When My World Was Young 1945-56 The Yellow Brick Road 1956-60 What a Wonderful Town 1960-61
Wonderful Town (pt. II) 1962-66 The Gay Sixties 1966-70 The Juicy Life 1971-76
Juicy Life (pt. II) 1976-80 Losing Alexandria 1981-87 The AIDS Spectacle
Losing Alexandria (pt. II) 1987-1990's
1981 - 1987
When suddenly at the midnight hour
an invisible troupe is heard passing
with exquisite music, with shouts
do not mourn in vain your fortune failing you now,
your works that have failed you, the plans of your life
that have all turned out to be illusions
approach the window with firm step,
and listen with emotion, but not
with the entreaties and complaints of the coward,
as a last enjoyment listen to the sounds,
the exquisite instruments of the mystical troupe,
and bid her farewell, the Alexandria you are losing.
The God Forsakes Anthony
THE GAY UPPER WEST SIDE
The venerable old Candlelight changed hands and became the Candle. Its new owner, Robert Ader, and his lover, Lonnie, gave it a major makeover in order to compete with all the competition that had sprouted up in the neighborhood since the mid-Seventies. They covered its huge window with barn siding, raised the ceiling and knocked out the back wall of the old bar to make a much larger space; and then, painted the place black inside, installed the obligatory pool table, opened a downstairs room for sex and pumped out high decibel dance music on speakers placed throughout the bar no one would have known, once inside, that they were not at the junction of Christopher and West Streets.
But the best place in my estimation was the Boot Hill, which of all the neighborhood gay bars was the dreariest looking, as its initial on-the-cheap, barn siding renovation of the early Seventies was pretty worn by now, inside and out. It may be that the tired appearance of the place gave its contrived look some authenticity. The atmosphere was definitely unpretentious and friendly.
(right) Former site of Boot Hill bar.
The number of patrons in both the Boot and the Candle was large enough that the level of cigarette smoke was often intolerable. Finally, both bars had to install high power exhaust fans.
In the old Upper West Side style, the Boot was very much a place where many groups of friends met regularly and hung out. One result of having a returning neighborhood clientele, though, was that the crowd was very sexually "incestuous" as well. However, I appreciated it as a place to meet people as much as anything. I can remember after my enforced classical music education while staying out of bars for most of my first year in AA. I went into the Boot one night, after just hearing something on WNCN, the classical station, that had knocked my socks off. I burbled about it to John H. a guy whom I knew only slightly, and rather than beginning to snore he picked up on my enthusiasm. It turned out that he staged Baroque operas as part of his livelihood! something I hadn't a clue about before and we became good friends as time went on. Another time, when I was talking to John or someone about some music, a guy standing nearby joined in his name was Gino, and we later had a romantic/sexual relationship. Granted, it was a gay bar and not a meeting of the Great Books and Music Club, but I had many long evenings of great conversation and met interesting people, in addition to the bar chat and the fucking. And I know other people had a similar experience at the Boot.
Grass was openly and casually smoked there, and coke snorting (by a very few) was ignored, as long as you at least faced away from the crowd. The music tapes were superb, a mix of dance music and soul, created by Ed Skala, one of the bartenders.
It was a bit unusual, perhaps, that a bar which was quite small and attracted groups of neighborhood friends also had the reputation for being a good cruising bar. A friend suggested it was the shape and size of the space: from anyplace in the bar the entire room and all the customers was visible. According to his theory, being able to stand in one spot and cruise multiple potential tricks made the Boot a cruising magnet.
My theory (ok, call me shallow) was that a place where you could smoke grass, snort coke, listen to fabulous tapes and get laid meant that the room could have been pear-shaped and guys would have still come. And the proximity of the Candle a couple of doors away, and Wildwood around the corner, had to have been a plus. Whatever the reason, despite its obvious function as a local hangout, the Boot acquired something of a reputation as a cruising bar; and this brought in a steady trickle of curious non-neighborhood people who were eagerly snapped up and as a consequence, I presume, confirmed the rumor as truth.
Gay porn star Casey Donovan, whom I found to be a very friendly and down-to-earth guy, was an occasional customer, as was another XXX film star, an older "rougher" looking type whose name I can't recall now.
Casey Donovan (Cal Culver)
Perhaps sightings of these guys ratcheted up the bar's reputation a bit too. But I don't think guys went to Boot Hill expecting to find a porn star, or even a reasonable facsimile, any more than they expected the guy in cowboy boots and faded denim to have a horse tied to a parking meter. Maybe down at the Eagle or the Spike in Chelsea.... But in the Upper West Side bars there was, I think, still enough of the old, unaffected sexual atmosphere to provide its own special draw. The guys were cruising for sex (even if that might sometimes mean a particular sex act) rather than looking to be transported into a biker, cowboy, etc. fantasy. The Village People had surfaced in '77, with their members costumed as a leatherman, cowboy, Indian, cop, whatever, and the people I knew enjoyed their take-offs of extreme costume fantasies and the tongue-in-cheek lyrics of their songs. Once in awhile a guy or group of guys would show up at the Boot in major fantasy costuming and looking very serious about it; they would instantly get labeled as "the Village People." However, these observation were humorous, not nasty.
(And speaking of the Village People, when their song YMCA became popular early in '79, I was really pleased. I remembered 1960 and the security at Sloane House Y sneaking around listening at doors, and the West Side Y becoming so dicty about gay men, and I was happily certain that the YMCA organization must have shit in its pants when it became aware of the outrageous Village People and their song.)
(right) Vintage Harry Bush drawing
The gay Upper West Side of the Sixties and early Seventies had been a laid-back mixture of ethnicities and income levels, and despite the "whitening" and increased prosperity of its gay inhabitants, many bars (as I recall them) had still retained a kind of leveling atmosphere. There was definitely such a thing as having too much of a costume "act" or being into too much posing and attitude and racist opinions did not go over well at all. What seemed to be valued or at least, was very much in evidence was something like a "just guys" attitude, and friendliness. A "clubhouse" spirit survived though certainly more in some bars than others. If a friend went to a bar in another part of town or outside of the city, and was asked how it was, the answer, "Not friendly," was clearly understood to mean, not like here. When The Works opened at 80th and Columbus I remember that at first it was characterized as "not friendly" and even, "like the East Side." The bartenders were Andrew and Roger, both who had formerly worked at Wildwood, and Roger especially had been very well-liked, but the attitude of the customers was judged to be aloof.
The streets in the West 70's between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues had a steady traffic of guys going to and from the bars. The Village by now was duplicated on a smaller, friendlier scale on the Upper West Side. Seven gay bars were to be found within a six-block radius, three of them Boot Hill, the Candle and Wildwood within a block of each other. In addition to blowing grass in the Boot, it was also used in the Candle and in what had been a game room in Wildwood. And the Candle was large enough and dark enough that you could get away with snorting there too.
All public gay life on the Upper West Side was oriented toward men as far as I know. I never heard of a bar that catered especially to lesbians, or any restaurants either. Once in a blue moon in the late Sixties/early Seventies guys had brought women friends into the Candlelight Lounge, usually at the beginning of the busy part of the evening and they were gone by eleven or twelve. I rarely saw women in the neighborhood bars after that. (The Half Breed, however, was run by a lesbian even though it was a men's bar.) On the even rarer occasions when someone brought a female friend in at the height of the late night/early morning business hours the hostile vibes from the customers would have melted a lead shield.
The Upper West Side had its own gay sex emporium too, Les Hommes on West 80st. It sold the usual run of magazines and videos, an impressive array of toys, lubricants and dildos, and had a backroom for on-premises sex as well.
The Cherry restaurant on Columbus Avenue and the Peninsula on 72nd, a comidas chinas y criollas place, had steady gay clienteles, but most of the new eating places across the price scale were regularly patronized by gay men. The new expensive men's clothing boutiques on Columbus had gay male staff, and enterprises from the Sensuous Bean, a coffee emporium, to a going-toward-housewares hardware store on 72nd, were either gay owned or had gay employees.
In spite of the influx of new gay people and the busier and more commercial atmosphere of gay life on the Upper West Side, I found that it remained a very friendly environment. Even if the sophistication of the men, in both the cultural sense and as regards sexual experience, was distinctly and aggressively with-it gay New York, the sense of a gay neighborhood (in a personal belonging sense of that word) remained strong. And contrary to many places in the Village, most Upper West Side bars maintained a substantial core of customers for whom their bar was a neighborhood meeting place/informal club and not just a weekend hang-out.
The same could not be said, I don't think, for straight life in the neighborhood, where displacement rather than continuity was the order of the day and not only where the Hispanic and black minorities were concerned. It was the new Yuppie hot spot, and on Friday and Saturday nights Columbus Avenue became so "Jerseyated" (overwhelmed by visitors from the other side of the rivers) that we used to rush to get to the laundry, the drug store, etc. before seven p.m., in order to avoid the hordes which descended in crowds so thick you were forced to walk in the street to make any progress.
Dance music was the sound from store to store to bar to boutique to restaurant, and with the advent of the Sony Walkman in the Eighties, any remaining gaps in this soundtrack-for-life were closed. Soon Everyone, plus Everyone's roommate and Everyone's trick, was making music tapes for fun (and sometimes for money.) In the beginning the tracks were simply laid out end-to-end with no gaps, however, inexpensive mixing equipment arrived before long, and these "amateur" productions became very professional. Some guys were obsessed with tape making, spending hours and hours for weeks putting a tape together, and there was a brisk market for the products of some remarkably talented, but otherwise unknown, tape meisters. George Malides, a friend of a friend, was one who put together an excellent series of tapes, and sometime local DJ, Tommy Jenkins, produced a few spectacular ones.
One night I was standing in
the Boot, really enjoying a new tape by Ed the
bartender that was playing. In my enthusiasm, I turned to the guy next to
me, and said something like, "God, isn't this tape great!" He said, "No
I hate this kind of music." I thought, well, this is what's played
here...why does he come here then? So I asked him why he didn't go to
another bar. He looked at me as if I were a total mental midget. "I
can't! This is what they play everywhere!"
Grass could be had for $75/ounce; cocaine was in much wider use, and though a single gram purchase could go for $100, anyone who was buying would buy enough to get the price down to $90 a gram. In the late Sixties marijuana had sold for about $35/ounce for good stuff, cocaine had been going for $125/gr. or more. - though at that time the latter wasn't used by anyone I knew.
1980: THE SAINT ARRIVES
September of 1980 saw the opening of one of the climactic gay scenes of the era: The Saint. It was a dance club legendarily built to cater to the crowd that had patronized Flamingo and went to Fire Island for summer weekends, and it was colossal in every respect. Flamingo itself was no more.
