Requiem to Lester and Conrad and Tom
On September 6th of 1981 I stepped off the plane at LaGuardia Airport in New York City, a freshly minted college graduate, excited and frightened to begin the adventure of my autonomous adult life. A gay man, who had yet to befriend another openly gay person, I was bursting in confidence in my intelligence and academic prowess, and utterly lacking in self esteem in almost every other way. I had majored in economics, which I loved as a science, but I couldn’t imagine working in a corporate atmosphere where the object was to make money. I had an impossibly idealistic view of the romantic love I would finally find because, living in a place where it was possible to be openly gay, we would finally see each other. Yet, at the same time, I had a horrible body image. I avoided three way mirrors in department stores for fear I might get a glimpse of my profile. None of these normal life passage problems could have prepared me for the road that lay ahead, however. For at that very moment, unbeknownst to me and all but a very few health professionals, a virus which had been incubating for decades in the blood of central African primates, and a few humans that ate them, had mutated so that it could be transmitted from one human to another. A new plague was unfolding upon the earth.
A close friend from college, Alida, had moved to New York three months prior and her boyfriend Dave picked me up at the airport. Alida was intent on becoming a model and I just wanted to be myself. Alida and Dave had arranged a welcoming dinner for me, and Dave had invited his gay officemate Tom. They were stationed together in the Coast Guard at Governor’s Island, a sedate place incongruously sitting at the feet of the City that Never Sleeps. Meeting Tom did nothing to temper my fantasy of the kind of man I would now find and fall in love with. He was good looking, intelligent and funny. We were, however, light years apart in experience. So, when I called him a few days later from a back office phone at Time, Inc. where I had acquired my first job, I was shaking with nerves. “Hi, Tom, this is Craig from the other night…..?” “Hi, Craig!” “Yeah…I was wondering if you’d like to go out to dinner sometime?” “Sure.” “Wow, great!..,” and I proceeded to hang up. “No wait!,” I heard from the receiver. “Yes?” “When and where?” I could envision him smiling on the other end. According to Dave, Tom had been quite amused. It was a call most guys make when they are fourteen.
Ah, the gay scene in New York City in the fall of 1981… How far over my head this was it is impossible to describe. This was a strange land somewhere between a 1950s society where homosexuality was “the love that dare not speak its name” and our present world where celebrities disclose their sexuality nonchalantly, and all gay people can form stable long term relationships, and even marry and adopt children in places. In the late 70s and early 80s gay men streamed in from small towns all over the U.S. to cities like New York and San Francisco. They would not necessarily come out at work, but after hours many would cruise the streets in certain neighborhoods wearing a uniform dress code (extremely tight jeans, white t-shirt and black athletic shoes) which earned them the moniker “clones”. Sexual activity was unbridled, as you might expect from men who had repressed their sexuality their entire life and who had no social conventions which would encourage more than one night stands. On our “date,” Tom took me on a tour of this scene, a scene which was fleeting in terms of time, perhaps just a mere decade, but paramount in terms of gay social history. We went to the meat packing district (now a forest of posh apartments) where the old meat processing plants had been converted into gay sex clubs. He described the activities inside, notable for their no holds barred imagination and almost complete in their anonymity. Tom offered to take me inside, but there was no way I was ready for something like that. It felt unseemly and I was liking being alone with Tom just fine.
I fell for Tom quite hard over the next month, he was my first crush that actually had a basis in reality, but alas, his time was up in the Coast Guard and he was heading first down to his childhood home in Florida, and then up to Fairbanks, Alaska to study geology. That fall I pined for him and wrote him a long moralizing letter about his dissolute gay life in New York…something along the lines of “I want you bad but clean up your act first and then fall in love with me”. I still have a copy of the letter, which I won’t reprint here due to it’s length and irrelevance to the overarching theme of this essay. Suffice it to say, it was eloquent – and beautifully naive and idealistic. Tom, being the good natured soul he was, took it quite inoffensively, but had no clue about what might be an appropriate response.
That Christmas I traveled down to Florida with Alida to visit her parents, and then took my own side trip to visit Tom for a few days in Fort Myers. He was quite the happy, gentle host who showed me the entire area, but at night I was shown my own bedroom and I lay awake at night wanting to crawl into his bed. The thought crossed my mind that I could have had his touch easily if I had first met him in the sex club. One night while I was there we went to a gay Christmas party and a few people were discussing the appearance of a strange cluster of men suffering from “opportunistic diseases” (diseases resulting from the inability to fight infections) in both New York and San Francisco. No one really had a clue as to what was happening yet, let alone a cause. Nevertheless, there was the usual conspiracy theorists (a government plot to rid the country of gays) to more reasonable theories, like maybe peoples’ immune systems were breaking down from so many sexual disease infections.
After my visit to Tom in Fort Myers, I did not see him again for about eight years. We spoke on the phone, but this was pre-internet times and communication from afar was more involved. He was diagnosed with AIDS a few years into his studies in Fairbanks, and I don’t believe he finished. I saw him again in Florida in 1989 where he again hosted me for a couple of days. He informed me in a nonchalant way, and with a wry smile, that he just had his T-cell count test (a cell that is part of our immune system and which the HIV virus targets) and that “I still have about five left in my whole body!”. He had been taking the nascent HIV drug regimen for a couple of years already which was hard on the body and only mildly effective. He looked twenty years older and moved with significantly less energy, but he seemed resigned to his fate, whatever that be, and his sense of humor was fully intact. More on Tom at the end.
Life in New York during the 1980’s AIDS Crisis
A virus was found to be the cause of AIDS in 1983, and in 1985 a test was developed to determine whether or not a person possessed the antibodies to this virus, meaning of course, if they had been exposed. This delivered something of a moral quandry at the time. There was little that could be done to fight the disease. You simply had to determine whether you preferred to know if the Sword of Damocles was hanging over your head. If you tested negative, you were free in a sense; it was possible to remain negative. If you tested positive you had to then decide if you wanted to announce it. If you did, you feared feeling like a pitied pariah with a death sentence.
Behaving so conservatively during my first couple of years in New York probably saved my life. By the time I started to have a more active sexual life I knew, to some vague extent, how to be careful. But I do not credit my survival to any kind of virtue. I was simply lucky. I was just as frightened to get the result from my first HIV test as anyone. The full-on counseling session in which my result was disclosed to me, an elaborate affair back then when the counselors were specially trained, is vividly ingrained in my memory. I remember his name, his face, his voice, his gestures, the picture of his boyfriend on his desk, and his Star Trek paraphernalia. I remember the odd relief.
Nevertheless, I did not escape my own harrowing brush with the fear of having contracted the HIV virus. In the late summer of 1989 I began having a series of strange fevers that came and went, accompanied by night sweats and bouts of extreme fatigue. I went back to my doctor who retested me for HIV antibodies, and again received a negative result. Yet I continued to have the strange symptoms. So I was tested again in case there was an error with the first test. Still negative. We were at a loss as to what to do. He conferred with a group of doctors and they spent some time discussing my case. They uniformly agreed that I was exhibiting classic AIDS symptoms and that I should be given the more expensive test that had been developed to check for the presence of the actual virus itself, not just the anitbodies. This result would take two weeks. Needless to say, this scared the living daylights out of me. Not being passive regarding my own medical care, I marched over to to a local medical library and, even in my feverish exhaustion, began pouring over texts and studies of unusual symptoms. I found a hopeful result. It was possible that a Herpes virus had found it’s way into my central nervous system without causing any external symptoms. If you have ever had chicken pox, you too have a herpes virus (there are five), in this case herpes zoster, lying dormant in your nervous system which could later remanifest as shingles. Anyway, when I went back to my doctor he said that he was happy to say that there was no presence of the HIV virus in me, but that he still had no diagnosis. I then presented my self diagnosis, he said I could easily be tested for that, and this time the result was positive. How strange to be utterly relieved at finding you have a herpes virus. There was no cure, and it would take about six months for my immune system to quiet this elusive attacker, but this was nothing fatal. Six months later I was indeed better.
I do not believe there is a God who wreaks havoc on our lives as punishment for something we have done. If there is a God who is responsible for something like the AIDS crisis, or indeed any travail in our life, I believe it would be to elevate our conciousness to greater love and compassion. In this, whether or not there is a God that had anything to do with it, I have to say the gay community earned an A plus. Where before gay men gathered in the evenings for sexual escapades, they now gathered in the daylight to form chicken soup brigades to get food to their sick neighbors. Where before gay men concerned themself with a few moments of pleasure, they now faced the eternal question of their own mortality and the bonds of friendship. Breaking free of their self imposed ghettos, they formed groups like ACT UP and marched on City Hall: “We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!” Preoccupation with physical appearance faded as we realized that the friends and lovers (or oneself) who were becoming emaciated and sometimes covered in the purple blotches of skin cancer called caposi sarcoma, were still the very same people we had always known and loved. The presence of death has a way of refocusing ones attention.
