Down in the Depths
It all comes back with a song
by John Francis Leonard
When I think of the fall of 1990, so many memories march through my mind. People—both loved and lost, a city and a community—beleaguered, yet fighting for life, holding it all together. The hottest record—we still called them records then—was Red Hot + Blue, an AIDS benefit album which was a tribute to the genius of Cole Porter, his songs interpreted by the day’s hottest artists. It was a soundtrack of the time heavily rotated on the jukebox of the East Village gay bar that gainfully employed me. Its songs still float through my mind occasionally, especially one in particular, one that had us all in its thrall: Lisa Stansfield’s cunning and powerful take on Porter’s torch classic, “Down in The Depths.” Its stunning vocals, sense of drama, and particular ennui still take me back to that time, that place, to that boy of nineteen making his mark in the big city.
We were fighting for so much at the time, particularly for the attention of a local and national administration that had barely begun to give the major infectious disease which had claimed tens of thousands of lives the attention and resources it warranted. Also to blame, an ignorant and bigoted public who felt that we deserved what we were getting. It was enough to make grown men cry, which we did often—but what we did more of was fight—fight for our lives. We helped create the service agencies that were needed for the plague’s destitute victims. We raised funds, we marched—lay in the streets and chained ourselves to buildings when we had to. We educated ourselves with the salient facts, and a bowl of free condoms and lube packets was as common a sight as the pay phone still was at the time. Public service campaigns were launched using supermodels and demi-gods with naked limbs entwined in posters exposing how sexy safe sex could be. We were taught that we were responsible for our own health and safety and that we had to assume every sexual partner was a carrier and “wrap it up.” Our sexuality and our health was in our hands.
So many memories reverberate for me as I listen to that song again. I remember David Taft, my dear boss and mentor who took this young gay man under his wing. He was never bashful about his reasons for hiring me to work at The Bar in the first place. It was—as he specified to anyone who’d listen— the V of my back in a tank top and how brief my running shorts were when we were first introduced. “It wasn’t your brains, dear!” he’d chortle lasciviously, and I never minded. A lot of thought had gone into my sweaty, “just after a run” appearance. David taught this nineteen-year-old a lot about the more sophisticated things in life. He took me to my first fine Italian restaurant, where the Polish chef and his beautiful wife, who ran the front of the house, served up dishes that were the polar opposite of the red sauce and meatballs of my childhood. Those held no charms in the face of a feather-light pumpkin tortellini in a light cream sauce proceeded by a real Caesar salad and accompanied by a beautiful Italian white that tasted of the fruit. I miss David and think of him often—another life snuffed out far too soon by a senseless plague.
I remember long walks in all kinds of weather, but those taken for pleasure seemed to belong to those beautiful falls in the city. We’d walk on a Sunday from our cheap abodes in the East Village to the West, a place populated by its ghosts. But, for the young, there was still life. We’d take 8th Street, or maybe 10th and eventually find our way to Christopher Street, and from there to the piers, still a center of so much life. The city’s LGBT youth gathered here, lived here—away from home lives of persecution in the city’s outer boroughs. They did what they needed to survive here, turning tricks with the outer boroughs’ other LGBT victims, the married and the “straight.” How many of them are gone now? Did anyone even count these young queer men of color who fell to the plague?
I left New York in ’95, but have found myself back there often. So much has changed in the intervening years. New medications have extended the life of so many of us, myself included. And the city itself has changed, seemingly beyond recognition at times. But that energy, that spirit, remains. That sense of being right smack in the middle of things. I plan on returning to live there in a year or two—I’m ready to write a second chapter. But, even now, even far away, it can all come alive for me again with a song.
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. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he writes reviews for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.