24 October 2008

A Walk Through the Village

The morning started off cold and breezy: a harbinger of winter. But it rather quickly turned into one of those fall days that, while not quite warm, basked in the radiant, refulgent hues of dawn and sunset.

I could feel myself turning into those colors and other kinds of light--Maybe this is what Salvidor Quasimodo meant when he wrote


That has to be the shortest poem of which I'm aware. And, if any is impossible to translate, that one is. So I won't even try. Any reader who reads it as it looks to him or her will do as well as any other reader, I think.

You are the power of that light because the light becomes you. You are full of that light, which is the magnificence of your being because it is you, who have become the power that has become you . I know I'm not anywhere near Quasimodo's poem. But never mind...

The light becomes you, and you can walk through time as well as space because neither can stop light, any more than anything I did to remain as a guy named Nick would ever, ever keep the spirit--the light--of Justine from shining through. Or the light of any other spirit, for that matter.

Especially as that light grows more intense, and deeper, as the day goes on. That perfect-fall-day light refracted through the old brownstones and brick houses of the West Village and the cafes and stores along Seventh Avenue and Bleecker Street. It is hard to find any more beautiful light in any city, yet it is tinged, at least for me, with some sadness--for the time and my youth that have passed, to be sure, but because I understand that the way I see it now is in inevitable outcome of how I used to experience this place.

Back in the day--I'm thinking about my senior year at Rutgers, again--I spent a lot of time in the Village. Then, it felt like a refuge--which is to say, it was an escape--from what I perceived to be a prison of mundaneness in New Jersey, in a college, as good as it was, I never really wanted to attend. (Don't ask how I graduated!) Sometimes I'd go with Betsy; other times I went alone. Either way, I felt beyond the reach--of what? Expectations: That I would become a military officer, as my father wanted, or that I would get a job in some office, get married and "settle down," as everyone else seemed to want. And everyone thought I should fulfill their expectations, mainly because they thought I was another one of those young people who "didn't know what he wanted."

Actually, I knew full well, but I couldn't say it. Or so I felt. I had some vague notion of becoming a writer: of being like those writers and musicians whose ghosts I was pursuing in the Village. And when things got too bad in this country (Reagan had yet to become President, though it was starting to look like a possibility.), I would flee to Paris or some other exotic place. And, of course, I would never marry: I would live for art and orgasms, with some bike riding thrown in for good measure.

Occasionally I would talk about this with someone. You don't even have to guess the reactions: a few indulged me; some, who shared some version or another of the same fantasy, encouraged it; most, however, would admonish me for my romanticism.

Go ahead, laugh about it. I am right now. (Yes, that gives you permission! ;-) ) But then, those trips--my escapes-- were really all I had. And the Village, both East and West, was the one place where I felt I could live that fantasy, even for a moment. There was nobody to tell me not to; it seemed that even the boxes into which other people wanted to place me didn't exist. I could order a coffee (mainly because that's all I could afford) and eye the pretty waitress who was pretty mainly because she was there while I was writing, or at least making the gestures of doing so. Then I could follow Bleecker Street across Sixth Avenue toward Sheridan Square and Christopher Street, where--well, I probably don't have to tell you what (or more precisely, whom) I saw on Christopher Street in 1979! Or, I could walk Bleecker in the opposite direction, toward Lafayette Street, and cross over into the East Village and chase the shadows of Charlie Parker and Allen Ginsberg.

Back then, if you said "Williamsburg" to anyone, they thought of the colonial theme park in Virginia. And you didn't go to SoHo after dark. (Well, I did, but that's another story!) The Village, East and West, was still the place to be, or so it seemed. Bleecker Street and the West Village always seemed lit by neon, even in daylight; the East was cool because had crumbling bricks and falling plaster I could enter by choice, never mind that lots of people (namely the Puerto Ricans and old Jews) didn't make that decision and still ended up there.

