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Sylvester: Staying Alive

In Sickness and Health, Sylvester Keeps Mighty Real

TWO IMAGES OF SYLVESTER:
It’s 1978, and disco rules. Donna Summer may be acknowledged as one Queen of Disco, but for gay men, Sylvester is the Other Queen. The falsetto singer has suddenly gone from drag infamy to hit records without giving up the gowns. “Dance (Disco Heat)” is hustling up the pop charts, and “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” isn’t far behind. Sylvester and his background singers the Two Tons o’ Fun are whipping up audiences of every race and sexual persuasion with spiritual voices and sinful rhythms. Whirling and twirling and shrieking out gospel-inflected dancefloor exhortations like Little Richard’s kid sister, this San Franciscan man in glittering couture looks and sings as if he’s just seen God … boogie.

Now it’s 1988, and Sylvester has AIDS. He’s joined the People With AIDS group of the San Francisco Gay Pride March in a wheelchair. Although he’s just 40 years old, his thinning gray hair, sunken features, and frail body make him look 25 years older. This is Sylvester’s first public acknowledgment of his illness, and the transition from glamour maven to out-patient has made him almost unrecognizable. The few who spot him cry, or gasp in shock, or applaud his bravery. For almost 20 years, Sylvester has been an icon of San Francisco nightlife: outrageous, bold, proud. Today, Sylvester is a symbol of a totally different San Fran­cisco — a gay man struggling to stay alive.

“Sylvester is as he was then,” says San Francisco novelist Armistead Maupin, “one of the few gay celebrities who never renounced his gayness along the ladder of success. He’s allowing us to celebrate his life before his death, and I don’t know a single star who has the integrity to do that. In sickness and in health, Sylvester has carried on with the identical spirit.”

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LIKE SO MANY BLACK SINGERS, Sylvester learned how to sing in church, at the Palm Lane Church of God and Christ in South Los Angeles. But from the very beginning, there were factors that made this familiar rite of passage unusual. Sylvester’s mother, Letha Hurd, introduced the young Sylvester James to a minister, Jerry Jordan. Under Jordan’s guidance, Sylvester performed at gospel conventions around California. His showstopper was his interpretation of “Never Grow Old,” the first record by the woman who has remained Sylvester’s idol and major influence, Aretha Franklin. Already, Sylvester was being groomed for divadom.

“Sylvester was so small,” recalls his mother, “he used to stand on a milk box while he sang. He would tear up the church, people would be screaming and hollering, and then he’d go play in the parking lot.”

The Pentacostal church was also where Sylvester had his first homosexual experience. “I was abused by an evangelist,” says Sylvester, “when I was seven, eight, and nine! He really did a number on me, but it never made me crazy. But you see, I was a queen even back then, so it didn’t bother me. I rather liked it.”

“I wanted to take a shotgun to that evangelist,” says Sylvester’s mom.

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Sylvester’s precociousness made him a difficult child. His father didn’t like him, and he fought constantly with his mother. After living awhile with his wealthier grandma, Sylvester ran away to live with friends while still in junior high. He did finish school, and two years at the Lamert Beauty College in L.A., where he studied interior decorating. It was then in 1970, that the 20-year-old Sylvester was invited to San Francisco to teach the Cockettes how to sing gospel.

“What we did came out of smoking pot, dropping LSD, and watching old movies on TV,” recalls Kreema Ritz, one of the original dozen drag queens that made up the Cockettes.

The Cockettes grew out of a group of hippies who belonged to the Food Con­spiracy food co-ops. George Harris, son of an off-Broadway actor, took his new moniker, Hibiscus, in 1969, when he was picking drag out of dumpsters and mak­ing food deliveries to hippies in the com­munes. Hibiscus was invited by filmmak­er Steven Arnold and Bill Graham’s accountant Sebastian to appear with her friends at a special New Year’s Eve edi­tion of the Nocturnal Dream shows at the Palace Theater, a deco building that showed Chinese movies by day. To ring in the new decade, the Cockettes danced the cancan to the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.” The crowd approved, and the Cockettes became a regular Palace attraction.

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“The term gender-fuck was coined to describe the Cockettes,” says Martin Worman, a/k/a Philthee Ritz. This for­mer drag queen is now an NYU perfor­mance art doctoral student writing a dis­sertation on his Cockette past. “We were a bunch of hippie radicals. We’d wear our trashy drag in long hair and beards and sprinkle glitter everywhere. Rather than trying to reproduce an image of women, we’d do our take on the image. You must remember that we didn’t have the money to do faithful reproductions. We did our drag on welfare and food stamps.”

Sylvester made his Cockette debut in 1970 as an island mammy in Hollywood Babylon wearing a ’30s bias-cut dress and singing “Big City Blues.” For the next year, Sylvester played crucial roles in ever more elaborate and deranged Cock­ette stage shows. Opening for the Cock­ettes’ New York debut in 1971 was Syl­vester and the Hot Band, a white guitar group fronted by the singer in a new glitter incarnation. It was about this Cockettes performance that Gore Vidal made the often-quoted statement, “Hav­ing no talent is no longer enough.”

In early ’70s San Francisco, it was hip to be a homo, and if you couldn’t be it, you approved. “That whole peace and love thing sounds so corny now, but it really happened,” says Worman. “The hippie atmosphere bred tolerance for ev­erybody, and being gay meant an explora­tion and a celebration. Even the earliest bathhouses were playful. People hadn’t yet compartmentalized their sexuality.”

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The Cockettes’ influence blossomed. When David Bowie’s San Francisco de­but failed to sell out, he explained, “They don’t need me — they have Sylvester.” Ken Russell saw the Cockettes and bor­rowed their imagery for The Boyfriend. Future mainstreamers like the Manhat­tan Transfer, Bette Midler, and the Pointer Sisters — soon to become Sylves­ter’s backup singers — all followed in their high-heeled footsteps.

The Cockettes bridged the gap between hippies and glam-rockers, between dirty denim and gold lamé. Sylvester and the Hot Band, which included future Oingo Boingo bassist Kerry Hatch and future Santana/Journey guitarist Neil Schon, garnered more attention from Sylvester’s glitter drag than the backup band’s bland boogie. Their two 1973 LPs flopped. Syl­vester skipped town, hung out in London and Amsterdam with Bowie and Elton John, and marked time until returning in ’75.

During this period the influx of gays into San Francisco began, and the num­ber of gay establishments boomed. Syl­vester would now have a larger audience to draw on, and more clubs in which to stage his comeback. The hippie do-your-­own-thing philosophy was gradually re­placed by a kind of conformity — and sep­aratism — introduced by people from small towns.

“I moved to Florida in the winter of ’74-’75,” remembers Kreema Ritz, “and when I returned, the second half of the decade had begun — grocery stores had turned into bars and bathhouses. Then I noticed all these men with mustaches, and I thought, where are these people coming from?”

THE POST-STONEWALL GAY MAN want­ed heroes he could call his own. In the absence of other role models, gays have traditionally taken to singers like Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich because they embody conflicts similar to their own — these women take male songwrit­ers’ fantasies of feminine passivity and sing them against the grain, in anger. For the generation of young men who grew up with the Supremes and discovered gay lib, r&b singers became the new divas of choice. Early ’70s soul sisters had one major thing in common with gay men­ — their suppression exploded in a torrent of sensuality. These aggressive black women provided the nighttime dancing sound­track while they captured both the alien­ation and the fervor that gay men understood.

The female singers in Ecstasy, Passion and Pain, and in Faith, Hope and Charity (the names say it all), Lyn Collins, and Patti Jo were among the women to make their mark in gay clubs without ap­proaching the pop charts. Before disco reached the masses, gays asserted their identity in the marketplace as consumers of black dance music — if few gay people were allowed to declare their sexuality on record, then records would become gay when enough gay people bought and sold them. For both blacks and gays, the new nightlife was a frontier where identity and sexuality could be explored within a protective arena. But for straight white America, which already had such institu­tions, disco translated into mainstream escapist entertainment: a barely sublimated outlet to experience the sexual rev­olution without actually living it. Before white-picket-fence America was ready to listen to homosexuals, they learned how to shop and dance like them.

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SYLVESTER’S DISCOIZATION came in time for the genre’s commercial peak in 1979; according to Sylvester, “the year when queens ran the music business.” The disco department of Casablanca Rec­ords, the hugely successful independent label behind Donna Summer and the Vil­lage People, was run by many gay men like Marc Paul Simon, who died earlier this year from AIDS. The most famous disco promoter, Warner Bros.’s Ray Ca­viano, was also among the most open about being gay, and every major compa­ny had their own gay-dominated disco departments. The world wanted to party, and no one knew how like gay men.

But not for long. San Francisco super­visor Harvey Milk was assassinated in ’78, and the mood of gay San Francisco shifted. Anita Bryant’s campaign to re­peal gay rights ordinances had already brought the cult of respectability into gay politics — no one wanted to look or carry on as if they might be taken for a queen. Gay sexuality fragmented. It wasn’t enough to try everything: you had to de­clare yourself into leather, Levis, cow­boys, or chicken, or something.

Then the media announced that “disco sucks,” a catchphrase that attacked the music scene while making a homophobic slur. The record business was only too happy to give up on what they couldn’t control. Disco departments turned into dance departments, or were phased out altogether. As far as Sylvester was con­cerned, there wasn’t a reason for alarm. Unlike many disco artists, the singer had an identity that could transcend trends. People would continue to like Sylvester for reasons that went beyond the beat.

BEFORE HE MADE HIS DISCO MOVE, Syl­vester himself was no fan of the music. Harvey Fuqua, veteran Motown producer and former lead singer of the Moonglows, had signed Sylvester to Fantasy, a jazz­ oriented label. Sylvester, in 1977, present­ed a far more conventional soul singer, and by that time, he had acquired his background weapons, Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes, the Two Tons o’ Fun. “I was just not into those skinny black girl singers who would ‘oooooh’ and ‘aaaaah,’ ” Sylvester recalls. “I wanted some big bitches who could wail.”

But there was still something missing in Sylvester’s new r&b approach. He got what he needed from Patrick Cowley, lighting man at the City disco, the Bay Area’s largest and most important gay venue. Cowley had kept his songwriting and synthesizer experiments secret until his homemade remix of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” became the local rage. Im­pressed, Sylvester asked Cowley if he wouldn’t mind making similar synth ad­ditions to what was originally a ballad, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” and another uptempo cut, “Dance (Disco Heat).” The two songs became top forty singles and turned the next album, Step II, into gold. Sylvester had finally arrived in the lap of mainstream America, stilet­to heels and all.

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But when the disco market crashed, Fantasy Records panicked. They wanted to force him in the direction of black male vocalists like Teddy Pendergrass. First to go was Cowley’s synthesized Eu­ropean (which in clubs means gay white) influence. As time went on, Sylvester had used more and more of Cowley’s input — ­both his synthesizers and his songs — un­til Fuqua barred Cowley from recording sessions.

The resulting Cowley-less LPs, 1980’s Sell My Soul and ’81’s Too Hot To Sleep, were blacker and straighter — they sound­ed more like the kind of r&b played on black radio and less like the disco heard in gay clubs — but didn’t do well in either format. “I told them, ‘You can change my image, but I ain’t changin’ shit!’ ” says Sylvester. “So I went to the office in a negligee and a blond wig and ran up and down the halls. Then I terrorized their studio until they had to give up.”

Fantasy did relent, but only after pre­venting Sylvester from recording until his contract expired in 1982. By then, two things had happened to Cowley. Since he could no longer play with Sylvester, Cow­ley started his own recording career in ’81. His first single, “Menergy,” alluded to street cruising and backroom sex. Nev­ertheless, it became a No. 1 dance record in America, a pop hit internationally, and defined the future sound of gay clubs­ — hi-NRG. But before all that, Cowley started falling ill to unexplained things.

“We had gone on a tour of South America around 1979 or ’80,” Sylvester recalls, “and during the tour, Patrick got sick. We all thought it was the food. When we got back, he never could get completely well again. Soon he was com­ing down with everything you could imagine, and no one knew why.”

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Some assumed that Cowley’s illness was a psychosomatic fear of success. In truth, the possibility of never recovering drove Cowley to produce more. But he kept getting sicker, and eventually plead­ed with Sylvester to unplug his life-support machines. To give him something to live for, Sylvester told Cowley that he had to recover so they could record to­gether again. Miraculously, Cowley pulled through, and for $500, the pair made “Do You Wanna Funk?”

Shortly after “Do You Wanna Funk?” became one of the biggest dance hits of ’82 and gave Sylvester the needed career boost, Cowley’s death became one of the first publicized as resulting from AIDS. “At the end, he really got bitter,” Sylvester says. “The doctors didn’t know any­thing —  he died of some kind of pneumonia.”

After losing his friend, Sylvester kept his musical collaborations to a minimum. He helped write, produce, and mix three albums for Megatone, the local disco in­die, and because they were recorded cheaply, all turned a profit. The Two Tons o’ Fun went solo, became the Weather Girls, and scored big with “It’s Raining Men.” In 1986, Warner Bros. li­censed Mutual Attraction, which includ­ed the black radio and club hit “Someone Like You,” and then signed the singer. A hacking cough cut recording sessions for the next album short. Sylvester was hos­pitalized with pneumonia, and diagnosed with AIDS.

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SYLVESTER LIVES IN A MODEST apart­ment in San Francisco’s still tangibly gay Castro district. Aside from a few gold records on the wall, there’s nothing in his home that registers more than middle-­class opulence; a big bed, a big TV. A few things do clue you in on its owner’s per­sonality — a framed collection of gloves, Aunt Jemima pepper shakers, a giant Free South Africa poster hanging above the bed.

Sylvester and his manager Tim Mc­Kenna greet me. McKenna looks like most people’s idea of a San Franciscan gay man  — blond, mustachioed, trim. Only he looks a little too trim, and his eyes seem a bit sunken. I think, “Another sick person.” (McKenna, I find out later, does have AIDS, and has already lost his boy­friend to the disease.) Sylvester has the nurse pull out a portable TV, and asks if we wouldn’t mind watching it for a few minutes. Drag queens are on Donahue.

I ask all the difficult questions first. November of last year, the fevers began. He started taking aeresolized pentama­dine, a drug prescribed to prevent people at high risk from coming down with pneumocystis pneumonia, the most life-threatening disease associated with AIDS. But Sylvester had missed his treatment while on tour near the end of the year. On December 4, the last show of the tour, Sylvester appeared at a Philadelphia AIDS benefit. Once he got offstage, he couldn’t catch his breath. That night marked the end of his performing days and the beginning of trouble.

“When I came home from the hospital, I weighed 140 pounds,” says Sylvester. “Now I’m at 167, but my normal weight was 190 to 200 pounds. Thank God I always had a great fashion sense and I knew how to make myself look thinner. I was always on a diet. This wasn’t quite the way I wanted to do it.”

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AIDS once again hit too close with the loss of Sylvester’s lover Rick Cramner, an architect with whom he lived for two years. As with Cowley, Cramner’s illness was shrouded in mystery.

“Rick never told me he was sick — his pride wouldn’t allow him to ask for help. He was here one moment and gone the next. He went and died on me after promising he would never leave me. He promised me this. There were many things that only Rick knew. They’re gone now. I’ll never know them unless I see him someplace.

“It was two days before my 40th birth­day, and we had to turn off his machine. He was gonna die that weekend anyway. But if he had died on my birthday, honey, ooh, what a mess I would’ve been for the rest of my life. I need a boyfriend so bad. I’ve been in mourning for a year now and haven’t had sex for longer than that. It would be so nice to have somebody to wake up to in the morning. But where am I gonna find a boyfriend, hobblin’ around and lookin’ strange? I guess I’m destined not to have one again, and that saddens me. I really believed that Rick and I were gonna be together in sickness and in health. We were, weren’t we?”

Sylvester’s fame alone can’t pay the doctor’s bills. Although he says his insur­ance covers most medical expenses, he needs more than the revenue from back catalogue royalties. McKenna says the singer has virtually run out of money.

“A lot of people wanted us to put out a greatest-hits LP,” says McKenna. “I’ve been resistant because those albums can be so tasteless. But we had to put out something, because Sylvester has nothing to live on. (Megatone will release 12 by 12: Sylvester’s Greatest Mixes.) Right now I’m planning a benefit for him sponsored by the National Gay Rights Advo­cates that Warner Bros. is underwriting. There were times when I thought I could bring a mobile recording studio to his home, but I realized that was just me trying to continue like nothing has changed. It’s hard to let go sometimes.

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“Everywhere I go, I run into people who want to know how Sylvester is. I get a little crazy sometimes because it’s the only thing I’m allowed to talk about. And there’s the impending void that I still don’t know how to deal with.”

True to his exceptional self, Sylvester has the traits of many who live years beyond their diagnosis: he has a fighting spirit, he refuses to see himself as help­less, and he can talk openly about his illness. But AIDS is a great leveler, and like his music, he sometimes leaps from hope to despair.

“Who was I gonna hide the disease from?” says Sylvester. “I’m gonna die from it — if indeed that’s what will hap­pen. If I kept it a secret, what good would that do? I’ve been doing AIDS benefits for many, many years, long before it be­came fashionable. It would be ridiculous to be secretive about it now.”

But get him on a topic that spurs his feisty sense of humor, and he’ll straighten his back and make a little effort to lean forward. His hands will start dancing in the air, and expressions like “honey,” “child,” and “Miss Thing” will slip into the conversation. His eyes will light up, and then you can get a glimpse of the disco diva that lies behind the mask of illness.

“It’s not that I didn’t want to think the worst,” says Sylvester, “because I’ve been a queen long enough. I’ve been gay for 41 years — I’m 41 years old. I didn’t need to take the AIDS antibody test. I know what I’ve done. Why would I waste those $90 when I could go shopping?”

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SYLVESTER HAPPENED AT A TIME when disco had gotten too plastic,” says An­drew Holleran, author of Dancer From the Dance, the classic novel about the early gay days of disco. “But he mixed celebration and sadness in a way that I felt hadn’t been done in years. I hate to use the ‘f’ word, but Sylvester was fabulous.”

