When My World Was Young 1945-56 The Yellow Brick Road 1956-60    What a Wonderful Town 1960-61    
Wonderful Town (pt. II) 1962-66    The Gay Sixties 1966-71    The Juicy Life 1972-76 
  Juicy Life (pt. II) 1976-80   Losing Alexandria 1981-87   The AIDS Spectacle
Losing Alexandria (pt. II) 1987-1990's

LOSING ALEXANDRIA   

1981 - 1987      

        When suddenly at the midnight hour
       an invisible troupe is heard passing
       with exquisite music, with shouts --
       do not mourn in vain your fortune failing you now,
       your works that have failed you, the plans of your life
       that have all turned out to be illusions.
       ....
       approach the window with firm step,
       and listen with emotion, but not
       with the entreaties and complaints of the coward,
       as a last enjoyment listen to the sounds,
       the exquisite instruments of the mystical troupe,
       and bid her farewell, the Alexandria you are losing.

Constantine Cavafy
The God Forsakes Antony
 

THE GAY UPPER WEST SIDE

The venerable old Candlelight changed hands and became the Candle . Its new owner, Robert Ader, and his lover, Lonnie, gave it a major makeover in order to compete with all the competition that had sprouted up in the neighborhood since the mid-Seventies.  They covered its huge window with barn siding, raised the ceiling and knocked out the back wall of the old bar to make a much larger space; and then, painted the place black inside, installed a pool table, opened a back room for sex and pumped out high decibel dance music on speakers placed throughout the bar -- no one would have known, once inside, that they were not at the junction of Christopher and West Streets. 

But the best place in my estimation was the Boot Hill, which of all the neighborhood gay bars was the dreariest looking, as its initial on-the-cheap, barn siding renovation of the early Seventies was pretty worn by now, inside and out.  It may be that the tired appearance of the place gave its contrived look some authenticity, and the atmosphere was definitely unpretentious and friendly.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Former site of Boot Hill bar. 

The number of patrons in both the Boot and the Candle was large enough that the level of cigarette smoke was often intolerable.  Finally, both bars had to install high power exhaust fans.

In the old Upper West Side style, the Boot was very much a place where many groups of friends met regularly and hung out. One result of having a returning neighborhood clientele, though, was that the crowd was very sexually "incestuous" as well.  However, I appreciated it as a place to meet people as much as anything.  I can remember after my enforced classical music education while recovering from hep I went into the Boot one night, after just hearing something on WNCN, the classical station, that had knocked my socks off.  I burbled about it to John H. a guy that I knew only slightly, and rather than beginning to snore he picked up on my enthusiasm.  It turned out that he staged Baroque operas as part of his livelihood! - something I hadn't a clue about before - and we became good friends as time went on.  Another time, when I was talking to John or someone about some music, a guy standing nearby joined in - his name was Gino, and we later had a romantic/sexual relationship.  Granted, it was a gay bar and not a meeting of the Great Books and Music Club, but I had many long evenings of great conversation and met interesting people, in addition to the bar chat and the fucking.   And I know other people had a similar experience at the Boot.

Grass was openly and casually smoked there, and coke snorting (by a very few) was ignored, as long as it was reasonably discreet. The music tapes were superb, a mix of dance music and soul, created by Ed Skala, one of the bartenders. 

It was a bit unusual, perhaps, that a bar which was quite small and attracted groups of neighborhood friends also had the reputation for being a good cruising bar.  A friend suggested it was the shape and size of the space:  from anyplace in the bar the entire room - and all the customers - was visible.  According to his theory, being able to stand in one spot and cruise multiple potential tricks made the Boot a cruising magnet.   My theory was that a place where you could smoke grass, snort coke, listen to fabulous tapes and get laid meant that the room could have been pear-shaped and guys would have still come.  And the proximity of the Candle a couple of doors away, and Wildwood around the corner, had to have been a plus.  Whatever the reason, despite its obvious function as a local hangout, the Boot acquired something of a reputation as a cruising bar, and this brought in a steady trickle of curious non-neighborhood people -- who were eagerly snapped up and as a consequence, I presume, confirmed the rumor as truth.  

                 Casey Donovan (Cal Culver)

Gay porn star Casey Donovan, whom I found to be a very friendly and down-to-earth guy, was an occasional customer, as was another XXX film star, an older "rougher" looking type whose name I can't recall now.  Perhaps sightings of these guys ratcheted up the business a bit.  But I don't think guys went to Boot Hill expecting to find a porn star, or even a reasonable facsimile, any more than they expected the guy in cowboy boots and faded denim to have a horse tied to a parking meter.  Maybe down at the Eagle or the Spike in Chelsea...but in the Upper West Side bars there was, I think, still enough of the old, unaffected sexual atmosphere to provide its own special draw.  The guys were cruising for sex (even if that might mean a particular sex act) rather than looking to be transported into a biker, cowboy, etc. fantasy.   The Village People had surfaced in '77, with their members costumed as a leatherman, cowboy, Indian, cop, whatever, and the people I knew enjoyed their take-offs of extreme costume fantasies and the tongue-in-cheek lyrics of their songs.  Once in awhile a guy or group of guys would show up at the Boot in major fantasy costuming and looking too serious about it; they would instantly get labeled as "the Village People." 

However, these observation were humorous, not heavy-handed -- the gay Upper West Side of the Sixties and early Seventies had been a laid-back mixture of ethnicities and income levels, and despite the "whitening" and increased prosperity of its gay inhabitants, many bars had retained, as I recall them, a kind of leveling atmosphere. There was definitely such a thing as having too much of a costume "act" or being into too much posing and attitude - and racist opinions did not go over well at all.   What seemed to be valued -- or at least, was very much in evidence - was something like a "just guys" attitude, and friendliness.  A "clubhouse" spirit survived - though more in some bars than others.  If a friend went to a bar in another part of town or outside of the city, and was asked how it was, the answer, "Not friendly," was clearly understood to mean, not like here.  When The Works opened at 80th and Columbus I remember that at first it was characterized as "not friendly" and even, "like the East Side."  The bartenders were Andrew and Roger, both formerly worked at Wildwood, and Roger especially had been very well-liked, but the attitude of the customers was judged to be aloof. 

(And speaking of the Village People, when their song YMCA became popular early in '79, I was really pleased.  I remembered 1960 and the security at Sloane House Y sneaking around listening at doors, and the West Side Y becoming so dicty about gay men, and I was happily certain that the YMCA organization must have shit in its pants when it became aware of the outrageous Village People and their song.)
 
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Vintage Harry Bush drawing

The streets in the 70's between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues had a steady traffic of guys going to and from the bars.  The Village by now was duplicated on a smaller, friendlier scale on the Upper West Side.  Seven gay bars were to be found within a six-block radius, three of them – Boot Hill, the Candle and Wildwood - within a block of each other.  In addition to blowing grass in the Boot, it was also used in the Candle and in what had been a game room in Wildwood.  And the Candle was large enough and dark enough that you could get away with snorting there too. 

All public gay life on the Upper West Side was oriented toward men as far as I know.  I never heard of a bar that catered especially to lesbians, or any restaurants either.  Once in a blue moon in the late Sixties/early Seventies guys had brought women friends into the Candlelight Lounge, usually at the beginning of the busy part of the evening and they were gone by eleven or twelve.   I rarely saw women in the neighborhood bars after that.  (The Half Breed, however, was run by a lesbian even though it was a men's bar.)  On the even rarer occasions when someone brought a female friend in at the height of the late night/early morning business hours the hostile vibes from the customers would have melted a lead shield. 

TWO DRAGS, A DOPE AND A DEAD MAN

Drag queens got a mixed reception in the bars over the years - though I can only recall seeing three in a ten-year time span. 

In the early Seventies, when the Picadilly was open, it had employed two guys at various times who were into drag.  However, they never tended bar in drag.  One, Tommy/Tina, used to leave at the end of her shift on weekends, go home to change and make up and then return to the Pic in drag on the way downtown to her job as a coat check.  My recollection is that her job was at a gay bar called the Gilded Grape, but I'm not sure of it.  As a "type" Tommy in drag suggested someone like your mother's thrice-married and rather "fast" sister, who dropped in unexpectedly when you were six years old, on her way to take holiday in Vegas with a married man.  Tommy never affected the usual exaggerated showgirl/movie star/tart costuming and mannerisms that were a standard - and unconvincing - part of most gay drag.  And, as a result, he was a totally believable woman.  He'd sit at the bar as the evening business began to build up, looking rather like a slightly less attractive Laura Hope Crews, having a quiet drink or chatting with a customer in his slightly rusty alto voice; guys would give him a "Hi, Tina" as they came in and an hour or so later he would check his hat and hair in the mirror, scoop his cigarettes and change into a large handbag and leave for work.  Tommy's presence in drag never caused a ripple in the Picadilly.  The other bartender only showed up in the Pic once or twice in drag to show off her evening gown to her friends on her way to somewhere else.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           The  original Laura Hope Crews.
About a decade later in the Boot across the street, history did not repeat itself.

I walked into the place one Friday night in the early 80's, and there at center of the bar was Kim Novak - or at least a reasonable lookalike.  Her outfit was from the Marlene Dietrich school of dress, grey bell-bottom slacks and an off-white tailored thigh-length jacket tied at the waist, plus a satin dress shirt.  She was surrounded by three or four guys from the heavy-drinking clique that usually sat all night at the corner of the bar, who were acting for all the world like adoring stage door Johnnies.  "Kim" remained until almost closing time, and was back the following night.  Her presence was the source of a lot of negative comments.

        The real Miss Novak.

The same thing occurred on the next two weekends, and at this point I was sure that the crowd was thinner than it usually was.  And two or three times I saw guys enter the place, immediately catch sight of her at the center of the bar and turn around and leave.  Henning, one of the friends I used to meet there, told me that some guys had complained about her presence to the head bartender, and that he'd said that there was nothing he could do about it.  Given that his lover was a drag queen, I doubt that he really felt moved to.  However, guys continued not only to complain, but to vote with their feet.  One night I went in after 11:00, maybe closer to midnight, and found only six to eight guys there. 

My guess is that the tip jar, and the loss of business to the other neighborhood bars made the manager's position unsustainable.  Word went out:  he had reached an agreement with "Kim" that she would depart on weekend nights at 11:00 p.m. (or maybe it was midnight), which was when business began to move toward its peak.  The next weekend at the dot of the appointed time, she pulled on her gloves ever-so sloooooowly, surveyed the entire room...ever-so sloooooowly, then, pushing her hair back and raising her head high in the air, she sauntered to the door, looking down her nose, first to the right and then to the left on her way out.  This slow-motion performance was repeated two or three more evenings.  But having gotten what they wanted, the crowd paid no attention, and I cannot even remember that she ever bothered to come back after a couple of weeks.

Certainly at least part of the difference between how Tina and "Kim" were treated had to do with the fact that the latter put on a performance while at the bar, whereas Tina did not.  Kim, with theatrical instinct, stationed herself in the dead center of the bar directly opposite the entrance door and at the edge of the light from an overhead pin-spot.  From there she held court for her three or four friends as she constantly posed vampishly and swept the room with heavy-lidded eyes.  It was a rather small, almost square room and she effectively dominated it with her routine from the center of the bar.

Had she positioned herself elsewhere, sitting at the end of the bar where her friends had usually sat, for example, perhaps this contest wouldn't have occurred.  However, there wasn't any doubt that she was looking to be on display; whereas, Tina had only been casually socializing.  The Boot was a bar for gay men.  The only "act" that was wanted there were those of gay male sexuality, and "Kim" by presenting herself as a female had decided to go head-to-head with that.

The Bike Stop just off of the west side of Broadway was owned by a flamboyant neighborhood guy nicknamed the "Emerald Queen."  The reputation of the bar was that it attracted a crowd of heavy drinkers and effeminate men.  My few visits over the years confirmed that this was pretty much true.  However, I did see customers drop by in complete drag doing their star turns, and I understood from one of the bartenders I knew that it happened from time to time with zero problem.