It's amazing, now that I think of it, that I didn't get myself killed over some of the things I said and did. Actually, I wouldn't have minded dying that way, or so I thought: It would have been more honorable somehow than to double over from a heart attack while wearing a three-piece suit. In truth, I simply would never've had to make any of the decisions that would lead me to such a fate, or being a military officer, or any of the other destinies to which others tried to steer me.

In those days, the streets of the West Village were giddier, those of the East funkier, and on both ends, more dangerous, than they are now. There was no money to be made from high-tech stocks or other such things, so people, it seemed, were more relaxed. And nobody had heard about AIDS: A few people, none of whom I knew yet, had friends or relatives who died from what they called "gay cancer," for lack of a better term.

In other words, all of my encounters with people there were momentary pleasures. It's very easy for me to look back with nostalgia on those days because it didn't require any sort of commitment to my own life, to my own self, to move through them.

And when Betsy accompanied me, there or for a cup of coffee (Yes, a real, literal one!) in the cafeteria at Rutgers, it removed me from yet other expectations. A lot of people thought we were a couple of some sort because she was young and attractive, and we talked, argued and hugged in ways that most casual friends don't. As long as she was around, I was "off limits," and I didn't have people hitting on me or trying to fix me up with someone or another.

But, as with all things, none of it could last, even if that had been what I wanted. I would come to know people who lived (as I did, briefly) , suffered and died in the Village. And they weren't legends or others I never encountered in person: They were real, flesh-and-blood people who didn't meet their fates over their eighteenth (or whatever number) of whiskey in the White Horse Tavern.

Within a few blocks of Sheridan Square--the site of the Stonewall Rebellion--John, Elizabeth, Tom, Raul, Amy and Nick(!) all died of AIDS-related illnesses. John, Nick and Amy lived in the neighborhood; Raul and Tom had lovers there and Elizabeth was in a Housing Works residence, trying to get her "life back together." John was my second AA sponsor: He guided me for the next four years after Kevin, who helped me through my first five years, also died from pneumonia brought on by AIDS. I sponsored Raul and Amy: I broke one of AA's unofficial rules against mentoring someone of the "opposite" gender.

After Elizabeth died, I didn't go to the Village for a long time, or so it seemed when I finally went back: for counseling and support groups at the LGBT Community Center on West 13th Street. After about two years of sessions with Ray, an FTM social worker who is one of the best human beings I've ever met, and of attending groups and other functions, some members of the support group and I decided to go out an eat. We went to the diner around the corner. After I sipped the coffee I used to order as a prelude to my meal, my eyes welled up. I excused myself, stepped outside and my face soaked with my tears. Janine and Deeanna, who were in the group, and a waitress followed me outside.

When I was composed enough to speak, I explained that the last time I was in that diner--long ago, I said--I was with a friend who died from AIDS. And I'd eaten at that diner at least once with each of the people I mentioned who died from the disease. Then Charlene showed up and, when she learned what happened, asked whether we should go somewhere else.

"No. I probably need to be here."

And, after we split up, I spent a couple more hours roaming the streets of a Village night. None of the people reminded me of anyone I remembered. That was probably a good thing. They don't remember the old days; good for them, I thought. Of course there were some things they'd never understand, but I envied them.

You see, they don't know how the light of that place came to be, any more than I knew, back then, how I could not become it. They did not know, any more than the people with whom I had encounters today because their dogs walked over to me and licked my hands. And an attractive young woman with a dog that didn't look like any other I've seen didn't flinch when, as she turned the key to her door, I asked about her companion. There is no way she could know about the ones who died, from whatever reasons or causes, where we stood.

At one time, that would have made me angry. But I probably never would have had such an encounter as the person I was in those days. And, somehow, I realize now that I enjoyed that moment, and my walk through the Village, precisely because of my long-ago experiences. Life is beautiful (All right, now you know I really am a romantic!) because there is death; joy is joyful because of the pain and suffering that so often precede and underlie it. To think otherwise would be to begrudge all those people who love, or even like, who I am now but didn't know me back in the day.

And after that walk, I got to have lunch with Bruce, whom I first met back in those days.