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Authors: J.J. Murray

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BOOK: No Ordinary Love
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Tony did his best to make the piano fall apart. He played with such force and power that keys lifted and chipped and the bench splintered, cracked, and eventually imploded beneath him.

Once his father had sold “She’s Not Here,” a song based on the passing of Tony’s mother when he was fourteen, to R & B crooner Walter Little and the song soared into the top ten as a love ballad, his father had a $60,000 Bösendorfer upright, the “upright that sounds like a grand piano,” delivered to the cellar.

Tony ignored it.

“Try this one,” his father asked.

“This is my piano,” Tony said, his fingers flying over the Mason & Hamlin.

“And so is this one,” his father said. “This is your piano, too. You can play them both.”

“That is not my piano,” Tony said.

“It has an incredible sound, Tony,” his father said, plinking the keys. “It has a richer, more powerful sound. It is the best piano that money can buy.”

“I do not want it.”

“I have to pay to have your ugly piano tuned four times a year, Tony,” his father said. “And the parts are hard to find. This new one will stay in tune for many years.”

“I do not want it.”

His father returned the Bösendorfer, and Tony continued to abuse the old upright.

After his father died of pancreatic cancer when Tony was twenty, Angelo became Tony’s legal guardian. Angelo sold their parents’ brownstone in Carroll Gardens and bought an eight-unit apartment building in Cobble Hill, turning it into “the Castle.” Angelo paid numerous contractors to brick in all the windows on the first two floors, gut the interior, and turn the apartment building into a four-floor palace complete with a roof garden, a soundproofed music studio centered around the old upright, a theater with real theater seats and a state-of-the-art television/computer monitor, four bedroom suites with walk-in closets, and an extensive library of map books from around the world.

Angelo was convinced that Tony owned the largest collection of map books in New York City. Tony pored over maps for hours, attempting to memorize every town, road, and hamlet in every country on earth. He was particularly an expert on Brooklyn and knew its every street and alley, from Red Hook to Greenpoint and from the Brooklyn Bridge to Bushwick.

After twenty years of taking complete care of “The Sponge,” Angelo’s semiaffectionate nickname for his brother, Angelo wrote
Living with the Sponge: A Biography of Art E.
Because he wanted to preserve his brother’s anonymity and keep the generally meanspirited New York media from ruining his and Tony’s lives, he signed it simply: “by Art E.’s brother.”

It became an international bestseller.

It also won the National Book Award in 2013.

“I wrote your story,” Angelo said, handing Tony a copy of the book. “I want you to read it.”

Tony read the book in one sitting.

“Did you like it?” Angelo asked.

Tony handed back the book. “You left a lot out.”

And that was all Tony would
say about his life story.

The biography chronicled Tony’s unconventional life, from his childhood to his most recent top-forty hits. It was hailed as “a bittersweet yet boisterously riotous description of a true American genius” by the
New York Times
and “an ode to brotherly love and affection, an epic tragicomic journey of one of the world’s greatest yet least understood lyricists” by the
Village Voice. Publishers Weekly
called it “one of the most inspirational and hilarious biographies of our times,” while
labeled the Sponge “quirky, peculiar, odd, strange, funny, warped, twisted, and outrageous—yet ultimately endearing and lovable.”

Angelo wisely kept Tony from reading the

Though Angelo agreed that his brother was different, he didn’t think his brother’s life was tragic. It was, however, difficult to tell if Tony was happy or unhappy, because of his condition. The only time Tony was visibly unhappy was when someone or something interfered with his routine. Whenever the piano had to be tuned, Angelo had to remove Tony from the Castle for the piano tuner’s protection. “But he is doing it wrong!” Tony would shout while pulling and twisting his fingers. “If I had the right tools, I could do it!” During a fierce blizzard in 2010, Angelo had to go outside on the roof with a long broom to dust off the satellite dish every fifteen minutes so Tony could follow the storm’s progress on the Weather Channel. When snow-covered Angelo would come inside to get warm, Tony would tell him, “It is still snowing, Angelo.” During the lengthy power outage that followed Hurricane Sandy, Tony complained loudly that he couldn’t see well enough by candlelight and flashlight to study his maps.

Angelo invested in a propane generator after that.

Tony needed his routines to function. He ate a bowl of Cap’n Crunch with sliced bananas and drank a tall glass of pulp-free orange juice for every breakfast. He ate two pepperoni Hot Pockets and exactly sixteen Cheetos with a bottle or can of Hires Root Beer for lunch. He ate whatever Delores Hill, their cook, prepared for dinner as long as it involved pasta, mozzarella cheese, garlic bread, and meat sauce. Nearly every television was tuned in to the Weather Channel so Tony could watch the weather wherever he was in the Castle.

Tony’s daily life followed an exacting schedule. He woke at six sharp for a shave and a shower before brushing his teeth for ten minutes. Angelo bought toothpaste in bulk. Tony put on his underwear first, followed by his left sock and then his right—
the other way around—before putting on a T-shirt, pants, and a button-down shirt, which he
buttoned from the bottom up. Tony then composed lyrics, put his lyrics to music, studied his maps, or jammed on the piano between meals. He walked their mixed-breed mutt Tonto (and later Silver) five times a day. He went to sleep precisely at eleven.

Under Angelo’s guidance, Tony had performed this routine for twenty years, and from all appearances, Tony seemed content.

Late one night a few days after Thanksgiving, Angelo watched Tony using a magnifying glass to study a map of San Francisco on the long, shiny oak table in the library, a green banker’s lamp the room’s only illumination.

“How’s it going?” Angelo asked.

Tony traced something on his map. “I have memorized all the streets in Chinatown.”

Angelo had learned that no matter how trivial Tony’s pursuits seemed to him, they were
important to Tony. “That’s great,” Angelo said. “I wish I had your memory.”

Tony opened another map book. “This map shows the earthquake damage in 1906. The earthquake, fires, and dynamite killed seven hundred people and destroyed four and a half square miles of San Francisco in only three days.”

Angelo smiled. “Are you planning a trip to San Francisco, Tony?”

“I am not planning a trip to San Francisco.” He closed both map books. “I am never leaving Brooklyn.”

“I hear San Francisco is a nice city,” Angelo said, slumping into the chair next to him. “Why don’t we go there for a vacation so you can walk around Chinatown?”

Tony hesitated for a moment. “I am never leaving Brooklyn.”

“Brooklyn will still be here when you get back, Tony.”

“Brooklyn will always be here.”

Tony left the library, took the elevator to the second floor, and went into the music room.

A moment later, a piano concert began.

I couldn’t be my brother in a million years,
Angelo thought.
I’d go out of my mind from being so much
my own mind.
He sighed.
And I’d want someone other than me around. I’ve never been very good company. I’m too busy trying to make normal what can never be normal. I have to sneak women in and out without Tony seeing them so I can have a social life. None of these women have wanted to settle down with me because of the Sponge. He needs me. He needs his routines, and I’m part of those routines. Without routines, he spazzes out. How can I have a normal life without disturbing his?

If I could find a good woman for Tony, I would. She’d have to be a canonized saint, and there aren’t many of them in Brooklyn or anywhere else in the world for that matter. Tony is work. He’s hard to get to know and even harder to talk to.

It isn’t as if I haven’t tried. Not many women respond when you ask them to “come meet my handsome peculiar genius of a brother.” All women hear is the word “peculiar.” The first time I tried to get him to talk to a woman didn’t work out at all. . . .


ngelo had had to trick Tony into leaving the Castle that day sixteen years ago.

“I want to stay here,” Tony said.

“I know you do,” Angelo said. “But don’t you want to see how good your memory is?”

“I have a very good memory,” Tony said.

“How do you get from here to Angela’s Sweet Treats and Coffee on Driggs Avenue in Williamsburg?” Angelo asked.

“Driving, walking, riding the bus, or riding the subway.”

“Riding the subway, of course,” Angelo said.
I know he knows all the possible ways to get there. If he didn’t have Asperger’s, Tony could probably run the MTA. Maybe the MTA needs someone like Tony to make travel in New York more efficient.

“Walk southeast on Baltic Street, northeast on Smith Street to the Bergen Street station,” Tony said. “Take the G train toward Court Square, get out at Metropolitan Avenue, walk north on Union Avenue, west on Metropolitan Avenue, northwest on North Sixth, and northeast on Driggs Avenue. It will take twenty-nine minutes.”

“Which way is the fastest route during rush hour?” Angelo asked.

Tony thought a moment. “The same way.”

“Let’s see if you’re right.”

“I am right.”

“Okay,” Angelo said. “If you’re right, we’ll ride the subway for the rest of the evening.”

“I want to go to Far Rockaway.”

“You want to go way out to Queens?” Angelo asked.


“That’s at least an hour-and-a-half ride each way,” Angelo said.

“I want to go to Far Rockaway,” Tony said.

“Okay, we’ll go wherever you want to go,” Angelo said.

Tony nodded. “Okay.”

“Tony was twenty-four and I wanted him to meet and talk face-to-face with a woman who
telling him how much snow Helena, Montana, was getting that day,” Angelo wrote in the biography. “Most of the women Tony knew by name were weathercasters he would never meet. I wanted him to talk to a woman who might look past his peculiarities and get to know him—if getting to know anyone with Asperger’s is truly possible. Even I barely know my brother, and I’ve been his constant companion for his entire life.”

Angelo had called up an old high-school friend, Jasmine Stanley, to meet them at Angela’s Sweet Treats and Coffee to talk to Tony.

“I didn’t even know you had a brother,” Jasmine said. “What’s he like?”

“He’s a bit odd.”

“How odd?” Jasmine asked.

“You’ll see.”

Angelo led Tony into Angela’s Sweet Treats and Coffee and seated him in a brown vinyl booth where he could watch for Jasmine’s arrival while Tony sponged up the décor.

“There is a checkerboard on the floor,” Tony said.

“Right,” Angelo said. “Imagine playing chess or checkers here. The pieces would be huge.”

“There are too many spaces for a checkerboard,” Tony said. “A checkerboard has sixty-four spaces. The floor is not square.”

“It’s a nice place, though, huh?” Angelo asked.

“We can go to Far Rockaway now,” Tony said.

“Let’s at least get a snack,” Angelo said.

“I am not hungry,” Tony said. “I want to go to Far Rockaway.”


“I like the name,” Tony said. “It is a good name. Rockaway, a block away, watch the seagulls flock away, smell the boats a dock away, rock-a-bye-baby Far Rockaway.”

Angelo smiled.
My brother and his mumbled word associations that eventually lead to top-forty hits.
“Well, I’m hungry.” He went to the counter, bought two house blends and a half dozen oatmeal and raisin cookies, and brought them to the booth.

Tony dug a cookie from the bag. “These raisins are old. They are wrinkled.”

“They’re supposed to be that way,” Angelo said. “Eat up.”

“Most American raisins come from California,” Tony said. “That is over three thousand miles away from here. These raisins cannot be fresh.” He put the cookie into the bag and looked toward the counter. “She is not a barista. She brews and pours coffee.”

“Who’s she?” Angelo asked.

Tony pointed at the black woman behind the counter.

“Don’t point,” Angelo said. “It’s rude. How do you know she’s not a barista?”

Tony pointed at a sign on the far wall. “The sign says she is not a barista.”

“Okay, I see it,” Angelo said. “And stop pointing.”

“I want to go to Far Rockaway now,” Tony said.

“We need to soak up the ambiance,” Angelo said. “We need to mingle. To see the sights. To eat these cookies and drink the best coffee in Brooklyn.”

Tony took a tiny sip of his coffee. “This coffee is good. There are no sights here. We are inside. Sights are outside.”

“You need to get out more,” Angelo said.

“I go outside to walk Tonto,” Tony said.

“You go up to our
to walk Tonto,” Angelo said.

“Our roof is outside. I walk him five times a day outside. I get out five times a day.”

“True, but there aren’t any beautiful women for you to look at on our roof,” Angelo said.

“Beautiful women cannot go up to our roof,” Tony said. “They do not have a key to the Castle.”

Angelo shook his head. “There are a lot of pretty women here, aren’t there?”

Tony’s eyes roamed the café. “Yes. There are women here.”

“And there are some
women here.”

“They are all pretty,” Tony said.

“Oh, they all aren’t pretty,” Angelo said. “Some have some serious mileage on them.”

Tony blinked. “Women are not vehicles with odometers.”

BOOK: No Ordinary Love
12.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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