Jerry's City of Ghosts

Fighting to hold on to a home—and to history

The letter arrived via certified mail one day last October, and as soon as Jerry Rice opened it, he called his friend Steve Helfer. "Please help me," Jerry said.

Jerry, 68, was diagnosed with AIDS in the mid 1980s, and in recent years he'd suffered a heart attack, a stroke, and the loss of sight in one eye. Now, with his one good eye, he scanned the typewritten words in front of him, then relayed the bad news to Steve: The State University of New York, which had recently bought his apartment building, planned to evict him.

Jerry had moved into his apartment—a rent-controlled one-bedroom at 119 East 54th Street, between Park and Lexington Avenues—in 1970. Ever since, the rent had remained the same: $237 a month. But now that a state institution owned the building, it was exempt from the city's rent regulations. In mid January, a notice arrived from SUNY ordering Jerry to vacate his apartment by February 28.

Steve Helfer (left) and Jerry Rice in Jerry's apartment
photo: Robin Holland
Steve Helfer (left) and Jerry Rice in Jerry's apartment


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  • For eight years, beginning in the late 1970s, Steve lived in this apartment with Jerry. The two men have been close friends since 1976 and were lovers for 15 years. Steve has AIDS, too, but he's nine years younger and his health is better, so he's the one who's been calling local politicians to plead for help. To anybody who will listen, Steve explains that Jerry can't afford to lose his apartment because he lives on Social Security disability, which pays $1,042 a month.

    Steve's efforts to help Jerry are about more than holding on to a rent-controlled apartment—they are also about trying to hold on to the past, to the history both men share and the memories neither wants to forget. Beginning in the late 1970s—when AIDS had yet to be named—the two men started losing friends. Over the next two decades, AIDS killed more than 100 people they knew.

    "At this point, Jerry is my partner in life," Steve says. "He's really the only friend I have left from those days—and vice versa. Everybody died. And for some reason, we're both still here. . . . I love him, I care for him, and I can't bear to see him put out on the street."

    Jerry was 32 years old when he lucked into the third-floor apartment on East 54th Street. A friend had moved out, and Jerry convinced the landlord to let him move in. He was so excited, he says, "I went outside on the street and twirled." Then he ran off to Bloomingdale's. He quickly maxed out his credit cards, buying carpets, two Barcelona lounge chairs, a four-poster bed, and a $3,000 coffee table with steel legs and a thick glass top. "I had an apartment in the East Fifties," he says. "It had to be fabulous."

    Jerry met Steve in the summer of 1976, though Jerry's recollections of their first encounters are fuzzy. "We met on Fire Island many times," Steve says. "He just didn't notice me. I was really after him all summer." One night they both happened to be at the Ice Palace, the island's legendary disco. "He was standing alone, and I went right across that big dance floor, heading right towards him," Steve says. "This was it—this was my chance."

    When he got four feet away, another man walked over and handed Jerry a drink. Steve stopped. "I made an about-face and covered myself like you would not believe," he says. "One tries not to make an ass of oneself when they can help it."

    A few months later, in October, both men found themselves on the deck of a ship departing from Manhattan for a one-night gay cruise. They spent that evening together—and the rest of the weekend. On Monday, Steve called Jerry at work. "Will you have dinner with me tonight?" he asked. Jerry agreed. The relationship, he says, "was sealed right then and there."

    Jerry quit his job as a magazine editor and started pouring all his energies into Fancy From Delancey, the store that Steve owned on Fire Island, just off the ferry dock in Cherry Grove. Jerry hung a mirrored ball from the ceiling and acted as the store DJ, compiling tapes with disco hits. When "Midnight Train to Georgia" by Gladys Knight came on, the whole staff—and sometimes all the customers too—would sing backup.

    The store sold shorts, T-shirts, bathing suits, flip-flops—plus stuffed animals, gay history books, sex toys, and raunchy greeting cards. According to Jerry and Steve, their shoppers included Calvin Klein, Bess Myerson, Mel Brooks, and Anne Bancroft. Tommy Tune bought tank tops; Twiggy checked out the bikinis; Colleen Dewhurst loved their cotton slacks.

    The staff never said, "Can I help you?" Instead, the store protocol was to greet every customer with a compliment, like, "You've got a great tan" or "Your hair is beautiful." If a customer was particularly difficult, an employee would shout, "Nurse! Nurse!"—the signal for another staff member to swoop in. "What we were selling was fun," Jerry says, "but that fun made the cash registers full."

    One day in the early 1980s, an employee came in with a blotch on his nose. Nobody knew what it was. "You better go to the doctor tomorrow," they told him. As it turned out, it was Kaposi's sarcoma, caused by the illness that became known as AIDS. In the years that followed, Jerry and Steve hung a huge basket of free condoms at the front of the store. They put a can on the counter to collect money for God's Love We Deliver. And they had volunteers seated at a table out front, distributing pamphlets about AIDS.

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