Maybe we’ll look back later, I think, donning my blue latex gloves, on some of the measures now being taken to stop Corona and think they were ridiculous. Or maybe we won’t think they were ridiculous. Maybe we’ll think they should have been taken earlier. If they turn out to have been ridiculous, we’ll likely erase them from memory. We always erase our ridiculous ideas from memory. And our actions. Or we try to. If our precautions turn out not to have been ridiculous, we’ll demand, enraged, why they weren’t taken earlier, or why we weren’t told to take them earlier. Why were we told too late to wear the masks? The mayor didn’t close the schools as soon as he should have because, he said, he didn’t know what the health care workers were supposed to do about childcare. Now his failure to close the schools seems a horrible and tragic delay.
But I, too, might have delayed. I often delay. And am often confused. In the early ’80s I was working at the Scribner Bookstore on Fifth Avenue. Patti Smith had worked there not long before. I don’t remember much about Scribner’s; I do remember a man coming in one afternoon and asking for “the new book about sailing around Cape Horn.” I thought he’d asked for “the new book about selling gay porn.” So I went and asked my manager Geoff if he’d heard of such a book. Often embarrassed, often confused. I remember there were arguments, in the Scribner lunchroom, in the basement, about whether the baths should be closed. About a third of the employees were gay men. I was more or less among them. I mean I didn’t like to think of myself as a man, but I kept this to myself. As for the gay part: I was kind of out, but hadn’t actually done anything. Much. Perhaps this wasn’t so uncommon. Geoff denounced Larry Kramer, who’d said the baths should be closed. I would, sometimes, on my nightly, solitary ventures, walk down St. Marks Place. I’d stand in front of the shop where they sold the sparkly multi-colored socks and look across the street at the men lined up for the baths, the Saint Mark’s Baths. Sometimes I’d go so far as to cross the street. Then I’d cross back again. Who could not be fascinated by the marriage of love and death? Or was it sex and death? All relationships are complicated. Geoff was against marriage; I thought I probably was too. He thought promiscuity and liberation were indivisible. Or something akin. I can’t remember quite what he said, much less what he thought. Coming as I did from a fear-based tradition, I thought Larry Kramer, not Geoff, was probably right. But I didn’t say this, down in the basement, in the Scribner lunch room. Nobody thinks freely. It wasn’t so much that Geoff was the manager as that he had a smidge of charisma. He thought Kramer was perpetuating gay shame, acceding to hetero norms.
I remember Tom, another coworker, suggesting the baths could be used to promote safe sex education. Or wait: does that make sense? When did people start talking about safe sex education? I mean who knew what safe sex was in 1984? Or safer sex? Safe sex came before safer sex, I think, donning my light blue mask. We thought the world was ending. It was and wasn’t. Michael Callen wrote a pamphlet: How to Have Sex in an Epidemic. When did that come out? I should google this.
I don’t trust my memory. I don’t trust much. Which may be a good thing. I read last week that smokers are less likely to get Corona. I read this morning that it’s not true that smokers are less likely to get Corona. I prefer Corona to Covid. Sounds better. Suggests a crown. Sounds, too, determine our thinking. When I was young I thought cats were girls because feline sounded, to me, like female. Later, at Wesleyan, having read Mary Daly, who pointed out that therapist could be broken down into the rapist, I noted the similarity between fashion and fascism. Others in the art department differed. Often, during college, my shirts were inside out. I was somewhere else.
Yesterday, Natasha, who’s a stylist, sent me a video about how drinking hot water kills the virus. There are studies from Taiwan that show the efficacy of massive doses of vitamin C. But there are always studies that show the efficacy of massive doses of vitamin C. Yoshi, in 1984, told me the cause was poppers. So he stopped using poppers. Rafael hasn’t left his apartment in two months. Maybe this will turn out to have been ridiculous. Maybe it won’t. Maybe he’ll be the only one who survives. Who can say? No one, now. The present is not knowing.
I often worried, in the ’80s, about bleeding gums. I was too distracted to floss well. What if I was kissing someone and they too had bleeding gums? Eric tried urine therapy. The urine therapy group he was in was called Waters of Life. I know because I just googled it. This resource wasn’t available then. I’m not sure how much it helps now. America need a class on epistemology. We say “find the facts” as if they were things, objects to be located, picked up. But they aren’t. They’re statements about things and events that all reasonable people agree to be true. But who’s reasonable? Although urine therapy didn’t help Eric, perhaps urine therapy does work for some conditions. I think I remember Eric going to India for urine therapy, but I’m not sure. It was a long time ago.
I sort of let Eric drift out of my life. We remember what makes us look good, or we try to. Generally, when I was afraid someone was going to die, I became scarce. I didn’t do this consciously. It wasn’t a plan. It was a thousand little plans, these determined my route. It’s apparently quite hard to sail around Cape Horn; the waters are hazardous; there are icebergs. It’s hard not to touch your face. You can say to yourself: I’m not going to touch my face. Then you touch your face. Try being safe in a backroom. Not so easy as you might think, I think, looking for my keys.
One key difference between the new virus and the old virus is shame. It’s basically impossible to imagine the shame that surrounded the old virus, in the ’80s. And the ’90s, for that matter. And still, for that matter. There were, there are—I suppose—a million tiny shames. Like droplets. You didn’t always know when or how they entered. I don’t remember most of the people I worked with at Scribner’s, though I do recall some, and some details. None of us went on to become Patti Smith. She’d already done that. She’d been fired, the story went, for arranging the books according to color. I’m a little dubious about that story. I think she was in charge of the art books. I was in charge of the poetry section. This was back when there were poetry sections. Perhaps the demise of reading has something to do with our national predicament. Or not. I wasn’t really qualified to be in charge of poetry. Who is? I read somewhere that Yeats said of Keats that he was like a boy with his face pressed up against the window of a candy shop. This was meant as a diss. I don’t know why. Maybe because Keats didn’t have the cojones, as they say, to go into the candy shop.
When I watched the men, some so beautiful, lining up across the street, in the half-dark, to go to the baths, it was sort of like that. Generally, being in New York in the ’80s was, for me, like that. My face pressed up against the glass. The dark glass. Now all the shops are closed.
I’m trying to remember some of my other coworkers. There was one woman who made the front page of The Post for slashing a model with a broken bottle. Ronald was in charge of cookbooks. He always wore pressed white shirts; had a semi-elegant walk, something to do with theater. He was, or had been, a regular at the meat rack, the one in the Ramble, in Central Park. I thought of him when I read about the hideous woman who called 911 to report the gay Black birdwatcher. I recall Ronald, on occasion, referring to the newly named disease by alluding to a candy that bore the same name. Wait, I think, is that possible? Well, yes. I just googled it. It was called AYDS. A diet candy, it came in chocolate and butterscotch; was much advertised on TV. Then, for obvious reasons, it disappeared. As does everything. Ronald would say “oh, honey, I think she’s got the candy.” Now no one talks about anything but the virus, the coronavirus. Corona, Corona, Corona. 24/7. In the ’80s, first it didn’t have a name. Then, when it did, you couldn’t say it. Or you whispered it, in the shadows, in the basement of the Scribner lunch room. I just tried googling Ronald, but he has a common last name.