Late last year, someone I know was complaining about a persistent fever and feeling like crap for weeks. He was going back to the doctor for more blood work. Now his glands were swollen, and the poor guy was fighting constant nausea. Turns out he just had one of those nasty won’t-let-go bugs. However, in a heartbeat, his well-known series of complaints took me back. The time was the early 80s. I had been in a committed relationship with Alejandro since July of 1977. He worked in the travel industry when we met, and helped me land my first job with a charter tour operator. That led me to Laker Airways, a small British airline where I worked in the accounting department. My title was Refunds USA. I’ve often said, if I could go back to any one job in my life it would be here–this time–this place–that me. That is, until the world collapsed from underneath our feet.
Octave the first: Kool And The Gang
The accounting department was made up of a wonderful conglomeration of unique characters. The count was around twenty-five. Our group had a ball in that office, where each day was celebrated like a gala. We all guzzled coffee by the pot fulls and shared goodies brought from home. Most of us were packs-a-day smokers. Those good old days, when you could puff away anywhere and everywhere, and clean air nazis were silent and uncounted. All types were represented: young marrieds, working moms, college students, swinging singles and gay folk– either partnered, looking, or some only wanting to party. We were all openly OUT, and no one else was in the least bothered by it. I’d never felt so free to be myself, ever before.
Frequently we’d organize a Saturday night when the group expanded, with significant others or dates in tow. We’d meet up at this enormous dance club out on Long Island that boasted an ultra-sophisticated lighting system. There we could really let our hair down. A couple of the straight husbands would dance with us gay guys “just to be silly”, (or so they told their wives). CELEBRATE, by Kool and the Gang was a mega-hit in these days. They’d play it several times a night, and the crowd whooped and screamed and sang along. “So bring your good times, and your laughter too, we’re gonna’ celebrate your party with you”, all the while strobing bars of multi-colored lights scanned the jumpin’ dance floor. We would share joints in the parking lot and carry on till we closed the place. Then we’d head to one of the well-known all night diners the Island was famous for, and pig out, satisfying our raging munchies.
Octave the second: Boy from way Uptown
Freddie was one of my Laker gay work friends. He was Cuban-American. His name was actually Federico, but he was very Americanized, and spoke English with no accent…well…except maybe a slight New York one. I was studying Spanish then, so I usually called him Federico when we spoke together, as I practiced habla-ing in my mixture of Spanish and English. He wasn’t a particularly handsome man, but he was constantly on the make. We could count on Monday mornings in the office beginning with Freddie recounting his dating stories from the weekend. Often there was a different man Friday and Saturday night. Too many Mondays he would sail in the door, throw himself into his seat, and announce that he’d found his husband at last. Typically it was one of the working moms who would remind him we’d heard that claim two weeks before. Somehow though, there was a naive charm to his trashy behavior.
He was in his early thirties like me, but had a penchant for younger Latino guys–mucho younger–typically early twenties. When he met Felix, he’d really pushed the envelope. Felix was only eighteen or nineteen. He lived way uptown near Harlem with his mother and many siblings in a cramped apartment. They were poor, like most in their neighborhood. Freddie fell fast and hard for this boy. There were no more Monday stories about new guys. Now it was Felix this and Felix that. He always managed to work his way to my desk before lunch to fill me in on the gory details of their sexcapades.
There was a Monday, I’m guessing a month or so after their meeting, that a very sullen Freddie dragged into the office. Felix was sick, raging with fever. He had mono, they suspected. Felix had a similar bout a few months before. “Freddie, you be careful too”, we all cautioned. As the week progressed, his boy grew sicker. The family had no insurance of any kind. They used the free clinic. Freddie worked the phones, advocating for him, calling all sorts of city agencies. That weekend an ambulance took Felix to the hospital.
I remember Freddie telling us how the fever continued to spike. They were packing Felix in ice, trying to bring it down. His glands were swollen everywhere. He was getting worse, not better. I don’t believe it was many days later that Felix died. Freddie was a wreck. We all were. The office was quieter. We still drank coffee and smoked and ate and carried on, but it was a very sobering thing to learn a nineteen-year-old could get sick and die from mono in less than two weeks time. Freddie came back to work. If memory serves, he’d given the mother some money to help bury poor little Felix, who none of us had ever even met. They performed an autopsy, but it would be months before they might have any results–if at all.