Disco is often remembered as a wild­ly — and sometimes annoyingly — upbeat music. But during its early formulative years in the gay clubs, disco encompassed everything from joy to pain, often in the same song. The disco classics that under­ground DJs now reach for in the early morning after a night of acid house or Latin hiphop are most often those rec­ords that took the bittersweet approach. Because his past encompassed both the emotional lows of blues and the spiritual highs of gospel, Sylvester became a major part of that melancholy party tradition.

The ultimate meaning of Sylvester’s voice lies in its ability to convey both the joy of the party and the horror that lies behind it. With the same phrase, Sylves­ter could evoke the delirious escape the party gave you, and the fear of what you’re partying to avoid. For gay people, the party began at that moment after Stonewall when they refused to hide anymore — it was both a celebration and a defiance. Through his voice and his suc­cess as an openly gay man, Sylvester em­bodied both of these things. That he could pull it off was understood by his audience as a harbinger of greater triumphs to come. For if he could be that wild, glittery, unreal thing up there, you could simply be you.

Just as his recording of “Do You Wanna Funk?” with Cowley was an at­tempt to give his dying friend the courage to stay alive, the second wave of success Sylvester had from that song was a sym­bol of the struggle to keep the party alive despite AIDS. And for awhile, the politics of dancing shifted from moving ahead to holding onto the small freedoms of pleasure. Now the party lives on in picket lines, in benefits, and in rallies to keep those like Sylvester alive. ❖

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THE SINNER’S GOSPEL SINGER

He didn’t learn to sing like that,” says Gladys Knight. “His talent was a gift. I am very critical, but my mom is even more critical than me, and she was the one who insisted I listen to him. She used to play his records all the time.”

When Sylvester took on disco, he found the music that his voice was made for. Disco grew out of multitrack record­ing technology, which allowed for a greater amount of instrumentation to be heard more distinctly. The classic Mo­town Sound was meant to be heard as one sound. Disco, on the other hand, was a structure of interlocking parts. The new way of making music brought out new elements of style — the hissing high hat, the guitar that scratched and plucked, the bass drum on every beat, the Barry White strings that would go up, up, up. Vocals, too, had to be ap­proached as another component in the mix.

Contrary to myth, disco generated more than its share of great singers. Disco was all about excess; with all the instrumentation going on around them, singers had little room left for subtlety. Since most disco was speedy, the singer often sang twice as slow as the beat, and therefore needed the breath control to sustain long notes or complete a lengthy phrase without coming up for air. And because the average disco song was low on lyrical content, a singer had to com­municate through the voice what the lyricist didn’t have the words to say.

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Good disco singers navigated all the changes in the musical structure and created some of their own. Not only did disco require singing about sex, one had to simulate it. The singer took an audi­ence through a musical climax, and the task called for technique and control, as well as total abandon. The best parts of disco records are often in the final mo­ments, when the singer vamps up a tor­rent of screams, swoops, and shouts to squeeze out every last drop of feeling before the DJ cues up the next record. To be remembered after a night of mul­tiple musical orgasms, a disco singer has to get under your skin, as well as in your pants.

Disco’s magnitude of sound demanded two approaches to singing. Either the vocalist was just another element in the mix — the passive, anonymous, breathy tones of Silver Convention and early Donna Summer — or one had to soar above it all — the aggressive, almost op­eratic assault of Loleatta Holloway and First Choice. Much of the Philly soul featured smooth, high-pitched male vo­cals, and the Bee Gees turned into pale falsetto imitations. When Blondie went disco, Debbie Harry mimicked Sum­mer’s confrontational pillow talk. Just as many disco songwriters avoided gender­-specific nouns so as to appeal to both straight and gay audiences, the disco singer often embraced androgyny or its opposite, an exaggerated and traditional sexual identity. Both tacks were central to the gay aesthetic.

It was Sylvester who brought the pas­sive/aggressive vocal approaches togeth­er in one voice. Like Luther Vandross, another singer Fantasy wanted to model Sylvester after, Sylvester worships Queen Aretha. But whereas Vandross sings in a manly register and reaches for Franklin’s sweetness, Sylvester assumes a heavenly tone while expressing it with Lady Soul’s hellfire ferocity. Through his falsetto, Sylvester became simmering blues diva, wailing gospel mama.

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“I thought that we were really the same person,” says Patti LaBelle. “We perform alike. We look alike. We even sound alike. I really like me — I like the way I sound. But I feel exactly the same about him.”

Disco was the gospel music of sinners. What Sylvester could convey better than any other male singer of the late ’70s were the final moments of sex — the ec­stasy, the release, the explosion. Rather than reminding you of the body, Sylves­ter’s music captured that instant when your soul jumps out of its skin. When Sylvester describes a lover’s caress, it’s as if he’s feeling the mighty surreal touch of God. There are two poles of Sylvester’s world — the disco and the church — but unlike Little Richard, Al Green, and Prince, Sylvester doesn’t see the pleasures of the body and the spirit as opposing forces, like sin and redemp­tion. For Sylvester, God is on the dance­-floor as He is in Heaven.

B.W.

The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz.

The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz.

The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz.

The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz.

The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Equality From The Archives Health NYC ARCHIVES PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

An Open Letter to Dr. Anthony Fauci

The Press of Freedom: A Column Open to Our Readers

I have been screaming at the National Institutes of Health since I first visited your Animal House of Horrors in 1984. I called you monsters then and I called you idiots in my play, The Normal Heart, and now I call you murderers.

You are responsible for supervising all government-funded AIDS treatment research programs. In the name of right, you make decisions that cost the lives of others. I call that murder.

At hearings on April 29 before Representative Ted Weiss and his House Subcommittee on Human Resources, after almost eight years of the worst epidemic in modern history, perhaps to be the worst in all history, you were pummeled into admitting publicly what some of us have been claiming since you took over three years ago.

You admitted that you are an incompetent idiot.

Over the past four years, $374 million has been allocated for AIDS treatment research. You were in charge of spending much of that money.

It doesn’t take a genius to set up a nationwide network of testing sites, commence a small number of moderately sized treatment efficacy tests on a population desperate to participate in them, import any and all interesting drugs (now numbering approximately 110) from around the world for inclusion in these tests at these sites, and swiftly get into circulation anything that remotely passes muster. Yet, after three years, you have established only a system of waste, chaos, and uselessness.

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It doesn’t take a genius to announce that you have elected to personally supervise the study of a broad range of new drugs. Yet, two years later, you are forced to admit you’ve barely begun.

It doesn’t take a genius to request, as you did, 126 new staff persons, receive only 11, and then keep your mouth shut about it.

It takes an incompetent idiot.

To quote Representative Henry Waxman at the above hearings: “Dr. Fauci, your own drug selection committee has named 24 drugs as high priority for development and trials. As best as I can tell, 11 of these 24 are not in trials yet. Six of these drugs have been waiting for six months to more than a year. Why the delays? I understand the need to do what you call setting priorities but it appears even with your own scientists’ choices the trials are not going on.”

Your defense? “There are just confounding delays that no one can help… we are responsible as investigators to make sure that in our zeal to go quickly, that we do the clinical study correctly, that it’s planned correctly and executed correctly, rather than just having the drug distributed.”

Now you come bawling to Congress that you don’t have enough staff, office space, lab space, secretaries, computer operators, lab technicians, file clerks, janitors, toilet paper; and that’s why the drugs aren’t being tested and the network of treatment centers isn’t working and the drug protocols aren’t in place. You expect us to buy this bullshit and feel sorry for you. YOU FUCKING SON OF A BITCH OF A DUMB IDIOT, YOU HAVE HAD $374 MILLION AND YOU EXPECT US TO BUY THIS GARBAGE BAG OF EXCUSES!

The gay community has been on your ass for three years. For 36 agonizing months, you refused to go public with what was happening (correction: not happening), and because you wouldn’t speak up until you were asked pointedly by a congressional committee, we lie down and die and our bodies pile up higher and higher in hospitals and homes and hospices and streets and doorways.

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Meanwhile, drugs we have been begging that you test remain untested. The list of promising untested drugs is now so endless and the pipeline so clogged with NIH and FDA bureaucratic lies that there is no Roto-Rooter service in All God’s Christendom that will ever muck it out.

You whine to Congress that you are short of staff. You don’t need staff to set up hospital treatment centers around the country. The hospitals are already there. They hire their own staff. They only need money. You have money. YOU HAVE $374 MILION FUCKING DOLLARS, FOR CHRIST’S SAKE.

The gay community has, for five years, told the NIH which drugs to test because we know and hear first what is working on some of us somewhere. You couldn’t care less about what we say. You won’t answer our phone calls or letters, or listen to anyone in our stricken community. What tragic pomposity!

The gay community has consistently warned that unless you move quickly your studies will be worthless because we’re already taking drugs into our bodies that we desperately locate all over the world (who can wait for you?!!), and all your “scientific” protocols are stupidly based on utilizing guinea-pig bodies that are clean. You wouldn’t listen, and now you wonder why so few sign up for your meager assortment of “scientific” protocols that make such rigid demands for “purity” that no one can fulfill them, unless they lie. And why should those who can obtain the drugs themselves take the chance of receiving a placebo in one of your “scientific” studies?

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How many years ago did we tell you about aerosol pentamidine, Tony? This stuff saves lives. And we discovered it ourselves. We came to you, bearing this great news on a silver platter, begging you: can we get it officially tested; can we get it approved so insurance companies and Medicaid will pay for it (as well as other drugs we beg you to test) as a routine treatment, and our patients going broke paying for medicine can get it cheaper? You monster.

“Assume that you have AIDS, and that you’ve had pneumonia once,” Representative Nancy Pelosi said. “You know that aerosolized pentamidine was evaluated by NIH as highly promising… You know as of today that the delays in NIH trials… may not be solved this year… Would you wait for [an NIH] study?”

You replied: “I probably would go with what would be available to me, be it available in the street or what have you.”

We tell you what the good drugs are, you don’t test them, then YOU TELL US TO GET THEM ON THE STREETS. You continue to pass down word from On High that you don’t like this drug or that drug — when you haven’t even tested them. THERE ARE MORE AIDS VICTIMS DEAD BECAUSE YOU DIDN’T TEST DRUGS ON THEM THAN BECAUSE YOU DID.

You’ve yet to test imuthiol, AS101, dextran sulfate, DHEA, Imreg-1, Erythropoietin — all drugs Gay Men’s Health Crisis considers top priority. You do like AZT, which consumes 80 percent of your studies, even though Dr. Barry Gingell, GMHC’s medical director, now describes AZT as “a cumulative poison… foisted on the public.” Soon there will be more AIDS patients dead because you did test drugs on them — the wrong drugs.

ACT UP was formed over a year ago to get experimental drugs into the bodies of patients. For one year ACT UP has tried every kind of protest known to man (short of putting bombs in your toilet or flames up your institute) to get some movement in this area. One year later, ACT UP is still screaming for the same drugs they begged and implored you and your world to release. One year of screaming, protesting, crying, cajoling, lobbying, threatening, imprecating, marching, testifying, hoping, wishing, praying has brought nothing. You don’t listen. No one listens. No one has ears. Or hearts.

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Whose ass are you covering for, Tony? (Besides your own). Is it the head of your Animal House, the invisible Dr. James Wyngaarden, director of the National Institute of Health (and may a Democratic president get him out of office fast)? Is it Dr. Vincent DeVita, head of the National Cancer Institute, another invisible murderer who lets you be his fall guy? Or Dr. Otis Bowen, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, no doubt the biggest murderer on the list; Shultz and Weinberger would never take such constricting shit from the Office of Management and Budget. All the doctors have continuously told the world that All Is Being Done That Can Be Done. Now you admit that isn’t so.

WHY DID YOU KEEP QUIET FOR SO LONG?!

I don’t know (though it wouldn’t surprise me) if you kept quiet intentionally. I don’t know (though it wouldn’t surprise me) if you were ordered to keep quiet by Higher Ups Somewhere. You are a good lieutenant, like Adolph Eichmann.

I do know that anyone who knows what you have known for three years — that, to quote Ted Weiss, “the dimension of the shortfall is such that you can’t possibly meet our needs,” and, to quote the New York Times and their grossly incompetent AIDS reporter, Philip Boffey (whose articles read like recycled NIH releases): “Officials Blame Shortage of Staff for Delay in Testing AIDS Drugs” — I repeat, anyone who has known all this and denied it for the past three years is a murderer, not dissimilar to the “good Germans” who claimed they didn’t know what was happening.

With each day I realize a little more that the gay community has lost the battle. And that we haven’t begun to experience the horrors that still await us —  horrors even worse than you now embryonically signify. We have lost. No one important enough has ears. Or hearts.

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You care, I’m told (although I no longer believe it). I’ve even heard you called a saint. You are in essence a scientist who’s expected to be Lee Iacocca. But saints, miracle workers, good administrators, brilliant scientists have imaginations vivid enough to know how to spend $374 million in a dire emergency. You have no imagination. You are banal (a word used so accurately to describe Eichmann).

Do I want you to leave? (Yes.) Could you’re replacement possibly be more pea-brained than you? (Yes, it is possible.) Will this raving do any good at all? Will it make Congress shape you up? Will it make my own communities bureaucratically mired AIDS organizations finally ask the right questions? (Judy Peabody of GNHC please take note.) Will Dr. Mathilde Krim ever — as she indicated she would — get the American Foundation for AIDS Research to fund the desperately needed and desperately needy Community Research Initiative, which is valiantly attempting to do what you should be doing, so tired we are of waiting for you to do it? (Leonard Bernstein and Harry Kraut please take note.)

I have no answers to most of these questions. You may (God help us all) be the best that will be given us. You may, like John Ehrlichman, once accused, seek redemption and forgiveness by rethinking, retooling, and, like Avis, trying harder. Even more miraculous, those Supreme Murderers in the White House might tomorrow acknowledge that families simply everywhere have gay sons and daughters.

But I fear these are only pipe dreams and you’ll continue to carry on with your spare equipment. The cries of genocide from this Cassandra will continue to remain unheard. And my noble but enfeebled community of the weak, and dying, and the dead will continue to grow and grow — until we are diminished.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Equality From The Archives Health NYC ARCHIVES PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Specimen Days: A Personal Essay

Specimen Days: Scenes From the Epidemic
February 22, 1994

I DON’T KNOW where to go as I leave the doctor’s office. The shops and people seem two-dimensional. Sounds are muffled. I keep thinking: pay attention to what you feel. But all I feel is the wind.

I remember the museum is close by. The heavy woodwork, the leaded windows, the cavernous rooms remind me of elementary school. I head up the central staircase, following the path where the stone has been worn down by footsteps.

I’m impressed as always by the dinosaur bones. They are displayed in action — about to fight, about to feed.

A tour guide breaks my thoughts. She tells group of schoolchildren to ignore the signs in the glass cases; natural history is advancing so rapidly, she explains that the curator can’t keep up, and some of the information is out of date.

I’m disappointed to think that our science will some­day seem quaint and that I’ll never know what really happened to the dinosaurs.

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WE WALK INTO a glassed-in sidewalk café near Du­pont Circle. I make it a point to sit across from Daniel because I want to flirt without the others noticing. We talk about how the rest of the world seems so little aware of what we are going through and how much the neighborhood has changed. We order omelettes; I look around and realize it is lunchtime for the other customers.

Daniel has been traveling in the Midwest and says he’s impressed by how close knit gay people seem in small towns; he would trade some of the freedom we have in New York for that sense of community. We start to play the game, staring a bit too long, jerking our attention away. He apologizes for using Sweet ’n Low, and I confess I use too much salt. I look through the glass and say Washington might be a nice place live after all.

Then I knock my fork on the floor and bend down to pick it up, but I’m not watching and I slam my forehead on the next table. It’s quiet all around us. I look up to say, “I’m fine,” but before I get the words out I see two drops of my blood, bright red against the white linen.

I DRIVE TO the suburbs to visit my father in the hospital. My hometown seems too manicured, like those model towns we used to build for the train set. My father’s room is in a new wing of the hospital, with drop ceilings, sheetrock walls, and a small crucifix over every door.

My mother and brother are there. I tell them Dad looks good and my mother smiles. I begin to resent the attention he’s getting.

Later, I am alone with my father when he wakes up. We have small talk. Suddenly, he asks if people still get AIDS from transfusions. I’m startled just to hear him say the word. I want to tell him I understand how afraid and alone he feels, but I’m not ready for him to know about me. I tell him to not worry — they screen blood now. He doesn’t look convinced, but puts his head back and drifts off to sleep. I touch his hand and notice how much our fingers are alike.

A few weeks later he’s back home and I visit him again. He seems small and hunched over, but the quickness is back in his eyes. He gives me a key to a safe­ deposit box; his will and some savings bonds are inside. If anything happens to him, it’s up to me to take care of the arrangements. I’m the only one who would be calm enough to know what to do.

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I FOLLOW PETER out to the beach. Children from the village play off in the distance. The sun is already strong. Peter sits at the water’s edge and lowers his head. I sit a few feet away, wondering what to say. It was easier back in the city; here there is too much time to think. I look back at the guest house and notice again how shabby it’s gotten.

I touch his shoulder. He doesn’t want to die alone. He doesn’t want to die. I tell him I understand, I’m going through it too. That doesn’t calm him. He starts up again, telling me how his friend died. I turn away.

Further down the beach, someone has sculpted a life­ size person in the sand. The arms are crossed over the chest like a body in a casket. The face is peaceful. I start to tell Peter I heard these sculptures are part of an old folk religion still practiced on the island, but halfway through, I can’t remember if that’s true or I imagined it.

Suddenly, I envy his hysteria. I tell him that the frightened boy inside of him is the part I love most and that I would be there if he got sick. He calms down. We decide to go for a swim. The water’s too cool and the tide’s coming in, but we make it past where the waves are breaking and soak in the sun and the salt and the motion. When we return to land, the sand corpse has been washed away.

I’M MAKING every effort to keep up my friendship with Tom. He’s a connection to the days when everything was possible. Now that I’ve moved in with Peter, I worry that Tom may get lonely. And I know he’s attracted to Peter. He doesn’t hide his jealousy, and I don’t hide that I enjoy it.

