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- Years of Living Precariously, pt VI: High Flight. A&U Magazine
- Years of Living Precariously, A&U Magazine, September, 2020 Part V, “In An Instant” – the exact moment I acquired the virus, in Honolulu, August 1984
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- “Not Our First Pandemic”: The View From A Long-Term HIV Survivor, Talkspace Newsletter
- “Years of Living Precariously”, A&U Magazine, chapter 4: Someone Like Me. Coming out, pursuing men, and practicing safer sex, pre-HIV discovery, Honolulu, 1984
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(re-posted for National HIV/AIDS and Aging Awareness Day 2020)
The latest chapter in my monthly series for A&U magazine, “Years of Living Precariously”, chronicling my experiences during the early years of the AIDS epidemic
Part VI. 1984. Returning to NYC, following a fateful event in Honolulu.
“The flight attendant brought me a cup of warm pineapple juice and I cried. I cried because I was in the pilot’s hands and he had shared a bit of beauty with me and I couldn’t go back I could never go back and hovering in this pocket of air I knew that my life would never be the same.”
Years of Living Precariously, A&U Magazine, September, 2020 Part V, “In An Instant” – the exact moment I acquired the virus, in Honolulu, August 1984
YOLP V In An Instant
That evening in Honolulu progressed as my All-American military hero and I went together to the only after-hours club, near the bars, and only two blocks from where my parents slept in their condo on Ala Wai Boulevard, blissfully unaware of their son’s depravity.
We closed the bar, and the next thing I knew I was giving my warrior a 45-minute blowjob in his Jeep, hurtling 100 miles an hour down a dark, deserted highway at four o’clock in the morning. His dick perfectly matched the rest of the perfect him, and neither of us cared about the possibility of an accident, which was highly possible, going 100 miles an hour, under the influence of considerable alcohol and cocaine.
My mind flashed momentarily to John Irving’s The World According to Garp: The image of an eviscerated blood-soaked member dangling from my mouth as the emergency crew jimmied us from the wreckage.
But the jeep miraculously came to a halt and we disengaged. Pitch black. Where the hell were we? We entered his hut.
The whole night had led up to this. The whole month of July had led up to this one night. A month of flirting, aching, teasing, stealing secret deep kisses when we were supposed to be watching a slideshow, of all things, at a local’s house.
A month hot for each other in hot Honolulu.
I asked him to use a condom. I assumed he would have a condom. Why I assumed this, I don’t know. I did not have a condom. But, no. No condom.
It was 1984. Even though a virus had not yet been identified, I had been practicing “safe sex” in New York for at least a year, right from the beginning, when it was called GRID and “gay plague.” I had been a Buddy, for God’s sake, I saw what it looked like. Friends of friends had started dying and it was getting closer to home.
But I was in Hawaii now. Far from the dangerous metropolitan leather-wearing, popper-inhaling, bathhouse-cruising pleasure-seeking gay lifestyle in New York and San Francisco. Far from danger. And who was I to resist? This was my swaggering, bisexual, dream-soldier from Oklahoma or wherever, the fantasy of every hot-blooded gay man, and the embodiment of physical virility and health. It had taken a month to get to this point. And this would be my very last chance.
I was conscious of it all, conscious of my desire, conscious of the risk, aware of his body on top of me, as if I were floating above myself, observing the moment when my life would change.
He promised he would retreat before the cannon was discharged. Promises don’t mean much on the battlefield, especially when you’re high on coke and a bit drunk and it’s 4 a.m. and you’ve got the man of your dreams, your fantasy man, your big brother, your protector, your hero, in bed with you, inside you, and you’re as fervent and primitive as two wild boars, and you want to say, “Stop,” “No,” but you don’t because it is too much ecstasy, too much unadulterated joy, it is too much of what has been lacking, of what has been stolen from you for so many years, of what everyone and everything has told you your entire life: that you’re not good enough, that this is bad, that sex is bad, that feeling good is bad, that you are not worthy of happiness.
And tonight is the night. This is the night you have been waiting for.
And he pretends to withdraw. But I know. I know. I know from the quickness of the breath and from the little short grunts that he tries to hide. I know that he has not withdrawn. The artillery has been discharged, the troops have invaded, and the enemy is within. Sir.
We lay there, heaving and gasping, fully spent, and I tell myself it’s just this one time, the man is straight, the man is bi, the man is a top, the man is going back to Missouri or where the fuck ever and getting married. There is nothing to be worried about. It is just this one time that I have slipped. Just this once. And I will go back to Manhattan and I will rubberize for the rest of my life, I swear to God.
And I am in rapture. And we lie in each other’s arms. And I fall into a very deep sleep.
When I awoke late the next morning, I was alone in the hut, with some dim recollection of the previous evening/morning’s activities. I slung on my faded 501 jeans and ambled outdoors to discover my soldier talking to a fellow comrade, fixing a truck. If my partner-in-crime was the least bit apprehensive or nervous about his friend seeing a strange, dazed man exiting his tent/shack, half-dressed, he made no appearance of it.
The sun was shining, just the right amount of breeze was in the air, not a cloud on the horizon, the birds were singing. It was perfect. Just another day in Paradise.
Six days after the only “unsafe” encounter in which I had engaged since the epidemic began, I came down with every single symptom attributed to post-infection: night sweats, dehydration, high fevers, extreme fatigue, dizziness, nausea. and diarrhea. It occurred suddenly and violently. I could not eat. I could hardly lift my head off the pillow. One pea-sized ball appeared in a lymph gland on the left side of my neck, and it remained there for two years.
Not Our First Pandemic: The View From a Long-Term HIV Survivor
- byBruce Ward
- Jun 23, 2020
- 6 minute read
I acquired the virus we now know as HIV in 1984, three years after the first AIDS cases were reported in the U.S. I was 26 years old. I am now 62.
We have all been forced to adapt to a new world in the time of COVID-19, learning how to cope with unforeseeable anxieties, fears, and uncertainty. As a person who lived through the earliest years of the AIDS epidemic, I have experienced a sense of deja vu, an uprooting of buried traumas from the past. If I were to be able to combat them, I knew that I would need to identify these unnerving feelings in order to not remain totally immobilized.
I belong to a community of HIV long-term survivors, those who acquired the virus prior to 1996, the year when the first viable treatment became available and changed the face of the AIDS epidemic. Living through the AIDS epidemic has given us certain coping skills, precisely because we have been through something like this before. This, after all, is not our first pandemic.
Fear of contagion
As COVID-19 began to become a reality in the U.S. in early March, I began to feel the old familiar feelings of dread, anxiety, and foreboding.
In the front of everyone’s mind was: how is this virus spread?
Even before a virus was discovered as the causal agent for AIDS in 1985, epidemiologists knew that transmission occurred mainly through semen-to-blood and blood-to-blood contact. But in the U.S., the general public still believed that the so-called “victims” were members of what was pejoratively referred to by some as the “4 H club”: homosexuals, heroin users, hemophiliacs, and Haitians.
The death of actor Rock Hudson in 1985 catapulted the disease into the public consciousness. I worked at that time for the New York Health Department’s AIDS Hotline. Seemingly overnight, following Hudson’s death, the hotline phones began to ring non-stop, with calls expressing the fear of transmission from mosquitos, swimming pools, sharing utensils, and kissing, along with myriad outlandish scenarios concocted by a frantic public. We called these low-risk callers “The Worried Well.” But, for the first time since the disease was termed “Gay Cancer” in the New York Times in 1982, the general public began to pay closer attention.
We have experienced a similar trajectory with COVID-19. In just a few months, medical professionals have placed less emphasis on infection through surface touch, and more on face-covering, hand-sanitizing, and social distancing. But there is still so much uncertainty about this new virus and, like HIV, scientific knowledge will continue to shift with time.
Ronald Reagan, indebted to the conversative movement that helped elect him, particularly the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, refused to even mention the word “AIDS” in a public speech until 1987. By that time, 28,000 Americans had died from AIDS-related illnesses.
As of June 15, 2020, there are over two million cases of COVID-19 in America, with 118,583 deaths. With Donald Trump’s encouragement, there are millions of U.S. citizens who believe that this virus is a “myth” or “overblown,” or who believe that they are somehow immune.
Reagan failed to respond while the body count climbed, whereas Trump actively dissembles, denying science and actively promoting risky behaviors — epidemiologists fear that his recent rally in Tulsa, though so much smaller than anticipated, could nonetheless become a “superspreader event.” Both leaders bear responsibility for the rapid spread of the respective viruses in the U.S. and perhaps other countries, too.
During the AIDS epidemic, men and women in high-risk categories were often shunned if they were even just perceived to have a sign of illness: a gaunt look, a pimple, a cough.
On the streets of New York, I feel the awareness of those around me: Who is wearing a mask and who is not? Where is that cough coming from? Did that person just touch that apple at the grocery store?
I have seen the phenomenon of “mask shaming” take a complete 360 degree turn. In the last weeks of March, in a nearly deserted Manhattan, I was wearing a mask, but not everyone on the street was doing the same. I felt that I was an oddity; I even had a friend who asked me, at that time, if I was one of those people who was “paranoid about the virus.”
Just one month later, 95% of the people I saw on the street were wearing masks. Then, around the end of May, as the curve of infection began to drop and the weather began to get warmer, the masks began to drop, as well. Those with masks began to feel hostility towards the maskless. I was one whose patience wore thin. I got into a confrontation with a woman in my apartment building who thought she was going to join me in an elevator, sans mask. She thought wrong.
Masks have also complicated communication; there may be trepidation and distrust when no one can see your expression. I am learning how to “schmize” better.
Differences and Universalities
Whie it has been helpful for me to recognize the familiar commonalities between the two pandemics, it has also helped me to realize the vast differences — particularly in the modes of transmission, and in the demonizing of groups of individuals. Because of our President’s insistence of calling it the “Chinese virus” (even though it was introduced to the east coast via Europe), COVID-19 has certainly unhelpfully and wrongfully stigmatized the Asian-American community. But, by and large, infected individuals do not experience the separation, shaming, and stigmatization towards those perceived to be in the highest risk groups as during the early years of AIDS.
What Can I Control?
I remain vigilant in my caution. Though I have repeatedly tested negative for the COVID-19 virus, as well as for the antibodies, I am 62, diabetic, and have multiple underlying health concerns.
When I feel emotionally triggered by the old feelings of dread and despair, I try and remember: now is not then. This is not that virus. Despite the political manipulation by the current Administration, scientists are working on a vaccine, and, as New York and other states have proven, infection rates can, indeed, plummet when we are vigilant, seriously, and adaptive.
We can control much of what we may feel is uncontrollable, by learning the scientific facts of this virus, as we know them, and acting on those facts within our comfort level. At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis in New York, I was wiping down every piece of mail, every delivery box, every surface, and wearing gloves in the grocery store. Now, I feel comfortable in public wearing a mask, keeping my hands sanitized, and maintaining social distancing.
It is up to each individual to decide what is right for them. I will probably continue to wear a mask until there is a vaccine. But being a long-term HIV survivor has taught me, if nothing else, to be adaptable.
I can only offer what has worked for me: Getting outside. Exercising. Having social distancing cocktail parties. Calling old friends. Zooming with new ones.
We are in this for the long haul. We must learn to enjoy life in a different way, in this strange, new world.
Survivors of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 90s have been through this before, in some ways that are frighteningly similar. And we made it to the other side, albeit bruised and battered and with so many lost. With a combination of cautious optimism and tenacious resolve, we will make it through this, as well — hopefully with more of our brothers and sisters alive.
“Years of Living Precariously”, A&U Magazine, chapter 4: Someone Like Me. Coming out, pursuing men, and practicing safer sex, pre-HIV discovery, Honolulu, 1984
Someone Like Me
Part IV of an Ongoing Chronicle of the First Fifteen Years of the AIDS Pandemic
by Bruce Ward
In the summer of 1984, I went to stay with my parents in Honolulu. My dad had landed a two-year contract as a civilian radar specialist with the military, and I had the opportunity to visit for part of the summer.
I was just coming into my own: twenty-six years old, weightlifting regularly, and beginning to enjoy my sexual freedom. Having been a GMHC Buddy, I was well aware of the safer sex guidelines—even in 1984, before a virus was discovered, the rule of thumb was: “On Me, not In Me.”—and I rigidly conformed to them. But that did not prevent me from my mission to safely bed as many hot guys as possible. And here in Hawaii, there was a whole new slew of healthy, tanned, hot men—both native and tourist—who I knew just had to be waiting for me. And I went out every night, looking for them.
I knew the cruising routine well—how to appear just slightly aloof, to seem interested enough to pique curiosity in the one I chose, but not so interested that I appeared desperate. I knew the expression: closed mouth with a slight smirk, turn my head away, slowly rotate back just in time to lock eyes with my trophy, and then change the smirk to just a tiny bit of a grin. And a nod. And wait for him to come to me.
I would zoom in on one, just one, from the time I entered the bar. I was not one to leave with just anybody; if the right one wasn’t there, I would go home alone. After all, I could pick and choose my knight in shining armor.
In my case, the perfect man was not one of the “A-gays”, the “beautiful” people, the disco and party queens. No, the men who attracted me were the most unattainable: the cool, aloof, possibly nervous, square-jawed jock in the corner, the one you would least likely expect to see, in the year 1984, in a gay bar. Someone like me. Or the someone I thought I wanted to be.
At night, I would revel in my newly-found freedom, with my new-found friends, usually at Hula’s or Hamburger Mary’s on Kuhio Avenue, Waikiki gay central. Many times I would close Hula’s at 2 a.m. and then go to the after-hours bar nearby, until 4.
After two weeks of being seen recurrently (i.e. every night) at the bars, I was becoming a “regular.” I was practically a haole (a white, non-Polynesian American living on the island). I was invited to house parties and even joined a hiking group.
And then, one night, he appeared. Actually, the flirtation with my hero had begun earlier in the summer, when we first noticed each other at Hula’s. He was in the army, stationed about an hour inland. He told me he was going back to Arkansas or some such place at the end of the summer, where he was going to marry his fiancée, and inherit her substantial dowry.
He was the hottest guy I had ever seen. Rugged, clean-cut, but with a slightly crooked nose that, together with his full, slightly sneering upper lip, gave him an edginess that was mesmerizing. He had a short buzzed military haircut, but not a “hi & tite.” Sexy, sleepy brown doe eyes. Broad-shouldered and muscled, but not the cartoonish grotesquery of the steroid monsters. This was all natural. Masculine without trying. Big hands, easygoing manner. Deep voice with a hint of drawl—not from the deep South, but possibly from the southern part of a southern Midwestern state. This man did not need to work at it, did not need to convince. Unlike myself, whose appearance of confidence felt like a posture, a façade, a mask that camouflaged the real insecurities, the real anxieties, the true identity.
For even though I was still in the beginning stages of accepting myself as a desirable sexual being in this new world where I could finally be free, finally be “myself”—I always, always, had that nagging voice inside telling me: You’re not hot enough. You’re not sexy enough. Your dick isn’t big enough. Your abs aren’t flat enough. You’re already too old. You got a late start. You’re too much of a romantic to ever really give in to this hedonistic lifestyle that’s expected of you, and you’re too different, too sensitive to pull off real indifference, you’re too neurotic and compulsive to ever have a real relationship.
This man was out of my league. But then he gave me that look, and I knew he wanted me. And that’s all I needed.
On that first night in the bar, he was my equal in the cruising department, matching me stare for stare. I may actually have even gone to him. He was clearly not going to budge from his position by the back door, one combat-booted foot placed casually behind him on the wall. I was determined not to let this guy go without at least a clear indication that I was not intimidated by him, as everyone else there was.
During the next three weeks, the connection escalated from head nods to conversations to sharing coke in the bar’s bathroom, to furtive, intense, all-too-quick make-out sessions. Now, a month later, we continued to advance towards the fated, much-anticipated climax.
He made it clear that I would be with him that night. I couldn’t believe this was actually about to happen. This was the perfect man. And he chose to be with me. He chose me. Me.
I started planning our life together. I would convince him to ditch his girlfriend back home (and her considerable dowry) and spend the rest of his life with me.
Or at least one memorable night.
One gloriously hot, no-holds-barred, beautifully free, self-validating night.
And, in an instant, my life changed.
“Years of Living Precariously”, A&U magazine. Chapter 3: The Buddy System. Becoming a volunteer “buddy” at GMHC, 1983
Part III of an Ongoing Chronicle of the First Fifteen Years of the AIDS Pandemic
by Bruce Ward
The volunteer “buddy” program at Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) was in its infancy when I joined in 1983. At its helm stood Diego Lopez, a former Vietnam Marine veteran and clinical social worker. As befitting his military experience, Diego was as organized and efficient as he was witty and compassionate. Later when he died of the disease, he was buried to a packed house, with full military honors.
Buddies at GMHC were grouped into “pods,” a group of eight or so gay men and a few women, led by a professional social worker or psychologist. James was our group leader, an extremely handsome social worker of Greek heritage, with olive skin and black curly hair that fell in ringlets just above his deep brown eyes. He had a soft voice and steady disposition, and I had a mad crush on him.
The buddy to whom I was assigned was named Bill, a tall, lanky Southerner who lived in the then-scummy neighborhood known as Chelsea, a rather bleak, run-down, precarious area, far removed from the more fashionable gay neighborhoods of the West Village and the Upper West Side.
Bill lived in a one-bedroom apartment in a walk-up building, paying $250/month in rent. He shared the apartment with an ex-boyfriend, who really considered himself to be a current boyfriend. George doted on Bill. This was sweet since Bill had a sort-of naïve and innocent country-boy attitude that perfectly accompanied his open clean-cut visage and lanky frame. He also had visible K.S. (Kaposi sarcoma cancer) lesions on his face and body.
During my first visit to Bill and George’s apartment, I sat cramped amidst the clutter of empty Marlboro cigarette boxes and half-full bottles of Pepsi, making small-talk and doing my best impersonation of a social worker.
Bill was cheery and friendly. George was anxious, but also friendly, and obviously very protective of Bill. George lit a joint and passed it to Bill.
The scene suddenly became a movie in my head, as the camera zoomed in on Bill’s parched and slightly cracked lips. I continued to watch this film in slow motion as Bill inhaled. The parchment flared and burned red. I observed in extreme close-up as his hand reached up to his mouth, took the innocuous-looking rolled-up paper from his mouth, and proceeded to pass it to me.
It was 1983, and the cause of this disease had yet to be discovered. It would be two more years before the announcement that a virus was isolated as the causal agent of the disease.
But the information out there, even then, was that it—whatever it was—was being passed on through semen and blood. Cases were now being isolated in what became known as the 4 H’s: Homosexuals, Hemophiliacs, Haitians and Heroin users. The rationality that the disease was not spread through airborne contact or saliva was supported by the fact that the disease had not spread through casual contact within family units, where kissing and the sharing eating utensils and toothbrushes were not considered to be transmission factors.
But there was always room for doubt. What did they really know?
I took the joint from Bill and put it to my lips. The thought process took perhaps a total of three seconds, but it seemed to last hours.
Under what I felt were the watchful eyes of Bill and (more likely) his bodyguard, George—will he or won’t he?—I made a decision. The fear of not living up to my role as a real “buddy” trumped any fear I might have had about the transmission of an agent of illness from Bill’s saliva. I took a hit. I passed the first test of a true Buddy: I could be cool with them.
I became perhaps disproportionately passionate about my volunteer duties: Bill told me about the strained relationship he had with his father, as well as the supportive one he had with his aunt Janice.
So I took it upon myself to write to Aunt Janice on Bill’s behalf. I received a touching letter back from her. She wrote that she was saddened by both Bill’s illness and by the reaction of his father (her brother), but she felt powerless in her ability to talk to her brother about Bill’s homosexuality, and she had very little money herself with which to help Bill.
She enclosed a twenty dollar bill.
I saw Bill a couple more times, but then I went away from NYC during the summer of 1984, and I eventually lost touch with him.
Three years later, in October, 1987, the NAMES Project/AIDS Memorial Quilt was unveiled for the first time, in its entirety, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and I was there.
After wandering through the 1,920 panels with thousands of others, all in an overwhelming state of grief, I saw a panel with the name Bill M ——accompanied by three words, spelled out in an array of colorful buttons: Your Loving Aunt.
I suppose I cried. Or maybe I was too cried out at that point from seeing all the other thousands of panels, each with their own personal messages of grief-stricken remembrances.
“Years of Living Precariously”, A&U magazine. Chapter 2: 1,112 and Counting”. Larry Kramer’s call-to-action in 1983 https://aumag.org/2020/06/22/1112-and-counting/
1,112 and Counting
Part II of an Ongoing Chronicle of the First Fifteen Years of the AIDS Pandemic
by Bruce Ward
In 1982, I was working at a mom-and-pop public relations firm that received the three daily New York newspapers: the New York Times, New York Post and Daily News. Every so often, I would read an item, buried deep inside one of the paper’s news sections, announcing this strange new illness primarily affecting young gay men. Being a young gay man myself, I was naturally curious.
I had already heard anecdotal stories of what was termed “gay cancer” and GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency). One of Gary’s brothers had severely swollen lymph glands that wouldn’t vanish; a college acquaintance, a brilliant dancer with a Broadway career surely ahead of him, had died suddenly of a mysterious illness; another friend of a friend was experiencing bouts of extreme paranoia, and would often begin to mumble incoherently, symptoms we would later recognize as signs of dementia.
Larry Kramer, the author of Faggots, that acerbic chastisement of the promiscuous mating habits of gay men on Fire Island, wrote what is now considered the first major call-to-arms to the gay community.
Kramer’s article appeared in the New York Native, the city’s gay newsweekly, in March, 1983. The title was “1,112 and Counting”, and it started with these sentences:
If this article doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble. If this article doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, gay men may have no future on this earth. Our continued existence depends on just how angry you can get.
It continued, in almost 5,000 words, to lash out at Mayor Koch, The New York Times, the gay community, President Reagan, the National Institutes of Health, and the New York City hospital system. Towards the end of this incitement, Kramer writes:
I am sick of everyone in this community who tells me to stop creating a panic. How many of us have to die before you get scared off your ass and into action? Aren’t 195 dead New Yorkers enough?
My pulse raced as I read the article, and I could feel the entire New York City gay community holding its collective breath.
Before this, I had heard only gossip, rumors, horror stories, that seemed too outrageous to be believed. The disease felt distant, even though I knew friends of friends who were affected. After all, I was not one of those people. I wasn’t promiscuous, was I? I was just beginning to discover, and exult, in my sexuality. It wasn’t fair.
Rumor had it that a common factor among those getting ill was the use of poppers and having multiple partners at the Baths. I didn’t like “poppers,” the amyl nitrate that gay men were using to enhance the pleasure of sex, or a night of dancing at the Saint. I had been to the Baths only three times. I did not wear leather. I did not fit the category of men who were becoming ill. I was not that leather-wearing, popper-inhaling, baths-hopping man.
On April 18, 1983, the cover of Newsweek read:
EPIDEMIC: The Mysterious and deadly disease called AIDS may be the public health threat of the century. How did it start? Can it be stopped?
It was the first major news story of the epidemic. Cases to date:1,300. Mortality rate:37.8%. Accompanying the article, there was a picture of two men in full leather, on the streets of San Francisco, with beer cans in hand, defiantly challenging America.
I decided to get involved, and I became a volunteer “buddy” with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), the organization co-founded by Kramer.
I can’t say that my motivations were entirely altruistic. There was something significant happening. I wanted to chronicle it. And I was going to learn everything I could so I wouldn’t die at age twenty-five.
“The Years of Living Precariously”, my monthly column in A&U Magazine, chronicling the early years of the AIDS epidemic. Chapter 1: “Last Dance”. Acknowledging my sexuality at end of the disco era, and one year before the first AIDS cases in the U.S. 1980.
Summer 1981. My twenty-second birthday. Midnight. Going to the Anvil, Downtown. The Big Apple! I am a newly minted gay man, exploring this new world, feeling free for the first time in my life, a whole new world opening up to me, a world I didn’t know existed a year ago.