Fillmore East had been a faded Depression Era movie palace, which for three years in the Sixties had been the shrine of rock on the East Coast. West Coast rock impresario, Bill Graham, took over the theater, and beginning in March '68 it was the East Coast mate to his famous San Francisco Fillmore. As a venue for Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, the Doors and every other major star and group of the Sixties, it became world famous. I never attended a concert there, my interest in music had already come down decidedly on the side of rhythm and blues and soul at this point.
In a long letter published in the Village Voice in May '71, Graham had announced the imminent closing of Fillmore East. He concluded his letter:
The rock scene in this country was created by a need felt by the people, expressed by the musicians, and, I hope, aided to some degree by the efforts of the Fillmores. But whatever has become of that scene, wherever it turned into the music industry of festivals, 20,000-seat halls, miserable production quality, and second-rate promoters - however it went wrong - please, each of you, stop and think whether or not you allowed it, whether or not you supported it regardless of how little you received in return.
The last concerts in Fillmore East were June 25-27, 1971 with shows by the Allman Brothers, J. Geils Band and Albert King.
The changes in the world of rock that Graham points to in his letter, its transformation into an expensive, monster venue music business, may have planted the seeds for the anti-disco phenomenon of the late Seventies a fierce resentment against the exultant and inexpensive music world of blacks and gays.
Now, almost a decade later the old Fillmore East was gutted and fitted out as an enormous dance club by Bruce Mailman who had already revived the grungy St. Marks Baths with membership costing several hundred dollars a year, plus an admission charge each time you attended, and higher prices for special party nights. The straight disco scene might be expiring, but gay men were still dancing, and they were doing it, figuratively at least, on one of the graves of the Sixties-Seventies (straight, white) rock world.
Inside the former Fillmore East had totally vanished and been replaced by a three-level dance - and sex palace....all it lacked for some was a steam room. The first floor contained the lobby which opened up onto the coat rooms, on either side of which were the old marble stairways which went upstairs to the dance floor, while straight ahead was a bar and lounge. You could also go upstairs via two industrial type mesh-enclosed spiral stairways from the front of the lounge.
The bar was a free-standing one in the center of a raised area and was surrounded by stair-like banks of seating about 10 feet high covered in carpeting, and at the rear of this area was the entrance to the locker rooms (three floors rented by the season to members only.) Also at the rear were two open stairways which went up to the other end of the dance floor.
The decor of the lounge area was redone at the end of every summer for the beginning of a new season.....and was window-display spectacular. One of its last incarnations was a faux marble extravaganza that would have blown the mind of a Roman emperor.
Once upstairs you were actually outside the dance floor. At the rear area you were on large balconies which overlooked the first floor, and in the front you were at the back of the former mezzanine where there were johns and some lounging space. In neither case were you able to see the dance floor though the roar was like thunder over surf.
The dance area itself was circular and covered by a gigantic metal dome 80 feet high, which came almost all the way down to the floor, and was entered through one of four entrances which came up under it. You walked up about five stairs and found yourself inside of what appeared to be an enormous colander. In the center of the dance floor was a tall mirrored pedestal on top of which was mounted the same type of projection equipment as is used in planetariums. The interior rim of the circular dance floor was surrounded by three steps of carpeted bleacher seats, except where it was overlooked by the DJ's raised booth, which also housed the lighting technician.
None of this description really captures anything of what it was like to come up through the place and arrive at this point.
For a first-time visitor, or someone blitzed on drugs, your entrance could be mind-warping. After you ascended the short flight of stairs, suddenly you were on the dance floor, surrounded by 360 degrees of music and light show and perhaps more than a thousand sweating, half naked men. You had stepped into a supernova of energy.
And, God help you, if you were susceptible to claustrophobia or paranoia.
And on a level above this was a "lounge area", more or less removed from the incredible intensity of the music. It very quickly became an area of sexual carrying on.
It is no exaggeration to say that The Saint was built for "Industrial Strength" sensation.
The Saint has sustained a reputation for being the haven for the A-list gay man in the city: body of Apollo, face of Adonis and carrying a sheaf of platinum credit cards. I cannot vouch for the sheaf of credit cards, but on a Saturday night or holiday there would be a not insignificant number of the Built and the Beautiful. This is certainly the crowd that Bruce Mailman went after first, and they became as much as part of the club's publicity image as the dome, the sound system or the light show. However, my fellow B-list gay men were there in multitudes virtually a necessity to fill that space and keep it financially viable. The membership was overwhelmingly white, though there were Hispanics and a small number of Asians as well. (I rarely saw black guys.) It seemed to consist mainly of men from their late twenties to late thirties, though you saw younger and older men as well. Based on some members I knew or knew about, many probably had mid-level white collar jobs; though the guys I knew well or met there had low level clerical jobs or were waiters or other non-white collar workers. So, in fact, the club membership was far from being an exclusive A-Gay Olympus, though surely a lotta lotta members got off on being part of that fantasy. We made jokes sometimes about a Pines/Saint Axis, and I believe without a doubt there were guys whose lives justified that term. But the Upper West Side guys I knew who were members would not have easily been able to consider a summer in the Pines as a regular part of their lifestyle including me.
I have no recollection of what a regular season membership cost, although the legend persists that guys were offering thousands to purchase a membership before the club opened. None of the guys I knew who belonged to The Saint's in its earliest years could have, or would have paid anything like that. However, I have several receipts for the rental of a locker, which cost $40.00 per season. Members were also charged a fee at the door this varied from $12.00 to $20.00, depending upon the occasion, plus $20.00 for the guest. Charges for the short summer season were lower than for the rest of the year. Folded around my summer '86 membership card is a Saint bookkeeper's receipt dated May 11th for $150.00, which I assume was the cost for that summer. But that was late in the game.
(Also, remember these are the 1980's. For comparison the Inflation Calculator web site says $150 in 1986 is equivalent in purchasing power to $352 in 2020. The Dollar Times site gives the 2019 equivalent of $150 1986 bucks as $344 in 2019. And honestly, my pocket at least said an audible "Shit, man!" when I forked over that $150 on May 11, 1986.)
The Saint has been characterized on one web site as "catering predominantly to the gay-lesbian community." "...predominantly"? This is your basic load of bullshit. It was intended to be and was a club for gay men. This policy was adhered to very strongly. At a late point in the game, owner Bruce Mailman did have nights especially for a straight group of clubbers on a week night, but otherwise straights (even as guests) were never anything but a tiny handful of the regular weekend or holiday crowd.
And it was certainly not a place for anything like "the gay-lesbian community" either. The attendance of women was not encouraged at all. One night a year there was a specially promoted open night (can't remember what it was actually called), and on this night women were welcomed (read "tolerated") otherwise they were as rare as dinosaurs. The first time I went to this special guest night, a much younger friend, Mark, and his buddies derisively described it as "Fish City," and skipped going. It was hardly that. The fact that there were a visible number of women in the crowd made it a unique night, but even then they were only a very small part of it. What I noticed more was that the crowd was smaller than usual, leading me to wonder if a fair number of men shared Mark's feelings. On the other hand, I wondered too if perhaps there just were not that many women interested in attending what was known to be a gay men's club. However, in an era when bars and clubs littered the Manhattan landscape some catering to one sex or ethnic group or sexual orientation, and others being mixed The Saint's policy was not remarkable. PC was an abbreviation which just referred to computers.
"DON'T MISTAKE ME FOR A WHORE"
In 1980 I read Christopher Isherwood's new book, A Single Man, a novel about the life of a middle age gay man. The author said it was his favorite from among his fiction works. Drummer magazine does a big feature on "daddies," plugging into the increasingly multi-generational social and sex scene among gay men. None too soon either, I was forty-two.
Boy, I swear in all my years
I've not felt like this before
If I choose to sleep with you
Don't mistake me for a whore
Let me leave my number on the wall
Call me, honey
Goodness always calls for an encore
Oh, call me, honey
from Dr. Buzzard's Original
Savannah Band Goes to Washington
The appearance of leather as an accepted part of gay clothing fashion in the form of jackets, boots, etc., and as something closer to a lifestyle by a smaller number of men; and a broader willingness regarding the use "toys", i.e. - dildos, tit clamps, vibrators and the like, were two of the major changes in the gay scene since the Sixties. But I think, though I have never seen it written about, one of the most pronounced changes over previous decades was a shift in the physical focus of male eroticism.
Put more plainly: it seems to me that in the late Fifties and very early Sixties that cock sucking was the principal sexual activity, both the active and receptive roles at least judging from conversations. Few guys hesitated to admit to taking the receptive role in cock sucking, but getting screwed in the ass was not something that many men in those years would speak about off-handedly in a group of gay men. In the era when "butch" and "femme" had still been used as labels, receptive anal intercourse made you incontestably femme, no matter how butch you were otherwise. Also, in my recollection, "fuck" and "fucking" in these years almost always referred specifically to anal intercourse, and were not general terms for "having sex."
Contrary to this though, the artwork of Tom of Finland, for example with his super-hung muscle giants endowed with huge bubble butts, and eagerly getting screwed surely indicates that in their fantasies some men in the Fifties and Sixties were not seeing getting fucked in archetypically feminine terms.
Detail from Tom of Finland drawing
Whatever the case really was, by the Seventies anal intercourse was as talked about and as oral sex, and taking the receptive role was somewhat more easily admitted. Certainly by the mid-Seventies cock and ass as much as cock and mouth were a focus of gay eroticism. Taking the receptive role in anal sex seemed not only to have lost its former stigma, but to have even acquired its own peculiar macho. (Shades of Tom of Finland.) Being able to "take it" or wanting to "take it all" whatever "all" might mean gave an aggressive, challenging edge to the receptive role.
Drew Okun had risen literally to fame as Colt Studios' star Al Parker in the 70's, and by the 80's he was producing films with his own company, Surge Studios. His handsome face, athletic body and lazy, laid back sensuality made him the one of the most recognizable gay porn stars of the era. Al Parker
The titles of Christopher Rage's films, Sleaze ('82) and Raunch, - which my roommate, Tom owned - and Manholes and My Masters ('86) may seem to tell it all, but don't really. If Joe Gage's films had sometimes seemed to be on the order of raw porn romances, then Rage switched the focus to Romantic porn his excursions were ironic and florid ventures into territory that had earlier been explored by Kenneth Anger and John Rechy, as well as Tom of Finland, Etienne and back to de Sade. Rage now found it in the sexual underground of Manhattan in the 80's, and the imaginative corners of his own psyche.
