This is Not My First Pandemic

In my book, Community, the word “AIDS’ appears 54 times. Our midtown New York City neighborhood was hard hit by the AIDS epidemic. In November 1985 the local hospital, St. Clare’s, opened the first state-designated AIDS unit. Many of the patients were uninsured. People were unprepared for this disease, which was found in other countries as well. A true pandemic, HIV/AIDS continues to infect millions around the world.

In the 1980s it killed people I knew, neighbors and co-workers, in the city and the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. For several years, we didn’t know how it was transmitted. We didn’t know what the stages were. People were afraid to be near a person with AIDS, to shake their hands, or breathe the same air. Then it seemed only certain people got AIDS: gay men, drug addicts, and sex workers. As with COVID-19, many people felt they were not at risk. They were wrong. It killed people in all walks of life, all ages, rich and poor, black and brown and white. One was a postal worker in my building, another an innovative developer, and another the head of a major homeless services organization.

Initially, the gay community was hit hard. My personal experience with AIDS began with a young man who lived in the apartment next door, whose mother came up from South Carolina to be with him in his last weeks. I saw the sores on his legs, his wasted body. A friend had a neighbor going through the same thing, another young guy with his life before him; his parents came to be with him, too. Another young man, Frank Clemmons, had started out in community activism at the same time I did. When Frank told me he had AIDS, it was just before going into a community meeting. We were in the Art Deco main hall of the McGraw-Hill Building on West 42nd Street, green and gold motif, decorated elevators around the corner at the far end.

Several years later, I dreamed I was in the elevator at the McGraw-Hill building. Muted light. Green, gold. Quiet. The elevator operator was a cab driver-philosopher. Going up was against the gravity of my mind, coming down we slipped 1-2-3 floors. Then 6 and 7, then 17. Fast. I stood watching the lights, the floor numbers flashing by. Wondered if I should care, say anything. Time slipped away.

I said, isn’t there anything you can do?

I saw a notice in a newsletter that Frank Clemmons had died in February, 1996.

Frank had been the Chelsea Reform Club’s “district leader from 1989-1991. Frank served on Community Board 4, Area Policy Board 4, and as a board member of NYS Gay & Lesbian Lobby—the predecessor of the Empire State Agenda. He was also a strong supporter and fundraiser for the Gay Men’s Chorus and a member of the Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats.” He was also active in the 30th Street Block Association, Chelsea Waterside Park Association, and the Midtown South Precinct Community Council.

“Frank’s gentle manner and devotion to helping others will long be remembered by those he touched,” the notice said. “He was forty years old and died after a long illness of complications, due to AIDS.”

This is not my first pandemic. It amazes me that so many people have a casual attitude towards it. Every life lost is precious. And that should not be tolerated.