have red flags is like . . .”
Where’d he go?
I quickly open the top drawer of my dresser to see that my wallet and phone are still there.
“Hel-l-o-o?” I announce into the air.
Did he leave? I look toward the hall. The front door is still locked from the inside, latch on.
Is he hiding? Like, “fun” hiding?
I check the closet. It doesn’t feel fun.
“Hello?” I say again.
I turn on my phone and open the contact for my building’s 24-hour security. My thumb hits the number on my phone as I crouch down and place my head sideways on the floor, looking under the bed from as far away as possible. I expect his formerly gorgeous face to be staring back at me out of the darkness.
“Security,” says the voice on the phone.
“He’s not here!” I shout, bolting upward and turning around in a weird panic, like he might be right behind me.
“This is security, sir! Sir! Can you hear me?”
“He’s not under my bed!” I shout, yelling every thought in my head into my phone.
Could he have walked past me while I was in the kitchen without my seeing him? Impossible! I look around the floor for a backpack, a coat, a foot poking out from behind a curtain, anything. No trace. I check the still-locked bolt on the front door a second time, jiggling it with my hand. Behind the couch. The bathroom. Nothing. Nobody.
“Sir. This is building security. Tell me what apartment this is?”
“20-G! I invited a stranger up to my apartment. And now he’s hiding in here . . . I think?” My heart is pounding through my words. “I need you to come up here and make him leave!”
* * * * *
There are a finite number of places one can hide in my two-and-a-half-room apartment, and we checked them all five times. Actually, I did. The guards—one male, one female—mostly just stared and listened to me repeat the story.
“Sir. I want you to lock your door and get a good night’s sleep,” says the male guard, eyeing the bottle of vodka on the counter. “We’ve already asked the doorman. He said no one has been in or out the front entrance the last two hours, and . . .”
“Oh, wait!” I suddenly yell, ignoring him. “How could I forget? His profile is still on Grindr! With his photo! And GPS!”
I turn on Grindr. We huddle around my phone to watch me scroll through endless photos of torsos.
“It’s okay. I’ve seen everything,” says the female guard, like a doctor.
“It’s gone!” I yelp. His profile, our 4:00 a.m. chat, and every interaction between us from earlier is now completely missing from my Grindr account. “He blocked me, I think?” I conclude, looking up.
“What does that mean?” she asks.
“It erases each of you from each other, like you don’t exist.”
* * * * *
The next afternoon, at 2:00 p.m., I’m in an Uber car heading downtown to meet my chorus of friends—Quentin, Frank, Becky, Tara, Merritt, Fred, William, and Fernando—for breakfast at Yaffa Cafe. We categorize Yaffa as “Last York,” one of the few downtown haunts of yore still standing. Once downtown, I descend the stairs into Yaffa under a hand-written sign above the door that reads “Back Patio Permanently Closed.” I tell them all what happened last night. They listen in silence and then begin to offer theories as they talk over one another.”¨
“Aren’t you a little old for Grindr?”
“Was this more embarrassing than the time you shit your pants at Sound Factory?”
“Satanists. Check for needle marks.”
“You need to eat better. You probably just blacked out, and he left.”
“Satanists in black hoods don’t show up on cameras.”
“All ghosts are bottoms.”
“Ghosts haunt decaying old buildings, not the Internet!”
“So what’s a gay guy who only sleeps with ghosts called?”
“I still say you were dosed. Check your butt for blood.”
I order the avocado salad with carrot dressing.
* * * * *
The next day I arrive at the 9th Precinct on East 5th Street. Apparently, I wasn’t Steve’s only “victim” in the area. It turns out someone fitting my description of him has been targeting some gay men in the city for under a year, using Grindr to rob them, or something to that effect, they said. I feel more curious than civic. When I relate my experience with Steve, the officer recording it just types and nods.
The 9th Precinct isn’t as “Last York” as I’d hoped. I’d pictured watching suspects in a lineup behind glass while someone brought me Styrofoam cups of bad coffee. Instead, someone named Sargent Lazor sits me down in his grimy office and proudly scrolls through Photoshopped composite “sketches” on an iPad, finally stopping on one that resembles Steve.
