Set Asides

Still Alive, Still Kicking

by Rob Toth

Photo by Antonio Feo/ R. Toth

Set asides: units of affordable housing required developers to set aside twenty-five percent of all new housing for low to moderate income families. When a private entity receives Federal funding for housing, it is mandated to “set aside” a certain percentage of the units for low-income residents. Set asides.
Like many other long-term survivors, I’ve had a kaleidoscope of experiences. I have been a Buddy volunteer and lost five souls to the ravages of AIDS in the eighties. Returned to college as an adult and got my BFA. And sitting on my upstairs front porch one day, I was talking to myself (nothing new there): “When will you begin to live with AIDS rather sit here dying from it?!” I asked aloud.

Right then and there I decided to check one item off of the Bucket List. Fortified by my whole four years of high school French, I booked a trip to Paris, France. As an art history minor, I bathed in the City of Light. Alone, I walked cobblestone streets and sat at cafés. I quickly learned a café au lait did have espresso in it. I navigated the Metro with ease and delight.

Upon my return home, I spent six years on three of our Ryan White Planning Council committees. Our good work was noticed. I was taken to Washington, D.C., as a representative member of the affected population in our region’s well-running Planning Council. I volunteered with the Ohio AIDS Coalition’s Healing Weekend Committee. As a co-chair, I helped in planning, scheduling educational “healing” weekend events for anyone in the HIV spectrum. Those were weekends of joy, tears, and newfound friends.

After a “talent-no-talent-show” at GAYLA, a men’s gathering in Maine, I found I really could sing! Upon returning home, I searched for something, someplace to fit in. I auditioned for our local gay men’s chorus (without g-a-y in the name). I was a baritone! We performed concerts three times a season. My family came to see me once in six years. Concurrently, I was also the Public Relations chair for the Chorus. My last, thankless act was to bring in Miss Bernadette Peters. To say she was gracious and wonderful is an understatement. In between all of this, I’d travelled to Chicago, Los Angeles, Key West, St. Louis, San Francisco, Toronto, and to Mexico where I climbed the pyramids in the Yucatan and swam on the white sandy beach of Tulum.

After an exhausting and frustrating three-year search for traces of my Hungarian ancestry and grandfather, I found long-lost family members in Hungary…and they wanted to meet me! With my phrasebook partially memorized and with help from my family, I went to Hungary. My relatives were ever so gracious and kind. They took me all over north-central and northwest Hungary. I slept in my great-great-great-grandfather’s village home. Ate authentic Hungarian goulash (guylas) and drank way too much pálinka. At the airport I wept, my cousin wept, we all wept. It really was a life-altering experience. For now, I now volunteer at our local Hungarian museum and gift shop. Calling it a museum is rather like gilding the lily, but I digress.

Many letters to the editor and years later, here I sit, alone with my cat. Like many other LTS, on Social Security Disability, food stamps and Section 8, I am apprehensive about the new administration. Only time will tell. I acknowledge my blessings in that I have safe, clean, and affordable accommodations, good medical care, and food in my fridge. However—yeah there’s a “however”—I survived homelessness, a stroke, a heart attack, suicide, rape, a catastrophic car accident, and a daylight mugging at gunpoint. I don’t drink. I never party-and-play. My party days are over. I’m only fifty-eight years old and there’s much life left in this “old” bag of bones. As much as I’d like to, I can’t afford to participate in a POZ cruise and have never been to an AIDS conference. I don’t have disposable income. I don’t have a car. My days are pretty routine: morning sinus, pills, bathroom, a late breakfast, and, then, maybe get labs drawn and a doctor’s visit or two. Home again to watch TV or listen to music while typing out another letter to the editor or a tweet. I haven’t any tech skills, I don’t know how to knit (yet). My last BFF died two years ago. My support system is dead, gone, or moved on.

So, like other LTS, I have an accumulated lifetime of experiences. Some good, some not so good. But I’m here and still very much alive. I’m a survivor, yet I feel as if I’m a can of peas put on a shelf, cabinet doors shut. Like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady when she bemoaned, “What’s to become of me…??”

With all that I am, all that we are, how do we settle in a set aside as a set aside?!

Rob Toth is a twenty-eight-year-plus year survivor of AIDS and a native of Greater Cleveland, currently living with his cat overlooking Lake Erie. He is well-travelled, speaks a soucon of French and a dab of Hungarian and makes a mean meatloaf. Like many other long-term survivors, he is an accidental activist on his fourth life thread, Act II.