Hunger of Memory

New York has become a city of ghosts haunting us all

This editor went on to proclaim that he had known few, if any, people who'd died of AIDS. Perhaps I misunderstood him, and what he really meant to say was that he hadn't attended at many bedsides. Neither have I. It's true that, when my mother died, at the age I am today, I sat with her in a hospital room and marked each sip of air as, in a final coma, she clutched at my hand with a strength that seemed to rise from some ferocious primal depth. But I've not seen anybody else meet death.

This particular experience, of course, is far from rare in New York City, where by accident, and by default, and out of compassion, or love, or communitarian instinct, and drawing on unknown reserves, and sometimes guiltily, people have developed an aptitude for helping friends greet and negotiate their own life-threatening illnesses and demise. At least two people I know have assisted at suicides. Yet somehow I cannot connect the people with their acts. This is probably not surprising considering how strongly we're encouraged to ignore AIDS, not merely to make a nightmare bearable, but because the experience itself mostly clutters the lives of those accustomed to thinking of themselves as having no history.

In the room where this editorial meeting was held was a second man, a friend and neighbor of the first, a man whose former lover had recently died of AIDS. For some reason, he'd been unable to cry at the time; unexpectedly, though, he broke down one day during a conversation we had involving a dog. A mutual acquaintance had recently returned from Florida, where he'd gone to collect a pet belonging to a pal now too ill even to care for himself. Something about the image of this small creature requiring protection permitted my friend to shed necessary tears. It was over in a moment. We went on to something else.

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See Also:

  • Jerry's City of Ghosts
    Fighting to hold on to a homeóand to history
    by Jennifer Gonnerman
  • Since then, I've been thinking a lot about the ways people compose what Joan Didion once coolly called their "narratives." I've been thinking about the effort it requires to tell yourself stories in order to live. I've been thinking about how, from the pandemic's beginning, the burden of understanding AIDS has been ghettoized, first through acronyms that isolated the disease among one group of people and then through medical and political assurances that the virus hadn't spread to the "general population," whatever that is. I've also had reason to remember a televised interview I once saw in which Toni Morrison deflected a typically fatuous question about racism from Charlie Rose, informing him that she already knew all she needed to about the harm irrational hatred had done her. It was time he consider the damage to himself.

    I happened to see Ron Vawter the other morning. He was walking briskly across Prince Street past Dean & DeLuca. He stopped at the corner of Broadway just long enough for me to experience that brief, glissading mental inventory we make a thousand times a day of familiar shapes and attitudes and gestures. I saw Ron's strong profile and his high forehead. I saw what I thought was his winter coat. I saw him move toward Crosby Street in a characteristically hunched and intense fashion. This time I didn't try to catch up. (Ron Vawter, AIDS, 1994).

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