The Boot was a relatively small bar, and anyone doing their "star turn" tended to take over the visual space.  The customers might lean toward a consensus of the eyes on particular men who were impressively "hot," "sexy," "incredible"...whatever, but guys who went into fully worked out "posing routine" turned into dead meat.  You could definitely over-do a good thing.

I remember a fellow who came into the Boot twice around the same time "Kim" did.  He was a blond guy with a Marlboro Man face and a very impressive worked-out bod, who lived up on Amsterdam Ave. and 79th near my friend Chuck's new plant store, Wildflower.  Without a doubt he would have found plenty of admirers if he hadn't decided to advertise the obvious a little too dramatically.  As "Kim" had, he located one of the pin-spots, this one dead center of the room.  Chin up high, chest out, shoulders and biceps tensed he bathed in its light, and as he drank his beer, he turned slowly to the right and then slowly back and to left.....over and over like a mannequin on a turntable.  Paul, a regular who most customers hoped to see get hit by a bus, commented to no one in particular and everyone in general, "These blonds must have light sensors in the tops of their heads the way they find those fuckin' spotlights!"  Mr. Wonderful got appreciative looks, of course, but judging from the smirks, Paul's remark was making the rounds, or perhaps the comparison was just obvious.  In a bar that wasn't bereft of good-looking or self-confident men, this guy should have gotten chatted up or made out, but despite the weekend crowd he remained surrounded by empty space.  He appeared a second time - unfortunately with the same act - and got the same results.  Like his drag predecessor he disappeared into the night, never to be seen again.

In all honesty, I'm sure if the muscular blond had just not been so ridiculous in displaying himself he would have gotten some eager attention in the bar.  But even if the drag had not chosen to present her act center stage, I'm equally certain most of the patrons would not have wanted her in the bar during the height of the weekend business hours.  Drags weren't wanted any more than women were, I'd say.  However, men returned the favor.  I never knew a guy who visited a lesbian bar, or who expressed an interest in doing so.

Customer displeasure at the Boot could take more extreme forms.  One evening in the early Eighties the bartenders had shooed out all but three customers, who were finishing their drinks, and locked the door.  One of the drinkers was John D., a regular who lived on my block, and the others were two strangers.  One bartender started cashing out, the other was cleaning up.  Without a word the strangers hauled out guns and blasted away at John.  The bartenders hit the floor behind the bar.....and waited in terror for the shots that would wipe out any witnesses.  But they heard the keys jingling in the door - fortunately they had been left in the lock! - and then the door opened and closed.  They looked over the bar, and the strangers had indeed gone.  Poor John was, of course, very dead.  

A few small businesses had been opened near the Boot and the Candle by gay men (and one by a lesbian), or had a gay clientele.  The Loft was the  largest, a trendy clothing store that also sold sex paraphernalia, gay greeting cards and rented videos --  cruising the other customers or the help was a local sport.  The Loft occupied the space between the Boot and the Candle, and was busy until late on weekend nights.  It also had a branch in Cherry Grove.  On the next block up the avenue was the gay-owned Golden Ass, a small café espresso named after the novel by Apuleius (the place played tapes of obscure classical and salon music made by Yours Truly); Dee Dee's a tiny lunch counter restaurant owned by a Puerto Rican lesbian; Nishi, owned by a gay Japanese guy and staffed by gay Japanese waiters - who attended the Saint as a group on Sunday nights; Vinylmania, a store which sold the latest club mixes of dance music and had a huge stock of used records - which made it a goldmine for DJ's and amateur tape makers.  Even the funeral home on the corner of 76th and Amsterdam had two gay employees who hung out locally.  The joke was that you could work, eat, fuck, shop - and die and be buried, without going more than two blocks from that corner for the rest of your life. 

In spite of the influx of new gay people and the busier and more commercial atmosphere of gay life on the Upper West Side, I found that it remained a very friendly environment.  Even if the sophistication of the men, in both the cultural sense and as regards sexual experience, was distinctly and aggressively with-it gay New York, the sense of a gay neighborhood (in a personal sense) remained strong.  And contrary to many places in the Village, most Upper West Side bars maintained a substantial core of customers for whom their bar was a neighborhood meeting place.

The same could not be said, I don't think, for straight life in the neighborhood, where displacement rather than continuity was the order of the day - and not only where the Hispanic and black minorities were concerned.  It was the new Yuppie hot spot, and on Friday and Saturday nights Columbus Avenue became so "Jerseyated" (overwhelmed by tourists from the other side of the rivers) that we used to rush to get to the laundry, the drug store, etc. before seven p.m., in order to avoid the hordes that descended in crowds so thick you were forced to walk in the street to make any progress.

The Upper West Side had its own gay sex emporium too, Les Hommes on West 80st.  It sold the usual run of magazines and videos, an impressive array of  toys, lubricants and dildos, and had a backroom for on-premises sex as well. 

The Cherry restaurant on Columbus Avenue and the Peninsula on 72nd,  a comidas chinas y criollas place, had steady gay clienteles, but most of the new eating places across the price scale were regularly patronized by gay men.  The new expensive men's clothing boutiques on Columbus had gay male staff, and enterprises from the Sensuous Bean, a coffee emporium, to a going-toward-housewares hardware store on 72nd, were either gay owned or had gay employees.

Dance music was the sound from store to store to bar to boutique to restaurant, and with the advent of the Sony Walkman in the Eighties, any remaining gaps in this soundtrack-for-life were closed.  Soon Everyone, plus Everyone's roommate and Everyone's trick, was making music tapes for fun (and sometimes for money.)  In the beginning the tracks were simply laid out end-to-end with no gaps, however, inexpensive mixing equipment arrived before long, and these "amateur" productions became very professional.  Some guys were obsessed with tape making, spending hours and hours for weeks putting a tape together, and there was a brisk market for the products of some remarkably talented, but otherwise unknown, tape meisters.  George Malides, a friend of a friend, was one who put together an excellent series of tapes, and sometime local DJ, Tommy Jenkins, produced a few spectacular ones.  

One night I was standing in the Boot, really enjoying a new tape by Ed the bartender that was playing.  In my enthusiasm, I turned to the guy next to me, and said something like, "God, isn't this tape great!"  He said, "No - I hate this kind of music."  I thought, well, this is what's played here...why does he come here then?  So I asked him why he didn't go to another bar.  He looked at me as if I were a total mental midget.  "I can't!  This is what they play everywhere!"
 

Grass could be had for $75/ounce; cocaine was in much wider use, and though a single gram purchase could go for $100, anyone who was buying would buy enough to get the price down to $90 a gram.  In the late Sixties marijuana had sold for about $35/ounce for good stuff, cocaine had been going for $125/gr. or more. - though at that time the latter wasn't used by anyone I knew. 

                                                                                                            1980: THE SAINT ARRIVES

September of 1980 saw the opening of one of the climactic gay scenes of the era:  The Saint.   It was a dance club legendarily built to cater to the crowd that patronized Flamingo and went to Fire Island for summer weekends, and it was colossal in every respect.  Flamingo itself was no more. 

Fillmore East had been a faded Depression Era movie palace, which for three years in the Sixties had been the shrine of rock on the East Coast.  West Coast rock impresario, Bill Graham, took over the theater, and beginning in  March '68 it was the East Coast mate to his famous San Francisco Fillmore.  A venue for Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, the Doors and every other major star and group of the Sixties, it became world famous.  I never attended a concert there, my interest in music had come down decidedly on the side of rhythm and blues and soul at this point.   

In a long letter published in the Village Voice in May '71, Graham had announced the imminent closing of Fillmore East.  He concluded his letter: 

The rock scene in this country was created by a need felt by the people, expressed by the musicians, and, I hope, aided to some degree by the efforts of the Fillmores.  But whatever has become of that scene, wherever it turned into the music industry of festivals, 20,000-seat halls, miserable production quality, and second-rate promoters - however it went wrong - please, each of you, stop and think whether or not you allowed it, whether or not you supported it regardless of how little you received in return. 

The last concerts in Fillmore East were June 25-27, 1971 with shows by the Allman Brothers, J. Geils Band and Albert King. 

The changes in the world of rock that Graham points to in his letter, its transformation into an expensive, monster venue music business, may have planted the seeds for the anti-disco phenomenon of the late Seventies - a fierce resentment against the exultant and inexpensive music world of blacks and gays.  

Now, almost a decade later the old Fillmore East was gutted and fitted out as an enormous dance club by Bruce Mailman - who had already revived the grungy St. Marks Baths - with membership costing several hundred dollars a year, plus an admission charge each time you attended, and higher prices for special party nights.  The straight disco scene might be expiring, but gay men were still dancing, and they were doing it, figuratively at least, on one of the graves of  the Sixties rock world.     

Inside the former Fillmore East had totally vanished and been replaced by a three-level dance - and sex - palace....all it lacked for some was a steam room.  The first floor contained the lobby which opened up onto the coat rooms, on either side were the old marble stairways which went upstairs to the dance floor, while straight ahead was a bar and lounge.  You could also go upstairs via two industrial type mesh-enclosed spiral stairways from the front of the lounge. 

The bar was a free-standing one in the center of a raised area and was surrounded by stair-like banks of seating about 10 feet high covered in carpeting, and at the rear of this area was the entrance to the locker rooms (three floors - rented by the season to members only.) Also at the rear were two open stairways which went up to the other end of the dance floor. 

The decor of the lounge area was redone at the end of every summer for the beginning of a new season.....and was window-display spectacular.  One of its last incarnations was a faux marble extravaganza that would have blown the mind of a Roman emperor. 

Once upstairs you were actually outside the dance floor.  At the rear area you were on large balconies which overlooked the first floor, and in the front you were at the back of the former mezzanine where there were johns and some lounging space.  In neither case were you able to see the dance floor - though the roar was like thunder over surf. 

The dance area itself was circular and covered by a gigantic metal dome 80 feet high, which came almost all the way down to the floor, and was entered through one of four entrances which came up under it.  You walked up about five stairs and found yourself inside of what appeared to be an enormous colander.  In the center of the dance floor was a tall mirrored pedestal on top of which was mounted the same type of projection equipment as is used in planetariums.  The interior rim of the circular dance floor was surrounded by three steps of carpeted bleacher seats, except where it was overlooked by the DJ's raised booth, which also housed the lighting technician. 

None of this description really captures anything of what it was like to come up through the place and arrive at this point. 

For a first-time visitor, or someone blitzed on drugs, your entrance could be mind-warping.  After you ascended the short flight of stairs, suddenly you were on the dance floor, surrounded by 360 degrees of music and light show and perhaps more than a thousand sweating, half naked men.  You stepped into a supernova of energy.   

And, God help you, if you were susceptible to claustrophobia or paranoia. 

And on a level above this was a "lounge area", more or less removed from the incredible intensity of the music.  It very quickly became an area of sexual carrying on. 

It is no exaggeration to say that The Saint was built for "Industrial Strength" sensation.

The Saint has sustained a reputation for being the haven for the A-list gay man in the city:  body of Apollo, face of Adonis and carrying a sheaf of platinum credit cards.  I cannot vouch for the sheaf of credit cards, but on a Saturday night or holiday there would be a not insignificant number of the Built and the Beautiful.  This is certainly the crowd that Bruce Mailman went after first, and they became as much as part of the club's publicity image as the dome, the sound system or the light show.  However, my fellow B-list gay men were there in multitudes -- virtually a necessity to fill that space and keep it financially viable.  The membership was overwhelmingly white, though there were Hispanics and a small number of Asians as well.  (I rarely saw black guys.)  It seemed to consist mainly of men from their late twenties to late thirties, though you saw younger and older men as well.  Based on the members I knew, many probably had mid-level white collar jobs, though as a matter of fact, some of the guys I knew or met there had low level clerical jobs or were waiters or other non-white collar workers.  So, the club was far from being an exclusive A-Gay Olympus, though surely a lotta lotta members got off on being part of that fantasy.  We made jokes sometimes about a Pines/Saint Axis, and without a doubt there were guys whose lives justified that term.  But most of the members I knew would not have easily been able to consider a summer in the Pines as a regular part of their lifestyle - including me. 

