About a week ago, I finally had a chance to watch a documentary I hadn't ever gotten around to seeing, Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt, which won the Oscar for best documentary in 1989. The Sulzer Library, near my home, has added it to its DVD collection.
I also realized the reason I hadn't seen it-- for years, it just hit too close to home.
In the summer of 1989, I ran into a friend I'd previously worked with at a popular Northside Chicago restaurant. It seemed that Rhodes, a guy we'd worked with, had not shown up to work one day (my friend still worked at the restaruant). It was not like Rhodes to do this. He was very reliable and very hard-working-- he also sold real estate on the side. For him to not show up without so much as a phone call set off red flags. A couple of days later, they finally found out what had happened. He'd developed PCP, pneumocystis pneumonia, a pneumonia common in AIDS patients. It is virulent and swift. Rhodes, who was as healthy as a horse, was dead within a couple of days.
It shook me up. Until then, AIDS was something I read about. I hadn't yet known anyone who died of it. After that, I'd know many.
One of the stereotypes about the restaurant business is that there are a lot of gay waiters. There's a grain of truth in that stereotype. It was probably rooted in the fact that for gay men who had to leave their homes and hometowns because of a lack of acceptance of their sexuality, escaped to urban areas where they found men who shared their sexuality and found an industry that accepted them. Working as a waiter for years, I met and became friends with a lot of gay men. At one restaurant I worked one summer, I was the only straight waiter, something the other waiters there (and I) found utterly amusing. I "integrated" the restaurant.
It reminded me of another institution I helped integrate: the Gentleman's Lunch in my college town. The Gentleman's Lunch started as an all-gay institution. A small group of gay men-- professors, professionals and students-- would gather at 1:00 P.M. every Saturday at E.L. Krackers, on 4th Avenue, in Charleston, Illinois. "Kracker's," as we called it, played mulitple roles. It was a dance club-- a disco, essentially, but during the day was a restaurant-- one of the only decent ones in town at that point.
The men would gather to chat, gossip and have conversations both lofty and trivial. When a handful of straight guys who'd become friends with most of this group were invited-- my friends Larry, Kevin and I-- it was truly an honor. A couple of the older guys dragged their feet a little, but others championed us.
The Gentleman's Lunch was truly one of the great things in my life. In the course of a lunch, we might hear gay and straight gossip, have a conversation about movies, comic books, music, world affairs, politics, literature, Hollywood "who's gay" gossip, history-- just about any topic you could think of, we covered it. It was our version of the Algonquin Round Table.
Eventually, the first woman, Jennifer, who was a lesbian who was president of the campus gay advocacy group, was invited. Eventually, even-- gasp!-- straight women were invited!
Right before I got my graduate degree, my parents even joined the Gentleman's Lunch. I remember that day that there were 21 of us at Lunch.
It was at the Gentleman's Lunch that I first discussed AIDS with anyone. A couple of the guys discussed a disease that seemed to be killing gay men in San Francisco and New York. It still didn't have a name yet. Over the course of the year or so, 1984 and 1985, the disease took a name-- Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. And the first case of AIDS was reported in Champaign, the big college town 50 miles north of us. They talked about what little was known about preventing it-- preventing the transmission of bodily fluids.
This weekend, Adam and I had brunch with Jim, one of my friends who first invited me to the Gentleman's Lunch. I realized that nobody from the Gentleman's Lunch had died of AIDS. I can't say the same for people I worked at here in Chicago. As I watched Common Threads, it brought back memories of the early nineties, when I began to dread running into former co-workers. Had I heard about Rhodes? Yes, I had. You heard about Reggie, didn't you? Yes, and Andre is "sick." The euphemism "sick was understood. It began to wear me down-- guys I'd worked with and enjoyed knowing were dying swiftly and helplessly in numbers that I couldn't cope with.
One death in particular was devastating. I'd become friends with a guy I worked with at the same restaurant I'd worked with Rhodes at. I'd also become friends with his boyfriend Tim; I remember one night the spring of 1988 when I sat on the beach the entire night, until sunrise, with Tim talking about opening a restaurant; Tim wanted to have a place his long-time boyfriend-- who ironically had the same first name as me-- could work at. He wanted me to run the "front of the house," while his partner would run the "back of the house," the kitchen.
Tim's boyfriend, who was a cook, not a waiter, was one of the funniest, nicest people I ever worked with in the business. I would have loved to have run a business with him. The fact that we have the same first name would have made it even funnier.
Tim and his boyfriend would go Alaska every year and work for several months catching salmon-- Tim's family's business. They'd make so much money doing that that they could do what they wanted the rest of the year. Tim would go to college and his partner would work at the restaurant.
Eventually, they opened a futon store in Rogers Park. They did quite well with it. Until Tim's partner got "sick."
Looking back, when he died in 1992, I shut down emotionally for a long time. It was just too much.
Watching Common Threads brought back a lot of memories-- of a time before drug "cocktails" and drugs effective against PCP and other oppurtunistic infections brought the toll of AIDS down to a fraction of what it had been; to a time where every couple of days there was the obituary in the New York Times of yet another notable artist who'd died of AIDS; of a time when running into an old co-worker brought a knot in my stomach. A time of unbearable loss. I'm thankful that all my old friends of nearly a quarter century ago at the Gentleman's Lunch, with the exception of Pat, a professor who died of liver cancer, not AIDS, a few years ago, are alive and healthy. I'm thankful for "drug cocktails," and awareness. And I'm hopeful that there'll be a cure within my lifetime for this disease that has cast a shadow over my generation.