Full moon tonight. Ed, Doug and I take the A train downtown, walk past the trucks parked on Hudson, past the fresh slabs of cow hanging from their hooves. The meat-packing district. Past the punks in their leather with their three-day beards, past the disco bunnies dressed in their hot pink shorts. Sweat pouring out onto a hot August werewolf evening. Past the garbage cans, burning from the day’s heat, sidewalk melting like a grilled-cheese sandwich, the smell of grass in the air. We get closer. Steam emerges from grates like fiery blasts from dragons guarding palace gates. We get to the door. Skinny man in his forties wearing a leather vest looks me up and down and grins.
“Mm Fresh meat.”
He collects five bucks from each of us and lets us in.
Hit by an immediate smell of sweat and poppers and sex, and it’s so dark I can’t really see, but I can sense. I have gone through the looking-glass. The song “Walk the Night” plays with its undulating rhythm and insidious innuendo. And then my eyes adjust to the light. And I see. Hundreds of shirtless men. Young, bald, black, leather, men over thirty years old! Eyes, some with pupils as big as saucers, others hidden deliciously by motorcycle sunglasses. Ed pours some powder into my drink.
Men in white t-shirts, men in leather vests, men in faded jeans, men with handkerchiefs and keys protruding from the left (or right) pockets. I make a note to myself——what is the hankie code? Is left the ‘top’ and right the ‘bottom’, or is it the other way around? It doesn’t matter. It’s my twenty-second birthday and I am here and I’m with my friends and we join the throng of dancing, twirling men.
The disco ball above the small, cramped dance floor spins above the sweating, humping, happy men. And there is a flag-dancer on the edge of the crowd, turning and twisting his colored flags. And the ball turns and the flags fly and the men gyrate and everything is colors and music and freedom, freedom, and it is the end of the disco era but none of us know it yet and we dance, we dance, we dance as if our lives depend on it.
The MDA is kicking in and I take another hit of coke. A muscular black drag queen in neon pink hot pants and an Afro nine feet wide stands on top of the bar and lip sync’s “Black Butterfly.” And then another drag queen jumps up and performs “It’s My Life”, and then they share the spotlight for the Shirley Bassey medley. I have no fear, no inhibitions. I approach a cute, muscular guy and shout above the roaring music, “It’s my birthday!” and I take him by the hand and we dance.
And the drag queens perform and the music blasts and the flags fly and the men sweat and the disco ball turns and turns.
And it is four hours later and I’m still dancing. I have lost time. But it doesn’t matter. None of it matters. Because I am young and invincible, and life is a fantastic ride into the unknown, and I know I will never pass this way again.
And we keep on dancing, four, five, six A.M. Keep on, keep on, seven…eight…nine. And the lights come up and sure enough, it’s Donna Summers’ “Last Dance.”
I greet the morning sun. Sweaty, leather-clad men come swarming into the street that smells of New York City garbage and freshly baked bread. A bunch of us go to Tiffanys on Christopher Street, where the punks and the drag queens drink coffee and smoke cigarettes and eat omelets and whole-wheat toast.
Then I say goodbye to Ed and Doug, and I take a cab uptown with my new-found friend, to his studio walk-up on West 78th Street. And we fuck and we take Quaaludes to come down and we fall asleep, with the late morning sun streaming against his window shades, lying in each other’s arms.
And I am happy. I am happy. Because my life is beginning and I am free, and now is the time to dance, now is this time to shake, to ride, to leap, to fly, to move, now is the time to experience all of this. And I know that someday, someday soon, I’ll want to settle down and I’ll want that body next to mine to be the same one every night, to come home to every night and grow old together.
But not now. Because there’s time for that. There will be lots of time. Now is the time to dance.
Bruce Ward, A&U’s Drama Editor, has been writing about the AIDS epidemic since its inception, and his recently completed memoir chronicles the early years. His play, Lazarus Syndrome, and solo play, Decade: Life in the ’80s, have been produced throughout the U.S. Bruce was the first Director of the CDC National AIDS Hotline from 1986–1988. He was honored by POZ magazine as one of 2015’s POZ 100. He has graduate degrees in Creative Writing from Boston University and The New School, and teaches creative writing and literature at all levels. Please follow him at: bdwardbos.wordpress.com.