Octave the third: The Gay Cancer
The tragedy of Felix had to have happened in early summer, because it was July of 1981 that the New York Times first published an article about ‘the gay cancer’ that had already killed men in New York City and San Francisco. It had been gossiped about in gay circles for months. My friend Perry, who I’d known since my Kent State days, was working for a physician in Manhattan who saw primarily gay patients in his practice. There were several of these offices scattered throughout The City. We called them ‘gay doctors’. Men who typically had come to their MD for cases of the clap, hepatitis, or at the very worst, syphilis, were now showing up extremely ill, with odd symptoms. Still so recent, we whispered in our office that maybe this is what happened to Freddie’s boyfriend. We had no real name for what had begun killing our population.
All of us gay men were frightened by each bit of news heard through a gay bar grapevine. They were horrific tales of handsome, hunky young men getting sick and wasting away with purple sores and pneumonia–like geriatric patients, but all in a period of a few months. For a short time we enjoyed a reprieve of sorts, when those working on the disease believed it might be spread by Haitians. All of us who’d never known a Haitian breathed a sigh of relief. Then maybe a week or so later, those same researchers feared it might be caused by the recreational use of amyl nitrite–poppers. It was a liquid sold in every head shop and adult book store around the city. Poppers cause the heart to pound and bring on a pulsating euphoria. I’d inhaled gallons of the stuff since first arriving in 1972.
At some point they announced the possible window on contracting the disease could be as wide as ten years. That was as long as I’d lived in The City. I had lost count of my sexual partners before I met Alejandro. It didn’t seem to matter now that we’d been monogamous from the start. Five years was only half of that ten-year window. The more people who became ill, the more Gay Cancer was in the papers and talked about on TV, the more I was certain it was only a matter of time for all of us. Everybody was gonna die from whatever this was. Our celebration was turning into a raging funeral pyre.
Octave the fourth: Say goodbye
We were getting ready for work in early February of the following year, when Alejandro heard on the radio as he shaved, that Laker Airways had filed for bankruptcy. It came as a complete shock. None of us knew a thing about it, and we were the friggin’ Accounting Department! Our manager let us into the building to gather our personal things. There was no formal farewell, no last time gathering ’round the coffee pot. The party was over–full stop.
In the spring, our colleague Sheila, a lovely British lady and one of my very best buddies, died suddenly of a massive stroke. She left two young children behind. Her funeral served as a makeshift reunion for a handful of the old guard, getting together one last time. Freddie was there. He looked terrible. He said he’d been sick. Our eyes met briefly, and I guessed the worst. Not one year later, another gay friend from accounting who’d kept in touch, would call to tell me Freddie was dead. And so it began–the litany of gay men falling by the wayside.
Perry, my doctor’s assistant friend, would fill me in on the throngs of men who came through his office. “Remember the tall guy with the crew cut and biker boots we used to see at Ty’s?” or “This week we saw that cute trainer from our old gym. He’s sick now too.” And that was the code, or the euphemism we used–sick now too. It took a while to admit AIDS into our personal lexicon. That four letter word seemed too insignificant to stand for something so huge and so heinous. Luckily my circle of close friends remained untouched. Death was stalking all around us, but had not yet penetrated our little world. Anyone who thought we might somehow be immune was foolishly naïve. We all sensed it was only a matter of time before it would strike.
Octave the fifth: A self-examination
It got so that after a while, I couldn’t stop searching my body for signs of IT. Any bruise that turned remotely purple was something I studied and watched until it disappeared completely. I couldn’t wash my armpits, my neck or my crotch in the shower without feeling for glands that felt swollen or slightly tender to the touch. Probably I was making them sore with my guilty prodding. And the summer nights I awoke in a sweat, fearing these were the symptomatic deadly night sweats that often heralded IT’s arrival, would send me into a frightened tailspin.
Poor Perry. I badgered him every time we saw one another, or spoke on the phone. Does this look like something I should be concerned about? You know…I wake up nauseous a couple of mornings almost every week. Just what is considered a low-grade fever? My annoying anxieties usually would cease with a subtle rolling of his eyeballs. Sometimes it took him saying “Just stop. Please”, without even raising his voice. It made me remember the real horror he witnessed every day he went to work. He often said the frustration was, they weren’t curing anybody, just waiting with them while they died.
“Had all those indiscriminate encounters been as exciting as I thought they were? Was all that wasted passion and risk taking really anything more than the few minutes of orgasm it gave in return? Was any of it worth dying for?” These were the thoughts that accompanied my obsessive-compulsive behavior–another form of the disease called AIDS.
Octave the sixth: Right in my own backyard
It wasn’t the plague that prompted me to flee The City, but rather the opportunity to live in a house in New England with my partner Alejandro. The deregulation of the airlines was devastating the travel industry, and I needed to find a new career. Although I must admit, by late 1983, the effects of the disease had noticeably altered the face of The City. Even though we rarely went out to clubs anymore, the West Village especially had become another place. There were still people in bars. There were still guys meeting other guys, and exchanging phone numbers. But there was also an oppresive heaviness draped over the Christopher Street neighborhood, and Chelsea, and the Upper Westside and all the gayborhoods. Gay men were dying every day, and the fabulously fun world of pretty men was growing harder to find.
I can’t remember if it was while we were preparing to move, or once we were settling into the Victorian house in Town Commons Massachusetts, when we got word that Bruce, our sweet friend Bruce, was HIV positive. A boy from Ohio–from Kent State, who came to New York some years after me–still in his late twenties, had begun fighting for his life. Bruce was a gentle guy, tall and thin and long-limbed. He moved languidly, but at the same time with a burning passion for life. He was all heart, extremely witty, never sharp-tongued or judgemental. He’d found this great guy, and was living the life he dreamed of having, in a place where he could be himself. Bruce put a face on this insidious disease. Bruce wasn’t a work acquaintance or some guy at my gym, or one of those handsome lads you recognized from the neighborhood. Bruce wasn’t the friend of a friend. Bruce was my friend–our friend. And in what seemed for me no time at all, he was dead.
Octave the seventh: The cavalcade
After he was gone it hit me–Bruce became the herald, trumpeting the roll-call of names of those who fell victim to the monstrous death: Men I knew from Kent State, Old Boyfriends, Buddies we’d made in New York, Partners and Lovers of our friends we had welcomed into the fold. Many of them were intimates who had grown closer than our own siblings. All of these people had names and faces, and a piece of my heart that died along with them.
In those first years living in New England, we traveled back to The City frequently. Each visit we would get together, and the living would tally the newest numbers of the sick and the dead since the last time we’d gathered. On some visits I wanted to close my eyes and block my ears because I begged to play Pollyanna. The reality of our situation, like the disease itself, was simply too painful and too ugly to ignore. Throughout the latter half of the 1980s, each year was sadder than the one that had come before.
When I thought the mounting death count had already shriveled my senses, we received a phone call telling us Perry had AIDS. My longtime buddy who was battling the killer on the front lines had fallen victim himself. Perry had to have known for a long time, and kept it secret–at least from some of us. He must have been sick the summer before, when he brought his partner, their black Cocker Spaniel ‘Snickers’ and several other KSU/NYC transplants to our big house in Massachusetts. One member of the group still describes it today as our Big Chill weekend.
Perry had offered his Kent apartment floor for me to crash on, the semester I lived in my car, soon after we’d first met. We shared a hotel room on the New York theatre tour–both of our first times in The City. I moved there in ’72, then a few years after he followed, making us Chelsea neighbors. We watched every episode of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman as if it were some sacred worship service. Together we cruised Manhattan from the upper Eastside down to the Bowery, until each of us found partners. Losing Perry made we realize what a huge slice of our lives we’d shared together. I was angry as hell that he left so quickly.
1988 brought my twenty year high school reunion. There were only four classmates I wanted to see. Two of them were guys I grew up with, literally and figuratively. All five of us made the trip back to West Buttfok. It was a long weekend I treasure like no other. Eddy I knew since elementary school. We sang in 5th and 6th grade chorus and played percussion in band. In junior high we were joined by Billy and we were the Drama Club. I think the three of us guessed we were gay from the start. We just needed to understand it was okay to be that way. Later, Billy became my first boyfriend while in college.
