Hunger of Memory

New York has become a city of ghosts haunting us all

This story was originally published December 5, 1995.


I saw Hugh Steers yesterday on lower Broadway, caught sight of him from behind, with the collar of his black leather jacket turned up against the first real cold of the season, a bit of his unruly cowlick springing up at the back of his skull. I hurried to catch him, feeling elated. Then the light changed and he stepped into the gutter and stopped short to avoid a taxi and looked north and I saw his profile and it wasn't Hugh at all. How could it have been?

Like a lot of New Yorkers, Hugh Steers and I were what you might call good acquaintances. Our relationship was intermittent and had elements of mutual attraction and fascination and half-trust and, of course, utility. We'd met in an odd way, over dinner with his mother, a character so outsize that it struck me then, as it does now, as a perversity of fate that she's invariably described in terms of some relatives of hers (Gore Vidal, the late Jacqueline Onassis) whose fame is grotesque.

I'd been told by the woman who invited me to dine that Nina Straight was bringing her son, a painter. I'd also been informed, gratuitously, that Nina Straight's son the painter had AIDS. It's common enough in this town to be presented with information that says nothing, illuminates nothing, demonstrates nothing beyond a generalized anxiety, and I felt, at the time, vaguely angry with my hostess for miniaturizing Hugh, thinking of the many other things she might have told me about him besides his clinical status.

She might, I now know, have remarked on his laugh. Hugh Steers's memorial service was held on a hot day in June, at St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery. There were lilies on a table, one of his difficult allegorical paintings on a large easel, 100 or so friends in pews. A nutty assortment (Chaka Khan and Rickie Lee Jones) of recorded songs, chosen in advance for this occasion by Hugh, played on a poor sound system. Colleagues, a collector, a childhood teacher, and Hugh's brother spoke of him frankly and awkwardly and with emotion, using military metaphor to illustrate his valor, and high Romantic metaphor to show his commitment to art, and leavening the proceedings with remembrances of Hugh's peculiar cackle.

It may show how little I really knew of him, but this aspect of Hugh doesn't figure in my memory. His laugh was apparently a kind of high-pitched shriek, the more unexpected because the young man who emitted it had a face that was a bit too poetically handsome, narrow and patrician, with a distinct marmoreal cast. As one speaker after another evoked Hugh's laughter, I began to think of it as a way he had devised to express something essential about himself: it seemed less a mirthful than an unruly laugh, a sexual sound, and I had the feeling that his eulogists were inadvertently echoing not just the hysteria it may have expressed but also reviving its rage—which was the rage of Hugh's refusal to be silent.

In no society that I'm aware of is it easy to be queer. To concoct an identity as a gay man amid the ruling class strictures of Hotchkiss and Yale, and in a very public family, is a feat. The photo chosen for the invitation to his memorial service seemed to honor this about him: young Hugh is vaulting off a diving board at a private beach in Newport, a place that's rarely cited without the word exclusive attached. Full of fearless confidence, he's captured midair.

As others memorialized him, I thought about Hugh's specific gifts as a painter and about his stoicism, and then my attention wandered to the steamy weather that made sweat snake down my shirtfront, and then to Renata Adler, with her greyhound profile, two pews ahead, and then to the faces of some men of my generation who'd arrived in couples, beauties of a type that has now developed the added luster of survival. I thought about how eager I was to be free and out in the June air, where I could concentrate not on the late Hugh Steers but on my 32-year-old friend, who I persisted in thinking was alive.

I've realized lately that I underestimate death's noise: what I mean by this is that, over time, New York has come to feel like a city of ghosts. Hugh Steers and the many others who died of AIDS have by now established their beachheads. They're everywhere, it seems, nagging us with reminders of work unfinished, haunting us with truncated careers, dooming some of us to search for their vanished affections, and condemning the rest of us to a state of psychic dishevelment that no one really cares to talk about.

We have set aside a Day Without Art, commemorating loss by giving absence a token place. But the absences are larger than any one day can encompass, and, besides, it seems to me that gay people are already too well schooled in the markers of erasure. It's presence that would be powerful, I think, as expressed in simple acts of remembrance. A friend who is "mother" to a venerable voguing ball house recently remarked on the phone that no fewer than 392 of his friends had died of AIDS: "I'm not joking. I have a list." Last week marked the first anniversary of one "son"'s death, but "every day, every month, I'm reliving somebody else."

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