But tonight he’s in one of his moods, smoking cigarettes between every course. He called to tell a friend about another friend and that friend told him about someone else. He’s thinking of taking antidepressants, but he’s afraid they’ll suppress his immune system.

Tom starts describing how he’s stopped going to memorials because they make him think about his own. I lean back, signal the waiter to bring the check and say, “Don’t worry, Tom. We’re not planning to give you a memorial.” I look into his face to see if he’s amused, but see only anger and surprise. It’s my turn, but he won’t let me pay for dinner.

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PETER COMPLAINS that I go to ACT UP demos just to cruise. I tell him I go for the sense of event. But today, in front of the Stock Exchange, the rain has muffled the protesters. I’m watching from under the canopy of the Federal Building across the street, listen­ing to a homeless man explain the scene to his companion.

Then I see Mark. I slip around the nearest column, hoping he hasn’t seen me. I remember reading in Alumni News that he’s a vice-president now. I’m embarrassed by my backpack and blue jeans. I tell myself he wouldn’t be surprised to run into me here. He must have suspected me back in college.

I feel a tap on my shoulder and I spin around and Mark’s smiling at me, extending his hand. As we’re talking, I notice his eyes darting over to the demonstra­tors. I ask about his wife. Beth had a miscarriage last summer, he says softly, but they’re trying again now. Then he leans toward me, whispers, “Be happy,” and disappears into the revolving door.

I’M STARING INTO a shop window when I see a familiar face in the glass. David. We smile. Six years? Seven? You’re looking good, he says, by which we both know he means healthy. What’s new?

I don’t know what to say. David and I had never gotten to know each other well. I throw out disjointed facts. New boyfriend, same job. And you?

David tested positive last week.

I reach over and put my arms around him. That’s not like me. In those weeks we slept together so long ago, we never touched in the street.

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AT LAST I would meet the extended family. Easter is a major Greek holiday, so there would be plenty of ritual to get us through the evening. Peter’s mother puts out a spread of lamb, spinach pie, and honey pastries. We crack open eggs dyed red in honor of Mary Magdalene and make wishes for the coming year. The older aunt never looks me in the eye, but sweet Aunt Kattina nods and smiles at me all through dinner. Later, the men laugh and argue over coffee while Peter and I help the women in the kitchen.

When we return home, Peter lights candles and we make love. Then he turns to the wall and we curl around each other. We will sleep with the window open because it’s almost spring. I lie still, waiting to hear him snore.

In the middle of the night, Peter cries out and I wake him and say it was just a dream, go back to sleep. We lie back. I look down at my body, thinking that all we are is inside our skin, but in this moment that thought doesn’t frighten me.

I’M TYING UP the newspapers. That’s become my job. Peter is mopping, singing along with the music. The apartment smells like lemons and ammonia. Then I spot Michael’s obit. I quickly shuffle it to the bottom of the pile, wondering if Peter knows. I decide to wait for the right moment to tell him.

But later, when I’m emptying the trash, I discover he’s already removed Michael’s card from the Rolodex.

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I NOTICE A SLIGHT awkwardness in my step. After a brain scan and biopsy, I’m told I have a brain infection, which the AIDS treatment handbook I pull down from my shelf describes as “largely untreatable, rapidly progressive, and fatal.”

Peter is scrubbing the turkey, twisting his face in disgust as he slaps the gizzards into the sink. Carol is rolling pie crusts, explaining the virtues of shortening over real butter. The cats hover wide-eyed in the doorway. Sage, rosemary, and lots of thyme, I remember my grandmother telling me as she violently shook the spice can over the bowl of stuffing. Peter’s mother bursts in, and they argue in Greek until he lets her peel the apples.

Later, my family comes. It’s the first time I’ve seen them since the news, and they sit across the table in their best clothes, huddled together, motionless and grim like the Romanovs waiting for their executioners. My niece crawls over and sits in my lap.

I SIT in the dark comer, wanting to get up to respond to the man who’s rubbing his crotch in my face, afraid to lose my seat. I rub saliva from my hand and reach up to touch a passing nipple. I’ve convinced myself the sex club is one of the places I feel safest. The corridors are too narrow and crowded for me to fall. It’s so dark, no one seems to notice the way I move, or maybe they think I’m just drunk. I’ve learned something about myself coming here: The fun was always in the chase.

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I’M STRAPPED to a table wearing a blue paper gown with a plastic cage around my head, being slid into the scanner. They shut the hatch, so I am completely enclosed, like an astronaut. The test lasts longer than I expect; I’m wonder­ing if that’s a good sign. They pipe in music to drown out the distant jackhammmer rumble of the scan. I had brought CDs — Bach and a pop song that reminds me of Peter — but when they ask what kind of music I prefer, I just want to get it over with and I say I don’t care. So they pipe in the radio. It’s rush hour, so I lie there listening to anxious traffic updates.

WE’RE IN A DAMP East Village basement, watching a play about nuclear holocaust. Strobe lights, screeching punk music, eager actors stumbling around with red Jello dripping from their cheeks. Later, in front of the theater, the lead walks by, without his makeup. He has a lesion on his face.

PETER YELLS “snap out of it,” complaining that my walk — dragging my left foot, my left arm curled up in front of me like a beggar — “looks like something out of Dickens.” He’s mad at my family today, after a message from my brother the priest informing us that I had upset my sister because I sounded “down” on the phone. I think back to the day two months ago, my birthday, that I told her, as she returned home from the butcher, watching while she slapped fistfuls of chopped meat into burgers, wrapping each with both Saran and foil to protect them. When I told my brother the night before, he described Pascal’s wager­ — that we might as well believe in God, because we’ll be better off if he exists and no worse off if he doesn’t. I told him I didn’t think God’s so easily fooled.

I NEVER WANTED to open gifts on Christmas, because when the boxes were all unwrapped, it was over. This year, I’m having trouble tearing the paper, so I just want to get through it quickly. We usually buy a tree that’s much too big for the room, but this year we buy a small one we can replant in the spring.

I LIE ON THE couch, thinking I should be reading Proust or sailing to Tahiti, strategizing whether to get up to go to the bathroom or hold it till Peter gets home. Suddenly, the roofers start to lift the skylight, two days ahead of schedule. A few flakes of snow fall into the room, sprinkling my blanket like sugar. I pretend to be asleep because I don’t want it to stop.

REMEMBERING ROBERT: Seven Writers Remember a Colleague and a Friend

May 17, 1994

A DIARY OF LIVING WITH AIDS

November 18, 1993, 9 a.m.
A few weeks ago, I began to notice a slight awkwardness in my step. A few days later, I was stumbling over the keyboard, a few more errors per line each day. Though I’ve been basically healthy, knowing what I know as a journalist covering AIDS, I rushed off to the doctor, and after a brain scan and visits to a few specialists, got the diagnosis: Progressive Multifocal Leukoen­cephalopathy, or PML. The medical book I pulled down from my shelf describes it as a rare brain infection caused by a common childhood virus that can erupt in people with AIDS, largely untreatable, rapidly pro­gressive, and fatal.

My response is to be stoic. That’s be­cause I’ve always been stoic, and because I’ve perceived that staying calm is the best thing for my health, which is the measure of all things these days. That may change: some anger or hysteria might be useful, or necessary, later on, but not for now.

The hardest question right now is how aggressive to be with treatment. My own research tells me early treatment might at best help slow down the infection, but treatment itself is a drastic step, involving the risky insertion of a device into my brain to deliver the medication. At the moment, I’m still able to maintain the semblance of a nor­mal life. At this stage, the infection has eaten away at my ability to move the left side of my body, more each day. I can type with one hand, walk if I stay close to the wall, still climb stairs. My definition of normal keeps expanding.

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The most interesting part of all of this has been the reaction of everyone around me. Of course, everyone is being extremely helpful and, taking their cue from me, remaining calm, at least in my presence. I find that each person’s ability to help is a func­tion not only of our relationship, but of their own relationship with mortality.

The central person of my life, my lover, my doppelgänger, my pal, is Perry, dear Perry. I’m so sorry to see you go through this. One of the complications of AIDS is negotiating the relationship between the lover and the family, but so far my family has followed my instructions that after me, Perry is in charge. Mom and Dad had to learn of all this on my 36th birth­day.

My friend Carol had the presence of mind to ask me a key question right away: What am I doing with my time? My answer has been to do what I’ve always done. But, in fact, preparing to die, perhaps abruptly, while maintaining a positive attitude, whatever that means, is quite time-consuming.

Do I want to travel, win the Nobel Prize, finally read Proust? Of course, but I don’t see that focusing on the never-dids will be much help right now. And nothing would be enough, so anything is enough, to be savored. And as I keep having to remind everyone, I’m not dead yet.

But I am tired.

7 p.m. 
Today I became focused on a question that has been nagging me since the beginning: what physically is happening to me? What are the facts? A brain scan has shown one large and several small lesions. Two doc­tors, one considered the leading expert, have written “PML” under diagnosis on their bills. Blood tests show my immune system is weak enough for PML to appear. But what does that mean? It’s not like I have shrapnel sticking out of my gut. The mind can create symptoms, and a brain infection is particularly tricky. I’m a prime candidate for having invented this. I don’t have a history of hypochondria, but I do write about medicine, so I could be making this up.

Is this denial? The body has tools to fight almost anything short of shrapnel in the gut. For reasons beyond what we under­stand, the molecules in my body are not working together the way they should.

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December 1, 1993, 11 a.m.
Why have I been so unfaithful in writing this? Fear that it falls so short. Being miser­ly with my time. Difficulty of sitting at my desk, working the keyboard. Wanting mostly just to sleep.

The last few weeks have been taken up by visits to the hospital for tests, visits from friends. Monday I was hobbling around the hospital going to rooms to fill out forms so I could go to rooms to fill out more forms.

Tomorrow is the biopsy. They make it sound like a tooth extraction. Local anes­thetic, one stitch. Assuming there are no complications — they always add that.

I managed to drag myself over to work a few days last week, to help orient my re­placement. How do you begin to explain something as ineffable and intuitive as story assignment? I left one cardinal rule: Print nothing that might mislead people to un­wise choices about their care. But what is wisdom in such a catastrophe?

I felt at work, as in the hospital, like I was in a black hole. Worried about my privacy, those I’ve told haven’t told anyone else at the paper. So everyone acted as if I’d been on holiday, maybe sprained my ankle skiing. But that’s why I went back — for some sense of normality.

Too much caution can be dangerous. The hardest thing about walking in the street is that I almost get knocked over because I wait for the light to cross — almost unheard of in New York City. I learned it’s safest to walk with a little more limping than neces­sary, so people don’t come too close.

Our friend David died two days ago. Frank had a tumor removed from his spine yesterday, will need to have a kidney taken out too. Events that would have shattered my equilibrium just a few weeks ago now seem like faint, distant echoes.

Dear diary, I’ll tell you a secret. What is still on my mind, near the core, when work, reading, writing, and even friendship seem too difficult, is sex. Much of my time right now seems to be focused on ways to create the illusion at least that sex is still possible. Will they shave my head tomorrow?

Will there be complications?

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December 5, 1993, 6 p.m.
Much as I’d like to milk this brain operation for maximum sympathy, I must confess that it was not at all horrible. All of us surgery patients being summoned from the lounge en masse, torn from our loved ones, did, as Perry later remarked, have a holocaust vibe, but after they gave me the intravenous Vali­um, they could have chopped my head off and I wouldn’t have minded. I remember only fleeting moments: having part of my head shaved, hearing them say they still had one spot to get. I ate saltines and apple juice in the recovery room.

My goal was to get out of the hospital as quickly as possible, not to wallow, to be free of the regimentation (which was oddly se­lective: breakfast the next morning consist­ed of decaf, skim milk, no-cholesterol butter, a tablespoon of scrambled eggs, and five strips of bacon).

Back at home I’ve been fine — except last night, when the anesthetic finally wore off, was rough. I wasn’t in pain, just felt com­pletely wasted, discombobulated, as if I had an electric current running through me.

Perry the snoop read through this and said it wasn’t good, that people want to read about emotions, not symptoms. I agree — that’s what good writing is. But I can only write what’s there. Better to be boring than dishonest.

December 9, 1993, 6:30 p.m.
Mary, one of the phone receptionists at the Voice, whom I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to except to complain about misdirected calls, stopped me in the street today asking if I was OK, ’cause I was walking so slowly. When I told her I was OK, but I’ve been ill, she looked horrified and said she would pray for me. I guess only a virtual stranger can show naked sympathy. I’m aware of nearly everyone around me looking past the wound in my head, past my awkward move­ment, trying to make me feel normal. (I’m also aware that my oh-the-biopsy-wasn’t-so-bad routine is in part an attempt to milk it for what I can. To look brave, so they can say he fought it.)

The doctor told me last night that the biopsy was conclusive — PML — but that I wasn’t deteriorating that rapidly, so she wanted to continue the antivirals and hold off on the chemo implant for at least a few weeks. So I went back to earth.

They all are being very supportive — will­ing to make arrangements to enable me to do whatever work I want, promising to not cut me off, bending to accommodate me. Of course, they don’t have too much choice — I could be a PR liability. But I also like to think that they are basically decent folks. Do I want to work? I need to keep my feet on the ground. But I’m haunted by the idea that it’s not the best use of my time — I should be home writing the great American novel.

Hearing friends talk about other friends in hysteria over this or that amazes me. Even the news of the great events shaping the world outside seems beside the point. Stop fighting. Feed people. Our attention should be all on picking up the pieces from natural disasters, like AIDS. Everything else we invent.

Shortly after he wrote these passages, Rob­ert Massa became unable to write or type. By March, he was unable to use his facial muscles to speak. He died on April 9. 

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READING ROBERT

WHY AREN’T THERE telephones in the here­after? In the stillness of the wee hours, with the cursor flashing mockingly on a blank slate screen, I’d call Robert. Or at two in the morning, when writerly demons were haunting him, my phone would ring. We’d try out ideas, read passages to each other, get advice on structure. Somehow we’d slide into chitchat, then into more intimate conver­sation. After an hour or two, we’d joke about our codependent writing-avoidance behavior. We’d hang up — and crank out a story.

Those were the days before either of us had found — and moved in with — the loves of our lives. The days, that is, when the phone could ring at two in the morning without detonating a domestic disaster. When both of us were figuring out that we needed to write about more than theater, when we both needed to talk about what it meant that we felt so happy to be succumb­ing, at last, to the coziness of coupledom.

Robert, much more calm and self-assured than I in both pursuits, was not only a nurturing and demanding editor of my writ­ing, he helped me shape my life.

It’s hard to come up with a snappy anec­dote or image that captures him. Robert was more intricate than eventful. Though as a writer he was a master of pointed conci­sion, as a subject he seems, strangely, to demand sprawl, or at least lots of scene setting. For Robert, magnitude and meaning resided in details. That’s one reason he was the country’s best AIDS journalist. That and his passion, precision, and principle.

And he was scrappy. Gloriously so. Though deeply shy and unassuming, Robert could be incredibly forthright. He had no patience for bullshit. I’m sure that people in press offices cringed when he called, knowing he’d ask questions that would shove them off their script. When he got sick, he displayed the same no-nonsense clarity. Re­specting his disdain for sentimentality, I tried to repress my mushy tendencies in his presence — and perhaps didn’t say aloud what pounded in my heart. But then, Rob­ert didn’t seem to want histrionics; he wanted someone to read him the paper. And though, increasingly, he couldn’t speak, he managed to keep hurling barbs at the Times. I’d visit on Thursdays and he’d joke that I would have to come a different morning — Thursday meant having to hear Frank Rich’s op-eds read aloud.

Years ago, Robert and I collaborated on a story about men’s and women’s bars. Given our diametrically opposed approaches to work — him sculpting sentence by sentence, me wanting to blurt out a messy draft and then go back and tinker — it’s a miracle we didn’t come to blows. Our research was “dating” each other — Robert dragging me into gay watering holes (he was careful to pick bars he didn’t frequent, lest I cramp his style), me strutting him into lesbian spots. Not long ago, he told me he’d reread the story and thought it was really bad — slight ideas, clunky prose. And looking it over, I had to agree. Still, Robert, you were the best boy date I ever had. — Alisa Solomon

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A TENDER TOP 10

ROBERT,

Here is our last top 10:

1. A kiss in front of the Blue Willow so that all the world would know.

2. Exchanging wedding rings over pastrami.

3. An apartment with green carpeting and pink walls that we knew we could make our own.

4. Sex!

5. A tub full of kittens and William meowing to be noticed.

6. Our first anniversary, I-95, and a tree that continues to grow.

7. A cold February day in Berlin searching for art and dealing with snow and torn-up combat boots.

8. March 26, 1993: City Hall, domestic partnership, and a nervous bride.

9. The Statue of Liberty — a kiss — and salt and pepper shakers.

10. My birthday this year when you struggled to light a candle and carry the cake yourself.

And of course watching you as you slept for 2204 nights. Guess what? I still do.

“Always on my mind.”
Perry

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PRIME TIME PALS

HOW COULD ROBERT DIE — and leave me to watch Nixon’s funeral alone? Well sup­plied with plenty of cigarettes, take-out eats, and gallons of caffeinated beverage, and sharing a mutual loathing for the suddenly sanctified former prez, Robert, his lover Perry, and I would have had a ball with his send-off. After all, with the possi­ble exceptions of the endless Menendez boys’ courtroom drama and the Tonya & Nancy variety show, this was the TV event of the season: Five-Presidents-and-First-La­dies-Five and Bob Hope, politicians galore and a bunch of cheap crooks (sometimes one and the same), and the incomparable Spiro Agnew. Oh, how the bile would have mingled with unbridled laughter as we re­acted to all that pathetic posturing and cant, not to mention Senator Dole’s Emmy­-worthy little breakdown at the end of his eulogy. And then we would have focused on the important stuff: Barbara Bush’s K­-Marché faux pearls, the Carters’ seeming dyspepsia, and whether Alexis Carrington Colby, oops, I mean Nancy Reagan has had another lift.

