“Some of my reasons for wanting to write about AIDS were altruistic, others selfish. AIDS was decimating the community around me; there was a need to bear witness. AIDS had turned me and others like me into walking time bombs; there was a need to strike back, not just wait to die. What I didn't fully appreciate then, however, was the extent to which I was trying to bargain with AIDS: If I wrote about it, maybe I wouldn't get it. My article ran in May 1985. But AIDS didn't keep its part of the bargain.” —George Whitmore, The New York Times Magazine
Published at the height of the AIDS epidemic, Someone Was Here brings together three stories, reported between 1985 and 1987, about the human cost of the disease.Whitmore writes of Jim Sharp, a man in New York infected with AIDS, and Edward Dunn, one of the many people in Jim’s support network, who volunteers with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis organization in the city. Whitmore also profiles a mother, Nellie, who drives to San Francisco to bring her troubled son, Mike, home to Colorado where he will succumb to AIDS. Finally, Whitmore tells of the doctors and nurses working on the AIDS team in a South Bronx hospital, struggling to treat patients afflicted with an illness they don’t yet fully understand.
Expanded from reporting that originally appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Someone Was Here is a tragic and deeply felt look at a generation traumatized by AIDS, published just one year before George Whitmore’s own death from the disease.
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Someone Was Here
Profiles in the AIDS Epidemic
By George Whitmore
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1988 George Whitmore
All rights reserved.
GREENWICH VILLAGE, NEW YORK CITY
A TANGLE OF STREETS, MANY of them still lined with low houses, this part of New York was once a true village, a remote suburb and resort from the plague that coursed through lower Manhattan in the early 19th century. Time was, dairy maids from New Jersey would row across the Hudson to sell their buttermilk in the Village, clam barges would tie up at the waterfront, and bloody beef would hang on hooks at the butchers' along the length of Washington Street.
Skirting quaint old Greenwich Village, the gridded city marched uptown. Because it remained a backwater and a low-rent refuge, the Village attracted artists and thinkers. By the 1920s, it had became internationally known as the cradle of American Bohemianism, teeming with nonconformists, a hotbed of free love. Art, politics, and passion were inseparable from the romance of the Village, with its smoke-filled cafes, cobbled lanes, and unmade beds.
Not quite as notorious as the bottle parties and Bolshevik coffeehouses, one aspect of Village life was nevertheless apparent to anyone who walked its streets open eyed: a certain kind of man and a certain kind of woman had staked a claim on the Village. In the popular mind, he was a narrow-shouldered figure retreating in haste down a shadowed alley, but she stood planted on the sidewalk, arms akimbo, fists on her hips.
In the summer of 1969, when a routine vice raid on a Village gay bar turned into a riot and the police were routed, the real people behind these stereotypes began to come to life in living color on TV, in the Sunday supplements, and on the glossy pages of national news magazines. What the formerly cowed college kids, hustlers, and drag queens at the Stonewall Inn were saying was, "This is ours, you can't close it down, you can't take it away." Soon gays—men and women alike—were mugging for the camera and shouting their names out loud. Gay liberation had begun.
New York's Greenwich Village had always been a powerful magnet for young gay men from all over the United States, but by the 1980s, there was an openly gay presence in the Village that far exceeded the fantasies of any 50s "homophile." The so-called gay lifestyle centered around bars ranged along the waterfront, up and down Christopher Street, tucked away on side streets. It throbbed in early-morning dance clubs and discos in lofts and garages. It embraced back-room sex bars in the meat-packing district. Professional associations, theatre groups, and political organizations were a part of gay life, but so were X-rated bookstores, Turkish baths, and porno movies. What local politicians were schooled to refer to as the "gay community" was a highly sexual entity—after all, wasn't this minority defined solely by its sexuality to begin with?
In the wake of gay liberation married men, bisexual men, and other putative nongays were, as always, a part of the gay world, but furtive sex no longer characterized it. Anonymous sex, however, did. In word, if not in deed, most if not all of the members of this new generation of self-defined gay men were militantly sexual. In reaction to past repression, they embraced promiscuity (but didn't call it that), rejected the middle-class ideal of monogamy, and promoted what Freud termed "polymorphous perversity." In this, they closely resembled their urban heterosexual peers, but being single males, they had more latitude—and maybe even more inclination—to act on their theories than most of their straight counterparts did.