He was also a songwriter ( he had once had a song recorded by the classic soul group, the Spinners), and his use of music in his films had a commentarial twist which was virtually unique in porn. A former lover of Christopher Rage has been quoted as saying, that Rage defined sleaze as "the ability to uncover what a man wanted to do but was also unwilling to do...and finding the way to get him to do it." And that was exactly what fascinated my roommate Tom about his films.
Along with an across-the-board rejection by males of the neat and restrained middle class clothing styles in the Sixties, many gay men jettisoned some of the traditional gay mannerisms, verbal styles and conversational topics that had marked them as something on the order of more "in the know" and "elite" than their straight peers.
A funny interchange I heard in Boot Hill one night points at this.
Guy #1: What's that guy like, do you know? (Indicating a nice-looking regular, who seemed to be a loner.)
Guy #2: Oh, he's nice...but his apartment is full of pictures of dead movie stars, and all he wants to talk about is dead movie stars...I mean, you know, who talks about dead movie stars anymore?
I also wonder if the prevalence of dressing down, the so-called blue collar styles, plus the acceptance (or maybe at the least just the trying out ) of various hyper-macho styles of personal presentation, and so on may not have helped to de-feminized getting fucked. Perhaps the wrappings of the package allow that particular sex role to be re-conceptualized. Guys talked about sexual roles in terms of "top" and "bottom," but catty remarks like, "She likes to take it up the ass," which were prevalent in the 50' and early 60s had become rare in my experience.
Where this finally led was to an emphasis on the ass. The terms "ass work" and "ass play" became common, and what this could encompass in addition to fucking was rimming, dildos, fist-fucking, and "balling", i.e. putting cocaine into the rectum, which dramatically increases and changes the sensitivity inside the ass. Cock sucking sometimes seemed to be regarded as a foreplay type of sex, or quickie sex in circumstances that didn't allow for prolonged, heavy action culminating in anal sex.
By the turn of the decade the gym-built body was the ideal. And finally it was no exaggeration to say a lot of guys were trying to build themselves one. A few of the private gyms in NYC were predominantly gay, the Chelsea Gym for one. Body display even if you weren't a gym buff - was at the max. The shift was to less clothes as much to clothes that showed it off. Tank tops, sleeveless shirts, cut-off jeans, short shorts with wide baggy legs, slashed and ripped jeans, shirts open to the waist or my favorite a jacket with no shirt at all underneath (summer and winter) and tight jeans these were the makings of a "look" at this point.
There was a time when our lusts were
Like multicoloured flags of no
Kalama Das, Convicts
For an advertising-minded minority the rainbow did not have enough colors to indicate the nuances of sexual pleasure, and bandanas of every imaginable color peeked from rear pockets left or right sometimes several. A friend of mine once remarked about someone he saw in a bar, "It looks like he's carrying a goddamned parrot in his back pocket!
While pierced ears had been somewhat popular for a while, by the early Eighties they had become more so, and now it was the turn for pierced nipples. Nipples were high priority eroticism, and a hand sliding up to your chest for "tit play" was a signal that conversation was about to go seriously braille.
The "Fuck Buddy" had become if not quite a hallowed institution, a widespread one. For some men the fuck buddy was a guy (or guys) you regularly had sex with and whose company you enjoyed for an evening of rutting, but with whom you had little other contact except for sex. These casual, but ongoing sexual relationships were unremarkable now. For other guys, like myself, these relationships often developed into something more on the order of friendship-plus-sex. I enjoyed these relationships and usually had a couple going at the same time. In some respects, I think fuck buddies became something of an alternative to having a "lover" during the Seventies and early Eighties. This may have been due to the fact that these relationships couldn't founder on extra-sexual expectations and complications, which can encumber and sink more traditional couple relationships. And the strongest bonds among gay men seemed to be located in the territory of buddy/comrade/friend.
Also, not infrequently the "tricks" I picked up were people I had slept with several or many times before, and the distinction between them and a "fuck buddy" wouldn't always be easy to make.
But one sex partner, whom I've already mentioned, was a guy I'd met in the Picadilly soon after it opened in the early 70's. Howard was a professional pianist, whom I saw once a month for almost thirteen years! In his case, the relationship existed nowhere other than the apartment we had only one formal date in all those years. From the start the sexual electricity between Howard and me was pretty high voltage, and our relationship developed without any discussion.
I've been in your body, baby, and it was
I've been in your body and it was a carnival ride.
from The Dislocated Room
The nuances of pleasure were explored again and again over many evenings over many years and the level of physical intimacy was unparalleled for me. Through the years the sexual energy became more powerful rather than less, and while Howard was a very taciturn guy by nature or perhaps because he was we achieved a physical intensity and consummation that was almost preternatural. But over that length of time the "pillow talk" did gradually turn into something like an extended conversation.
I recall group conversations where guys projected growing old with their friends and buddies, not with lovers. The only men I knew who expressed a wish to have children were a pair of Jewish lovers. They had their Passover seders at the home of the married sister of one of them, with her husband and two children, and each year upon their return they expressed dissatisfaction at the level of her acceptance of their relationship. And this always seemed to lead to the expressed wish that they could have children too. There was a third sibling in the family, another gay brother, slightly older, who was professionally successful and into leather. He scoffed at their idea: See! we're almost-het-like-you. He ridiculed both his brother and sister as being wound up in a ridiculous competition to replicate their childhood family atmosphere and then dominate it.
+++ THE PLAGUE YEARS +++
...Would you agree, then, we won't
find truths, or any certainties...
where monsters lift soft
self-conscious voices, and feed us
and feed in us, and coil
and uncoil in our substance,
so that in that they are there
we cannot know them, and that,
daylit, we are the monsters of our night
and somewhere the monsters of our night are...
here...in daylight that our nightnothing
feeds in and feeds, wandering
out of the cavern, a low cry
echoing -- Camacamacamac...
that we need as we don't need truth...
and ungulfs a Good Night, smiling.
(above) Uncredited image from a Saint mailing
[Note: Ever since I first read Kinsella's poem many decades ago, I have continued to come back to it again and again. If anyone is interested in the entire poem this excerpt is taken from, it is in Notes from the Land of the Dead, Cuala Press (Dublin, Ireland) 1972. The version which appears in Collected Poems 1956 - 1994 Thomas Kinsella published by Oxford University Press (Oxford/New York) 1996 is not the same, and the changes have made it more "polite" and less effective.]
In August of 1981 the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) of the U.S. government announced the existence of a fatal disease, whose cause was unknown, which had infected slightly over 100 gay men in the U.S., most in San Francisco and New York. The news dropped into my life on a radio newscast sandwiched between music programs. Earlier, in the beginning of July, the New York Times had published a short story about a rare cancer, Kaposi's Sarcoma, which had struck down a number of gay men. The victims showed severe immuno-suppression. The peculiar name rang a bell - Ah yes, this was the cancer that Ed Burke, the AA guy I'd met on the Island the summer of '80, had died from just this past February.
"Gay cancer" was the unfortunate name that this syndrome enjoyed for awhile. (One of the earliest, if not the earliest, opportunistic infection to be noticed was Kaposi's sarcoma, which is a cancer.) Unfortunate because the government and the Cancer Society, twenty years and more before, had spent considerable amounts of money and effort educating the American public about cancer. A major point that was hammered home, in order to reduce the irrational fear that the disease provoked, was that cancer was not contagious.
While popper use as a possible cause as smoking for lung cancer seemed a reasonable possibility, sex itself did not. Despite the welter of evidence that began to accumulate granted much of it sketchy and confusing at first the continued use of the term "gay cancer" would furnish some comfort for people like myself. After all Cancer is not contagious. Right?
That fall, November '81, Bob Cecchi, a friend who lived a few houses down the street and with whom I spent a great deal of time, began to feel "peculiar." Several times when we were out he had fainting spells while we were standing in the Boot. I had to have guys help me get him home and up to his fourth floor apartment. The diagnosis was presumptive based on his symptoms and an analysis of something called T-cell counts and other blood factors. He had the new "gay disease."
1982: THE GAY MEN'S HEALTH CRISIS
Early in the next year Bob went to a meeting held in the apartment of the writer Larry Kramer in the Village. Seven guys Arthur Bell, Nathan Fain, Larry Kramer, Larry Mass, Paul Popham, Paul Rapaport and Edmund White were the nucleus of a group which had started meeting at various apartments to try to figure out how gay men could organize and respond to this health crisis. Some of the guys there, like Bob, had been diagnosed with GRID (gay-related immunodeficiency disease), but all were concerned that it's impact seem to threaten gay men only and the public response was antipathy. (Surprise, surprise!) They decided to organize as a formal, tax-exempt entity, and this was the beginning of the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), the first and in its glory days, the largest volunteer AIDS organization in the United States and the world. Paul Popham was chosen as the president.
GMHC was offered a couple of rooms for offices in a rooming house in Chelsea owned by Mel Cheren of West End Records. A few months later I accompanied Bob to a meeting of GMHC's one and only support group for people with GRID, held in the old Community Health Project offices on University Place. There may have been twenty men in the group. (Bob died in January of 1991. I believe he had outlived all the rest of the group by many years.)
1983: A NIGHT AT THE CIRCUS
The March 14th issue of the New York Native (the city's only gay paper at the time, I believe) published an article by Larry Kramer "1,112 and Counting." Many consider it to be the real wake up call on AIDS. Though some people like myself woke up slowly.
On April 30, 1983 18,000 people attended the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus performance in Madison Square garden to raise money for GMHC. Bob Cecchi and I went together. It was truly thrilling the most proud I've ever been at a gay event. The event was covered by television and the newspapers...but not The New York Times, whose "liberal" Executive Editor was a thoroughgoing homophobe.
Shortly before this, one of the original group of founders, Larry Kramer, had had a characteristically fiery confrontation with the others over the direction of GMHC, and had dramatically offered his resignation. His ballistic episodes were proving too disruptive to the work for the people struggling to keep the organization on course; he repeatedly played brinksmanship with threats to quit, and this time his offer was taken up by the board. In the years after this he would be caustically dismissive of GMHC, and snipe at Paul Popham, saying that the former Green Beret and decorated VietNam vet had been afraid that his position with GMHC would out him.
However, Paul Popham addressed the crowd that night from the floor of the circus, which was undoubtedly the first time that most of us had heard him. And Paul made a point of requesting Kramer, who was in the crowd, to stand up and asked the crowd to show its appreciation for his efforts in helping found GMHC. These were hardly the actions of someone very worried about the closet or of someone holding a grudge.
Later in the decade GMHC cultivated celebrities, but my celebrity sighting for the evening was Big Max, a Colt model who had posed for a very sexy poster for the Bull Dog Baths in S.F. Whew, talk about take your breath away. Big Max (Sam Pascoe)
Bob went off to a special Circus night at The Saint, while I came back uptown. I stopped in Boot Hill and met an interesting guy, David M., and we went back to his place. I saw him several times over the next few months. He liked to play Survivor's album Eye of the Tiger while we were having sex, which I could have done without.
