I'm John Weir. This is my blog: fiction, non-fiction, some rants. All stuff I wrote. The picture above is a slice from Cy Twombly's *Cold Stream*, 1966.

Category: Non-fiction

The Charm of the Highway Strip

(Published in *Gulf Coast*, 2008)

Everything Jack Kerouac wrote for about a decade was a draft of On the Road  – including On the Road.  The novel that was published in 1957, ten years after Kerouac made the first of the five cross-country road trips it recounts, was allegedly produced in 1951 in a mythical three-week Benzedrine-fueled round-the-clock writing session, when Jack sat down at a table in his new wife Joan Haverty’s Chelsea loft and hammered out an unpunctuated single-paragraph 120-foot long novel-scroll on a roll of Western Union typing paper.  Then, as the story goes, he bundled it in his arms and, still high on speed and caffeine and nicotine, carried it to Harcourt Brace, the publishers of his first and up-to-then only novel, The Town and the City, and unfurled it at the feet of his editor Robert Giroux, announcing that it had been dictated to him by the Holy Ghost and that he wouldn’t change a word.

Well, the story’s mostly false, and that novel doesn’t really exist.  For one thing, he punctuated plenty.  And it wasn’t a single roll of Western Union typing paper, it was eight sheets of architectural tracing paper that Jack found in the corner of Joan’s place, and which he cut to size and taped together.  The paper had belonged to Joan’s dead ex-boyfriend Bill Cannastra, from whom she inherited the loft after Bill climbed halfway out the window of a moving subway car and got beheaded.  You see why Jack didn’t need to invent things.  He went around marrying dead guys’ girls and getting high with William Burroughs and letting Allen Ginsberg blow him once in a while in 1948 with Bess Truman still sleeping in the White House.  And then he wrote about it.  He liked drugs and drama, and he liked to type, and by the time he was done typing what he was maybe calling The Beat Generation or maybe Gone on the Road or maybe Flower That Blows in the Night, Joan was through with him and she arranged to be found in their marriage bed with a waiter.

Jack split to his buddy Lucien Carr’s place, where Ginsberg was also living, and that’s where he finished the book, and where the last few feet of the original scroll were eaten by Carr’s dog Potchky.  He had to retype the ending from memory.  These facts are all contested.  To one degree or another.  Well, the details of Kerouac’s epic typing spurt have changed with each re-telling, including Jack’s.  And the manuscript he wrote is long gone.  Sure, the thing itself is still in the world, bought in 2002 for a little more than two million dollars by the man who owns the Indianapolis Colts, and it is currently traveling the U.S. in a road trip that started in 2004 and has already made stops in San Francisco, Denver, and New York.  I went to see Jack’s scroll last month at the New York Public Library.  Sixty feet of it were laid out under Plexiglas in a long display case that had been aligned with a giant overhanging photograph of a stretch of two-lane blacktop.  If you stood in the right place, you could see the reflection of the yellow highway strip falling down the length of yellow scroll, and there it was: Novel as narrative thread keeping the traffic in line.

Jack began defacing and erasing that manuscript – editing and emending, dropping and adding, second-thinking – almost as soon as the last foot of it rolled out of the typewriter, even before the dog got to it and Robert Giroux told Jack that no one at Harcourt Brace would be able to read a giant roll of papyrus.  The scroll on display in the D. Samuel and Jeane H. Gottesman Exhibition Hall of the Main Branch of the New York Public Library was scored with pencil markings, presumably Jack’s; words were scrawled between the lines, paragraphs were blocked off for deletion, famous passages were cut, later to be restored by – whom?  Kerouac?  Or Malcolm Cowley, his editor at Viking Press, who published the book six years after Jack hit the carriage return one last time in the spring of 1951?

In any case, the scroll was published last fall for the first time, and its name, On the Road: The Original Scroll, raises the question of what anybody means by “original.”  The Original Scroll reproduces Jack’s 1951 text without any of his later editing marks, though it includes some typos, if not his x-ing out of various lines and the many spots throughout the manuscript where Jack apparently thought twice, back-spaced, typed over his copy, and then moved on.  His scroll is pock-marked with these type-overs, but The Original Scroll presents a clean copy.  I guess it would be awkward or ugly or even irrelevant to reprint the thickly cancelled lines, but one of the pleasures of seeing Jack’s scroll is thinking about how much trouble he had with the left-hand margin.  Clearly, the typing paper slid on its roller, floating slowly and evenly to the right on a declining slant.  Jack let it slide until he couldn’t stand it anymore, and then stopped to re-align the page.  His scroll doesn’t have neatly indented flush-left paragraphs, it has weird angled blocks marked by a left-hand margin that sneaks further and further off and then corrects itself, over and over.  It’s not just a text, is a design scheme on architect’s paper.

On the Road: The Original Scroll does not reproduce that periodically slanting left-hand margin.  It is On the Road unplugged, but not all the way.  There is, for instance, a critical apparatus; unlike Jack’s scroll, it comes with four introductory essays, a dedication to the memories of Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg, and a quote from Walt Whitman.  However, its editor, Howard Cunnell, has allowed a typo to stand in the opening sentence.  “I first met met Neal not long after my father died. . .”  That’s how both Jack’s scroll and The Original Scroll begin.  The sentence uses Neal’s real name and meets him twice, and it ends with a dead dad and an ellipsis.  In the version of On the Road that everyone knows, the one Malcolm Cowley published, the sentence goes like this: “I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.”  The story of how Neal turned into Dean, and how a missing dad became a former wife, not to mention how a typo got cleaned up and how an ellipsis mark borrowed from Celine became a blunt, decisive full-stop, is the story of how Jack’s scroll of April 1951 was already – by the time he showed it to the first editor who refused to publish it – not the thing he typed in three weeks on stolen paper in a dead guy’s loft.

Hardly anyone but Allen Ginsberg read that scroll.  Certainly not Robert Giroux.  And Jack stopped showing it around after Giroux suggested that it would have to be more portable.  Insulted, Jack never re-submitted the manuscript to Harcourt Brace, but he did start re-typing it.  By the time Ginsberg pitched the book to Cowley in 1953, Jack had long since transferred the text of the scroll onto 8 ½ x 11-inch sheets of typing paper, making changes as he went.  Nonetheless, he still couldn’t get it published.  He waited five years before Cowley came through with an offer, and during that time, he kept messing with it.  There were two more complete manuscript versions before its publication in 1957.  There was a whole new book, Visions of Cody, which Jack insisted was the “real” On the Road, and which wasn’t published in full until he died.  Visions of Cody is the angry draft you write after your editor takes you to dinner and asks you, in the most discouraging possible tone, “What is this book about?”  You go home and say, “All right, I’ll start from scratch, but this time I’m not holding back on the gay sex and I’m going to get high with my reform school pals and tape-record all our conversations and then transcribe them word for word.”

Moreover, Kerouac had been taking notes for his road novel since 1947, and actively drafting it since 1949, when The Town and the City was published.  For a while, he was writing something called Ray Smith, about “two guys hitch hiking to California in search of something they don’t really find.”  Then there was The Hip Generation, focusing on a character named Red Moultrie and his half-brother Vern and their Denver clan of misfit men from the Old West.  Even The Town and the City feels like a dry-run for On the Road.  It starts as an evocation of Kerouac’s childhood in a French Canadian neighborhood in Lowell, Massachusetts in the 1920s and ‘30s, but then the war comes, and one of the characters moves to New York and meets Allen Ginsberg, and the rest is just kicks.  Ginsberg is called “Leon Levinsky,” and that’s also his name in the first few pages of the scroll of On the Road, until Jack gives up the pretense and says, “I mean of course Allen Ginsberg.”  By the time Kerouac finished drafting and re-drafting On the Road – after Ginsberg, and Cowley, and Jack’s agent, and the copy editor at Viking Press, and a team of nervous lawyers and libel experts all had a go at the book – Ginsberg was fictional, again.  He was Carlo Marx and Neal was Dean Moriarty, and Jack was Salvatore Paradise, not a Quebecois Canadian whose first language was French, but an Italian American who spoke bop.

If On the Road seems instantaneous, it was also highly pre-meditated, and later wildly mediated.  For years before he sat down to write the scroll, Jack had been rehearsing chunks of the book out loud for friends.  It wasn’t a novel, it was just what he did at parties.  He got drunk and said, “Lemme tell you about the greatest ride I ever got on the back of a flat-bed truck driven by a couple of corn-fed farmers from Minnesota.”  Or, “Have you heard about how me and Neal and Luanne undressed in the front seat of Neal’s Hudson and she smeared us all with cold cream?”  Jack had been dining out on those stories for a while, tweaking them, refining them.  It was just an accident of technology and temperament that, when he sat down to record his act, he used a typewriter instead of a tape deck or film camera.  The scroll version of On the Road is a dramatic monologue addressed, perhaps, to Joan Haverty, the wife whom, paradoxically, Kerouac was about to lose partly because all he ever did was take speed and write dramatic monologues.

Anyway, that’s what John Leland suggests in Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road (They’re Not What You Think).  I should admit that Leland was once my boss at Details magazine, and it’s possible he fired me.  Unlike Kerouac, I don’t remember everything.  Leland is an astute critic and reporter for The New York Times, and a chronicler of the American avant-garde.  His last book was Hip: The History, and it begins its story on a 17th century slave plantation and ends in trendy Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  Why Kerouac Matters was published last fall by Viking Press to coincide with the release both of On the Road: The Original Scroll and a pristine hardcover 50th anniversary reprinting of the 1957 On the Road: A marketing package.  I bought them all.  Leland is one of the few male writers who has ever seemed interested in the women in Kerouac’s life, and he posits an interesting theory about how On the Road came by its tone of intimacy, immediacy, and urgency: It started as a letter Jack was writing to his wife, the wife he had just married and was just about to flee.

Leland quotes Joan Haverty’s memoir, Nobody’s Wife, which Haverty wrote intermittently for about a decade until her death in 1990, and which Joan’s and Jack’s novelist daughter Jan Kerouac published in 1995, about a year before her death.  According to Haverty, she turned to Jack one day not long after they married, and said, “What did you and Neal really do?”  And then Jack sat down at his typewriter and started writing.  Don’t we all have that day, when we take stock of our significant ex-es for the edification, or safety, of our current love?  That’s what Jack did.  For three weeks.  The scroll isn’t a novel, or even a memoir, it’s a letter to Joan – a kind of proto-blog that treats everyone who reads it like members of the gang under discussion.  Neal doesn’t have a last name, not right away.  You’re supposed to know it.  We don’t see his face or hear much about his history.  There’s nothing like those passages in Henry James where the young girl shows up on an English lawn and before she is even served her tea we get a ten-page flashback to her childhood in Albany.  With Jack, it’s just, “Let me tell you about the dude.”

The scroll starts with Neal, and it ends with Joan.  That seems to be Jack’s point.  “Honey, I loved him once, but then you came along.”  In the chunk of text that Potchky ate, at the very end of the scroll and the close of the non-stop narrative, Jack reaches Joan: “One night I was standing in a dark street in Manhattan and called up to the window of a loft where I thought my friends were having a party.  But a pretty girl stuck her head out of the window.”  Which is how Joan’s ex-boyfriend Bill lost his head, literally, sticking it out the window.  Was that on Jack’s mind?   Is there a more un-self-reflective major post-war American novelist than Jack Kerouac?  “She stuck her head out the window and said, ‘Yes?  Who is it?’  ‘Jack Kerouac,’ I said, and heard my name resound in the sad and empty street.’  ‘Come on up,’ she called, ‘I’m making hot chocolate.”  Jack could never resist a sugar high – all that apple pie in On the Road – and he went up, and “that night I asked her to marry me and she accepted and agreed.  Five days later we were married.”  That’s not how it happens in the 1957 On the Road – instead of getting married, “we agreed to love each other madly.”  In real life, he and Joan were married in less than two weeks and stayed that way for about nine months.  And one night along the way, it occurred to Joan that she hadn’t really met her husband, and she started asking questions.  “Honey, what’s up with your love for that hustler-bigamist-car thief-sex addict you talk so much about?”

“I first met Neal,” Jack starts, and 120 feet later he ends, “There she was, the girl with the pure and innocent dear eyes that I had always searched for and for so long.”  For and for?  I guess that’s poetic.  It didn’t work for Joan, though.  She never thought much of his writing.  And while he was busy taking dictation from the Holy Spirit, she went off to her restaurant job and came home with one of the waiters.

I don’t know why anyone likes On the Road.  It’s got no plot, just a series of events.  There is no real characterization.  For all its talk of landscape, it hardly shows how Iowa is different from Texas.  What if Jack had gone to an MFA program?  Imagine him sitting in a classroom at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 1951, chain smoking and wearing a fabulous shirt and trying hard to look like he doesn’t care as his classmates rip into another draft of his book.  “I don’t see the story arc,” somebody says.  Another guy is gentler.  “Have you asked yourself, ‘What do my characters want?”  “Drugs!” someone says, and they all laugh and now the gloves are off.  “What have you got against women?”  “I don’t believe you’ve ever really been to Mexico.”  “You keep telling me how ‘gone’ everything is, but you don’t show it.  How is Denver ‘gone?’”  “Or Pennsylvania?”  “Or Charlie Parker?”  Then the teacher breaks in.  He’s a married guy who’s secretly gay, and Jack has been flirting with him all semester, showing up in his office crushed and handsome and clutching a tattered copy of You Can’t Go Home Again.  “He knows five adjectives,” the teacher says, fixing Jack with a meaningful look and counting on his fingers, “great and wild and vast and empty and sad.”

In my fantasy, Jack’s teacher is a stand-in for Paul Goodman, a member of the group of New York Jewish liberal intellectuals, a generation older than the beats, who cast a cold eye on Kerouac and his pals.  Reviewing On the Road in 1958, Goodman says, “For even when you ask yourself what is expressed by this prose, by this buoyant writing about racing-across-the-continent, you find that it is the woeful emptiness of running away from even loneliness and vague discontent.  The words ‘exciting,’ ‘crazy,’ ‘the greatest,’ do not refer to any object or feeling, but are a means by which the members of the ‘beat generation’ convince one another that they have been there at all.  ‘I dig it’ doesn’t mean ‘I understand it,’ but, ‘I perceive that something exists out there.’”

Goodman is right, of course.  The hypothetical workshop students are probably right.  On the Road does everything wrong.  Even after ten years of revision.  Self-indulgent, repetitive, declamatory, it’s all sensibility: What it has to offer is the drama of a voice emerging.  It’s all voice!  Is it written as a letter, is it a story you tell at a party, is it a way of explaining to your wife why you will always love your buddies more than her?  Is it just your stoned attempt to get down on paper everything that happened, in your own distinctive style, before your id intervenes and you find yourself writing a passing imitation of Thomas Wolfe?  I would never recommend On the Road to writing students, not if they were already immersed in The Big Book of Flannery O’Connor’s Exquisite Craft.

And yet:

The damned thing works.

It has charisma, that’s all, like Julia Roberts, and you sit there feeling seduced by it and wishing it were better, all the while knowing that perfection would wreck it.


Political Funerals

(Published in *Lambda Literary*, 2014)

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, and the Basilica where they went to be cured was wheel chair 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, tall 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 at Fourth Street 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 AIDs since 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.

If You See Something, Say Something

(Published in *Gawker*, 2013, in a shortened version)


I’ve said this already.  And the question of whether or not you have already seen or heard it is one of the subjects of this repetition, my saying it again.

And the question of whom it hurts or helps to repeat it.

It starts with a nosebleed and ends with a dead guy.  Three dead guys, actually, one of them Ed Koch.

Edward Irving Koch, recently deceased.  December 12th, 1924 to February 1st, 2013.  Sun in Sagittarius.  Born and died in New York City.  Two-term member of the US House of Representatives from New York’s 17th and then after re-districting 18th districts, January 3rd, 1969 to December 31st, 1977.  Mayor of the City of New York, the first of January 1978 to the last day of December 1989.  Dead homosexual.  Says who?

