I entered college in the Fall of 82, just as AIDS was making its debut. I remember watching a Geraldo Rivera special about the disease before they were even calling it AIDS. He made it sound like the virus was something that only gay people could get. By the time I graduated in 1986, I was so afraid of catching it that I was just trying to be celibate (this is really fun in your 20’s), since no one seemed 100% certain how it was transmitted. Even at that, I was convinced I either had it anyway from the little I’d done, or that I would get it.
Neither came true for me, but it came true for a whole lot of other people. I was lucky—I didn’t lose friends to the disease like many people did. I didn’t even know anyone who identified as being HIV positive in Rochester.
In 1989, however, I went to NYC for 6 weeks to try and write a book on Debbie Harry, during which time I interviewed photographers and film producers who had worked with her, and many of them were sick and dying with the disease. One photographer who died within weeks of our visit was so ill that I’m sure he only met with me in the hope of procuring some much-needed cash for his photographs which I sadly could not afford. He was skeletal and flushed with sweat and he lived at the top of a sweltering walk-up. It must have been awful for him climbing those stairs in his condition, and I wouldn’t doubt that maybe he couldn’t do it by that point. He may have just stayed home until the end and had people bring things to him.
A film producer I met was also alarmingly thin with the telltale purple spots on his face. He was also dead by the following year. I wonder sometimes why they were meeting with me–this nobody with no money to pay for the precious time they were giving me–and then I decide they must have just wanted to keep busy, to keep going. We all want to keep on going. Debbie had an HIV-themed song that year on one of her albums called “Forced to Live”, the refrain of which was “Keep moving!”
While in the city, I contacted the agency handling Robert Mapplethorpe to see if I could get permission to use his shots of Debbie for the book (he would die later that same month). I was told I could use his images in the mock-up but that I would have to pay their rate if the book got sold. The significance of his condition as a human being was undermined by business mumbo-jumbo. But somewhere he was laying in a room, dying, while we discussed rates.
Until I moved to California in 1997, I hadn’t personally known anyone who was positive. By that time “the cocktail” had been invented and was coming into use, and AIDS was no longer the proverbial death sentence it had been before (although for many, it came too late). My Mom died that year and that was the first big loss of my life. But many people my age had already lost ALL of their best friends or lovers.
AIDS stopped being a terrifying abstraction to me as I got to know more and more people with HIV. But by not moving to a major city until the late 90’s, I had inadvertently missed the holocaust. By then, I was able to see it for what it had become– a health condition that could be managed. Not a gay plague.
I don’t pretend to have lived through what so many people my age suffered as a result of the AIDS crisis. It did break my heart once–vicariously–really broke it, and once was enough. I can hardly imagine my “once” multiplied by dozens.
It reminds me of of a video client I had in the early 2000s, now passed on, who seemed, quite frankly, nuts. He was a hysteric. I had to work closely with him for weeks so I forced myself to like him anyway. One day he drove me home from work and we sat talking in his car for awhile. He told me he had lost ALL his friends to AIDS back in the 80’s and 90’s. Every last one, and that he thought it had made him crazy, because there were just too many awful memories, too much longing and missing, too much grief to carry. This must be true for so many people.
Finally, I think of all the people who should be here now, adding their light and humor and creativity to a generation that is now missing a giant piece of itself. A large percentage of them would have been the people who had my vernacular–who grew up liking what I like. Referencing old movies and old music and literature, and combining that vernacular with the experience of being a gay man. All that they stood to contribute to the world–personally and culturally– is just gone. I miss them—even the ones I never met. They would have been friends, lovers, and cultural figures that I now will never having the pleasure of knowing.
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