I live about ten miles from the Machus Red Fox restaurant where I closed my first multi-million dollar sale. It is also the place where, years before that sale, I had the most romantic meal of my life, sipping lobster bisque off the gentleman’s silver spoon, sharing rare Chateaubriand for two. I remember he asked me how I liked my meat done, and when I said “rare” he told the waiter, “Put it by the fire and let it graze.” It was also the restaurant where, years before that bit of culinary foreplay, six of us went to dinner after prom, and not one of us had a clue as to why we were served sorbet between courses. We were suspicious it was some culinary insult to our youth.
That restaurant is called Andiamo, now, part of an upscale chain of Italian restaurants where people like Regis Philbin come to entertain. I haven’t been there since it changed hands, but I pass by often, and it never fails to bring back memories – just not the memories I recounted to you. I never think about that sale, even though it was a major event in my professional life. And I never think about that dinner with the handsome sales manager from Rohm and Haas, even though after that meal, with its two bottles of excellent red wine, and an aperitif with the chocolate soufflé – well, I’ll let you use your imagination. And I don’t even think back fondly on prom night, to a life where I sped around in a little red two-seater Fiat, and inhabited Kelly Ripa’s body in more than my imagination.
What I think about when I pass the old Machus Red Fox restaurant is Jimmy Hoffa. That’s the place, when July 30, 1975, at 2:45 in the afternoon, he was last seen, climbing into the back of a Mercury Marquis. If they had just found his body in a field or floating with the fishes in Lake Huron, I don’t think the sight of the Red Fox would affect me in the same way. It’s the mystery of what happened, right there in that parking lot, which never fails to come calling. Without a resolution, what happened to Jimmy Hoffa remains forever an imperfect tale.
I came across such an unsolved mystery this week with roots in the LGBT community. Gay playwright Peter Mercurio has written a new play, Found, the true story of how he and his partner, social worker Danny Stewart, unexpectedly became fathers. It’s a wonderful, life-affirming tale, and it has a happy ending. But like the Hoffa disappearance, the story has a hole in it. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle with a missing piece. We can still admire the beautiful picture, but in the corner there’s a spot where the tabletop shows through.
In December of 2000, Danny Stewart was a 34-year-old underpaid social worker, in a three-year relationship with struggling playwright Peter Mercuiro. The C Train was not a route Danny regularly took, so perhaps he was more alert to his surroundings than many of his fellow travelers who rode that same train, day in, day out. As he headed for the 14th Street exit, the closest exit to his car, Danny noticed what he thought was a doll tucked behind the turnstile, but as he started up the stairs, his heart jumped as he saw the bundle move.
It would be determined later that the baby Danny found was three hours old. It was a boy, brown-skinned, docile, with the umbilical cord still attached. Imagine for a moment, what it must be like to make such a discovery. Danny’s mind must have been racing. He immediately put in an urgent call to 911. Then he waited. And waited, with his adrenaline flowing at maximum levels. Every second must have seemed like hours, with his thoughts racing, and curious strangers passing by. It was only natural that he would call his partner and share his predicament. If ever a hero were in need of a sidekick, this was it.
Pete rushed to the station to help, but by the time he arrived, the police were on the scene. Baby Ace, nicknamed for the A/C/E station he was found in, was soon taken by ambulance to St. Vincent’s Hospital. The men tried, but they were not allowed to visit the baby, though they regularly called to check on him. Eventually, hospital workers told Danny the baby’s grandmother had claimed him, and the men were left to hope that this was the happy, if unsatisfying, ending they were hoping for.
Three weeks later, Danny got an unexpected phone call. He was needed to testify about how he found Baby Ace. The mother had been found. She didn’t want the baby, and little Ace was about to become a ward of the State of New York. Danny went through his account of finding the baby, wrapped in a black sweatshirt, behind the turnstile. Testimony from a police officer and a social worker followed. Then, as Pete tells the story, out of left field, the Family Court judge turned to Danny and asked him if he would like to adopt the baby.
