When I began to work as an SSI Claims Rep in The Bad Old Bronx, I was afraid that I would be prejudiced against the first AIDS claimant. But he was a ninteen year old boy, some woman’s son, who described his living conditions at The Palace Hotel.
In 1991, the city and state paid $2,000 for him to live in what was virtually a cage. This made me sick.
I had thought that I would be prejudiced because nine of my closest friends had died between 1985-1990. I’m afraid that I thought of them as the worthy AIDS sufferers. All they had done was have sex; and paid the ultimate sacrifice for doing a very natural act. Five more would die within the next two years.
Patrick was my first friend to die. He became sick sometime in the early 1980’s and it took a long time for us to get a diagnosis. When I say “us,” I mean “us,” for he, Lucia and I researched hospitals and doctors, filled out some of the most absurdly personal but I suppose necessary forms:
“Did you ever have sex with a bird?”
I wasn’t used to sick people then. But Patrick of the smoldering eyes, sexy body, mannerisms that would make me shudder with desire, biting wit and naive native brilliance was, along with Lucia, my best friend. Both Lucia and I had almost slept with him once, we found out when comparing notes, and had lived to feel good about our restraint.
Patrick was a shipping executive who wanted everybody at his company to think that he was straight. When I worked downtown I would meet him for lunch and then drinks on Fridays. Actually lunch was liquid–two Martinis for Patrick, diet coke for me. I’d match him Martini for Martini after work. It was easy to pretend to be Patrick’s girlfriend. When he’d light my cigarette, I’d tremble with passion. Something kept me from sleeping with him and it wasn’t lack of desire.
After Patrick was finally diagnosed it became increasingly difficult for me to see him. I was very aware that people called me Private Benjamin for I had a Princess sensibility. I couldn’t even go to Chinatown in the summer for bad smells made me vomit.
Once I went on what became known as the Frank diet. When I was a mere coder of documents, in 1977, I sat next to Frank who would take out a huge submarine sandwich at morning break that consisted of about ten luncheon meats, liverwurst and other things that I had never been exposed to. The smells would waft up all morning from the brown paper bag that he kept his sandwich in, and by the time he finally took it out and had the first bite I would have to run to the bathroom. I couldn’t eat for the rest of the day and lost 20 pounds (ten not needed) in record time.
The boys, straight and gay, for some weird reason found this endearing as they thought that almost everything about me was. I just loved boys, straight, gay whatever. My life until 1985 consisted of work, parties, clubs, and boyfriends without too many redeeming features.
I learned to take care of Patrick. It angered me that TV would show parents in Howard Beach protesting schools opening “without proper precautions.” It angered me even more that in his last months when all he could do was watch TV, it would increasingly give into AIDS paranoia. By the next year, anchor people and reporters would act as if they had discovered that AIDS could only be communicable under certain circumstances:
1) UNSAFE SEX–AND THAT INCLUDES ORAL SEX
2) DIRTY NEEDLES
3) EXCHANGE OF BODY FLUIDS
4) BLOOD and PLASMA TRANSFUSIONS (much less frequent)
5) AN ORGAN TRANSPLANT (again this should be easily detected)
On October 9,1985 I was in Venice with my parents. We were staying in a hotel directly on a canal; for weeks the weather in Austria, Germany and Italy had been unseasonably hot and humid. That night it thunderstormed, lightening boldly attacking the water, and the hotel lost its electricity. I went up to my parents room:
“I don’t have to light candles for Patrick anymore. He’s gone.”
The moment that I said that turned out to be the exact moment he died.
By the time Neil became sick in 1990 I spent a week helping him get his affairs in order. Neil had been a poor black boy from the Deep South who had become a successful software designer. When we finished all the work, we stayed in Neil’s bed and laughed until my eyes turned red and my contacts came out; and Neil coughed up so much phlegm that I became scared. But it turned out to give him a second wind. He asked me:
If you had to give a eulogy at Roger’s funeral tomorrow what would be the only positive thing that you could say?”
“Roger was a great dancer.” We said in unison.
