Part III of an Ongoing Chronicle of the First Fifteen Years of the AIDS Pandemic
by Bruce Ward
The volunteer “buddy” program at Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) was in its infancy when I joined in 1983. At its helm stood Diego Lopez, a former Vietnam Marine veteran and clinical social worker. As befitting his military experience, Diego was as organized and efficient as he was witty and compassionate. Later when he died of the disease, he was buried to a packed house, with full military honors.
Buddies at GMHC were grouped into “pods,” a group of eight or so gay men and a few women, led by a professional social worker or psychologist. James was our group leader, an extremely handsome social worker of Greek heritage, with olive skin and black curly hair that fell in ringlets just above his deep brown eyes. He had a soft voice and steady disposition, and I had a mad crush on him.
The buddy to whom I was assigned was named Bill, a tall, lanky Southerner who lived in the then-scummy neighborhood known as Chelsea, a rather bleak, run-down, precarious area, far removed from the more fashionable gay neighborhoods of the West Village and the Upper West Side.
Bill lived in a one-bedroom apartment in a walk-up building, paying $250/month in rent. He shared the apartment with an ex-boyfriend, who really considered himself to be a current boyfriend. George doted on Bill. This was sweet since Bill had a sort-of naïve and innocent country-boy attitude that perfectly accompanied his open clean-cut visage and lanky frame. He also had visible K.S. (Kaposi sarcoma cancer) lesions on his face and body.
During my first visit to Bill and George’s apartment, I sat cramped amidst the clutter of empty Marlboro cigarette boxes and half-full bottles of Pepsi, making small-talk and doing my best impersonation of a social worker.
Bill was cheery and friendly. George was anxious, but also friendly, and obviously very protective of Bill. George lit a joint and passed it to Bill.
The scene suddenly became a movie in my head, as the camera zoomed in on Bill’s parched and slightly cracked lips. I continued to watch this film in slow motion as Bill inhaled. The parchment flared and burned red. I observed in extreme close-up as his hand reached up to his mouth, took the innocuous-looking rolled-up paper from his mouth, and proceeded to pass it to me.
It was 1983, and the cause of this disease had yet to be discovered. It would be two more years before the announcement that a virus was isolated as the causal agent of the disease.
But the information out there, even then, was that it—whatever it was—was being passed on through semen and blood. Cases were now being isolated in what became known as the 4 H’s: Homosexuals, Hemophiliacs, Haitians and Heroin users. The rationality that the disease was not spread through airborne contact or saliva was supported by the fact that the disease had not spread through casual contact within family units, where kissing and the sharing eating utensils and toothbrushes were not considered to be transmission factors.
But there was always room for doubt. What did they really know?
I took the joint from Bill and put it to my lips. The thought process took perhaps a total of three seconds, but it seemed to last hours.
Under what I felt were the watchful eyes of Bill and (more likely) his bodyguard, George—will he or won’t he?—I made a decision. The fear of not living up to my role as a real “buddy” trumped any fear I might have had about the transmission of an agent of illness from Bill’s saliva. I took a hit. I passed the first test of a true Buddy: I could be cool with them.
I became perhaps disproportionately passionate about my volunteer duties: Bill told me about the strained relationship he had with his father, as well as the supportive one he had with his aunt Janice.
So I took it upon myself to write to Aunt Janice on Bill’s behalf. I received a touching letter back from her. She wrote that she was saddened by both Bill’s illness and by the reaction of his father (her brother), but she felt powerless in her ability to talk to her brother about Bill’s homosexuality, and she had very little money herself with which to help Bill.
She enclosed a twenty dollar bill.
I saw Bill a couple more times, but then I went away from NYC during the summer of 1984, and I eventually lost touch with him.
Three years later, in October, 1987, the NAMES Project/AIDS Memorial Quilt was unveiled for the first time, in its entirety, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and I was there.
After wandering through the 1,920 panels with thousands of others, all in an overwhelming state of grief, I saw a panel with the name Bill M ——accompanied by three words, spelled out in an array of colorful buttons: Your Loving Aunt.
I suppose I cried. Or maybe I was too cried out at that point from seeing all the other thousands of panels, each with their own personal messages of grief-stricken remembrances.
Want to start from the beginning? Link to the first column: https://aumag.org/2020/05/25/last-dance/.
Bruce Ward, A&U’s Drama Editor, has been writing about the AIDS epidemic since its inception, and his recently completed memoir chronicles the early years. His play, Lazarus Syndrome, and solo play, Decade: Life in the ’80s, have been produced throughout the U.S. Bruce was the first Director of the CDC National AIDS Hotline from 1986–1988. He was honored by POZ magazine as one of 2015’s POZ 100. He has graduate degrees in Creative Writing from Boston University and The New School, and teaches creative writing and literature at all levels. Please follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bdwardbos.