Finally I had the courage to return to the city where I lost my friends
by John Francis Leonard
A few months ago I made a return trip to NYC. I say “return” because I moved to the city in 1987 at the age of seventeen. I did something I can’t imagine being brave enough to do today. With $500 in traveler’s checks in my pocket (a high school graduation gift) and a lot of chutzpah, I picked up and moved from the upstate suburb where I lived and relocated to the city I had dreamt of since I was a boy. No institution of higher learning awaited me safely ensconcing me in its dorms, just a somewhat unreliable friend whom I had met shortly after graduation. I had never stepped foot in the city before.
I ended up, eventually, living in Alphabet City on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. I got a job bar-backing and tending in a popular gay bar of the era. Simply known as The Bar, it stood on the corner of Third Street and Second Avenue. I was just short of my nineteenth birthday. The manager, David, didn’t ask for ID; he hired me based on how good I looked in a tight tank top. David and the other bartenders that made up our core group were all older than I. They soon became my circle of closest friends, my “gay fathers.” They taught me everything I needed to know at that point, their good habits and a lot of the bad ones, too. We had a lot of fun, too much at times. David ruled us all with an iron fist trying to reign in our excesses and indiscretions. I loved them all dearly. These four men all had it, they had AIDS. Without benefits or insurance, they struggled to get the medical care they needed. I lost touch over the years, as people often do, and could only assume the worst.
The intervening years brought much success for me. I relocated to Denver and eventually to L.A. I was in and out of the city often. I was always too busy though, busy with circuit parties and trips to Fire Island. Busy dining at trendy restaurants and visiting museums and galleries. The bottom line, though, was that it was just too painful to return to the scene of my earlier crimes. I heard at a party in the Hollywood Hills, of all places, that The Bar had burned down. That was hardly a surprise—the place was trendy, but it was a dive. The electrical system alone had always been slapdash to put it mildly. More disturbingly, my fears were realized; the four men with whom I had been so close had succumbed to AIDS.
So here I was, twenty-five years or more later, having dinner with my best and oldest friend at an acclaimed new bistro on The Bowery. The Bowery, once the home of flop houses and missions for the homeless, was lined with designer boutiques and trendy eateries. The old neighborhood had sure changed! As we enjoyed a wonderful meal I tried not to think of my plan to take a tour of the area to see the changes time had brought. It included a stop at that corner to touch base with my memories of my friends. It was time.
Fortified with plenty of Dutch courage, we set out after dinner down Bowery Street. As I looked with amazement at all the new affluence, I shared my memory of walking down to this street from The Bar to buy new glassware from one of its few viable businesses at the time, a restaurant supply store. We walked up to and turned east on Third Street. The emotion was building within me as we got closer to my goal. I had to stop on the sidewalk several times, my friend rubbing my back to comfort me. He knew better than anyone how hard this was for me. As we approached, the tears started. I’m not big on crying; I figure I’ve shed enough tears for a lifetime already, but I was powerless to stop them. I soon stood at the building whose ground floor had housed my place of work, the scene of my bildungsroman. The streets were filled with revelers on this Saturday evening as I stood in front of what was now a Korean market and wept under the rather alarmed gaze of its cashier.
I thought of them, all up somewhere above me having a giggle. “It’s not so tragic young lady,” they were saying.” You survived! So many have!” They, who taught me to “butch it up” when picking up a man, were so fond of switching pronouns among the members of our group. It made me laugh to remember it. I must have looked like an insane person standing on Third Street that evening, remembering. Remembering the fun, remembering the laughter, remembering the solidarity. And the fights! God, two of us were on the outs with each other at any given time. But, we loved each other harder than we fought. And that’s what remains. That’s what gets us through.
John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for thirteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.