Hunger of Memory

New York has become a city of ghosts haunting us all

For a long time I was in the habit of allowing myself to think that I hadn't really known many people who'd died of AIDS. I had created for myself an emotional economy whose terms permitted me to think of some people as real and others as less so. Intimates or coworkers were authentic. Casual acquaintances, people met through the years, were not. In my eagerness to put distance between death and myself, I recast my experience as a series of nonevents, eradicating chunks of my life because I felt, for one thing, that often the people who could ratify my recollections were gone. I focused my attention instead on the contempt that I felt for the emblematic simplifications of AIDS. I railed against ribbons and quilts. At a certain point, however, it became useless to pretend that, although I hadn't seen Antonio Lopez for a decade, I had never known him. It required too much forgetting to make that stick.

In 1972, I arrived in Paris as a 19-year-old "correspondent" for Andy Warhol's Interview, with no local friends and only Lopez's number in my pocket. When I called, Antonio immediately invited me to meet him at Le Drugstore, in St. Germain, where I joined a small party of his friends in an upstairs booth, mute with the excitement of my own ambitions as a parade of glossy people came along. Among them was a dazed blond model called Jessica Lange, and a diffident, severe Finnish model named Eija, and Yves St. Laurent's dour press agent, Clara Saint, and Karl Lagerfeld. At the time I would have liked nothing better than to be taken up by Antonio's high-living set. It never happened.

Instead I befriended Eija, and through her met a young woman whose brother was James Baldwin's boyfriend, and who looked after me in Paris and then again in London, and whom I later lost track of in New York when she married a man said to be a minor mafioso, who bought her a yacht that he painted with murals of Caesar and Cleopatra, and . . . what I'm talking about here is a past, and the lately discovered fact that I have one.

Like a lot of people, I've tended to shun recollection. Nowadays, I'm improving my acquaintance with memory. I'm recalling, for example, Charles Ludlam (AIDS, 1987) once fixing me with a withering look when I innocently asked if he wore the nail varnish from his role in Salammbo offstage; and David Wojnarowicz (AIDS, 1992) scribbling me postcards full of earnestness and misspellings in the days when he was living in the street; and Manny Vasquez (AIDS, 1995)—a complicated junkie I grew fond of when I wrote about his Job-like trials in jail—hitting me up for $20 to buy a Barry White album; and Richard Hartenstein (AIDS, 1989), the drollest man I ever encountered, telling me that the Guggenheim looked like a Braun juicer for trees; and Willi Smith (AIDS, 1987), who, back in 1975, looked as though he and his sister Touki were twinned; and pretty Clovis Ruffin (AIDS, 1992), an ambitious Southerner whose designs you still see on the runways, although no longer carrying his name.

I'm recalling John McKeague (AIDS, 1991), in whose Upper West Side apartment my old friend Paula and I once sniffed poppers and danced around to Eddie Kendricks' "Girl You Need a Change of Mind"; and Vito Russo (AIDS, 1990), who phoned from his deathbed to croak thanks for a tasteless get well card with a pansy nosegay on the front; and Ethyl Eichelberger (AIDS suicide, 1990), who once patiently showed me his method for weaving theatrical wigs, acquired while serving "a thousand-hour sentence" at Robert Fiance Hair Design Institute; and Robert Yoh (AIDS, 1992), a model with a Leyendecker profile, telling a friend of mine that his burial was to take place in a pet graveyard beneath a headstone reading, "Robert: Friend to Man." I'm recalling Adrian Kellard (AIDS, 1992), an artist friend who invited me to observe his KS chemotherapy and to record it for The New Yorker, because AIDS, at the time, had scarcely been mentioned in that magazine; and Kevin Kennedy (AIDS, 1991), who was so far gone in dementia when I last saw him at Cabrini Medical Center that his gaze flickered wildly from my eyes to General Hospital. I'm remembering Duncan Stalker (AIDS, 1991) arranging, in the late stages of his own illness, a memorial for his dead boyfriend, Guy Bauman (AIDS, 1990), and the cold shock that overtook a room full of well-inured people when the civilized hush of the Frick Collection's atrium was suddenly broken by Duncan's raw, animal cries.

At an editorial meeting the other day I suggested to a group of writers that they consider contributing memories of dead friends to this newspaper for Day Without Art. The meaning of this event had backfired, I felt; the dead deserved something richer than eulogies or the sanitized paeans of that signature late-century theatrical event—the memorial service. One editor at this meeting, a man who has not been living in Siberia for the past 15 years, thought to clarify my intentions by pointing out that what I must be really concerned with was the terror of people dying young. It is true that I am concerned with people dying young, but also with people dying young and unremarked, their inconvenient lives too tidily folded under in our collective will to forget.

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