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By Jan Carl Park
I found David in the emergency room, laying in a bed, unconscious and plugged into various machines. It had been a long struggle, as he was a fighter unwilling to admit defeat. Death was not far away, and I, its messenger, was there to give voice to its arrival. As we did in those days—the dark days of AIDS—gay friends became not only caretakers but also arbitrators of the final battle. “Medical Power of Attorney” is what the paper, placed before me many months before, said, and David, who wanted no page in the story of his life unturned, handed me the pen to sign. Now it had all come to pass as I stood at the foot of his bed and gave the orders to turn the machines off.
The sounds of agony surrounded me in the emergency room, as people rushed about tending to the injured, the fevered, the intoxicated. In all the chaos and confusion, I could clearly hear the faint breath of David’s life fade away, punctuated by a few last gasps and moans. Looking down upon his wasted body, the wreckage of what once had been admired by many an envious eye, I could not, did not, want to accept the tragedy of this ignoble end. Worse yet, the future contributions of a gifted writer, one whose words would bring tears and joy too many, had now been lost forever. Engulfed in fear, David’s other friends and I, clustered around his bed, saw ourselves lying there. This wonderful human being had now become a still and motionless corpse, overtaken by a disease with no treatment, no cure, seemingly no end. “When would it be our turn?” we all thought, as we silently left the room.
In the early eighties, gay men were dancing on a razor’s edge. In the twilight years of what some called the Golden Age of Gays, the late '70’s, freedom, so recently acquired, was exacting its pricey toll. Many, whose journey brought them through troubled times, were now happy, assured that their passages had been paid. Some, like those sitting at the Captain’s table on the Titanic, enjoyed a first-class voyage, while others, like those in steerage, endured the trip many decks below. Fellow passengers all, none could have imagined the dastardly fate their voyage would take.
Much like the day the unsinkable ship joyously set off from its Liverpool berth to the sound of marching bands playing and the sight of balloons floating in air, another fateful voyage was launched years later to the sound of a disco beat issuing forth from boom boxes and the sight of newspapers swirling on the sidewalks. On a crisp autumn day in 1979, David walked out of the Port Authority and climbed on an uptown bus, and I walked out of LaGuardia and hailed a taxicab heading downtown, and we both stepped into a world, now defined as pre-AIDS.
Only a few days into my new life in New York, on the cusp of a new decade, the ‘80s, I met a nurse who worked at St. Vincent’s Hospital. “Be careful,” he tenderly advised me, after a night of passion, “there’s something out there making gay men sick and we don’t know what it is.” Neither of us were aware that that very night we may have exchanged a lethal love that brought an ever increasing number of men into the city’s doctors’ offices, health clinics and hospitals. Warned but not afraid, I nonetheless swam in what appeared to be a calm ocean.
Days turned to months, and I settled into a job working as a reporter for a small, weekly gay newspaper that, shortly after my arrival, began publishing troubling stories about a mysterious illness taking the lives of gay men. It was there that David appeared in the newsroom, a twinkle in his eyes, offering up sardonic short stories, much to the delight of faithful readers. We became fast friends, loyal, as it turned out, ‘till death do us part.
I could talk about the adventures David and I shared, many of which, like a day spend handcuffed together in a jail cell after a demonstration outside of the FDA, had political as well as personal value. I could mention his ironic sense of humor, his blinding smile, his naughty boy image. But what makes a friend a friend can seldom be put into words. You just know it when it’s there.
Likewise I could talk about the early days of AIDS marked by food trays left outside the hospital rooms of those dying of AIDS, the funeral homes refusing to embalm the dead, the cavalcade of funerals, the haunting emaciated faces staring back at me on Christopher Street, but instead I’d rather share with you this brief reflection on the loss of a friend, emblematic of so many friends, lost, at a time in our history that was short on hope but overflowing with courage. To put this all in context, I stopped counting after eighty-three of my friends died.
It was a time, those Dark Days of AIDS, that by the efforts of many, we seem to have passed through. And indeed, some 25 years later, we are in a better place, a least here in the U.S., and in some fortunate countries, as there are life sustaining treatments for HIV, if you can afford them. We also know now that even the most beautiful ocean can be treacherous if you don’t have knowledge of the tides and currents before you step into the water. But back then none of this was clear, and the only compass we had to guide us was love and compassion in the face of death and destruction. But hope prevailed and one miracle after another arose out of the ashes—an understanding of the methods of transmission, a test for infection, medications for treating the symptoms, services for treatment and care.
But for the hundreds, thousands, millions of Davids, who never got to see the full light of day, we should never forget, and for the hundreds, thousands, millions of Davids to come we should strive to guarantee, not only here at home but the world over, a life fully lived. Thank you David for casting light where there was darkness, for I can see the road ahead much clearer now and the journey has been made easier. May I in turn leave such a legacy for those who follow in my footsteps.
David B. Feinberg was born on Nov. 25, 1956, and died on November 2, 1994. He was the author of three novels: Eighty Sixed, published in 1989; Spontaneous Combustion, published in 1991; and Queer & Loathing: Rants & Raves of a Raging AIDS Clone, published shortly before his death in 1994.
Jan Carl Park is the Director and Governmental Co-Chair of the HIV Health & Human Services Planning Council of New York, New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene. This is the text of his introduction to the guest lecture he gave at the School of Social Work on December 4, 2013, at the invitation of the Social Intervention Group and the HIV Intervention Science Training Program.
Jan Carl Park's PowerPoint slides summarizing key stats and showing how New York City is pursuing the National HIV/AIDS strategy to reduce infections by 2015 (PDF: 20 pages).