Sunday, September 21, 2014
A glittering stream of small headlights pass below the window of my 9th floor hotel room. The sound of traffic is so present that the place seems built over the highway. Soft, bass heavy waves and hissing, plaintive drones slide through the room, invoking a feelings of monotonous velocity and destinations not yet reached. If I close my eyes I swear freightliners and big Texas cars are passing under the bed.
The window, a wall of glass really, does not open. Brown Iron slats cross the surface and seem there to keep me in as much as to support the glass. I push my eye as close to the glass as possible, looking down, to see how far below the ground actually is. Just before arriving here, I learned that my friend Ben jumped from a building in downtown Portland. Tonight, in this high room, I can’t stop wondering what he felt, there on the edge, at the very last moments, the dark street below rocking with his movements... What sound does a living body make as it falls through space? Is there a plaintive drone produced by its velocity? And the impact? What sound ? and what silence after? Below, out on I-35, headlights slip away into vast, dark Texas with the windy sound of wheels on hard road.
Ben came to my porch on an autumn night with a bottle of wine. I don’t remember much of the initial talk - vague and over-used words covering our physical assessments of each other. But soon the conversation was real and we were two strangers curious about each other. He said he’d stay but just to talk and cuddle - that’s what he needed most. I believe that really was his only intention and holding each other was more intimate than the sex we ended up having. He’d just come from Chicago. I remember his stories of gambling; hints of some serious debauchery; portraits of Chicago characters. He talked of growing up in poor white areas of Portland (a fact that surprised me – I’d been taken in by his convincing Chicago affectations.) He spun out some Libertarian nonsense, some muddled Christian musings; some class shame and some poor boy pride. He talked like the words had been building up for weeks until the early, hungover light sent us to sleep.
In people like Ben contradictions collide and spark a convulsive, fascinating light –a match in their own darkness. Ben’s love and affection were bright and buoyant; his private appetites were dark and alienating. He was a talented actor, especially off stage. His best roles included the wily poker shark; the smart backwoods boy who ran off to the city; the sensitive critic; and, most convincingly, the irresistible, indulgence provoking devil. He played this role with a wide, bright grin that bit through my will power as easily as a tooth passes through the skin of an apple. I can conjure him so easily, holding court with cards in hand; buying the round that was sure to fuck you up; providing drugs; flashing a dark, glossy look of invitation. Mephistopheles on a bar stool – as if wielding temptation over others gave him mastery over the Devil’s influence on his own life.
Ben wept when me told me he’d been diagnosed with HIV. He said, after all he’d done, he knew it would happen but he was still so afraid. Lying against me, the bones of his upper body seemed to contract and expand, slightly, but violently with every sob.
Not long before this, Mike and I had been editing The Battle of AmFAR (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s film on the history of the AIDS foundation formed by Elizabeth Taylor and Matilda Krim.) Ben was living with us then. He was mysteriously sick while we edited and nearly bedridden in the room next to our workspace. Repeated soundbites from the film bled through walls while he suffered chills, fever, rashes, nausea, and exhaustion. He certainly heard every explanation of how HIV works a hundred times, along with the constant repetition of the words plague, death toll, terror, and devastation. Small mercy – he didn’t know what was happening to him even if the film did. I realized all of this while he cried on my shoulder.
The most common response to sharing an HIV+ diagnosis is “It’s not the death sentence it used to be.” Friends, doctors, strangers all use these exact words. And the words are true, though to my mind, they are far more comforting to the recipient of the news than to the recipient of the virus. When I was diagnosed Ben didn’t say those words to me. He came to my rescue with love and guidance but still said “When I was diagnosed I felt it confirmed the way I’d always see myself dying – alone, broken, in a gutter.” By this time he was responding to meds and, ironically, HIV had steered him clear of heavy drugs and sexual excess. But there he was, pronouncing a self-imposed death sentence with a quiet familiarity that was chilling to hear. I didn’t have ask if he still felt that way. And I knew he wouldn’t die of some complication brought on by AIDS. HIV in his case was just an opportunistic infection. If Ben didn’t survive it would be due to the disease of self-loathing.
Not long after, he met a sweet guy with a similar past and they fell into that dangerous, seemingly life sustaining kind of love. They moved and drifted happily away into a new life, until, of course, the Devil came knocking with addiction in one hand and shame in the other. The affair came undone and left him bouncing between the homes of friends and the beds of strangers willing to indulge his worst appetites. Then I received a text that simply said “I feel like giving up.” I called him, and here’s the sickening irony of the whole thing – we talked about how he felt he had no ground beneath his feet. I thought I’d talked him into a better space, but Ben was an actor till the end and I didn’t suspect what he was about to do. In jumping, he returned to the ground he’d lost and the gutter he’d chosen as his fate. And the gutter took his body, but at least the ground covers it now.
Ben my friend, my brother by virus if not by blood, it’s raining in Austin and I wish you were here with me now. You should have been getting flirtatious Texan smiles from local guys because you had a role in one of the films at the Gay Lesbian Film Festival. You should have been out dancing with us tonight, forgetting your pain among the music and sweat and mud at the Star Gayzer Music Festival. Most of all, you should never have had to suffer the pain that took you. I raise a plastic cup of cheap beer in your honor, Ben. I think of Lucinda Williams singing “ Did an angel whisper in your ear... in those long last moments?” I take a long drink to give the Devil his due.
(photo by Mike Palmieri - all other images of Ben taken from his MySpace page)
AUSTIN / STAR GAYZER
Saturday, July 5, 2014
Some American things:
Sunlight, smeared lipstick, Whitney Houston’s “Star Spangled Banner” lip synched, a wig waving like an underwater plant, a patriotic track-suit crinkling, bitter vodka from a yellow squirt gun, empty streets waiting for darkness and fireworks, a newscast about Irag from a curtained window, a child with a sparkler chasing a small white dog, American cheese on a pale tortilla, the red walls of a bar, stories of growing up in rough ‘hoods in L.A. with a hair metal dad, stories of working in porn and being a slave house boy, stories of him finding her online in rural Oregon - two years later here they are all dressed up and visiting the city - the rounded folds of the latex cop uniform, Blondie lyrics “...with your badge and rubber boots...” a leash extended with a tender threat, rhinestones decorating a tiny padlock on a collar, the night air still warm, booms and rattles all quiet, the wind carrying the scents of flowers and gunpowder.
Sunday, June 15, 2014
I didn't have the heart to photograph the shining new places and people. The Google camera car zipping down Valencia St. can do that without my help. Let new SF look upwards, forwards – I'd rather look down. This city has always kept its diary in its gutters.
The changes in San Francisco seem less surprising when the afternoon the fog comes rolling down the hills, determined to make an airy substance of all in its path. Whole neighborhoods appear and disappear. The Bay fades and returns. Vapor cinema.
In the whirl overhead bodies twist, fold, encounter each other – sweat evaporates in soft clouds – spastic, hurried, then slow, slow breaths exhale – In the expanding arms of mist there is a quivering night, finally happening, with someone that you’ve wanted for so long – there’s the happy gliding of walking towards the home of a beloved –there’s downward pull of wandering drunk and heartbroken – there’s the circular current of those going from work to home to work – there’s the bristle of the thousands of dollars that pass through the city every hour – there’s the apartment window once bright, now darkened by the high-rise condo that cuts off all light and view.
Like the fog the wind gathers the city into itself – sirens, construction banging, words, sighs, shouts of pain and defiance, grunts, whispers, lover’s truths, political lies, testimonies, eulogies, memories recounted, lives made up between shots of whisky and late night pillows, secrets spoken alone at 5 a.m.. Beneath it all, finally, the last breaths, the last words, the memory of a silence that equaled death, made all the more clear by the rush of the wind and the snap of the gigantic rainbow flag of above the Castro.
Nearby, a soiled red shirt waves from a shrub that marks some abandoned, homeless lovers’ camp. There are empty lube packets scattered about– small, single use ones, labeled “I.D. moments.” Identity moments. Time leaked out of torn plastic. No condoms in sight –only the Ironic evidence of quick, anonymous, unprotected fucks in the rattlesnake grass. For some life here on the ground isn’t any more solid than the fog above.
There's so much that could be written about SF - what's gone. what's going, what remains – I'll leave it with this: