Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Levy Breaks

This weekend I decided to start to tackle my closet - not so much the clothes, but that infamous top shelf we all have, filled with items you don't want to toss away, but you no longer want in your line of vision.

There's some unusual shit up there, including a magnetic funeral flag that one puts on their car while in a procession. I stole it from the car that carried me to my father's burial site in 1993. I forgot I even had it. So, it goes back up, so it can be rediscovered down the road and remind me again of a moment in time.

Then I found it. A simple shoe-box from a pair of long-forgotten Converse sneakers. Inside there is a trove of items that mean nothing to anyone, except me. I have every address book I ever had from 1980 through the 1990s - when I finally gave up on buying and updating an address book by hand and instead using some Windows program on my computer.

But when I was younger, I looked forward to getting a new address book. The idea of starting over has always appealed to me. Perhaps it was the feeling of a clean slate - or a fresh start. But being able to transfer, by hand, those names that 'made it' into my new book gave me a chance to think about each and every entry ... even if it was just for a moment, it kept everyone in my head.

At least that's how it was until 1985. In 1985 I remember purchasing a new phone book, not because I wanted to, but because I needed to ... the book I had used from 1982-85 still had room to grow, but sadly every page in my address book looks like the one pictured here. Entry after entry is crossed out - not because the information was out of date, but because they had died.

The years between 1982 and 1992 were terrible for anyone living within an epicenter of an urban gay community. As the general manager of Au Courant, being responsible for the advertising for all of the gay clubs in Philly, I knew everyone: bartenders, managers, customers. Add to that the regular mix of people I knew from just being out and about.

In 1983 I finally decided to purchase a diary to write down the names of those I knew who had died from AIDS. I felt it was vital for me to remember them. Remember Their Names. It seems that I was not alone in that thought.

Around 1985 Cleve Jones, a longtime gay activist in San Francisco, who had produced an annual candlelight vigil to remember Harvey Milk, realized that the number of men who had died from AIDS in his city alone had crossed 1,000. He asked marchers to write the name of someone they had lost to AIDS and march with that name - at the end all the names were taped to a wall. Since each name was written by a different person, each in a unique way, the wall looked like a quilt of colors and design. Thus began the Names Project and the AIDS Memorial Quilt. The mission: to Remember Their Names.

I went to the first display of the entire Quilt project in 1987 in Washington D.C. It was held on the National Mall and included close to 2,000 panels - each panel is 3x6 feet ... about the size of a grave. The panels are truly stunning pieces of work and both heartbreaking and rewarding to view. I visited Washington again in 1988, 1989, 1992 and finally in 1996 to see the Quilt. That was the last time it was displayed in its entirety. This was the fundraising pin from its final display in '96. The Quilt had simply grown too big for any one location to display.

As for my personal diary - I started it in 1983 with the name of my friend Richard - who worked alongside me until he became ill with pneumonia in June of 1982. By October, he was dead. No one was afraid of what had happened, since no one knew. All we knew is that he had died from pneumonia. There were no studies or science to point to anything at the time.

Since Au Courant had launched in September of 1982, I was pretty plugged into the gay news network thoughout much of that year and watched the reports of the 'gay cancer' and GRID (gay-related immune deficiency) but hadn't connected the dots to Richard.

It wasn't until 1983, after the CDC labeled this mysterious illness as AIDS, when we all realized that Richard had died from it. By then the news was growing more somber by the week. We changed the format of our weekly paper to be more radical when covering AIDS issues - we knew that if we (gay press) didn't write about it, no one else would.

So, in 1983 I decided that the diary would be my solace. When I purchased it I entered Richard's name, as well as Bill's and Daniel's. I hoped that I wouldn't visit the diary much more, but I could just sense with doom that my time with the diary was only going to grow.

I kept the diary until 1996. I had returned from Washington DC, having just viewed the Quilt, and realized that enough was enough. In the course of those 13 years of having that memorial diary, I entered almost 300 names. From casual barflies and colleagues to close friends and even one lover.

I had to let go.

So, I stopped entering names. At least on paper. In my mind I will always Remember Their Names.


Valorie Zimmerman said...

Soooooo sad. I'm glad you remember Their Names, but so sorry you and so many others had to endure such grief, such tragedy. It would have been relatively easy to stop the infection early, and we still aren't THERE now.


Anonymous said...

ue*sobbing* As a gay man myself, this really hit a little too close to home. I SO want to give you the world's biggest hug right now........but it really is a tragedy.


Anonymous said...

Robert, this is Nate. This is one of the most heart-wrenching and touching things I have ever read. I am honored to have you as a friend.

I've lost 2 friends, and I'm 24. I can't imagine losing 300 it people you were close to, friends, aquaintances....whatever. That doesn't lessen the impact.

Their memory is all that remains and you impower people everyday by how strong and good of a person you are.
The people you have lost would be proud.

Anonymous said...

just until now i have never realized how much you have dealt with throughout your life. you really are a special person and everyone needs to listen to what you have to say. You are such a good listener that get taken up in that which makes me never ask you how your life is, or how you feel. You really deserve a chance to be heard. and from now on i am going to listen to you a lot more becuase i know you have a lot of knowledge and i need to learn from you.

those numbers are very high, and it is upsetting. I can never imagine lossing as many people that you have lost. im sorry.

your friend - r.

Anonymous said...

I sometimes blank out on the 1980's to the ealy 90's because I think of the people I have know since that have died. It makes me sad to thionk so many people died from AIDS, drugs and there was one traumatic suicide, too. I hold on to the best of those people and remember them with love.