I have no recollection of what a regular season membership cost, although the legend persists that guys were offering thousands to purchase a membership before the club opened.  None of the guys I knew who belonged to The Saint's in its earliest years could have, or would have paid anything like that.  However, I have several receipts for the rental of a locker, which cost $40.00 per season.    Members were also charged a fee at the door - this varied from $12.00 to $20.00, depending upon the occasion, plus $20.00 for the guest.  Charges for the short summer season were lower than for the rest of the year.  Folded around my summer '86 membership card is a Saint bookkeeper's receipt dated May 11th for $150.00, which I assume was the cost for that summer.  But that was late in the game.

The Saint has been characterized on one web site as "catering predominantly to the gay-lesbian community."  This is your basic load of shit.  It was intended to be - and was - a club for gay men.  This policy was adhered to very strongly.  At a later point, owner Bruce Mailman had nights especially for a straight group of clubbers on a week night, but otherwise straights (as guests) were never anything but a tiny handful of the regular weekend or holiday crowd.  And it was certainly not a place for anything like "the gay-lesbian community" either.  The attendance of women was not encouraged at all.  One night a year there was a specially promoted open night (can't remember what it was actually called), and on this night women were welcomed (read "tolerated") -- otherwise they were as rare as dinosaurs.  The first time I went to this special guest night, a much younger friend, Mark, and his buddies derisively described it as "Fish City," and skipped going.  It was hardly that.  The fact that there were a visible number of women in the crowd made it a unique night, but even then they were only a very small part of it.  What I noticed more was that the crowd was smaller than usual, leading me to wonder if a fair number of men didn't share Mark's feelings, and, on the other hand, I wondered too if perhaps there were not that many women interested in attending what was known to be a gay men's club.  However, in an era when bars and clubs littered the Manhattan landscape - some catering to one sex or ethnic group or sexual orientation, and others being mixed - The Saint's policy was not remarkable. PC just referred to computers.

"DON'T MISTAKE ME FOR A WHORE"

I read Christopher Isherwood's new book, A Single Man, a novel about the life of a middle age gay man.  The author said it was his favorite from among his fiction works. Drummer magazine does a big feature on "daddies," plugging into the increasingly multi-generational social and sex scene among gay men.  None too soon either, I was forty-two.

Boy, I swear in all my years
I've not felt like this before
If I choose to sleep with you
Don't mistake me for a whore
Let me leave my number on the wall
Call me, honey
Goodness always calls for an encore
         
                            Oh, call me, honey.
           
Me, '81

              Call Me
             
from Dr. Buzzard's Original
              Savannah Band Goes to Washington

The appearance of leather as an accepted part of gay clothing fashion - in the form of jackets, boots, etc., and as something closer to a lifestyle by a smaller number of men, and a broader willingness regarding the use "toys", i.e. - dildos, tit clamps, vibrators and the like, were two of the major changes in the gay scene since the Sixties.  But I think, though I have never seen it written about, one of the most pronounced changes over previous decades was a shift in the physical focus of male eroticism. 

Put more plainly: it seemed to me that in the late Fifties and very early Sixties that cock sucking was the principal sexual activity, both the active and receptive roles – at least judging by conversations.  In my recollection "fuck" and "fucking" in these years almost always referred to anal intercourse, and were not general terms for "having sex."  Few guys hesitated to admit to taking the receptive role in cock sucking, but getting screwed in the ass was not something that many men in those years would speak about off-handedly in a group of gay men.  In the era when "butch" and "femme" had still been used as labels, receptive anal intercourse made you incontestably femme, no matter how butch you were otherwise. 

(However, the artwork of Tom of Finland, for example – with his super-hung muscle giants endowed with huge bubble butts, and eagerly getting screwed – surely indicates that in their fantasies some men in the Fifties and Sixties were not seeing getting fucked as a feminizing experience.)

          Detail from Tom of Finland drawing

However, by the Seventies anal intercourse seemed to have become equally as popular as oral sex, and taking the receptive role was  somewhat more casually talked about.  By the mid-Seventies cock and ass as much as cock and mouth were a focus of gay eroticism.  Taking the receptive role in anal sex seemed not only to have lost its former stigma, but to have even acquired its own peculiar macho.  Being able to "take it" or wanting to "take it all" (whatever "all" might mean) gave an aggressive, challenging edge to the receptive role. 

Drew Okun had risen - literally - to fame as Colt Studios' star Al Parker in the 70's, and by the 80's he was producing films with his own company, Surge Studios.  His handsome face, athletic body and lazy, laid back sensuality made him the most recognizable gay porn star of the era. 
                                                                                                                                                       
                                                                                                                                             Al Parker

The titles of Christopher Rage's films, Sleaze ('82) and Raunch, - which my roommate, Tom, had - and Manholes and My Masters ('86) may seem to tell it all, but don't really.  If Joe Gage's films had sometimes seemed to be on the order of raw porn romances, then Rage switched the focus to Romantic porn - his excursions were ironic and florid ventures into territory that had earlier been explored by Kenneth Anger and John Rechy, not to mention Tom of Finland, Etienne and de Sade, and now located in the sexual underground of Manhattan in the 80's and the imaginative corners of Rage's psyche.  He was also a songwriter ( he had once had a song recorded by the classic soul group, the Spinners), and his use of music in his films had a commentarial twist that was virtually unique in porn.  A former lover of Christopher Rage has been quoted as saying, that Rage defined sleaze as "the ability to uncover what a man wanted to do but was also unwilling to do...and finding the way to get him to do it."  And that was exactly what fascinated Tom about his films.

    Christopher Rage

Along with an across-the-board rejection by males of the neat and somewhat formal middle class clothing styles in the Sixties, many gay men jettisoned some of the traditional gay mannerisms, verbal styles and conversational topics that had marked them as something on the order of more "in the know" and "elite" than their straight peers.   
                                                                                                                 
 
A funny interchange I heard in Boot Hill one night points at this. 

Guy #1:  What's that guy like, do you know?  (Indicating a nice-looking regular, who seemed to be a loner.)

Guy #2:  Oh, he's nice...but his apartment is full of pictures of dead movie stars, and all he wants to talk about is dead movie stars...I mean, you know, who talks about dead movie stars anymore? 
     

I also wonder if the prevalence of dressing down, so-called blue collar styles, plus the acceptance (or maybe just at the least trying out ) of various hyper-macho styles of personal presentation and so on may not have de-feminized getting fucked – perhaps the wrappings of the package changed both the intention and the perception of the contents.  Guys talked about sexual roles in terms of "top" and "bottom," but catty remarks like, "She likes to take it up the ass," -- which were prevalent in the 50' and early 60s -- had become very rare in my experience.

Where this finally led was to an emphasis on the ass. The terms "ass work" and "ass play" became common, and what this could encompass in addition to fucking was rimming, dildos, fist-fucking, and "balling", i.e. - putting cocaine into the rectum, which dramatically increases and changes the sensitivity inside the ass.  Cock sucking sometimes seem to be regarded as a foreplay type of sex, or quickie sex in circumstances that didn't allow for prolonged, heavy sex culminating in anal sex. 

By the turn of the decade the gym-built body was the ideal.  And finally it was no exaggeration to say a lot of guys were trying to build themselves one.  A few of the private gyms in NYC were predominantly gay, the Chelsea Gym for one.  Body display – even if you weren't a gym buff - was at the max.   The shift was to less clothes as much to clothes that showed it off.  Tank tops, sleeveless shirts, cut-off jeans, short shorts with wide baggy legs, slashed and ripped jeans, shirts open to the waist or - my favorite - a jacket with no shirt at all underneath (summer and winter) and tight jeans - these were the makings of  a "look" at this point.


 

There was a time when our lusts were
Like multicoloured flags of no
Particular country....

Kalama Das, Convicts

 

For an advertising-minded minority the rainbow did not have enough colors to indicate the nuances of sexual pleasure, and bandanas of every imaginable color peeked from rear pockets - left or right - sometimes several. A friend of mine once remarked about someone he saw in a bar, "It looks like he's carrying a goddamned parrot in his back pocket!

While pierced ears had been somewhat popular for a while, by the early Eighties they had become more so, and now it was the turn for pierced nipples. Nipples were high priority eroticism, and a hand sliding up to your chest for "tit play" was a signal that conversation was about to go seriously braille. 

The "Fuck Buddy" had become if not quite a hallowed institution,  a widespread one.  For some men the fuck buddy was a guy (or guys) you regularly had sex with and whose company you enjoyed for an evening of rutting, but with whom you had little other contact except for sex.  These casual, but ongoing sexual relationships were unremarkable now.  For other guys, like myself, these relationships often developed into something more on the order of friendship-plus-sex. I enjoyed these relationships and usually had a couple going at the same time.  In some respects, I think fuck buddies became something of an  alternative to having a "lover" during the Seventies and early Eighties.  This may have been due to the fact that these relationships couldn't founder on extra-sexual expectations and complications, which can encumber and sink more traditional couple relationships.  And the strongest bonds among gay men seemed to be located in the territory of buddy/comrade/friend.   

Also, not infrequently the "tricks" I picked up were people I had slept with several or many times before, and the distinction between them and a "fuck buddy" wouldn't be easy to make. 
      
I had one fuck buddy I met in the Picadilly soon after it opened in the early 70's.  Harry was a professional pianist, whom I saw once a month for almost
 fifteen years!  In this case, the relationship existed nowhere other than the apartment – we had only one formal date in that entire time.  From the start the sexual electricity between Harry and me was pretty high voltage, and our relationship developed without any discussion.  The nuances of pleasure were explored again and again over many evenings and the level of physical intimacy was unparalleled for me.  Through the years the sexual energy became more powerful rather than less, and while Harry was a taciturn guy by nature – or perhaps because he was - we achieved a physical intensity and consummation that was almost preternatural.  And over that length of time the "pillow talk" did turn into something like an extended conversation. 

                I've been in your body, baby, and it was paradise.
I've been in your body and it was a carnival ride.

from The Dislocated Room
Richard Siken

I recall group conversations where guys projected growing old with their friends and buddies, not with lovers.  The only men I knew who expressed a wish to have children were a pair of Jewish lovers.  They had their Passover seders at the home of the married sister of one of them, with her husband and two children, and each year upon their return they expressed dissatisfaction at the level of her acceptance of their relationship.  And this always seemed to lead to the expressed wish that they could have children too.  There was a third sibling in the family, another gay brother, slightly older, who was professionally successful and into leather.  He scoffed at their idea, and ridiculed both his brother and sister as being wound up in a ridiculous competition to replicate their childhood family atmosphere - and then dominate it.  And it does seem that one of the primary motives in the current drive to emulate the traditional breeder lifestyle is the belief that doing so will finally coerce heterosexual acceptance of queers - see! we're almost-het-like-you. 
 

+++ THE PLAGUE YEARS +++ 
 

                               ...Would you agree, then, we won't
                                              find truths, or any certainties...

                where monsters lift soft
                self-conscious voices, and feed us
                and feed in us, and coil
                and uncoil in our substance,
                so that in that they are there
                we cannot know them, and that,
                daylit, we are the monsters of our night
                and somewhere the monsters of our night are...

               here...in daylight that our nightnothing
          feeds in and feeds, wandering
          out of the cavern, a low cry
          echoing -- Camacamacamac...

         that we need as we don't need truth...

         and ungulfs a Good Night, smiling.

                                Thomas Kinsella
                                                                        Good Night

                                                                                                                                                                                                   Uncredited image from a Saint mailing

In August of 1981 the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) of the U.S. government announced the existence of a fatal disease, whose cause was unknown, which had infected slightly over 100 gay men in the U.S., most in San Francisco and New York.  The news dropped into my life on a radio newscast sandwiched between music programs.  Earlier, in the beginning of July, the New York Times had published a short story about a rare cancer, Kaposi's Sarcoma, which had struck down a number of gay men.  The victims showed severe immuno-suppression.   The peculiar name rang a bell - Ah yes, this was the cancer that Ed, the guy I'd met on the Island the summer of '80, had died from just this past February. 

