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    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

    My name is James Black. I'm on Facebook and Twitter. Friend and/or follow me if you like.

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Threats, Contamination, Hallelujah

As a young queer, I read Dale Peck’s novel Martin and John. John escapes abuse, meets Martin, and suffers the loss of the person and love he’s found. The only detail that stays in my memory is blood in a yellow vinyl chair, “like the red speck in a spoiled egg yolk.” The threat of contamination runs throughout the novel: that the past will contaminate the present, that men infected with HIV will die before they’ve fully lived.

That’s an oversimplification of what the novel is “about,” nevertheless what it achieves, but the threat was certainly on my mind when I read it in the mid-90s. I was in my early 20s, newly out, and afraid of losing the freedom and happiness I’d gained by escaping the closet. Someone might beat me up outside a bar. A virus might kill me. Avoiding these threats–keeping them away from my life and body–was up to me. If I failed, I was to blame.

The stakes were much higher than in my own life, which was a relief, but the novel spoke to my experience metaphorically and thematically. The details didn’t matter because it a work of art I could find myself in. Reading Martin and John was the first time I got to experience that. The feeling remains with me almost two decades later.

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Standing on Larry Kramer’s Lawn

In a very recent interview to promote the revival of his play The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer accuses young gay men today of not caring about their history. Thomas Rogers challenges Kramer’s suggestion that lack of concern for history is unique to this generation, and offers his own experience to indicate that youth’s ignorance isn’t necessarily willful.

What’s surprising is that Kramer, who has a history of accusing people they don’t care about gay history, seems to get Rogers’ message, and the interview becomes an interesting and (kind of) endearing conversation about such macro-yet-micro topics as marriage equality and the difficulty older gay men face finding sex partners. And there’s a fascinating exchange about Kramer’s ongoing feud with Ed Koch, who lives in his building. Clearly, Kramer holds grudges, and it’s hard not to wonder how much of his famous anger stems from his personality rather than injustice. But I sense there’s more to him, that maybe he’s not simply shouting at the youth of today (read: anyone younger than he is) to get off his lawn.

The problem with gay men today, Kramer and Rogers come to agree, is that we currently lack a widespread life-or-death problem like HIV/AIDS was in the early 80s. Kramer remarks that there was a “special glow of importance” during that time, and Rogers says that, after seeing Kramer’s play, he felt a “perverse nostalgia for those early AIDS years [I] never lived through. They were obviously utterly terrifying and filled with sadness, but there’s also something appealing about having this galvanizing issue to unite gay men. We don’t have that as much now.”

This kind of myth is common and powerful, and not just in the LGBT community: Once upon a time, our group (pick any group) had a common enemy, and we united to fight it/them. We worked hard. We didn’t fight among ourselves. Life was beautiful then, but now, we’re a mess. The distance created by elapsed time or lack of firsthand experience really fucks with people’s depth perception.

I have some firsthand knowledge of those days that time hasn’t let me forget. I remember a lot of confusion and pain. We worried about stopping the spread of infection, although we weren’t sure that HIV was really the cause of AIDS. We resented that no one in the mainstream seemed to give a shit about the disease until kids became infected through transfusions.

Those of us not at the head of the movement who hadn’t had the resources and/or cowardice to flee mid-size cities or rural areas, lacked the “special glow of importance” Kramer recalls. We just wanted to keep our friends from dying. We wanted the luxury of taking them for granted rather than savoring every mundane moment in case it was the last.

Far from there being a glow, we lived in a shadow of suspicion of everyone, straight and queer, as if no amount of prophylaxis or abstinence would prevent us from contracting the disease. We struggled to push away the belief that we were worthless faggots who deserved to die. Continue reading

David Died and All We Got Was This Lousy Quilt Panel

I honor my friend David’s life by thinking about him daily, but I refuse to let the story of his death go untold. The worst part of his decline was watching him change from one of my role models of out-and-proudness to someone so vulnerable he seemed to believe he’d brought his suffering on himself. He had been a fighter, but for years before he developed full-blown AIDS, the stigma of having HIV had kept him from talking about it and, I assume, kept him in denial. By the time he couldn’t deny it anymore, there wasn’t much that could be done. In the sixteen years since he died, the stigma hasn’t faded much. We’ve got to keep shining light into that darkness.

When the time came, David went home to die because the city hospitals didn’t want him. He went to a regional hospital near the no-stoplight town where he grew up. All of his sisters had worked there as nurses, so they made sure he got admitted.

I had the unfortunate honor of keeping watch with his family for his last days. We cheered on his speedy death, which didn’t seem odd at the time, as he’d suffered a long time. One of his sisters suggested that we make a souvenir, something like, “David died, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.” We agreed the only reason he would have disapproved was because he didn’t think of it first.

Sometime during those last days, a nurse asked how long I’d been with David. I wasn’t his partner, but I remember feeling relieved that the way I cared for him could be interpreted as that kind of love. I did love him like a brother, maybe. It’s the closest comparison I know. We had selected each other as family and shared a kind of intimacy that only family can allow.

David's Names Project Quilt Panel

Here's David's panel in the Names Project quilt. He's downstage-center, of course.

We had the window open a little so his soul could find a way out, but his healthy, 32-year-old heart just wouldn’t stop. Well into the third day of our vigil, his sister Julie touched my arm and said, “You know you’re welcome to stay, but please go.” As I walked to my car, the sunlight seemed too bright, the humid air too intoxicating. I didn’t deserve these gifts. I had to get home before I thought too much. I drove away as if I were trying to beat a storm, westward over two-lane roads, a single-lane bridge, where I waited at a red light, wondering as I sat there if David’s soul had found its way out of the hospital room window. I busied myself with the radio until the light turned green.

When I reached the interstate, I let it take me south toward home, but there was David, right there in my head, right there with me. Continue reading

The Day We Destroyed the City

On some sweet Saturday in April that convinced us it was June, David called me and said he had to get out of the house. By he, he meant we. The rose garden at Loose Park was a known cure for cabin fever, we agreed. Although the roses weren’t blooming yet, we could imagine what they would look like, and the stone work was lovely year-round.

We were both far too pale to deal with laying out or walking around without shirts, though. I felt no shame wearing shorts and, after some adamant convincing, got him to agree to put some on. To my great surprise, he was actually wearing them when he picked me up. The first thing I did was make fun of his pasty white legs. He then complimented me on my knobby knees. Throwing inhibitions to the wind, but grasping tight to our egos, we took off for a day of citified nature.

Loose Park spread out for we-didn’t-know-how-many square city blocks right in the middle of Kansas City. It was my ideal fantasy of what the country was like (only because I had conveniently forgotten the weekends my family spent visiting friends who lived on a farm). I preferred a little nature with my city, not the other way around.

All of the parking spots by the rose garden were full, so we drove around until we found a spot along the street at the other end of the park. We took the walkway that hugged the circumference of the park all the way around, through trees, across a little bridge that stretched across a pond, then by the playground. David wanted to stop  to play on the swings. I think he needed to stop. Within a year, he wouldn’t be able to walk very far without resting. He’d have to quit his job, go on disability, spend even more time alone. My job that day was to help him forget what was coming. If I hadn’t already known, everything about him that day might have left me blissfully ignorant. Continue reading

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