“You’re sure this looks like the man who came to your apartment?”
“Yes.” I answer. “Looks like.”
I sign some sort of form.
* * * * *
On Wednesday Michael Musto has an item in his column that reads “We’ve all met someone online with attractive photos who then shows up at your door looking like something from Night of the Living Dead, but rumors are growing amongst app-happy gays of a real life ‘ghost trick’ who shows up at your apartment via Grindr, then vanishes into thin air (shady!). I don’t know what to think of this urban legend-y tale, but shaken witnesses are sticking by their stories, and police have been involved in a few incidents, so be careful out there, boys (and ghouls).”
The “Ghost of Grindr” begins to trend.
Media attention focuses on the metaphysical, not the crime. There’s a vaguely homophobic piece in the New York Post called “The Gay iPhone Ghost.” A blog at The New York Times does a way-too-allegorical post called “Ghosts in Gay Town.” The composite sketch of Steve begins popping up on Gawker, Facebook, etc. A few faked photographs make it to Snopes.com. There are rumors Syfy’s Ghost Hunters started contacting people around town but canceled when the subject matter was deemed too seedy. Parody profiles start popping up on Grindr, Scruff, and even Craigslist, usually with the composite drawing and lines like “Can I have a glass of water?” or “Is it 4:00 a.m.?” One I see has a cartoon image of Casper the Friendly Ghost. More and more men claim to have been visited, whether it is real or not.
As a person in the city, Steve had been unknown, but his ghost has become “New York famous.” Another “Last York” concept itself.
* * * * *
A few days later, as is the “Last York” custom, one of my friends from Yaffa said he met someone who met someone who met someone named Charles, who knows a lot about Steve. He gave me his e-mail address and phone number. I was told that this Charles was writing an article or something, but I was warned that he was a little strange (like how Charles had gotten my friend’s number and just called him out of the blue). At any rate, Charles could give me a lot more information. Curiosity prompted me to give him a call.
“Thanks for calling. I hate e-mail,” Charles says later, through what I assumed was a landline. He has the type of voice belonging to someone who wears a baseball cap to hide male-pattern baldness.
“I understand you had a run-in with our Steve?” he asks promptly.
“Yes. My friend said you were writing something about him?”
“You mean with the police?”
“The police are idiots,” he says, chuckling. “Did they make you look at the iPad?”
“So you’re a private detective?” I ask.
“No. I’m trying to track down a missing person the way any family member would. Well, gay family, back then. Not related by blood.”
“A different era of New York. So tell me your experience, if you don’t mind.”
“Well, we chatted on Grindr. We connected, I guess. He came to my apartment. It was late. I answered the door, and he walked in and asked for a glass . . .”
“. . . a glass of water! Yep. I’m sorry, go on.”
“Well, he kind of acted weird, and . . .”
“. . . at some point you turned around, and he was gone.”
“Yes. I guess you know that part.”
“Did he do anything besides what you’ve described? Anything at all?”
“No. I can’t really remember anything.”
“Was it 4:00 a.m.?”
“Uh . . . I think so.”
“I have yet to hear from anyone who didn’t have an experience with Steve right at that minute! I had Grindr for a while and used to turn it on at 4:00 a.m. every night. But they permanently deleted my account because they said I was harassing people! Assholes.”
There’s a long pause, and I hear him take a drag off of a cigarette.
“If you’ve seen his profile on Grindr, can’t you tell if it’s your friend?” I finally ask.
“I haven’t!” he bellows with excitement. “No one can figure out what he looks like now, not exactly. When he disappears from your place, he also does from Grindr. Not one witness has been able to provide a screen grab. But Steve is savvy about technology. He was always very clever.”
My phone vibrates and dings.
“I just texted you two photos of Steve.”
I look at them. They show a diminutive, skinny male with pale skin and short-cropped hair. But it’s clearly not him.
My shoulders drop, and I weakly smile, oddly relieved.
“Okay, I’m sorry. That’s not the guy I saw in my apartment.”
“Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. Listen, I should probably go . . .”
My phone dings again. He’s sent me two more photos.
I look at the two newer photos.
One is of Steve at a crowded nightclub, sporting a Caesar haircut and a large T-shirt with a graphic of an eight ball on it. The other is of him lying on a bed on his stomach, wearing baggy jeans and looking back over his shoulder, his eyes peering from beneath the brim of an oversize baseball cap.
They are without a doubt pictures of the guy that was in my apartment.
“Yes.” I say. “That’s him!”
He laughs joyfully, confessing, “I’ve started sending that first batch as a test to every person I talk to. The fakers always ID the first two. That’s how I know.”
“You mean some people lie and say they’ve seen him?”
“You know that old cliché that there are thirty million people in the big city, and they all have a story to tell?”
“Well, some people don’t, so they have to lie.”
* * * * *
“This is Steve!” I proudly announce, holding my phone up so Lieutenant Rowland can see.
It’s the next day, and I’m back at the 9th Precinct to show Sargent Lazor the photos of Steve that Charles had sent me, but he’s unavailable, so I’m talking to Lieutenant Rowland instead. She has a bigger stomach than Sargent Lazor. She also wears a wig. She looks at the photo of Steve without a reaction. “You’ve been talking with Charles, haven’t you?” she asks calmly. “Is he bothering you in any way?”
“Yes.” I confess. “No.”
“Listen,” she sighs from behind her desk, “this Charles guy has been making things difficult. Avoid him. He’s gonna want to meet with you. Then you’ll go to his apartment, where he’ll show you some really gross photos of this Steve guy. Then he’ll think you’re leading him to Steve, or you are Steve. That’s when the harassment starts and why we had one witness take out a restraining order against him. Stay way. He’s trouble.”
She calmly gets up and walks out of the room saying nothing. I get up to leave, thinking she just did the same. As I’m putting my phone in my bag, she walks back in, holding another file. She lays it on her desk so I can see. She turns friendly again.
“Here’s Steve’s file.” She shuffles through two series of mug shots. They’re the clearest photos I’ve seen of him yet. “Were you a friend of his? Family?”
“Let’s see. He had a few drug arrests—1997, 1999. Dealing and possession, minor. Petty theft charges, one aggravated assault, dropped.”
“Charles told me that . . .”
“Stop listening to Charles!” she scolds me.
“So he’s back to dealing and robbing people now?” I ask.
“His remains were found at the bottom of the elevator shaft of an abandoned building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on February 3, 2001, during a construction job,” she continues. “He’d been declared a missing person up to that point. His body was ID’d, thanks to the diligence of your friend Charles. Dental records proved positive. Missing since September 1999. Date of death February 9, 2001. There were signs of long-term drug use. Cause of death, inconclusive. The body was partially mummified, bound with tape and put in several garbage bags, and thrown into the shaft. All trauma to the body was postmortem. It’s addicts. They might OD. Their drug friends don’t want to deal with the police, so they get rid of the body.”
* * * * *
“Do you know I’ve collected every single issue of HX and Next magazine since 1991?” Charles tells me when we speak again the next day on the phone. “You’re on the covers of many of the early ones!”
I was a famous go-go boy in New York nightlife a million years ago. Apparently, my life’s greatest accomplishment. I want to confront him about what I learned about Steve, but I’m uncertain how to phrase it all. “Listen, I went back to the pol . . .”
“I have a friend there. The police don’t like me because they don’t have a clue. I wish you hadn’t shown them the photos. You don’t understand. Steve came to New York City in a different era and found a home. He was gay, handsome, and smart. Too smart. He loved weird music and films. He was a great comic book artist, always working on his own graphic novels, a fantastic drawer. He loved cruising boys. He went to nightclubs a lot. He loved to try everything and couldn’t say no. Eventually, he developed a drug problem. When he found out he was HIV positive, well, that’s when everything spiraled. I don’t think he knew where to turn. He’d run away from a bad home life to New York City, but later, when he was trying to run away from what he ultimately found here, he had nowhere to escape to. He’d reached the end of the world.” I suddenly regret toying with him, this Charles, this ghost-like voice on the other end of my phone. “Like a rat in a cage. The drugs got harder; everything got more intense. I got him into rehab once, dragged him to those substance-abuse meetings at the Gay and Lesbian Center. These things offered hope for a moment. Soon enough he’d been evicted from his apartment, his stuff thrown on the sidewalk, the whole bit. He was homeless. Well, that was the end, really. I gave him money sometimes, always regretted it. Steve could use people easily. Kids like him are pardoned because of their good looks, but that kind of seduction accrues a negative balance over time. When their appearance shifts, reality crashes in.”
