Wednesday, December 01, 2010

World AIDS Day: In Memory of My Friend John

I met John Moroney in the early 1980s at the Beacon Baths on the east side of midtown in New York City. Although I was proudly out, I was terrible at dating. I met guys at gay bars which led to the occasional hookup, the rare date, and the occasional friendship, but the place that holds a special memory for my mid-1980s social/sexual life is that pit of gay bathhouse. It was two random floors of a random office building. If you stayed overnight on Sunday, you found yourself leaving on damp-smelling elevators as the building's other tenants arrived for their regular office jobs. The Beacon was legendary for catering not to the downtown pretty-boy type but to closeted commuters and regular guys; it also proudly had the market cornered on the pre-bear world chubby-chaser scene: big guys like me could go there and feel welcome and desired. As though a study in contrasts the place was staffed by mostly straight immigrants from Bangladesh: they would hand you a towel and escort you to eiher your locker on the first floor or your little cubicle on the second, occasionally copping a feel.

Calling it a bathhouse is generous: there was a steamroom and a shower but this was a place not for spa-like recreation nor sporting activities but for sex. It was dimly lit and divided up into plywood cubicles with small little platform beds in each room. They played music from an extraordinarily small collection of cassette tapes; I still have flashbacks every time I hear Diana Ross's "Touch Me in the Morning" album with its cover of John Lennon's "Imagine." Imagine, indeed. I certainly didn't go every weekend, but when I went I almost always had a great time. And to my surprise, along with some great sex and occasional STD I also picked up quite a number of friends there. That was the way of things in that era of gay male culture. AIDS was unknown the first time I went there, and I believe the Beacon was among those closed in 1986 or so by public health officials. By then we were all pretty freaked out about AIDS and had stopped going to such places with such wanton enthusiasm.

Anyway one night I went and this incredibly handsome man with a bushy red beard started cruising me. This was a bath, not a bar, and there was no social chit-chat. I went into his room and we had what I recall being an incredibly hot encounter. In the way of such things and such places the social interaction was saved for afterwards. We were making out when I asked him what he did for a living. "I'm a cop!" he barked out and left it like that, almost as though it were the script of some kind of porn-movie fantasy scenario. Which meant we immediately had sex again.

I don't remember if it was that first time or the second time we happened to meet there, but we walked out together in the morning and he gave me a ride home. He wasn't, it turned out, much of a tough guy at all. He was a pussycat, actually. He really worked as a "corrections officer," ie, prison guard, in a career that shortly after we met went south. There was some accusation of something or other; and while John had some trouble finding worthwhile work for the rest of his life, that job hadn't been a good match for him. He was a working-class Irish-American native New Yorker but what John really loved was big guys and Broadway shows. I remember when he went to see "Cats," he explained every bit of that show to me despite my protestations that it sounded awful. He lived with his partner in an open relationship down in Chinatown; Randy was a playwright, and the two were completely open and tolerant of each other's busy social lives. I became one of John's many friends with benefits, and was lucky enough to be introduced to Randy; their relationship was strong and loving.

By 1987 or so John started getting sick, and soon enough he was diagnosed with AIDS. In a couple years he appeared to age twenty. He became gaunt, his hair got all wispy, and he was hospitalized repeatedly for pneumonia. He and Randy lived in a co-op John had inherited from his father. At one point his mother, a bitter harridan who hated John being gay but who lived in the same apartment complex, asked Randy what he was going to do when John died, where he would live. John was furious, the only time I'd ever seen him lose his temper. He raged at his mother assuring her that they had had papers drawn up to prevent Randy being turned into the street after John was gone. I visited John the last time in the hospital; he was comatose, still and silent. He died a day or two after my last visit.

At his funeral his mother and her relatives refused to acknowledge Randy or any of John's friends. We who had all known John as he really was, intimately even, were relegated to a corner of the funeral chapel. I have never seen such horrible cold-hearted people in my life. And true to her word, his mother immediately tried to force Randy out of the home they had shared together. Surrounded by the memories of their life together, Randy chose to leave the apartment rather than spend years engaged in a legal battle with such an evil human being.

I wish I could say John was the first or the only friend I lost that decade. Sadly neither is true. It seemed strangely commonplace back in the 1980s, when some acquaintance or friend of a friend disappeared from common sight, to assume the worst; how terrible that so often it was true, that another gay man had succumbed to the mysterious and awful AIDS.

I miss them all, and I feel like we owe it to all of them to keep their memories alive.

Sadly I have no photos of John. Graphic snagged from The Renaissance Society's website; that's a neon treatment of the old ACT-UP silence equals death icon.


  1. there's a lot at work here, ish. in a society so ripe with heteronormative ideas, reading an honest and candid treatise on what conservatives might call 'promiscuity' from a gay man is a breath of fresh air. the funny thing is, substitute you or john for a woman and no one would have a problem with it. an interesting experiment would be to relay that story using non-gendered names (chris, jamie, ashley).

    but that isn't really the point of your writing, clearly. AIDS and other STDs are pervasive in all of society. two years ago, while still in college, a girl i had recently been sexually involved with called me to tell me she was positive for hepatitis. i got tested and am totally scot-free, thank god, but it was a scary time. more thankfully, i've never had to watch a friend pass on from a disease that is only still around because homophobic society hasn't allowed full attention to funding its treatment yet. HIV is a very simple biochemical problem. but the treatments and tests are sometimes amazingly controversial, although i can't really understand why.

    it's barely related, but my fiancee recently got cold feet and backed down, and so i am feeling a great sense of loss currently. you are a talented and passionate writer, and this was fascinating, shocking, and empathetic (if unintentionally) to read. thank you for this.

  2. Thanks for your comment, freebones. Posts like this make me wonder if I'm oversharing--usually after the fact--but I tend to believe that's sort of my point in having a blog, to report on a perspective and period in an unexpurgated way. I actually feel very lucky to have experienced the orgiastic promiscuous gay male culture in its last moment pf possibility, and lived to tell the tale. At the same time I can scarcely picture the middle-aged me doing all those things over again. Time and the world has moved on.

    In retrospect I think it's so important to separate what happened with AIDS as a disease from any sense of morality. It's easy to confuse the two, and it was much different then, when the disease was unknown, from today when preventative measures are established science.

    Anyway, sorry to hear about your fiancee. That must be hard to go through. I wish you the best!

  3. it is hard, but i have made great friends throughout my life and they are being very helpful. i think the connection to your story is this: you think you know things, and you think you have the experience to make the right decisions, but we never know what we don't know in life, do we?

    i think i'll be okay in the long run, and your writing is always enjoyable to read, so that helps too. :)

  4. Hey ish. I'm a gay 19 year old reader of ile oxumare and I just wanted to thank you for being a personal inspiration to me and for sharing so much great music. Would love to chat with you if you have the time.

  5. Sure anon, what can I do for you? If you'd like to correspond by email post your email adress here. I will not publish it and drop you a note.