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.

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.

In 1996, after 20 years in business, Fancy From Delancey closed. By then Steve and Jerry were too sick to run the shop anymore.


image
Steve Helfer left, Jerry Rice right
photo: Courtesy Steve Helfer
Today Jerry's apartment does not at all resemble the showplace he created in the 1970s. There is no Barcelona lounge chair, no pricey coffee table, no carpet, no four-poster bed. Jerry has about 20,000 records—he used to DJ at Les Mouches and other clubs—but the metal shelves that hold them are sagging. The bedroom ceiling collapsed about 10 years ago, when water from the upstairs apartment broke through. The shelves in one corner were destroyed and never repaired; now they're covered by brown water stains and peeling paint.

A small black leather address book rests on the table next to Jerry's bed. Inside are the names of 90 men he once knew, three or four per page. "There's at least two on every page that's no longer here," he says, flipping through the book. "I'd call up one of these guys and his mother would answer and say, 'Mark is no longer with us.' But I didn't cross their names out because I wanted them to go on living in my head."

Jerry has a ritual he practices, to ensure he doesn't forget anyone: He recites the names of his friends who've died. It's something he used to do when he took his daily walks on the beaches at Fire Island. Now he says the names silently on his daily trip to the deli, as he slowly makes his way along the sidewalk with his one good eye. "I say the names of as many people as I can think of. Sometimes I'll do 30, sometimes 10," he says. "Then I'll go and buy my tuna fish sandwich and think of five more on my way back."


Steve taught special ed in the city's schools until 2002, when he, too, started collecting Social Security disability. One day, about four years ago, he walked into Jerry's apartment and found him sprawled on the floor, his pants soaked. Jerry did not wake up until he was in the intensive care unit at St. Vincent's. He'd had a heart attack; Steve had saved his life. These days, Steve and Jerry see each other three or four times a week, and some nights Jerry stays at Steve's place.

A few years ago, the owner of Jerry's building—which was then TIAA-CREF, the pension fund for teachers—tried to evict him. With help from Steve, Jerry paid a lawyer $14,803 to fight back. It was the equivalent of five years' rent, but the investment worked. Jerry won. "It's over! Congratulations," the lawyer wrote to him in January 2004. Jerry was relieved. "I thought I would have a home until I died."

But then, in 2005, SUNY bought the buildings at 119 and 121 East 54th Street, and sent letters to the four tenants telling them they'd have to leave. SUNY plans to open a center for corporate executives and graduate students called the Levin Institute, named after Neil Levin, the executive director of the Port Authority who perished on 9-11. For the properties that included Jerry's building, SUNY paid $21.5 million. "The building is going to be put to good use," a spokesman says.

The stress of another eviction threat was more than Jerry could bear. His weight plunged from 170 pounds to 145. Steve did everything he could to help: He convinced Jerry's state assemblyman, state senator, and city councilman to write letters on his behalf; he studied the Levin Institute's website and called some of its board members; he brought Jerry packaged dinners from Fairway to help him gain weight.

At press time, Jerry has received no reprieve from SUNY, no promise of another apartment or a large payment. He has been trying to stay calm by listening to his disco records. But of course, he can't stop thinking about his future. "They're not going to say, 'All right, Mr. Rice, it's time to leave,' " he says, seated atop his bed on a recent afternoon, his voice growing louder and more insistent. "I will be in the apartment and will handcuff myself to the radiator. They're not going to get me out of here."

jgonnerman@villagevoice.com

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