Wednesday afternoon I spent 30 minutes sitting in the lobby of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. According to their website, GMHC is the world’s first and leading provider of HIV/AIDS prevention, care and advocacy. Building on decades of dedication and expertise, we understand the reality of HIV/AIDS and empower a healthy life for all. It is, I’m sure, a wonderful organization that does amazing work. It is not, however, a place I’d ever expect to ever be on a Wednesday afternoon. Yet there I was.
I was waiting for my friend Enea, who was interviewing to be an outreach representative for the charity. After doing my best effort to get Enea on time I succeeded in getting him extremely lost. We finally found the office beyond Manhattan’s 10th Avenue. He was at least 30 minutes late. Initially, I told him I would wait outside with the smokers but the February wind suggested that I belonged inside. 10 or so chairs made a U shape in the lobby and I took the seat in the middle.
To my left, there was a skinny, well dressed Asian man. To my right, an older Latino gentleman. We all sat silently. My phone was dead. I had no books. There was little activity beyond a deli delivery guy talking to the front desk attendant. Which was fine. I looked at a brochure next to me. It explained where people could drop off their unused HIV medication. I didn’t realize that there was a reason to collect unused HIV medication, but then again, I don’t know much about HIV.
The Asian left coyly. “Isn’t he cute?” I heard. It was the other man. He was talking to me. “He works on the second floor. He is so cute. That body. For an Asian? He’s so built.” His voice had a whimsical quality that revealed his excitement at being close to this mystery man.
I put the brochure down and realized that I had stumbled upon a conversation about the merits of this random Asian’s body and face, a man I’d only glanced at casually upon sitting. Still, this did not mean that I couldn’t offer any opinion.
“I mean, he’s all right….” I emphasized. The man scoffed. “He’s very nice. I see him a lot. You’ve never seen him before?” I said I had not.
“Maybe you should talk to him.” I said.
“Oh, no.” He protested. “Just because he works here doesn’t mean that he’s gay. He could be gay. Straight. Bi. Plus, I would never want to get my feelings hurt.” I nodded understandingly. “Now, if he started talking to me” (he started smiling at this point) “that would be a different story.” I nodded again. That made sense.
He told me he was 53. Older than I would have guessed, but not by much. He had grey stubble on his chin and wore red shoes. Upon first glance, I would have guessed he was from the Bronx. Which was true.
We then talked about his smoking. He’d not had drugs or alcohol since 1996. But after six years of putting down cigarettes, he started smoking again. Which bothered him. Still, he knew he had it in him to quit for six years and so he knew he could again and was working on it. He sounded optimistic that he could.
I told him how I wanted to start smoking. He laughed. “Not seriously.” I explained. But on the weekends, socially. I really wanted to smoke. I tried to sound reasonable.
“That’s how it starts,” he replied.
“It’s funny though. Whenever I’m out and I ask my friends who do smoke for a puff, they’re the ones most adamant that I don’t. Which annoys me. ”
This admission was humorous to him. “Those are good friends.”
We began discussing my social life. He asked where I liked to go out and what I liked to do. He began to ask me if I was comfortable and safe. His voice was evidence of his concern. That’s when it hit me. He thought I was gay. I debating telling him that I wasn’t gay but it didn’t seem like an assumption that needed to be corrected. I told him that I went out in Astoria or the Village or the Lower East Side or Brooklyn, mostly.
“Those are good places. Don’t have to worry about being called ‘faggot’ or have any bricks thrown at you.”
Anyone listening to stories of gay bullying hear stories like this. So much so they feel like clichés. Yet, he discussed these instances so casually, I didn’t know what to say beyond nodding and saying that I was safe.
He described his early sexual experiences. He cited the year 1977 or, in his words, the year of “Disco and Donna Summer”. He explained how he couldn’t take anyone home, which did not mean he didn’t have his share of lovers. “Men on alleyways and men in trucks and men on rooftops and clubs and all sorts of places. All for instant gratification”.
He didn’t speak of this time with any sort of pride. When discussing loved ones and friends who’d died during this time, his tone grew more somber. But I didn’t pick up a feeling of deep regret. He was just telling me about his life in the sort of way expresses how lucky he felt, but that his survival had come with a lot of sacrifices.
I asked him about his family. Save for a cousin and her daughter, he said he had no relations with his family. I’m sure his story was no different than most. He was gay. His parents were homophobic. Growing up, he couldn’t wait to get away. As the decades that passed, he stayed away.
He then asked my family. I said I’d no real contact with them. He nodded in understanding. Of course, my reasons were different than his. He was gay. I wasn’t the devout Christian they wanted. But in that way, it didn’t matter. Whatever the reasons, they all added up to the same conclusion: they weren’t in our lives.
“If there’s no communication,” he said, “there’s nothing. I agreed.
“If faced with a choice between being aggravated or not dealing with aggravation, I’ll just always pick not dealing with aggravation.” He agreed.
We continued speaking. I didn’t ask why he was there. Or if he had HIV. Those facts wouldn’t have made a difference in our conversation. I got a chance to define my new friend based on the things I want to be defined by: how we like to have fun, what challenges we were trying to overcome and the different visions of our future, not a disease or a label about something I really didn’t know about. I wasn’t having some sort of epiphany about gays or HIV positive New Yorkers or people from the 80s. I was having a human moment. I was reminded that, whatever a person’s labels, I need to look at someone long enough until I see myself. In that way, our chat gave me everything I needed to like him and pray he found another 53 years of alcohol-free, cigarette free happiness.
We were still chatting when Enea walked passed us to the door. I stopped him and stood. I finally asked my new friend his name.
“Kennedy. Like John F. Kennedy. The president.” He started smiling and I did too. The name was a surprise and I was glad that I asked.
I extended my hand and wished him well. He said, “God bless you.” and I said, “And also with you.” Enea told me he got the job. I was stoked. My man.
Robert Wohner is a non-fiction writer from Queens, New York. He regularly publishes his writing at humpbackeye.