Danny immediately said “Yes.” Pete, who was not allowed in court that day, was stunned. He says the couple had never even discussed parenthood, and describes his reaction as being the “jerk part of knee jerk.” But the two men went to visit the baby in his foster home, and Pete had a change of heart. Holding that tiny little life in his arms, Pete fell in love. Danny was already there. The couple talked it over, and decided, if they could, they would adopt this little boy that fate left in their path.
The men spent the next year jumping through every hoop the state social workers held up. They named the boy Kevin, after Danny’s brother, who had died before Danny was born. The Dads found themselves in the age-old role of anxious first-time parents, stressing over diaper rash, and checking regularly to be sure the baby was still breathing.
Pete admits he tried to guard his heart, thinking the adoption would never really happen, but he found it an impossible task. After a year of acting as Kevin’s foster parents, a year of bottles and diapers, and sleepless nights, Danny and Pete had been transformed into Daddy and Papi. They stood in front of the same judge who had precipitously asked Danny if he wanted to adopt the baby he had found. The judge pronounced them legally and irrevocably, fathers and son.
It was at that happy adoption proceeding that Pete sought to solve the puzzle, the mystery that so vexes me. He too wanted to put that one missing puzzle piece in its place. He asked the judge why she thought to ask Danny if he wanted to adopt the baby. After all, it’s hardly normal procedure to give away babies to the people who happen to find them. But the judge kept her secret, “I had a hunch.” She answered, and quickly left the bench.
Hunches are a very strange human feeling. I have always thought of them as a decision making process for which the deliberations are held in some secret part of the brain. There has to be some kind of evaluation doesn’t there? Otherwise, a hunch is no different than a random guess. And no judge would simply guess about the safety of a helpless baby in her charge. What was it this judge knew that allowed her the confidence to offer a single man a baby?
Pete wrote an account of how he and Danny became parents that speculates on some of the possibilities. Did the judge know Danny was gay, and want to make a statement? Did she know he was a social worker and assume he would be interested? It seems I am not the only one curious.
Had I been tasked as a fiction writer to flesh out the character of the judge and explain her “hunch,” I could have come up with a hundred explanations. Perhaps Danny expressed his interest to her unknown to Pete. He admits his first reaction to the prospect of fatherhood was largely negative. Perhaps someone on her staff overheard the couple talking, or some sympathetic hospital worker took it upon herself to write the judge a letter about the loving gay couple who demonstrated an interest in the baby. Maybe the judge could not reveal whom it was who whispered in her ear that Danny Stewart would make a wonderful father, without betraying a confidence. A social worker Danny worked with? A client he helped who had appeared before the same judge?
When marriage equality came to New York, Danny and Pete were married. It was their ten-year-old son, Kevin, who suggested they ask the judge who had put the family together to perform the ceremony. Pete wrote the letter. The judge happily agreed. I imagine it was quite a satisfying moment, being able to legally marry the family she had enabled with her “hunch.”
Twice, this judge legally establish this family. But twice she kept her secret about why she came to do so. As Paul Simon said, “That information’s not available to the mortal man.” But that information is the pivotal scene missing in Pete’s new play, Found. That information is the Rosetta Stone Kevin needs to understand the genesis of his life with his two fathers. That information is the key to understanding the story for all of us looking in. But so far, we have been left to wonder.
Perhaps someday the judge will share her reasons for asking Danny if he would like to adopt Kevin. We’ll learn if she was surprised when she discovered Danny was gay, or if she knew it all along. We’ll find out if there was some Deep Throat informer advocating for Danny in the shadows, or if it all happened because the judge thought she heard the voice of God. Until then, I will have to be satisfied that I can see the larger, beautiful picture of a happy family formed by fate, and try not to notice the missing piece in the corner.
Maybe, just maybe, they will discover what happened to Jimmy Hoffa. And maybe, just maybe, the judge will someday explain what moved her to ask Danny Stewart if he wanted Baby Ace. Until then, the unsolved mysteries of life, like the judge’s transformational hunch, will remain, hauntingly, a puzzlement.
Jean Ann Esselink is a straight friend to the gay community. Proud and loud Liberal. Columnist for The New Civil Rights Movement. Closet writer of political fiction. Black sheep agnostic Democrat from a conservative Catholic family. Living in Northern Oakland County Michigan with Puck the Wonder Beagle.