“I’ve known people like that.”
“I’m sure you have,” he says. “In the six months it took me to realize he was really gone, the clues had grown cold. I lost that period where we could have done a formal search with the police. All his closest friends were addicts too, all gone now. There were rumors of his death, never a body or report. I checked morgues, police files, looked at rosters of photos of dead gay kids—ugh, I don’t recommend doing that—I checked prison rolls. I was alone in looking for him. I still am! Steve’s life was a loose end. But now he’s back.”
“So you think now he’s back to dealing and robbing people?” I ask, more confused than ever.
“Why are the police interested, then?”
“People have claimed he’s stealing stuff. He isn’t, but it doesn’t matter. The person they’re looking for is someone different, who has only committed one or two robberies. They don’t even know who they’re looking for. Idiots! Now Steve’s appearances have framed him as the thief. The detectives haven’t combined the two files yet because they don’t think it’s the same person, but I know it is. Do you understand?”
“Drugs do that to people in New York. They don’t die; they just disappear down rabbit holes.”
“Well . . . ,” I say. I sort of laugh. “New York has changed a lot.”
“Yeah, the rabbit holes have higher rents.”
* * * * *
Two days later there are nine voicemails from Charles on my phone. Lieutenant Rowland had been right. He wants to meet in person (not going to happen). I call him. “I sometimes have frightening dreams about Steve,” Charles starts right off into the phone before I can say a word. “In one dream, he’s calling me from a pay phone on my block late at night. I run to my window to look down at the phone on the sidewalk just in time to see him look up at me and laugh as he hangs up and runs off.”
“Charles . . . how old was Steve when he disappeared?”
“So now he’d be . . .”
“There’s no way the guy in my apartment was forty-six. It must be the other guy.”
“What other guy?” he loudly scolds me but continues in a quieter tone. “In another dream, I’m running around Tompkins Square Park at night. The city is deserted. No lights. Everything’s gray. I come to the facade of an old building I know Steve’s in. Inside I stumble around until I come to an apartment door. I open it and know Steve is in there but see only pitch darkness. I know something is terribly wrong. You know, I actually went around the East Village trying to find the facade of this building from my dream. I even made sketches of it. I’m not sure it existed.”
“The police said they showed you photos of Steve’s body,” I finally say.
He ignores me.
“The last time I saw Steve,” he keeps going, his voice winding down, “was in front of the Boiler Room in 2000. He was riding a bike without a shirt on, so pale and thin, his eyes like ice cubes. He zoomed past at the speed of light just as I was leaving at closing time. I yelled his name, but he didn’t hear. I watched him go east on 4th Street, then turn the corner south on 1st Avenue and disappear like a little white dot.”
“Charles, they said you helped positively ID his body.” My voice begins to shake. “So I’m not clear on whether you think Steve’s really out there or what.”
He stays silent.
“Steve is dead,” I say calmly, with no doubt in my mind as well that Steve was in my apartment a month ago.
“I just miss him so much,” Charles says and begins to cry. “I’d love to see him one more time. I just need to look in his face and know everything’s all right.”
Before I hang up and block his number I reassure this man—this voice—that everything’s going to be okay and promise to contact him if I have another run-in with Steve. But I know I won’t. Not because Steve isn’t there, but because he didn’t find what he was looking for here. He’ll keep searching. A boy on the run. I watch out my window at a freezing February sun casting another sunset behind the buildings under construction along the West Side Highway. I fire up Grindr.