"GAY CANCER" TO AIDS

A rough description of what later came to be called AIDS:  various symptoms and infections in human beings resulting from the damage caused to the immune system by the HIV retrovirus.  In its advanced stage the disease leaves individuals open to a host of opportunistic infections, e.g. Kaposi's sarcoma, cytomegalovirus, etc., etc.  Many of these opportunistic infections are relatively harmless, or amenable to treatment at least, in persons with normal immune systems.  In persons whose immune systems had been compromised by the HIV retrovirus these opportunistic infections had a catastrophic impact, frequently occurred in a series of onslaughts and most often caused death. 

What had been identified and was being brought to public attention at this point were those individuals who were in the end stages of the disease.  At this time, though, the cause and progress of the disease were as yet unknown, nor had it yet been given the name AIDS.

"Gay cancer" was the unfortunate name that this syndrome enjoyed for awhile.  (One of the earliest, if not the earliest, opportunistic infection to be noticed was Kaposi's sarcoma, which is a cancer.)  Unfortunate because the government and the Cancer Society, twenty years and more before, had spent considerable amounts of money and effort educating the American public about cancer.  A major point that was hammered home, in order to reduce the irrational fear that the disease provoked, was that cancer was not contagious

While popper use as a possible cause – as smoking for lung cancer – seemed a reasonable possibility, sex itself did not.  Despite the welter of evidence that began to accumulate - granted much of it sketchy and confusing at first - the continued use of the term "gay cancer" would furnish some comfort for people like myself.  After all -- Cancer is not contagious.

That fall, November '81, Bob Cecchi, a friend who lived a few houses down the street and with whom I spent a great deal of time, began to feel "peculiar." Several times when we were out he had fainting spells while we were standing in the Boot.  I had to have guys help me get him home and up to his fourth floor apartment.  The diagnosis was presumptive based on his symptoms and an analysis of something called T-cell counts and other blood factors.  He had the new "gay disease."

1982:  THE GAY MEN'S HEALTH CRISIS

Early in the next year Bob went to a meeting held in the apartment of the writer Larry Kramer in the Village.   Seven guys - Arthur Bell, Nathan Fain, Larry Kramer, Larry Mass, Paul Popham, Paul Rapaport and Edmund White - were the nucleus of a group that had started meeting at various apartments to try to figure out how gay men could organize and respond to this health crisis.  Some of the guys there, like Bob, had been diagnosed with GRID (gay-related immunodeficiency disease), but all were concerned that it's impact seem to threaten gay men only and the public response was antipathy.  They decided to organize as a formal, tax-exempt entity, and this was the beginning of the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), the first - and in its glory days, the largest volunteer - AIDS organization in the United States and the world.  Paul Popham was chosen as the president. 
   
GMHC was offered a couple of rooms for offices in a rooming house in Chelsea owned by Mel Cheren of West End Records.  A few months later I accompanied Bob to a meeting of GMHC's one and only support group for people with GRID, held in the old Community Health Project offices on University Place.  There may have been twenty men in the group.  (Bob died in January of 1991, he had outlived all the rest of the group by many years, I believe.) 

1983:  A NIGHT AT THE CIRCUS

The March 14th issue of the New York Native (the city's only gay paper at the time, I think) published an article by Larry Kramer "1,112 and Counting."    Many consider it to be the real wake up call on AIDS.  Though some people - like myself - woke up slowly.

On April 30, 1983 18,000 people attended the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus performance in Madison Square garden to raise money for GMHC.  Bob Cecchi and I went together.   It was truly thrilling -- the most proud I've ever been at a gay event. 

Shortly before this, one of the original group of founders, Larry Kramer, had had a characteristically fiery confrontation with the others over the direction of GMHC, and had dramatically offered his resignation.  His ballistic episodes were proving too disruptive to the work for the people struggling to keep the organization on course; he  repeatedly played brinksmanship with threats to quit, and, this time, his offer was taken up by the board.  In the years after this he would be caustically dismissive of GMHC, and snipe at Paul Popham, saying that the former Green Beret and decorated VietNam vet had been afraid that his position with GMHC would out him. 

    Paul Popham

However, Paul Popham addressed the crowd that night from the floor of  the circus, which was undoubtedly the first time that most of us had heard him.  And Paul made a point of requesting Kramer, who was in the crowd, to stand up and asked the crowd to show its appreciation for his efforts in helping start GMHC.  These were hardly the actions of someone very worried about the closet, or holding a grudge.   
 

Later in the decade GMHC cultivated celebrities, but my celebrity sighting for the evening was Big Max, a Colt model who had posed for a very sexy poster for the Bull Dog Baths in S.F.  Whew, talk about take your breath away. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Big Max (Sam Pascoe)

Bob went off to a special Circus night at The Saint, while I came back uptown.   I stopped in Boot Hill and met an interesting guy, David M., and we went back to his place.   I saw him several times over the next few months.  He liked to play Survivor's album Eye of the Tiger while we were having sex, which I could have done without.

It's the eye of the tiger, it's the thrill of the fight
Risin' up to the challenge of our rival
And the last known survivor stalks his prey in the night
And he's watchin' us all with the eye of the tiger

The Eye of the Tiger
Survivor

Grass had escalated in price to $85.00 an ounce.  Cocaine had become quite popular and easily available.

1984:  "THE FATE OF HIS BONES"

In spring of '84 Henning had surprised me by asking me to go to mass with him.  A straight divorced female friend of his and he had begun going to a neighborhood parish that seemed to have moved away from its former conservative Irish orientation.  I wasn't sure that I really wanted to do this, but it would mean a lot to Henning, as he was dealing with what was to be his friend Rolly's final hospitalization, and then, I had to admit (at least to myself) that the health crisis was haunting me - Robert's death had upset me quite a bit, and listening to Henning suffer through Rolly's illness was difficult.  Maybe this was finally the time, I decided, to probe whether my largely unexamined assumptions about still being a believer had any foundations.

However, being by nature a bit bookish and a lot curious, sittin' 'n lookin' wasn't where it was at.  I gradually became more deeply involved on a personal basis - reading at first, and finally, after lots of consideration, even participating in the sacraments regularly.   Going on Saturdays with Henning and his friend to the neighborhood church, and having dinner together afterward sometimes, gave this religious "experiment" a pleasant social dimension.  But later on I also sometimes attended mass on a weekday at St. Paul's, the church near work, specifically because I wanted to see what the solitary experience would be like.  Eventually a particular mood began to precipitate:  a feeling of discomfort grew in me, and this gradually increased until it reached the point where I would leave at the completion of mass with a feeling of deep uneasiness - and ultimately something akin to frustration or disappointment, perhaps.

The sincerity of the priests I came into contact with seemed unquestionable, as was the faith of many of those around me, and yet we seemed like an encampment of anxious of travelers - afraid to leave and afraid to stay, and constantly and uneasily reckoning our provisions.  The experience of worship in church began to seem more and more like an oasis, with its back turned resolutely away from the surrounding desert.  I came to feel that we were ever-involved with an inventory which helped put off a journey whose direction and purpose was unclear and vaguely threatening.

                                                                                                                                                                      

   

 "But who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried?
  Who hath the oracle of his ashes, or whither they are to be scattered?
  The relicks of many lie like the ruins of Pompey's, in all parts of the earth
"
 

                   Sir Thomas Browne
                   Urn Burial
 

                Bronze Age urn burial from Wales

Rolly, a sly-humored, and rather harmlessly cynical acquaintance from the Boot disappeared for awhile.  Was he sick.  He came back.  Looked fine.  No questions asked, no information given.   He was gone again, and his sleek all-leather presence was an obvious blank space, and his sometime boyfriend/buddy, a hugely muscled, super-endowed leather number with a habitual sneer, also vanished.  Rolly had gone into a coma his best friend (and former lover)  Henning told me.  He sat beside his hospital bed every night for fifteen weeks until Rolly died.  One evening, shortly before Rolly's death, the "boyfriend" appeared - not in leather but in the brown robes of a Franciscan priest (!), gave Rolly the last rites of the Catholic church, left and was never seen uptown by anyone again. 

Rolly was from Durban, South Africa, and his aged mother asked Henning to have his body cremated and to scatter the ashes.  Henning decided on a spot in Riverside Park that overlooked the Hudson River on the West Side.  He couldn't bear to keep the ashes in his apartment, so I kept them for him.  A few weeks before the tentative date of the scattering I thought it might be a good idea to see what cremated ashes looked like as neither of us knew.  Well, ashes they weren't, but more on the order of heavy grit, and fairly large splinters of bone.  (A sloppy job of grinding I was to learn from later experiences.)This killed any romantic notions of our Rolly being borne away as a cloud of dust on the gentle June breezes! 

We decided we would scatter him in the sea instead.  

I took Rolly's remains when I went out to the Grove in August.  His "ashes" were in a poly bag packed in a box, which I carried down the beach in a plastic sack to the Pines late in the afternoon, to where Henning was waiting.  He carried them held against his chest the rest of the way to a less trafficked part of the beach beyond the Pines.  We found a spot where three trees showed through a low spot in the dunes, and decided this would be a good landmark.  Henning held Rolly's ashes for awhile and cried.  Then he handed the container to me, I opened it and we walked to the water.  The day was gloriously sunny and warm.  But there had been a fierce wind for the past day; the seas were heavy and the surf had cut a steep trench where it broke against the beach.  I held the container overhead and slid down unsteadily, chest-deep into the surf.  A breaker came rushing forward and covered me completely.  I began trying to pour his remains out in the water in front of me.  The sea rushed back out, leaving me only knee-high in water and the grit blew back on me - into my eyes and mouth and covering my naked body. Another wave covered me then, and while I was submersed I clawed the rest of Rolly out of the box, and let it float out of my hands.  In the next wave I washed the rest of him from my hair and eyes and rinsed him out of my mouth. 

It never occurred to me at the time that this might be in the nature of an omen of how intimate a part of my life AIDS would become. 

COME GOOD DOCTOR, HAVE YOUR SAY
ON THIS TURNING POINT THAT IS TODAY.
 

George in a short-sleeved blue-green surgeon's gown
And skullcap rises.  As he speaks he'll prowl
Restlessly here, there, back and forth, his owl
Eye fixing the Brothers
LIKE SOME RARE FULLBLOWN
CULTURE ON A SLIDE!

                                                             Robert Merrill
                                                from Scripts for the Pageant

T., my roommate, who had been a kindergarten teacher when I met him around '74/75 in Chuck's plant store/hangout on Columbus, and had then quit teaching in 1978 to become manager of a new gay disco, Les Mouches.  About this time he decided to throw his lot with the woman who was a silent partner in the now straight and failing disco, and he went to work as a manager in her club, the Fifth Season, just a block east of where I worked on West 57th Street.  It was a straight, members-only sex club that catered to well-heeled businessmen for the most part. Gay Talese, who had been a rewrite man on the City Desk when I worked at the Times,wrote a book on the sex industry (Thy Neighbor's Wife, 1981 ), and the Fifth Season was one of the places he did his field work.   

When I'd met T. in the mid-Seventies he had been almost totally inexperienced sexually and never used drugs or alcohol - he had two siblings who had been alcoholics and drug addicts, though they had managed to pull their lives together, and a mother with a drinking problem.  But after his stint at Les Mouches he was a daily pot smoker, used "designer drugs" fairly frequently and had embarked on what was to be a slide into annihilation with cocaine.  And now he was getting into S&M and other kinky sex too. 

But at this point he was managing to keep his focus by concentrating his life on the needs of his former boyfriend, Robert, who had been diagnosed with AIDS.   One night in August I took them to The Saint, but after a short while Robert - who had been a professional dancer - tired out.  We stood there, the three of us, with our arms around each other, saying nothing, and then the two of them left for a walk.  It turned out that they had spent several hours that night sitting in front of St. Mark's-in-the-Bowerie church, and it was during this time that T. made up his mind that he was going to take care of Robert no matter what happened.