The gay psychosocial/political program had its critics, right and left, who pointed out that it wasn't merely incidental that the word "clone" had been coined to describe the new gay man—rigid in demeanor, costumed in conformity, basically conservative, the gay ghetto-dweller gazed inward, not outward to society at large. This reality, however, didn't fit the image of enlightened and even unbridled hedonism that gays—particularly the commercial gay media, with its advertising base in the sex industry—wanted to promote.
Of course, here as in every city, there were gay couples leading thoroughly bourgeois lives, sharing property, cars, and houses with mortgages on them. Coupling was still a goal for lots of gay men. But finally, the venereal disease clinic was as central to this subculture as was the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop.
Was it a lifestyle—which implied, of course, that gay identity could be taken up and sluffed off as easily as a pair of jeans—a culture, or a community? Clearly, it was a potent subculture that made vital contributions on many levels, especially through fashion and the fine and performing arts to the life of New York and the nation. Until the historical accident that signaled the advent of AIDS, however, it couldn't be called a community.
1. THE PIRANHA
FEBRUARY 15, 1985. AT 6:30 a.m., as on every weekday morning, the alarm rings and Dennis rolls out of bed. Soon Jim hears the sound of the shower.
Every morning when Jim wakes up, as soon as he opens his eyes, he asks himself, Am I going to get out of bed today? Am I going to bounce out of bed? Or am I going to lie here? Every morning he wakes up to that.
This apartment isn't big enough for two people. It's a ground-floor studio with a closetlike kitchen. A double platform bed and a sectional sofa take up a lot of the room. There is a big round coffee table with a mirrored top. There is a complete sound system in a cabinet with smoked Lucite doors. There is a bookcase and a large stereo speaker standing on top of an upright footlocker. There is a kitchen table with three chairs in front of the shuttered windows. There is too much—too much junk, too much furniture. Most of it came with the apartment. And Jim and Dennis both have things in storage besides—most of Jim's stuff is still in Houston.
Any decorative touches in the room are due to Dennis. The deer head above the little fireplace belongs to Dennis, as do the framed Erté prints on the opposite wall. Dennis is a display director at a department store on Long Island. A vinyl satchel on the floor under the coffee table holds Dennis's knitting. Some books and an underlining pen lie on a cushion at the corner of the sofa where Dennis likes to sit. One of the books is Risking, by David Viscott, M.D. The cover says it will help you make crucial choices in your life.
A typewriter sits on the floor in the corner. A stack of magazines sits on the table—National Geographic Traveler, Gourmet, several copies of Television/Radio Age. Jim is a media buyer for a small agency. A cane with a decorative handle leans against the wall nearby. This was Jim's Valentine's Day present from Dennis yesterday.
Jim gets out of bed at 7:00. Dennis is out of the shower. Jim goes into the bathroom. The bathroom is tiny, so they've fallen into this routine.
By 7:30, Dennis is gone—he drives to his job. Jim sits down at the kitchen table with his cigarettes and a cup of coffee and gets down to work. Today is essentially his last day on the job. He's been working at home for the past six weeks. He's just putting the finishing touches on a big project. It's been frustrating, working out of the house and not being in the office, having to do everything over the phone and write endless memos because you can't just lean in the door and talk to someone. But he's proud of himself. This project would have been a monumental job for a well person to do.
The phone starts ringing at about 9. Jim's boss calls and they talk about the schedules Jim is finishing. In the middle of the conversation Jim says, "You know, I'm pissed at you."
"Because you brought in my replacement yesterday and you didn't tell me about it. I thought we had a better relationship than that."
"Jim, I'm really sorry. I've just been so busy."
They've been meaning to have lunch for weeks.
After he talks to his boss, Jim calls a friend, a woman at another agency where he used to work. Yesterday, when he felt especially crazy and pressured, she dropped by unannounced to cheer Jim up. Most of the friends he has in New York would never consider dropping by like that. In Texas, people were dropping by his house all the time. In New York you have to make an appointment to drop by.