Everyone I know.

Something remarkable happened after Koch’s death: the New York Times rewrote his obituary.  Twice published, once revised.  In the first version, nobody said what many people knew, and had long known: that Mayor Koch in his two terms in office as the highest ranking public official in the biggest city in the US and world financial center presided over a health crisis that was quickly going global and would, by the end of the 1980s, kill 50,000 Americans, as many Americans as died in the Vietnam War.

Kill with particular speed and devastation gay people, black people, Latinos and Latinas, poor people, women, people with limited access to effective health care – people, that is, whose health care needs were not taken into account by a medico-pharmaceutical industry that pictured as its typical patient a middle class straight white man.  Kill also middle-class straight white men.  And this was thanks in part to two political leaders who either declined to mention AIDS throughout most of their administrations, or preferred to treat it as if it were of no pressing concern: US President Ronald Reagan, and New York Mayor Ed Koch.

The first version of the Koch obituary that Robert McFadden wrote for the New York Times said nothing about the former Mayor’s failure to provide responsible, humane leadership during the onset of the AIDS crisis.  The obit mentioned as if in a footnote “the scandals and the scourges of crack cocaine, homelessness and AIDS” that had defined Koch’s two administrations.  Hours later, after an outbreak of Twitter scorn, the obit was emended.  This was added: “Mr. Koch was also harshly criticized for what was called his slow, inadequate response to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Hundreds of New Yorkers were desperately ill and dying in a baffling public health emergency, and critics, especially in the gay community, accused him of being a closeted homosexual reluctant to confront the crisis for fear of being exposed.”

Whose estimate was the “hundreds” of ill New Yorkers?  More like 30,000.  Whose editorial hand limited the effects of the Mayor’s genocidal AIDS policies to “New Yorkers?”  Ten million people worldwide were living with HIV by 1990.  Why was the word “accurately” not inserted between “gay community” and “accused?”

I watched this story of two obituaries scroll past in my Facebook newsfeed.  The way we live now, some of us.  If a tree falls in a forest, and it’s not on Facebook, nobody hears it.  I have 3650 Facebook friends, a lot of them news addicts.  And though Facebook shows you status updates from only a percentage of your friends – 15% is the figure I’ve seen in articles about Facebook, posted, of course, to Facebook – nonetheless: thanks to my own 15%, I get daily postings from a wide range of media outlets, mainstream and alternative.  My friends post stuff they like and stuff they hate, from news sources they trust as well as those they despise.  Newspapers, magazines, journals, websites, blogs.  MSNBC video clips, Rush Limbaugh, Jon Stewart.  And then there are threads unique to Facebook, created to serve a temporary need.  Someone started a thread that showed a photograph of Ed Koch’s headstone, which elicited hundreds of comments.

So I got an overview of reactions to his death.  And really, there were two:

Ed Koch was a great man who had been our city’s quintessential mayor, said current New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and President Obama and all the major New York daily newspapers and local and national TV news stations and everyone but me who posted on the Facebook thread about Koch’s headstone.

Ed Koch was responsible for the deaths of thousands of New Yorkers, said nearly everyone I knew who had lived in New York City from 1980 to 1989.  A war criminal, some said, and: a sell-out to real estate tycoons, a mischievous player of racial politics, egregiously Manhattan-centric (Manhattan below 125th Street), a fake liberal, de facto Republican, a gay man who had remained strategically closeted for political gain, a gay man who did not respond to the AIDS crisis with any deliberate speed because he did not want anyone to think he was a fag taking care of dying fags.

Forget Ed Koch: what struck me was that a lot of people, not just those I knew in real space/time but people I had “met” only virtually, many of whom were consistently and almost comically reverent about death – all the schmaltzy well-meaning Youtube and Facebook and Twitter tributes to the merest no big deal dead celebrity – were so outraged by Koch’s mayoral record, even now, that their immediate response to news of his death was to go online and call an 88-year-old-man, a famous now dead public servant, his body barely cold, a murderer.

More remarkable to me, however, was the number of people who did not seem to have the slightest idea why anyone would call Ed Koch a murderer.

I wondered if we had lived in the same place at the same time.

Did we live in this city together all that time?

I meant to end, not open, with Ed Koch, but once I got started with him, his failures rerouted my narrative, the story of my life.

To begin again:


I got a nosebleed on the way to see The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s play about AIDS.  A play in which a group of men and one woman respond to the first signs of AIDS in New York City in the early 1980s.  A play about a love affair between two men.  A play about terminal illness and death.  A Sophoclean tragedy: we know from the outset how it will end.  A play about spilled milk, metaphorically and literally, at least as it was staged by Michael Lindsay-Hogg in its original production, where the playing area was littered throughout the second act with an accumulating mess of objects thrown and dropped, medical files and a bag of groceries and a carton of milk that was lifted and flung and exploded and never cleaned up.  A play that enters into historical record, as docudrama and fictionalized autobiography, one version of the role Kramer played in forming Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the first organization in the world to respond to the AIDS crisis.   And a play about Kramer’s dissension from the eventual and prevailing and deliberately limited aims of that group.

I saw The Normal Heart twice: in 1985, in its first production, downtown at the Public Theater; and twenty-six years later, when it opened on Broadway for the first time, in a revival staged in the spring of 2011.  I was twenty-six years old the first time I saw it.  And because I was boyfriends from 1983 to 1989 with a guy who was for some of that time Director of Group Services for GMHC – he organized support groups for people who were doing volunteer work with PWAs – I knew, had met, watched die, many of the people on whom the characters in the play were based.  People who had sat for Kramer’s composite portraits: Paul Popham, Paul Rapoport, Nathan Fain, Enno Poersch, Mitchell Cutler, Dan Bailey, Rodger McFarlane. . .

Actually, Rodger McFarlane, who was Executive Director of GMHC from 1983 to 1985, and Executive Director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS from 1989 to 1994, died much later.  Not of AIDS, reportedly.  Though the question of whether or not AIDS killed him even if the HIV virus didn’t, and the question of whether and how and why it matters to know even now the cause of death of gay men or anyone who witnessed and felt endangered by and survived an era of epidemic death and loss, is another subject of this telling, my saying-again.

In the winter and spring of 2011, I did and didn’t want to go back to The Normal Heart.  Seeing it again after twenty-six years would be like watching a lot of upsetting home movies.  When I finally bought a ticket, there was nothing left but the next-to-last peformance, a Sunday matinée.  It was scheduled to close after the evening show.  I was living then in a sublet apartment on 10th Avenue and 47th Street, two long and three short blocks from the Golden Theater, and I left my apartment in plenty of time to get there before the curtain went up.

It was July, not too hot, and I was walking down 9th Avenue past Amy’s Bread. Suddenly my nose was bleeding.  I knew right away it was blood, because it ran straight and fast the way blood runs from a burst vein, as if you’d been punched or whacked in the face by a fly ball or forced suddenly to live too high above sea level.  I didn’t have anything like a handkerchief.  Not even a wad of Kleenex.  I tipped my head back, and hoped.  I was on a crowded street in midtown on a summer day, standing with my head way back and my fingers hiding my face, which was bloody.  I didn’t want to make my shirt a rag.  I didn’t see how I could walk blood-soaked into Amy’s Bread, saying, “Excuse me, does somebody have a napkin?”

My long-ago best friend, David B. Feinberg, novelist, activist, journalist, who died of AIDS in 1994, had lived five blocks from where I was standing.  I had often walked with him down 9th Avenue, before and after he got sick, before and after he needed help to walk anywhere.  Eventually, I had to watch him lose control of his bodily functions, sometimes in public.  Maybe Dave was sending me a nosebleed from the beyond.  It crossed my mind.  I don’t often get nosebleeds, or even a cold, and I felt exposed, bleeding all over myself on the tourist-encrusted sidewalk, trying not to splatter anyone but myself.

I couldn’t bleed in a boutique bakery.  So I walked half a block north to the Starbuck’s, which is usually filled with leggy chorus girls and gesturing chorus boys.  But it was matinée hour on Sunday afternoon.  The chorines were working, the tourists from Dallas and Minneapolis had headed off to Memphis, and the place was mercifully empty.  I dashed from the door to the napkin dispenser, grabbed a handful of napkins, and ran outside to the small park two doors down.  For fifteen minutes, I sat on a park bench with a napkin up my nose.  Then I washed off in a water fountain, cleared my throat, and ran to the theater.  A big glob of blood came up in my throat, which I spit in the gutter on 47th Street.  “Okay, so now I’m spitting blood.”  It was not the worst thing that happened, to me or anyone else.  I got to the theater on time.

I don’t know what to say about the play.  I mean, I knew the story.  It was traumatic because I knew: the familiar plot, the characters I recognized, everyone’s inevitable death.  The ending clear from the outset like in Oedipus.  Actual bodies I’d seen collapse in the real world given life again onstage, only in order to die again, onstage.  The packed theater audience, full of what I guessed were, unlike me, mostly not gay men in their 50s.  They were straight couples in their 50s, one-man-one-woman.  My age, my generation, as far as I could tell.  Baby boomers.  They had lived through the AIDS crisis, they had been there when it happened.  Were here now.  Maybe they had seen Angels in America, or Longtime Companion, or An Early Frost, or Our Sons with Julie Andrews and Ann-Margret, where two mothers get over their homophobia when their sons die, fiction in the most clinical sense of the word.

And yet, the vibe in the room was: “How could this have happened?  Could this have happened?  Did it really happen?  I can’t believe it happened.”

Okay, interpret a vibe.  Read an affect, a big silent collective tone.  An inflection in the manner of their sitting.  How could I know what people in the audience were thinking?  I couldn’t.  I could only sense.  I’m saying I heard a tone in their sobbing.  People were sobbing.  I sat in an aisle seat thirteen rows back and way to the right, feeling out-of-it.  Feeling really like the man in the moon, because the audience was reacting to the show as if it were news.  All around me, people were gasping with shock and surprise, as if everything that I had learned to take for granted in my twenties and thirties and ever since, unrelenting trauma and loss, hadn’t occurred to them.  As if the intensity I had grown to expect from friendship and love – the intimacy of knowing that each new relationship, new friendship, would end in death, end very soon – had never occurred to them.  Hadn’t it occurred to them?

“Trauma isn’t intimacy,” a shrink once told me, years after everyone had died.  For me, however, trauma was a daily experience for a long time.  It was how I got close to people, and how they went away.  Trauma was always there and inevitable, like weather.

The guy next to me in Row J was antsy and all elbows and he was halfway in my seat.  I spent the play scrunched to the right and clutching my armrest to stay out of his way.  I couldn’t breathe.  The play was like that, and my life had been like that.

Paul Rapoport, one of the founders of GMHC, had come to my twenty-fifth birthday party.  So had Raymond Jacobs, Diego Lopez, Peter Kunz-Opfersei, Jim Christon, Luis Jiminez-Alvarez, Richard Gambe, Ken Wien, DeeCee Husband, Edwin Alexander, people who had worked at GMHC and/or used its services.  Some of them were dead within two years of that party, some in five.  Only one of them was still alive by the time I turned thirty.

The audience was sobbing in a tone of disbelief – I read their tone of sobbing disbelief – during the play’s most upsetting speech, when a guy named Bruce Niles tells the story of getting on a plane and flying his dying lover from New York home to Arizona.  The lover dies on the way.  First, the pilot won’t leave the ground because a guy with AIDS is on the plane.  They get a new pilot.  The plane takes off.  The lover shits and pisses all over himself on the plane.  He’s dead by the time the plane lands.  They’re in Phoenix.  Police cars are waiting to take him off the plane, the police officers dressed in full-body prophylactic latex, looking “like astronauts.”  Nobody wants to touch the body.  They get it off the plane, take it to a hospital room.  No one on the ground will touch the body.  It ends up wrapped in a plastic trash bag and left outside the hospital, like garbage.  The mother and the dead guy’s boyfriend carry the bagged body into her car and drive it to a mortician, who finally consents to burn it.

I understood this speech, this recounting of death, to be not melodrama, not exaggeration, not a cry for help, not a dramatization of loss, but: documentary.  I knew every word was true.  It wasn’t sad, it was fact.  It wasn’t just sad.  It was fifty people I knew who died, and the way they died.  It was one hundred people.  How do you feel when you look at a photograph of war dead, spread across a barren field or draped over charred jeeps and tanks, how do you react to that photograph when you know you’re standing to the left of the frame, just outside of the camera’s view?

I was gripping the outside of my seat and pressing myself hard against it, leaving as much space as possible between myself and anyone else.  I couldn’t stand to hear anyone cry about it, couldn’t cry about it myself, as if it were just a terrible thing that happened, back then.  I sat there not crying.


So many disasters, so many public, epic catastrophes have reached us, ruined us, affected us.  News of epidemic loss fills our daily lives, virtual and actual, our Twitter accounts, our Facebook newsfeeds.  Nobody can talk about US history anymore without saying, “before 9/11” or “after 9/11.”  Katrina, Sandy, Newtown, Trayvon Martin, Kimani Gray, a Sikh temple in Milwaukee, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Boston: we measure our lives in catastrophe.  And yet there is still an unshakable aura of otherness surrounding AIDS that prevents even people newly exposed to the disease in 2013 from seeking treatment – because they are ashamed, because AIDS happens, not to us, but to them.  People are ashamed to say what happened to them.

What happened to you?

Here’s what happened to me:

Facebook.  And twenty-five years.  Not in that order.

A year ago, on the verge of the 25th anniversary of ACT UP New York’s first action – the 1987 protest at Wall Street to confront the world financial community with its complicity in the neglect of AIDS – an ACT UP NY member and doctoral candidate in NYU’s Theater program, Debra Levine, was finishing her PhD dissertation, Demonstrating ACT UP: The Ethics, Politics and Performances of Affinity.  And she wanted to include as part of her thesis an accounting of AIDS-related deaths: a list of all the ACT UP members who died, either during the early period of ACT UP’s history, 1987 to 1996, or in the sixteen years that followed.  She posted a thread to Facebook’s ACT UP NY Alumni page asking for names and dates.  And from January to April, her thread was a spontaneous collective ongoing elegy, a profoundly apt prelude to the 25th anniversary action that ACT UP had organized in concert with Occupy Wall Street.

Every day for weeks you could scroll down the thread and see new names, not just of the dead but the living.  One of the peculiarities of having lived in New York during the last three decades of the 20th century was that you were never sure whether people with whom you had lost touch in your/their twenties and thirties were still alive – whether they had moved to San Francisco or Santa Fe or Montclair, New Jersey; whether they had fallen into a post-AIDS K-hole; whether they had gotten married in Vermont and adopted a baby in China and were running a gay bed-and-breakfast; whether they were writing their memoirs; whether they had gone home to a small town in Georgia to get over everything they had lost, or not get over it; or whether they were dead, long dead or recently dead.  It was as surprising to see names of people who were still alive as it was upsetting to find out that long-ago friends you thought were okay had died.

A mournful and a celebratory scroll, commemorating the dead and compiling a record of their individual and collective accomplishments, what we endured alone, and what we managed together. People delivered on-the-spot eulogies for friends who had died without sufficient remembrance.  People who had not spoken to each other in years were again in contact, if only online.  People memorialized and recalled and confessed and corrected.  And though we have all been subjected over the past ten years to a surfeit of grief porn, accumulating since 9/11 and flooding the Internet, nonetheless, the thread was not an advertisement for loss.  I don’t mean just that it didn’t market loss, but also that it didn’t merely represent or recall loss.  It was loss.  To scroll down the thread was to feel the experience of loss, again, and for the first time.  It was the loss, and its consequences.  And it was the story of that loss.

And though it was on Facebook, nonetheless, it felt private.  I shouldn’t even be talking about it.  I’m still not sure if people who were not members of the ACT UP NY Alumni page could read it.  I’d like to keep it to myself, though it’s not mine to keep.  It’s not mine, but it’s yours, and everybody’s: a naming of the dead, our history.