Aside from being almost torn apart with anxiety about what would happen to Robert, T. also happened to be very squeamish about blood, disfigurement, etc.  Not too long afterward T. faced a personal hell.  Robert came down with herpes, and T. told me it covered part of one cheek and the entire upper part of his face - including both eyes.  Robert came to stay with T. before entering St. Luke's Hospital.  He turned as I came in from work and stood across the room with his back toward me, after a few moments he faced me, and the sight of him was horrible.  It was as if he had been hideously burned.  His face was covered with livid, runny sores and his eyes were almost swollen shut.  I went across the room and kissed him, and he gave a great sigh - I think he was probably afraid I might not touch him.

In the morning T. called me.  Robert's eyes needed to be opened and medicated in the morning after swelling shut during the night, and his hands were shaking so bad, he said, he could not do it.  Would I do it.  Later in the afternoon T. was at work and I helped Robert again.

I got up a bit early the next morning, expecting T.'s call again.  It didn't come.  By an incredible effort of love and will he had been able to do it.

Miguel Mendoza, a shy, handsome bodybuilder reappeared in the neighborhood after an absence, and he sublet an apartment in Bob's building.  He had what was now being called GRID, except he had the "gay cancer" too - the disease was still a mishmash of terms and symptoms and rumors.  Miguel seemed more puzzled than anything by his condition and used to want to show friends the "spots, " which bloomed with increasing profusion all over his diminishing body.  I touched them with my finger.  So, this was "it."  They spread onto his face, and he shrunk more.  Miguel's mother had sent him a religious medal to wear, and Miguel was trying to place his faith and his hope for a cure in this saint.  He disappeared again, to live with a friend in Brooklyn, his brother from out of town appeared several months later to say he had died. 

My friend Bob, a former member of EST, was an avid follower of the self-help movement, and a ready believer in channeled messages and various New Age theories.  Although he worked as a volunteer for Dr. Roger Enlow - one of the early gay doctors to focus on the new disease - Bob was characteristically anxious to do something to help himself, and he told me that he was working with the Louise Hay tapes.  I pulled a blank.

T.'s ex-lover, Robert, struggled on angrily at the hospital. He developed several additional opportunistic infections.  The hospital gave him a yellow face mask, indicating contagion, to wear when he left the room.  He refused.  Instead he put it on the teddy bear he carried with him.  T. was with him every minute of every day that he was not at work.  

Skip and Tom K., two lovers from the neighborhood, disappeared.  They were "sick".  Bob W. in the next block was "sick". 

All sorts of folklore began to grow concerning the causes and cures of what was now AIDS.  Poppers were the cause.  Various peculiar nostrums were going to be the cure.  Ribaviran was the answer.  Go to Mexico.  Bootleg it into the U.S.  I read Defoe's Journal of a Plague Year.  It was actually comforting.  Nothing had changed in the intervening four centuries.  It was strangely reassuring, people were quite the same. When no one knows anything, then everyone knows everything.  When there are no answers, there are no end of solutions.

OH SHIT!

On April 22nd, 1984 Dr. Mason of the CDC was reported as saying:  "I believe we have the cause of AIDS."  He was referring to the virus LAV, and he was basing his opinion on the findings made by French researchers at the Pasteur Institute who had discovered the virus the previous year.  The following day, April 23th, the United States Health and Human Services Secretary, Margaret Heckler, announced that Dr. Robert Gallo of the National Cancer Institute had isolated the virus which caused AIDS.  There has continued to be some doubt about Gallo's claim.

So, without a doubt it was contagious.

And, of course, this knowledge was a big kick in the ass to my own silent refusal to contemplate the worst.  Before this announcement I had muddled along initially in the belief that it was a cancer - and that I might or might not have it.  Now that it was found to be something you could catch, my chances of having escaped were about as close to zero as they get.  Clearly, Billy, the sex partner who had developed wasting syndrome, etc. even before the initial announcement of the "gay cancer" must have had AIDS, and several other people that I had slept with had been diagnosed since.  Then one day I ran into David M., the fellow who had liked to play the Survivor album Eye of the Tiger while we were having sex.  He told me that he had been diagnosed with ARC (AIDS Related Complex), considered at that time to be the initial stage of AIDS.  So, there seemed no question that I was staring into the eye of that beast.

Figuring science might make better use of my body before I kicked off than after, in May I joined a long range AIDS research study that had recently gotten underway with the Laboratory of Epidemiology of the New York Blood Center.  It was tracking the health of several hundred men (about 800, if I remember correctly) with detailed questionnaires on sexual and medical history and blood tests.

THE TEST

If you're gonna bring me something
Bring me, something I can use
But don't you bring me no bad news!

                            from The Wiz

Shortly after I joined the NY Blood Center AIDS study we were informed that the recently developed HIV anti-body tests would be available to participants. The study sponsors were understandably concerned about the psychological impact that learning of your test results could have on participants, and they created several options and procedures for them to choose among.  

As far as I was concerned, I'd only be playing games with myself by hiding from the results.  I wanted to be informed of the results flat out, slam-bam, thank-you-m'am style, and get if over with. Given the fact that I had been having sex repeatedly with guys in the late Seventies and early Eighties who had already died of AIDS (and others who were alive but symptomatic), a positive test result was the only reasonable expectation.  My sexual history gave no reason whatsoever for any other possible outcome. 

My blood was taken October 3, 1984.   

The test results came back negative.  I was thunderstruck – and totally disbelieving.  The study manager was likewise.  The anti-body test that had been used was the Elisa, which produced a fair number of false negatives, and a second test using the Western Blot test was certainly in order.  It too came back negative.  Follow-up tests came up negative as well.  Despite the overwhelming odds against me, I had turned out to be negative...for the moment. 

While for quite a few months I had not had partners shoot their cum in me, nor I in them – there was one exception, and an ominous one: Harry, my steady sex partner of fifteen years.  

Early in the year he had complained of having difficulties with his work because he was always so tired.  Then later he told me that the problem had become so severe, and no doctor had been able to diagnose it, that he'd taken a trip to the Mayo Clinic. I'm waiting for the shoe to drop, of course.  But he said they had not been able to make a diagnosis either.  He told me he'd been afraid that he had AIDS, but that it had been ruled out...nevertheless, without any fanfare or discussion he put an end to our sexual relationship.  I never saw him in the bars.  When I ran into him in the street – we lived near each other – he was very friendly, and even came across with his usual intimate touching, however, his facial appearance had aged badly and he complained of being hardly able to carry on at work.  

We had had sex several times just prior to my giving the blood sample to be tested.  If by any chance he was infected with HIV, my test result could easily be wrong.  I was not inclined to think that Harry would lie, his approach to life had always seemed to be almost brutally honest - and tinged with pessimism...still, the AIDS epidemic was something new and terrifying.  I was ashamed of my doubts.  But, I had them.  I didn't feel I knew for sure yet.  
    

"I wonder what it will be like the day the dancing has to stop?  Somewhere someone will always be dancing, I suppose."

journal entry September 2, 1984
                                              (closing night of The Saint summer season)

                                                    Saint membership cards, locker tag, etc.

"Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves"
                            Aretha Franklin & the Eurhythmics

In the Fall of '84 I investigated Sunday nights at The Saint: "You won't like it!," I was warned. 

The reason was that Sunday night was when what my friend Mark said was "serious dancing" went on.  And the guys who ornamented Saturday nights hanging out and posing were replaced by another special crowd - a core of guys who came and danced alone.  These solo dancers were referred to by Mark and his friends as the "Serious Dancers." And it did seem on Sunday nights, that these "Serious Dancers" and the DJs were setting the tone and the pace of the evening in concert. 

Earlier in the year I had bought my friend Bob Cecchi a summer membership as he didn't have the money to renew his, and as a favor he took me on the opening night.  I enjoyed myself so much that I dropped by the following week and bought one for myself.  Up to this point I'd only gone to The Saint with company and on Saturday nights.

Sunday night, the eve of the Veterans' Day holiday,  I was shuffling around impatiently waiting for the guys I'd come with to leave the lounge and go upstairs to the dance floor - always a boring part of the evening for me because I didn't drink, and I'd stopped using any drugs when I went dancing as I thought they wore me out rather than heightening the experience.  After awhile, in exasperation, I went upstairs to watch other people dancing and to mumble my dissatisfaction. 

Michael Fierman was playing that night, and doing it even better than usual.   

Finally, in a dramatic loss of good sense, I gathered up both left feet and ventured out onto the middle of the dance floor - alone. 

A monster was born!  DJ Michael Fierman made magic just for me and I danced to it for forever.  I was, I felt, literally in heaven - nothing had ever been like this.  And nothing ever was afterward, it was a unique experience.  For the next three years the Saint was magical for me.  I spent almost every other Sunday night there, from midnight to eight a.m., being one of the people my friends had called the "Serious Dancers," and taking my annual leave days one at a time on the following Mondays to rest up.  It seems in my memory that each time, shortly after I arrived, either Love is in the Air or Electric Dreams would play, and at that point I would be lifted out of myself until morning. 

In this year the number of new AIDS cases reached 2,885; there were 1,432 deaths from AIDS that year.  More than a quarter of that number were in NYC, most in the borough of Manhattan.

1985

We could dance under the moonlight,
hug and kiss all through the night.
Oh baby, tell me, do you wanna dance with me baby?

Do you, do you, do you, do you want to dance?
Do you, do you, do you want to dance?
Do you, do you, do you, do you want to dance with me baby?

Do You Want to Dance?
Bette Midler

After weeks and weeks in the hospital Robert died on January 17th with T. at his side.  Robert's mother gave his ashes to T., and later he took them out to the Island, where they had spent one summer together working in the Grove.  One night he brought them to the beach, to a place near the Rangers' house at the western end of the Pines, he told me, and scattered them out on the sand.  It was a spot where Robert had danced in the sand one night on their way back to the Grove.  One early evening this summer he took me on a walk down to the west end of the Pine's boardwalk, and then down onto the beach.  He stopped, and said, "This is the place."  He told me then for the first time that after he had opened the container of Robert's ashes, he had danced on the sand as he spilled them out.  I had to turn away and just stare at the spot for a few moments: it had been the last dance for Robert the dancer, the last dance for them together.  We held each other for awhile and then walked on in the moonlight.  In all the images that pass through my mind of T., the one I never actually saw -  him dancing with Robert's ashes - remains the most sharp-edged, and the saddest.    

1985: AN AIDS MOMENT

Between 1984 and 1985 the number of new cases of AIDS doubled in that single year; the deaths did too.

On April 15, 1985 Margaret Heckler, President Reagan's Secretary of Health and Human Services, gave the keynote address at the First International Conference on AIDS.  With possibly unintentional candor, she articulated the Reagan government's tardy concern: "We must conquer AIDS before it affects the heterosexual population."

   
  Margaret "Save-the-Hets" Heckler
 

 

MEISTER ECKHART, I PRESUME

In the summer of 1985 I took a season's share in a house on the Island for the first time.  In the Pines there were almost no practicing Catholics (or any sort of active Christians for that  matter), and the heterosexual population seemed as little interested in religion as the gay men.  But I was still involved - though with waning spirit - in the "investigation" of my religious beliefs.  A priest came in by boat to say a  mass early on Sunday morning in a room next to the community health office.  The sand drifted over the wooden walkway beside the building, and although  you could not see the ocean you could hear it beyond the dunes. The building received the early sun full force, so the doors and windows were  left open and a breeze from the sea blew in steadily.  The mass was attended by about fifteen or a few more people, and the priest seemed a low-keyed and pleasant fellow.  The  surroundings were very make-do, of course, and in this setting the little gathering and the mass itself struck me more than ever like a band of travelers worrying over preparations on the edge of a trackless territory.      

