Schmuck  Brothers of East Harlem

by Richard Grayson

So we’re just walking past Murray’s Sturgeon Shop when my new friend Shira Finkelstein asks me if I’d let her photograph me kissing her boyfriend.

“No way,” I say.  “I’ve got my own boyfriend, thanks.”  I take my wallet out of my jeans, and behind my Washington Mutual debit card I dig out a pic of Adam and me in front of the Golden Gate Bridge.  “And you can see how fine he is,” I tell her.

She looks and nods.  “Um.  He’s okay.”

“More than okay,” I tell her as I stuff my wallet back into my pocket and pick up the pace on Broadway.

“He looks like Will Smith,” Shira Finkelstein says.

“So?  Will Smith’s cute,” I say.

“But he’s, like, old,” she says.

I ask Shira Finkelstein how old her boyfriend is.

“Seventeen,” she says as we turn left at 95th Street and go past the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater.

“What?” I say.  “You’re robbing the cradle.  You’re, like, how much older than him?”

Shira Finkelstein sighs.  She likes younger guys, she tells me, and then she goes into this whole spiel about Adonises and shit like that.  Then, just as we get to the door of her building on West End Avenue, she says, “I just have this thing about watching two guys kiss.  You wouldn’t have to even take your clothes off for the photo.  Although if you wore something sleeveless, I could get your tattoo in.”

I keep shaking my head.  “I have no interest in chicken,” I tell her.

“I want this,” she tells me.  “You haven’t known me that long, but by now you must know I’m used to getting what I want.”

I just can’t get why she wants it.

“Um, I need it.  Kind of an aphrodisiac, you know?  Boys understand that, don’t they?”

“Man,” I tell Shira Finkelstein, “you’re awfully kinky for a frum chick.”

“I’m not that frum,” she protests.

We’ve just walked up from 85th Street, where we had dinner at the Kashbah Kosher Café, above whose doorway is a big picture of Rabbi Schneerson hunched over the Torah, one hand upraised.  Under the picture it says in big letters WELCOME MOSHIACH.

The Kasbah Kosher Café’s logo is a bull and on their awning is this quote: “Bulls will then be offered.”  And under it: “Psalms 5:21.”

Of course immediately after dinner, we did go across the street to Victoria’s Secret, where Shira Finkelstein asked me to approve her two purchases.

I met Shira Finkelstein at a photography class at Cooper Union.  She came right after me in the class roster, Finkelstein following Finch.  The teacher made us partners on a first night assignment and we hit it off. 

I haven’t told her, and don’t plan to, that my family name used to be the same as hers till my grandfather read To Kill a Mockingbird.  She’d just try to figure out if we’re cousins or something.

At first I thought she thought I might be boyfriend material.  I don’t know why but I guess that thought flattered me, so I figured I’d let it play out for a while. 

But the first time we saw each other outside of class, we were walking on 86th Street near Lex when I got a sudden craving for Tasti D-Lite.  She didn’t want any – maybe because it’s not kosher – and after I’d finished it and thrown away my empty cup and the napkin and plastic spoon, she looked straight at me.

“Do you realize that anyone watching you eat even a single bite of that ice cream would know in half a second that you’re gay?” Shira Finkelstein said.

I might have blushed.  “It’s not really ice cream,” I told her.

Adam doesn’t want to hear about Shira Finkelstein and her desires.

He works on Wall Street, in an extremely important position, so he’s very tense.

Before he came out, when he was in his early twenties, Adam actually was married to a Jewish woman he met in college.  And he converted and everything, to please her family even though he kept imagining her grandparents would never be able to look at him and not think schvartze.

That was a long, long time ago, but Adam never bothered to convert back.  So technically he’s still Jewish.  To me, he’s like the God of the Old Testament, always laying down rules.  And since I live in his condo, I basically go along with him.  Sometimes it’s hard, because he always comes home from work really stressed.

“This girl sounds like a fucking nutjob,” Adam tells me before he turns out the lamp on his side of the bed.  “I really would stay away from her if I were you.”

Although the room is now dark, I need to get out of bed because my Estée Lauder Stress Relief Eye Mask is still on.  I’ve told Adam that the aloe and cucumber in it would do him a world of good, but he won’t listen.

So for a week I ignore Shira Finkelstein when I see her number on my cell phone.  She keeps calling, and I do like her, and finally she starts texting me.  But I feel she’s presuming on our budding friendship so I decide not to answer her about the photo with her boyfriend till I get this message:

i’ll pay you for your time!

I call Shira Finkelstein and we meet at the Starbucks on 95th Street near her house. 

“Does your boyfriend even want to kiss another guy?” I ask her after we sit down with our frappuccinos.  “I mean, is he bi?”

She waves her hand, flashing these wonderful sparkly light green nails, courtesy of Hard Candy Vintage Nail Polish’s classic Tantrum. 