Not to dis Tricia’s and Julie’s grief, but — ­oh, please! — their pop had been planning his final farewell as a major TV comeback special ever since he split quick from the White House back in ’74, and that is exact­ly how Robert and Perry and I would have relished it — as yet another great TV event that added to the structure upon which we built and nurtured our friendship. For most­ly, over the past 15 years (and with Perry also working the remote since ’88), Robert and I watched television. At least once a week and, depending on what was on, sometimes much more often — I went over to Robert’s (and then Robert and Perry’s) apartment; I was home — you know, the place where you are always welcome. And while we chewed over everything from our own work to all the current issues and gossip, our primary activity was television, lots of it, all of it — the news, Mary Tyler Moore reruns, years of Dynasty, tennis, fig­ure skating, Murphy Brown, election re­turns, lousy dramas, awards shows, and, above all, beauty pageants. We took it all in, savoring the purest moments — Sue Sim­mons and Al Roker, anything from Delta Burke’s delirious Suzanne Sugarbaker, the self-referential brilliance of the final New­hart — and commenting upon, twisting, spitting back, and otherwise manipulating most of the rest for our own purpose: good con­versation. And maybe it was just an excuse to be together.

My favorite TV memory is of a beauty pageant a few years ago, in which a contestant was asked something like: In a hundred years, who do you think will be considered the most influential woman of the 20th century? That was exactly the type of thing we delighted in — and took dead seriously. After much hysterical laughter over the contestant’s response — Babs Bush (then First Lady) — we first had to deconstruct the question. What would be the best answer in order to win the contest? What would be the right answer? The most im­pressive? The most clever? Eleanor Roose­velt was the obvious answer — too obvious, we decided. Then Perry popped in with Madonna. We liked that, but nah. I thought hard and came up with Anne Frank. Ooh, they liked that. Impressive choice. And then, a couple of minutes later, Robert looked up, eyes twinkling, and said defini­tively, “Lucy Ricardo.” Ever the thoughtful, deliberate journalist, he had worked it through. And, of course, he was right.

But now, missing Robert, missing him ter­ribly, I find our choices somehow ironic. For while Perry and I have always carried on together in a manner that just might bring to mind Lucy and Ethel or, to switch to my medium of expertise — Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand carrying on in Enough Is Enough — Robert, well, Robert actually had more than a bit of Anne Frank in him. In both his work — as a theater critic and especially as a journalist documenting the horrors of AIDS and the fight for gay rights — and his personal life, he first looked for the good in others, for the positive and the possible. He could be cynical or angry (cf. Nixon), but he was essentially a kind, generous man who did his damnedest. And like too many of the best TV shows — say, I’ll Fly Away — Robert was canceled much too soon. Oh, Robert, we never got to say, “Hi, Roz!” — Jim Feldman 

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TONYA HARDING AND THE WEATHER

(For Robert)

I’m sorry, you said
in your E.T. voice,
the one you’d had
since your body companion
began its final campaign
for control of your body. 

It was the inconveniencing
that bothered you the most.
That, and having to express
your biggest fears by feeling
your way along a letter board. 

Months earlier, watching t.v.
(with the sound off, of course)
You observed that
essentially it all boils down to 
Tonya Harding and the weather.
After several hours, I
had to agree with you. 

Here’s what I remember:
The look on your face
when you first held Lucy.
Your need to talk about
love’s truths at 3 in the morning.
Your impatience with insincerity.
Your quiet ability to take care of
everyone. 

The last time I saw you
awake, you needed something
urgently. Water, I asked, Oxygen,
Juice, Raise the bed.
With a great deal of frustration
You finally spelled out
“New Yorker.”
I should’ve known. 

— Mala Hoffman

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CURSES!

OH ROBERT, goddamn it! — Eileen Blumenthal

SPEAKING SILENTLY

IN THE LAST WEEKS of Robert’s life, it was difficult for him to speak. He would dive into himself and force out words, repeating them until I understood. When he could still see well enough and coordinate his hands, he typed into a computer. After that, he pointed to letters on an alphabet chart. He communicated with his eyes, too, which were attentive, comprehending, and filled with a new intensity, a look of horror and empathy, as if he were computing his emo­tions and mine at a speeded rate. He made me feel understood and accepted, and I spoke without reserve.

He did not use our time to complain and one day, when I asked what was on his mind, he spelled out “I don’t feel cheated.” I said he inspired love in many people, in his odd, distant way. His kiss was the faintest brush, but he let you know, through a sort of sneaking merriment — his mouth lift­ing in a Cheshire cat grin, a blush blooming over his cheeks — that he was glad you ex­isted. His generosity did not come with conditions.

It was easier now to touch him, to hold hands and rub his back. I read aloud or talked about the world and events at the Voice, but even more Robert wanted stories about my life, which he said distracted him from the discomfort of his body. I was roller-coasting on a problematic love affair. “What happened?” would be the first words he would cough up when I arrived, and when I told him it was over, he said, “Better sooner than later, if it had to end.” So there I was suffering about the loss of love and coming out of myself with him, and there he was escaping his trembling hands and numb left side. We talked of the frustration of our pow­erlessness over his illness. Robert said he wished he had written more; I responded there probably wasn’t a writer who didn’t feel that every day. Robert said that, apart from work, the only consolation now or at any time was human connection. He did not stop building it.
— Laurie Stone 

Categories
Equality From The Archives Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Violence

Dead Boys: Fast Sex and Slow Suicide on the West Side Docks

Dead Boys: Fast Sex and Slow Suicide on the West Side Docks
January 30, 1990

AT TWO A.M. THIS BILIOUS TUESDAY, Pookie hops off the low wall of the pier and fastens a moistened forefinger to his ass. “Fsssssssss,” he goes, flashing his frog-eyed crack grin, “I’m hot like a full-time motherfuck.” On the instant, all the pretty cars come courting, making the hairpin turn at the north end of the dock. A black Saab swings by, a silver Volvo hard behind him, slowing to get a load of the short, plump kid with the sort of epicene beauty peculiar to boys of a certain age. At the back of the pack, the guy in the blue Town Car leans on his horn.

The Town Car pulls up; its passenger window whirs down. A broad, pink man with a polished skull peers out, composed as a corpse in his Chesterfield topcoat. “Aren’t you freezing in that little thing?” he inquires. “Aren’t you hot in that big thing?” says Pookie, popping his head in. “I don’t recall seeing you out here before.”

“And might not see me out here again, so best pick up while the iron is hot. Is your iron hot, love?”

The Pink Man’s eyes play up and down the boy. “How old are you, 15?”

“At least!” Pookie trumpets. “Plus tax.”

The Pink Man frowns and looks away awhile, performing his moral arithmetic. “Get in.”

Pookie jumps in. In the eight or 10 seconds it takes the Town Car to hit the exit. Pookie is across the seat and in the Pink Man’s embrace. “That’s a fuckin’ yo-yo right there,” sneers Georgie, who at 18 looks spent, his face cinched up like an old canvas bag. It is impossible to tell whether his is the voice of experience or envy. “I told him, ‘Stay in the loop till you know the game.’ Instead, he’s gonna bust right outta here with a stone-cold freak. I laugh if he come back here with a knife in his chest.”

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IF YOU ARE SITTING on that wall at two in the morning, the cold and damp on you like a molestation, chances are you aren’t one of the sleek-skinned kids who turns up here on weekends for the party off of Christopher Street. Chances are even better that you aren’t one of the buttoned-down 20-year-olds hustling a place like Rounds on 53rd Street, pre­senting your business card — Professional Escort — to the Aquascutum crowd. No, the chances are you are what they call a “dead boy” down here — a throwaway be­tween the ages of 16 and 20, homeless and hungry and, like as not, in ill-health.

According to Covenant House, the ex­perts by default, there are between 10,000 and 20,000 adolescents on the streets of this city: the kids from the Koch pest­-houses like the Martinique, the Prince George; the kids off the Greyhounds, flee­ing predaceous families; and the kids shot out of the foster care system, New York’s sprawling pathology factory. The most desperate of them eventually land with a thud on the docks, where not even the salt in the air can preserve them.

For the past several months, these kids have talked to me about certain johns who heal them up as a sort of postsex purgative; about the perils of sleeping amongst the crazies at the shelters; about the crackheads and dealers who ride herd on the scene, picking kids off on the fly. But in a sense all of this is overkill, because if you stack it up together and pile on things like polyaddiction and double pneumonia, the sum total will not finish off as many of the kids I spoke to as their numb indifference to AIDS. According to the CDC, the number of kids nationally between 13 and 19 with full-blown AIDS cases has more than doubled in the last two years.

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Everyone on the docks has a pocketful of condoms. Project First Step, the outreach arm of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, dispenses them nightly with the strenuous injunction to please use them. But pull a kid aside, out of earshot of the pack, and he’ll tell you that (a) he doesn’t need them, (b) the johns won’t wear them, and (c) a rubber these days is just a bargaining chip — “they’ll give you five, maybe 10 more bucks to let ’em do it skin-on-skin.”

“In the first place, I fuck, I don’t get fucked,” harrumphs Arnie, the tall, haggard kid to whom Covenant House intro­duced me. “In the second place, I get sucked, I don’t suck. Does it sound to you like I need to put on a bag?” Actually, I tell him, it sounds like he needs to put on two.

“Nah,” he sneers, sliding down in his seat. “I’ve been out here running game going on like six years now. And every time they test me…” he clucks, giving me his stagey grin. “Clean as the Board of Health.”

“Twelve per cent of the older kids who come into our system test positive for HIV,” reports George Wirt, Covenant House’s tireless VP of Communications. That figure is staggering, matched up against the national infection rate of 4.3 per thousand, but, as Wirt says, “You really can’t even go by the 12 per cent. Most of the kids who’ve been out there hustling for any length of time don’t even come into our system. The real number has got to be significantly higher.”

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Covenant House is itself a telling gloss on the problem. For all its celebrated good works — and even its detractors agree that life in this city would be un­thinkable without CH’s interventions­ — the agency is notorious for giving gay kids a hard time. At the crisis center on 41st Street, effeminate boys are thrown in with the hardass straights, with the predictable result that some “get raped, or beat up, or harassed to no end,” says the director of another agency who de­clined to be named. And Joyce Hunter, the director of social services for the He­trick-Martin Institute, a small but ex­traordinarily effective agency whose charter is the protection of gay and lesbi­an youth, tells the story of a kid who once called her in desperate shape. “I referred him to Covenant House. Where else could I send him? He said, ‘If that’s the best you can do, I’ll take the streets,’ and hung up. That call still haunts me now. It’s why we decided to start this agency.”

And even as Covenant House beats the drum about teenage AIDS, it stands on its refusal to hand out condoms. Instead of safe sex, it preaches abstinence to these kids, proving that Catholic obscu­rantism isn’t dead, it’s just gone private sector. This isn’t to scapegoat Covenant House, which recently opened up a floor for homeless kids with AIDS, and is re­viewing its policy of lumping gays in with straights. The point is that, outside of a cluster of small agencies, these are kids without a port in a perpetual storm.

“No one’s set up for what’s about to come down,” warns Wirt. “Nationally, there’s God knows how many kids infect­ed right now. You’re going to need a whole array of new responses once those cases incubate.”

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Certainly, the old responses aren’t working; Covenant House loses two of every three kids who come into its care. The up-at-six-lights-out-by-10 Boys Town lifestyle can’t begin to compete with the street kid’s “deathstyle,” as Tru­dy Peterson, the director of the Streetwork Project, calls it. Peterson, a vivid blonde woman in her middle forties who’s been working with these kids for almost 20 years, says that what they’re aggressively engaged in these days is a kind of “slow suicide. ‘I’m gonna take a bunch of drugs, and I’m wiped out, and my immune system’s crazy, and it’s five degrees out, and… I’ll get in this car with three guys, knowing they’re sadists and will abuse me…’ ”

Kids are, by definition, creatures of the moment, oblivious to their mortality. But on the docks, the denial is double-walled. Behind the customary teenage omnipotence is the thick shale of grief and rage. “Virtually every kid I see here is a badly abused child,” explains Elizabeth Mas­troieni, Covenant House’s straight-shoot­ing AIDS educator. “So many of them were sold, or seduced, or beaten by their parents, or just flat-out abandoned… For a lot of [the kids], hustling is really a reenactment of what they grew up with, only now they’ve got the control. Instead of lying in bed helplessly waiting for the parent to come in, now they’ve got the power to say yes or no — and get paid money to do the thing, on top of it.”

By CH’s estimate, there are a million homeless kids hustling sex in this coun­try. In New York, they happen to be largely black and Hispanic, but in Miami and Fort Lauderdale they are overwhelm­ingly white. And in L.A., reports Wirt, just back from a fact-finding trip out there, the kids are in flight from split-­level houses. “We’ve never seen anything like it. There are little cities of kids thing under the Santa Monica Freeway.”

Nor does the thing hang neatly on the peg of sexuality. For every boy on the dock who acknowledges he’s gay, there’s another who’s vehement that he’s “got a girlie in Queens, and a little baby on the way.” No, the only thing these kids can be said to have in common is that they’ve been sabotaged by the very people life appointed to protect them.

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I WILL LIVE TO BE a hundred,” declares Diego, a sweet, expressive kid who bends like an antenna against the breeze. “I won’t get no disease, no one can’t hardly hurt me, ’cause life already used up all its bullets on me. If it wanted to finish me off, it woulda did so when I was four.”

We are walking the dock this balmy October evening, enjoying the false blan­dishments of Indian summer. Around us, the johns are positively buzzing, brought on by the mild air and some hallucination about romance. Diego ticks off their pre­dilections as they go by. “That one likes to get beat up a taste, got his own little custom-made paddle.… The blue Regal, he wants you to fuck his ugly wife for him, then go out and eat Mexican food with ’em after. And this knucklehead, he’ll take anything he can get, but what he really wants is for you to piss on his windshield. From his lips to God’s mouth, I say.”

We had been talking about his child­hood a moment ago, so when I tell him that his thing is evasion, he laughs out loud. “Oh, I can skate alright, honey! I’m the black Dorothy Hamill!”

 

The story that he unfolds is like so many others you hear that you catch yourself wondering if these kids share notes. There was his airtight relationship with his adoring mother, “who was to me like a saint, an angel on earth”; the fa­ther, a mailman who was so mean “he used to bite the dogs”; and there was Diego’s own sense, “from as early as I can remember,” that he’d been singled out of the family for the old man’s abuse. “I’m sorry, but I have to laugh,” he says, not laughing. “You’re going to beat my ass with a broom handle for something as two-cents as slurping my milk — and then an hour later come in and lay down with me? I know it’s not polite to say something against your family — but for that man, they should’ve brought back lynch­ing, baby.”

And your brothers and sisters? I ask. Did they come out of it alright?

“Pshuh,” he snaps. “They’re as happy as larks. Far as they’re concerned, none of this ever happened.” He pauses, peering down at the bright pageant of Christo­pher Street. “I guess I had to take the weight for the good of the family.”

That isn’t self-pity, it’s guilt, and it’s the deadliest addiction down here — this attachment to the idea that you’re the proper target of life’s sadism. Why, for instance, aren’t these kids selling crack instead of their bodies? Because dealing is an act of violence perpetrated against others; hustling your body to men who won’t wear condoms is an act of violence against yourself, a carrying-out of the sentence handed down in childhood. “Why the fuck should I hassle ’em to wear a rubber?” shrugged Chris, a very stoned metal kid in heavy leather. “I’m gonna be dead in two years, anyway.”

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ONE NIGHT IN LATE September, perhaps my second on the scene, I was walking up the dock taking the lay of the land when I heard someone shout, “YO, YOUR BACK!” I wheeled and saw three kids coming straight for me, closing hard and fast as linebackers. I froze, bracing myself for the hit, when a second shout brought them up short. They veered off right, hurling glares over their shoulders, and hopped the divider onto the highway. I put my heart back inside my chest and went to thank my benefactor, a squat black kid in two-tone denims sporting a fat welt over one eye.

“Ah man, fuck you,” he sneered, “I shoulda let ’em jay you, only I don’t need no 20 cops down here. I got like 60-something cents in my pocket tonight.”

I explained what I was doing, and of­fered to buy him dinner. He asked to see my press card. “Oh, this’ll make someone a nice souvenir. But you bullshittin’, I know you got back-up somewhere. You ain’t really out here by yourself.”

I assured him that I was, and on foot, to boot.

“Look around you!” he guffawed, sa­voring my stupidity. “You see all these hardnut crackheads? They ain’t here to get laid, they’re here to get paid, if you know what I’m talking about.”

There were kids sprawled sullenly on the hoods of cars; kids roaming the piers in packs of three and four, or huddled like cabals around someone’s boombox. Only at the far north end could boys be seen standing by themselves, arms across their chests in desultory attendance. “This ain’t Shangri-la anymore, this is 42nd Street South,” said Aubrey. “Any­thing up there, you can buy down here now. Drugs, car stereos, a whole trunk­load of guns — anything you want, except for pussy… but check back for that on Friday.”

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The joke reverberated. Just that eve­ning, I’d been talking to a couple of retail­ers on Christopher Street, whose bitter suspicion was that the cops were quietly redlining the West Village, pinching all the pandemic sins of Times Square down here. “Doesn’t the Sixth Precinct ever patrol this place?” I asked Aubrey.

“To protect who?” he snorted. “Ain’t nobody out here but a bunch of fags and baseheads.”

And into which of the two groups did he fall?

“Neither, nor,” he declared. “I’m a man with a plan. One day real quick, I’m gonna just… disappear.”

There was some thunder in that word, too. Trudy Peterson, whose love for these kids suffuses everything she says, told me that the hardest thing about her work “is that these kids just disappear. We don’t know if they went down to Florida to hustle, to Puerto Rico and their grand­mothers, or if they’ve been taken up to some rooftop by a gang and raped.”

Aubrey did in fact disappear — on his own steam, I hope — but not before I ran into him again that Friday night. He was standing by himself, looking like hell in a red hood, skeed off his ass on a crack­-and-smack jam. “Come here,” he said, hugging me. “I wanna show you something freaky.”

