It starts with a nosebleed and ends with a dead guy. Three dead guys, actually, and one of them is Ed Koch.
Something remarkable happened after Koch’s death: the New York Times rewrote his obituary. In the first version, nobody said what many people knew, and had long known: that Mayor Koch in his two terms in office as the highest ranking public official in the biggest city in the US and world financial center presided over a health crisis that was quickly going global and would, by the end of the 1980s, kill 50,000 Americans (as many Americans as died in the Vietnam War).
Ed Koch was responsible for the deaths of thousands of New Yorkers, said nearly everyone I knew who lived in New York City from 1980 to 1989. A war criminal, some said, and: a sell-out to real estate tycoons, a mischievous player of racial politics, egregiously Manhattan-centric (Manhattan below 125th Street), a fake liberal, de facto Republican, a gay man who had remained strategically closeted for political gain, a gay man who did not respond to the AIDS crisis with any deliberate speed because he did not want anyone to think he was a fag taking care of dying fags.
Forget Ed Koch. What struck me was that a lot of people, not just those I knew in real space/time but people I had “met” only virtually, many of whom were consistently and almost comically reverent about death – all the schmaltzy well-meaning Youtube and Facebook and Twitter tributes to the merest no big deal dead celebrity – were so outraged by Koch’s mayoral record, even now, that their immediate response to news of his death was to go online and call an 88-year-old-man, a famous now dead public servant, his body barely cold, a murderer.
More remarkable to me, however, was the number of people who did not seem to have the slightest idea why anyone would call Ed Koch a murderer.
I wondered if we had lived in the same place at the same time. Did we live in this city together all that time?
I meant to end, not open, with Ed Koch, but once I got started with him, his failures rerouted my narrative, the story of my life.
To begin again:
I got a nosebleed on the way to see The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s play about AIDS and the founding of Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Actually, I saw it twice: in 1985, in its first production, downtown at the Public Theater; and twenty-six years later, when it opened on Broadway for the first time, in a revival staged in the spring of 2011. I was twenty-six years old the first time I saw it. And because I was boyfriends from 1983 to 1989 with a guy who was for some of that time Director of Group Services for GMHC, I knew, had met, watched die, many of the people on whom the characters in the play were based. People who had sat for Kramer’s composite portraits: Paul Popham, Paul Rapoport, Nathan Fain, Enno Poersch, Mitchell Cutler, Dan Bailey, Rodger McFarlane. . .
Seeing The Normal Heart again after twenty-six years would be like watching a lot of upsetting home movies. When I finally bought a ticket, there was nothing left but the next-to-last peformance, a Sunday matinée. I was living then in an apartment that was two long and three short blocks from the Golden Theater, and I left home in plenty of time to get there before the curtain went up.
Suddenly my nose was bleeding. I knew right away it was blood, because it ran straight and fast the way blood runs from a burst vein, as if you’d been punched or whacked in the face by a fly ball or forced suddenly to live too high above sea level. I didn’t have anything like a handkerchief. Not even a wad of Kleenex. I tipped my head back, and hoped. I was on a crowded street in midtown on a summer day, near Amy’s Bread, standing with my head way back and my fingers hiding my face, which was bloody. I didn’t want to make my shirt a rag. I didn’t see how I could walk blood-soaked into Amy’s Bread, saying, “Excuse me, does somebody have a napkin?”
My long-ago best friend, David B. Feinberg, novelist, activist, journalist, who died of AIDS in 1994, had lived five blocks from where I was standing. I had often walked with him down 9thAvenue, before and after he got sick, before and after he needed help to walk anywhere. Eventually, I had to watch him lose control of his bodily functions, sometimes in public. Maybe Dave was sending me a nosebleed from the beyond. It crossed my mind. I don’t often get nosebleeds, or even a cold, and I felt exposed, bleeding all over myself on the tourist-encrusted sidewalk, trying not to splatter anyone but myself.
I walked half a block north to the Starbuck’s, dashed in, grabbed a handful of napkins, and ran outside to the small park two doors down. For fifteen minutes, I sat on a park bench with a napkin up my nose. Then I washed off in a water fountain, cleared my throat, and ran to the theater. A big glob of blood came up in my throat, which I spit in the gutter on 47th Street. “Okay, so now I’m spitting blood.” It was not the worst thing that happened, to me or anyone else. I got to the theater on time.
I don’t know what to say about the play. I mean, I knew the story. It was traumatic because I knew: the familiar plot, the characters I recognized, everyone’s inevitable death. The ending clear from the outset like in Oedipus. Actual bodies I’d seen collapse in the real world given life again onstage, only in order to die again, onstage. The packed theater audience, full of what I assumed were straight couples in their 50s. My age, my generation, as far as I could tell. Baby boomers. They had lived through the AIDS crisis, they had been there when it happened. Were here now. And yet, the vibe in the room was: “How could this have happened? Could this have happened? Did it really happen? I can’t believe it happened.”
Okay, interpret a vibe. Read an affect, a big silent collective tone. How could I know what people in the audience were thinking? I couldn’t. I could only sense. I’m saying I heard a tone in their sobbing. People were sobbing. I sat in an aisle seat thirteen rows back and way to the right, feeling out-of-it, because the audience was reacting to the show as if it were news.
All around me, people were gasping with shock and surprise, as if everything that I had learned to take for granted in my twenties and thirties and ever since, unrelenting trauma and loss, hadn’t occurred to them. As if the intensity I had grown to expect from friendship and love – the intimacy of knowing that each new relationship, new friendship, would end in death, end very soon – had never occurred to them. Hadn’t it occurred to them?
“Trauma isn’t intimacy,” a shrink once told me, years after everyone had died. For me, however, trauma was a daily experience for a long time. It was how I got close to people, and how they went away. Trauma was always there and inevitable, like weather.
The guy next to me in Row J was antsy and all elbows and he was halfway in my seat. I spent the play scrunched to the right and clutching my armrest to stay out of his way. I couldn’t breathe. The play was like that, and my life had been like that. Paul Rapoport, one of the founders of GMHC, had come to my twenty-fifth birthday party. So had Raymond Jacobs, Diego Lopez, Peter Kunz-Opfersei, Jim Christon, Luis Jiminez-Alvarez, Richard Gambe, Ken Wien, DeeCee Husband, Edwin Alexander, people who had worked at GMHC and/or used its services. Some of them were dead within two years of that party, some in five. Only one of them was still alive by the time I turned thirty.
The audience was sobbing in a tone of disbelief during the play’s most upsetting speech, when a guy named Bruce Niles tells the story of getting on a plane and flying his dying lover from New York home to Arizona. The lover dies on the way. First, the pilot won’t leave the ground because a guy with AIDS is on the plane. They get a new pilot. The plane takes off. The lover shits and pisses all over himself on the plane. He’s dead by the time the plane lands. Police cars are waiting to take him off the plane, the police officers dressed in full-body prophylactic latex, looking “like astronauts.” Nobody wants to touch the body. They get it off the plane, take it to a hospital, where it ends up wrapped in a plastic trash bag and left outside the hospital, like garbage. The mother and the dead guy’s boyfriend carry the bagged body into her car and drive it to a mortician, who finally consents to burn it.
I understood this of death to be not melodrama, not a cry for help, not a dramatization of loss, but: documentary. I knew every word was true. It wasn’t sad, it was fact. It wasn’t just sad. It was fifty people I knew who died, and the way they died. It was one hundred people. How do you feel when you look at a photograph of war dead, spread across a barren field or draped over charred jeeps and tanks, how do you react to that photograph when you know you’re standing to the left of the frame, just outside of the camera’s view?
So many disasters, so many public, epic catastrophes have reached us, ruined us, affected us. News of epidemic loss fills our daily lives, virtual and actual, our Twitter accounts, our Facebook newsfeeds. Nobody can talk about US history anymore without saying, “before 9/11” or “after 9/11.” Katrina, Sandy, Newtown, Trayvon Martin, Kimani Gray, a Sikh temple in Milwaukee, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Boston: we measure our lives in catastrophe. And yet there is still an unshakable aura of otherness surrounding AIDS that prevents even people newly exposed to the disease in 2013 from seeking treatment – because they are ashamed, because AIDS happens, not to us, but to them. People are ashamed to say what happened to them.
What happened to you?
Here’s what happened to me:
Facebook. And twenty-five years. Not in that order. → READ MORE