Anecdotes From The Epidemic
by David I. Steinberg
To the Memory of James Meade, and for Harry Kelley
Another day, another temp job. At lunchtime I’m walking along Market Street and one of the street musicians who holds down a regular spot on the sidewalk is making awful sounds few would consider “music.” She plays ear-splitting harmonica off-key and now, thanks to generous contributions from passers-by (not me!), she’s bought an amplifier and microphone and is exceptionally loud! Isn’t there a law against this?
Her abrasive harmonica playing socks me in the ear as I pass and it’s much worse amplified, so that the traffic roar on Market Street better soothes my work-jangled nerves. Her new amplifier also lets me hear her much longer after I walk on as she blows harsh and dissonant like any kid whose mother would shout, “Stop that before I kill you!”
Today I wish this frumpy woman would disappear—immediately!—from outside The Sharper Image, a circular building at the corner of Market and Sansome Streets. The windows display their high-tech, high-priced devices, but the building reminds me of the first time I went in there with my friend, Harry, to meet James, Harry’s new boyfriend. “The opera singer.”
For several months that was all I knew whenever Harry mentioned him. “There’s this opera singer that’s interested in me,” Harry might say as casually as if he was saying, “I bought a new pair of shoes yesterday.” Each mention of the opera singer was followed by “…but I’m not sure I want a relationship yet.” James had been pursuing Harry for a few months right after Harry broke up with his years-long lover, Richard. A tough breakup, and Harry was in no hurry to start dating.
Harry and I worked downtown for years and one lunch hour, Harry said, “Remember that opera singer who’s after me? I like him and all, but it still feels too soon after Richard. I don’t know, what do you think?” I thought maybe he should meet for coffee and cultivate things, if not for now then maybe later? Well, maybe, he wasn’t sure, but would think about that.
Another lunch hour a month or so later and Harry and I were strolling around downtown. “Look,” he said, and held up his hand to show off a gold wedding band. “The Opera Singer gave it to me to say he’s serious and will wait till I’m ready. What do you think, should I be wearing this or not?” I hardly knew. In 1983 the idea of a man proposing with a wedding ring was confusing—didn’t that not apply to gay men? Gay marriage then was a fantasy I never expected in my lifetime and I didn’t know what to say, but James had definitely made a sweet, sincere gesture.
Only after James died did I fully realize how perfect he and Harry were for each other: they both had a strong faith and found a place for at Trinity Episcopal Church where they married years before it was legal; they’d both grown up in alcoholic households and knew that impact on their lives; they both loved music (Harry plays piano and writes amazing, unknown songs—the Emily Dickinson of contemporary songwriters); they both cared little for the material, but cared enormously about each other, about love, faith, friends, the artistic life.
James, as I learned, was not only an opera singer, but also a singer of lieder, classical songs, cabaret, Pocket Opera, and classic opera. When Harry first said to me, “There’s this opera singer…” James was in Europe singing at the Amsterdam Opera. Sounded exotic, not the kind of man you’d meet every day in a gay bar in the Castro.
The first time I heard James sing, how strange it was to suddenly hear someone’s singing voice after knowing only his speaking voice. James’ singing voice was so transformed by music it sounded like it was bounced off a satellite and back to James’ vocal chords; but the sound was his own clear, strong tenor, a voice that loved Harry, that sang James’ love true and clear to his beloved. (Harry, where are those Monday Songs you composed, that James brought so stunningly to life during an AIDS benefit recital?)
Another day, another lunch hour with Harry, sometime after James’ death. I told him I thought of James’ voice as I walked to meet him and passed that mad woman, still with amplifier and microphone. I said I felt assaulted by her dissonant noise and she somehow made me think of James’ melodious voice. “I hate that woman’s terrible, ugly wig! And when I passed her I thought, ‘If there’s a god, why didn’t god take her instead of James?’” Harry laughed. “Oh, but James loved her, she was his favorite street musician!”
(II) After James’ Death
“My mother is a fish.”
James died Sunday, March 27, around 8:15 p.m.
Thursday we have trout for dinner. Ruven hands me a plate with this headless thing on it.