It's the eye of the tiger, it's the thrill of the fight
Risin' up to the challenge of our rival
And the last known survivor stalks his prey in the night
And he's watchin' us all with the eye of the tiger
The Eye of the Tiger
Grass had escalated in price to $85.00 an ounce. Cocaine had become quite popular and easily available.
COME GOOD DOCTOR, HAVE YOUR SAY
ON THIS TURNING POINT THAT IS TODAY.
George in a short-sleeved blue-green surgeon's gown
And skullcap rises. As he speaks he'll prowl
Restlessly here, there, back and forth, his owl
Eye fixing the Brothers LIKE SOME RARE FULLBLOWN
CULTURE ON A SLIDE!
from Scripts for the Pageant
Tom, my roommate, who had been a kindergarten teacher when I met him around '74/75 in Chuck's plant store/hangout on Columbus, and had then quit teaching in 1978 to become manager of a new gay disco, Les Mouches. About this time he decided to throw his lot with the woman who was a silent partner in the now straight and failing disco, and he went to work as a manager in her club, the Fifth Season, just a block east of where I worked on West 57th Street. It was a straight, members-only straight sex club that catered to well-heeled businessmen for the most part. Gay Talese, who had been a rewrite man on the City Desk when I worked at the Times,wrote a book on the sex industry (Thy Neighbor's Wife, 1981 ), and the Fifth Season was one of the places he did his field work.
When I'd met Tom in the mid-Seventies he had been practically inexperienced sexually and never used drugs or alcohol he had two siblings who had been alcoholics and drug addicts, though they had managed to pull their lives together, and a mother with a drinking problem. But after his stint at Les Mouches he was a daily pot smoker, used "designer drugs" fairly frequently and had embarked on what was to be a slide into annihilation with cocaine. And now he was getting into S&M and other kinky sex too.
But at this point he was managing to keep his focus by concentrating his life on the needs of his former boyfriend, Robert Pachette, who had been diagnosed with AIDS. One night in August I took them to The Saint, but after a short while Robert who had been a professional dancer tired out. We stood there, the three of us, with our arms around each other, saying nothing, and then the two of them left for a walk. It turned out that they had spent several hours that night sitting in front of St. Mark's-in-the-Bowerie church, and it was during this time that Tom made up his mind that he was going to take care of Robert no matter what happened.
Miguel Mendoza, a shy, nice-looking bodybuilder reappeared in the neighborhood after an absence, and he sublet an apartment in Bob's building. He had what was now being called GRID, except he had the "gay cancer" too the disease was still a mishmash of terms and symptoms and rumors.
they can become extremely large.
Miguel seemed more puzzled than anything by his condition and used to want to show friends the "spots," which bloomed with increasing profusion all over his diminishing body. I touched them with my finger. So, this was "it." They spread onto his face, and he shrunk more. Miguel's mother had sent him a religious medal to wear, and Miguel was trying to place his faith and his hope for a cure in this saint. He disappeared again, to live with a friend in Brooklyn, his brother from out of town appeared several months later to say he had died.
My friend Bob Cecchi, a former member of EST, was an avid follower of the self-help movement, and a ready believer in channeled messages and various New Age theories. Although he worked as a volunteer for Dr. Roger Enlow one of the early gay doctors to focus on the new disease Bob was characteristically anxious to do something to help himself, and he told me that he was working with the Louise Hay tapes. I pulled a blank.
Skip and Tom K., two lovers from the neighborhood, disappeared. They were "sick". Bob W. in the next block was "sick".
All sorts of folklore began to grow concerning the causes and cures of what was now AIDS. Poppers were the cause. Various peculiar nostrums were going to be the cure. Ribaviran was the answer. Go to Mexico. Bootleg it into the U.S. I read Defoe's Journal of a Plague Year. It was actually comforting. Nothing had changed in the intervening four centuries. It was strangely reassuring, people were quite the same. When no one knows anything, then everyone knows everything. When there are no answers, there are no end of solutions.
SPRING 1984: THE SHIT REALLY HAS HIT THE FAN!
On April 22nd, 1984 Dr. Mason of the CDC was reported as saying: "I believe we have the cause of AIDS." He was referring to the virus LAV, and he was basing his opinion on the findings made by French researchers at the Pasteur Institute who had discovered the virus the previous year. The following day, April 23th, the United States Health and Human Services Secretary, Margaret Heckler, announced that Dr. Robert Gallo of the National Cancer Institute had isolated the virus which caused AIDS. There has continued to be some doubt about Gallo's claim.
So, without a doubt it was contagious.
And, of course, this knowledge was a big kick in the ass to my own silent refusal to contemplate the worst. Before this announcement I had muddled along initially in the belief that it was a cancer and that I might or might not have it. Now that it was found to be something you could catch, my chances of having escaped were about as close to zero as they get. Clearly, Billy, the sex partner who had developed wasting syndrome, etc. even before the initial announcement of the "gay cancer" must have had AIDS, and several other people that I had slept with had been diagnosed since. Then one day I ran into David M., the fellow who had liked to play the Survivor album Eye of the Tiger while we were having sex. He told me that he had been diagnosed with ARC (AIDS Related Complex), considered at that time to be the initial stage of AIDS. So, considering the number of infected people I had slept with some already deceased, a few not there seemed no question that I was staring into the eyes of the beast.
Figuring science might make better use of my body before I kicked off than after, in May I joined a long range AIDS research study that had recently gotten underway with the Laboratory of Epidemiology of the New York Blood Center. It was tracking the health of several hundred men (about 800, if I remember correctly) with detailed questionnaires on sexual and medical history, plus blood tests.
GOD, THE OASIS AND THE DESERT
In spring of '84 Henning had surprised me by asking me to go to mass with him. A straight divorced female friend of his and he had begun going to a neighborhood parish that seemed to have moved away from its former conservative Irish-American orientation. I wasn't sure that I really wanted to do this, but it would mean a lot to Henning, as he was dealing with what was to be his friend Robin's final hospitalization and then, I had to admit (at least to myself) that the health crisis was haunting me. Robert's death had upset me quite a bit, and listening to Henning suffer through Robin's illness was difficult. Maybe this was finally the time, I decided, to probe whether my largely unexamined assumptions about still being at least a latent believer had any foundations.
However, being by nature a bit bookish (okay, more than "a bit") and a lot curious, sittin' 'n lookin' wasn't where it was at. I gradually became more deeply involved on a personal basis reading at first, and finally, after lots of consideration, even participating in the sacraments regularly. Going on Saturdays with Henning and his friend to the neighborhood church, and having dinner together afterward sometimes, gave this religious "experiment" a pleasant social dimension. But later on I also sometimes attended mass on a weekday at St. Paul's, the church near work, specifically because I wanted to see what the solitary experience would be like. Eventually a particular mood began to precipitate: a feeling of discomfort grew in me, and this gradually increased until it reached the point where I would leave at the completion of mass with a feeling of deep uneasiness and ultimately something akin to frustration or disappointment, perhaps.
The sincerity of the priests I came into contact with seemed unquestionable, as was the faith of many of those around me. And yet it seemed like an encampment of anxious of travelers afraid to leave and afraid to stay, and constantly and uneasily checking our provisions. The experience of worship in church began to seem more and more like an oasis, with its back turned resolutely away from the surrounding desert. I came to feel that we were ever-involved with an inventory which helped put off a journey whose direction and purpose was unclear and vaguely threatening.
"THE FATE OF HIS BONES"
Bronze Age urn burial from Wales
"But who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried?
Who hath the oracle of his ashes, or whither they are to be scattered?
The relicks of many lie like the ruins of Pompey's, in all parts of the earth"
Sir Thomas Browne
Robin, a sly-humored, and rather harmlessly cynical acquaintance from the Boot disappeared for awhile. Was he sick. He came back. Looked fine. No questions asked, no information given. He was gone again, and his sleek all-leather presence was an obvious blank space, and his sometime boyfriend/buddy, a hugely muscled, super-endowed leather number with a habitual sneer, also vanished. Robin had gone into a coma his best friend (and former lover) Henning told me. He sat beside his hospital bed every night for fifteen weeks until Robin died. One evening, shortly before Robin's death, the "boyfriend" appeared not in leather but in the brown robes of a Franciscan priest (!), gave Robin the last rites of the Catholic church, left and was never seen uptown by anyone again.
Robin was from Durban, South Africa, and his aged mother asked Henning to have his body cremated and to scatter the ashes. Henning decided on a spot in Riverside Park that overlooked the Hudson River on the West Side. He couldn't bear to keep the ashes in his apartment, so I kept them for him. A few weeks before the tentative date of the scattering I thought it might be a good idea to see what cremated ashes looked like as neither of us knew. Well, ashes they weren't, but more on the order of heavy grit, and fairly large splinters of bone. (A sloppy job of grinding I was to learn from later experiences.) This killed any romantic notions of our Robin being borne away as a cloud of dust on the gentle June breezes!
We decided we would scatter him in the sea instead...the sea would have its own lessons about "scattering".
I took Robin's remains when I went out to the Grove in August '85. His "ashes" were in a poly bag packed in a box, which I carried down the beach in a plastic sack to the Pines late in the afternoon, to where Henning was waiting. He carried them held against his chest the rest of the way to a less trafficked part of the beach beyond the Pines. We found a spot where three trees showed through a low spot in the dunes, and decided this would be a good landmark. Henning held Robin's ashes for awhile and cried. Then he handed the container to me, I opened it and we walked to the water. The day was gloriously sunny and warm. But there had been a fierce wind for the past day; the seas were heavy and the surf had cut a steep trench where it broke against the beach.
I held the container overhead and slid down unsteadily, chest-deep into the surf. A breaker came rushing forward and covered me completely. I began trying to pour Robin's remains out in the water in front of me. The sea rushed back out, leaving me only knee-high in water and the grit blew back on me into my eyes and mouth and covering my naked body. Another wave covered me then, and while I was submersed I clawed the rest of Robin out of the box, and let it float out of my hands. In the next wave I washed the rest of him from my hair and eyes and rinsed him out of my mouth.
This was Sunday, August 5, 1984. It never occurred to me at the time that this might be in the nature of an omen of how intimate a part of my life AIDS would become.
If you're gonna bring me something
Bring me, something I can use
But don't you bring me no bad news!
from The Wiz
Shortly after I joined the NY Blood Center AIDS study we were informed that the recently developed HIV anti-body tests would be available to participants. The study sponsors were understandably concerned about the psychological impact that learning of your test results could have on participants, and they created several options and procedures for them to choose among.
