Friday Night at 8: December 1

December 1 is my birthday.  It is the day of my mother’s funeral, back in 1992.  The day that Brown v. Board of education ended segregation in our nation’s school

It is also World AIDS day.

I moved to New York City in September of 1981.  My best friend and soulmate, Jeff, lived there and I was going to stay with him and his lover until I got my own apartment.

My first job was at a lawfirm, I remember a gay friend and co-worker telling me about the “gay cancer.”  I quickly forgot about it, knowing Tom was a terrible hypochondriac.

Jeff was a renaissance man in many ways.  He was always active, never idle.  He painted, worked hard as a photo retoucher, danced beautifully and went out constantly to the bars to party till the break of dawn.  His cooking was legendary.  His sense of humor was what bonded us the most — I loved to make him laugh.  He had no tact and often got in trouble with folks because of that, but would usually win them back by having them over for dinner.

His sexual exploits were also legendary and I was his confidante for many stories.

His temper was terrible as well and we often fought, though we always made up.

When I had my mental problems back in the late 70’s, Jeff would call my mother to comfort her (I only found this out several years later).  He wrote me a little picture book to cheer me up, a humerous biography with hand-made pop-out drawings of my plight.  I still have that book.

All block quotes are from And the Band Played On, by Randy Shilts (1987):

By October 2, 1985, the morning Rock Hudson died, the word was familiar to almost every household in the Western World.


Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome had seemed a comfortably distant threat to most of those who had heard of it before, the misfortune of people who fit into rather distinct classes of outcasts and social pariahs.  But suddenly, in the summer of 1985, when a movie star was diagnosed with the disease and the newspapers couldn’t stop talking about it, the AIDS epidemic became palpable and the threat loomed everywhere.

Suddenly there were children with AIDS who wanted to go to school, laborers with AIDS who wanted to work, and researchers who wanted funding, and there was a threat to the nation’s public health that could no longer be ignored.  Most significantly, there were the first glimmers of awareness that the future would always contain this strange new word.  AIDS would become a part of American culture and indelibly change the course of our lives.

The implications would not be fleshed out for another few years, but on that October day in 1985 the first awareness existed just the same.  Rock Hudson riveted America’s attention upon this deadly new threat for the first time, and his diagnosis became a demarcation that would separate the history of America before AIDS from the history that came after.

In December of 1983, Jeff started acting strangely.  For someone who was virtually never moody and never idle, he became both.  Our circle of friends began to be annoyed and wondered why he was acting this way.

The timing of this awareness, however, reflected the unalterable tragedy at the heart of the AIDS epidemic:  By the time America paid attention to the disease, it was too late to do anything about it.  The virus was already pandemic in the nation, having spread to every corner of hte North American continent.  The tide of death that would later sweep America could, perhaps, be slowed, but it could not be stopped.

The AIDS epidemic, of course, did not arise full grown from the biological landscape; the problem had been festering throughout the decade.  The death tolls of the late 1980s are not startling new developments but an unfolding of events predicted for many years.  There had been a time when much of this suffering could have been prevented, but by 1985 that tine had passed.  Indeed, on the day the world learned that Rock Hudson was stricken some 12,000 Americans were already dead or dying of AIDS and hundreds of thousands more were infected with the virus that caused the disease.  But few had paid any attention to this; nobody, it seemed, had cared about them.

In late January of 1984, Jeff finally went to the doctor, who sent him immediately to the hospital to be treated for pneumonia.  Always thin, Jeff was beginning to look dangerously underweight.

Jeff’s lover and two or three of his friends were in his hospital room a day or so later.  I was standing to his right, and his lover to his left.  We were circled around his bed.

He looked at his lover and said, “oh, I am so sorry, the doctor told me I have AIDS, I am so sorry…” and he cried.

I just stood there in what seemed a timeless moment.  I didn’t understand what I was hearing.

We all left the room so Jeff and his lover could have some privacy.  We hugged each other, but all I felt was a kind of strangeness, a feeling I had never had before.  I didn’t have a clue as to what I was feeling.  Of course, I realized later it was shock.

The bitter truth was that AIDS did not just happen to America–it was allowed to happen by an array of institutions, all of which failed to perform their appropriate tasks to safeguard the public health.  This failure of the system leaves a legacy of unnecessary suffering that will haunt the Western world for decades to come.

There was no excuse, in this country and in this time, for the spread of a deadly new epidemic.  For this was a time in which the United States boasted the world’s most sophisticated medicine and the world’s most extensive public health system, geared to eiminate such pestilence from our national life.  When the virus appeared, the world’s richest nation housed the most lavishly financed scientific research establishments–both inside the vast governmental health bureaucracy and in other institutions–to investigate new diseases and quickly bring them under control.  And making sure that government rsearchers and public health agencies did their jobs were the world’s most unfettered and aggressivev media, the public’s watchdogs.  Beyond that, the group most affected by the epidemic, the gay community,had by then built a substantial political infrastructure, particularly in cities where the disease struck first and most virulently.  Leaders were in place to monitor the gay community’s health and survival interests.

