Racing down Wilshire Boulevard near Crescent Heights in my streamlined ’69 “Mother” Lincoln, my azure blue Manolo Blahniks slam on the brakes as I swiftly approach a red light. Whew, I darn near skid through the intersection.
I toss my head to the right and I see a familiar face behind the wheel of a Prius. It’s my old friend Felix Racelis. My gosh, I haven’t seen his puss since forever! We lower our windows and arrange to meet on the grounds of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a few blocks away.
Moments later we are hugging under Chris Burden’s iconic installation, Urban Light, a set of 320 actual street lamps circa 1946–2015. Let me catch you up on mi amigo.
Felix was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1988. That’s thirty years this year! Since then he’s turned his misfortune into assisting others. He’s participated in several AIDS Walks and worked at the Hollywood Sunset Free Clinic, helping fundraise for a number of initiatives, including the Cara a Cara Latino AIDS Project, an educational outreach program specifically for the Latino community.
An MFA graduate of UCLA’s Film and TV Department, this talented man is a playwright and
screenwriter, winning awards for his play, Uncommon Threads. He also penned As Straw Before the Wind, about Filipinos who survived WWII (it’s a tribute to the many women in Felix’s family), and Fault Lines, a romantic comedy about a gay Chinese-American from San Francisco who falls in love with an HIV-positive Latino from Los Angeles. Felix has also worked on documentaries for PBS and HBO. His play, Bride of Godzilla, was published in The Best Ten-Minute Plays of 2017.
Leaning against an antique lamppost, ringed by soaring palm trees, I metaphorically shine the light on Felix.
Ruby Comer: Oh my stars, Felix, it is so delightful to see you. How long has it been?!
Felix Racelis: Oh Ruby, gee, probably ten years?
[I nod my head.] You still living in Silver Lake?
Yes. You still living there?
Nope. Last year I journeyed over to the Westside. Say, are you and Larry still an item?
We’ve been together for twenty-six years and married nine.
Groovy. Hmmm…that’s an outdated word! [We both chortle.] I always liked Larry. Before I forget, tell me a couple of your favorite plays.
The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan is probably my favorite play. Then comes Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard [I eagerly shake my head], and then I love Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, which is just brilliant.
I performed in a production of The Cherry Orchard back at Ohio State! Felix, when you were diagnosed, HIV was often a death sentence. [He raises his big browns skyward and recoils.] What made you test back then?
Partly I wanted to put my mind at ease, and partly because of peer pressure. So many of my friends were getting tested.
What was your immediate reaction to hearing those words, “You are positive?”
I was shocked—then I was in denial for a long time. I didn’t think it was possible because I looked and felt healthy. I experienced some severe depression.
How did you cope with these feelings?
I sought counseling and found a sympathetic therapist. I also became more active. I joined ACT UP LA, and participated in demonstrations. I also attended the PLUS (Positive Living for Us) Seminars, which were critical to my well-being, and eventually wound up volunteering with them.
[I sit at the base of the light post and Felix follows suit.] What regimen did you go on?
I didn’t immediately go on any regimen. I did take a good friend’s advice and began Chinese acupuncture and herb treatments, which I continue to this day. I also explored some more experimental herbal treatments, such as a Korean herb (da’an) and a regimen using bitter melon as a major ingredient—don’t ask.
[I grin.] Did you have any opportunistic infections?
I didn’t experience any major issues until 1996 when I had a bout with lymphoma. My doctor said he couldn’t definitively say whether it was HIV-related. I underwent six rounds of chemo and lost my hair. The whole experience was scary, yet transformative.
OMIGOD, Felix, I can’t even understand how that must have felt. So sorry. What drugs are you taking today?
I’ve been on Viramune, Epivir and Zerit for many years, and it’s been working fairly well for me. I also take medication for high blood pressure and cholesterol.
Aging is fun, huh ?! [He darts me a dour glance.] What’s your secret to stay healthy? You look chipper and you glow, Felix.
At the Gay and Lesbian Center I saw an ad for a start up group about techniques of psychoneuroimmunology, the study of the effect of the mind on health and resistance to disease. It was led by Barbara Watland, MSW.
Now this is right up my alley! There is such a mind-body connection to everything we do in life—and I’d fling in spiritual, as well. I did my Master’s thesis on this, “The Effect of Nutrition on Mental Health.”
How fascinating, Ruby. [He pauses.] There were about a half dozen of us gay men who participated over the course of several years. Barbara was one of the angels I encountered during my first decade of living with HIV. She taught us techniques for quieting the mind and creating very powerful visualizations, which she would tape for us. I owe much of my well-being and survival to those healing and restorative sessions she led, and I continue to practice visualization daily.
Good deal. Glad to hear.
I also try to walk a couple of miles each day and I visit the gym, though not as often as I should. [I snarl knowingly.] If I’m having an especially tense and stressful time, I try and schedule a visit to the Beverly Hot Springs in Koreatown [near downtown Los Angeles].
Smart! Ahhhh, that sounds heavenly, Felix. What has HIV taught you through the years?
Gratitude. It sounds like a cliché, but I’ve learned life is really a gift and I’ve learned to be grateful for each moment and for acts of kindness. I’ve become more patient and forgiving of myself. As a recovering Catholic, I still find this hard to achieve.
Oh boy, I’m with ya there, especially since I attended an all-girls Catholic high school. Ugh.
[He winks then nods.] Having experienced the epidemic first hand, Ruby, I realize the importance of having a close network of friends and support. Recently my spouse and I had lunch with one of my oldest friends and her wife. My friend had accompanied me to the clinic nearly thirty years ago when I received my test results—and through the years we’ve…remained… friends. [Felix beams a contemplative smile.]
Stay in the spotlight with Felix: https://skylighttheatrecompany.com/about-us/our-artists/1387-artist-felix-racelis.html.
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].