As far as I was concerned, I'd only be playing games with myself by hiding from the results. I wanted to be informed of the results flat out, slam-bam, thank-you-m'am style, and get if over with. Given the fact that I had been having sex repeatedly with guys in the late Seventies and early Eighties who had already died of AIDS (and others who were alive but symptomatic), a positive test result was the only reasonable expectation. My sexual history gave no reason whatsoever for any other possible outcome. The on-site manager agreed, and based on the fact that I already seemed to have accepted that my results would be positive, he asked if I would be willing to do something. The study was considering a group session where the first batch of people would be given their results to open if they wished and discuss them, or perhaps it was going to be a follow-up session after participants had looked at them received them at home I have forgotten which. He thought was that given my attitude possibly my reaction and thoughts might be something on the order of a leveling influence...something on that order. I said yes.
My blood was taken October 3, 1984.
The test results came back negative. I was thunderstruck and totally disbelieving. The study manager was likewise. The anti-body test that had been used was the Elisa, which produced a fair number of false negatives, and a second test using the Western Blot test was certainly in order. It too came back negative. Follow-up tests came up negative as well. Despite the overwhelming odds against me, I had turned out to be negative...for the moment.
While for quite a few months I had not had partners shoot their cum in me, nor I in them there was one exception, and an ominous one: Howard, my steady sex partner of thirteen years.
Early in the year he had complained of having difficulties with his work because he was always so tired. Then later he told me that the problem had become so severe, and no doctor had been able to diagnose it, that he'd taken a trip to the Mayo Clinic. I'm waiting for the shoe to drop, of course. But he said they had not been able to make a diagnosis either. He told me he'd been afraid that he had AIDS, but that it had been ruled out...nevertheless, without any fanfare or discussion he put an end to our sexual relationship. I never saw him in the bar again either. When I did run into him in the street we lived near each other he was very friendly, and even came across with his usual intimate touching. However, his facial appearance had aged badly, and he complained of being hardly able to carry on at work. Despite the quick eager touches he never suggested "getting together."
We had had sex several times just prior to
my giving the blood sample to be tested. If by any chance he was infected
with HIV, my test result could easily be wrong. I was not inclined to
think that Howard would lie,
his approach to life had always seemed to be almost brutally honest
with pessimism...still, the AIDS epidemic was something new and terrifying. I
was ashamed of my doubts. But, I had them. I didn't feel I knew for sure
"I wonder what it will be like the day the dancing has to stop? Somewhere someone will always be dancing, I suppose.
journal entry September 2, 1984
(closing night of The Saint summer season)
Saint membership cards, locker tag, etc.
"Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves"
Aretha Franklin & the Eurhythmics
In the Fall of '84 I investigated Sunday nights at The Saint: "You won't like it!," I was warned.
The reason was that Sunday night was when what my friend Mark said was "serious dancing" went on. And the guys who ornamented Saturday nights hanging out and posing were replaced by another special crowd a core of guys who came and danced alone. These solo dancers were referred to by Mark and his friends as the "Serious Dancers." And it did seem on Sunday nights, that these "Serious Dancers" and the DJs were setting the tone and the pace of the evening in concert.
Earlier in the year I had bought my friend Bob Cecchi a summer membership as he didn't have the money to renew his, and as a favor he took me on the opening night. I enjoyed myself so much that I dropped by the following week and bought one for myself. Up to this point I'd only gone to The Saint with company and on Saturday nights.
Sunday night, the eve of the Veterans' Day holiday, I was shuffling around impatiently waiting for the guys I'd come with to leave the lounge and go upstairs to the dance floor always a boring part of the evening for me because I didn't drink, and I'd stopped using any drugs when I went dancing as I thought they wore me out rather than heightening the experience. After awhile, in exasperation, I went upstairs to watch other people dancing and to mumble my dissatisfaction.
Michael Fierman was playing that night, and doing it even better than usual.
Finally, in a dramatic loss of good sense, I gathered up both left feet and ventured out onto the middle of the dance floor alone.
A monster was born! DJ Michael Fierman made magic just for me and I danced to it for forever. I was, I felt, literally in heaven nothing had ever been like this. And nothing ever was afterward, it was a unique experience. For the next three years the Saint was magical for me. I spent almost every other Sunday night there, from midnight to eight a.m., being one of the people my friends had called the "Serious Dancers," and taking my annual leave days one at a time on the following Mondays to rest up. It seems in my memory that each time, shortly after I arrived, either Love is in the Air or Electric Dreams would play, and at that point I would be lifted out of myself until morning.
...AND IN THE REAL WORLD
Late in the year Tom faced a personal hell. Robert came down with herpes, and Tom told me it covered part of one cheek and the entire upper part of Robert's face including both eyes. Aside from being almost torn apart with anxiety about what would happen to Robert, Tom also happened to be very squeamish about blood, disfigurement, etc. Robert came to stay with Tom a couple of days before entering St. Luke's Hospital. After I came in from work the first day, I went downstairs to Tom's part of the apartment. Robert was across the room, and he turned his back toward me. After a few moments he turned and faced me.
The sight of him was horrible. It was as if he had been hideously burned. His face was covered with livid, runny sores and his eyes were almost swollen shut. I went across the room and kissed him, and he gave a great sigh I think he was probably afraid I might not touch him.
In the morning Tom called me downstairs. Robert's eyes needed to be opened and medicated in the morning after swelling shut during the night, and Tom's hands were shaking so bad, he said, he could not do it. Would I do it? Later in the afternoon when Tom was at work I helped Robert again.
I got up a bit early the next morning, expecting Tom's call again. It didn't come. By an incredible effort of love and will he had been able to do it.
Robert, struggled on angrily at the hospital. He developed several additional opportunistic infections. The hospital gave him a yellow face mask, indicating contagion, to wear when he left the room. He refused to use it. Instead he put it on the teddy bear he carried with him. Tom was with him every minute of every day that he was not at work.
In this year the number of new AIDS cases reached 2,885; there were 1,432 deaths from AIDS that year. More than a quarter of that number were in NYC, most in the borough of Manhattan.
We could dance under the moonlight,
hug and kiss all through the night.
Oh baby, tell me, do you wanna dance with me baby?
Do you, do you, do you, do you want to dance?
Do you, do you, do you want to dance?
Do you, do you, do you, do you want to dance with me baby?
Do You Want to Dance?
After weeks and weeks in the hospital Robert died on January 17, 1985 with Tom at his side. Robert's mother gave his ashes to Tom.
In the summer he took them out to the Island, where they had spent one summer together working in the Grove. One night he brought them to the beach, to a place near the Rangers' house at the western end of the Pines, he told me, and scattered them out on the sand. It was a spot where Robert had danced in the sand one night on their way back to the Grove.
One early evening that summer Tom took me on a walk down to the west end of the Pine's boardwalk, and then down onto the beach. He stopped, and said, "This is the place." He told me then for the first time that after he had opened the container of Robert's ashes, he had danced on the sand as he spilled them out. I had to turn away and just stare at the spot for a few moments: it had been the last dance for Robert the dancer, and the last dance for them together. We held each other for awhile and then walked on in the moonlight. Of all the images that pass through my mind of Tom, the one I never actually saw him dancing with Robert's ashes remains the most sharp-edged, and the saddest. More than thirty years later, when that image unexpectedly comes into my mind, it still cuts.
LEAVING THE OASIS FOR THE DESERT
In the summer of 1985 I took a season's share in a house on the Island for the first time. In the Pines there were almost no practicing Catholics (or any sort of active Christians for that matter), and the heterosexual population seemed as little interested in religion as the gay men. But I was still involved though with waning spirit in the "investigation" of my religious beliefs. A priest came in by boat to say a mass early on Sunday morning in a room next to the community health office. The sand drifted over the wooden walkway beside the building, and although you could not see the ocean you could hear it beyond the dunes. The building received the early sun full force, so the doors and windows were left open and a breeze from the sea blew in steadily. The mass was attended by about fifteen or a few more people, and the priest seemed a low-keyed and pleasant fellow. The surroundings were very make-do, of course, and in this setting the little gathering and the mass itself struck me more than ever like a band of travelers worrying over preparations on the edge of a trackless territory.
On the second or third Sunday I got up early again and walked down the lee side of the island to where the mass was held. I waited outside in a rather stiff wind; the people came along one and two at a time, holding their sweaters and jackets tightly about them, and hurried into the room. The sun was well up and shining strongly by the time mass was to begin. And it came upon me with a deep sense of finality that this was not the place for me any longer, and that whatever my business had been there it was finished. I walked away, not with doubt but only with a sense of wonder about why I did not feel doubt. I walked back along the ocean. I passed the walk that led up to the house and continued beyond the west end of the Pines.
At the point where I saw a clump of three trees waving above the dunes I sat down. This was the spot where Henning and I had brought Robin's ashes. I remembered the wind blowing his cremated remains back onto me, covering my body and getting them into my eyes and mouth. Sitting in the sand at that spot, I felt as if there were a sudden "in-rushing" from everywhere around me. Something seemed to physically flow through my body. And I was left with an unexpected feeling of acceptance about being carried beyond anything I'd ever expected to experience about being out in the empty spaces of life.
Whatever later significance this event might have had for me, I did not, however, immediately leave the Island to turn in my Speedos for a hair shirt.
SUMMER IN PARADISE
Tom's boss, had decided late in 1983 that she had to have a house in the Pines (along with her other homes). And, as I gathered from T., like all of her new enthusiasms it soon became an obsession to which she harnessed all of her energies. The piece of property she purchased was a choice lot near the mouth of the harbor with an unobstructed view of the bay, and within a minutes walk of the dock, disco, restaurants, etc.
My Fire Island ferry ticket '85
The existing house was essentially demolished, and erected on its platform was an architectural fantasy worthy of Malibu...a main floor paved in one-foot square ceramic tiles (alternating off-white and pale lavender), an all white interior with all white furniture, a two-story living room, an "entrance balcony" from the main bedroom which connected to the stairway, and imported art deco inspired Italian lacquered furniture for each bedroom...impressive even by Pines' standards.
A friend of mine, Bill, who worked on Woody Allen's films commented, when I took him to the house to visit Tom, "No one could really live here, this is just stage set for production numbers!"
Strangely, it was Tom rather than his boss who may have gotten the most use out of the house. She was an energetic, frequently restless, woman who almost as soon as she would arrive by sea plane was on the phone to elsewhere, and making plans about when she would leave. Tom, however, she began to have in almost constant residence there, busy supervising repairs, installing enhancements, and rushing the cleaning and flower arrangements for the chatelaine who vanished almost as soon as she arrived.
