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Thursday, March 13, 2014

We Are Your Fathers: A Memoir of the 1980s

Nobody was dying in 1979. I made my way to New York in September of that year, ready to buy and sell the world. New York was just recovering from near bankruptcy in the 70s. There was a famous headline: Ford to NEW YORK: DROP DEAD, not the best of legacies for Gerald Ford. I knew nothing of this as I got off the train. Student loans were for the asking then, at 2% interest. The West Side YMCA (I know, I know but what did I know?) offered a room at Lincoln Center for $33.00 per week. Tickets were available for the matinee of Sweeney Todd, then a new show, and Broadway was buzzing about a new musical with a singing Eva Peron.

The Met was closed but the New York City Opera was across the street. Four bucks got you a seat for Faust, Tosca and Madam Butterfly with the likes of  Diana Soviero and Samuel Ramey.

The years went on. My first apartment on W. 93 cost $400.00 (a fortune!) for  four floor walk up studio. Its one beguiling feature, unappreciated by me, was a terrace overlooking an SRO. Usually in the wee hours there'd be someone sitting naked in one of the windows, singing. One guy sang Christmas Carols and yelled HEY GET UP!! IT'S CHRISTMAS! IT 'S PASSOVER! I know I had become a New Yorker when I thought nothing of walking out on to the "terrace" at 3 a.m. in my skivvies to yell  RAMON! SHUT THE FUCK UP!



But this isn't about the neighbors of the opera or school or anything much but AIDS. Nobody was dying in 1979 but by 1981 they sure were. A very young conductor named Tom got sick. He was on his way to a good career. He had himself a high powered agent and some fine gigs lined up. I never met him but his name was around. Someone to watch. A friend told me Tom has pneumonia. No one thought anything of it. A few weeks later another friend said Tom died! I remember thinking, back in the 1980s that it was unusual for a young person to die of pneumonia.  This illness was called The Old Man's Friend, since it took the very elderly gently. Tom was in his thirties.



The fear and the awareness wasn't on yet. Not full time. I just looked it up and find that Bill died in 1984. Was my level of awareness so small by that time that pneumonia was convincing? That's what the NY Times obit said: viral pneumonia. They wouldn't print AIDS as a cause of death nor would they acknowledge any same sex partnerships.

People began to stir when one young man, then another, one old man, then another began to die of pneumonia. People likened this to the polio epidemics of a time gone by. If you live in the periphery of the arts and artists you began to notice more and more pneumonia dead. Then it was called neuro-cystic pneumonia. I'm guessing by 1985 it was full-on. Everyone knew someone who was very sick with pneumonia and only gradually did it strike people as odd that people were dying of pneumonia in the1980s.

Then it was called GRID. Remember GRID?  Those of you for whom I am writing this weren't even born when we began to hear about GRID. GAY RELATED IMMUNE DEFICIENCY. This was what it was called after too many gay men (50? 60?) began to die of Kaposi's sarcoma. Up to his time KP had been rare. Now everyone knew the acronym GRID and knew KP didn't mean kitchen patrol. Kaposi's was the name of the lesions and  spots that would appear all over your body. Pneumocistic pneumonia was caused by a fungus growing the lung.

Then there was the wasting. Guys with spots on their face began to waste away. Their weight would drop to nothing. They would become skeletal and infirm. Couldn't hold food down. Hospitals were filled with guys on IV nourishment that wasn't helping them. The first AIDS ward I'm aware of was at St. Vincent's Hospital in New York (long gone) This was in the village, probably the epicenter of the virus in New York;. You had beds lined up with wasting men, their throats often lined with lesions that made it impossible to swallow. You got used to running into old friends on the street you hadn't seen in a while and find them emaciated and sick.

The city was slow to respond and the Reagan administration wasn't interested. It was a faggot disease. Better they all die off any way. Even when IV drug use caused the blood supply to be infected, and children died form AIDS via transfusion...Reagan  shrugged. Believe me,  elected officials did say publicly 'faggot disease, let 'em die". The New York Times would not use the words AIDS in obituaries. They would knot acknowledge domestic partnerships. Gay men died of pneumonia, and they were single. People were thrown out of their homes. Landlords kicked out anyone suspected of being gay. You could be a ruddy 200 pounder and out you would go. The law did very little to protect people, this in a city where tenant's rights went back to the depression.



The Gay community realized that no one was going to help them so they helped themselves. The Gay Men's Health Crisis grew from a desk an a typewriter to an enormous agency. I was one of hundreds of volunteers to work as a 'buddy' to a PWA (Person With Aids). You were company, did some errands, etc. One of my buddies was bedridden. It became obvious it was his mother who needed support. Check. Another was well enough to be out and about and I told him so. Communities sprung up not only to support the ill but 'the worried well'.

Here's a film called Parting Glances with Steve Buscemi that gives a good idea what that time was like:



The Catholic Church made patronizing remarks about God's mercy. Cardinal O'Connor, a villain to many went to hospitals to shake hands. But priests wouldn't give the sacraments to the dying. You deserve it was the very clear subtext. St. Patrick's Cathedral began to be occupied by ACT UP-a branch of the GMHC. People were scared and angry and were no longer willing to be powerless.

I remember the fear. People wouldn't shake hands. People wouldn't use swimming pools or public restrooms. When it became clear that AIDS was affecting primarily IV drug users and gay men, there was a tremendous backlash again the post-Stonewall generation. The Gay community policed itself well. I remember one quote, "There is one hundred percent awareness". But  a one night stand from a  few years ago could kill you today.The arts community was slowly and painfully decimated: Beverly Sills later said, "We lost an entire generation, as if we were at war". Governments help? Nada in the Reagan years. The Church: Nada.

My best friend died in 1986. He had been a bathhouse hound. Many people were, in the East Village or the Upper East Side. He seemed fine.  Then the diarrhea began and would not stop. No appetite, some wasting, exhaustion. His parents were very wealthy and well meaning. They insisted he had 'leukemia' or tuberculosis.
A few days after his death my phone rang at 5 a.m.Our graduate class had placed a memorial in the NY Times. The voice on the phone said, "You don't know me but I was a friend of -----. How did he die?" I remember being sleepy and annoyed. "He died of AIDS." I still remember the shock and panic in that person's voice as we hung up.

The panic seemed to have levelled off by the time I left New York in 1991. People forgot to be careful. I was hoping that ACT UP and GMHC and Safe Sex are for nostalgia buffs today, but it's not so. "Now more than ever". The new generation did not live through the horror, the wasting, the diarrhea, the spots, the rejections from (parents, friends, churches) the death. Maybe today people are less careful. DO NOT DO THIS. NO GLOVE NO LOVE. Protect yourelf and value your life, in memory of all of those who died.

2 comments:

Lindax0x0x0x0x said...

Excellent post. I remember your best friend -- he was an extraordinary person & I miss him to this day!

Tim Veach said...

Christopher: This is an important post. I was just talking to my dancers last week about the beginning of the AIDS crisis. Chris and I were in NYC in the late 80s and early 90s. It was tough. We are doing a new show at CDT in a month with pianist/singer/entertainer Kathryn Payne who wrote a piece, Tea on Sundays, which is a tribute to all of the friends she lost during that very difficult time. Tea on Sundays will be a part of the Pleasure with Payne concert in April. As I was choreographing the dance (I am making it for two male couples)I kept having overwhelming flashbacks to friends and colleagues lost. It was actually tough for me to get through the choreography. This elicited a conversation with my dancers about that difficult time. They really didn't have a full view of it. They are a different generation. Thank you for your voice on that challenging time.