Castillo led me to understand that he’d parted ways with the FDNY on poor terms. He showed me his scar, the one from the accident, and told me that they’d wronged him. “I had 11 years and they wouldn’t give me my full benefits,” he said. There was more to the story. Castillo may or may not have been impaired when the accident occurred. His firehouse had a reputation. In those days, many of them did.
Castillo liked a drink. I know, because we shared a few together. He took me to Farrell’s in Park Slope, a firemen’s bar famous for serving only Budweiser, and only in massive Styrofoam containers. Putting his antipathy for the FDNY aside, Castillo urged me to take the firefighter’s exam. “It’s a good job, Matchoo,” he explained, pronouncing my name in his native Brooklynese. “A couple days on, a couple days off. You can do other things at the same time.”
I didn’t have the two years’ worth of college necessary to get the job. Castillo dismissed this as short-term thinking. “Matchoo, you take the exam now, get on the list. They ain’t going to call you for two years at least.” That time frame didn’t suit my needs. I was a young man in a hurry. Where I was headed wasn’t clear.
Like me, Castillo was an out-of-work actor. Unlike me, he had impressive credits. He was intense, broody, handsome. People called him a young Paul Newman. With his black leather jacket and deep blue eyes, he was popular with the ladies—a good guy to go drinking with.
Castillo’s flaw was that he came on too strong. He wanted to talk radical politics. He wanted your views on the coming socialist revolution. Many nights ended dramatically. A show-business friend once told me that Castillo’s big personality had hurt him professionally: “He lost his place in line.”
After Farrell’s, we headed over the bridge in search of a pub with Irish music. Castillo shouldn’t have been driving, but I was too chicken to say so. I had to keep him from fighting a bunch of street kids who tried the handle on his parked car. Castillo’s solidarity with the working class didn’t extend to letting them boost his ride.
In 1999, I was working late nights at a Manhattan bar and renting a second-floor apartment in Castillo’s house in Sunset Park. We had an uneasy domestic arrangement. He never seemed to remember that I lived upstairs. I often returned to the house near daybreak. He’d have fallen asleep on the couch in his black underpants. When my key hit the lock, he’d leap to his feet in a karate stance, sending a sea of empty beer cans reeling like tenpins.
I let a friend stay in my apartment once and duly alerted my landlord. Somehow the message got garbled. My friend told me that Castillo nearly killed him on the stairwell. He was always ready for hand-to-hand combat.
What Castillo wasn’t ready for was life’s constant disappointments. He had problems. Money, family, career—everything was always more complicated than it needed to be. Nothing went smoothly for him. Injustice followed him everywhere. He’d been born under a dark star.
Then, one day, long after I moved out, things turned. He got the break he was looking for, with a juicy part on a popular television show. At 50, he was suddenly a little famous. The gossip columns asked: Who is this guy? Where did he come from? A paparazzo snapped a shot of him getting into his car—the same crappy one that the kids had tried the handle on all those years ago.
When I saw the picture, I dropped him a note. A decade had gone by, but I still remembered the address. “I’m happy for you,” I wrote. “I really am.” And I was. No response came, but I wasn’t looking for one. He was angry when I moved out. Knowing him, he may still have been.
I heard about Castillo’s suicide from a friend. He’d used a gun, in the basement. I would have liked the chance to do for him what he did for me: warn against short-term thinking. I can imagine his response: “Don’t worry, Matchoo. I got my reasons.”
Matthew Hennessey is associate editor of City Journal.
Photo by Pat M2007/Flickr/Creative Commons