She was something of a mystery in the Pines, the object of ridicule and gossip, yet the dispenser of longed-after invitations and the giver of one huge lavishly costly party a season. I only spent time with her on a couple of visits, and my impression was that while she might have been a bit over-the-top, more than anything she was pulling a leg with her role in the Pines. In public she could be an outrageously and expensively dressed woman in the most frightful costumes that trendy designers conjured up, but in private she was a funny, unpretentious person with a big generous streak in her makeup.Tom quietly took advantage of the position he found himself in living in this grand, unwinterized movie set. He wrapped himself in a bit of her notorious mystery, drifting in and out of the social and commercial life of the Pines as the real-life dispenser of his boss's patronage and proof that she was not after all a mirage.
The lot was surrounded by a tidy high wooden fence, which kept the lower floor of the house screened from the boardwalk. The main entrance was a pair of plain doors set into an inward curve of the fence. Once through the doors, a visitor was on a small walkway hanging above a beautifully manicured shade garden about ten feet below, and you walked across this to a two-story glass wall with double sliding doors, through which you looked down a long entrance-way, which descended to the living room area at the back of the house and even from this distance you saw out the two-story glass wall at the far end of the house, across the deck and pool and miles across the bay to the pale line of the shore of Long Island. Great architectural design theatre!
The captains of the ferries which brought people from Sayville to the harbor at the Pines told Tom that they now used the house as their navigational guide to the harbor on all but the foggiest nights, as it was more visible than the nautical lights. With a two-story high facade of glass, white siding and mirrored panels, and perched at the edge of the bay no doubt about it.
Having pinched a lot of pennies the previous winter, I had taken a share in a house a considerably humbler abode than this. Most of the guys I hadn't known before, but I got fixed up with them because they'd been summer roommates with Henning in the past. It was the first time I'd ever had a place on the Island for an entire season.Me, summer '85 Tom was at his boss's house most of the time, and I came out on Thursday evenings for the weekend, which meant that I often spent Fridays with Tom, hanging around over there while the house was groomed and prettied for the weekend and swimming in the pool overlooking Great South Bay. Late in the afternoon I'd disappear and if no one showed up, we might come back much later to collect Tom, if he was in the mood, and go dancing at the Pavilion, the huge warehouse of a place which had replaced the old fashion beachy-looking Sandpiper. Once in awhile if I came out on a week night with a friend, we would have dinner at Tom's and then sit around blowing grass or tooting coke, swimming and talking till the early morning. While the weather was gorgeous that summer, and the music and dancing great, it was largely Tom's hospitality in that splendid house which made the summer seem like a long and lavish movie. It was a glamorous idyll.
Tom seemed to be recovering from his deep depression that followed Robert's death although he had always tended to hide his feelings. The only sign of trouble in this paradise was that Tom and I began getting out the coke during the day if I dropped in, and if we sat around at night the use could get heavy.
"LOVE IS FOREVER AS LONG AS IT LASTS."
Vinicius de Moraes
Brazilian composer, poet & diplomat
After not having sex since receiving my negative HIV test results ten months before, near the end of the summer I began what might be described in retrospect as a "comfort relationship." His name was Gino. He was Italian with a kind of "homely" good looks and a sinewy athletic build, and an engaging charm which covered a restless, prickly streak and a discontented inner life. His mood swings, I was to discover, were of Jekyll and Hyde proportions especially in the first few months of our relationship. Bob Cecchi, who knew both of us, and some of my friends, thought that my patience with these was more stupid and destructive than it was admirable. It probably was, far more so than I believed at the time; however, I have come to think that dealing with this negative aspect of a personal relationship may have kept the bigger, and less easily dealt with fear of AIDS and death from overwhelming me. Our usual activities revolved around the fact that we both liked music of all kinds and enjoyed dancing.
The first time we had sex the condom broke. We had both tested negative, so after that we never bothered but promised to honest if we ever wanted to trick with someone else. The sex was as far as I was concerned not very satisfying. But holding a man's warm, healthy body through the night, when it seemed everyone around me was dying was consolation of inestimable value. The relationship lasted for a little over two years, and there are good memories from it for which I remain grateful.
In a time of plague it was a mutually opportunistic relationship, and when it began I wrote in a journal that I realized that it would certainly not go on to some imagined "forever." Sometime later Gino said that in safer times it was unlikely that we would have been involved with each other on a monogamous basis. However, for the time it lasted there was often pleasant companionship, and something like a safe harbor as things seemed to be falling apart on all sides in the storm. For me (I think), our relationship was an attempt to believe the easy happiness of better days was still possible: it was my final resistance to confrontation with the encroaching darkness. In the spring of '87 when I stopped by GMHC to get information on a new client, a co-worker of Gino's, who was evidently not aware that we had been going together, mentioned that Gino had met and slept with guy on a previous vacation. And that very weekend when he went away, he had gone to stay with him again. Oh...
So much for promises.
Gino's temperament and personal problems had already put the stamp of "temporary" on our relationship from the first, which I understood. But I had trusted him. And I was really hurt and angry, because it had ended the way it did.
But quite soon I not only faced the encroaching darkness, I just hurled myself into it and embraced it like some evil, hateful lover. And from that point there was nothing left for a relationship with another man.
1985 had been the first summer in more than
twenty-five years of going to the Grove or the Pines
that I had ever had a house on the Island for an entire summer. And of all
those years it was the best in many ways. What I did not
and would not, and could not
have admitted to myself on the last day that I took the ferry back to Sayville
was that the door of a most beautiful time and place was doubtlessly closing, and locking,
STRAIGHT AMERICA PUSHES THE PANIC BUTTON
The number of cases of the "gay cancer" diagnosed before 1981 was 100, but the number of new cases recorded in each of the following years grew at a rate that should have been alarming: '81 339, '82 1,201, '83 3,153, '84 6,368.... The American public was satisfied with intermittent press reports about faceless groups of "homosexuals" and "AIDS victims," with their companion "Haitians" and "drug users." The Reagan administration remained silent. But in April 1985 Health and Human Services Secretary, Margaret Heckler, let loose her urgent cry:"We must conquer AIDS before it affects the heterosexual population."
This sounded the official tocsin for straight America.
July popular movie and television actor, Rock Hudson, admitted that he was dying
of AIDS, and not as a result of liver cancer as his spokesmen had previously
claimed. His gay sexual orientation was still unknown to most straight
If rich, famous Rock Hudson can get it...what then? There have been repeated assertions that his admission of AIDS "put a familiar face" on the disease...and that this moved the public in a positive direction. That was not my impression at the time. From mid-summer until Hudson's death in October the news media served up a stew of gory tales about his decline. As in Poe's tale The Masque of the Red Death, his fate proved that even the rich and famous could not hide from this plague.
By September of '85, Time magazine stated in an article about AIDS, "Anxiety over AIDS in some parts of the U.S. is verging on hysteria." The use of "verging" was bizarre considering the article itself is entirely about straight hysteria...an opinion poll indicated that 47% of Americans believed AIDS could be contracted from a drinking glass, 28% believed AIDS could jump right up their heinies off a toilet seat. Not surprisingly, tattooing those infected with AIDS, and quarantining infected people in their homes or in camps were popular ideas. An LA Times poll this same year found 51% of the respondents favored quarantine for people with AIDS, 48% thought infected people should have to carry ID cards identifying them as such, 45% were in favor of testing job applicants for HIV anti-bodies, 15% were in favor of tattooing...Americans were terrified of the possibility of casual contact with infected persons.
And the gloves were off. It wasn't just "homos" and "druggies" any more. But Washington had done nothing to provide the American public with accurate scientifically verified information about HIV or AIDS. Wild rumors and disinformation abounded, much of it fomented by Evangelical religious preachers and conservative GOP politicians. People went nuts about it, and they were vicious.
One child infected with HIV was reported to be enrolled in the NYC school system. At a school in the borough of Queens more than 90% of the students did not report when parents organized a boycott, and they held a raucous meeting in the school, where they were whipped into a furor by local politicians.
In New Jersey a child with AIDS-related complex, though not ill, was barred from school. In Washington a child with AIDS was tutored in a room alone. And in Kokomo, Indiana 13-year-old Ryan White, a hemophiliac infected with HIV, was being tutored at home via a telephone hookup after his school district barred him from attending school.
In our Upper West Side neighborhood Roman Catholic parents refused to send their children to a parochial school when they learned that a nearby unused convent was to be turned into housing for PWA's the project was abandoned.
A woman working at a gay and lesbian community center in California was burned when attacked with acid. Her attackers screamed, "Die, you AIDS faggots!"
Not just hospital staff, but policemen and others took to wearing gloves when dealing with any people they suspected of might have HIV infection in some places this automatically included any gay men.
Some hospital workers refused to bring food trays into the rooms of patients with AIDS, and left them outside. This was how Bob Cecchi of GMHC began the Ombudsman's Department at the organization. He received a call from a PWA at Bellevue Hospital, who complained that he was going hungry because his food tray was left on the floor outside his room. Bob worked with the hospital administration to get the situation remedied, and then began fielding similar complaints that kept coming in. The Ombudsman's function became one of the most used at GMHC.
The need for massive public education, and leadership at a national level was a crying need, one recognized by Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop was a quixotic man with a conservative religious views, but totally heads-up about the need for straightforward public health information. The Reagan administration kept him muzzled. Even after Reagan appointed a rinky-dink Executive Task Force on AIDS in 1983, Koop had been excluded from its meetings by his superior, Assistant Secretary of Health, Edward Brant. Journalists received instructions from Brandt's office in advance of his press conferences that the Surgeon General would not answer questions about AIDS, and that he was not to be asked about it.
The need for public education was desperate. The government completely abdicated its responsibility, and the media was not proving effective in filling this gap nor was it always reliable or helpful when it made the attempt.
Discover magazine, a general science journal printed an article in late 1985 in which it claimed that the "vulnerable rectum" and the "fragile penis" would ensure that AIDS would remain a gay disease, while the "rugged vagina" was going to save heterosexuals. It ignored the fact that worldwide AIDS was emerging as a predominantly heterosexual problem evidently the "rugged vagina" had an American patent.
Televangelical preachers were in high gear, stirring up fear and spreading rumors on television and in print; and anyone who had access to the Internet in these years knows that by this time there was hardly an Internet newsgroup, no matter what its putative focus might be, that didn't find itself bombarded with hate postings and embroiled in subsequent acrimonious "discussions."
