- Writers Retreat
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I’ve written a lot of stuff that was never published, for whatever reason. Maybe that’s true of you, too. Most of it is really bad, which: mystery solved. It has earned its place in the back of a drawer, or in my case, neatly filed in black plastic boxes that I bought at Staples and have stashed in one or another of the many offices I’ve occupied at my teaching job in Queens.
At work, as in my life in New York, I move around a lot. Last March I moved to Brooklyn, into an apartment where there’s room for black boxes, and I have been bringing home from school, one box at a time, evidence of my failure to publish most of what I’ve written since 1989.
Just now, I was on the E train between Jackson Heights/Roosevelt Avenue and West 4th Street, carting two boxes, which I stacked on top of each other on the white-speckled black linoleum subway floor, and I opened the top box experimentally, hoping only for distraction. I had no idea what was in it.
I found manila folders, helpfully labeled–thank you, my previous self–and containing: the typewritten fiction manuscript of a long dead friend. Letters I sent and received through snail mail, at the end of a century in which the words “snail mail,” in their present usage, would not have made sense. Bank statements for a closed account in a bank that no longer exists. And in the back of the box, a file tagged, “Essay Drafts,” the label handwritten in red pen in my longhand script, which I haven’t really seen, except in my signature, for fifteen years.
I pulled the sheaf of drafted essays from their folder. There were seven of them, each about 2,000 words, printed on computer paper and stapled in the corner. The first one was dated, not in my hand, “11/15/93.” Twenty years ago, almost exactly. Here’s how it began. “History is a grim place, filled with evidence of our stupidity, lust, and rage.” In the margin at the top of the page, someone–my editor, I guess–had written, “Yes! Getting close!” It turned out to be an essay about astrology. I was writing at the time for Details magazine, as Contributing Editor, which meant I was on staff, not freelance, and I was paid a fixed sum each month and required to produce at least six feature length stories per year, or twelve shorter opinion pieces, or some combination of short and long pieces.
“People are animals,” I wrote, further down the page, beside which my editor wrote, “Yes!!” He also wrote, a page later, next to a reference to togas, hieroglyphics, and Cleopatra eye makeup, “too flip.” There were more essays in the stack, and I paged through them. “Tops and Bottoms,” the next one was called, which was not about pajamas. I vaguely remembered writing it on spec for an editor, now dead, who worked for a New York Lesbian and gay magazine–we wouldn’t have said “LGBTQ,” then–that has since moved to LA. Another essay, which I did publish, was a profile of a famous writer, for which I had to apologize to the writer, years later, when he was unexpectedly and extravagantly nice to me at a party. He had never seen the profile, he said. Oops. Let the past stay past.
“High school homophobia” was the title I scrawled across the top of an essay I started writing in 1982 and haven’t finished writing, though parts of it are in my second novel, and parts of it are online in a video I posted last year to Youtube, and the rest of it continues to morph and change in my head. “An unpublishable private literature that jetplanes 1400 miles an hour,” Allen Ginsberg calls the story in your head that never stops being written, visions and revisions.
The last three drafted essays in the stack were the same essay in three different versions, “Political Funerals.” About dead gay men and political activism and AIDS. I don’t think it was ever published. I can’t remember. I’m guessing it wouldn’t have been. Certainly not in Details, even though its readership was officially 20% gay men. It was radical at the time for a mainstream straight guys’ music magazine even to acknowledge it had gay readers, which was part of what gave Details its street cred as cutting edge. That doesn’t mean, however, that Details didn’t police references to homosexuality in the articles I submitted. “This isn’t universal enough,” the editor-in-chief said of a piece in which I wrote about being gay. It was a first person article on me and a bunch of my college classmates and our first few years since graduation. Sort of Girls except without Twitter, or texting, or Brooklyn, or me naked. I had to go back and de-gay myself.
Okay, yeah, it’s true that Details ran a piece where I wrote about having sex with a guy– a marine, who was stationed in North Carolina. I can’t believe I put him at risk of being discharged from the military, in 1993. His night with a gay guy from New York ending up in print. Hey, wanna have sex with me and then read about it? And then be court-martialed? I tried to disguise him as much as possible. If he’s reading this, I hope he’s alive and well. His name was John, which I can say now. I’m sorry, John. He was a straight guy. That’s what he told me and himself, and it was the first time it occurred to me that many men don’t see or feel or live or mind the contradiction between being straight and sleeping with men once in a while. He wasn’t a closet case. Or a bisexual. He was straight, is all, and it was Friday night.
Details would let me “be gay” in print–even graphically gay– if the story was about gay men and their perilous lives. If the subject involved straight people, or if it had nothing to do with sex, I had to be careful not to mention the gay thing. To mention even in passing that you, a guy, were involved in a relationship with a guy, was a provocation. It was “making it not universal enough.” Gay was personal, sexual, and idiosyncratic. Heterosexuality on the other hand was all of us–understood by definition to include everyone.
I can’t complain. It was a great job. Everything I said above is probably not true. I remember wrong, and to my own advantage. Details paid a lot and my editor, who was gay, was nice to me. Anything I wanted to write, he said, “Sure.” If I called up and said, “astrology,” he said, “Where’s my moon?” If I said, “declaring bankruptcy,” he said, “It’s due Tuesday.” Gays in the military. Evangelical Christians in Southern California making antigay videos in the high desert. He sent me around the country on the company’s dime. I spent six weeks in Santa Fe with a rental car I charged to Condé Nast, doing–what? I can’t imagine how I got that gig. I wrote nothing all summer. I had my colon cleansed, because, you know, when in Santa Fe. I went to a foot reflexologist. I saw a past life regressor whose session I later put in my second novel. But I wrote nothing for Details.
I can’t believe how lucky I was. I’d know now, today, this time. If the piece I wrote about political funerals had ever shown up in print, I would have saved the tear sheets, ripped them out of the magazine. I would still have them. I don’t. One thing I learned in writing for mainstream magazines, as a gay man, who often wanted to write about gay stuff – death and homophobia and boyfriends, assuming those are separate categories–was that straight men, straight male editors–and straight women, just as often, I should add–thought that if they ran one piece about homophobia or AIDS or gay rights or Lesbian Avengers, they had covered the entire topic for all time, and they had thought it through sufficiently, and they understood it, and they were done with it, and they had gotten over their homophobia, and so had their readers.
“What about my homophobia?” I’d say. “I’m gay, and I haven’t gotten over my homophobia. How have you gotten over yours?”
And they would say, “We’ve run that story already.”
That story about dead gay men. Every magazine was allowed to run one such story–if the magazine was bold enough to run even one.
Meanwhile they would run story after story after story about nerdy straight guys trying to get laid.
I’m talking about men’s music and fashion magazines, for straight guys and their girlfriends who read their boyfriends’ magazines in the john, and 20% gay guys, in the early ‘90s. Glossies. Keanu Reeves on the cover, beautifully homoerotic. These magazines would let queers speak for themselves sometimes, as queers, where The New Yorker or Esquire or GQ or Harper’s or The Atlantic would not.
Some of this, by the way, has not changed, or it has changed in ways that obscure the extent to which it has not changed.
All the old structures of homophobic thinking are still in place, ever renewed in their strength and fervor, even as they are made to seem outmoded to some people in some neighborhoods or regions or countries.
“It was the summer of haircuts and funerals” is the first line of the first draft of my essay about political funerals.
“My friend Jon Greenberg died a week after the heat broke,” is the first line of the second and third drafts.
I don’t know if I was writing these versions on assignment for an editor, or for myself, hoping to find an interested editor.
I hate them all. I read them on the E train. Tomorrow night I’m going to a meeting for “survivors” of the first fifteen years of the global AIDS crisis, 1981 to 1996–people whose lives were transfigured by AIDS, whether they are now living with HIV, or whether their lovers and friends are still living with HIV, or whether their lovers or friends went off their meds and died, because they were tired of living with HIV.
I read these essays about dead friends, sitting on the E train, headed home, thinking of the friends I will see tomorrow night.
It was an especially painful loss, I said, about Jon Greenberg’s death.
I’ll put painful in context. I first heard about AIDS in 1981, a year after I moved to New York, and by 1984 I knew fifteen people who died. Half the guys who came to my twenty-fifth birthday party were dead in two years. I watched people die alone in City hospital beds surrounded by maliciously indifferent nurses, and I saw them die at home on Wamsutta sheets among a circle of friends.
A dozen of my friends are HIV positive now, I said, in 1993, including my closest friend, whose health I monitor as obsessively as if we were slipping into old age together. He is thirty-six years old, and I am thirty-four.
Jon Greenberg was thirty-seven when he died, I said, back then.
I’m fifty-four years old now.
I like the haircuts version of the essay slightly better. It’s silly.
A summer of haircuts and funerals.
Whole families dogged by the heat were sleeping in East River Park, I said, watched by the moon and midnight joggers. Everyone else was either acting up or dying out. My friend Dave switched HIV drug regimens from AZT to ddI and ddC and then to D4-T, which he called Death at Forty. Our friend Michael made a pilgrimage to Lourdes, where the streets were crammed with tourists buying glow-in-the-dark Virgin Marys, The Basilica where they went to be cured was wheelchair inaccessible.
Another friend who did not have HIV but was a regular at ACT UP meetings and demonstrations decided that what he longed for all his life was to have his head shaved by a naked guy with a pair of electric shears. There was a group that did this, called Clippers. My friend disappeared from activism for a while, showing up every few weeks with shorter hair. In a couple of months, his hairstyle went from shaggy to sheared. When he was completely bald, he grew a goatee, maybe to have something still possible to shave.
Everyone in the East Village seemed to be going through a strident self-transformation, sometimes involving tattoos and piercings, until people were marked and hung with so many amulets and emblems that their bodies needed annotating. They deconstructed each other at parties. I ate Häagen Dazs and had sex in the park. My body, which I have always loathed, was suddenly precious to me, not as a means to pleasure, but just in its thing-i-ness, when so many others were being yanked from the human condition. The sight of two men fucking naked in the moonlight was shocking not because it was sexual, or public, or unsafe for all I knew–it was dark, who could see, was I supposed to walk up and reach out and check for the condoms?– but because it showed what we were losing. Our bodies, which we had and were. Our friends now walking the planet. Our ability to touch each other just because we were alive.