“He’ll do anything I ask,” Shira Finkelstein says.

“I guess,” I say, “if he’s seventeen.”  My mom used to play a song about a girl being seventeen.

Shira Finkelstein says, “Is a hundred dollars enough?  It really shouldn’t take more than an hour.”

“Fine,” I say. 

I’m not doing it for the money.  Well, I am doing it for the money, but not for the particular sum.  What I mean is, oh, I’m such a Mary Ann, and this gives me the chance to do something transgressive – although it’s not something I’m going to brag about to my friends who’ve done actual interesting boundary-crossing shit.

Shira Finkelstein excuses herself and goes back to the counter.  I assume she’s ordering a reduced-fat muffin or maybe those madelaines she likes and I don’t, but when she comes back, she’s empty-handed and tells me, “Igor says it’s do-able.”


She points to the barista, who’s working at the espresso machine.  He’s a tall, rangy white kid with long blondish hair pushed back above his pierced ears, making him look slightly like Jar Jar Binks.  He’s got pale skin with a sprinkling of acne above his unibrow.  You can tell he has been trying to grow sideburns but can’t.  Yech.

“That’s your boyfriend?” I say.

Shira Finkelstein smiles and nods, lifting her eyebrows high enough so that I can tell she’s wearing Urban Decay’s Maui Wowie eyeshadow.

I make sure to break the news to Adam when he’s in a good mood, so I give him the SparkNotes version, without too much critical exegesis, over dinner at his favorite restaurant, Café des Artistes.

For Adam, he takes it pretty well.  I guess he’s pleased because he knows I would never hide anything from him or lie to him.

Of course, I always make the mistake of going one step too far.  After I take the last bite of my rack of lamb with herb crust and tomato fondue, I say, “It will be an interesting experience, don’t you think?  I mean, it’s just an innocent photograph.”

“This innocent photograph, what’s she gonna call it?”  Adam says with a snort.  “Schmuck Brothers of East Harlem?”

Schmuck Brothers is an actual store on 125th Street east of Third Avenue, though technically they are the Schmuck Brothers of Pennsylvania, Antique Liquidators Since 1929.  Adam and I discovered it on one of our long walks uptown.  We both like to walk, although we’ve been doing less of it lately.  He’s got a lot of work at the office.  More stress.  

If Adam had used the Cellcomet Anti-Stress Cream Mask I’d bought him last week, the clay in it would have exfoliated and detoxified his skin.  And the orange flower and rosewater in it would have calmed him down a little, maybe enough so that he could appreciate this romantic atmosphere.

But no.  Instead we sit in silence as the frolicking nude wood nymphs in the murals look on. 

Before the photo shoot, Shira Finkelstein thinks Igor and I should get to know each other a little, so we all meet for dinner downtown at Cooper 35, across from the school.  I think her observance of the kosher dietary rules only holds north of 14th Street.  We sit outside and I have a beer with my cold sesame noodles.

Igor, who looks at my Molson longingly, picks at his salmon.  He does not have good table manners.  I wonder who paid for his Blue Cult jeans.

“It’s such a beautiful evening,” Shira Finkelstein says.

Igor just stares at her, nodding.  He must really like to have sex with her.

“Why don’t you give Igor a sip of your beer?” she asks me.  “You know, to break the ice.  At least get your lips on the same glass.”

“Sure,” I say, handing the glass to the kid, wondering if he’d be interested in the number of my manicurist.  Igor has a cuticle problem.

He takes a healthy sip of the beer, then another.

“Aren’t we contributing to the delinquency of a minor?” I ask Shira Finkelstein.

She sighs.  “I’ve been doing that for four months now.”

Igor smiles at me.  “You think she is like Humbert Humbert?”

There’s a mouthful of cold sesame noodles about to enter my mouth, so I wait till I chew and swallow thoroughly and put down my chopsticks and pat my lips with my napkin.  It’s given me time to come up with a Jewish response: “Do you think she’s like Humbert Humbert?”

Igor smiles again.  “No, I think she is like Lolita herself,” he says.

Even though Adam told me he’d be at work till maybe midnight, I’d hoped the evening of bonding with Igor would end early.  But Shira Finkelstein’s parents have gone to Sagaponack for the weekend and she wants to rent a movie at Kim’s and watch it, the three of us, at home.  So I follow her there, in a less puppy-dog manner than Igor does.

I always get bamboozled in video stores, overwhelmed by the choices.  But tonight I decide early on that I’m going to hold out for Diary of a Mad Black Woman.  Igor wants to see Women in Love – not many people know that Larry Kramer wrote the screenplay – but I definitely am not into either Glenda Jackson or nude wrestling.  Of course we end up with the choice of Shira Finkelstein – The Dreamers – which neither Igor nor I are happy about.

Still, it’s not about our happiness, is it?