Jeff beat the pneumocystis pneumonia and came back home to his big flat on Waverly Place in the Village, a place that had known amazing parties that would last several days, a place of such enormous hospitality that I have never seen the like since.

The doctor had told Jeff the prognosis was around a year to a year and a half.  Jeff made the decision almost immediately to pack as much living into that time as he could.  And that’s just what he did.

But from 1980, when the first isolated gay men began falling ill from strange and exotic ailments, nearly five years passed before all these institutions–medicine, public health, the federal and private scientific research establishments, the mass media, and the gay community’s leadership–mobilized the way they should in a time of threat.  The story of these first five years of AIDS in America is a drama of national failure, played out against a backdrop of needless death.

People died while the Reagan administration officials ignored pleas from governmental scientists and did not allocate adequate funding for AIDS research until the epidemic had already spread throughout the country.

People died and nobody paid attention because the mass media did not like covering stories about homosexuals and was especially skittish about stories that involved gay sexuality.  Newspapers and television largely avoided discussion of the disease until the death toll was too high to ignore and the casualties were no longer just the outcasts.  Without the media to fulfill its role as public guardian, everyone else was left to deal–and not deal– with AIDS as they saw fit.

All of us, our circle of friends, felt a sense of wonder and joy at the way Jeff was acting.  We felt he would recover from this illness.  We couldn’t find much in the news about it, there were no intertubes, but Jeff’s lover was a scientific kind of guy and pored through the medical books.  We had to be careful around Jeff that we didn’t make him sick with a cold or any infectious illness.

Jeff’s lover, and the rest of us, went through a brief period where we were consumed with paranoia and frightened we were “next.”  The rumors were that you could get AIDS from saliva.  From a toothbrush.  From just about everything.  The paranoia faded quickly and we ended up comfortable drinking out of the same cup, being physically close, all that.  The paranoia never returned.

Jeff went through various illnesses, but none landed him back in the hospital.  He took a “dream trip” to Hawaii with his lover and little trips around the tri-state area.

We went on a magical picnic, all of us.  We all dressed in drag.  Jeff did the cooking and we used china and silver and wine glasses.  We smoked pot.  Here we were in this sylvan setting, dressed in bright parakeet colored costumes, eating wonderful food, feeling invulnerable.

The only other woman in our group, Barb, and I had always been great rivals over Jeff.  After his diagnosis, we still vied for his attention, but our hearts weren’t in it.

Near our picnic area was a lovely pond.  Jeff and Barb and I decided to splash around a bit.

Jeff was gay, but his sexuality was so boundless that he also enjoyed a woman’s body, and both Barb and I had been in love with him several separate times.

We were at the pond.  Barb and I, took off our shirts so Jeff could ogle our breasts.  The look of childlike joy on his face, the moment, the love between the three of us was strangely impersonal and not stimulating sexually, but a wonderful human moment I will never forget.  There was no jealousy and no possessiveness, just love.

On the ride back to the city, Jeff started fighting with his lover, saying his usual awful tactless insults.  I finally asked him, “why do you act this way?” and he responded without missing a beat, “Because I’m an asshole!” and we all busted out laughing.  It was true after all.

In those early years, the federal government viewed AIDS as a budget problem, local public health officials saw it as a political problem, gay leaders considered AIDS a public relations problem, and the news media regarded it as a homosexual problem that wouldn’t interest anybody else.  Consequently, few confronted AIDS for what it was, a profoundly threatening medical crisis.

Fighting against this institutional indifference were a handful of heroes from disparate callings.  Isolated teams of scientists in research centers in America and Europe risked their reputations and often their jobs to pioneer early research on AIDS.  There were doctors and nurses who went far beyond the call of duty to care for its victims.  Some public health officials struggled valiantly to have the epidemic addressed in earnest.  A handful of gay leaders withstood vilification to argue forcefully for a sane community response to the epidemic and to lobby for the funds that provided the first breakthroughs in research.  And there were many victims of the epidemic who fought rejection, fear, isolation and their own deadly prognosis to make people understand and to make people care.

Jeff had insurance from his job, so he didn’t have to worry about medical bills.  He went in the hospital occasionally for this or that opportunistic infection, but usually only for a few days.  We would compete to visit him — he had decorated his room with eucalyptus branches and lord knows what else, and we had just as much fun there as we’d experienced at his apartment.

Finally, the stays became longer.  The euphoria we had felt began to fade and we all exhibited our own symptoms of stress.  We bickered and we got frightened and all the usual things you’d expect.

Easter of 1985 — Jeff was determined to make a feast.  I walked with him to Balducci’s, only a few blocks away.  Less than halfway there he stopped me and just leaned lightly against me.  I couldn’t believe he was going to go through with this when he was so weak.

But after that, he somehow made it to the store, did the shopping, walked back home, me carrying the bags.

Oh what a strange dinner!  Jeff hardly ate anything at all.  We felt awful, but the food was so damned good we pretty much ignored him and dug in.  Blueberry pie.  Well, we made some very bad gallows humor jokes about that blueberry pie.