That was 1993.
I can’t believe I didn’t walk up and check for condoms.
It was impossible to touch my friend Jon Greenberg at his funeral in Tompkins Square Park, I said, in the middle of July. Too many people were standing in a crowd around him. His body was embalmed and it was on display in an open coffin underneath a shady tree near a volleyball net, where teenaged boys were tossing a ball back and forth. Death is as intimate as sex and today it was also public, as we watched each other go to his body with offerings, flowers, kisses, strings of beads. He was putty colored and he looked like he was staring, though his eyes were closed. A Radical Faerie in death, which ought to be a contradiction in terms, he was dressed in a floral shirt that just covered his nipples and tight purple trousers that disappeared into the closed half of his coffin.
His death was especially painful, I said, because he was not an intimate friend. He was one of the people who make up the frame around my life, and who are important to me because we hold each other in place. Without him, I feel unhinged. I knew him from ACT UP. We were arrested together. Once we were both guests on a Jersey cable TV show about AIDS activism. The last few times I saw him were in passing, on the street, when we briefly stopped to talk. He lived a few blocks from me, and it felt safer, somehow, to be here, when he was.
I have no idea how he made money, or who took care of him or tucked him in at night, or whether anyone did. He wandered fluidly from one moment to the next, as if the laws of cause-effect did not apply to him. Even his body, long and angled and lean, seemed to defy the earth’s gravitational pull. I never believed until the morning I got the wake-up call that he would die, fighting for his life in a hospital bed, ravaged by meningitis.
The last time I saw him, I said, in another draft, his skin was dried severely, but his eyes were lovely, and I told him he was handsome, which was true. He went from being functionally sick to really sick, and he died after fighting AIDS every day for two years.
He died with a lot of his ideas about death and disease floating around lower Manhattan on Xeroxed sheets with titles like The Metaphysics of AIDS. He died believing that the body succumbs to a virus because it can’t or won’t process the useful information that HIV contains. Love your virus, he said.
“What is he talking about?” my friend Dave said, who’d graduated with a degree in pure math – “not applied, never say applied, please, casta diva, it was pure math”–from MIT. “AIDS is like the UPS guy with a package you haven’t learned how to unwrap? Or sign for?”
We carried his coffin in a public procession up First Avenue, that day, I said, in every draft. From Houston Street, where Karen Finley’s poem “The Black Sheep” was cast in bronze and attached to a stone on the concrete traffic island separating Houston Street from First Street. We carried the coffin past Jon Greenberg’s apartment on First Avenue. Radical Faeries, and the Marys, his ACT UP affinity group, were playing pipes and drums and chanting over and over, “There is no end to life there is no end.” His parents from Michigan were neatly and comfortably dressed, his straight brother from California had a beard, and his gay brother from Manhattan was wearing Guatemalan shorts and smiling sadly. We had been asked to bring flowers and musical instruments, and people had roses hooked into their belts or tucked behind their ears or pinned to their collars.
The coffin had come in a van and we unloaded it and went slowly up First Avenue. The blue sky was full of clouds and the sun cast shadows of the branches of the trees across the dome of the coffin. The pallbearers were in front with the body, marching behind a banner bearing Jon’s name and the dates of his birth and death from AIDS. People held hands in human chains to block traffic. We stretched the width of First Avenue, and turned at Seventh Street to Tompkins Square Park.
There was a portable sound system in the Park and his brothers spoke. Somebody read from the Kaddish and his parents stood up and recited aloud, from memory. The volleyball game continued behind us, and young guys sitting on benches near Avenue B kept beating drums in the summer heat. Towards the end of the service, John Kelly, not in drag as Joni Mitchell for a piece of performance art, but in civilian drag, so plain he seemed naked, jeans and a t-shirt with suspenders holding his jeans up and his feet in combat boots, sang “Woodstock,” with the lyrics changed to mention the Park and drag queens and a cure for AIDS.
My friend Dave, I said, best friend, living with AIDSsince 1987, died in 1994, I didn’t say, because he wasn’t dead yet, Dave with whom I went to many funerals during the five years of our friendship, and who was always planning his own, and who, a few weeks earlier, at a “birthday party” for a dead guy at the Quaker Meeting House on 22nd Street, where a crooner in a cowboy hat and lime green dress had sung harmony with a shirtless guy in overalls who played ukulele, had whispered to me, “My plans for my death are as follows: everyone is getting exactly two minutes to speak. And if they mention AA or their ‘recovery,’ get them out of the room.”
Dave was sitting beside me. He was always silly. He was profoundly silly. He was sitting beside me. He wasn’t a guy who liked to be touched. I touched him anyway.
He died a year later, which is not how the stories end.
Nothing is being done about this disease, is how they all end, and how this ends, punk rock ending, snare drum, E train stops at West Fourth, switch to the D, head home. I’m here, alive. Twenty years later. There’s still no cure.