On the second or third Sunday I got up early again and walked down the lee side of the island to where the mass was held.  I waited outside in a rather stiff wind; the people came along one and two at a  time, holding their sweaters and jackets tightly about them, and hurried into the room.  The sun was well up and shining strongly by the time mass was to begin.  And it came upon me with a deep sense of finality that this was not the place for me any longer and that whatever my business had been there it was finished.  I walked away, not with doubt but only with a sense of wonder about why I did not feel doubt.  I walked back along the ocean.  I passed the walk that led to the house and continued beyond the end of the Pines. 

At the point where I saw a clump of three trees waving above the dunes I sat down.  This was the spot where Henning and I had brought Rolly's ashes.  I remembered the wind blowing his cremated remains back onto me, covering my body and getting them into my eyes and mouth.  Sitting in the sand at that spot, I felt as if there were a sudden rushing in from everywhere around me.  Something seemed to physically flow through my body, and I was left with an unexpected feeling of acceptance about being carried beyond anything I'd ever expected to experience - about being out in the empty spaces of life.

Whatever later significance this event might have had for me, I did not, however, immediately leave the Island to turn in my Speedo for a hair shirt.

SUMMER IN PARADISE

T's boss, had decided late in 1983 that she had to have a house in the Pines (along with her other homes).  And, as I gathered from T., like all of her new enthusiasms it soon became an obsession to which she harnessed all of her energies.  The piece of property she purchased was a choice lot near the mouth of the harbor with an unobstructed view of the bay, and within a minutes walk of the dock, disco, restaurants, etc.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    My Fire Island ferry ticket '85

The existing house was essentially demolished, and erected on its platform was an architectural fantasy worthy of Malibu...a main floor paved in one-foot square ceramic tiles (alternating off-white and pale lavender), an all white interior with all white furniture, a two-story living room, an "entrance balcony" from the main bedroom which connected to the stairway, and imported art deco inspired Italian lacquered furniture for each bedroom...impressive even by Pines' standards.

A friend of mine, Bill, who worked on Woody Allen's films commented, when I took him to the house to visit T., "No one could really live here, this is just stage set for production numbers!" 

Strangely, it was T. rather than his boss who may have gotten the most use out of the house.  She was an energetic, frequently restless, woman -- who almost as soon as she would arrive by sea plane was on the phone to elsewhere, and making plans about when she would leave.  T., however, she began to have in almost constant residence there, busy supervising repairs, installing enhancements, and rushing the cleaning and flower arrangements for the chatelaine who vanished almost as soon as she arrived.  

She was something of a mystery in the Pines, the object of ridicule and gossip, yet the dispenser of longed-after invitations and the giver of one huge lavishly costly party a season.  I only spent time with her on a couple of visits, and my impression was that while she might have been a bit over-the-top, more than anything she was pulling a leg with her role in the Pines.  In public she could be an outrageously and expensively dressed woman in the most frightful costumes that trendy designers conjured up, but in private she was a funny, unpretentious person with a big generous streak in her makeup. 

T., quietly took advantage of the position he found himself in living in this grand, unwinterized movie set.  He wrapped himself in a bit of her notorious mystery, drifting in and out of the social and commercial life of the Pines as the real-life dispenser of his boss's patronage and proof that she was not after all a mirage. 

The lot was surrounded by a tidy high wooden fence, which kept the lower floor of the house screened from the boardwalk.  The main entrance was a pair of plain doors set into an inward curve of the fence.  Once through the doors, a visitor was on a small walkway hanging above a beautifully manicured shade garden about ten feet below, and you walked across this to a two-story glass wall with double sliding doors, through which you looked down a long entrance-way, which descended to the living room area at the back of the house - and even from this distance you saw out the two-story glass wall at the far end of the house, across the deck and pool and miles across the bay to the pale line of the shore of Long Island.  Great theatre! 

The captains of the ferries which brought people from Sayville to the harbor at the Pines told T. that they now used the house as their navigational guide to the harbor on all but the foggiest nights, as it was more visible than the nautical lights.  With a two-story high facade of glass, white siding and mirrored panels, and perched at the edge of the bay -- no doubt about it. 

Having pinched a lot of pennies the previous winter, I had taken a share in a house – a considerably humbler abode than this. Most of the guys I hadn't known before, but I got fixed up with them because they'd been summer roommates with Henning in the past.  It was the first time I'd ever had a place on the Island for an entire season.

            Me, summer '85
T. was at his boss's house most of the time, and I came out on Thursday evenings for the weekend, which meant that I often spent Fridays with T., hanging around while the house was groomed and prettied for the weekend and swimming in the pool overlooking Great South Bay.  Late in the afternoon we'd disappear – and if no one showed up, we might come back much later to collect T., if he was in the mood, and go dancing at the Pavilion, the huge warehouse of a place that had replaced the old fashion beachy-looking  Sandpiper. Or once in awhile if we were all out on a week night, we would have dinner at T.'s and then sit around blowing grass or tooting coke, swimming and talking till the early morning.  While the weather was gorgeous that summer, and the music and dancing great, it was largely T.'s hospitality in that splendid house which made the summer seem like a long and lavish movie.  It was a glamorous idyll.   

And T. seemed to be recovering from his deep depression that followed Robert's death – although he had always tended to hide his feelings.  The only sign of trouble in this paradise was that T. and I began getting out the coke during the day if I dropped in, and if we sat around at night the use could get heavy.

After not having sex since receiving my negative HIV test results ten months before, near the end of the summer I began what might be described in retrospect as a "comfort relationship."  His name was Gino.  He was Italian with a kind of "homely" good looks and a sinewy athletic build, and an engaging charm that covered a restless, prickly streak and a discontented inner life.  His mood swings, I was to discover, were of Jekyll and Hyde proportions - especially in the first few months of our relationship.  Bob Cecchi, who knew both of us, and some of my friends, thought that my patience with these was more stupid and destructive than it was admirable.  It probably was, far more so than I believed at the time; however, I have come to think that dealing with this negative aspect of a personal relationship may have kept the bigger, and less easily dealt with fear of AIDS and death from overwhelming me.  Our usual activities revolved around the fact that we both liked music of all kinds and enjoyed dancing.  The sex was - as far as I was concerned - not very satisfying.  But holding a man's warm, healthy body through the night, when it seemed everyone around me was dying was  consolation of inestimable value.  The relationship lasted for several years, and there are good memories from it for which I remain grateful.

In a time of plague it was a mutually opportunistic relationship, and when it began I wrote in a journal that I realized that it would certainly not go on to some imagined "forever."  Sometime later Gino said that in safer times it was unlikely that we would have been involved with each other on a monogamous basis.  However, for the time it lasted there was often pleasant companionship, and something like a safe harbor as things seemed to be wrecking on all sides in the storm.  For me (I think), our relationship was an attempt to believe the easy happiness of better days was still possible: it was my final resistance to confrontation with the encroaching darkness.  Gino's temperament and personal problems had already put the stamp of "temporary"on our relationship from the first, which I understood; but quite soon I not only faced the encroaching darkness, I hurled myself into it and embraced it like some evil, hateful lover.  And from that point there was nothing left for a relationship with another man.

1985 had been the first summer in more than twenty-five years of going to the Grove or the Pines that I had ever had a house on the Island for an entire summer.  And of all those years it was the best in some ways.  What I did not - and could not have - admitted to myself on the last day that I took the ferry back to Sayville was that the door of a most beautiful time and place was doubtlessly closing, and locking, behind me. 

 

 

STRAIGHT AMERICA PUSHES THE PANIC BUTTON

The number of cases of the "gay cancer" diagnosed before 1981 was 100, but the number of new cases recorded in each of the following years grew at a rate that should have been alarming:   '81 – 339, '82 – 1,201, '83 – 3,153, '84 – 6,368....  The American public was satisfied with intermittent press reports about faceless groups of "homosexuals" and "AIDS victims," with their companion "Haitians" and "drug users."  The Reagan administration remained silent. But in April 1985 Health and Human Services Secretary, Margaret Heckler, let loose her urgent cry: "We must conquer AIDS before it affects the heterosexual population.

This sounded the official tocsin for straight America.   

In July popular movie and television actor, Rock Hudson, admitted that he was dying of AIDS, and not as a result of liver cancer as his spokesmen had previously claimed.  His gay sexual orientation was still unknown to most straight Americans.  If rich, famous Rock Hudson can get it...what then?  There have been repeated assertions that his admission of AIDS "put a familiar face" on the disease...and that this moved the public in a positive direction.  That was not my impression at the time.  From mid-summer until Hudson's death in October the news media served up a stew of gory tales about his decline. As in Poe's tale The Masque of the Red Death, his fate proved that even the rich and famous could not hide from this plague.
                                                                                                                                                                          
                                                                                                                                                                Rock Hudson Hudson ill with AIDS

By September of '85, Time magazine stated in an article about AIDS, "Anxiety over AIDS in some parts of the U.S. is verging on hysteria."  The use of "verging" was bizarre considering the article itself is entirely about straight hysteria...an opinion poll indicated that 47% of Americans believed AIDS could be contracted from a drinking glass, 28% believed AIDS could jump right up their heinies off a toilet seat.  Not surprisingly, tattooing those infected with AIDS, and quarantining infected people in their homes or in camps were popular ideas.  An LA Times poll this same year found 51% of the respondents favored quarantine for people with AIDS, 48% thought infected people should have to carry ID cards identifying them as such, 45% were in favor of testing job applicants for HIV anti-bodies, 15% were in favor of tattooing...Americans were terrified of the possibility of casual contact with infected persons. 

And the gloves were off.  It wasn't just "homos" and "druggies" any more.  

One child infected with HIV was reported to be enrolled in the NYC school system.  At a school in the borough of Queens more than 90% of the students did not report when parents organized a boycott, and they held a raucous meeting in the school, where they were whipped into a furor by local politicians. 

In New Jersey a child with AIDS-related complex, though not ill, was barred from school.  In Washington a child with AIDS was tutored in a room alone.  And in Kokomo, Indiana 13-year-old Ryan White, a hemophiliac infected with HIV, was being tutored at home via a telephone hookup after his school district barred him from attending school.  In our Upper West Side neighborhood Roman Catholic parents refused to send their children to a parochial school when they learned that a nearby unused convent was to be turned into housing for PWA's – the project was abandoned. 

        Ryan White

A woman working at a gay and lesbian community center in California was burned when attacked with acid.  Her attackers screamed, "Die, you AIDS faggots!" 

Not just hospital staff, but policemen and others took to wearing gloves when dealing with any people they suspected of might have HIV infection – in some places this automatically included any gay men. 

Some hospital workers refused to bring food trays into the rooms of patients with AIDS, and left them outside.  This was how Bob Cecchi of GMHC began the Ombudsman's Department at the organization.  He received a call from a PWA at Bellevue Hospital, who complained that he was going hungry because his food tray was left on the floor outside his room.  Bob worked with the hospital administration to get the situation remedied, and then began fielding similar complaints that kept coming in.  The Ombudsman's function became one of the most used at GMHC.     

The need for massive public education, and leadership at a national level was a crying need, one recognized by Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, a Quixotic man with a conservative background, but totally heads-up about the need for straight-forward public health information.  The Reagan administration kept him muzzled.  Even after Reagan appointed a rinky-dink Executive Task Force on AIDS in 1983, Koop had been excluded from its meetings by his superior, Assistant Secretary of Health, Edward Brant.  Journalists received instructions from Brandt's office in advance of his press conferences that the Surgeon General would not answer questions about AIDS, and that he was not to be asked about it.  

There was a desperate need for public education.  The government completely abdicated responsibility, and the media was not proving effective in filling this gap – nor was it always reliable or helpful when it made the attempt. 

Discover magazine, a general science journal printed an article in late 1985 in which it claimed that the "vulnerable rectum" and the "fragile penis" would ensure that AIDS would remain a gay disease, while the "rugged vagina" was going to save heterosexuals.  It ignored the fact that worldwide AIDS was emerging as a predominantly heterosexual problem – evidently the "rugged vagina" had an American patent.