We walked down to the second pier. He pointed to a crawlspace about 40 feet out, where a kid was sound asleep perhaps a yard above the tide. “I never in my life been that fucked up,” he marveled. “I hope whatever he do tonight, he don’t roll over. That’d be a wet dream-and-a-half, boy!”

He was still tittering about this 10 min­utes later, wondering whose life would pass before your eyes if you drowned out there, your own or Charlie the Tuna’s, when the laugh suddenly caught in his throat. “Ho, shit, here comes the fastest way to die.”

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He pointed discreetly with his chin to a baby Benz sedan. which was circling the dock slowly, in a sort of taunting, Dave Parker trot. Its windows were down, revealing three b-boys in black, fronting enough gold to float a municipal bond issue. They sprayed the scene with their 12-gauge glares.

“Which one’s the dealer?” I asked.

“What, are you gonna go interview him?” he sneered. “Yo, man, quit lookin’ at ’em! You got detec written all over you. If they see me even talking to you about ’em…”

We averted our eyes as the Benz made another pass, then peeled out onto the highway, serenading us with the gentle strains of NWA:

Fuck the police, and Ren said it with authority 
’cause the niggers on the street is a majority
A gang is with whomever I’m stepping
And a motherfuckin’ weapon is kept in
A stashbox for the so-called law
Wishin’ Ren was a nigger they never saw…

“That was Markie’s crew,” said Aubrey. “He’ll send ’em after you if you’re like even five minutes late — and those niggers don’t even play.”

“Does Markie run the show down here?”

“Not really, he stays on the uptown tip. But some of these hardnuts go up and get 50 bottles [vials] offa him, then smoke the shit and don’t come back with the $200. That’s how niggers get shot down here.”

“Are there a lot of kids getting shot?”

Aubrey fixed me with his ready glare. “All these motherfuckers they be pulling out the river — what do you think, they fell off their yacht?” He wagged his head sadly, then murmured, “Dag, but that Benz was slammin’, though. All the mon­ey I made out here… I coulda bought that car three times.”

“Where is it all now, Aubrey?”

Wise and world-weary and, like so many street kids, theatrical, he waits two beats before saying, supremely, “Me, I might be crazy, but I ain’t stupid. I pay homeboy in full.”

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“THERE ARE KIDS TURNING up dead all over the city,” says Covenant House’s Mastroieni. “Sometimes, when cops find a body in a lot or a construction site, they’ll know to call us first. We keep a file on every kid we see here… very often, we’re the only ones who can identify a kid — or care to.”

A kid running the docks, she points out, is terribly vulnerable, the perfect crime waiting to happen. “They work by themselves, they’ve got no I.D., [and] they’re high out of their minds most of the time.… If you’re a dealer and a kid stiffs you, you can make a quick example of him for $20. And if you’re a john and you want to take a kid to Jersey and bury him — well, it’s not like he’s got a partner jotting your license number down…”

“Please understand that we’re trying to maintain good relations with the police,” says Mastroieni. “And generally we do. There are some very honorable cops out there, cops who tip us off when they see one of our kids where he isn’t supposed to be. But most of them?” she sighs. “Most of them don’t give a damn about these kids. As far as they’re concerned, who­ever’s killing them is doing the Lord’s work.”

How does a skinny 17-year-old stalked by johns and dealers defend himself? By arming himself, quite literally, to the teeth. There isn’t a kid out there without a gun or a knife, or at any rate a single­-edge secured in imaginative places. Bob­by, a delicate kid sitting on the hood of a Dodge, showed me how to conceal a razor blade between cheek and gum (“Keep the sharp side down, and don’t smile too much”). He told me what had happened to him and his lover, Raymond. They were walking west on Charles, “drinking a beer and smooching to try and stay warm,” when suddenly they were set upon by a carload of kids. “I’m not saying they didn’t fuck me up good — they did­ — but I know at least one of those boys will never forget me. I cut his shit from yay to yay, and the blade was rusty, too.”

Raymond, however, came away so banged up he had to go back to Puerto Rico. “He was really a nice guy, and I never expected that… I never had no one treat me with that respect before. And between us, we had like a little room in Flatbush. It wasn’t much, but at least I wasn’t out here till no four a.m., trying to get someone to take me to his place so I could catch a shower.”

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IF IT’S FAIR TO CALL kids living from trick to trick slow suicides, what do you call the grown men who cruise them? Write a piece on the johns, implored one outreach worker after another, meaning by all means bash those bastards. But the request betrayed a certain curiosity as well — who are these men, and why are they out sniffing after kids — and sad, sick, addicted kids at that?

“Ninety to 95 per cent of [the johns] are married men with families,” says Pe­terson. “They’re Boy Scout leaders, store managers, executives — men with money… One kid said to me, ‘You know, they open up their wallets to pay me, and I see pictures of their children in there and I think, if they’re paying me to do this, what are they doing at home to their own kids?'”

At 3 a.m., when the exchange rate on the pier is a bottle of crack for a blowjob, it’s the john who like as not is supplying the crack; the john who spurns the kid’s choke roll of condoms; the john who boosts the ante from sex to sadism. Al­most every kid I talked to, from the piers to Port Authority to the loop on 53rd Street, said he has at least one regular who engages him to do the “wilder thing,” i.e., the sort of act that only the most unfettered mind could construe as carnal. There is Peter, the lantern-jawed kid in greasy jeans, whose “Friday guy” forks over $200 to be yoked to two poles in the back of his van and have his nip­ples pierced with an ice pick. There is Maurice, who gets paid “stoopid money” to shit on a hot dog roll and make his client eat it.

I want to make it thuddingly plain that we are talking about so-called straights here, men whose sexuality is the ticking bomb under their two-family colonial. “Some day,” Peterson worries, “some guy’s going to wake up with AIDS, and give it to his wife. Then he’s going to come over here with a gun and shoot 10 street kids.”

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Given the fixity of their death wish — ­there are johns buying boys with conspic­uous lesions on their arms — it is impossi­ble that “some guy” hasn’t already awo­ken to that discovery. But what Peterson is putting her finger on is the john’s ca­pacity for projection, driving the stake of his self-loathing through the hearts of these kids. “With the transvestites, you know, the johns like to punch them in the crotch,” says Mastroieni. “The kid’s roll­ing around in agony, and the john’s up there laughing, going, ‘Hey, I just wanted to make sure you were a boy.’ ”

The other fraction of the john popula­tion, out gay men, tend to be vastly more benign to the kids. Many form attach­ments to their “steadies,” bringing them home for several days or even a stretch of weeks before the thing craps out over drugs or house rules. They’ll take a kid out to dinner, or occasionally pick him up a shirt, no small favor for someone who’s been wearing the same thing all week. Whether it’s empathy or romance or a rescue fantasy, something quite the ob­verse of sadism seems to obtain here.

The kids I spoke to were by and large grateful for these affairs, but the experi­ence of being cared for was also terrifying to them. On the one hand, they’re hungry for it, no matter how long they’ve been out here; on the other, they’re clinging fast to their hard boy swagger, to that uptown street affect by which they sur­vive. “I do what I gotta do,” goes the dogma of West Street, “but I damn sure ain’t nobody’s toy-boy.”

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“I’M A PRETTY NORMAL person. I wouldn’t consider myself a sex fiend,” says Peter. “But when I’m on that pipe, all I can think about — bang! — is fucking. Fucking, smoking, and fucking some more. And I’ll tell you what — when that head comes over me, I gotta go some­where and beat my meat, ’cause otherwise I’m liable to kill someone.”

In the centrifuge of crack, everything flies apart: neighborhoods, families, per­sonalities. But the drug also has an insid­ious side effect that hasn’t been suffi­ciently well-documented. Smoked in even modest amounts, it can be just a crazy­-making aphrodisiac, wiping all the other imperatives off the board. It’s like an infusion of pure id every half-hour — and these kids aren’t exactly overloaded with superego to begin with.

“Because of crack,” says Peterson, “there’s more sex and more desperate sex: multiple-partners, orgy-type sex in crack houses.… The drug itself drives you to it. You don’t care how many arms and legs and asses — the more the merrier.”

“Look at these people out here,” Diego sniffs. “They don’t care what they look like, they don’t care what they smell like — crack whores, that’s all they are.… You come down here with 20 bottles, it doesn’t matter how old and ugly you are, you’re the Pied Piper of West Street.”

The only thing that’s dropped faster than the price of drugs in this city is the price of street sex. “I used to make good money out here, and I’m talking 50s, 100s,” says Diego. “Now, the johns drive up, they don’t even say hello. They just go, ‘Hey, you got a stem (a crack pipe) on you?’ And if you say yes, right then and there they know they got you… Three, four hits, you’ll be up in the back seat like a slave — you might even get out that car with no money. This boy Rickey talk about, ‘Oh, that man spent $300 on me.’ Really? I don’t see it. ‘Well, it was $300 in rocks.’ Oh. So you’re up in the room with him talking about six, seven hours, and when you came down you had to hop the turnstile to get back here,” Diego chortles. “I guess that’s why they call it dope.”

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Covenant House refers to this disas­trous tit-for-tat as “survival sex,” as if kids were blowing johns to keep a roof over their heads. CH ought to know bet­ter. Certainly, its outreach people do. Making the rounds in their baby blue vans, they see the same boys out there night after night — strung-out, exhausted, the odor of the subways upon them. The kids descend upon the vans in their em­barrassed way, ostensibly for a cup of cocoa and a peanut-butter sandwich, but also to talk to someone like Veronica DiNapoli.

A four-year outreach veteran, DiNapo­li’s blend of tact and tenderness often opens kids up on the spot. They hug her and hold fast to her hand or her sleeve as they pour out their sad packet of lies: Veronica, didja hear, I’m going away to college… Veronica, Herbie told you we found this fly spot in Queens? And she listens to it all, treading delicately around their claims, because she knows that’s all they have. On a particularly cold night, several of them will consent to come back to the residence, or take a ride to the hospital for the gash in their forearm. But these are children whose hope and trust have been ripped out like cables. In every blessing, they have been taught to suspect a beating.

“It’s so sad,” says Liz Russo, the tough, pretty former director of Hetrick-Mar­tin’s outreach team. “They get battered at home, they get battered in their neigh­borhoods, [and if] they’ve been kicked out by their parents, they get battered in the group homes… That’s why so many of them are down here in the first place­ — they actually feel safer on the docks.”

Even by the standards of this shame­less city, it is disgraceful that there is no sanctuary for homeless gay kids. In Los Angeles, a town not known the world over for its benevolence, there are several such places, notably Lois Lee’s group res­idence Children of the Night. In San Francisco, kids converge on Project Stepping Stone, a crash pad with staff in the Tenderloin. But in New York, it is either Covenant House or the East Third Street Men’s Shelter, where kids stand about as much chance as goldfish in a shark pool.

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What they need is a place that’s uncon­ditionally theirs, that welcomes them in all their pain and complexity. There’s been some talk among the loose consor­tium of small agencies about acquiring a space, but the thing is miles beyond their grasp. No, this is a matter for the next HRA chief, who can either start looking around for a facility downtown or laying in a supply of caskets for the new year.

In the meantime, the kids will go on wintering on the E train, or at a certain all-male theater in the West Village. Said one kid who’s passed his share of nights there, “You go in expecting to see a whole bunch of bizarre sex going on, and in­stead it’s all these young kids knocked out sleeping.… In the middle of February, you’ll be glad they let you stay there, but those seats get hard on your ass, boy.”

Ignoble as that is, it’s high living compared to last year, when kids slept in the backs of reeking garbage trucks, or in the Department of Sanitation’s salt storehouse on 16th Street. “They had the most casual rats in there,” Diego winces. “Big-ass ones that just walked right up to you and started chewing on your shit… If you count my father, I’ve slept with sick, dirty bastards for 13 years, but rats I cannot work with.”

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ONE NIGHT, THAT FIRST bitter stretch after Thanksgiving, I took a ride up to East 53rd Street. The Loop, as it’s known, used to be the Ritz of rough trade: clean, pretty boys, the majority of them white, available for the delectation of more discriminating palates. Enter crack, the great leveler. Such kids as have managed to steer clear of the pipe now do their business inside the bars, leaving the streets to the Dead Boys and the newly addicted. You see them staked out in doorways or phone booths, skinny and windburnt in their thin nylon jackets.

They tend, however, not to show up much before 3 a.m., working the docks and the ’Deuce for the earlybirds. So, just before midnight I walked the neighbor­hood looking for stragglers. I turned up 55th Street, marveling to myself at the high-speed sociology of crack, when I saw a kid skulking in the shadows. I’d been mugged just the week before, nailed as I left the piers by a bunch of kids yelling “Faggot!” so I broke left on instinct, cut­ting him a wide berth. As it happened, he was weeping. I came near, guilty and so­licitous, and saw a small Spanish kid with a flat, round face, hugging himself inconsolably.

“What happened?” I asked. “Did someone hurt you out here?”

Startled, he came out of his half-crouch and fixed me with a look that I will never forget. He had the heartbreaking eyes of an abandoned baby, wild and illingual in his pain and terror. He was convulsing in sections, his left and right sides going at cross-purpose spasms. He teetered against the building on stork legs. “Mau­rice!” he screamed at me. “Maurice, the motherfucker! I was ’sposedta been high from three hours ago!”

I backed up and look off down the street, looking for a cop, an ambulance. But the only thing that met me coming up Second Avenue was the wind making its announcement to Diego, and to Au­brey, and to Dead Boys everywhere, that winter, in all its maleficence, was here.

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Visitation Rites: The Elusive Tradition of Plague Lit

AIDSspeak: A Plague of Words

“Epidemics have often been more influen­tial than statesmen and soldiers in shaping the course of political history, and diseases may also color the moods of civilizations… [Yet] their role is rarely emphasized by his­torians.” So wrote René and Jean Dubos in their landmark study of tuberculosis, The White Plague (1952). They might as well have included novelists among the oblivious. With the notable exception of TB, whose association with creativity inspired reams of inspirational verse and fiction, some of our favorite operas, and one certified literary masterpiece (The Magic Mountain), the lit­erature of epidemics is as scant — or at least scantly remembered — as those tomes on phrenology that once graced transcenden­talist coffee tables.

Do we need a Visitation Lit? In the cur­rent crisis, it hardly seems like a priority: Give us a vaccine, a cure; give us condoms that work and laws that protect. But our failure to devise an effective response to AIDS is partly a product of the silence of our culture. We are raised to regard epidem­ics as relics of distant lands and ancient eras; when an outbreak does occur, it seems unprecedented, unnatural. We cast about for a strategy, ceding the task to medicine and politics (though we don’t really trust either profession), because we have no alter­native. There is no cultural tradition that gives meaning and order to the chaos of an epidemic. There is only religion, with its mechanisms of suppression and control. Art has abdicated its authority to counsel us in time of plague. And this absence of an aesthetic is part of our helplessness.

Why are there so many novels about World War I and so few about the influenza epidemic that followed it, killing many more people? Why doesn’t plague inspire litera­ture the way war does? Perhaps because, at least until the specter of nuclear annihila­tion, combat never threatened our hegemo­ny over the environment. War is something men declare, but epidemics are a force of nature, and until we unravel their codes and learn how to repel them, they subject us to assault on their own, inhuman, terms. War is politics by other means, but epidemics have no purpose or intention; they happen, often as an unintended consequence of social mobility, sometimes by chance. War is, in some sense, as deliberate as fiction. But plague is accidental history.

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The Grim Reaper notwithstanding, epi­demics are hard to personify. An invisible enemy versus a small band of crusaders, reeking more of disinfectant than manly sweat, is hardly the stuff of heroic fantasy. War is butch; it is the strange fruit of mas­culinity. To die in combat is a confirmation of gender, but epidemics are androgynous, and the loss of control they induce is usually represented as emasculating. Men who fall victim to disease are champions brought low, given to heroic speechifying; women just lie there in paler and paler makeup. They are the ones who whisper about love and memory; men weep over their loss of mastery. (Think of Sly Stallone as the leu­kemia victim in Love Story.) And real men die of some inner defect, not an infectious disease. Long before AIDS, we believed that epidemics strike — indeed, signify — the ef­fete. Thomas Mann’s social critique pro­ceeds from this assumption, and his apprehension about sexuality finds a ready emblem in diseases like cholera and tuberculosis. Aschenbach and even Hans Castorp enter into the state of illness almost by consent, as a logical expression of character. Susceptibility is fate.

Mann’s message takes a Nietzschean twist in America, where health is your own business and you’d better take care of your­self. The self-help cults that have arisen in response to AIDS reflect our assumption that illness is a character flaw made mani­fest, and usually preventable by good behav­ior. The process of “freeing ourselves from the bonds of karma, disease, problem rela­tionships” (as an ad for those New Age na­bobs, the Ascended Masters, puts it) sug­gests that not just desire, but nature itself, can be consciously controlled. The Eastern jargon is purely decorative; this view of the environment as a “peaceable kingdom” is central to American culture, and it persists — partly because literature has failed to deconstruct it — in direct denial of our actual history.

***

Pestilence may have an old-world ring, but epidemics were, until quite recently, a recurring feature of urban life in America, as well as a force in such emblematic events as the Civil War and the great westward trek. Congress could not be convened in 1793 until George Washington rode through the streets of Philadelphia to assure himself that an outbreak of yellow fever, which had decimated the city, was under control. As J.H. Powell’s riveting account of that outbreak, Bring Out Your Dead, reveals, the barbaric responses we associate with AIDS were commonplace in 1793: Refugees were stoned, shot, or left to starve as they wandered the countryside; newspapers from the capital were boiled in vinegar before anyone would read them; and the task of caring for the afflicted and burying the dead fell largely to impoverished blacks. This is an America you will not read about in fiction. There are no epics about the epidemics that struck New Orleans with such regularity that the death rate in that city remained higher than the birthrate for the entire 19th century; no chronicles of the devastation that disease wrought upon the ’49ers as they headed west. You can read all about cannibalism on the Donner Pass, but not about diarrhea.

