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Say 300,000 Gay Men Disappeared, Nearly All at Once Trying to Remember the Beginning of the AIDS Crisis, 30 Years Later

On trying to remember the height of the AIDS epidemic.

This is the final piece in our series on the 30th anniversary of the AIDS crisis. Read previous pieces in this series here.

I've always had a terrible memory, or a perfectly normal memory—who knows? It's my first. Either way, my spotty recall used to bother me. After all, without a good mental record, how could I, like everyone else, pen a torrid and lucrative memoir? There are so few other, non-memoir ways to earn money and status without actually having to create real-world goods or provide useful services and/or sex to people. Because that stuff is, like, haarrrrrrd.

There would be two obvious options before me: One is that I would just not package my time into a memoir and then simply not cash any moron publisher's checks. But a better choice, you could fairly think, is that I could do what everyone does: quietly grout the giant cracks of the past with how I'd prefer it all went down. "Emotional truth" is what they call it. Memoirs are, after all, way more l'esprit d'escalier than The Spirit of the Beehive.

Since I ultimately couldn’t bring myself to go either of those ways, the whole fuzzy memories thing bothers me less now. I've started to think of it like having a luxurious fainting couch in the mansion in my brain. A bothersome memory crops up? Something fresh and terrible happens? No problem. Just have a little lay-down, you fragile miss, you wee wussy brain, and forget we ever came into this strange and awkward drawing room.

I wonder if my leaky memory came built in. Or if it’s a consequence, a learned response to what was going on outside me at a moment in time. A more reasonable question is if I have Retroactive Interference. Did I crowd out all my authentic memories with the made-up crap I would later read in people's memoirs? Maybe, instead of a mansion, my mind is like a poorly divided tenement floor, one with a party in the front and a quiet room in the back, and with unwanted noise streaming all muddled between. Maybe I have a proactive refusal to store, and so I mostly remember the noise.

I remember that we used to read the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report like it was USA Today.

I remember not knowing what to do with the drugs. People used to collect all the drugs and redistribute them to people who couldn't get them first-hand, and I remember drugs in bags, drugs in clean white boxes, drugs under the kitchen table, drugs that were suddenly worthless, drugs that people really wanted, arguments about drugs, arguments about everything.

I remember discovering that someone I was dating was going neurologically crazy, and him discovering that he was going neurologically crazy, like his brain and his body were breaking up. I remember casual relationships that ended with people going into the hospital instead of with an awkward conversation. I remember people changing the whole point of their lives. I remember people being too afraid or guilty to have sex with me. I remember cleaning out someone's boxes from a garage, boxes that then had nowhere to go. Poor boxes. I remember taking this kid to get a spinal tap. I remember lovers parted. I remember how angry Rob Lowe was. Not the famous Rob Lowe, but a really pissed off guy with long hair who played Jesus in a street crucifixion one Easter. Since his name was really Rob Lowe we only ever called him Rob Lowe.

Two thousand deaths in 1984 in New York City was not much. How many contacts do you have in your cell phone? I have 230, including Posto Pizza, my old apartment's super, some people I don't like any more, Wendy and Lisa's music studio in Los Angeles, Donaldsons Volkswagen in Long Island, and someone named "Kris." So if everyone whose phone number I have stored died 8.7 times, well, that's 2,000 people. Die, Posto Pizza! Die, Kris!

It was ten times that by 1989; it doubled by 1992, and doubled again by 2000.

At this time there are about 100,000 people who we know have HIV in New York City. That is quite close to the number of New Yorkers who have died of AIDS before now. A bit more than two-thirds of those dead people are men. And at least a full third—at most two-thirds—were gay men. (And yes, for our purposes, let's say "gay" men are those that sometimes or often have romantic and/or sexual relationships with people of the same physical sex.)

Say 300,000 gay men disappeared, nearly all at once, in the long view, in the United States. In New York, where it could be 35,000 or it could be 65,000, say just 50,000 gay men disappeared.

Look at this sentence: Say just 50,000 gay men disappeared from New York City. That's ten words. Print that up 5,000 times. Staple $50,000 in ones on the wall.

Who remembers what? How could I? If I stare into a white wall, with effort I can pull some names and colors out of the whitest spots. These were people who would have been older coworkers, mentors, bosses, owners, millionaires, subway workers, renters, neighbors, people at bars, interns, magazine editors, startup douchebags, laid-off people, people with Tumblrs, people having picnics, people getting in the way of my express-to-local transfer, people with advice, good or bad. Some would have been creators of places to go or adoptive parents or politicians or painters or losers. But they absolutely are not.

Maybe you are those things instead of them. Are you standing in someone's place? Do you perhaps owe them something for that space? Just a thought! When you walk down Horatio Street or St. Mark's Place or Central Park West or Prospect Avenue, if you're thinking about them, it can feel like someone has just run ahead and pulled down alongside you these fake scenic backdrops of the City. Like you're actually walking down a little tight hallway in the middle of everything, and all these people are hiding behind them in the dark. You can almost hear the rustle; noise leaking through from the other side like it’s a weird, terrible surprise party, a bad dream. But no one wakes up with a gasp and neither can anyone ever jump out and yell.

photo via Neal Boenzi and The New York Times

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