Florent Morellet orchestrates a new understanding of mortality as AIDS infections continue
In 1985, at a time when the typical habitué of the Meat Market district thought mussels meant the bulge on a leather man’s upper arm, Florent Morellet established a bistro on Gansevoort Street in the heart of one of New York’s grittiest neighborhoods. Since then late night revelers, pre-dawn truckers. and now lunchtime fashionistas and art dealers, as well as just the plain hungry, dine on cuisine that, while not haute monde, still garners raves for its Old World dependability and reasonable prices.
With a number of meat packing companies relocating to cheaper rental spaces in Hunts Point in the Bronx and elsewhere, and the gay leather scene gone to Dutchess County, the Meat Market area may not be as gritty, but thanks to the recent efforts of a grassroots coalition of business owners, political activists, and concerned residents led by Morellet, the neighborhood recently was granted landmark status.
Slight of stature, Morellet, 50, conducts himself in the manner of someone used to being the anecdotal subject of conversation, a role which he does not eschew.
“I realized I could make this neighborhood landmarked and I did,” he declared, not smugly, merely factually.
The feat was not inconsiderable considering the Byzantine nature of New York’s zoning laws and the hefty influence real estate developers wield in city politics.
Others confirmed his declaration.
“I stand in awe of his insight and guts in terms of his clarity of vision for the neighborhood,” said Joe Hamilton, a neighborhood resident who along with Morellet on the Save the Gansevoort Market committee, mans the barricades against the encroaching tide of big money development.
“Florent is a force of nature when it comes to organizing people, setting an agenda and getting it done,” said Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.
Morellet is no revisionist (“You have to live with change unless you want to go to the Amazon and hide.”) and perhaps his diligence in opposing the commercial “mall-ification” of his home turf is as much driven by his self-interest as civic responsibility.
Yet, Morellet’s passion for urban preservation began with a degree in city planning as a young scholar at the London Polytechnic Institute.
Much more about this peripatetic restaurateur became clear during a recent interview at his famed establishment, named, not surprisingly, Florent. The night before, another non-profit group that Morellet leads, the New York chapter of Compassion in Dying, held a glitzy fundraiser at Studio 450 on West 31st Street at which some big names in the entertainment industry honored Olympia Dukakis and raised $95, 000 on behalf of the right-to-die movement. The group honored the veteran actress in part for her starring role in “The Event,” a film currently playing about a mother who helps her AIDS-afflicted son to take his life.
“We are only looking at surviving, but people are dying. Wake up!” said Morellet, the hints of his French accent not impeding his urgency. That Morellet would be so impassioned about having the government mind its own business when a terminally ill person confronts their mortality seems contrary to the joie de vivre atmosphere he has created in an eatery where transvestites and Chelsea hip hop queens regularly rub elbows with movie stars on crowded Saturday nights.
“My T cell count is 730,” Morellet announced.
A long-term survivor of HIV, Morellet posts his T-cell count on the menu board every time doctors check his viral load.
“I have been in the right to die movement for 17 years,” he added.
He considers what some would call murder a “human right—the same rights for terminally ill persons as the right to an abortion.”
The money that Compassion in Dying has raised will go to paying the salary of a full-time executive director for the New York chapter, as well as a nurse-patient coordinator to increase visibility for the group’s work. On October 23, Morellet is flying to the organization’s national convention in Seattle.
It is no surprise that the youngest son of Francois and Danielle Morellet, from the small town of Cholet in western France, would one day wind up in New York. On his web blog, “Papotage,” or Chit-Chat, Morellet describes Cholet as a “small, dismal town” and recounts his first love affair at the age of 16 with an older boy, Jean-Bernard.
“Before him, I was merely a cute little 16-year-old in the provinces of France––stuck there with only my romantic obsessive fantasies. My favorite one was about a mean despot of a sheik (an Omar Sharif look-alike) who would kidnap me to be the favorite in his harem.” Morellet then writes, “In truth, my sheik was a traveling salesman. A rep for Goody Hair Products. He didn’t ride a stallion. Better. A BMW. And he was 22.”
Now, the “soul of the neighborhood,” as Hamilton has referred to Morellet, has alighted back nearly to where he started—at the portal of his young gay soul where he dreamed of finding his true love.
“A major meltdown, that’s what I call it,” said Morellet of the deep depression into which he lapsed shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
“I went to Sierra Tucson, the same place where Rush Limbaugh is now,” he said. “It wasn’t until I was there a few days that I discovered I am a sex addict.”
Morellet stayed at the southwestern therapeutic center, which specializes in treating addiction-related disorders, long enough to learn that “If you’re living like you’re 20 years old when you’re 50 and you don’t grow up, you’re fucked.”
A “Les Links” link on the Florent website provides a link to Sierra’s website, as well as other sites, such as one that gives the weather update in France and various other excursions into Morellet-pertinent matters, such as an advertisement for the former factory product he father manufactured—baby carriages.
“Gay people seem to have a high glamorization for things,” said Morellet. “Chrystal meth is glamorized. No gay leader stands up to denounce this. I am very pissed off. I’ve never used it, but I see what it is doing to successful, educated gay men.”
As part of his recovery from sexual addiction, Morellet has decided, in conjunction with input from fellow addicts in his 12-step support group, not to date or have sex.
“I plan to move slowly and take it from there,” he said, saying that it was relief not to think about sex “80 percent of the time.”
His attendance at recovery meetings has granted him a degree of serenity and freedom from depression that he never felt before, said Morellet. Weekends away from the city at a New Jersey country home provide respite from urban stress.
“I don’t live my life in a gay cocoon,” said Morellet.
The next target of the meat packing district’s unofficial mayor may be the scourge of drug abuse within the gay community. “We need to look at the members of our community making money from this,” he said.
Until then, there are concepts to be hammered into reality, not unlike the finely drawn geographic surveys that Morellet draws in his spare time, several of which hang with verisimilitude on the map-covered walls of Florent.
What about the High Line, the abandoned stretch of railroad skirting the western border of the meat district upon which developers and architects have cast their eyes?
“I don’t know,” the master planner said, a comment belied by his own impish grin. “I’ve always said a swimming pool would be great up there.”