by Karin McKie
His voice was weak, tremulous. “This is Gary Graul, returning your call,” with no additional details. Great, I thought, somebody else to hand-hold, someone not technologically savvy. He sounded the same when I called back to interview him live.
His manner didn’t waver like his voice. He stayed on task, not allowing any follow-up questions, just responding, in order, to the list I had sent him. That’s kinda inflexible, I felt. Why doesn’t he just roll with the punches?
I hadn’t been able to have an e-mail exchange with Gary, like the other alumni magazine interviewees. He only checked his e-mail when he went to the library, once a month or thereabouts, and I was on deadline. “Elderly Luddites,” I crabbed. So I had snail-mailed the e-mail printout asking about his being a San Jose State University super fan, a Spartan sports supporter since his 1969 B.A.
This story will be like pulling teeth, I thought. Slow and deadly.
At the start of our chat, Gary apologized for his voice. “I’ve had the flu,” he said. “And pneumonia. For a while.” Following my script, he recounted his school sports career while I recorded the details. He started as a Bay Area high school swimmer and water polo player, while watching his older brother Larry play football. At SJSU, he studied to become a teacher while he attended football, soccer, and basketball games. Sticking to chronological order, he told me that his next life step was being diagnosed with HIV in 1987, after his partner died of AIDS. Gary had met Clarence at a Super Bowl party. I circled that fact in my notebook with a green highlighter. That was my hook, the human angle to make an average sports story fly.
The others I interviewed were fine, mostly middle-aged white guys, former jocks who kept the faith after their own athletic careers ended. But Gary wasn’t a typical sports fan. He lived simply as a groundskeeper, alone, before retirement. He was used to being by himself, but craved group sports camaraderie. He had a debilitating disease, yet he hadn’t missed a home or away game since 1981, the year he guessed he had been infected. His story would motivate the large alumni readership: “I’ve traveled to twenty-five states, through all kinds of weather to see the Spartans play. And I’ve got AIDS.”
Gary did have full-blown AIDS by this point, and had wasted away to 97 pounds, he told me. I wanted mainstream readers to know about him, a shy underdog who defied the odds and outlasted the ’80s AIDS body count. When I introduced him in my draft, I said he had the disease, and had his words conclude the article:
“These trips are getting more grueling, and I’ll probably be less of a gadabout now, but I’m extremely loyal. I get really emotional at games, teary-eyed, and sometimes overwhelmed. But I’m still bubbly. I want to be connected with people, and being a fan gives me a tremendous warm feeling. And that passion keeps me going.”
I mailed this to Gary, then called him on March 5. “How are you?” I asked. “I’m still here,” he said with labored breath. I knew that his positive particulars would likely end up on the cutting room floor, and they did. He was characterized as just a regular fan. Maybe it was decided that his disease would make readers uncomfortable, and that HIV/AIDS was yesterday’s news, since it’s no longer an automatic death sentence. Or maybe a fan being positive was off topic. But Gary’s real story was gone, and I felt responsible to tell his tale.
I said, “Some of your details probably won’t make it into the final copy. But I write HIV/AIDS stories for a national Web site. Could I do a follow-up interview for them?”
“OK,” he said.
“When’s a good time?”
On my March 11 “to do” list, I wrote “Gary Graul interview” in my desktop notebook. But I didn’t know how to approach it. I wanted his story to be in the super fan piece, where it belonged, the tension between being sick and sports. He had wanted to talk, like he knew this was the last hurrah, but I felt like I was exhausting him. He had given me so much already. Why go through all this again if nobody will read it?
“You can’t write about just a guy,” said my Web site editor. “What’s your angle?”
I wasn’t sure. Something about how it was remarkable that a dying gay man lived his pain-filled life cheering on his team, that he spent every penny of his paltry salary on game travel. I wanted to share how I judged him for being slow and methodical, only to have him emerge as my piece’s linchpin, and then relegated as generic white noise, the way AIDS had been in the past
and is again today. I thumbed through my pages of notes. His best quotes had already been submitted and cut. Would anybody care about the internal driving force that kept him alive for over thirty years? That macho sports sustained a gay man? Or would people want to keep him at arm’s length, like I had?
I’ve worked on HIV/AIDS issues since the early ’90s. My first Chicago job was marketing director of HealthWorks Theatre, a touring health education company presenting musicals like the Oz homage “The Wizard of AIDS.” I remember being shocked, yet encouraged, as Magic Johnson’s diagnosis brought a national face to the issue. Our staff shook their heads when the director for Season of Concern, Chicago’s AIDS care organization, admitted he was a bareback porn actor.
Yet drug cocktails and condom conversations had extended lifespans, and the disease felt less urgent. I was an HIV/AIDS educator—rattling off “blood, semen and vaginal fluids” to anybody who would listen—but I still felt on the periphery. I’d been impacted some, but certainly didn’t experience the mass grief in the Windy City’s Boystown during the height of the pandemic. So I knew I should go see Gary, about thirty minutes north, before it was too late. Flesh out my phone notes, witness his wasting myself, show him I wasn’t afraid to touch his hand, like I had learned. To be in his company, to tell his story, our way.
I didn’t set anything up. I was busy, teaching and writing. I didn’t have time for spec stories that didn’t seem to have an audience. I circled his number in my notebook, thinking, I’ll do something next month.
My magazine editor e-mailed me on March 27. “I’m writing to let you know that Gary passed away last week,” she said. “I will make the appropriate adjustments to the story and will include a note about his death.” There was no mention of his having AIDS.
I Facebooked his alumni group to ask about a wake, and was told that Gary had requested that nothing special be done, so nothing was. I regarded my notes like an eulogy. My last scribbling from our one-hour interview was Gary’s desire to outlive his three feral cats. Then, he wished, “I hope I’m around for next season.”
Karin McKie, MFA, writes HIV/AIDS features and arts reviews for Edge Publications, and has published in Washington Square Magazine, Interdisciplinary Humanities, Today’s Chicago Woman, among others, and was managing editor for Perspective and Reed magazines. Her storytelling has been broadcast on Chicago Public Radio.