Televangelical preachers were in high gear, stirring up fear and spreading rumors, and anyone who had access to the Internet in these years knows that by this time there was hardly an Internet newsgroup, no matter what its putative focus might be, that didn't find itself bombarded with hate postings and embroiled in subsequent acrimonious "discussions."

There was a large ruckus over whether leaving the gay baths open would lead to more infection, or if they could serve as centers for educating men about safer sex and for dispensing condoms.  The debate raged.  New York Governor Cuomo announced he was considering closing them.  The City closed the Saint Mark's Baths, and the New York Times objected, saying that the baths could probably function as effective AIDS education resources.  However, the baths were closed. 

The first week in November, invoking new state rules to combat the spread of AIDS, New York City closed the Mine Shaft, the surreal sex palace on Washington Street.  In the following year former officer, Richard Bell and five other men were indicted in February on charges involving the operation of the two sex clubs in Greenwich Village. Four of the five pleaded guilty later in the year, the fifth was believed to have fled to Ireland to escape prosecution, and Bell was convicted of bribery and tax fraud. 

 GMHC:  NEW LEADERSHIP

What a madness and cruel foolishness is this, that in the time of any great plague, such as are infected, you shut up in houses, set marks upon them....
when as at no time there is greater need of fellowship, company, comfort and help than in time of plague?

                                                                                                                                                                                        Paracelsus, 1596

Paul Popham, the Gay Men's Health Crisis first president and Rodger McFarlane, the first full-time paid director, aside from their energy and skill in creating and building the organization, had warm, easy-to-like public presences, which were crucial, I think, to the organization's success in those early years. To the gay men of New York they had been gay men working for gay men first, and only grew into public figures over time.  

       Rodger McFarlane

Paul resigned in 1985, having been seriously weakened by Kaposi's sarcoma. (He died on May 7, 1987.)  Roger McFarlane gave up his post in the same year. (He continued to be a leader in other gay and AIDS-related organizations.)  

Richard Dunne, who began as a volunteer in 1983 and served as a member of the Board, became its next executive director.    He inherited a much changed GMHC.  It had had 200 clients by the winter of '82/'83 and 650 by June '84, and when Dunne took over in 1985 that number had grown to 2,500.  The New York Times stated the current national AIDS statistics as 13,332 diagnosed cases and 6,481 deaths since 1981, with about 40 percent of these being in New York City.

Despite the hard work and deep dedication of the small salaried staff, supplemented by administrative volunteers (My friend Gino had been a full-time, unpaid volunteer from early on), and the addition of a large number of Buddy type volunteers in the fall of '85, GMHC became stressed like a ship in a hurricane during the first years of Dunne's directorship.

Richard Dunne had worked for twelve years in the New York City bureaucracy, and his most recent post had been as Assistant Deputy Assistant Commissioner for the Human Resources Administration.  By virtue of his past professional experience he was an "organization man."  On the one hand, this equipped him to shape a new GMHC; on the other, it would – unfortunately, but probably inevitably – sever GMHC from its roots.

CATHOLIC AIDS MOMENTS

Pope John Paul II on October 1, 1986 sent Catholic Bishops a letter On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons. This papal epistle—unforgivably—says:

"But the proper reaction to crimes committed against homosexual persons should not be to claim that the homosexual condition is not disordered. When such a claim is made and when homosexual activity is consequently condoned, or when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when…irrational and violent reactions increase."   Thus spake the Pope of Rome, Vicar of Christ.

     Detail fromail Study for a Pope, 1954
                                                      painted by Francis Bacon

In May, 1986, Philadelphia's aging Cardinal John Kroll had already told a reporter that the spread of AIDS was "an act of vengeance against the sin of homosexuality."  New York's Cardinal O'Connor waged a fierce and relentless campaign against the use of condoms to prevent HIV infection - even for homosexuals.

Meanwhile, these were the same years when the sexual abuse of children by members of the R.C. clergy was running amok, and being covered up by the bishops and the Vatican.

VOLUNTEERING AT GMHC 

October 2, 1985 I was interviewed and enrolled to participate in their upcoming volunteer training.  Later in the month it took place in two weekend sessions at the school belonging to the Jesuit parish of St. Francis Xavier in Chelsea.  This church had already had a relationship with gay people as it provided meeting space for the gay Catholic group Dignity, and allowed Dignity to celebrate masses in its church.  (Later, after a quiet resistance of several years, the Jesuits were forced by New York Roman Catholic archbishop, John O'Connor, to close their doors to Dignity.)

    St. Francis Xavier Church, W. 15th St.

By this time GMHC had created a three-branched service of "buddies."  There were Crisis Intervention Workers (CIW), Care Management Partners (CMP)and just plain ol' Buddies. The groups were designed to assist PWA clients according to the complexity of their needs, though the distinctions, particularly between the first two (CIW and CMP,) were virtually indistinguishable in my experience.  All the various types of buddies were organized into small teams which met once a month and were led by two volunteer leaders, and these team leaders met as a group once a month at GMHC with members of the permanent staff.  

I had become a Crisis Intervention Worker – actually I had "become" nothing of a sort, but I knew from the training what that was supposed to mean, though I was in a position similar to that of a putative skydiver who has yet to jump into the wild blue yonder.  And late in November I approached my first team meeting feeling like I didn't know whether to shit or go blind.  I went down to an apartment in the East Village.  At the door I was greeted by a young woman, who requested that I remove my shoes, and then shown into a dimly lit couple of rooms scented with burning sticks of mephitic patchouli incense. The place was decorated with some pictures or posters, which might have been interesting, but there was only a bit more light than at the Mineshaft. 

While one or two of the honchos in the weekend training session had seemed to be flirting with the flakier edge of the New Age, in contrast to most - like Diego Lopez, for example - who were tightly focused and serious, I was not ready for what looked like an invitation to a magic carpet ride in the "Mystic East." 

Sitting on the floor was agony because of past surgery – there were no chairs – and the stench of the cheap Indian incense was rapidly threatening to be puke-inducing.  But just as I was about to say, "Fuck this weird shit," the team leaders took over -- the incense was doused, a window was opened and piles of extra pillows, etc. were requisitioned for we ass-weary wimps. 

There were about ten or twelve members on the team, one or two straight women and the rest gay men.  The team leaders were Lou Katoff, a psychologist working for an HMO, and Leslie, a social worker completing her final training.  And while I was at first reassured by their pleasantness and easy-going supervision of the meeting, as things progressed and each team member spoke of the past month with his client, I began to appreciate the incredible problems that the leaders and the team dealt with – and my apprehension level began to rise.   

What the fuck did I think that I was doing here!? 

[GMHC required that buddies and other volunteers and staff protect the privacy of its clients.  Though it is twenty years later, and all of those I knew are dead, I have changed their names and omitted enough detail that I believe their privacy has been respected.]  

Fortunately, my first client, Kevin, a young gay man in his late twenties from a working class Irish-American background, was cut from a pretty special piece of cloth.  He proved to be a tough, gritty and inspiring guy.  Twenty years later I still consider myself fortunate to have known him and to have been part of his life, even if only for a short while. 

Kevin was living with his lover and a roommate who had been his boyfriend's former lover, and who was now a friend.  Our initial meeting on December 18th seemed a bit formal, and Kevin pretty much treated it like I was on a job interview – and his thoroughness was to prove characteristic of him.  The three guys seemed tightly knit, and very private, and my inclusion in Kevin's life (or was it their lives?) was not being considered lightly.  Kevin developed KS lesions, but remained in fairly good health for awhile, and our relationship while not unfriendly, sometimes had a rather distant and dryly reportorial tone.  

He developed a new lesion, this one on his face in mid-January '86.  In April his lover complained to me that Kevin was spending most of his time alone back at his old studio apartment. The relationship between Kevin and I began quickly developing into a more personal one.  He told me that he felt that he would die soon and was concerned that his widowed mother and his lover were not prepared.  A lot of resentment and strain in their triangular relationship was coming up, and this finally burst to the surface in what sounded like a major confrontation.  Kevin called me down to his apartment for an afternoon, and stunned me when he declared to me, "Our (i.e. his and my) relationship is primary."  It took the rest of the summer for them to rebuild their relationships, and I had to be very careful to be there for him and support him, while taking pains never to get myself involved in the trio's difficulties.      

Right at this time Kevin got thrown a curve out of left field.  His sister, evidently never a very stable or responsible person, had abandoned her four fatherless youngsters, and they had been taken by the City.  Kevin spent several months as his strength waned, taking long trips out to Brooklyn where they were institutionalized and spending a great amount of time visiting and interviewing potential foster parents.  His reaction to chemotherapy was very bad, but he pushed on.  This was his last mission in life, and a couple of days after he had found a suitable home for the youngest boy he fell into a coma.  He was unconscious when I visited him in the hospital the last week in October, a few days later he had a series of brain seizures.  He died November 5, 1986.

He was a magnificent guy.  My first reaction to his passing was the usual one of sorrow, but after a couple of weeks I became suddenly depressed about his death and it took some time to pull out of it.

1986:  AIDS MOMENTS

Conservative writer William F. Buckley, a family friend of the Reagans,  in a March 18, 1986, New York Times op-ed article, called for mandatory testing for HIV and said that HIV-positive gay men should have this information forcibly tattooed on their buttocks (and IV-drug users on their arms.)  To give credit where credit is due, he did not recommend following up tattooing with gas chambers and ovens. 

       William "Tattoo 'em" Buckley

At the 1986 centenary rededication of the Statue of Liberty the Reagans were sitting next to French President Francois Mitterand and his wife, Danielle. Bob Hope was on stage entertaining the all-star audience. In the middle of a series of one-liners Hope quipped, "I just heard that the Statue of Liberty has AIDS, but she doesn't know if she got it from the mouth of the Hudson or the Staten Island Fairy." As the television camera panned the audience, the Mitterands looked shocked. The Reagans were laughing.  

This is illustrative of the outwardly affable Reagan's emotional remoteness, as attested to by his children in later years.  Reagan's gut reaction to AIDS was reportedly embarrassment, and this resulted in an absence of presidential leadership in regard to the magnitude of the health problem, as well as the conservative hate campaign waged against its victims.

In 1986 there were 17,792 new cases of AIDS; 11,069 deaths. 

 

        1987

I was ready for my next client in February '87.  Ciaran, another Irish-American guy, in his thirties and straight, and he was a rollercoaster ride that was over before it had hardly begun.  Ciaran was a heroin addict enrolled in a maintenance program.  Though he lived in a welfare hotel only a block or two from where our offices had been moved to at Lexington and East 24th St., he proved as elusive as a ghost.  Visiting the Kenmore Hotel to look for him scared the shit out of me, and I spent most of my time trying to track him through his drug program counselor.  Suddenly he vanished.  He was found on an inter-city bus headed for the town where his estranged wife lived - actually it was his body that was found, he had died from an overdose.

By March I was already assigned to Ralph a bisexual guy in his late thirties, who had already had several serious medical problems by the time I met him.  Prior to this he had earned a very precarious living as a food vendor in the streets.  In addition to his problems due to AIDS, he was involved with a girlfriend, Tawana, who had a crack habit the size of a polar ice cap. 

Ralph was living temporarily in the McBurney Y, but got relocated into a sleazebag hotel on upper Broadway – suddenly he was rushed to the hospital with pneumocystis carinii pneumonia.  He called me one day to come to Roosevelt and pick him up, the hospital had said he could be released.  He was a fucking mess, hardly able to stand on his own, gasping for breath and coughing – yet the hospital insisted he was ready for release, despite my pointing out that he was barely able stand and sounded like a sump pump, and Ralph insisted on leaving.  The staff couldn't hustle us out the door fast enough. 

Uptown at the welfare dump, I had to almost literally drag Ralph down the hall.  When I tried to open his door, I couldn't.  It budged an inch, but wouldn't open.  Finally, I had to put Ralph on the floor, and throw my weight against the door again and again before it would open enough for me to squeeze in.  Inside it was a fucking pigpen – newspapers, clothes, shopping bags, take-out food containers, dirty dishes and trash, trash, trash of every imaginable kind filled the room to a depth so high that the chair and bed were literally not visible above it. And that is no exaggeration.  A wall to wall garbage dump.  And a festival of roaches, naturally.  

