Ruby’s Rap by Ruby Comer
Surely one of the most difficult things in the world to do is visit someone in the hospital who knows he is dying and knows that you know it, too. In a situation like that, there is absolutely nothing to talk about. What can you talk about—a movie you have just seen?…He looked like a person from a concentration camp.…It was the most helpless feeling I have ever experienced….
When he died, I went home and closed the shutters. I just existed for years. I backed off with anything that had to do with AIDS. I just couldn’t deal with it anymore. I am not particularly proud of that, but there it is.”
When I read this excerpt from Ken Sofronski’s memoir, Old, Gay & Fabulous, about his dying friend, I was abruptly jolted back to my early days of the epidemic. Not pretty.
In his book, Ken is brutally raw and honest—no holds barred, no apologies. Brave. At times, it produced polar opposite feelings for me, from laughter to tears, including laughter with tears. Part of his book documents the history of the epidemic from a very personal perspective. In this intriguing and engaging read you’ll encounter Bette Midler and Barry Manilow performing at the Continental Baths, the Stonewall riots, Harvey Keitel and Martin Scorsese, Ken’s escape from death on 9/11, his butch lesbian mom, Della (he’s currently writing a screenplay about her that he calls Della), and sex, sex, sex! Ken was a short-lived callboy and a court reporter, but he mostly preferred being an actor.
New York City-based Ken suggested we meet by The Dakota and walk into Central Park, passing through John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields and the artistic, iconic Imagine mosaic. We park our carcasses near the Bethesda fountain, on this fine spring day.
Ruby Comer: Ken, I love this [I grab his book from my lap and read], “In the beginning, I demonstrated in marches to raise awareness and money, and also marched in the more powerful candle light processions to mourn the dead. Try marching for three miles and tearing all the way.” Whew. This hits home. Let me say again…whew!
Ken Sofronski: In the beginning of the epidemic I also paid telephone and electric bills for indigent people. Rumors were rampant at the time that officers of different AIDS groups were stealing money. I remember we had a big circus event at Madison Square Garden. It was packed! I don’t know how much money was made, but it came out that only three people were helped. Larry Kramer was one of the first to start screaming foul.
Bless Larry Kramer and ACT UP. Where do you think we stand on the epidemic today?
I don’t hear about AIDS anymore. I know it’s still out there, of course, but I have distanced myself—which I am not proud of. When I hear about HIV/AIDS, my first reaction is fear.
Scary…indeed. Do you remember when you first heard about HIV/AIDS?
It was at an AA meeting. Everyone was talking about it.
How many friends did you lose, Ken?
Five close friends. However, being in gay AA—yes there is such a thing and standing room only—I knew many people who died. When you hear someone share their gut-wrenching stories you feel a kinship to that person. After a while I was going to memorial services twice a week, every week.
That’s so devastating, I know. In Old, Gay & Fabulous you said that the epidemic became too much and you just “closed the shutters.” What did you do?
I started smoking pot again, I was still smoking cigarettes at the time, and I started drinking again—but, I was not out of control. It was during that period that I wrote my first play, I Played the Palace, which was produced in New York City. Most of the cast members were actors that I met in AA. As soon as the play closed, I left AA for good.
By the way, I love the title of your book! What makes you so “fabulous?”
I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me that question, Ruby! I pictured some old queen at a party saying, “And what makes you so fabulous, darling?” I think I’m mainly fabulous because I had the guts to write my book and let it all hang out. I’m fabulous because I was smart enough in the seventies to take actions to prepare for old age. When my apartment went co-op, I bought it. In 2006, I sold it for a small fortune.
Fabulous! Pun intended. [We laugh.] You were undeniably a smarty! And what “fabulous” thing are you up to next?
Well, I’ve been busy selling the book. And besides my screenplay, Della, I’m waiting for an agent to discover that I have ten chapters and there’s enough time and space between chapters that each chapter can stand on its own. Therefore, there are ten screenplays from the book.
Hunky-dory! I can’t wait to see Della up on the screen. My favorite aunt, who was also my role model, was named Della. She taught me about makeup, fashion, and poise, along with self-reliance. I miss her terribly. [A jet above thunders by.] I have to know, doll, do you currently have a beau?
I’ve only been in love once for eleven years and then he died. I have had brief affairs from time to time, but—I love that expression—for some of us, the grand passion only happens once.
But ya had it once, Ken, and many can’t even say that. Ya know, you said in your book that you had survivor’s guilt….
My favorite phrase was, “I had my ass hanging out the window as much as anyone else, and why was I spared?” I was never even HIV-positive. Every time I broke out with a pimple, I would run to the doctor’s office and have another test. [He pauses a moment then shakes his head.] I escaped death again on 9/11. [He explains.] Twice a week, as a court reporter, I worked at the SEC in Tower 2—and that day I was not working. [A faraway look flickers across Ken’s youthful face. His silver locks rustle in the mild wind, as he watches a little kid walk the rim of the fountain holding his mommy’s hand. He sighs.] Ruby, that freaked me out more than not getting AIDS….
Get fabulous at Ken Sofronski’s Web site: http://kenactorauthor.com/.
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected]