World AIDS Awareness Day

In the Fall of 1978 I was hired as security at an uptown punk disco uptown. The job paid $100 a night and free drinks from the gay bartenders. I came home from Hurrah smelling of cigarettes, beer, and perfume. Alice slept on the bed. I crashed on the couch.

Late one night a doctor from NYU Hospital called our apartment and reported that James Spicer was dying from pneumonia. Alice had never met Jim and she was angry that I was leaving her alone. I couldn’t blame her, mostly because I had been seeing a blonde model from Buffalo. My promise to come back soon sounded phony even to my ears.

Arriving at NYU, I discovered an empty hospital ward and that the nurses were reluctant to enter Jim’s room. An Italian doctor explained in the corridor, “Gay men have been dying of pneumonia. We can’t say why. The nurses call it ‘gay men’s disease’.”

“It’s the first I’ve heard of it.”

“You want to wear a mask?”

“No, I want him to see my face.” I sat by James’ bed without any fear, as he coughed like he was giving birth to a lung.

He opened his eyes at midnight and said, “You?”

“Who were you expecting? Cecil Taylor?”

“No, he’’s scared of what I have and I don’t even know what it is.” ” His skin was drawn tight to his bones.

“Well, I’m here.”

“Yes, you’re here. Old what’s his name?” He drifted back to sleep and I whistled jazz lullabies during

the long night. As the eastern horizon offered a dark silhouette of Brooklyn, Jim asked with a startled horror, “Where am I?”

“In the hospital.”

“Am I dying?” His eyes asked for the truth.

“Not right now.” It was as much the lie as it was the truth. “I’m just here to keep you company.”

“You weren’t much of a writer, but you were a good story teller. Tell me one now. Something with a happy ending.”

I recounted breaking up with Kyla, trying to make it funny. Jim laughed at the right and wrong places, his lungs hacking out bloody phlegm.

“What about the happy ending?” he asked with a rasping breath.

“Pal and Kyla had kids. They’re still married.”

“And you have me.”

“We have each other.” I patted his hand and upped his morphine drip.

At dawn his mother and father arrived from Florida. His parents were good people with a loving son unable to live in a small town. Jim nodded for me to leave them alone. He had things to tell them.

I descended to the basement cafeteria for chocolate milk and a bagel. Nothing had ever tasted so good and when I got back to the ward, Jim’s parents sat crying on plastic chairs. I was sure that he had passed at my moment of delight from my breakfast. I touched his cold skin and left the hospital.

It was good to be alive.

“Where have you been,” Alice asked, as I entered the apartment. She had been up for a long time.

“I told you at the hospital.” The smell of dying was on my flesh.



Three days later I attended Jim’s funeral memorial on Washington Square. Merce Cunningham eulogized him. Cecil Taylor played a dirge. Hundreds of people showed up. No one knew the real cause of his death.

It was 1979.

The next night I stayed over with Lisa. I didn’t call Alice. She was gone by the time I returned to our apartment.

James Spicer was my first AIDS death. Many others followed through the years. Funerals were regular reunions for the living and we wondered who was next to fall.

The disease took my baby brother in 1995.

Michael Charles Smith lives in my head and sometimes in my dreams as do my friends.

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