Unfortunately, I cannot say the Christian community responded with similar compassion to the AIDS crisis. Of course, there were exceptions, but the loudest Christian voices were smug and heartless. At one AIDS fund raising event I attended, I was confronted by a woman who came up in my face and screamed “God hates fags!” (This offended my sensory processing difficulties as much as my sensibilities.) People chanted that we deserved to die. Even when it was realized that gay people were not the only victims, the first groups recognized as fellow sufferers were intravenous drug users, and, well, Haitians. A dark joke at the time went something like this: “What is the hardest part of getting AIDS?…Convincing your parents you are Haitian.” Indeed, when you were dying of AIDS it was hard to stay in the closet to your family. I saw too many men who were disowned rather than taken home to be loved. General concern for AIDS victims arrived when it became obvious that the virus had entered the blood banks and transfusion patients had also been infected. The death of Arthur Ashe, the tennis star, was a bit of an awakening to people at large.
It’s time to meet two more of my friends.
In 1984 I quit my job at Time, Inc. and was hired as a flight attendant for American Airlines. I was sent back to New York to fly Caribbean trips as a Spanish speaker. Being the first new hires at JFK in years, our group was treated something like interlopers. Add to this my tendency to space out from my Aspergerish sensory overload difficulty and I was not generally liked at first. Then I met Lester. Lester treated me with sublime kindness that flows from a very generous heart. We flew to Santo Domingo and Puerto Rico together at least a hundred times. These were always fun trips because he had such a good attitude, was seriously funny and funny about serious things. We dated for a short time, which only made us closer, more intimate, friends.
I vividly recall a moment when I was flying with Lester sometime in late 1985. He appeared robustly healthy at the time, and we were talking about the new test for HIV antibodies. He glanced out into space, his eyes focused on nothing in particular, and with a wistful expression and a pleading voice, as if suggesting he’d make any deal with God, said “I would give anything if my test said I was negative.” Two of his closest friends had already died. Of course, only he knew how risky his past behavior had been. I never heard what his decision was regarding the test or result. I did hear later, however, that he had met someone, Bob, with whom he had fallen in love with. Having a partner had been a long desired, but elusive, goal for him. He was ecstatic about the relationship, they bought an apartment together, and I was enormously happy for him.
In the fall of 1991, American Airlines opened up a new base in Seattle. I had had enough of the rat race and sensory overload of New York after ten years and I decided I would go there. My previous, and brief, experience with Seattle had been highly positive regarding their progressive culture. Having the ability to fly for free, I took a number of trips back and forth between NYC and Seattle gradually making the transition. Just prior to my move I had heard that Lester had become seriously ill so I visited him in the hospital during one of my trips back to New York. He was gaunt and extremely uncomfortable, but quite able to hold a conversation. He told me that I had just missed Bob, whose picture was standing on the bedside table. He told me how extremely supportive Bob had been, coming at least twice a day, and he smiled when he said that. He was not keen on conversing I could tell, however, and so I dismissed myself and he thanked me for coming.
About a week later I was back in New York and made sure that I fit in another trip to the hospital. This time there was a woman in his room who introduced herself as Lester’s mother in heavily accented English (Lester was from Puerto Rico). Lester, unfortunately, looked significantly worse. He barely nodded at my arrival. I took his hand in mine and I don’t recall what, probably banal, thing I started to say. A shiver shook in waves across his body under the wet skin. He looked exhausted by fever. Suddenly, I noticed the picture of Bob was gone from the bedside table, and I asked Lester what had happened to it. He gathered all the strength he could to answer. “Bob….isn’t coming anymore.” Horrified, I looked quizzically over at his Mother. My face said “What’s going on here?,” but she looked back at me impassively. In case she hadn’t understood the English I had spoken to Lester with, I asked her about the picture in Spanish. There was only the slightest shrug of her shoulders. Lester spoke up again. “Craig…I think I’d like to be alone now.” “Yes, sure, Lester….Lester, I love you.” And I kissed him on his forehead. He squeezed my hand weakly, but said nothing more. I looked over at his Mother again, got up and left the room.