Ralph dragged himself to the door.  He peeked in and said, "Tawana.  She's been using it with her friends."  And he folded back down on the floor. 

I got a few large trash bags from the hotel management, and began trying to clean out the place.  When I finally had gotten down to near floor level in just one spot, I kept hearing the crunch of breaking glass.  I carefully picked up the debris I was standing on and found that I was crushing countless dozens of empty crack vials beneath my feet. I began counting them.  I stopped at one hundred, and there were more and more. It was hopeless.  Ralph showed me Tawana's "jewelry box":  a cigar box almost completely full of empty crack vials. If it had been fucking wampum she could have bought Manhattan island back, even at current prices.  It would have taken two people hours just to clean out the worst of the debris.  A bigger problem:  Ralph's breathing was becoming frighteningly shallow and he was hardly able to talk. 

I dragged him back down to the lobby and laid him on a pile of old carpets heaped in a corner of the lobby while I called Van, one of our new team leaders.  He rushed up, and we took Ralph back to Roosevelt emergency. 

The hospital was adamant that they would not take him – they didn't even want him in their emergency room.  The team leader and I argued and argued, and the staff kept calling in higher and higher up honchos to tell us to take Ralph the fuck away.  Finally, the supervising doctor of the emergency unit, or maybe she was the acting weekend supervisor of the hospital, appeared and ordered us to remove Ralph from their premises.  

Van and I refused.  We said that we would get out, and sit on the steps of the emergency unit.  If the hospital ejected Ralph we would leave him wherever he fell on the ground and call the newspapers to come and see him. 

Roosevelt suddenly decided to keep him – surprise, surprise!  And he was seriously ill for awhile before he was released once more.  

When he got out he had to find another place to live, but again the lovely Tawana and her crack habit fucked that arrangement up too.  And yet a third time the same thing happened.  He became such a difficult case that a second member of the team was assigned to him.  Ralph lurched from crisis to crisis propelled by his girlfriend's drug habit, and he was unable to bring himself to throw her out of his life.  

But a crisis came up in my own life that changed things radically.  On April 14, 1987 I had to give up my buddy work on the team.


1987:  REAGAN'S AIDS MOMENT

36,058 Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS and 20,849 had died before President Reagan first publicly said the word "AIDS" on May 31, 1987 (near the end of his second term).  It was his last-minute acknowledgement that mainstream Americans were beginning to become rational about the disease and concerned about those who had it. 

This historic utterance was made at the Third International Conference on AIDS in Washington.  However, he drew "hissing" from the crowd when he declared, "Final judgment is up to God," according to a review of the history of HIV/AIDS policy by the Kaiser Family Foundation.  Reagan was not a practicing religious believer, but this pious verdict was absolutely necessary in order to appease America's Religious Right voters, who might otherwise be quite perturbed that he attended this conference.

 

 

LAST DANCE

Ashford and Simpson, who had sung so joyfully at the beginning of the disco era, had more hits in '84 -- Solid, "And for love’s sake, each mistake, ah, you forgave...soon both of us learned to trust, not run away... it was no time to play.  We build it up and build it up and build it up."

Sam Harris was a very cute (and closeted) young white guy, but his raw, gutsy voice was that of a male torch singer and blues belter.  He sang Hearts on Fire........"I'm out of control, my heart's on fire," and left no doubt that he was.

Rhythm of the Street, by Patti Austin became almost sacramental for me. 

     Patti Austin

George Michael and Aretha Franklin made a superb duet, the joyous, Knew You Were Waitin' for Me.  The Pointer Sisters had abandoned their 30s and 40s retro sound and pumped out super high energy hits like, Jump, I'm So Excited, and Baby, Come and Get It.   Tina Turner, out on her own and free of her husband, Ike, launched a new career and her first LP contained an entire string of dance hits - What's Love Got to Do With It, Private Dancer, I Can't Stand the Rain.  Sylvester's former backup singers, now called the Weather Girls were Raining Men.

                                                                                                                                                                                                            Loleatta Holloway's Love Sensation album

And the perennial, guaranteed-to-pack-the-floor number -- Loleatta Holloway's Love Sensation.                             

Six o'clock a.m. on a Monday morning was still the very best dancing time as far as I was concerned.  About then the DJ's would usually slow down the beat considerably, and also play somewhat offbeat stuff that brought out the Serious Dancers to spin and drift around the floor, each one floating through his solo dream-dance world...Tina Turner singing Private Dancer, Simply Red doing Holding Back the Years (chillingly appropriate) and George Michael (as 1/2 of Wham) singing Careless Whispers.  Or music with a slightly tripping Brazilian beat, and anything with a long, wailing sax.  An exquisitely personal time for each dancer.    

For five wonderful years  Robbie Leslie, Michael Fierman, Mike Cavallone, Chuck Parsons, Warren Gluck, Mark Thomas, Shaun Buchanan, Terry Sherman, Wayne Scott and the other DJ's played the music that made the nights there unforgettable for me...Giorgio Moroder - Electric Dreams, Martin Stevens  - Love Is In the Air, Hall & Oates - Out of Touch, Hush -  My Heart's On Fire, The Communards - Never Can Say Goodbye, Blancmange -  That's Love That It Is, Sylvester -  You Make Me Feel, Lime - Your Love, Bonnie Tyler -  Holding Out for a Hero....

After a night at The Saint I used to drop Gino off on the East Side just as the city was waking up for work, and then have the taxi drop me on the West Side, a few blocks from my apartment.  My Levis would be soaked through with sweat, even my shoes would be wet through from the dancing, and I'd walk up the streets in the soft morning light with my shirt off.  Everything was quiet and it provided an opportunity to try to come down from The Saint.  It looked as if everything were at rest and as if life was just as it should be. 

But when I turned the corner of my street, I had to forget that within the two blocks between Central Park West and Amsterdam Avenue there were 15 people sick with AIDS or dying of it as I walked past their apartments.  The Upper West Side had a case rate second only to that of the Village for awhile. 

There was more and more non-black dance music now, Hi-NRG was at its peak.  Frankie Goes to Hollywood was a favorite -- "War", "Relax", "Two Tribes".  The Bronski Beat album Age of Consent was a monster hit, every cut was mixed and remixed in every possible combination and Jimmy Somerville's howling gay soul filled the dome. 

Gino started to become reluctant to go to The Saint.  Finally he said it was because of "the holes in the floor" -- he meant the absence of certain people whom you'd been used to seeing there dancing in their favorite spots, even though you never knew them.  The crowds were smaller and the side entrance was used for admission rather than the large front entrance.  Using the large front entrance, someone told me, attracted the local addicts and street people who were no longer intimidated and tried to sneak into the club. 

After going to The Saint one night in February '87, Gino refused to ever go again.  I never went back either. 


                                                       THE END OF THE LINE

"Pay no attention to the dark circles
 They have always been there
 Don't mistake me to be broken down
 Just because I'm on my knees...."

                         Born with Teeth
                         by Cock Robin

By the end of '86 the White Lady (slang term for cocaine) was in full control of T.'s life, and I had to wonder about my own.  And T. had gotten involved in small scale dealing to finance his and my own use.  The real world ended at our front door.

Although T. was the one who had the alcoholism and drug addiction in his family, it was me who finally got it that we were well down the slippery slope with the cocaine.   While T.  had held onto his job, his social life had diminished mainly to coke and sex - or planning for coke and sex, or recovering from coke and sex.  Finally, I took a stand that I wouldn't help him, and I wouldn't solicit my friends as customers.

T. had struggled desperately against depression after Robert's death, even tried keeping a journal to help himself.  But he had given up - he looked lousy, and he was flying on coke as often as possible.  Without caring for Robert as ballast he was lost.  An endless series of younger tricks disappeared downstairs with him, brought home after all-night sessions in downtown bars and back rooms.  And while I wasn't dealing now, I was still sometimes buying from T. and was still around if any impromptu partying took place in the apartment. 

At one point it became obvious that T. no longer had a job - he had simply walked out without a word to anyone.  His boss even tried to give him a chance to pull himself together, but he spurned it, and then, reluctantly, she dropped him.  He continued to try to sell coke, but could barely scrape together enough money to pay his half of the rent.  His existence became furtive.  He shut off the downstairs floor where he lived, he kept it dark, and it stunk from being closed all the time. He stopped changing his sheets, he stopped changing his clothes, he left uneaten food to rot on his desk....  

     "He opened my noooose for me!"
                                Tina Turner (ad lib on a concert album)

My denial folded, I finally allowed myself to get the obvious message.  T. had gone over the edge.  I tried to talk to him about getting help.  He looked horrible - maybe it wasn't just coke.  T. said he didn't have AIDS.  He was totally hostile to my overtures, and from that point on wouldn't speak to me anymore if he could help it.  He was unable to pay his share of the rent now.  I contacted one of T.'s siblings about his downward spiral, a sister who had long ago overcome her own addiction problems.  She didn't want to get involved, not until he "bottomed out" and called her for help.  So, I found myself in the position of either paying both shares of the rent in order not to lose the apartment - and, thus, in the process providing T. with a free ride on his trip to hell; or give up the place I loved and pull out.  Even if I had had the stomach for it, there was no way to toss T. out:  the apartment was in both our names, and as long as the rent was paid he could remain in the apartment. 

Meanwhile, my best friend, Chuck,  was diagnosed with AIDS, and the decision was made for me: no way could I work eight hours a day, plus spend several hours with Chuck afterward....and then go "home" to my apartment, to face who the hell knew what new mess.  I moved out in March with my clothes and some books and records, abandoning my furniture and household effects -- leaving T. in possession of the apartment.  I relocated down to a large furnished room near Stuyvesant Square, and I used to go up to the Upper West Side to take check in on Chuck after work and on weekends.  After Chuck died I didn't go back to the old neighborhood.  Almost everyone I had known was dead, or had moved out.

In July of 1987, four months after I left, T. died. He had moved a drug dealer into the apartment.  Soon he had dropped contact with everyone in a squalor of boozing and drugs, brought to a quick end by AIDS-related meningitis.  He was the only person I ever knew who dived into drugs and didn't come up again.  Given the history of alcohol and drug abuse in his family it almost seems like this was his destiny.

T. had once said that he wanted to have his ashes scattered where he had put Robert's on Fire Island. But his siblings had finally stepped in and taken charge at the end, and they had their own conventional agenda, which included concealing his sexual orientation and his AIDS from their mother. T. had long ago abandoned the fragmentary journal of a couple of dozen pages that he began after Robert's death.  I had kept it.  A little over a decade later I burned the pages and let the ashes blow away over the sand at the same place in the Pines where T. had danced while scattering Robert's cremated remains.

Grass now costs $200 a half ounce, and cocaine use was decreasing enormously among people I knew.

 

HOLD ON TO MY LOVE

September 26, 1987 was the last night of the great Paradise Garage, played by resident DJ genius Larry Levan.                  

DJ Robbie Leslie, 1986                                                                                                                                                                                            Larry Levan

The closing of The Saint was three days long, lasting from April 30 until May 2, 1988.  Robbie Leslie, possibly the favorite on The Saint's roster of DJ's over the years was the last to play.
    

Monday morning Robbie played his trade mark, Hold on to My Love by Jimmy Ruffin, as the last song.  Half way through a balloon slowly rose from one side of the dome and hovered over the central light tower just under the mirrored ball. As the song ended and the crowd applauded and cheered, it slowly descended until Robbie reached out and took it in his hands.

The dome opened and there was Marlena Shaw. She sang Touch me in the Morning.  And an era of dancing was over. 

It was the very last gasp of a lifestyle which had been unwilling to die for most of the decade even as the men who had created it were dying by the thousands.

mail to:  nycnotkansasat-signexcite.com

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