by Ruby Comer
I’m pooped. Not more than a week after returning to the City of Angeles from my broadening; and enriching trip to Israel, I’m in Palm Springs. But I always get energized when I work with these two spectacular organizations, AIDS Assistant Program (AAP), which provides food vouchers for those in need, and the Desert AIDS Project, a full service, all encompassing provider, which even maintains an on-site medical clinic.
My headquarters is the all-suite Hyatt Hotel. Located slam-bang in the center of PS, the newly renovated hotel reeks of class, service, and style. From the start it’s a pleasant respite—and what a staff! After I hand full-of-smiles valet Robert my car keys, the delightful Darlene checks me in at the front desk and offers me an assortment of fresh-baked cookies. Darnit, I decline politely, still trying to shed a few pesky pounds.
(Later I grab some oolong tea from the “Share” bar and restaurant and encounter another friendly worker, Brianna. On weekends, in the late afternoon, Rhonda, the Hotel Ambassador knocks on your door and offers complimentary home baked cookies, soda, bottled water, and the like.) Get this, Hyatt Hotel sponsors several charity fundraisers including AIDS Assistant Program’s annual gala, Evening Under The Stars.
The overall design theme of the place is retro simplistic 50s, in solid earth tones like muted sienna, with accents of burnt carroty-orange. My suite matches the decor. The ample living room includes a bright white sectional sofa. (Rudy, my fiancé and I had some chummy moments here!). Along with a sizable loo, with two marble vanities yet, there’s the cloud-soft bed that leads out to the hefty balcony, beckoning one to embrace the cozy chairs, sip red wine, and enjoy the grand view of Mt. Jacinto. The pool, private cabanas, Jacuzzi, and ample loungy furniture are just beneath me.
After a hike one day, I lift a few weights—don’t want to get too sore!—in the hotel’s fitness room. I then wander over to the atrium lobby, while I pat lingering sweat from my brow and sway to the ambient jazz-funk rhythm piped throughout. As my eyes catch the massive celebrity portraits on the wall, taken at the Palm Springs International film festival earlier this year, someone nudges me and says, “Shalom, Ruby.”
My bony knees buckle. It’s Amitai [pronounced Ah-mee-tai], an Israeli cutie I met on the soccer field in old Jaffa. (Lordie no, I wasn’t playing. I was just cruising.) Though he’s HIV-negative, I so wanted a sportsman’s view on the epidemic, but unfortunately, our schedules never coincided. He mentioned that he was coming to America, but he apparently upped his departure date, as a friend invited him to attend the Academy Awards. Okay, I’m envious. A member of the first gay soccer team in the Middle East, Rainball, Amitai, twenty-eight, has a masters in psychology, and currently works for the city of Tel Aviv as manager for Digi-Tel.
The next day, Amitai accompanies me to PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support), where I’m scheduled to speak. The topic is “Cat Crazy”—how felines can be mood boosters, lower blood pressure, and offer TLC companionship. Afterwards we grab some frozen yogurt and sit on the I Love Lucy bronze bench, just across from the Hyatt.
Ruby Comer: What a treat to see you, my Dear. You are such a powerful soccer player! What does the sport do for you?
Amitai Gindel: I have always enjoyed playing sports, and soccer is my hobby. It gives me lots of good energy and feelings of vitality. I must say that joining this gay team helped me accept myself more. It taught me to be more expressive, and get in touch with my personality.
How brilliant. When I was in Tel Aviv you told me that a friend of yours was HIV-positive…
Oh, yes. I was surprised when he told me, because it was the first time I encountered someone close to me who was infected. I was scared at first. He said he had to tell me because he was lonely and full of fear. As a friend I wanted to be there for him, and I will always be, with no judgment. I told him that I would help him in any way I could. After my initial shock, our friendship is unchanged.
When did you first hear about the epidemic?
It was in school, where we learned about prevention. We also saw films about AIDS like Philadelphia. In Israel, HIV/AIDS is taboo.
How do you mean?
It’s a subject people don’t talk about. It’s actually a very small community, and people are afraid about what other people may think, so they prefer to hide it.
No wonder your friend revealed his status to you. He must have been so stressed and overwhelmed. (He nods.)
HIV is scary. I know that the number of people who get infected is increasing. I think it’s a subject that is not easy and comfortable to talk about—but is very important to do so! [He says seriously with his gorgeous azure eyes.] I take care of myself, but it’s still scary.
Do you get tested?
Yes…yes. My first test was taken during a regular check-up when I was serving in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces], the army.
Give Miss Ruby the facts, mister. Do you always play safe?
I always do, yes, Ruby.
Bravo. And do you have a boyfriend?
I am not involved with anyone. [Then he quickly adds] Do you know someone? [He takes a spoonful of his vanilla yogurt.]
I’ll have to ponder on that one. [I grin.] Have you had relationships?
While I was in the military I had a couple of boyfriends.
Give me your take on the prevention campaigns in Tel-Aviv.
There are lots of campaigns. I think ninety-nine percent of the people know about the disease, and about the risks. In my opinion, people make bad choices because of psychological reasons, or because they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or maybe they just want adventures in life. I think many people are educated about the disease but it’s about having self-esteem.
What do you mean by “psychological reasons” and “adventures in life?”
When people don’t care about themselves and feel empty inside, they tend to take more risks. They might seek exciting stimulus and have unprotected sex because they are bored.
You might have something there. We’re all human and humans feel. And, yes, it boils down to self-esteem. Absolutely.
[He glances away, looking down Palm Canyon Drive, returning to subject at hand.] The campaigns in Tel Aviv are effective. They are powerful enough that it makes people talk about HIV/AIDS—and discussion is essential.
You bet your Aunt Suzy! [He furrows his brows and gives me a quizzical look.]What are you dealing with in your life right now?
I’m at crossroads, Ruby. I finished all my studies and I’m not a “kid” anymore. I’m looking for real love and I want to have a family. But I still love to have fun and to be a kid sometimes! [He smiles.] I’m also considering living outside Israel and possibly moving to Germany ….or maybe the USA.
Would love to have you here! Amitai, give me three wishes when it comes to the AIDS epidemic.
First, I hope that people will not seek shortcuts to happiness, that they will make smart choices when it comes to sex. Secondly, I hope that those who are HIV-positive will not suffer physically and socially.
Wait! Stop right there. You mean stigma?
Yep. When something threatens us, we tend to judge, deny, or create irrational explanations. For example, when you encounter someone who’s HIV positive, you might condemn him for getting infected then you irrationally distance yourself from him. You don’t even know him! That’s when stigma is created. This is why it’s so vital to keep AIDS in the forefront—and on everyone’s lips.
And what’s your last wish, Amitai?
I want the medical establishment to find a cure… or vaccination. [Two people speedily whiz by on bicycles and he takes note.] Hey! Why don’t we seize some bikes from the hotel and pedal around town, Ruby, like we did in Tel Aviv?
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]