There was a large ruckus over whether leaving the gay baths open would lead to more infection, or if they could serve as centers for educating men about safer sex and for dispensing condoms. The debate raged. New York Governor Cuomo announced he was considering closing them. The City closed the Saint Mark's Baths, and the New York Times objected, saying that the baths could probably function as effective AIDS education resources. However, the baths were closed.
The first week in November, invoking new state rules to combat the spread of AIDS, New York City closed the Mine Shaft, the surreal sex palace on Washington Street. In the following year former officer, Richard Bell and five other men were indicted in February on charges involving the operation of the two sex clubs in Greenwich Village. Four of the five pleaded guilty later in the year, the fifth was believed to have fled to Ireland to escape prosecution, and Bell was convicted of bribery and tax fraud.
GMHC: NEW LEADERSHIP
What a madness and cruel foolishness is this, that in the time of any great plague
such as are infected, you shut up in houses, set marks upon them....when as at no time
there is greater need of fellowship, company, comfort and help than in time of plague?
Paul Popham, the Gay Men's Health Crisis first president and Rodger McFarlane, the first full-time paid director, aside from their energy and skill in creating and building the organization, had warm, easy-to-like public presences, which were crucial, I think, to the organization's success in those early years. To the gay men of New York they had been gay men working for gay men first, and only grew into public figures over time.
Paul resigned in 1985, having been seriously weakened by Kaposi's sarcoma. (He died on May 7, 1987.) Roger McFarlane gave up his post in the same year. (He continued to be a leader in other gay and AIDS-related organizations.)
Richard Dunne, who began as a volunteer in 1983 and served as a member of the Board, became its next executive director. He inherited a much changed GMHC. It had had 200 clients by the winter of '82/'83 and 650 by June '84, and when Dunne took over in 1985 that number had grown to 2,500. The New York Times stated the current national AIDS statistics as 13,332 diagnosed cases and 6,481 deaths since 1981, with about 40 percent of these being in New York City.
Despite the hard work and deep dedication of the small salaried staff, supplemented by administrative volunteers (My boyfriend Gino had been a full-time, unpaid volunteer from early on), and the addition of a large number of buddy type volunteers in the fall of '85 who provided one-on-one support to GMHC clients, the organization became stressed like a ship in a hurricane during the first years of Dunne's directorship.
Richard Dunne had worked for twelve years in the New York City bureaucracy, and his most recent post had been as Assistant Deputy Assistant Commissioner for the Human Resources Administration. By virtue of his past professional experience he was an "organization man." On the one hand, this equipped him to shape a new GMHC; on the other, it would unfortunately, but probably inevitably sever GMHC from its roots.
VOLUNTEERING AT GMHC
October 2, 1985 I was interviewed and enrolled to participate in their upcoming volunteer training. Later in the month it took place in two weekend sessions at the school belonging to the Jesuit parish of St. Francis Xavier in Chelsea. This church had already had a relationship with gay people as it provided meeting space for the gay Catholic group Dignity, and allowed Dignity to celebrate masses in its church. (Later, after a quiet resistance of several years, the Jesuits were forced by New York Roman Catholic archbishop, John O'Connor, to close their doors to Dignity.)
St. Francis Xavier Church, W. 15th St.
By this time GMHC had created a three-branched service of volunteers to pair with clients who needed them. There were Crisis Intervention Workers (CIW), Care Management Partners (CMP) and Buddies. The groups were designed to assist PWA (Persons with AIDS) clients according to the complexity of their needs, though the distinctions between the first two (CIW and CMP) were virtually indistinguishable in my experience. All the various types of volunteers were organized into small teams which met once a month and were led by two volunteer leaders, and these team leaders met as a group once a month at GMHC with members of the permanent staff.
I had become a Crisis Intervention Worker actually I had "become" nothing of a sort, but I knew from the training what that was supposed to mean, though I was in a position similar to that of a putative skydiver who has yet to jump out into the wild blue yonder. Late in November I approached my first team meeting feeling like I didn't know whether to shit or go blind. I went down to an apartment in the East Village. At the door I was greeted by a young woman, who requested that I remove my shoes, and then shown into a dimly lit couple of rooms scented with burning sticks of mephitic patchouli incense. The place was decorated with some pictures or posters, which might have been interesting, but there was only a bit more light than at the Mineshaft.
While one or two of the honchos in the weekend training session had seemed to be flirting with the flakier edge of the New Age, most in contrast like Diego Lopez, for example were tightly focused and serious. I was not ready for what looked like an invitation to a magic carpet ride in the "Mystic East."
Sitting on the floor was agony because of past surgery there were no chairs and the stench of the cheap Indian incense was rapidly threatening to be puke-inducing. But just as I was about to say, "Fuck this weird shit," the team leaders took over the incense was doused, a window was opened and piles of extra pillows, etc. were requisitioned for we ass-weary wimps.
There were about ten or twelve members on the team, one or two straight women and the rest gay men. The team leaders were Lou Katoff, a psychologist working for an HMO, and Leslie, a social worker completing her final training. And while I was at first reassured by their pleasantness and easy-going supervision of the meeting, as things progressed and each team member spoke of the past month with his client, I began to appreciate the incredible problems that the leaders and the team dealt with, and my apprehension level began to rise.
What the fuck did I think that I was doing here!?
[GMHC required that volunteers and staff protect the privacy of its clients. Though it is thirty-five years later, and all of those I knew are dead, I have changed their names and omitted enough detail that I believe their privacy has been respected.]
Fortunately, my first client, Kevin, a young gay man in his late twenties from a working class Irish-American background, was cut from a pretty special piece of cloth. He proved to be a tough, gritty and inspiring guy. More than thirty years later I still consider myself fortunate to have known him and to have been part of his life, even if only for a short while. And he was the guy who taught me what it was to be a Crisis Intervention Worker.
Kevin was living with his lover and a roommate who had been his partner's former lover, and who was now a friend. Our initial meeting on December 18th seemed a bit formal, and Kevin pretty much treated it like I was on a job interview and his thoroughness was to prove characteristic of him. The three guys seemed tightly knit, and very private, and my inclusion in Kevin's life (or was it their lives?) was not being considered lightly. Kevin developed KS lesions, but remained in fairly good health for awhile, and our relationship while not unfriendly, sometimes had a rather distant and dryly reportorial tone.
He developed a new lesion, this one on his face in mid-January '86. In April his lover complained to me that Kevin was spending most of his time alone back at his old studio apartment.
Now the relationship between Kevin and I quickly began developing into a more personal one. He told me that he felt that he would die soon and was concerned that his widowed mother and his lover were not really prepared. A lot of resentment and strain in their triangular relationship was coming up, and this finally burst to the surface in what sounded like a major confrontation. Kevin called me down to his apartment for an afternoon, and stunned me when he declared to me, "Our (i.e. his and my) relationship is primary." It took the rest of the summer for them to rebuild their relationships, and I had to be very careful to be there for him and support him, while taking pains never to get myself involved in the trio's difficulties.
Right at this time Kevin got thrown a curve out of left field. His sister, evidently never a very stable or responsible person, had abandoned her four fatherless youngsters, and they had been taken by the City. Kevin spent several months as his strength waned, taking long trips out to Brooklyn where they were institutionalized and spending a great amount of time visiting and interviewing potential foster parents. His reaction to chemotherapy was very bad, but he pushed on. This was his last mission in life. A couple of days after he had found a suitable home for the youngest boy he fell into a coma. When I visited him in the hospital the last week in October I literally bumped into his crying partner and mother as the burst from his room. He was unconscious. I could only look at him as so many things I would have wanted to say to Kevin churned inside me. A few days later he had a series of brain seizures. He died November 5, 1986.
He was a magnificent guy. My first reaction to his passing was the usual one of sorrow, but after a couple of weeks I became suddenly very depressed about his death and it took some time to pull out of it.
I was ready for my next client in February '87. Ciaran, another Irish-American guy, in his thirties and straight, and he was a rollercoaster ride that was over before it had hardly begun. Ciaran was a heroin addict enrolled in a maintenance program.
Track marks from shooting.
Though he lived in a welfare hotel only a block and around the corner from where our offices had been moved to at Lexington and East 24th St., he proved as elusive as a ghost. Visiting the Kenmore Hotel to look for him scared the shit out of me, and I spent most of my time trying to track him through his drug program counselor. Suddenly he vanished. Ciaran was found on an inter-city bus headed for the town where his estranged wife lived actually it was his body that was found, he had died from an overdose.
By March I was already assigned to Ralph a bisexual guy in his late thirties, who had already had several serious medical problems by the time I met him. Prior to this he had earned a very precarious living as a food vendor in the streets. In addition to his problems due to AIDS, he was involved with a girlfriend, Tawana, who had a crack habit the size of a polar ice cap.
Ralph was living temporarily in the McBurney Y, but got relocated into a sleazebag hotel on upper Broadway suddenly he was rushed to the hospital with pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP). He called me one day to come to Roosevelt and pick him up, the hospital had said he could be released. He was a total fucking mess, hardly able to stand on his own, gasping for breath and coughing. Yet the hospital insisted he was ready for release, despite my pointing out that he was barely able stand and sounded like a sump pump. And Ralph insisted on leaving. The staff couldn't hustle us out the door fast enough.
Uptown at the welfare dump, I had to almost literally drag Ralph down the hall. When I tried to open his door, I couldn't. It budged an inch, but wouldn't open. Finally, I had to put Ralph on the floor, and throw my weight against the door again and again before it would open enough for me to squeeze in. Inside it was a fucking pigpen newspapers, clothes, shopping bags, take-out food containers, dirty dishes and trash, trash, trash of every imaginable kind filled the room to a depth so high that the seat of the chair and bed were literally not visible above it. And that is no exaggeration! A wall-to-wall garbage dump. And a festival of roaches, naturally.
Ralph dragged himself to the door. He peeked in and said, "Tawana. She's been using it with her friends." And he folded back down on the floor.
I got a few large trash bags from the hotel management, and began trying to clean out the place. When I finally had gotten down to near floor level in just one spot, I kept hearing the crunch of breaking glass. I carefully picked up the debris I was standing on and found that I was crushing countless dozens of empty crack vials beneath my feet. I began counting them. I stopped at one hundred, and there were more and more. It was hopeless. Ralph crawled in and showed me Tawana's "jewelry box": a cigar box almost completely full of empty crack vials. If it had been fucking wampum she could have bought Manhattan island back, even at current prices. It would have taken two people hours just to clean out the worst of the debris. A bigger problem: Ralph's breathing was becoming frighteningly shallow, and he was hardly able to talk. Fucking assholes at Roosevelt Hospital!
I dragged him back down to the lobby and laid him on a pile of old carpets heaped in a corner of the lobby while I called Van, one of our new team leaders. He rushed up, and we took Ralph back to Roosevelt's emergency unit.
