I know. You don’t like to celebrate birthdays. That probably goes double for this year. So I won’t dwell on it. I’m thinking about another celebration: the Gay Pride Parade in New York City. Come to think of it, you aren’t big on parades either. But maybe today is different. Maybe falling on your birthday, this year’s parade might tempt you from your country home to join the jubilation. I imagine you there with Dagmar, an exotic rainbow on your shoulder, marching to your own drummer. Or maybe not.
I’m thinking about you a lot as I begin the summer here in northern New Hampshire, where the only sign of Gay Pride is the rainbow that appeared on Friday evening. Thirty years ago this week you departed the city for good. I remember the phone call when you told me you were leaving, that same day. No time to meet for any fond farewell. JM had given you a choice: check yourself into Bellevue or return to your family. Much as he loved you he could no longer deal with a meltdown that reached its climax with you naked on the apartment building roof, railing at the thunder and lightning, threatening to jump. You chose the familial institution over the psychiatric one.
“What am I know that I was then?
May memory restore again and again
the smallest color of the smallest day.”
– Delmore Schwartz
I remember when we first met a few years earlier at the Cherry Lane Theatre. You worked the box-office and I was house manager for that very odd Robert Wilson play I Was Sitting On My Patio This Guy Appeared I Thought I Was Hallucinating. We loved Off-Broadway (although not this particular production) and teamed up to open the box-office of the new Joyce Theater for modern dance. By the time we moved on to the newly renovated Orpheum Theater on Second Avenue and St. Marks Place we were a comic box-office double-act. We called ourselves Mavis & Lightning and we had our own catchphrase: “Sometime things jus’ be’s that way.”
You were also my personal instructor in Gay & Lesbian Studies. You introduced me to the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe, and the Berlin stories of Christopher Isherwood. We discussed queer theory before it became Queer Theory. And then on July 3, 1981 we began talking about something else. You brought the New York Times into the box-office, as you did every morning. It wasn’t folded open to the crossword puzzle we always did together, but to an article with an ominous headline: RARE CANCER SEEN IN 41 HOMOSEXUALS.
In retrospect, I mark that day as the beginning of your two-year descent into madness. The fear and paranoia, the frustration and anger, as you watched friends disappear and die; the seeming unstoppable spiral downward into drug-fueled box-office days and sex-fueled bathhouse nights. I participated with the drugs, hoping to control the flow; kept hidden vigil near the parked jeep, prayed you were clear-headed enough to drive. Suddenly, if one can call two years sudden, you were gone. And I was alone to begin my own freefall. Two years later, I was gone as well.
“Time is the school in which we learn.
Time is the fire in which we burn.”
– Delmore Schwartz
Somehow we survived – our initial breakdowns and our subsequent episodes. We returned to less dangerous addictions, like your Slim Jims and my Quarterpounders (sadly, no Slim Jims in Europe.) We kept in touch, even though you never wrote, never called, never answered an email since its invention! You visited me once in Amsterdam, and on my regular trips to the States I stopped by to see you and Dagmar. Or you drove to where I was – as you did a year ago to celebrate our birthdays over a late lunch in the Catskills, albeit a couple of weeks before the actual dates. Our last meeting before you called me late one night last October to say goodbye. Gone again, this time for good.
“Days to come stand in front of us like a row of lighted candles—golden, warm, and vivid candles.” – C.P. Cavafy
I remember all this today “because dead people still have birthdays, don’t they?” That’s a line from a book I read and reviewed before I left Amsterdam last month. The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer. It’s about a young schizophrenic in England, though the location doesn’t really matter. “I am writing myself into my own story,” says the protagonist. You asked me to write you into one of my stories the last time we spoke, and I promised I would. This isn’t that story. More like a prelude to a story. This isn’t exactly how I planned to end this letter to you. But something happened and… well… Sometime things jus’ be’s that way. And there’s a Slim Jim upstairs I’ve been saving for a special occasion. Like your birthday.
PS. I’m posting this book trailer because it reminds me of Mavis & Lightning. Only not so funny.