On May 7, 1985, I got a call while at work, it was in the morning.  It was Jeff’s lover.  “It’s happening,” he said.  I stood up and went over to the attorney I was working for at the time — he knew what was going on and said, “go, just leave now, don’t worry about anything.”

It was a gorgeous early summer day.  NYC had had a drought, days and days of perfect sunny weather.

I took a cab to the hospital.  I arrived in front of his room, the hallway was lit by a long shaft of sunlight, and Jeff’s lover was standing in it, looking at me.  I  knew Jeff had already died.

I went into Jeff’s room and saw his corpse.  I touched his foot, it was there all right.  But Jeff was gone, I knew I was just looking at a vacated shell.  Jeff’s lover told me the last thing Jeff did was ask what time it was, pointing, as he couldn’t breathe or talk, but with a very clear annoyed look on his face, sort of a “hurry up, I need to know this!”

He lived right up until the moment he died.

Because of their efforts, the story of politics, people, and the AIDS epidemmic is, ultimately, a tale of courage as well as cowardice, compassion as well as bigotry, inspiration as well as venality, and redemption as well as despair.

Jeff had asked for his ashes to be buried at Mount Tamalpias in San Francisco, where he had experienced a great vacation with his lover.  We all flew there.  As we were climbing up the hill, I started to fall and slide down — I am not a nature girl and I was cursing Jeff for choosing this place.

All of a sudden I heard very clerarly, no – not from heaven, from my own heart – his big belly laugh, which he’d let out every time I’d do something silly.

I righted myself and climbed the rest of the hill.  Then Richard, dear Richard, Jeff’s lover, opened the can holding the ashes.  As I tossed my handful, a cloud of Jeff came back and sprayed me in the face.  I heard the belly laugh once more.

It is a tale that bears telling, so that it will never happen again, to any people, anywhere.

Randy Shilts was born on August 8, 1951.  He was a highly acclaimed, pioneering gay American journalist and author.  Randy Shilts made me understand the story I had lived through and what it meant.  He died of AIDS on February 17, 1994.

I dedicate this diary to my friend Jeff, to Richard, to Barb, Tino, Paul, Maurice, the whole gang, dead or alive, and with heartfelt gratitude to an American hero, Randy Shilts.


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  1. And I’m ready, baby.

  2. …as a moment of absolutely stunned, awed silence.

    Beautiful rememberance. I never blamed the government for taking so long. Not like I blame them now for fighting generic drugs and letting people die on waiting lists. I remember how few families gave a shit when their queer kids died. How small we were suddenly, when things had seemed endlessly possible. How people I’d partied with taught me how to die well.

  3. I am in tears at this heartbreaking and beautiful story.

    Thanks NPK – maybe more later.  

  4. that I lost touch with shouted my name at a mall in the mid-eighties. We laughed and talked and stopped for coffee. I thought it was weird that he did not hug me. At the end of the conversation he said,” Well you mights as well know that I have AIDS.” I heard via the grapevine that he was sick but no specifics. He said,” Are you coming to my funeral because I am not sure who will at this point.” I hugged him and said I would. The irony is he had already survived testicular cancer. He was one of those fucking hilarious people who could be counted on to say exactly what everybody hoped somebody wouldn’t say. His name was Bill, he had curly hair and  tons of people that he had touched and made laugh over the years showed up at the funeral.

  5. I don’t have anything to say except that I want you to know what an important diary this is and that I’m filled with gratitude to you for writing it.

    Happy Birthday, NPK.  

    • Robyn on December 1, 2007 at 02:42

    I’m struggling with all that is going on here, there, and elsewhere since the memories of Kurt keep reminding me that I should remember him so much more than I do.

    But whenever I do, I try to pass on to someone else the help he gave me.


    • Temmoku on December 1, 2007 at 03:22

    we are almost Birthday buddies….December is a wonderful month…full of clear nights where the stars shine through eternity…

    However, I am older than you. But you are as old as my baby Brother would have been if he had lasted till his Birthday.

    He died March 10th of Liver failure His Birthday was March 15th (the day of his funeral)…a beautiful mind and talent in his own right…I miss him.

    Your story could have been about him.


  6. and I just wanted to say that I got so caught up in the emotions of your story that I forgot to say Happy Birthday tomorrow. Hope its a joyous celebration!

  7. Thank you for sharing this story. HIV is still a  specter  hanging over all of us, almost 30 years after we* first learned about it. For that reason and many others, it remains essential that we remember those who lost their lives too soon.

    *Yes, I’m a 1985er, so it’s been a problem for my entire life.

    • Alma on December 1, 2007 at 05:48

    I hope you have a good time and a fun evening planned.  But hey, even if you just have a drink with the parrot, that works.  🙂  Squawk

  8. Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

  9. Thanks for sharing this NPK. I really look up to you for your writing and express-ability (is that a word?).  I’m so glad you are here on DD.  

    Cheers to a good birthday!    

    • dkmich on December 2, 2007 at 13:44

    so belatedly,  I hope you have a very Happy Birthday!  

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