The hospital was adamant that they would not take him they didn't even want him in their emergency room. The team leader and I argued and argued, and the staff kept calling in higher and higher up honchos to tell us to take Ralph the fuck away. Finally, the supervising doctor of the emergency unit, or maybe she was the acting weekend supervisor of the hospital, appeared and ordered us to remove Ralph from their premises.
Van and I refused. We said that we would get out, and sit on the steps of the emergency unit. If the hospital ejected Ralph we would leave him wherever he fell on the ground and call the newspapers to come and see him.
And guess what? Roosevelt suddenly decided to keep him surprise, surprise! And he was seriously ill for awhile before he was released weeks later.
Let it sink in: this occurred at what was considered one of NYC's good hospitals. Their conduct was a medically ill-considered judgment (if that was the basis for his premature release), and the conduct of the administration upon the attempt to get him admitted to their Emergency facility was foul. I do not recall his insurance situation, perhaps he had exhausted his benefits, so possibly the motivation was financial. But, in any case, this description is entirely accurate. Incidents such as this one occurred at other hospitals and medical facilities, and are an indication of how fear - and in some cases prejudice and contempt - erupted even in the very places which are supposed to exist to care for the sick and the dying.
When he got out he had to find another place to live, but again the lovely Tawana and her crack habit fucked that arrangement up too. And yet a third time the same thing happened. He became such a difficult case that a second member of the team was assigned to him. Ralph lurched from crisis to crisis propelled by his girlfriend's drug habit, and he was unable to bring himself to throw her out of his life.
But a crisis came up in my own life that changed things radically. On April 14, 1987 I had to give up my CIW work on the team.
Ashford and Simpson, who had sung so joyfully at the beginning of the disco era, had more hits in '84 -- Solid, "And for loves sake, each mistake, ah, you forgave...soon both of us learned to trust, not run away... it was no time to play. We build it up and build it up and build it up."
Sam Harris was a very cute (and closeted) young white guy, but his raw, gutsy voice was that of a male torch singer and blues belter. He sang Hearts on Fire........"I'm out of control, my heart's on fire," and left no doubt that he was.
Rhythm of the Street, by Patti Austin became almost sacramental for me.
George Michael and Aretha Franklin made a superb duet, the joyous, Knew You Were Waitin' for Me. The Pointer Sisters had abandoned their 30s and 40s retro sound and pumped out super high energy hits like, Jump, I'm So Excited, and Baby, Come and Get It. Tina Turner, out on her own and free of her husband, Ike, launched a new career and her first LP contained an entire string of dance hits What's Love Got to Do With It, Private Dancer, I Can't Stand the Rain. Sylvester's former backup singers, now called the Weather Girls were Raining Men.
Loleatta Holloway's Love Sensation albumAnd the perennial, guaranteed-to-pack-the-floor number Loleatta Holloway's Love Sensation.
Six o'clock a.m. on a Monday morning was still the very best dancing time as far as I was concerned. About then the DJ's would usually slow down the beat considerably, and also play somewhat offbeat stuff that brought out the Serious Dancers to spin and drift around the floor, each one floating through his solo dream-dance world...Tina Turner singing Private Dancer, Simply Red doing Holding Back the Years (chillingly appropriate) and George Michael (as 1/2 of Wham) singing Careless Whispers. Or music with a slightly tripping Brazilian beat, and anything with a long, wailing sax. An exquisitely personal time for each dancer.For five wonderful years Robbie Leslie, Michael Fierman, Mike Cavallone, Chuck Parsons, Warren Gluck, Mark Thomas, Shaun Buchanan, Terry Sherman, Wayne Scott and the other DJ's played the music that made the nights there unforgettable for me...Giorgio Moroder Electric Dreams, Martin Stevens Love Is In the Air, Hall & Oates Out of Touch, Hush My Heart's On Fire, The Communards Never Can Say Goodbye, Blancmange That's Love That It Is, Sylvester You Make Me Feel, Lime Your Love, Bonnie Tyler Holding Out for a Hero....
After a night at The Saint I used to drop Gino off on the East Side just as the city was waking up for work, and then have the taxi drop me on the West Side, a few blocks from my apartment. My Levis would be soaked through with sweat, even my Nikes would be wet through from the dancing, and I'd walk up the streets in the soft morning light with my shirt off. Everything was quiet and it provided an opportunity to try to come down from The Saint. It looked as if everything were at rest and as if life was just as it should be.
But when I turned the corner of my street, I had to forget that within the two blocks between Central Park West and Amsterdam Avenue there were 15 people sick with AIDS or dying of it as I walked past their apartments. The Upper West Side had a case rate second only to that of the Village for awhile.
There was more and more non-black dance music now, Hi-NRG was at its peak. Frankie Goes to Hollywood was a favorite "War", "Relax", "Two Tribes". The Bronski Beat album Age of Consent was a monster hit, every cut was mixed and remixed in every possible combination and Jimmy Somerville's howling gay soul filled the dome.
Gino started to become reluctant to go to The Saint. Finally he said it was because of "the holes in the floor" he meant the absence of familiar faces who you'd been used to seeing there dancing in their favorite spots, even though you never knew them. The crowds were smaller and the side entrance was used for admission rather than the large front entrance. Using the large front entrance, someone told me, attracted the local addicts and street people who were no longer intimidated and tried to sneak into the club.
After going to The Saint one night in February '87, Gino refused to ever go again. I never went back either.
"Pay no attention to the dark circles
they have always been there
don't mistake me to be broken down
just because I'm on my knees....
I've managed to look good so far
but there's no use pretending....
Born with Teeth
by Cock Robin
By the end of '86 the White Lady (slang term for cocaine) was in full control of Tom's life, and I had to wonder about my own. Tom had gotten involved in small scale dealing to finance his use and, of course, I was involved too. The real world stopped at our front door.
Although Tom was the one who had the alcoholism and drug addiction in his family, it was me who finally got it that we were well down the slippery slope with cocaine. (AA knocking on my head, no doubt) While Tom had held onto his job, his social life had diminished to coke and sex or planning for coke and sex, or recovering from coke and sex. Fortunately, I was doing considerably better....but, still, the handwriting was certainly on the wall. Finally, I took a stand that I wouldn't help him by servicing my friends as customers.
Tom had struggled desperately with depression after Robert's death, even tried keeping a journal to help himself. But he had given up he looked lousy, and he was flying on coke as often as possible. Without caring for Robert as a ballast he was lost. An endless series of younger tricks disappeared downstairs with him brought home after all-night sessions in downtown bars and back rooms. And while I wasn't dealing for him now, I was still sometimes buying from Tom and was still around when any impromptu partying took place in the apartment.
At one point it became obvious that Tom no longer had a job he had simply walked out without a word to anyone. I learned this from a desperate message that a co-worker, who was covering for him, left on his phone recorder. His boss even tried to give him a chance to pull himself together, but he spurned it, and then, reluctantly, she dropped him. He continued to try to sell coke, but could barely scrape together enough money to pay his half of the rent. His existence became furtive. He shut off the downstairs floor where he lived, he kept it dark and it stunk from being closed all the time. He stopped changing his sheets, he stopped changing his clothes, he left uneaten food to rot on his desk...
My wishful thinking died a quick death a last; I finally allowed myself to get the obvious message. Tom had gone over the edge. I tried to talk to him about getting help. He looked horrible maybe it wasn't just coke.
"He opened my nooooose for me!"
Tina Turner (ad lib on a concert album)
But Tom said he didn't have AIDS. He was totally hostile to my overtures, and from that point on wouldn't speak to me anymore if he could help it. He was unable to pay his share of the rent now. I contacted one of his family about his downward spiral, a sister who had long ago overcome her own addiction problems. She didn't want to get involved, not until he "bottomed out" and called her for help. (A cold day in hell would come sooner, knowing Tom. But her brother, her call.) So, I found myself in the position of either paying the entire rent in order not to lose the apartment but, thus, in the process providing Tom with a free ride on his trip to the end of the road. Even if I had the stomach for it, there was no legal way to toss Tom out: the apartment was in both our names, and as long as the rent was paid he could remain in it. The alternative was to give up the place I loved, my home, and pull out...
Meanwhile, two months before this situation reached its climax, my best friend, Chuck, had been diagnosed with AIDS. There was no way I could go to work, plus spend time with Chuck afterward...and then go "home" to my apartment, to face who knew what the hell mess. I moved out in March with my clothes and some books and records, abandoning my furniture and household effects, leaving Tom in possession of the apartment. I relocated down to a large furnished room near Stuyvesant Square the front room of Van, the team leader΄s apartment, which he rented out. And I used to go up to the Upper West Side to check-in on Chuck after work and on weekends. After Chuck died I didn't go back to the old neighborhood. Almost every one I had known was dead, or had moved out.
In July of 1987, four months after I left, Tom died. He had moved a drug dealer in to share the apartment. Soon he had dropped contact with everyone in a squalor of boozing and drugs, brought to a quick end by AIDS-related meningitis. He was the only person I ever knew personally who dived into drugs and didn't come up again. Given the history of alcohol and drug abuse in his family it almost seems like this was his destiny.
Tom had once said that he wanted to have his ashes scattered where he had put Robert's on Fire Island. But his brother and sisters had stepped in and taken charge of him just before he died, and they had their own conventional agenda, which amounted to concealing his sexual orientation and his AIDS from their mother.
Tom had long ago abandoned the fragmentary journal of a couple of dozen pages that he began after Robert's death. I had kept it. A little over a decade later I burned the pages and let the ashes blow away over the sand into the sea toward the distant Fire Island Pines where Tom had danced while scattering Robert's cremated remains.
Grass now costs $200 a half ounce, and cocaine use was decreasing enormously among people I knew.
HOLD ON TO MY LOVE
September 26, 1987 was the last night of the great Paradise Garage, played by resident DJ genius Larry Levan.
DJ Robbie Leslie, 1986
The closing of The Saint was three days long, lasting from April 30 until May 2, 1988. Robbie Leslie, possibly the favorite on The Saint's roster of DJ's over the years was the last to play.
Monday morning Robbie played his trade mark, Hold on to My Love by Jimmy Ruffin, as the last song. Half way through a balloon slowly rose from one side of the dome and hovered over the central light tower just under the mirrored ball. As the song ended and the crowd applauded and cheered, it slowly descended until Robbie reached out and took it in his hands.
The dome opened and there was Marlena Shaw. She sang Touch Me in the Morning. And an era of dancing was over.It was the very last gasp of a lifestyle which had been unwilling to die for most of the decade even as the men who had created it were dying by the thousands.
A musical epilogue for a time already over.
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