Thursday, June 18, 2015
Even on Friday nights, the Albuquerque airport was usually quiet in the late 1980's. To fly west at dusk was a magical event. With the speed of the Boeing matching the speed of the earth, one was suspended in the sunset. If one's flight came in from the south, the San Bernardino hills seemed almost like the Manzanos south of Albuquerque. But one exists the Boeing in LAX to a very different world, a hallway with Hawaiian restaurants and bars leading to a door onto more traffic than there is in sleepy Albuquerque. During 1989, I made this trip often, Southwest Airlines taking me to LAX and the Flyaway taking me to the San Fernando Valley.
My father's parents had divorced before it became the thing to do, and they had both remarried. My grandfather's new bride was a young woman who worked in the railroad station in Jonesboro during the war, operating the telegraph, a job that before the war was reserved for men. Their first child, my half-uncle Frank, was born three months later than I. We were not only close in age, we were close in interests. We never received exactly the same Christmas presents, except from our aunts Nell and Blanche, because his family bought from the Montgomery Ward catalogue, mine from Sears. One year we each received chemistry sets; another year, microscopes. In many ways we were as close as brothers, fishing and exploring and building bombs and rockets together. Every weekend for years we saw whatever film was playing at The Strand. Once, in the seventh grade, I think, we started calling things 'cute'. My father suggested gently that real men don't often use the word cute.
Frank was a bit of a country mouse: he grew up in Needham, a cotton gin corner where his father had a weird gentleman's farm and general store. I grew up in Jonesboro, which was only much of a town in comparison to Needham. It was perhaps a bit odd then that when we were grown, Frank became the man of the world and I remained parochial. I visited Vancouver, Chicago, Denver; he visited Paris, Prague, Tokyo.
We were both queer, although we never really talked about it until 1988. We danced around the subject at our uncle Cecil's funeral. He was already divorced by then, and living in West Hollywood. When I finally got the courage to begin to come out, I called Frank. He shared some very good avuncular advice with me. He also shared that he had AIDS. Indeed his had been one of the first cases diagnosed. He was suffering from hives on a business trip to San Francisco the same weekend there was a special conference about what was then being called 'gay cancer'. (His obituary in the Jonesboro Evening Sun would claim the cause of his death, on Holy Innocents' Day, 1989, was cancer.) When I moved to Santa Fe, I would visit him as often as possible.
In many ways the world I entered when I moved to Santa Fe was as different from the world of Memphis as LAX was from ABQ. The ubiquity of AIDS was one of the differences. In Memphis, I knew no one who admitted to having AIDS. In Santa Fe not only did many of my friends, including several of the Bad Boys, as well as two lovers, live with AIDS, but several of them, including the two lovers, would die with AIDS. It was a political issue as well as a health issue. Although I, who am always sceptical of politics, was never sure just how politicians would solve the problem, I was certain that it did not need to be denied, nor the sufferers demonized. (I also feel that it is probably my hesitancy to enter the big world, to go to the New School, to avoid marriage to a woman, that saved me from being another early case.) We celebrated, if that's the right word, World AIDS Day big time in Santa Fe. One year I tolled the bell at St. Anne's Church, one toll for each person who had died from the disease (I know--this is not precise language.) the past year. It was a long toll. Another year I sat in the window of an art gallery on St. Francis at Don Gaspar, reading from diary entries and poems. One poem was about Frank. It was entitled, 'Your White Pants', and remembered a double date (with women, of course) we had shared our senior year in high school.
Now, thankfully, in rich America, it is less difficult to speak of or treat AIDS/HIV, but still there are many people living in the kind of chosen blind and deaf world I tried to leave in Memphis. Fourteen percent of people infected with the HIV virus don't know it, most often young men from cultural groups among which men having sex with men 'don't exist'. A virus doesn't need a Boeing 737 to travel across the country, and it can be transmitted most easily among those who deny it can exist. Life is too damned short. In no time one finds oneself in its sunset. Only for a few months, for a few weekends, did Frank and I really talk about our lives and interests and values with openness. Privacy is a hot topic these days, but I wonder how much we lose from privacy, from trying to be 'real men'. Frank was the kind of real man who, were his kind more common, would make the world a much kinder place.
A friend posted on the internet today that LAX is 'a prototype of an airport. So jumbled and messed up! Chaos!' Such is life. Certainly so has been my life. Is it merely a prototype of a life? I don't know, but I know it has seldom helped me to pretend it is other than it is.