Just before flying back to Los Angeles, Billy told me his partner of many years was sick. We’d gotten together in LA on two different occasions. They were a beautiful couple, living the life in West Hollywood. He didn’t want to get tested himself for fear that if he was positive too, he might not be strong enough to see his companion through the ordeal. Eddy had been in San Francisco for over a decade. He already knew his HIV status. He didn’t want to spoil our good time. Eddy phoned one of the girls once we’d all got home from the reunion. She delivered the news to the rest of us. This became a sobering slap to end the Decade from Hell.
Billy buried his life partner in 1990. Eddy died about a year later. His sister called me from his hospital room and held the phone for him. I told Eddy to keep fighting. What else could you say? I remember the hissing sound the oxygen made, being forced into his nostrils. He was completely lucid, which made it even harder. Eddy didn’t last two days more.
Of course Billy tested positive shortly thereafter. The good thing was, now there was this thing called ‘the cocktail’. Billy was going to ride the wave every bit as far as he could. He was one of the most driven individuals I have ever known. He refused to take no for an answer–from anybody–in any situation.That’s how he got accepted into acting school in London. And how, without an agent, he pushed his way into his first minor movie job. Eventually, he landed a very nice role in an early, extremely popular TV miniseries. He gave up acting for screen writing, then knocked around Hollywood for many years, living off options on three of his screen plays. None of those ever made it to production. There was one that did, however, and it was a biggie which made lots of money for the star, the studio and Billy. He got to realize true success. He just didn’t get enough time to go for his second hit.
In the six or seven years he lived with the disease, he spent a great deal of time being sick–very sick. He got a serious brain infection early on which nearly did him in. He battled illnesses I’d never heard of, in places in your body you never knew existed. The same medicine which kept him alive often made him violently ill. He would suffer disgusting indignities, yet refused to accept defeat.
Living at coastal extremes, we corresponded through cards and letters. Several times a year we enjoyed long, long-distance chats. We always had too much to say, no matter how much time we’d spend talking. In what would be his final year, he made the last trip east. We enjoyed an afternoon high tea in his Boston hotel on a rainy autumn Sunday. It was shocking to see this always vital, bigger than life man, hollow-eyed and already ghostlike.
It was an impossible time for me when our communication was no more.
Octave the eighth: The Grand Silence
Eventually, after all of them had gone, there was a great hush that descended over our Neighborhood. It was unlike the silence that comes with a truce at the end of a traditional war. We who had miraculously escaped the plague looked around to see who else was still among the living. The numbers of those we lost to the disease seemed uncountable. And they were, because so many had died in silence or worse, in hiding. Not only had they suffered unthinkable pain, they had endured it in shame. Many of them had never come out to their families back home. These boys understood that the stigma of being gay for them, was far worse than the unfairness of dying long before their time. There are still old friends and acquaintances I think I left behind somewhere, yet I’ll never know for certain…
And if there could be anything more sorrowful than this whole terrible tale, it is the vacuum that was left in the wake of the blight. The creative world was decimated by the loss of talent. I’m not talking about the obvious, like Nureyev, Maplethorpe, Freddie Mercury, or Anthony Perkins. It was the young talent, robbed of a future before they had the chance to do something with their lives. People who had once dreamed the dreams of so many, lost even the ability to ever dream again. Think of all the movies never written, or acted, the sets never designed. Somewhere still are blank canvases, empty sketch pads, reams of paper left unused. Floating in the ether are dances never danced, and songs left unsung.
There were thousands and thousands of regular guys too, with simpler dreams. The guy next door types–men not in search of fame or glory. The guys people might have sat next to on a bus, never imagining they could possibly be gay. Guys who just wanted what most people anywhere want–to love and be loved. Tons of these wonderful men were taken from the world too.
Epilogue: My personal ‘in memoriam’
Billy Eddy Guy Bruce Bob R Perry Joe C Brandon Jay (lu boy) Curtis
Bob J Jimmy V Louie Joe L Mark L Tony Julio Otis Jimmy D Adam
Leonard Mark A Ed & Joe Freddie Bob B Charles Jim B Gerry Cees John
I never dreamed something so awful would happen in my life, let alone that I would ever need to write about it.