While waiting for the subway uptown, we’re standing in front a poster for Con Edison.  New York’s Best Street Performers Don’t Mime, Juggle or Do Standup, it says, with the small print touting the skills of its repair and maintenance crews.  There are photos of various Con Ed workers and above one of a female hardhat fixing something halfway under the sidewalk, someone has graffitied this thought balloon:

I would make twice as much money if I were a Ho.

Inside the subway car we get on, two teenage boys a little younger than Igor are b-boying to a boom box with a littler kid of maybe nine or ten.  They’re all wearing black and their breaking is pretty good but not spectacular.  I’d say okay footwork and spinning but they can’t freeze for shit.  Then again, a moving train isn’t exactly solid ground.  I think of getting out my cell to take a quick picture but decide against it.

As we exit to transfer at the Times Square stop, Shira Finkelstein hands the shorty a twenty-dollar bill. 

“I assume you put your cell number on it so he can call you for a date,” I say as we walk to the 1/2/3 tracks.  When Igor laughs at this, she elbows him in the ribs.  He pretends he’s hurt and stumbles around, bumping into a Latino woman with a baby in a stroller. 

“Perdóname,” Igor says to her.  At least he’s polite.

But when we get out at 96th Street, I tell Shira Finkelstein I don’t really want to watch a movie.

“Me neither,” Igor says.  The peanut gallery has spoken.

Shira Finkelstein doesn’t look dismayed.  “Well, if you guys are both nervous, why don’t we just get it over with?  Come up and I’ll shoot you and it will be all over in a little while and you can just pretend it was all a dream or something.”

“I’ve got a headache,” I say.

“Headaches are what my mom uses for birth control,” Shira Finkelstein says, and Igor laughs.

“Oh fuck, why not?” I say.  “But if I had known beforehand, I really would have put on more product tonight.”

I try to call Adam to tell him I’m going through with it and will be home in a couple of hours – everything needs to be transparent here – but he’s probably still at his meeting because he’s not picking up.

We’re going to sit on the living room sectional, Shira Finkelstein tells us as she fiddles with her expensive camera, a birthday gift from her grandfather.  Before we went to the current show at MOMA, she was under the misapprehension that Lee Friedlander was a woman.

We don’t have to, but she’d really appreciate it if we’d put on the wifebeaters she’d got for us at Tar-zhay.  Before I say anything, Igor’s already peeled off his Pixies T-shirt, so I figure I’ll play along too and start unbuttoning my polo shirt.

Igor seems as surprised by the tacky Star of David that Adam bought for me at as I am that he’s wearing a mezzuzah.  I think we’re both embarrassed.

I talk when I’m embarrassed so I say, “I just have it so that any terrorists who capture me will know to torture me a lot before they kill me.  Also it’s from my boyfriend.  What’s your excuse?”

He shrugs, points to Shira Finkelstein.  “Dunno, she tortures me enough.”

She looks up from her photographic equipment long enough to say, “How sweet, look at all you boys have in common.  I bet you’re both circumcised.”  She motions to the body art he’s got on his right upper arm and the Celtic-symbol tattoo on my left shoulder.  “And neither of you can be buried properly.  You might just as well start smooching now.”

Igor sniffs.  “Wet yet?” he asks her.

I’m not close enough to him yet, but I hope he uses deodorant – even if it’s Mitchum.

My own fragrance tonight is Demeter’s worn-leathery Riding Crop.

“It’s showtime, kids,” Shira Finkelstein tells us.

I’m real worried that the night has gotten away from me and Adam will be wondering where I am, but when I let myself into the apartment, he isn’t even back yet himself.  What a relief.

Not that I have anything to feel guilty about, not really.  Kissing Igor was not as gross as I expected although as we got close for the first shot, I had to offer him an Altoid. 

I understand now what movie actors go through.  It actually is kind of uncomfortable when someone photographs two people kissing.  You never realize that usually your noses are being squished together in a manner that looks altogether unattractive on camera.

And I didn’t expect it to take that long, but Igor unexpectedly got a case of the giggles that was totally contagious.  It was involuntary, but it frustrated Shira Finkelstein.  Every time our lips would get closer and closer, one or both of us would start laughing again, ruining the shot.

Igor’s a decent kid.  I think he must care about her a lot to do what he did, because I don’t think he’s bi at all.  They were probably having incredible sex after I left for the East Side.

I kind of got a little excited myself, which is why I’m hoping Adam gets back any minute.  He’s been so tired lately that I can’t remember the last time we kissed, much less fucked.

But I’m pretty much asleep when Adam comes in our bedroom.  “It’s okay, I’m not asleep,” I tell him, knowing he’s been trying not to wake me.

I sit up in bed and move to kiss him.  I get just the corner of his lip.  “It’s late,” he says.