He calls an acquaintance in L.A. with a question about syndicated programming. He calls Scott in Dallas to wish him a belated happy Valentine's Day and see how he's doing. Scott has spinal meningitis. Jim has never met Scott—a few months ago a friend in Texas asked Jim if he'd call Scott, who was alone and confused. Now they talk on the phone almost every day.
He calls Edward. Edward is Jim's counselor from the Gay Men's Health Crisis. Bitterly, Jim lays into his boss.
"I ought to spit in the back of someone's throat." Jim talks this way when he's mad, which is most of the time.
"Why are you so upset?" Edward asks after a while.
Because it's his last day at work, because he will probably never work again unless there is a cure for what he has, because he is no longer of use. But Jim says, "They did it without letting me know."
"What did he say?"
"He forgot to tell me."
Jim puts on a light jacket and goes out to the corner grocery for cigarettes. The people who run the grocery are Asian. They don't speak much English so there is a lot of playacting—How are you today, fine, good, yes yes yes. Jim's a regular customer. Before he got sick, he'd walk in and they'd take down a pack of Winstons automatically. He never had to ask. Then he went to Merit Ultra-Lights. They'd still reach for the Winstons and he'd have to say no no no. And now he smokes Carltons.
Back home, Jim finishes his project. Then he strips the bed and takes a load of laundry down to the basement. He comes back upstairs and sweeps the floor, fixes a sandwich, pours another cup of coffee.
He eats lunch sitting next to the windows. It's sunny. The shutters are open. People pass by. Gay-boys pass by in bomber jackets and jeans. Old women and winos pass by. Trucks rumble by. The oil man comes. Maybe once a week, the oil man pulls up and runs a hose to the hookup in the sidewalk. Sometimes the faces are familiar, and Jim waves.
Since he began working at home, Jim has gotten friendly with other people in the building. There's one woman with a little boy—they laugh and joke. A few days ago, Jim ran into them out in the hall at the mailboxes. It was snowing out. "Are you taking this poor child out in that wicked weather?" Jim asked the woman.
"Wicked weather, Mama, wicked weather!" Little kids catch on so fast.
Jim goes down and puts the clothes in the drier, putters around the apartment, picks things up, straightens up, takes the clothes out of the drier, puts in another load. The phone rings. It's Frank, the office messenger. He's coming down. Frank's been shuttling back and forth since Jim started working at home. Frank's going to bring Jim's paycheck. Jim needs that check.
One night recently, Jim Sharp and Edward Dunn spent a few hours together discussing God, mortality, and eternity. Edward, who has pronounced opinions on most subjects, says he has no answers on this one. Lately, he says, he's been asking more questions. Jim, born and raised in Texas and a regular churchgoer, will tell you tongue in cheek that his idea of heaven "based on my childhood beliefs" is "a canasta game with lots of coffee and cigarettes." But he's been asking more questions, too. He's concluded, he says, that God will not give him more than he can handle.
Officially, Edward is Jim's "crisis intervention worker," a counselor from the Gay Men's Health Crisis, which provides outpatient assistance to New Yorkers with AIDS like Jim. Edward's job is to help Jim and his lover Dennis through the many difficulties—financial, legal, medical—they're certain to encounter due to Jim's condition. Jim has had one of the opportunistic infections that indicate severe immune deficiency but it was a relatively light case. He hasn't yet had anything else major so there have been no repeated, protracted hospital stays. If they come, Edward is ready for them. He knows about AIDS. His own lover died of it less than 18 months ago.
After a rocky beginning last fall, Jim and Edward became friends. "In this job," Edward says, "you have to maintain a lot of distance. He adds wryly, "It says here in fine print." In fact, his relationship with Jim has grown into one of special intensity. "We're not talking here about visiting the sick and reading to them. It's certainly one of the most intimate relationships I will ever have. I see Jim—and that could be me there. It's a mirror. It's not a victim-savior relationship. We're the same person. We're just on different sides of the fence."