When we aren’t discreet about the sub­ject, we leave it to the likes of Bette Davis to set the tone of American rhetoric about epi­demics — turgid and romantic. In Jezebel, she plays the ultimate coquette, all taffeta and eyelashes, who’s brought to her senses by a bout of “yellowjack” that strikes her jilted beau. The film ends with the essential American image of vanity chastened by pes­tilence: Davis on a crowded wagon, rolling through the shuttered streets of Charleston, nursing her love in quarantine. There’s a similar epiphany in Arrowsmith; when the young doctor’s wife dies during a Caribbean outbreak of the same disease, and he breaks the rules of his profession by providing ex­perimental serum to the natives without a control group. Though Sinclair Lewis meant his novel to be both a critique of scientism and a testament to its rigors, in the movie, such ambiguities are lost to the epidemic as otherworldly spectacle, complete with dark­ies chanting among the fronds.

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The fabricator of pestilential rhetoric in America is Poe, whose interest in the sub­ject confirms its disreputability. “The Masque of the Red Death” is a paradigm of the dread epidemics arouse in us: Their ter­rible swift sword seems aimed directly at our hubris and hedonism — two sins Americans simultaneously celebrate and excoriate each other for. If the Red Death resembles any known disease, it is influenza of the sort that killed 20 million people in 1918. But in Poe, it comes on preternaturally, with pro­fuse bleeding from every pore that kills in half an hour. What better setting for this Visitation than a primordial kingdom with a party-hearty sensibility too splendid to sur­vive? When plague strikes, the royals retreat in a vain attempt to banish death. He enters anyway, dressed like the rogue in The Des­ert Song. “And one by one dropped the rev­elers in the blood-bedewed halls of their rev­el.” In other words, the party’s over.

Poe’s maunderings could only have mean­ing in a culture so phobic about disease that the subject must be addressed in terms of retribution. We get the fate we deserve for living like Vincent Price. At the core of Poe’s masque are guilt and denial, the very evasiveness our literature stands accused of displaying toward love and death. An epi­demic calls up the same response, since it forces us to confront both the intensity of human need and the fragility of all relation­ships. As a culture whose optimism is its most enduring trait, we cannot bear to look directly at this experience, except through the lurid refracting lens of moral causality.

Compare Poe’s Red Death with the de­scription of influenza that opens Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. It ­occupies less than a page, yet this account, as seen through a child’s eyes, says more about the grotesque incongruity of an epidemic than any allegory. Traveling from Se­attle to Minneapolis in a closed compartment, the entire family was stricken as the train proceeded east.

We children did not understand whether the chattering of our teeth and Mama’s lying torpid in the berth were not somehow a part of the trip… and we began to be sure that it was all an adventure when we saw our fa­ther draw a revolver on the conductor who was trying to put us off the train at a small wooden station in the middle of the North Dakota prairie. On the platform at Minne­apolis, there were stretchers, a wheel chair, redcaps distraught officials, and, beyond them, in the crowd, my grandfather’s rosy face, cigar and cane, my grandmother’s feathered hat, imparting an air of festivity to this strange and confused picture, making us children certain that our illness was the beginning of a delightful holiday.

McCarthy’s perspective belongs to anoth­er, far more naturalistic, tradition of Visita­tion Lit. It is not to be found in fiction, but in the less hallowed venues of journalism and memoir. From Pepys, we get the sense of pestilence as an ordinary experience — ­one of life’s elemental indignities. From De­foe, we get the larger picture of a social organism convulsing under bacterial siege. A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) is the first example of that paradoxical form we now call the nonfiction novel: It is “report­ed” as fact, but constructed as fiction, and all the more potent for its formal confusion. Defoe invented the “plot” we still impose on epidemics, and he intended it not just to convey but also to shape reality as a tangible expression of his ideology.

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As a Dissenter, Defoe was subject to pro­fessional and personal harassment by the Anglican authorities. The stance of a rebel­lious rationalist informs his tone, perhaps even his choice of subject matter. The extre­mis of plague gave Defoe a chance to rail at irrational “tradition” — in everything from quack cures to the futile quarantining of whole families when one member took sick. And nothing revealed the sanctimonious­ness of his peers like the high, theocentric prose in which epidemics were customarily described: “Now Death rides triumphantly on his pale horse through our streets,” read one typical account of the bubonic plague that ravaged London in 1665. “Now people fall as thick as the leaves in autumn, when they are shaken by a mighty wind.” Defoe, in contrast, is blunt, sensory, reportorial: “It came at last to such violence that people sat still looking at one another, and seemed quite abandoned to despair; whole streets seemed to be desolated… windows stood shattering with the wind in empty houses for want of people to shut them.”

What comes handed down to us as “objec­tivity” was actually a rhetoric of rebellion against the political and religious institu­tions that put Defoe at personal risk. His response must have seemed like the prover­bial shoe-that-fits to Albert Camus, the Communist/resister who set out in 1947 to construct a metaphor for the German occu­pation and all it evoked in the French. Ca­mus intended plague to universalize the cir­cumstances of his own oppression, but so did Defoe. From the old Dissenter, Camus borrowed not just the specter of a city stricken by bubonic disease, but the per­spective of a rationalist in extremis, the anti-literary style, and the very form of The Plague. The subject attracts the alienated, perhaps because they sense the power of an epidemic to shatter social orthodoxy.

Both Defoe and Camus set out to instruct us about life beyond the boundaries of personal control. Both call up the impotence and isolation — even in fellowship — of those who must inhabit “a victim world secluded and apart,” as Camus describes Oran under quarantine. Camus could not have con­structed his deliberately modern paradigm of “death in a happy city” without Defoe’s radical vision of plague as a landscape where virtue and survival do not follow as the night the day. And though their subject is bubonic plague, with its ancient rhythm of explosive death, the dry rage and mordant irony Camus and Defoe share, their abiding sense of life’s precariousness, are the per­sonality traits of an AIDS survivor.

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There was no plague in Oran during the years Camus wrote, and as far as is known, he never actually experienced an epidemic. Rather, he assembled his description from secondary sources — as did Defoe, a child of five when the outbreak he describes took place. So the “plot” these journalists impose on epidemics is a fictional contrivance. More to the point, it is a contrivance that we inherit as reality. We still trot out Defoe and Camus to class up think pieces about AIDS because we trust their reporting, even though its authenticity is an illusion. The model they created gives meaning to the meaningless; it shapes an event that is terri­fying precisely because it seems chaotic. Can anyone who has never experienced an epi­demic imagine, in purely naturalistic terms, the terror of an invisible entity, not to men­tion the ghastly, often abrupt, changes an afflicted body undergoes? In a literary work, no matter how grim, there is order, progres­sion, response; when you add journalism’s claim to objectivity, and its obsession with good and bad behavior, an epidemic can be fitted with a tangible structure of cause and effect. This — and not just verisimilitude — is the power of reportage.

As for the plot: It is a tale without a protagonist. The “hero” is a collective — the suffering multitudes, called up in a thousand images of mortification of the flesh. At first, they refuse to acknowledge anything out of the ordinary, and the narrative feeds on this denial (we know why the rats are dying). But there comes a moment when, as Defoe describes it, “the aspect of the city itself was frightful.” Denial gives way to terror, and the suspense is not just who will live and die, but whether society will endure. Pestilence brings the collective into high relief. It must protect the uninfected, care for the stricken, and dispose of the dead. That it does function is — for both Camus and De­foe — a source of chastened optimism. Plague, the despoiler of civilization, has be­come an agent of social cohesion.

***

This existential saga is the shape we still give to epidemics. And in America, where the subject is seldom approached straight-­on, it is also the point of countless horror movies, in which the monster is like a scourge raining death out of Camus’s indif­ferent blue sky. The first victim is always an emblem of normality — a carefree bather yanked under the waves, or a baby-sitter ambushed by something in the closet. Then comes the warning — “They’re here!” — but to no avail. It’s too weird to be credible, and anyway, no one wants to frighten the citi­zenry. Finally, the system is brought to its senses — in the nick of time.

The horror movies of my youth in the ’50s were a plug for scientific progressivism, and a none-too-subtle plea for civic vigilance. But in recent years, the fatalism that underlies those tales of transformation we inherited from Europe has crept back into horror­-consciousness. In The Fly and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, to mention two post­-modern remakes, the alien intrudes almost like a bacterium out of Mann, with the victim’s tacit consent; and the afflicted pass through all of Kübler-Ross’s stages, from denial to rage to resignation. In The An­dromeda Strain, the denial stage becomes a premise: Can the doctors stop an alien or­ganism before it kills so many people that the government will have to acknowledge its existence? In Jaws, an implacable force of nature has “vetoed pleasure” in Amity, just as it did in Camus’s Oran. Except for the rugged individualist (a/k/a crusty old shark hunter) who holds the key to survival, it is easy to imagine the author of The Plague set those on his terrain.

Randy Shilts’s history of the AIDS epi­demic, And the Band Played On, draws its power from precisely this tradition: It is a journalistic work with a fictional form. Its plot, as constructed by Defoe, renovated by Camus, and apotheosized by journalistic thrillmongers like Robin Cook and Stephen King, is the unexpected appearance of a deadly microbe; its stealthy progression, fostered by obliviousness and indifference; and the gradual emergence of a collective response. Shilts writes of death and denial with all the lurid energy of the Old Dissent­er. His alienation from (gay and straight) orthodoxy is entirely true to form, and so is his judgment on all the players — from gov­ernment to media, from the afflicted to the immune. The journalist shapes the event — ­has done so ever since Defoe.

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Of course, the model of Visitation Lit doesn’t entirely fit the reality of AIDS. Shilts’s fiercest rage is directed at the break­down of community when pestilence strikes. In Camus and Defoe, everyone is equally at risk, and therefore everyone must overcome indifference. But in Shilts, the collective that emerges consists of isolated groups­ — the infected and their doctors. The larger society is insulated by contempt for the afflicted and an illusion of immunity. The pariah experience that AIDS creates cannot be found in Visitation Lit (except perhaps in a didactic potboiler like The Nun’s Story, with its doting on leprosy as a test of godli­ness). There are ample accounts of shun­ning those who show the “tokens” of bubonic plague or yellow fever, but AIDS is a lifelong condition that leaves no visible mark until it becomes activated; shunning is decreed by the technology of diagnosis and, often, by the presumption of belonging to a group at risk. We can monitor the develop­ment of AIDS in both the afflicted and the infected, but we cannot improve their prog­nosis. The psychic and social bind generated by our helpless efficiency is also an unprece­dented product of this disease.

The precedent for AIDS in our culture is the “slow plague” of tuberculosis, which has shifted in its iconography from a disease of the artistic to a scourge of the impoverished. In the late 19th century, as word of its con­tagiousness spread (and before there was conclusive evidence that exposure does not usually result in infection), the image of the afflicted changed as well. Once they had been held in such esteem that the problem for epidemiologists was convincing the fam­ilies of consumptives to stay away. But by the turn of the century, TB patients were thought to be dissolute, if not degenerate; later still, Mann’s elegant mountaintop re­treat became a state-run sanatorium to which they could be committed against their will. The parallels with AIDS are striking but not exact. Sexually transmitted diseases carry a distinct stigma, and so do homosex­uals and intravenous drug users, the main groups at risk for AIDS. In the culture at large, there is no gay or junkie equivalent of the virtuous poor.

The AIDS epidemic, which is a highly literary event (the death of people in their prime always is), cannot be written about in traditional literary terms; because it shat­ters the social contract, it forces us to break with form. Those who live through this Visi­tation will have to invent not only their own communitas but a new system of represen­tation to make that process meaningful. So far, only the rudiments of such a system are in place. The AIDS plays that drew so much attention to the epidemic are all traditional in form: Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart leans heavily on Ibsen’s ideology of the he­roic outsider (“The strongest man … is he who stands most alone”); William Hoffman’s As Is make a comforting melange of, Maxwell Anderson and William Inge; even Jerker, the controversial (because it is homoerotic) series of blackouts by Robert Chesley, veers toward the familiar modern­ism of Ionesco via Menotti. Only Beirut at­tempts to project AIDS into the dreamlife of our culture, but unfortunately it achieves its nightmare edge by misrepresenting the transmissibility of the disease.

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In fiction, it was mostly the gay presses that produced the first responses to AIDS. But these novels, like the plays, have been either didactic tracts or domestic dramas. Both are important themes — the danger of social violence is real enough, and the bond of love between men is rare enough, in or outside the context of sexuality, to be worth expressing. But, so far, these good inten­tions don’t achieve the power and range of literature, in part because the subject (ho­mosexuality) is still so culturally arcane, and in part because it takes more than a sea­son — or five — for the best authors to trans­form trauma into art.

Epitaphs for the Plague Dead, a small volume of formal, traditional verse, is a semi-breakthrough. Robert Boucheron has turned to Tennyson for a formal framework that is both strikingly antique and oddly abstract — giving his subject matter, the his­tories of gay men dead of AIDS, a timeless, entombed air. The content is often trite, sometimes clumsy; but these epitaphs, in a colloquial discourse rendered stately by iam­bics and rhyme, have the effect of ennobling not just the ordinary but the shunned. This is form in the service of a new idea, something the literature of any epidemic must achieve if it is to matter in the long run.

It may be too much to hope for parody as a weapon in the fight against AIDS, al­though the satiric edge in Boucheron’s poet­ry, Shilts’s journalism, and Kramer’s play is what most sets these gay writers apart from other chroniclers of plague. It is almost as if the rich vein of camp has been tempered into a mordant comedy of manners. What this promises for the future of both gay culture and Visitation Lit is anyone’s guess, but the spirit of Thackeray (not to mention Mann) must hover at the shoulder of any reasonably acute homosexual who thinks about AIDS. It certainly informs the pica­resque fiction of Armistead Maupin, whose work is a model of what the epidemic has done to gay sensibility. By the latest install­ment, Significant Others, AIDS has become a recurring motif that grounds the narra­tive. The characters we’ve been following through volume after volume haven’t so much changed their ways as their perspec­tive — on each other, on mortality. And Maupin’s tone has grown softer and fuller, as if to acknowledge the “feminine” emo­tions that gay rage suppresses right now.

***

Melancholy is the literary legacy of AIDS, for all of us. It informs the texture of more and more popular fiction, if only in its fasci­nation with pathology. A glance through Publishers Weekly reveals these plot prem­ises, all from books due out this fall: A wom­an engaged to be married discovers that she is a carrier of’ Tay-Sachs disease, raising painful questions about her true paternity and changing her life … A crotchety old truck driver, watching his wife die of cancer, reverts to wetting his bed. His anguish is heightened when she reveals the details of an extramarital affair that spawned their late son, a teenage victim of meningitis … A young cancer patient, withdrawn from chemotherapy by his mother, is placed in a halfway house for “roomers with tumors.” But when the boy’s estranged father tries to put him back in chemo, mom, son, and a handsome hospice worker run away to a hideaway in the redwoods, where …

Then there is Leslie Horvitz’s The Dying, a just-published novel of “biological horror” (actually another of those pesky Poe-like flus that kill in the flip of a page) complete with a dust jacket admonition that THE PLAGUE YEARS ARE HERE. And Shar­on Mayes’s Immune, whose protagonist, “at once a highly professional doctor and re­searcher, and a wild, erotic woman, addicted to cocaine,” must confront the threat of AIDS. That it “leads her to a rediscovery of responsibility and a nostalgia for a more stable and structured past” makes Immune “a tragedy of our time.” Or so the blurb insists.

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As a culture, we are losing our sense of immunity to disease and our confidence in sexuality as a route to self-discovery. These may have been constructions in the first place, but they were crucial to my genera­tion, and now they have been shattered. The assumption that AIDS will compel us to remake the libido in more “mature” terms is as cockeyed as any belief in human perfect­ibility, as utopian as the sexual revolution we are now exhorted to forsake. Only in a TV movie will this epidemic teach hetero­sexuals to value commitment and homosexuals to find their identity in rodeos and Proust. More likely, we will pull the wool over each other’s eyes in erotic masques of safety and salubrity. The gap between pub­lic morality and private behavior will pro­mote the very passions it suppresses. Those who can’t or won’t be locked in place will exude a faint aroma of mortality whenever they have sex. And if the epidemic is not contained, we will come to inhabit a land­scape where death and desire go hand in hand.

This is a very ancient landscape, but also the thoroughly modem setting of Valerie Martin’s novel A Recent Martyr, which takes place in a contemporary New Orleans mired in corruption, civil chaos, and a bur­geoning epidemic of bubonic disease. Sainthood and sexual obsession vie for women’s souls, while men hover, in their passion, between brutality and helplessness. It has nothing to do with the current health crisis, but a great deal to do with the emotional climate AIDS is generating. Martin’s model suggests that any epidemic — whether or not the disease is sexually transmitted — affects the libido, if only because it places ecstasy and imminent death on the same chaotic primal plain.

“The plague continues, neither in nor out of control,” Martin writes at the conclusion of her reverie, “but we have been promised a vaccine that will solve all our problems. We go on without it, and life is not intolerable. Our city is an island, physically and psycho­logically; we are tied to the rest of the coun­try only by our own endeavor … The fu­ture holds a simple promise. We are well below sea level, and inundation is inevitable. We are content, for now, to have our heads above water.”

This is the looking glass fiction can fabricate. Gazing into it, we confront what jour­nalism cannot imagine: the possibilities. ❖

 
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CULTURE ARCHIVES Equality FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Health NYC ARCHIVES PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

1980-1989: A Decade of Death

An ’80s Memoir

1981

Not very tall, less thin than he looked, with the kind of stage face that’s all geometry, wild surrogate hair sometimes twisted into implausible cones resembling the spires of that Gaudi cathedral in Barcelo­na, flashy outfits knocked together from shards of purple Mylar, sequins, torn-up opera costumes: he’d appear in Mickey’s or the Mudd Club with an entourage of demented-looking freaks, install himself as a visual challenge exactly where the light was strongest. Hours later, the black lipstick and scab-colored eyeshadow creamed away, the wigs and costumes tucked in a closet, he entered the bar like a wisp, in ordinary denims and a plain khaki T-shirt, settling in the corner of one of those benches running under the windows, as if trying to merge with the burlap curtains.