Ours, and now Mark Zuckerberg’s.  Facebook was holding onto my past.  Had I outsourced my memory to Facebook?  Was I “reinforcing my victimhood by talking about it too much,” a phrase that came up, both earnestly and ironically, “victimhood” in and out of quotes, in a series of subsequent threads on Facebook’s ACT UP NY Alumni page and elsewhere, written and read last winter by AIDS activists and past and present ACT UP members, people living long-term with HIV, caretakers and survivors of friends and lovers and family members who died of AIDS – all of us, in other words, who got out of the 20th century alive and were beginning (or beginning again) to ask ourselves about the first fifteen years of the global AIDS crisis, 1980 to 1996 in NYC and San Francisco and Los Angeles and everywhere?  And to wonder what happened?

To wonder both what happened then, at the time, and what has happened since, from 1996, when the AIDS “drug cocktail,” the life-saving antri-retroviral drug combinations, first became available, to now.  This feeling: I was there, it changed my life, it was and maybe is my life, and yet sometimes still I don’t or can’t believe: what happened.

And I can’t believe you don’t know what happened.

What still happens, is happening now.


Then Spencer Cox died.  Last winter, near the end of December.  News of his death showed up in my Facebook newsfeed.  I saw it in Deb Levine’s status update.

Shall I trust the New York Times?  His Times obituary, written by Bruce Weber, said Cox had been “a prominent voice in the fight against AIDS for more than two decades,” a kid in his twenties when he joined ACT UP, a gay man living with HIV, “whose work with a cadre of lay scientists helped push innovative antiretroviral drugs to market, creating the first effective drug protocols to combat the syndrome.”

He had helped get approval for the drugs that kept him and other people alive, worldwide.  And he had reportedly stopped taking those drugs, not long before he died in New York City at the age of forty-four.  No one knew why.  No one who knew was able to say why.  He died in 2012 as he might have died in 1992, when there were no effective drugs for treating HIV/AIDS.

In a later, more pointed in memoriam in the Huffington Post, John Voelcker, a friend of Cox’s and an ACT UP member, said Cox’s death “was a wake-up call – a blaring alarm – that highlighted once again the critical need for mental health programs and studies of the powerful trauma experienced by gay men in their 40s through 70s who’ve lived through the loss and destruction of entire communities due to AIDS.”  Not just gay men.  “There are the hundreds of thousands of men and women who survived the worst of the AIDS epidemic during the 1980s and 1990s,” and some of them are still at risk of being killed, however directly or indirectly, by AIDS.  “Especially those who’ve lived with HIV for 15 years or more.”  Especially a few people with HIV who “inexplicably stop taking the lifesaving anti-retroviral medications that saved their lives 15 years ago.”

Especially those, especially those. . .  More newsfeed postings, more Facebook threads, more updates.  I didn’t know Spencer Cox, except from a distance at ACT UP meetings and demonstrations in the early 1990s, and then much later, as an internet boulevardier whose Facebook posts in the last year of his life were scorching and hilarious.  They were more than that.  They were a signal we had read but ignored.  Understood but failed to grasp.  His death shocked a lot of people because they must have expected it.  Expected his death, or somebody’s, or mine, or yours.  Maybe that was the surprise, that we had known but not admitted that the loss was still taking place, that so many of us were still at risk, and that the mourning we had been sharing online, or in private, or at Spencer Cox’s memorial service, was not only for him, but us.  “After all of our friends died in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, protease inhibitors came out, and there was no mourning about what we had all been through,” ACT UP member Peter Staley had told Frontline in a 2005 interview.  “We just moved on.”

In the midst of the memorializing in which many people I knew from twenty and thirty years ago were engaging, or in which they were being treated, oddly and perhaps inevitably, as stars – Anderson Cooper’s televised remarks about Spencer Cox, a tribute to ACT UP by Rachel Maddow, the release of two documentary films about ACT UP, Jim Hubbard’s United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, and David France’s How to Survive a Plague, nominated for an Oscar and sparking talks of an ABC miniseries – had I asked myself what a lot of people had started to ask?  Whether the chaos and pain and daily experience of sickness and death, particularly isolating in the case of AIDS; whether the stress of recalling that loss; whether for some people the stress of continuing to live with HIV long beyond the moment when there was an activist community dedicated to keeping its members safe and alive; whether the trauma was ongoing, whether it still affected me, or people I knew?  Whether you could still survive it?  Were long-term survivors of AIDS still at risk of early death?  Did it help to repeat to yourself or anyone else the events of the past?  Did it hurt?  Did it matter?  Was there no way to repeat it, was there no way not to?  Was the story of your life that repetition?  That reiteration?  Did it have to be?


“Of course you can repeat the past,” Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby says.

“The past is never dead,” Faulkner’s Gavin Stevens says.  “It’s not even past.”

“We have talked our extinction to death,” Robert Lowell says.

People are dying, what are you doing?

I said I would end with a dead guy.


My friend David Feinberg died of AIDS in 1994.  That’s his name, now: “My-friend-Dave-who-died-of-AIDS.”  It’s how I refer to him, in an awkward tone, silly and lethal at the same time, that is not mine, but his.  That’s how I’ve kept him.  His voice is my transitional object.  The sound of his voice.  I knew him five years.  I can’t picture us, back then, but I hear him.  If you had met him, you’d hear, too.  You would go back to the start of this essay and read it in his voice.  I’m writing this in Dave’s voice.  His voice when he was dying.

Nothing I have ever seen or heard or said has been anything like David when he was dying.

I had already watched one hundred people die.  In my youth and stupidity, I would say stuff like, “Death can’t surprise me anymore.”

I was wrong.

No one had ever died like David.  Not Cleopatra.  Not Robespierre.  Not medieval Sodomites with their bodies tied to two horses and ripped in half and then in half again and their heads put on spikes and raised high above London Bridge.

There is cruelty in death inflicted, there is incredulity in death witnessed, there is death written down and re-lived for centuries after.

David inflicted his death on everyone who cared about him, and I couldn’t believe it.  And I am still writing it down.

Riding my bicycle back and forth in the fall of 1994 from my East Village apartment to his room at St. Vincent’s Hospital above the intersection of 7th Avenue and Greenwich Avenue and West 11th Street – that juncture, that hospital that is now being turned into luxury condominiums – ; riding across town late at night after having spent most of the day with David, I said to myself, “I can’t believe this is happening.  I can’t believe this is happening.”  Said it out loud, and it’s all I said.  I’m not sure I existed except in that phrase, as that phrase.  The words meant nothing.  They were were a form of breathing.  “I can’t believe this is happening,” I said.  “I can’t believe this is happening.”

I knew it would happen.  I had watched, like I said, people die.  I had watched people watch people die.

I watched David, and I didn’t believe it.

I watched him as he lay in his hospital bed, or rather, writhed in his hospital bed, caroused and slept and harried and mortified from his bed.  Snapped photos of visitors with his Polaroid camera.  “Say cheese,” he barked, as they walked in the room.  And he caught them.  They were caught, he was not caught.  Their eyes in the light, their face in the frame.  And he pinned their trapped and worried hospital-visitor faces to the wall of his room as evidence, accusation, decoration, fury, and fun.

In the hospital room, I watched him.  And then he got out.  And I followed him, and so did many of his friends while he gave his farewell tour, as if in example, as if Cher were taking notes.  Take that, Cher!

He got out of the hospital and went shopping.

He got out of the hospital weighing ninety pounds and with two weeks to live and drove around town in a taxi handing out signed copies of his just published book, his last, to all the cute boys and magazine editors who had ever rejected him.

We took a cab to Midtown and rode an elevator up to the receptionist’s desk at the New Yorker, and left a copy of his book for Mr. Shawn, the Editor-in-Chief.

He got out of the hospital and attended a reading of his play, The Pathological Flirt at the Theater for a New City.

He got out of the hospital and saw other people’s plays, two plays, three plays, carrying his portable IV bag, chatting loudly with the matinée ladies while he waited for the house lights to dim.

He got out of the hospital and threw a theme party, “I’m Still Standing,” which was not true, because he wasn’t standing.  He was crumpled on his futon couch on a Sunday afternoon in his one-bedroom apartment so crowded with guests that it was hard to find his small body in the corner of the room.  Because of his diarrhea – which, nature’s joke, managed to be both constant and unexpected – he had to get off the couch and run to the john at regular intervals.  “Out of the way, out of the way,” he yelled, pushing guests aside, dribbling watery shit, and I followed behind, mopping up.

He got out of the hospital and headed for an ACT UP meeting at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center, weighing less than 90 pounds, his white jeans falling to his knees, his portable IV bag in my hands and draining pentamadine into his body through a clear plastic tube that stretched between us.  He wanted to stage a one-man zap of ACT UP, which he had joined in 1987.  The group had a tradition of members taking the floor and asking, “Where is your anger?”  Shouting, a rant.  A battle cry.  After a period of especially painful governmental or medical inaction.  A drug was released, but no one could afford it.  More people died.  Clinical trials to test new drugs were initiated, but who got to participate?  More people died.

“People are dying, what are you doing?” was a chant.  “We die, you do nothing,” was a chant.

Not a chant, but an update.

What if there’d been Facebook in 1990?  “What’s happening, Dave?” the Facebook prompt asks.  “I’m dying.  Thanks for asking.  What are you doing?”

Dave’s rant.  A chilly night late in October.  His arrival abrupt, his speech unexpcted, not on the meeting’s agenda.  People in folding metal chairs, watching.  The building had once been a public school, and the room was long and narrow, with a concrete floor with skinny iron posts that blocked your view.

Dave stood in the middle of the room in his drooping pants and shirt that showed the bones in his back, his Hickman catheter plugged into his chest.

“I’m dying,” he yelled.  He was not saying it to prevent it.  He was not saying it to know it.  He was not saying it to get over it.  Maybe he wanted you to stop it, but no one could stop it.  Many people had refused to stop it.  Now he was doing it.  He was it.  A performative statement.  “I’m dying,” he said, a verb of action that was also verb of being.

He died a week later.  Most of what I knew as “David” was already gone.

“I’m dying, I’m dying, I’m dying, I’m dying, I’m dying, I’m dying, I’m dying.”

He used to leave that message on my phone machine.  I’d go to his hospital room in the afternoon, stay long past midnight if the nurses let me, bicycle home at two in the morning, check my answering machine, and David would already have left two or three messages, while I biked home.  “I need sleep.  I can’t sleep.  I need to sleep.  I’m dying.  I’m dying I’m dying I’m dying.”  Every night for a month, for six weeks, however long he was in the hospital just before he died.  I would sit on the floor in front of my tape deck and make mix tapes, background music for his memorial service, dirges.  Meanwhile my answering machine played his messages.  “I’m dying.”


Rewind the tape:

“If I told you I was dying of AIDS, would you not want to sleep with me?”  That was one of the first things he asked me.  Maybe you don’t find that charming.  So what.  I did.  I assumed he was kidding.  It was a joke, sure, it sounded like a joke, borscht belt humor in a funeral parlor.  But he was never kidding.  That’s what I failed to notice.  One of many things.

I didn’t sleep with him, in any case.  Not because I wasn’t in love with him.  I was in love with him, I guess.  What’s the colloquial phrase for, “If I love you enough, you won’t die?”  He hated me so much, because I couldn’t get the drugs he needed when he needed them.  He always needed them.

“If I said I was dying of AIDS,” he asked me, at lunch, on our first “friendship” date, in 1989, when everyone who had AIDS died of AIDS.  And I thought, “I won’t let you die.”  I had failed with everyone.  Everyone died.  Half the guys I knew in my 20s were dead, and I had split up with my boyfriend, finally, after six years, because our relationship had consisted of splitting up until we ran into each other in someone’s hospital room, someone who had just been delivered a death sentence, so we got together again for a while and then split up, and ran into each other in somebody’s hospital room, someone who had just been delivered a death sentence. . .

Play this tape over and over until you’re sick of it, and then keep playing it.

Dave bought me lunch on 9th Avenue and told me, in the tone of someone signaling for the check, that he was dying of AIDS.  It was the first of many lunches, and he always paid.  I was broke, he was working, and he would buy lunch and sometimes slip a twenty-dollar bill into my breast pocket and say, “John, am I enabling you?  If I’m enabling you, shouldn’t you be able to do something?”

As he walked away that first day, I watched him go.  He got smaller and smaller in the distance, turned back to wave.  I waved.  He kept going, then turned back to wave, and I waved.  And he disappeared.  And I thought – I remember this exactly – : “This time, I will love you unconditionally and you won’t die.  Someone will finally not die.”

I was so fucking stupid.  Narcissistic, OMG.  Was I Jesus?  I must have thought I was Jesus.  And I was raised an atheist.  He needed certain drugs, that was all, and he died eighteen months before they came out.  Other people got as sick as David, and they lived long enough for the drugs that became available in 1996, and they are still alive, seventeen years later.  Some of them, not all of them.  If Dave were still alive, he would be 57 years old.


I don’t want to write about David Feinberg for the rest of my life.  Not only David.  Other things have happened, obviously.  Happened, and happen.


Trauma happens all the time.  To some people, a hangnail is a trauma.  Trauma is the way forward, not the deviation.  Were you there when it happened?  The luxury/peril of being present.  The luxury of having only this to think about: Was I present?  I would like to be present.  “Present” in the sense of being aware or not aware, emotionally present or not, as when someone says, “I wasn’t present.  I moved out of myself.  I wish I had been present.”  The plan to “go back there,” back to the past, in therapy, in conversation, in print.  If you can just go back there, work it through, rethink it, get it right.

Jesus, why would I want to go back there?  To whatever degree that I was not there, I’m grateful.  If I could go back there, put myself back in my body, whatever that means, then what?  I’ve always hated my body!  If I had been there, fully “embodied.”  Actors talk about being embodied.  I love actors.  They go on Oprah and talk about living intentionally and being embodied.  No wonder some of them find purpose in Scientology, which talks about living intentionally, Level 10 intentions.

If I had been there, if I had intended.  If I had not been protected/afflicted by trauma.  If I had been able to believe at the time what was happening.  Maybe I would not have survived it.  It sounds presumptuous to speak of “survival” when I know plenty of people who got closer to death than I did, continue to get closer.

I’m sorry it didn’t kill me.  I’m not sorry it didn’t kill me.

Anyway, I wasn’t there.  I’m glad I was missing, because unlike you – maybe? – I had to be there.

Every word of this is written somewhere already, most of it a long time ago, some of it by me.

I don’t know how to end this.  Anyway, it’s not over.

A prayer for the dead, then.  For the living and the dead.  To the dead Mayor: pick a random homosexual who didn’t die and then did.  For Ed Koch, may his works and days be remembered, ficta voluptatis causa sint proxima veris: Fictions meant to please should approximate the truth.

Foolish Man Blues

(Published in *Ploughshares*, 2009)

In the summer of 1991, I was on the beach in Los Angeles.  I should have been home in New York, caring for sick friends, but I had won a grant and fled a boyfriend and I was living for a few months with two friends in Hollywood.  One afternoon we went to Santa Monica, to Will Rogers State Park – Ginger Rogers, they said, a gay beach.  The sun was hot, the surf was beating on the sand, cute guys were playing whiffle ball down by the waves.  I sat with my pals John and Randy.  John was on one side of me, reading The Gold’s Gym Guide to Nutrition, and Randy was on the other side, reading I’m Looking for Mr. Right, But I’ll Settle for Mr. Right Away, and I was in the middle, eating a mango and clutching, like an amulet against joy, a copy of The New Yorker.

As I sat there dripping mango juice down my chin, I realized suddenly that I did not have a thought in my head.  That had never happened before.  I had never not been hectored by a scolding and relentless internal monologue.  Now suddenly I was all sand and sky and boys and whiffle balls and waves, and it scared the hell out of me.  What business did I have in the gold light of the Pacific sun, thinking nothing and not despising myself?  In order to get a dose of the reality principle, and to shock my system with a jolt of New England fatalism and remorse, I opened The New Yorker and started reading an excerpt from the Journals of John Cheever.