As I walked out of the hospital I considered how such a thing could have come to be. Perhaps Lester insisted that Bob not remember him like that. Perhaps they even had had a parting ceremony. If so, I thought this was a bad decision. But I was disturbed by a pain I had heard in Lester’s voice that whispered something else to me, and indeed, later I found out that my worst fear was true. His Mother had flown up from Puerto Rico, and with full rights over his care, had banished Bob from the hospital and proceeded to try and save his soul from the Eternal Fires of Hell. Now, let me tell you one thing I know for sure, because I knew Lester. No benevolent God would send him to Hell. Any Deity that would send Lester to Hell would be a wicked, malevelant God or an Evil Daemon. At the time of our death, isn’t best to be surrounded by as many people that love us as possible?
Three days later when I signed in for work at the airport I had the following message in my inbox: “We regret to inform you that Lester Justicia, JFK-I flight attendant, passed away yesterday”… [further details I don’t recall]. I had a most difficult time working to Tokyo that day. Swirling all around me for years, this felt like the grim reaper of AIDS had finally landed on my personal doorstep.
My story of Conrad is more difficult to tell. He was a private and enigmatic character. His heart was not overflowing like Lester’s but he was intellectually and emotionally deep. This gave him a wry wit, which for some reason partnered nicely with his creative practical joker. Conrad was also a flight attendant with American, we flew together quite often, yet it took some time for him to trust me enough to open up to me. But when he did, he did fully, like I was being let in on a secret. By the year before I moved to Seattle we had become quite close. He had moved to Columbia, where he was from, and where he had fallen in love with a man he proclaimed to be crazy about. He was commuting back and forth to JFK to work his trips. I took advantage of his hospitality and traveled there to see him, meet his boyfriend, and to be taken around Columbia. Conrad put a lot of effort into my visit. He was so proud to show others his native country, and indeed, he had a right to be. My family was frightened that I was traveling to Medellin, the center of the drug cartel in the 1980’s, and yet the peace and prosperity I found there would certainly disabuse them of this prejudice. Ironically, the couple who owned the liquor store under my apartment in New York were murdered in a robbery while I was gone. Anyway, after I left for Seattle in 1991 I lost touch with Conrad a bit. He was busy with his boyfriend and commuting to New York and had begun a separate career as an architect in Medellin. I was busy getting settled in Seattle and was also undergoing a series of eye surgeries. When I got the call from a mutual friend in New York that Conrad had died I was utterly stunned. Now, I do not know for certain he died of AIDS. The official word from his family in Columbia was that he had died of anaphylactic shock after an allergy shot. But my intuition tells me this was not correct and my friends in New York concurred. They all said that he had not appeared well the last few times they had seen him and I knew what a private person Conrad was. I believe Conrad died of AIDS, though that doesn’t matter much I suppose. Of the three people described here, he is the one with whom I related the most, and the one I would have expected to live a long and prosperous life. It pains me to think I had a video of my surprise 30th birthday party in which he played a prominent role, and which I have apparently lost.
The last handwritten letter I received from Tom was in 1993, in which he said that he had gone a whole year without being hospitalized and felt reasonably well. We spoke every year by telephone around Christmas time, but that stopped after we spoke in 1995. He never called in 1996, and I let it slip on my end. Had we made it into the Internet Age I’m sure our communication would have been more frequent and I would have had a better idea of how things were going for him. Anyway, I began to suspect that something was wrong. I admit, and feel a bit ashamed to say, that I was afraid to call his house. I imagined he was gone and I kept thinking of all the phone calls his Mother could have received where she’d have to explain that Tom had died. I didn’t want to make her explain it again. Still, for all I knew he was alive. When the internet finally did arrive I put some effort into finding him, or his family, to no avail. But when I began thinking about writing this post, I gave it another go, more concertedly, and this time I was successful. What I found was an obituary for Tom’s father who had “died suddenly” in late 1997. That obituary was accompanied by a eulogy given by Tom’s brother, in which he speaks of the difficulty of losing two family members in just over a year. Tom had died in August of 1996. So, because of this blog and the internet, I found out the fate of Tom Herrell 16 years later. He had lasted far longer with the HIV virus than most people I knew…just not quite long enough.
Looking back on all the people I met since my naive self stepped off the plane in New York in 1981, I wonder at those that survived and those that did not. All of the the photos in the “Travel Pictures” portion of this blog were taken long after my friends were gone. So many fantastic adventures I’ve had, and so much life that Tom and Lester and Conrad have missed. They were all so adventurous and life affirming, each in their own way. There is nothing for me to do but to feel gratitude for being one of the lucky ones. I think about each of these friends frequently, and I pay attention to each day as if it is “extra” life I’ve been given. This might be a good time to repost a link to a video I have on my Welcome page. Go here when you think you are having a bad day.