“There’s a dead fish on my plate,” I say. “Why are we eating a dead thing?”
“I don’t know…because that’s what I got us for dinner tonight,” says Ruven.
I poke it with my fork as if to make sure, remove some of the sage-sprinkled skin from the ribs, the pale fish-flesh exposed. James’ body in the morning light. All night long by candlelight we didn’t see. Daylight revealed the yellowed body, the change of James—friend, husband, lover, son, brother, singer—from person to corpse.
The trout tastes like trout. “I’m sorry, the fish is fine, but I can’t eat it,” I say to Ruven.
After Mikel died this happened too. I couldn’t eat meat for a week without instantly seeing his dead body as I bit in, recalling flesh tones of his corpse.
“I hate to waste the fish,” I say (James’ half-opened eye, his jaw hanging loose.)
“I can’t eat it either,” says Ruven who cooked it, but removes the trout from our plates.
We settle for the vegetables: the bright green asparagus, the orange sweet potatoes. A little butter, a little salt.
(III) Grief Group (1996)
A few weeks after Peter died the phone rang and for a change I answered. The longer the epidemic lasted, the less I picked up that conduit of bad news. A woman from the Visiting Nurses Association was calling—how was I doing after my friend’s death?
I was caught off guard. How was I doing? I actually didn’t know. I hadn’t thought about it.
Well, could she ask what I had been doing since my friend died?
I drew a blank as I tried to recall the past few weeks….Slowly clearing out Peter’s room at Maitri Hospice, talking to his friends about a memorial service….Simple to do, but somehow too much to do. I was struggling to get out of bed every morning, go to work, do the daily—food shopping, laundry, dishes.
But how was I doing she asked again? Me?
In the weeks after Peter’s death, no one asked how I was doing, including me. Only Ruven asked, though he was full of his own loss, home again not long after his father’s ugly, difficult death in London. We were trying to make sense of documents and letters from his father’s papers, about Ruven’s father’s parents, murdered at Auschwitz in October 1944.
How was I doing at the confluence of two separate streams of catastrophe?
The nurse kindly suggested joining a grief group and said some people experiencing multiple losses found it helpful. In California there’s a support group for everything—addictions, job hunting, hangnails. A grief group? Sounded like a small band-aid for a severed aorta, but with nothing to lose and nothing in place to help myself, I decided to try it.
The first meeting simply felt weird. I met the nurse who had called and the seven or eight men who came, all of us looking shell-shocked. When I was asked what I wanted I said, “To dump the bodies of my dead friends on the steps of the White House.” At a later meeting I said I wanted to be on disability for the rest of my life.
The other men in the group were roughly my age, doing many of the same things I was—isolating at home, drinking too much, getting high on something (marijuana the least of it), not going out, not calling friends—if they had any left. To a man we were a silent, shattered bunch.
The nurse suggested we bring photos of our lost friends for next week’s meeting, if we wanted to.
A few men didn’t show. I opened my manila envelope and emptied out photographs of friends. A moment’s shock when I saw them all on the table. The photos’ bright colors bothered me—so vibrant. How could they all be dead? I thought of other friends whose photographs I didn’t have—not a single picture of missing-in-action, presumed-dead Ed Valenzuela. The longer I looked at my photos the more they looked like pale representations, vague afterimages fixed on photographic paper, my friends’ vitality truly vanished.
How was I doing I was asked again? I was drowning in an epidemic of grief. I could see, because of the group, that I wasn’t alone, and yet felt alone in a city full of grieving, demoralized men. How were we doing? Could anyone pinpoint the moment we each went numb? There we were in a conference room, our photographs spread out under harsh neon light, the few of us who showed that week barely able to speak.
By that time I had pretty much given up on therapy, but therapy and Ruven were what I had to stay afloat during my community’s decimation. No amount of talking through feelings was going to give me what I longed for—an immediate end to the epidemic.
Grief group? How was I doing?
Leave me alone.
David I. Steinberg grew up in Niantic, Connecticut, and has lived in San Francisco the past forty-three years. “Anecdotes” is excerpted from his book-length manuscript, plague took us, currently in search of a publisher.