“There is a membrane, a caul of darkness, that I think I recognize in homosexuals,” Cheever wrote, and I looked up at the bright sky and out at the sparkling sea, and I saw the flawless young men spread across the beach, and I thought, “If only!”  If only there were darkness, subtext, conflict, in this aspect of gay communion.  I like obscurity, but Cheever venerated light, he associated health and happiness with “the quality of light,” and with backyard barbecues and procreative sex, and his wife’s warm breasts filling the top of her dress as she leaned down to spear a slab of steak off the grill.  Moreover, in the daylight, he would be less likely to sneak off with a man.  Or so he hoped.  Cheever was nine years dead in 1991, and for the past year The New Yorker had been publishing excerpts from his journals, with special attention paid to his sexual self-monitoring, his lifelong, heartbreaking and tedious anxiety about his attraction to men, and his guilt about his periodic all-male trysts in public johns, Hollywood hotels, and the open woods above his suburban house in Ossining, New York.

“People who seek, who are driven to seek, love in urinals, do not deserve the best of our attention,” he wrote, lamenting others but no doubt lacerating himself.  This airing of his sexual panic and dread struck me as hypocritical on the part of The New Yorker, where Cheever had published short stories and occasional pieces from 1940 until just before he died at age seventy in 1982.  He was an alcoholic, a disease that had stricken both his father and his brother, but maybe anyone who wrote stories for The New Yorker for forty years, particularly a man who loved men, would have needed a drink.  The magazine underpaid him and it policed his content – it maintained, throughout Cheever’s career, a notoriously squeamish and WASPy reserve about sexuality and sex – and it assigned William Maxwell as Cheever’s long-term editor, a man who, after publishing a novel about idyllic boy-love in the Midwest, had undergone therapy to turn himself straight.  Cheever’s desire for men was not just – in the terms of the day – a Freudian nightmare, a threat to his marriage and his manhood, a potential legal disaster, the worm in the apple of the American way, and a risk to him in the Men’s Room at Grand Central Station.  It was also a professional and creative liability.  The New Yorker wanted him straight.

Considering how the magazine contributed to his repression, there was something icky about its publishing the man’s private confessions of worry about his sexual activity and need: his drunken leering at men he yearned to touch; the boys in tight pants whose youth and beauty gave him a hard-on while he waited for the morning train; the guy he blew while spending a few months in Hollywood writing a screenplay for Jerry Wald of 20th Century Fox and living temporarily in the Chateau Marmont, where he hooked up with a sailor in the Mitzi Gaynor suite.  Afterwards, there was always regret: “I know my troubled nature and have tried to contain it along creative lines,” he testifies, after gratifying and then fleeing the sailor.  In 1991, The New Yorker had a new editor-in-chief for the first time in forty years, and a readership that was enduring Reaganomics and AIDS – a readership, that is, with fewer illusions – but there were still plenty of people who were shocked by Cheever’s sexual history, even though his obsession with homosexuality had been on display in his fiction for decades.

It’s hard to imagine Cheever reading Queer Theory and Eve Sedgwick, but throughout his Journals he is transfixed by what Sedgwick calls a “crisis of homo/heterosexual definition,” a binary opposition that insists that if he is not straight he must be queer; that if he is straight it’s precisely because he isn’t queer; and that “queer” means one thing: men who own antique stores.  Well, his mom had run an antique store – actually, a gift shop – and Cheever had a Freud-induced anxiety about over-identifying with his mother.  His fear and loathing of what he calls “effeminate” men is permeating and toxic, though it is meant to be corrective.  Homophobia is his antibiotic, and he gulps it down.  Yet the specter of homosexuality remains ever-present in his work.  It is a specter that, in order to banish it to the margins of his art – his cheerful and despairing art, his magnificent sentences that always end in surprise, that are polished to a high finish not to mitigate pain, but to intensify it, and to ration joy – he places as an open secret at the center.

Who needs Lesbian and Gay Literature when you have American Literature, American writers?  What a gallery of panicked gender queers – “mannish acting women and skippin’ twistin’ women acting men,” to quote Bessie Smith – doing their best to hide their proclivities behind gay-baiting and self-loathing, in poems and plays and stories and novels that we all read in high school.  The year is 1960.  Cheever has published a story in the November 12th issue of The New Yorker, “Some People, Places and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel,” which will also be the title of Cheever’s 1961 collection, where the story is renamed “A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear.”  I like the name change, because I’m drawn to simultaneity and paradox: How do you manage not to appear when the story is about you?  How are you present and absent at once?  Separated from the phrase “My Next Novel,” the story’s title would seem now to refer to a universal failure to show up.  These “Characters That Will Not Appear” won’t be anywhere, neither in my novel nor in yours.  They will be missing, not just from fiction, but from the world.

Who are these people who command our attention in order not to be there?  In the 1960 magazine version of the story, one of the “People, Places and Things” brought onto the page so that he can be withheld from the reader is a character who is a deliberate parody of J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, a “crazy, shook-up sexy kid of thirteen with these phony parents.”  Holden is of course one of the most famous victims of homosexual panic in the history of the novel.  “Approach-avoidance” might be the clinical term assigned to his relationship to gay men – or as he calls them, “flits” – who appear in The Catcher in the Rye as regularly and insistently as Jesus scrambling through the peripheral vision of a bad Catholic in a story by Flannery O’Connor.  Is it an indication of Cheever’s competitive anxiety about Salinger, a far more famous New Yorker writer, that Holden is erased from the story before he ends up in the book?

That’s the first disappearance.  Without Holden, the remaining characters who will not appear, whom Cheever numbers 1 through 7, are a pretty girl who goes alone to college rugby games; “all parts for Marlon Brando”; polluted American landscapes, including “gaudy and fanciful gas stations”; pornographic sex; “all lushes”; a dying novelist who bears what must be an intentional if only partial resemblance to Cheever himself; and, “while we are about it, out go all those homosexuals who have taken such a dominating position in recent fiction.”  Clearly, not all these “characters” are people – those gas stations! – and I have reversed the order of the last two outcasts: Cheever puts homosexuals next-to-last, just ahead of the languishing novelist, whose death comes at the end of the story.  All of them are banished.  The writer hits his carriage return, ding!, and they’re gone: sluts, drunks, smut, fags, garbage, Brando, and the novelists who love them.  Oh, but have they vanished, or have they pulled up a chair to the dinner table in order to help themselves to a slice of London broil and to tell us, over and over, how in ten minutes they promise to leave?  Cheever’s homosexual is someone whose absence is advertised, guaranteed, and anticipated by his overwhelming presence.

Not just a presence, but a “dominating position.”  We can figure out what Cheever means by that two-word phrase, given his hankering for “manly men,” and his tendency in the Journals to toss out random comments like, “Waking up this morning I thought I could use a brisk fistfight.”  But what does he mean by “recent fiction?”  Cast your mind back to 1960.  What prominent gays in mainstream fiction is Cheever talking about?  Did I miss the chapter in the Great American Novel of the 1950s where a leather daddy and a gang of dykes on bikes ride into Scarsdale and commandeer the country club?  Maybe Cheever means Tennessee Williams.  But that’s drama, not fiction, and in any case, Paul Newman ends up in the arms of Elizabeth Taylor in the last scene of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  Has Cheever been reading Ann Bannon?  Her Beebo Brinker novels of girl-girl love were published in 50- and 75-cent paperback editions from 1957 to 1962.  Would he have found Odd Girl Out in the Ossining Public Library?

Or was he thinking of James Baldwin?  He and Baldwin were honored together in Berkeley in 1960, where Cheever read the magazine version of “Some People, Places and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel.”  It’s interesting to picture Baldwin’s response to Cheever’s anti-gay rant, especially since Baldwin was about to publish Another Country, the most polymorphously perverse novel any American had written since Moby-Dick.  Did Cheever mean the Beats?  “Advocates of buggery,” he called them, maybe sniffily, maybe enviously.  What if he had met Jack Kerouac?  Both were New Englanders from Massachusetts, both had grown up on the wrong side of the tracks from the American middle class: Cheever’s dad sold shoes, and Kerouac’s father worked a printing press.  Can we picture Kerouac and Cheever, closeted bisexuals, getting drunk together and going back to Jack’s room at the Chelsea Hotel, little Joey Cheever, only 5 feet 5 inches tall, and high school running back Ti Jean, each of them insisting to the other that he isn’t queer?