His voice was a curiosity of nature, like Siamese twins. Years after he died, some­one asked if I’d ever heard of him.

It began, someone said, with a hissing sound, like Enzensberger’s famous ice­berg-thumbnail scraping across the Ti­tanic’s hull: garish rumors, talk of impos­sibly grotesque pathology, and, as always in the face of the unknown, jokes, re­counted with a modicum of nervousness, as if the efficacy of jokes in keeping things at tong’s length could not be as­sumed in this case, but only wished for, with fervor.

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1982

SUPPOSEDLY, SHE had access to realms he couldn’t reach with his own imagina­tion. We knew her only vaguely. Delicate bones, high hair, a definite way with a cigarette, muted presence that could am­plify without warning. Fey. Not shy, ex­actly. At times, cooler-than-thou. Her friends were in the music business.

The only thing he could do with her was make a movie about the pose. The look. The easiest available obsessions, transposed from a suburban Catholic girlhood. It turned out something like the George Romero vampire film set in Pitts­burgh. You felt that everyone involved with it was choking underwater, even the musicians on the soundtrack.

The film was prophetic of the later idea that having Catholic saints rattling around in your brain could figure inter­estingly in your biography. Much of it revolved around fantasies of her martyrdom.

Then she died, spectacularly and by accident, the same day the film opened. He showed up at the premiere in a hazy conflation of art and life. The event had an ugly opportunistic taint that clung to him afterwards. Even people who understood that this was, in fact, his life, did not entirely appreciate the lack of conventional sentiment.

It was said to be some phenomenon of the nether fringe, a molecular revolt bub­bling up from damp “Third World” envi­ronments, an exhaustion of the flesh by postmodern forms of mortification. The first descriptions of wounds, lesions re­fusing to heal, pedestrian ailments mush­rooming into lethal afflictions, resembled the shocking litany of saints’ impale­ments, dismemberments, self-infection with leprosy.

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1983

HE MAINTAINED A novelty jewelry com­pany out of a Tribeca loft while raising money for another movie, to be based on sadomasochist comic books published in Paris in the ’30s. I, who disliked him, was rehearsing Salomé with an actress he wanted to play “Claudine” in his movie. For reasons that remain mysterious, he contacted me and asked me to write the script.

We met twice. Once in the loft full of tacky punk mail-order paraphernalia, the second time in an apartment where she had lived, a block from my house. At the second meeting I realized that he was… well, haunted, what other word is there? Her dresses lined the open closets, her makeup was spread out before a giant round mirror on the vanity, compacts open awaiting her fingertips. The place was heavy with her scent, her aura; her presence was so emphatic that he seemed powerless and confused in the midst of it, as if he were clumsily obeying her residu­al wishes.

He had an affair, around that time, with a man in a theater group we were friendly with. It’s only worth mentioning because he and they were emphatically the “sensitive macho” types beloved by Eurotrash and Japanese fanzines devoted to “Downtown” and “Le East-Village” — anyway, then came the bowling craze.

Everyone went every night to a bowling alley on University Place to throw bowl­ing balls while wrecked on coke. About him, there was… a lot of talk. Then no talk. In the spring, a lot of talk again. Finally he just came out and told every­body, “I’ve got it.” It was still far from clear what “it” was. Four weeks later he died of pneumonia. 

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1984

I DID HIM IN THE toilet of an afterhours, then took him home. I’d desired him for months but this happened unexpectedly, in a blurry fever. I knew practically noth­ing about him. He’d been the lover of a friend of mine. He had drifted onto the scene. You’d sometimes find him sitting at your table with six other people, if you went for breakfast after the bar closed. He left town, much later he came back. I wanted him again “like anything,” as I told him in my irritating faux naïve manner of the period, but he asked me to write him a poem instead. He dropped from sight, sparking the usual true ru­mors. If you had heard that someone had been carried away by a spaceship, it would not have been different. I tried writing a poem for him, but nothing I came up with was any good.

Money fever. Jokes about Haitians. Cold city. A paradise for empty people, slickness without end, and here and there, suddenly, an unexpected person disappears following a brief, wasting illness. 

1985

HIS FORMER LOVER had the looks of a WASP in the marines, teeth so perfect they seemed false. A gossip of genius, he knew stories about all the old queens of New York literature, and had had his prong spit-shined by most of them at one time or another, too. We often nagged him to write his memoirs: what a pity if all that precious dish got lost! He had money troubles right up until the end, the end being accompanied by dementia, drastic weight loss, etc., etc.

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1986

SHE BOUNDS HOME FROM the hospital after days of hovering at his bedside. She calls: Oh, come over, I’ve got to read you something, it just started writing itself in my head! She reads what sounds like a verbatim transcript of what she’s over­heard, her soon-to-be-prizewinning story. “Well,” I tell her, “I wonder how he’ll feel about it.” “Oh, he won’t mind,” she says, “he’s a big user of people himself.” After eons of writer’s block, she’s frighteningly avid these days. It’s becoming obvious that she thinks the epidemic could put her back on the map.

He’d been a sailor in the Australian Merchant Marine for 10 years, in places like Rangoon and Singapore. Then he hooked up with a film company in Africa, met a man he adored, moved to Munich with him. He became the assistant to a famous director, who occasionally tried stealing him from the lover. They both had affairs, but nothing too serious.

He later moved back to Sydney to start a distribution company. He and the lover now commuted between continents. He turned sick in a matter of months. They brought him back to Germany. A certain friend met a doctor who operated a pri­vate clinic. The doctor had a plausible­-sounding, quack theory, that the disease was really something else, and offered treatment on an “experimental” basis.

The experiment was torture. He was not allowed painkillers and the virus had gone into his nerves. He became inconti­nent and bloody from bedsores. When they visited, they could hear his screams from the clinic parking lot. Next the friend suggested to an actress we knew that the doctor, overworked to the point of collapse, needed sex to revive his diag­nostic genius. The insanity of the situa­tion eclipsed everyone’s judgment. The actress found herself banging the doctor every day while listening to her friend’s shrieks in the adjoining room.

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1987

THE LOVER BLAMED himself for every­thing. “All the time he was dying,” he told me, “I was sexually obsessed with someone else, and fucking that person whenever I could, and now he has died also.”

He said there was nothing left to do but kill himself. And we both laughed. I said: Oh, there are treatments now, things are much better than before, they can do a lot. Soon they’ll be able to do more. Do you really think so? he said, and I said, Absolutely, yes. I want you to promise, if anything… develops, you’ll come here and let us take care of you. All right, he said, fine. Then he killed himself.

1988

WAITING FOR miserable acts of faith to fail, we take some sort of proprietary comfort from the fact that he is still alive. There is always something further to do, and because he’s suddenly well-off, al­ways money to investigate new medi­cines, underground treatments, experi­mental programs.

Memorials. A new way to be unhappy in a group. I visit a friend who can no longer speak. A few days later he’s dead. If you ask after people you haven’t seen for a while, be prepared. Sometimes, hor­ribly, it was like this: someone you want­ed to sleep with but didn’t got sick, and along with the horror came this ugly relief that you never fucked. Or: relief that someone who died was only a distant ac­quaintance instead of a close friend. Lat­er, none of that made any difference.

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1989

AFTER HE DIED I started to see people in the street who looked like him. Not just from behind, but sometimes the face, the hair, the style of the jacket even, and one night on 23rd Street so close to where he lived the association was automatic, I fol­lowed the person for three blocks thinking I’d catch up or get close enough to call his name and when I did snap out of it I realized it didn’t matter if someone was alive or dead because every street in the city was now full of ghosts that I couldn’t distinguish from living people.

She told me over the phone that she didn’t think she would die.

“As far as I can figure out,” she said, “there’s only one or two things — one thing, really, that could get me, and un­less it does—”

I remembered sitting behind her on a motorbike on the Amalfi Drive, both of us so drunk we could’ve driven straight off the cliffs with the tiniest flick of inat­tention. And we hadn’t, so why should this other thing be so impossibly final? Especially since we had pulled ourselves together, grown up, and had started liv­ing such responsible lives.

What I mean is, it would not surprise me if I saw her through a crowd on a busy street, with a dozen bracelets flashing on her arms, eyes shadowed in green, pink lipstick, her first words a brilliant exege­sis on the nature of cabdrivers — why shouldn’t that happen, in the city of the dead? If I tell it now, this story begins and ends in a glass of wine, in a sense, with every detail present in a single mo­ment. It’s the fate of all of us to persist in the mortal dreams of those whom we haunt. ■

NEXT…

The Celebrity Decade: The Stuff of Fluff
By Cynthia Heimel

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From The Archives show-old-images THE FRONT ARCHIVES

A Day With(out) Art: Writing Until the Very End

“Day Without Art,” to be held every December 1, was conceived in 1989 to coincide with the World Health Organization’s World AIDS Day. The AIDS crisis had devastated the creative community, and, as the activist organization Visual AIDS recounts on its website, “more than 800 arts organizations, museums, and galleries throughout the U.S. participated by shrouding artworks and replacing them with information about HIV and safer sex, locking their doors or dimming their lights, and producing exhibitions, programs, readings, memorials, rituals, and performances.”

On its 10th anniversary, the observance was changed to “Day With(out) Art,” to emphasize, as Visual AIDS put it, “the ongoing inclusion of art projects focused on the AIDS pandemic, and to encourage programming of artists living with HIV.” 

Robert Massa was a senior editor at the Voice who wrote extensively about AIDS. In the February 22, 1994, issue of the paper he teamed with artist Sue Coe for a poignant — and searing — portfolio, “Scenes From an AIDS Ward.”

AIDS took a fearsome toll, and it hit the Village Voice particularly hard in April 1994, when Massa succumbed to the disease. In a diary he kept of his struggles with his condition, he wrote, “My friend Carol had the presence of mind to ask me a key question right away: What am I doing with my time? My answer has been to do what I’ve always done. But, in fact, preparing to die, perhaps abruptly, while maintaining a positive attitude, whatever that means, is quite time-consuming.” 

An editor’s note at the end of Massa’s personal chronicle informed readers, “Shortly after he wrote these passages, Robert Massa became unable to write or type. By March, he was unable to use his facial muscles to speak. He died on April 9.” Below are those passages, along with memorial tributes from other writers at the paper.

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Everything Old School Is New Again

When you’re hosting an art opening it’s probably not a good idea to leave a six-foot-long two-by-four stud propped up where it can accidentally fall and smack a visiting critic on his writing shoulder. (Though, God knows, there are a few artists who wish it had landed on his head.) But raining lumber is of a piece with the rough-and-tumble ambience of “Painting to Survive,” a group show of works created between 1985 and 1995 that embody the fervid energy and off-kilter beauty of a moment in history when AIDS was ravaging the artist community and gentrification was pricing painters out of lofts. But it was also the age of Madonna and Public Enemy pouring from the radio and adventuresome theatrics in the downtown clubs, captured at the opening by the Frank’s Museum Project’s reunion performance of a sweetly melodic ditty about “the mayor’s boyfriend” fixing parking tickets and cadging restaurant meals “all over town” — verses that might have been cribbed from one of Wayne Barrett’s Voice articles about street-level corruption during those years.

It was the best of times and the harshest of times in New York City, and the contrasts and connections between hard partying and tragic illness emanate from a number of the works on the walls of the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition’s vast, raw spaces. Lushly painted canvases by Jonathan Weinberg combine vistas of crisscrossing girders and staircases with triple-X signs and grappling nudes, conflating the labyrinthine structures of the West Side piers with intimations of the hardcore sex that took place in those derelict spaces back in the day. Weinberg also curated the show (in addition to his studio work, he is an art historian and teaches at Yale). The press release notes, “The early ’80s saw an explosion of possibilities in Lower Manhattan for young artists to make and show work. Taking advantage of the economic upheavals of the 1970s, these children of the so-called ‘Greatest Generation’ viewed New York with a sense of great optimism.” Indeed, though gentrification was about to descend, the early ’80s were similar to the late ’40s and early ’50s, when the Abstract Expressionists could find cheap lofts as military contractors left the city at the end of World War II.

Jonathan Weinberg, “XXX” (c.1994)

Joel Handorff’s livid colors channel this careening vibe. With magenta, yellow, and orange skin tones edged with acid-green highlights, the figures in Mary (1988) might recall German Expressionist works from early last century or a particularly garish MTV video. This aura is enhanced by Handorff’s technique of painting on the back of Plexiglas, adding a heightening gloss to his hues. Conversely, the quieter colors in the artist’s strong composition of two strolling men, one lofting a young boy onto his shoulders (#8 Three, from 1990), winningly convey the relaxed body language of a tight-knit family out together on a weekend.

Joel Handorff, “Mary” (1988)

Audrey Anastasi similarly delves into relationships. In Leaving (1993), a woman sits on the edge of a bathtub, fully clothed and adjusting her beret. The figure is naturalistic but the paint handling is invitingly limber, quick slashes of gray imbuing her forearms with luminous shadows engendered by the sun bouncing around bathroom tiles. A knotted tie is draped over the tub’s rim — one of the androgynous accessories of the era that she’ll put on as a final touch, or evidence of a relationship she is ending? In 1991’s Balthusian, a young woman splays herself atop a table, a long coat hanging open to expose her thong and bare legs. She looks frankly at the viewer — who, of course, was initially the artist. The challenge in her stare, as the title informs us, is directed at the painter Balthus and his penchant for painting provocatively posed pubescent girls as being passive and welcoming of the male gaze. Questioning the French-Polish painter’s Lolita-ish subjects is nothing new, but Anastasi was certainly ahead of the current controversy surrounding Balthus.

Audrey Anastasi, “Balthusian” (1991)

With titles such as Growth and Against All Odds (both 1995), Fran Winant’s contrasting colors and fluttery shapes — basically symmetrical, save for the odd waxy drip — might be insects, or maybe flowers. Or possibly manifestations of the biomorphic machinery that permeated one slice of the zeitgeist from the mid-Eighties on, whether in William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer or in The Terminator onscreen (both debuted in that auspicious year of 1984). In Winant’s imagery, nature is adulterated by forces beyond evolution.

Fran Winant, “Against All Odds” (1995)

Snarls of rich black paint partially obscure the eponymous blob in Suzan Courtney’s Yellow Shape (1993–1994), but glimmers of white within the yolk-like form pull a viewer past the bold composition and into an abstract narrative of shifting space. In large oil-stick drawings from the early ’90s, fittingly titled Metamorphosis 1 and 2, the artist’s imaginative forms oscillate between biology and architectonic structures.

Suzan Courtney, “Scapegoat” (1993-94)

Jean Foos brings a vibrant formal wit to her slathered matrices of paint. Hudson and Spring (1995) was perhaps titled for the street intersection in Manhattan, but the mossy flagstone pattern overlaid with a sinuous net of color-shifting strokes conjures the primeval geometries of nature, before humanity segmented the island into a paved grid. Spheres reminiscent of buckyballs seem to hover within a red web in Foos’s gorgeous, octagon-shaped canvas Snowball Sale (1991). The title made at least this viewer laugh, as he recalled a piece by David Hammons performed near Cooper Union, in 1983, in which the brilliant conceptual artist sold snowballs to passersby from a red-striped blanket stretched out on the sidewalk.

Even if the viewer is wrong about that antecedent, the enthralling visions arising from Hammons’s aesthetic jujitsu helped define the most trenchant cultural currents of those years. New York City was in thrall to the spectacle of vulgar consumption practiced by voracious real estate speculators and hedge fund manipulators. At the national level, President Ronald Reagan saw government not as a tool that could solve society’s problems but as a cudgel with which to further afflict the afflicted, including those affected by a mysterious illness some were calling “the gay plague.”

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This official neglect took a high toll on the community of artists, including two painters in this show. Judging from the photo on display, Richard Hofmann (1954–1994) was marquee handsome, but the expressionist figures in his large woodcuts and even bigger paintings all look to have spent plenty of seasons in Hell. Twisted, stretched, crushed, and tortured, these characters give as good as they get, accepting both pain and pleasure as the price of our carnal desires. A sense of youthfully boundless energy emanates from some of the huge canvases here, not surprising coming from an artist who painted murals in such East Village meccas as Danceteria and the Pyramid Club. But it is the small work Aqua Man (c. 1985) — which features a Polaroid print of a man’s blurry face peering out from a surrounding maelstrom of paint and wax—that crystalizes how an individual soul must always negotiate the hurly-burly of humanity.

Richard Hofmann, “Aqua Man” (c.1985)

Marc Lida didn’t make it out of the decade either, but his art exudes a frank freshness. In the acrylic painting on paper Sex Series (c. 1985), a pair of entwined men are caressed by a skeleton while a naked figure observes from a brightly lit doorway. Studded with silvery stars and half-moons, the composition delivers Eros and Thanatos to beat the band. In a fatalistically droll watercolor, Art Dealer at Leisure (1985), Lida imagines the scene when, in a drug-fueled frenzy, the 57th Street art dealer Andrew Crispo ordered his coked-up chauffeur to shoot a man after an extended bout of sadomasochistic sex. The underling went up the river for 25-to-life, but Crispo, like Al Capone decades before, was sent to prison on a mere tax-evasion rap. Through his title, Lida (1957–1992) allows a wry humor to acknowledge Crispo as an outlier, understanding that most art dealers are merely mercenary as opposed to murderous. Think of Leo Castelli, who, when asked about Andy Warhol’s condition as the Pop artist underwent surgery for gunshot wounds, in 1968, replied only, “I’m afraid there are not that many paintings left.”

Marc Lida, “Art Dealer At Leisure” (1985)

Stephen Lack is another painter undaunted by the dark side, perhaps not unexpected from an artist who early on exhibited in Gracie Mansion’s first gallery — the bathroom of her East Village apartment. In one work, Lack depicts a fallen wrestler in slashing pink strokes as bright as neon (On the Ropes, 1989); in another, a figure spread-eagled against a wall is menaced by a man whose arm and barely seen face glow as if radioactive (Calisthenics, 1991). Lack’s ravishing paint handling belies the brutal ambiguities of the scenarios in which his lithe characters find themselves.

Stephen Lack, “Calisthenics” (1991)

Michael Ottersen’s abstractions also traverse ambiguous realms — is that an old-school keyhole or a mutant treble clef in the bizarrely titled Silver (Drool), from 1991? Perhaps the variegated blue-green and black bars of the background augur for the first interpretation, but both possibilities are likely wide-of-the-mark whimsies of a particular viewer. Still, the gray and blue biomorphs of 1990’s Throat (Lake) cry out from a narrative miasma, separated as they are by a metal screen taut as a tennis net. Madder Lake is an ancient color that can be as intense as dried blood and as buoyant as pink roses, both notions easily subsumed by the rich, murky depths of the purplish background.

Michael Ottersen, “Throat (Lake)” (1990)

At first glance, Jane Bauman’s paintings on aluminum come across as brash abstractions, as in the roller-coaster-like orange struts placed on a polka-dot ground in 1990’s Chair for Dean. But even without the title, one might soon comprehend the symmetrical form recalling those sling chairs where canvas is stretched over a curving metal framework to provide a seat and back rest. Bauman’s surfaces radiate like sunlight through smog, imparting a tarnished loveliness. More blunt, but equally compelling, are stencils that look, through accumulated layers of spray paint, to have done some serious street duty. One, of a now old-fashioned phone handset hanging from a coiled cord, will make viewers of a certain age laugh, recalling dead pay phones drooping around the city like urban Spanish moss.

Jane Bauman, “Green Phone Stencil” (1983-1990)

A number of the painters here achieved success in those days, and continue to show, sell, and teach today. In the work on display in this sprawling exhibition, you can feel the pulse of that decade, an era overripe with painting. It was a time when surveys of works by the German artist Anselm Kiefer — paint slathered over woodcuts, straw, or lead sheets, evoking the blasted interiors of Nazi-era buildings or desolate, wintry fields — barnstormed major American museums. And few painters in New York City at the time missed Terry Winters’s late-’80s drawing shows at Sonnabend Gallery, or his 1992 Whitney retrospective of paintings that ranged from taxonomies of fungus and seedpods, diamonds and spores, to evocations of dystopic landscapes. Add to that the posthumous exhibitions of Eva Hesse’s organic abstractions found up- and downtown, inspiring artists all over the city.

Exhibitions like “Painting to Survive” throw into relief the loam of culture, that deadfall of late-night studio jags that may blossom into the new and, sometimes, the frighteningly original. Of course painters want to sell scads of their canvases, but the truest ones keep working regardless, and decades after the fact maybe their work will be truly seen.

John Bradford, “The Butchering of Agog” (1994)

Which brings us to the final painter in the show, John Bradford, who ignored the era’s landscape of neo-expressionism and the later conceptual undulations of the neo-geo movement in favor of intense religious visions. Bradford’s vibrant compositions exquisitely balance dramatic figures against large swathes of mottled background colors, imbuing his scenes with a down-to-earth grandeur. In 1994’s The Butchering of Agog, one man raises a wedged sledgehammer above a kneeling figure, the soon-to-be murderer’s robe a checkerboard of dark and light that heightens the eternal tension of the blow that never falls. This is a painting, so we have time to take in the victim’s upraised face, his eyes meeting those of his executioner. The King James Bible reads, “And Samuel said, ‘As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women.’ And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord.” The biblical names don’t quite align over the millennia, but the impulse to violent revenge is understood in the darkest reaches of our viscera. It is no small feat to compel a viewer, through roughly brushed pigments, to contemplate just what it means for one human being to kill another, breaking through history’s numbing repetition of such acts. Bradford at times paints with a splashy abandon, but rather than expressionist bombast, his energetic brushwork seems a way to leaven the purity of the divine with the messiness of the real world. If I gotta go to church, these would be the paintings I want on the walls.

Overall, this is a powerful show — exuberant and rough, joyful and tragic, it leaves you with mixed emotions. A bit like getting a love tap from a falling two-by-four.

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‘Painting to Survive: 1985–1995’
Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition
481 Van Brunt Street, Door 7

bwac.org
Open to the public weekends from Sunday, March 18, through Saturday, April 14, 1­ to 6 p.m., and by appointment weekdays from March 13 to­ April 14 — to arrange an appointment contact 917-603-2154 or paintingtosurvive@gmail.com.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES

In “After Louie,” Alan Cumming Confronts His Memories of Activism and Loss

Alan Cumming, as frustrated artist and former AIDS activist Sam Cooper, frequently confers with the dead: the idea of the queer community he once depended on and that he thinks has been replaced by apathetic millennials; the dreams of what that community might have looked like today; and his old friend William (David Drake), who died of AIDS in the ’90s. Sam hovers over a timeline on his computer, his progress on a video installation moving at a glacial pace. A third of the film is directly about Sam’s relationship to one specific art project, a period tone poem shot in shabby DV, and it’s in these interactions between life and death — ACT UP posters and pins mirroring clean digital and old DV — that Vincent Gagliostro’s film After Louie is at its strongest.

Though the film posits trauma, of the queer sort, as something to constantly work through and reckon with, writer-director Gagliostro presents Sam’s reconciliation with trauma, outside the immediate context of the video installation, as unexpectedly tedious. Sam’s no angel, sanctimonious and oblivious, and the broad stories outside the commanding performances of Cumming and Drake — a younger lover and older boyfriend; friends dying; friends getting married — yield paltry returns. Its subject matter is interesting, and it’s right to remind viewers of the need for different generations of queer people to communicate, but After Louie is burdened by narrative and dialogue clichés that undermine its emotional appeal. And how often is it that a fake movie within a movie is better than the movie that it’s in?

After Louie
Directed by Vincent Gagliostro
Freestyle Digital Media
Opens March 30, Cinema Village
Available on demand

 

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The Director and Stars of “BPM” Open Up About Sex, Activism, and the Power of Words

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, BPM (Beats Per Minute), French director Robin Campillo’s stylized, moving drama of AIDS activism and love, sometimes feels like several films at once. It follows the activities of ACT UP Paris in the early 1990s, and for much of its early scenes, we’re thrown into the raging debates of the organization’s contentious but highly organized weekly meetings. Gradually, the movie focuses on the growing, passionate relationship between newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois) and Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), one of the group’s more vocal and boisterous members. With uncommon intelligence and tenderness, Campillo shows us how these two men navigate their relationship through the realities of the plague and the internal politics of ACT UP. (Nathan is HIV-negative, Sean is positive.)

I recently had a chance to speak to director Campillo and his two stars about BPM‘s diverse mix of styles, the legacy of ACT UP, and the film’s beautiful, touching sex scenes.

The film has an interesting structure. The early parts focus mostly on the internal debates in ACT UP, and then we move toward the romance between Nathan and Sean, until the final sections are taken up mostly by Sean’s illness. But all along, you also cut to scenes of the characters dancing in a club, and you continue to show us  actions and protests that ACT UP engages in.

Robin Campillo: When I first thought of this film, I wanted to talk about the power of words. There’s a short film by Godard called Puissance de la Parole [from 1988] that I thought a lot about. People are talking, and by doing so they’re creating things — imagining action, and posters, and creating new ways to perceive this epidemic. Such things can change reality. Today’s political discourse is so inefficient. On Facebook, people can be very radical and post radical texts about politics — but it has no effect on reality. I wanted to talk about this period in time, and this group, where it was possible. After 10 years of this epidemic, we were trapped in our silence, trapped in our closet as gay men. It was a moment where speech had become powerful for us; we had to say things that couldn’t have been said in France for many years. In France, you couldn’t talk about minorities, you couldn’t talk about communities. They were considered horrible words because we were such a good république and everyone was “equal” and all these fucking things. We wanted to change that.

I treated the film like this: You have an empty theater [where the discussions happen], which is like a brain, and that’s one dimension of the film. And the other dimension is the actions and protests, created by the words. Then you have another dimension, which is the clubbing. In France, we talk about a “river novel” or “river film.” I was thinking of this broad flow of movement, with a lot of characters, a lot of detail. And you have this character that you follow into the group, Nathan, but he’s like a blank, and he goes from a relationship with Sean to Thibault and comes back to Sean. He stops drifting because Sean is getting sick, and they are all together in the hospital, which is like a sinking boat, and then the apartment. So I thought of the movement of the film as a kind of river, and that’s why it was interesting to see the red River Seine at the end. That’s the moment where the river is going to the ocean — and the ocean for me is the last part when they are in the apartment.

How you shoot each of these dimensions changes over the course of the film as well. The early scenes of activism are chaotic – all very close, handheld. And then you portray the activism with more distance, more melancholy, until we’re finally watching from these overhead shots. Even the clubbing scenes feel different: Early on, it really does feel like they’re dancing and expressing their joy, but by the end, they don’t even look like they’re dancing — they’re more like flailing in the dark, whereas early on it felt celebratory.

RC: Most of the time, after I’ve seen about a quarter of a film, I understand all the aesthetic ideas and I get bored. I think cinema is about going from one form to another. Because as people, we go through different states, different atmospheres – even in one single day. I love this fluidity in cinema. I wanted the club scenes to become weirder and weirder. I love clubs the way I love cinemas: The way we all join in the dark and look at light phenomena. The difference is, when you are in the cinema you are looking at a screen, and when you are in a club, you look at other people, and they’re transformed. We have this house music, which we loved at the time — it was like party music but there was also a kind of melancholy and anxiety in this. And at the end of the film, the music feels like gospel. The last club scene, the people are not looking at each other. As we say, to go to the cinema is to be alone together. And the club scene at the end, for me, is something about cinema. We are like light filaments, like stars — we will at some point fade away, absolutely.

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Arnaud and Nahuel, the relationship between your characters Nathan and Sean runs a wide range of emotions and dynamics. At the beginning, you’re total strangers, but then gradually you become very close. How do you develop that kind of intimacy?

Arnaud Valois: We’d done some rehearsal before, especially the sex scenes, but I think the work really started when we were auditioning for the film. And then conditioning yourself, like thinking, “This is your boyfriend.” And maybe by touching each other as well, to get used to one another. We spent a lot of time together when we weren’t shooting.

Nahuel Pérez Biscayart: Yeah, it’s about spending time, mainly. It was often impossible to meet before. Arnaud, he has a very different life, and I’ve got a very different life. The guys back then, they were thrown together because they were sick. But they had very little in common except AIDS, HIV. Then there’s a chemistry that you can’t really force; that’s always a big surprise, because it’s something that is not produced by you or by the other, but by the combination of the two bodies. But I always felt that I could open up with Arnaud/Nathan.

The other work we did together was just to talk a lot with Robin, read some books, watch some documentaries. I think that we were all in the same mood: We tried to just lie back in that time — not as a period thing, but that intensity, that moment, that emergency. And I think that we all identified with the fight, even though we weren’t really around at that time.

How familiar were you with ACT UP Paris?

NPB: Zero. People would ask, “Hey, Nahuel, do you know ACT UP?” And I was like, “I’m sorry, what’s ACT UP?” “You don’t know ACT UP?” “No.” But also, I’m from Argentina. There was no ACT UP in Argentina.

AV: I was 8 or 9 in ’92 or ’93, so I didn’t know much about ACT UP. I knew the name and the action they did putting on the pink condom on the obelisk, but that’s it. I didn’t know the DNA of the group, or the identity, or words, or actions.

Robin Campillo

Robin, you were a member of ACT UP. But the film doesn’t shy away from showing it as a controversial group, even among people who agreed with its ultimate goals. I love the opening scene, where this poor guy we don’t know is giving a speech, and he gets smeared in fake blood and handcuffed to a post. You’re not afraid to put us immediately into a situation where we might actually disapprove of ACT UP’s actions.

RC: This action happened, but not on this kind of guy. It happened to a doctor who was involved in the transfusion scandal in France, so it was maybe more justified. But I wanted to show something that was a little unfair and controversial — because we were dodgy sometimes. I’m not sure I was the best militant; I went there because I needed to be in this group. Sometimes, we’d be doing an action, and during the action, I’d be thinking, “Oh, this is going too far.”

At the same time, I was angry at the people we were protesting, too. I was angry because it was as if they had forced me to be a militant, by not listening to what we were saying. I was angry because of what was going on during the ’80s and the fact that we were dying out, and that our problems didn’t seem to exist for the rest of society. So many of these people were so indifferent to what we were living through. I didn’t want to be a militant. But the fact that we had all this electricity inside the group and this kind of tension, it’s why ACT UP was great. This was before the Internet, so if you wanted to confront government, if you wanted to confront the laboratories, you had to confront each other first, because there’s nothing better than collective intelligence.

In the film, there’s something almost utopian about ACT UP’s weekly meetings. They’re very democratic. Everybody gets to speak. It’s very tolerant, and people follow the rules. This seems to go against the myth that when people are in truly desperate circumstances, they will become more violent, more irrational. Many of these people are dying — the most desperate circumstance you can imagine – and yet they’re committed to the rules and to the openness of this organization.

RC: This was very American; we were inspired by ACT UP New York. We were arguing a lot because we thought, especially in France, that the politicians were not very pragmatic about this disease and about this epidemic. We were condemned, like a curse, but there was no communication. We didn’t exist. I was so afraid of the disease that I wouldn’t even open a newspaper if the word “AIDS” was on it, you know? So, I was fed up with this attitude. When I came to ACT UP, it’s because we were confronting the epidemic and we were putting out words about a lot of small topics which were very crucial in the struggle. Speech was liberated, and it was incredible to share all these things and be honest together. Didier Lestrade, who cofounded the group, felt from the beginning that we had to be very objective. Remember, most of the news we got — the new details and data – were horrible for the people who were sick. Usually, there’s a doctor between you and the data. But we were confronting things and people directly. Didier thought that we should stop being afraid — that we should think about this epidemic and produce things about it, and not just play the victim and act like children in front of the doctors and the politicians. We had to behave and take care of ourselves.

Nahuel, you go through a pretty significant transformation, as your character gets sicker and sicker. Sean is so buoyant and full of vitality early on – he even performs as a cheerleader during one Pride march. The next time we see him at a Pride march, he looks like a ghost.

NPB: I lost weight. Like fifteen pounds. The rest was performance and makeup. It was quite hard to lose the weight, because it was while we were shooting every day and working, and I was cutting carbs, etc., everything that I didn’t have to eat. So the process that I went through was accompanying the path of the character. Painful, but helpful, too — you’re more vulnerable, and the people around you see that you’re going through something.

AV: It was strange for me to see Nahuel at the beginning so full of life, as you said, and then going down and down and down. It was like mixing reality and fiction. It was Sean, but it was like [sigh], “Poor Nahuel.”

NPB: I wanted the shooting to end. One day we had a little accident — I got some lights on my face — and things got to a point where I was like, “Okay, please, I really want the film to end.” Because at one point you can’t do more than what you’re doing.

RC: It’s all about acting, really. I didn’t want to show too much stigmata. I wanted it to be a little realistic, but we didn’t go too far. Because first of all you have films about that, like this film I love called Silverlake Life: The View from Here, a documentary. I just wanted to show the simple fact that Sean is tired of life. And that’s all on Nahuel. The way he’s looking around him when he’s in the hospital, when he stares at the TV, and he looks like a bird with the mouth open, and he doesn’t seem to see what’s around him. That’s more important than the actual physical transformation: Someone fading away from his own life.

Biscayart and Valois

Arnaud, you also have to do a lot of emoting, and crying, especially in the last 20 to 30 minutes of the film.

AV: It is difficult because you can’t always relate it to something real that you experienced. So, you have to find another way.

RC: [to Arnaud] Your character was always reserved, protecting himself, while the other character is burdening himself with the disease and with the political struggle. You have this moment which is very hard [when Nathan realizes that Sean is dead].

AV: Yes. The hands.

RC: I said, “I want you to make me feel that the body is cold.” It’s freezing — the corpse of his boyfriend. Right after, you have to play something which is also very difficult. Nathan says, “Il est mort,” “He’s dead,” twice. He says it the first time for himself, like a rehearsal…

AV: And then he says it to the mother. That was the most difficult thing I had to do in the movie. “Il est mort,” two times. For me, and then for the mother — like playing, like an act.

Let’s talk about the sex scene. I love the fact that it comes so soon after the scene where they’re giving out the condoms at the school. So, we get a contrast between this very public-facing, “Always use condoms” declaration, and then suddenly they’re in bed and there’s almost this negotiation of when to use condoms. I found that so human and touching. There’s a whole narrative to the scene itself, which directors often say is the key to a good sex scene.

NPB: Yeah, we rehearsed it a lot. We tried to find a natural choreography that we could feel was fluid and organic…

AV: Because we had two cameras…

NPB: So we always had to find the right angles. Because if you just start playing around, you start seeing things that you shouldn’t see, or you start blocking your partner.

AV: And then you have to build in the words as well.

NPB: Yes. To me the hardest thing was not being with Arnaud, bare-chested or naked or whatever. It was the words and the way you say those words. Because it’s the first moment in which those characters open up, and they start imagining something together. It’s a very crucial spark that should be born at that very moment. You have to be very relaxed. If you’re anxious, your breath starts going weird and people will see it and hear it. We were all very nervous, of course, because there are cameras and other people, and nobody fucks when other people are around. [Laughs] It’s the most intimate moment you can share with somebody.

RC: I didn’t want the scene to be a performance. I wanted it to be clumsy sex. It’s not the Kama Sutra. I feel so guilty sometimes when I see people having [elaborate] sex on screen, and I think, “I must be so dull!”

I love to show the whole process. I hate in films when people are already naked in bed. I love the fact that people take off their clothes. And the fact that they are taking condoms, they are putting gel, all those things. That’s the kind of thing people don’t show, because they think it wastes time. I also think of the sex scene like a séance, where the ghosts of the other lovers are summoned. So at some point it’s almost like a threesome. There’s something very important to say about that. I lost my first boyfriend. And when I think of him, I miss him – not only because I would like to talk to him, but I miss his body, and I miss the moments when we were so intimate. I remember the first time we had sex, it was before the epidemic, and our bodies were unconscious of all that. I’m very nostalgic for that. Really, it was so great. And now it’s over forever. I will never go back to that moment.