“I need to tell you everything that happened with Shira Finkelstein and her boyfriend tonight,” I say.  “Emphasis on boy, by the way.”

Adam doesn’t say anything.

“I’m so glad you’re home,” I tell him.  His response is a sigh.

And then, rousing myself fully, I recount everything that happened, not the SparkNotes version this time but the whole megillah, including every feeling I had with Igor.  If I’m totally honest, Adam can’t hold it against me.

Maybe it’s just that he wants to go to sleep, but he seems bored by my story.  Or maybe it’s Adam being passive-aggressive as usual. 

“Are you upset?” I ask him.  “It didn’t mean anything.”

His fingers dawdle on the bedcover and he says, “Tyler, I think you should start looking for another place to live.”

“Huh?” I say.  “Because of this stupid photography thing?  Adam, it was a big nothing.  You think I give a shit about this icky little boy or his stupid girlfriend?  I’m sorry.   I wouldn’t have done it at all if you’d absolutely said no, but in the end it seemed like you didn’t care.”

He tells me this isn’t about Igor or anything related to it, that not everything is about me, this is about him.  He’s met someone, he’s been seeing someone, he hasn’t known how to tell me but it’s getting…

While Adam is talking, I’m thinking but not saying, You’re always working, when do you have time to see anyone, till it hits me what an asshole I’ve been.  And then I say aloud, “I’m not going to make a scene…”

Adam notes that technically to “make a scene” I’d have to be with him in a public place and we’re in his bedroom.  And then I do make a scene.  When it’s over, my throat hurts a lot and my eyes are so red and puffy that not a single Kiehl’s product could make them look normal again.

Adam won’t tell me about the guy he’s in love with, if he’s younger or older than me, if he’s smarter or funnier, what his body is like, what sex with him is like – Adam says it’ll just make me more unhappy, and that he’s sorry he made me this unhappy already.  

Towards daylight I realize that I’d better play on his guilt, since basically that’s all I’ve got going for me now.  I should never have agreed to pose for those pictures.  I want them destroyed.

When I meet Shira Finkelstein at the Union Square Café on a muggy Tuesday over a week later, she gives me not only the check for a hundred dollars but also “a bonus for being such a good sport”: a bar of certified-organic, cruelty-free hand soap infused with grapefruit seed extract.  I bet it’s from The Body Shop and the she’s just placed it in a Sephora bag to soften me up.

“I got some lip gloss there for myself,” she lies, puckering.  “Vincent Longo’s Baci XXX.”

Inside her Birkin handbag is another plastic shopping bag, this one from the St. Mark’s Bookshop.  “And this is from Igor,” she says.  “Well, I paid for it, but he was the one who picked it out.”

It’s a copy of Nabokov’s Pale Fire.  I look inside for an inscription, maybe something similar to the text messages Igor’s been sending me: i’m bored, wanna hang out?  But there’s nothing personal in it. 

“Well, thank you so much,” I tell Shira Finkelstein.  “And thank Igor for me.”

“Thank you,” she says.  “You’re a good friend.  You knew this meant a lot to me, and you didn’t want to do it, but you did it to make me happy.”

“So are you happy?” I ask her.

Leaning over and kissing me on the cheek, Shira Finkelstein says she’s always happy.  Today she also reeks of way too much Ralph Lauren Blue.  

I don’t say anything.

“Igor’s happy too.”

“Good,” I say.

Shira Finkelstein clears her throat.  “So how’s Adam these days?”

“Oh, he’s very happy,” I tell her.  I’m being honest, after all.

She nods.  And leans closer.  “Well, just between you, me and the wallpaper: if you weren’t such a Boy Scout with your relationship with Adam – which, by the way, I think is totally sweet and beautiful – I think Igor might be interested in some boy-on-boy action.” 

She waits for my response but finally says, “You know, I wouldn’t mind it in the least.”

“Mm-hm,” I say, “especially if you could videotape it.”

Shira Finkelstein laughs.  Then she says: “Are you in?”

I shrug.  “It depends.”

I really have other things on my mind, like finding a new place to live and getting funding to continue my education.

If only Igor were older and didn’t work at Starbucks.  Still, if I insisted, she’d probably pay to get his eyebrows waxed.

I lift my glass of white wine and motion for her to do the same.  Technically, we’re north of 14th Street, but what’s a block or two among friends?

“L’chaim,” I say as we clink wineglasses.

This lunch, like all our meals together, is going to be Shira Finkelstein’s treat.

See Richard Grayson's nomination for the Million Writers award at Story South

Richard Grayson ( is the author of several books of short stories, including The Silicon Valley Diet and I Brake for Delmore Schwartz.  His latest book, published in October 2005, is Diary of a Congressional Candidate in Florida's Fourth Congressional District , based on his McSweeney's diary of his 2004 race for a seat in U.S. House of Representatives.  He teaches English and is a lawyer.