Or maybe Cheever was accusing himself.  “And now we come to the unsavory or homosexual part of our tale,” he writes in 1957, near the end of his long-gestated first novel, The Wapshot Chronicle, “and any disinterested reader is encouraged to skip.”  The “homosexual part” of the book lasts barely a chapter and involves a brief flirtation between Cheever’s hero Coverly Wapshot and a gay guy named Pancras.  They have dinner, go for a walk, circle an army garrison and wander into the woods.  Nothing happens, of course, though “Coverly felt a dim rumble of homosexual lust in his trousers.”   A dim rumble?  A noisy erection?  Cheever must have worried that his secret lust could be heard as well as seen.  He was after all a paranoid citizen of the 1950s.

But we were at the beach, pages back, watching pretty boys play in the sand.  So was Cheever, at least in his imagination, when he wrote about Disappearing Character #6, “the homosexual.”  “A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear” is not just a short story, it’s an essay, an experiment, a confession, an apology, a list, and one of the earliest instances of postmodern fiction to appear in The New Yorker, anticipating Donald Barthelme’s career; and it is a creation myth, steeped in the homophobia of mid-20th century acolytes of Sigmund Freud.  It explains how homosexuality happens.  Here is the Freudian case study that Cheever offers us in “A Miscellany”: The scene is not the California coast but the New England shore, and the beach isn’t gay, just private.  We’re somewhere near Boston.  A teenaged boy and his mother have taken a picnic basket to a deserted cove.  It’s the Fourth of July.  As a reminder of what’s at stake – not just manhood, but home and nation – Cheever lets us see the American flag whipping in the distance, above a clubhouse.

“The boy is sixteen, well formed, his skin the fine gold of youth, and he seems to his lonely mother so beautiful that she admires him without trepidation.”  Fierce mom!  Lovely, lonely boy neglected by a dad who is off having an affair with his secretary, and who is, moreover, Governor of the State – Cheever is enough of a snob to make sure that even his outcasts are highborn – with little time for his wife and son.  The boy would rather be with kids his own age, instead of picnicking with his mom.  But “he is timid about competitive sports, about the whole appearance of organized society, as if it concealed a force that might tear him to pieces.”  Cheever wonders if the boy is a “coward.”  He worries that the mother’s “surveillance” of her golden son is excessive.  Has the boy become “vulnerable and morbid” because of his mother’s attention, her protection?

A pretty boy who is loved too much by his mom.  Who is lousy at sports.  Who can’t compete.  A delicate boy, who is cowardly, timid, vulnerable, morbid, under surveillance, unequal to the strain of life in the everyday world.  A budding gay boy.  Where did Cheever find this cliché?  Had he, in his casual reading of Freud, come across a neo-Freudian text called Homosexuality: Disease or Way of Life?  A popular book in 1956, it was favorably reviewed in Time.  Its author was a follower of Freud named Edmund Bergler, who emigrated to the United States in order to escape the Nazis and to write books like Divorce Won’t Help Neurotics and The Revolt of the Middle-Aged Man.  According to psychoanalyst Kenneth Lewes, who eviscerates homophobic Freudians in his 1998 study, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Male Homosexuality, Bergler was “the most important theorist of homosexuality in the 1950s.”  Lewes accuses Bergler of twisting the terms of the Oedipus complex to prove that homosexuality is a sickness.  Not just a sickness, but, Bergler says, “a mixture of superciliousness, false aggression, and whimpering.”  Compare this to Cheever’s contempt for homosexuals, “with their funny clothes and their peculiar smells and airs and scraps of French.”

And their pearls!  Back to Cheever’s beach: Our lonely boy is thinking about how his father ignores him.  “When he fell out of the pear tree and broke his arm, his father would undoubtedly have visited him in the hospital had he not been in Washington,” etc.  So much lack of father-love has made the boy sad, if not queer.  It’s his mother’s job to turn him away forever from manly heterosexuality, from bracing swims in chilly lakes and ball games and the redemptive love of a wife with breasts that are “marvelous for nursing and love.”  Thinking longingly of his missing dad, the boy’s “shoulders droop.  He looks childish and forlorn, and his mother calls him to her.”  What happens next should perhaps be quoted in full:

“He sits in the sand at her feet, and she runs her fingers through his light hair.  Then she does something hideous.  One wants to look away but not before we have seen her undo her pearls and fasten them around his golden neck.  ‘See how they shine,’ says she, doing the clasp as irrevocably as the manacle that is welded to the prisoner’s shin.”

It’s hard to read this passage without making jokes.  I want to distance myself from Cheever’s hackneyed diagnosis of homosexuality as an aberration.  I want to laugh at his misreading of Freud, who did not think homosexuality was a sickness.  I want to say that I’m gay even though my mother never gave me pearls, though we did sometimes picnic at the beach.

But Cheever’s scene is an accurate portrayal of the world in which I grew up in the 1960s and even the 1970s.  “Don’t tell your grandmother,” my mother said, when I came out to her at the age of twenty-four in 1983.  “She’ll blame me.”  The notion that someone is to blame for homosexuality is not unique to Cheever, and it has not been chased away even by the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in all those New England states.  No doubt some of the openly gay guys frolicking in the sand in Los Angeles in 2009 – let alone in 1991 – are wannabe movie stars who will duck into the closet if they ever have chance at big careers.  They too will disappear.  Or they will maintain a distinct presence that is signaled by our pronounced refusal to see them, a paradox of visible invisibility that marks the treatment of queer characters in 20th century American novels not just by Cheever, but Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger, Mary McCarthy, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Philip Roth. . . The list goes on and on.  “Out they go; out they go,” Cheever says, casting out the gold-shouldered gay boy and his hideous mom not just from the white page of the novel he is planning to write, but from “the civilization that we – you and I – shall build.”

Oh, what can you say about a man like that, except that he believed what he read?  That he was a man of his time?  That he is still sitting on beaches all over the United States, perhaps on the benches of the U.S. Senate or Supreme Court, sick with worry about the “gay lifestyle?”  You can also say that he wrote the most beautiful sentences.  Was repression good for Cheever?  Did he need the tension of self-loathing in order to produce his miraculous stories?  Was homophobia just a place holder?  If he were not a tortured bisexual, would he have found some other form of fear and self-loathing in order to have an excuse to lock himself in a basement room in an Upper East Side apartment building and write “Good-bye, My Brother?”  It’s tragic to read Cheever’s Journals and feel the awful suffering that homophobia inflicted on him and on the men and women he loved – tragic and irritating.  You want to tell him to get over it.  He did sort of get over it, after a while.  And then he died.  I’m hard-pressed to claim him as a gay writer, though if he wasn’t gay, what was he?  What are the closet cases and Saturday Night Butches who still comprise a big portion of the lesbian and gay community, whether or not the community is willing to acknowledge them?

Wave it all away, I say, and read his sentences.  Jesus, what a writer.  Contradictory, surprising and perfect, his sentences are full of what Elizabeth Bishop says she demands from a poem: accuracy, mystery, and spontaneity.  In a sense, they are the main characters in his stories, some of which – “The Cure,” “The Five Forty-Eight,” “The Swimmer” – are uniquely odd, part doomed realism, part Christian allegorical whimsy, as if Theodore Dreiser had merged with Nikolai Gogol.  And they are full of Cheever’s helpless love for elevator operators, sleep-in maids, doormen, handy men, sleepy doctors summoned at dawn, wayward children, building superintendents, and all the basement dwellers and denizens of the world of servants and adjuncts to the upper middle-class.  His sentences are animated by love, and by a stylistic flourish that he cannot control.  “Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do?” Flannery O’Connor asks.  “I think that usually it does,” she decides, “for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man.”  She must have been reading John Cheever.