Sy (Seymour) Lemler, who lives in Hollywood, Florida, loves the nearby nude beach at Haulover where he has been a regular for many years. In 2008, when Bobby, his partner, died, Sy, who is now 80 years old, forced himself to return to that beach alone, continuing the almost daily ritual he had shared with Bobby during their years together. On that day, Bobby came back to Sy. At the nude beach. As a pigeon. With rare exception, Bobby has perched on Sy’s knee every day at Haulover for almost four years.
Sy Lemler is not crazy, nor is he a man unhinged with grief over the loss of a lover, nor is he a man addled by age. Sy is lively and engaging, with eyes that follow you while you speak. An accomplished designer and shrewd collector of paintings, Tiffany glass, pâte de verreand majolica, Sy loved the hunt for a bargain and the overlooked treasure. He will tour you through the dazzling vitrines that house his prizes without once becoming lost in his past. His stories are never tedious. His opinions are very much of the moment, but take second place to his avid interest in what you have to say. He moves with the fluidity and quickness of a much younger man. He is fit, attractive and the sharpest kind of octogenarian any gay man should hope to become; but he is sure beyond a shadow of a doubt that the pigeon who daily keeps him company at the nude beach is Bobby come back to him.
Sy has had a remarkable life beginning in Brooklyn, New York, where he was born to strict and Kosher Orthodox Jewish parents who were displeased with a son who seemed bent on bad behavior. Sy says, “I was a rotten kid. I wanted bacon and had my first taste of it at thirteen. In a BLT. I thought I would be struck dead with that sandwich in my mouth, but no.” His parents banished Sy to a military academy in Florida where he developed an appreciation for sunshine but a disregard for the discipline intended. He ran away from that school and returned to New York where he asked his parents to sign permission for him to join the Navy. A deal was struck. If he graduated from Far Rockaway High School, they would then allow him to enlist.
Sy spent four years in the Navy on a destroyer. He says he did what his fellow sailors did, “I went to every cat house in the Orient. I thought I was straight. There was one guy on the destroyer who was known to give blowjobs. He got caught going down on a young officer who was fresh out of Annapolis. He got a Section 8. He got kicked out of the Navy, but the officer got only a “Captain’s mast”, a minor reprimand, because he was the receiver, not the giver, of the blowjob.” Sy had not yet figured himself out, despite having had what, in retrospect, was a significant crush on his high school math teacher, Mr. Meltzer, a very large man.
Sy explains the events that made him realize he was gay in terms of the appearance of the three men who became his lovers; and he frames the story of his gay life in chapters headed with the names of those three lovers, Al, Benny and Bobby.
He says, “I have a very short checklist of desire. I’m a chubby chaser. The man has to be big. That’s how Al caught my eye. On the GI Bill, I’m studying art and architecture at Cooper Union in Manhattan but still living with my parents in the Rockaways when I stop to get a roast beef and gravy sandwich at a shop in the city, and I’m sitting in the window of that shop when a man walks by. I dropped that sandwich, ran out of the shop and started to follow him. I have no idea where I am headed and I’m shaking like a leaf. Finally he turns around and asks me who I am and where I am from. He’s British and he tells me his name is Al and he is a first-class waiter on the Queen Mary and that he is in New York every two weeks. He took me to his hotel room on 8th Avenue and 46th Street. We were together whenever the Queen Mary docked. Then, Al tells me he wants to emigrate and live with me, and I say, ‘I barely know your name. I don’t even know what you eat!’ but I was getting $130 a month on the GI Bill, and I got an apartment in the city for us that cost exactly that much. I told my parents I needed the apartment because the daily train ride from the Rockaways into Manhattan for my classes was taking time away from my homework. I was so young. My juices were flowing and we had crazy mad sex every two weeks when Al came in on the ship. He was with me for 26 years. He died in 1984. You know it was not easy to be gay in those days in New York. You had to be very careful to keep your personal life hidden, but I had no tolerance for the closet. Everyone knew we were a couple, but we never had any problems. Everyone at St. Vincent’s Hospital where Al spent the end of his life treated us very well. I was lucky. I have always been very lucky.”
Benny came into Sy’s life while Al was hospitalized. Al was happy that Sy had met someone new who would love him after he was gone. Sy and Benny were together for 16 years and living in Florida when Benny had a stroke and died. Sy describes the pain he felt at that time. “Benny passed on December 14, 1998. I still light candles for him. Because my relationship with Al and Benny overlapped, this was the first time I had ever been alone in my whole gay life. It was terrible. I went north to our country home in the Poconos. The house was so empty and I cried like a baby. Finally I had to go shopping because I had no food, so I went into town and I decided to stop at the local adult book and video store which was really a kind of gay social center for us. I’m in there chatting with the manager when this man walks in and suddenly, there are violins playing and the bells and whistles went off. The guy goes into the back where the booths are and I followed him back there. I go into a booth and I motion for him to follow but instead he walks out the back door! He starts driving back and forth in front of that place until I stopped him. His name was Mike and he was married with kids. I knew he wasn’t husband material but we had a sexual relationship. He is still in my life. Meeting him showed me that my life was not over.
“Meanwhile, I met Bobby at a dinner party in 2000. Again, the violins started! But he had a partner and I wouldn’t do anything with him until he was free. Bobby had been married to a woman who caught him in bed with a man and outed him to the kids and to everyone they knew. She could not stand the fact that her husband was gay, but Bobby’s son, Justin, was very understanding and now he is like a son to me, and through him I have grandchildren.
“In 2001, Bobby and I decided to become a couple when I said to him, ‘My goal in life is to make you the happiest man in the world.’ When Bobby was on his deathbed in the hospice, he said to me, ‘You did a good job.’”
During the few years that Sy and Bobby were together, they became regulars at the nude beach in Haulover. After Bobby passed, Sy went back to Haulover and sat alone at the water’s edge. A pigeon came up to him and demanded his attention. Sy says, “The birds don’t usually behave that way. This one kept coming back to me every day. He was there earlier today and he visited for a while till he got distracted by another pigeon. And did the puff-up thing towards her—which incidentally he does to me sometimes and I say ‘Bobby, I don’t do pigeons.’ I feed him peanuts and gouda cheese which he loves. He prunes and sometimes he perches, and he will settle onto my knee and stay there for an hour. Everyone on the beach knows him and they will say ‘Hi Bobby’ after which they will say hi to me. Bobby is more well-liked and better known. Bobby has been coming to me on the beach for three years, and he’s still screwing. I know, because he did it right in front of me. Once he even wanted a ménage-a-trois because he jumped a male pigeon who was on top of a female. That is another reason I know it is Bobby.”
When Sy Lemler tells his story, he frequently stops in mid-sentence to express his gratitude for the life he has had. He has known great good fortune and wonderful men who loved him well and long. Sy today does not lack for human companionship, having graduated into that elite internationally networked club of “Silver Daddies” who are both desirable and eligible. Love and its violins may come to him again. Meanwhile, what does he say to anyone who may wonder about his relationship with the bird?
“I don’t believe in god but I am not a disbeliever. I’m an agnostic. Tell me. Show me. I do believe that Bobby is back in the form of a pigeon, and that I am the luckiest man in the world.”