Nevertheless, there is a certain artfully maintained distance between them. Until recently, Jim hadn't even introduced Edward to Dennis, maybe because to do so would have made AIDS more irrevocably real—or as Edward puts it, "bring AIDS into his home." And Jim doesn't know very much about Edward's late lover, Robert. Once when he asked about Robert's death, the sadness in Edward's eyes was so profound, Jim knew not to ask again.
Jim and Edward are both aggressive go-getters. They share many common interests and the same caustic sense of humor. If they'd met under different circumstances, they agree, they would have become friends. But ultimately, however friendly they might be, Jim and Edward are both aware that Edward isn't really there to be Jim's friend. He's there to help Jim live with AIDS. Now, after months of fear, rage, and denial, Jim is willing to try to do that.
On top of a stereo speaker in Jim's apartment is a stuffed piranha. Edward brought it back from Brazil last winter and when he gave it to Jim he said, joking, "This is how you look when you don't get your way."
The fish is mounted as if poised for attack, bristling, jaws agape. Like AIDS, the piranha is at first glance shocking, repulsive. But on closer inspection, it doesn't look real. It looks like something whipped up out of latex and horsehair for some low-budget horror movie. Thus demystified, it can be dismissed—that is, until your eye happens to fall on it again. Then you wish it weren't in the same room with you.
AIDS won't go away. Four years into the epidemic, it is now a fact of life for thousands upon thousands of Americans—even if most of them don't yet know it.
Last year, three years after the first indications of this mysterious breakdown of the immune system were discovered in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, scientists announced the discovery of a virus they believed caused it. Called by the Americans HTLV-III and by the French LAV, this "retrovirus" literally turns cells around, counter to their usual purposes. It invades white blood cells called T-helper cells, the very cells meant to defend the body against outside infections. Once inside the T-cell, the virus may lay dormant for years before utilizing the genetic material of the cell to crank out copies of the virus.
AIDS is almost always fatal. Most people with AIDS die within 18 months after diagnosis. The mortality rate for AIDS has been established at 95–100 percent two years after onset.
Initially, the AIDS story was reported vigorously in the gay press and almost not at all in the general media. But public concern over the disease suddenly burgeoned in 1983 and something very close to panic gripped parts of the country.
The piranha thrives on terror. Acts of violence against gay men—or those perceived to be gay men—increased. Funeral homes refused to bury the AIDS dead. Stories already abounded about hospital workers so frightened of the disease that they left food trays outside rooms and refused AIDS patients the most elementary amenities. Now discrimination against people with AIDS or those perceived to have AIDS became relatively common. Some people with AIDS—or suspected of having AIDS, even suspected of associating with people with AIDS—were ostracized on the job or fired outright. They were evicted from their apartments. Often they were abandoned by friends and acquaintances, by loved ones as well.
When the discovery of the so-called AIDS virus was announced, it helped to quiet fears but it also engendered what amounts to a false complacency among the general public, which seems content to believe that somehow the epidemic has been contained.
The number of those stricken by AIDS continues to double every six months. No cure is in sight and a vaccine, if it can be developed, is probably years away. Moreover, researchers are discovering, upwards of one million Americans have already been exposed to the virus. AIDS is widespread in parts of Africa. Worldwide, many more thousands of people than scientists initially forecasted will certainly die in the next decade of the opportunistic diseases that accompany immune deficiency.
Excerpted from Someone Was Here by George Whitmore. Copyright © 1988 George Whitmore. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
GREENWICH VILLAGE, NEW YORK CITY,
1. THE PIRANHA,
2. MY LIFE CHANGED,
3. THE FOOT IN THE DOOR,
4. HELL AND HIGH WATER,
5. PERFECT BLOOD,
6. THE HEART KEEPS BEATING,
7. IN THE PLANE OF ACCEPTANCE,
1. TO BE FREE,
2. VERY GOOD AND BEAUTIFUL DAY,
3. THEY MADE SOME MISTAKE,
4. WHAT'S PAST IS PAST,
5. IF THAT TIME CAME,
LINCOLN HOSPITAL, THE SOUTH BRONX,
1. THE LIST,
2. PEACE ON EARTH,
3. A WALKING PLAGUE,
4. IS THERE ANYONE WHO LOOKS THAT PEACEFUL?,
5. TWICE DEATH,
6. ON HOLD,
About the Author,