Roger was our friend Shelby’s boyfriend. She deserved better but love’s irrational. Roger had been a hot hair cutter in the 1960’s, but now he couldn’t handle a scissor if somebody bet him a million dollars. Though his death certificate would say that he died of a heart attack, all of us knew that he died of living a dissapated life–way too much booze, hard drugs and hard living.
Lucia was a new mother then; Shelby was in shock over Roger, and Helaina had to work in the suburbs so I was the only one who could stay with Neil. His lover, Doug, a WASP cable network executive had died two months of the monster that Neil was trying so hard to fight.
I would make or more often order dinner at night and Helaina would join us. That night Neil’s friends from New Jersey came over. They acted like mice who couldn’t find the maze. When they began ordering me around I decided to leave. As none of them had any sort of HIV nor any experience with people with AIDS they acted nervous and stupid. None of them would get physically near Neil just in case….This was in the last month of 1990. They should have known better.
When I kissed Neil good night, he whispered to me:
“I would come with you if I could only get out of bed.”
He died the next morning while Shelby was eulogizing Roger.
More friends would die while I worked at my new career for the Federal Government. For the first time I met women with HIV. Many of them lived at the shelter across from the Social Security office. I found myself liking them. Victims of the crack epidemic many had slept with husbands and old boyfriends who knowingly infected them; others had shared dirty needles.
I quickly gained a reputation as somebody who would walk the extra mile for anybody infected with HIV. I also walked the extra mile for anybody who was sick with anything. Dignity matters to a sick person and all I did was treat them like humans, and I filled out the forms to show how sick they were.
It didn’t matter how people were infected with HIV. It eventually killed almost everybody who had it. Death’s an equal opportunity employer and it was the first time some of these people were treated as equal opportunity employees.
Though I would think about Patrick, one of the more bigoted people on this planet, yelling about his hospital roommates on Medicaid who were given free ambulance rides to and from the hospital. Though he disliked all Black people in theory, in reality he had many Black friends.
Lucia had married Patrick’s lover, Hiram, a Mexican waiter who had made tons of money waiting tables at La Folie and Sign of The Dove. She refused any money but Patrick had made sure that her name was on his large one bedroom rent stabilized apartment.
She and Little Luce live there today. Ironically Gods Love: We Deliver was started in her building, and Lucia spent much time cutting up vegtables and delivering meals.
Big Luce (as I now call her) and I share an unbreakable bond. Together we are stronger than we are individually, and we have become strong women. Our sisters understand and appreciate this as we have become more thoughful sisters. Our true friends think of us as detached Siamese Twins, with differing thought patterns. People who try to come between us soon learn not to. We don’t s
pend all our time together but we consult each on the most minute decisions.
Big Luce was the only person who helped me with my year long coop search. On the morning of 9/11 we would stay on our phones together whenever they weren’t dead. We met at her daughter’s middle school without having planned it.
We began our friendship as two 20something formerly married girls who were always up for a good time. A plague ensured that we would always be tied together Now in real undeniable middle age we appreciate it.
I shall always miss the boys. Think for awhile about almost an entire generation of young bright striving men who died long before they should have. I think about them at least weekly.
I think about how they could have contributed to the arts and the business world. I think about how different the world could have been now. Together they would have made a great impact.
Honestly, I find Will and Grace tiresome. Pretty desirable girl/woman has a gay best friend. How original.
I would never argue that every TV show has to have a message. But AIDS changed Lucia and my life almost as much it changed any sufferer, just differently.
I see many younger gay men who think that it’s a poor African thing now. It is. It’s also a revival of crack thing, an oral sex thing, a woman who doesn’t use protection because it can’t happen to her thing, and very much a gay man thing.
Take time today and think about how lucky you are. Think about all the people who could have contributed so much; the inner-city woman who was just getting her life together and would have gone on for a teaching degree.
This is the link to the government’s site on how many American’s are infected by HIV and AIDS, and the number that have died.http://www.whitehouse.gov/onap/facts.html Almost 439,000 American’s have died in the past 20 years.
The figures about Africa are much more startling and heart breaking. They’re not just losing a generational subset but entire generations.
Please remember that AIDS remains as large a plague today as it did in the 1980’s–or larger, because we choose to ignore it.