That’s What Friends Are For
Healing, Interconnection & the Inauguration of A&U
by Chael Needle
Albany, New York, the home base of A&U, is a small city, so much so that some residents have nicknamed it Small-bany. It may be a more derisive than loving nickname, emphasizing a worn-grass cowpath contrast to the glamorous labyrinths of New York City. But smallness has its advantages. The stresses of urban life can be less impactful. You are assured a seat at the outdoor concerts in Washington Park come summertime. It’s easy to organize an anti-racist protest in front of the state capitol. And smallness allows for a tighter and stronger interconnectedness among individuals. The fact that everbody knows everybody else on some days becomes a reason to sigh and complain and eat far into a box of Freihofer chocolate chip cookies, but, on most days, that fact is a boon. Interconnectedness means that help is never far away.
Thanks to my friend Rich Redlo, sweet and ever-dependable, I met Mark S. Labrecque. At the tail end of my undergraduate years in Albany, in 1991, I was living with my sister Sally two floors above the Amazing Wok on Lark Street when, one autumnal day, our dull-gray, behemoth personal computer broke down. Our writing was trapped inside. Rich recruited his friend, Mark, to see if he could fix the IBM. As we stood by, Mark opened up the computer and performed a silent surgery on its exotic (to me) electronics. I could see Mark struggling to see what he had to see, even after we moved a lamp closer and adjusted its black pterodactyl-like head closer to shine on his work space. He was frail and looked sickly and he probably had better places to be, but here he was helping out a friend.
The computer, he determined, was unfixable. We tried to thank him with a buffet of won ton soup, shrimp egg rolls, and chicken and broccoli, but he politely declined and took his leave. Sally and I mourned the loss of writing—a couple of academic papers, some ideas for novels—and consoled ourselves by opening extra packets of duck sauce.
It was a small gesture—Mark’s attempt to save our writing—but it underscores his willingness to help out a friend in need. When A&U’s founder, publisher and editor in chief David Waggoner was launching the magazine, he had been receiving some assistance from the AIDS Council of Northeastern New York, where he worked, but he needed more support. Mark opened his place to David free of charge, providing a much-needed office space/nest to work on the magazine.
Mark died in 1992 from AIDS-related causes and the ravages of taking AZT. He was not the only person to help get the magazine up and running, but he is emblematic of the team effort needed to create and sustain the magazine. Sweet and ever-dependable Rich, in fact, sparked a fire under David to start a literary arts journal dedicated to gathering together creative responses to the pandemic.
Part of the team effort included Linda Glassman, executive director of the AIDS Council of Northeastern New York, and Jim Stewart, president of the Albany-Colonie chamber of commerce and a board member of countless local arts organizations who raised a lot of funds and garnered oodles of attention for the project. Many, many other angels helped out—individuals and also local businesses like Communication Services and Water Works Pub.
In the middle of the AIDS pandemic, this is how those hardest hit by the disease and those who cared about them survived. Members of the gay community helped each other. Women, mostly queer, helped us. We helped other communities and they helped us.
The interconnectedness fended off straight America’s policy of isolationism. The interconnectedness helped us to organize, on the streets and within institutional frameworks. The interconnectedness helped us disseminate vital information. The interconnectedness helped people die with dignity and helped others find stable housing, a Buddy, or, eventually, a clinical trial. It saved us from a state of perpetual emotional triage in those horrible and heart-rending days; it helped us begin to heal.
In A&U’s second issue, Winter 1992, David Waggoner wrote in his editor’s letter: “Ever since our November 7, 1991 premiere issue, we have received hundreds of new submissions of fiction, poetry, essay and journal writing, and examples of visual art as well. This outpouring of creative response to the AIDS pandemic is helping to challenge the assumption that there will only be silence in those creative communities being affected by the disease. The submissions come from those who are HIV-positive and HIV-negative, alike. They represent the creative conscience of a country that has experienced great pain and is now beginning (we hope) to experience a small degree of recovery. Yes, recovery. For though there is no cure for AIDS and not enough money being spent to find a cure or even effective treatments, we are experiencing the beginning of a healing process.”
The year 2021 marks thirty years of publication for A&U. As a national print magazine, and now with an international online readership, we are now thirty-years strong—bringing writers and artists and readers together in this small space so that we may help each other heal.
About seven years after the magazine had started, Small-bany came through for me again. I had by then returned to Albany from a five-year stint in Boston to begin my doctoral studies. I needed to complete an internship to fulfill my degree requirements. Rich, sweet and ever-dependable, suggested I ask David if the magazine needed any help. I completed an internship and a little bit later David asked me to join the editorial team permanently.
I had connected with David before, in the late eighties at the State Street Pub, a queer hangout in lesbian-and-gay-gentrified Center Square. I was an undergrad English major and he was a grad student at the University of Albany who had workshopped with Toni Morrison, before she left for Princeton. Sipping my Cape Codder in that dark, oaken lifeboat, I would often pester him about my fiction ideas. Some of them were outlandish——a man’s tragic death in an industrial saw at a paper mill results in blood-imbued stationery and a way for his beloved to remember him? Too dramatic? What was possible? Anything, he answered, as long as you can write it down.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U. Alongside his journalism, he writes fiction and poetry. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.