Archive for June, 2011

WITH THIS RING……..

| June 25, 2011 | Comments (2)
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Over the past thirty years there have been more rings than I can count or fit on my knarled, aging fingers today.

First, there was a Cartier rolling ring, that beautiful creation with three bands inter- twined, one white gold, one yellow and one pink. Back in those days when I still had hair on my head, this Cartier treasure cost about $50, which was a lot of money. Then there was the Chinese puzzle ring made of yellow gold and crafted in Hong Kong by inscrutable jewelers who had dreamed up a maddening, interlocking pattern of pieces that once dis-assembled, would take a lifetime to put together again. But somehow my partner could always solve the puzzle and magically bring together what had been torn asunder…..Just like our relationship, I mused, as I watched his deft hands play with the gold pieces and make them one again.

Today  these rings and a dozen others that followed them, sit in a lacquer jewelry box, stored somewhere in one of our many closets along with clothes that will never been worn again – I no longer go to an office and have rows and rows of suits hanging forlornly, knowing they will nevermore see the light of day.

Which is not to say these rings have been cast aside and have no meaning for us. Each represents a special moment, a birthday or  an anniversary of our union as two men who have been together – through thick and thin, for better and for worse – for more than thirty years.

That is why my reaction was sub-dued when I received a breathless email from a well-meaning friend, inviting me to celebrate the advent of the passage of a marriage equality bill by the New York State legislature, legalizing marriage between partners of the same sex.

As happy as I wanted to be, for me this legislative act  was too late and too little. Too late since I had retired from my job at the United Nations in 1998; any benefits to be claimed by married couples could not be made ex-post facto. Since gay marriage did not exist when I was still actively employed, we could not claim important pension and medical coverage that straight married couples are enjoying. (One UN colleague’ s husband had undergone a heart transplant. I imagined the millions of dollars that she had been able to pass on to him in medical care  benefits because they were married as “man and wife” while she was still working.)

Too little because same sex marriage at the state level does not carry the importance that a federally sanctioned marriage would  hold. This  (DOMA) non-recognition seems cruel, perverse and down right illegal to me since   all” hets” (hetero-sexuals) are married at the state level and have never had any problem with national recognition which somehow flows automatically to them, but which is denied to gays married at the state level. 

And national recognition is what counts. Another friend divorced her husband many years ago. She found out recently that he had passed away over ten years ago, having remarried another woman (who, she said, looked exactly like HER !) Now BOTH of these  look-alike widows are collecting on a monthly basis, the full social security benefits of their dear, departed ex. (He had a tendency towards six-inch tall Rubens sandwiches made at the Carnegie Deli that did him in at an early age, my friend said.)

This little tale bloggled my mind on several levels. First of all, SHE (my friend) had divorced HIM (the Rubens chomper); she had LEFT him so why should SHE reap the bennies of his having paid into social security for  35 years and end up getting his $2,000 @ month? And Wife Number Two – how could she end up getting the full monty as well ? Sounds like polygamy is alive and well in the USA. Is marriage a farce or what ! Whatever…..!

Which is all beside the point and a bit sour-grape-ish on my part,  I suppose,  when on this sunny June day,  we should be celebrating the landmark event of same sex marriage’s becoming law in New York State.

But I have been through the mill. I have been battered and abused and ignored for SO many years by straight society that I have ended up  emotionally a beaten, numbed pulp.  Thankfully, I have been lobotomized and am now immune to the slings and arrows and cruelty around me, but sadly  there is no life left in me for celebration. As Rosa Parks said, “I’m just tired and I want to sit down.” That’s it.

So celebrate, ye who have the will and the joy to do so. Go to the Gay Pride Parade  tomorrow and whoop it up and be proud.  I wish all of you well. I won’t be there.  All I know is: my partner and I love each other dearly and fiercely. We have had our good times and our bum times and survived several split-ups and numerous mis-understandings. (Thank you, dear departed Mother, for having reminded me, as you and my Father were beating the shit out of each other,  that marriage is FOREVER !) But in our hearts and minds we have been married since the day we met on an escalator in a run-down department store in a teeming city in Southeast Asia. We don’t need a ceremony or a document to make official what we have already made eternal. 

And while I’m at it: isn’t this celebration a bit sad, gays coming late to the party, as it were ? All the margaritas are watered down and the ice has melted. Marriage is rather passe these days with an over 50% divorce rate prevailing in the US and increasing numbers of people not even bothering to tie the knot. I’m sorry, everybody, forgive my negativity. I’m just world-weary.

What  I think is: as joyous as this event is supposed to be, it won’t change MY life in MY neighborhood, the South Bronx. When I walk to the subway in the morning, half of my neighbors, will not return my greeting as I pass them hanging out on their stoops because they know I am a “maricon”, that I live with another man.

My next door neighbor, Paco, has a 90 year-old Mother. Every May when we have lillies of the valley blooming our back yard garden, I  cut a bunch of them for her and deliver them to her door. But Paco turns his back on me when I pass his stoop because I am  gay.

So what can I say about this  landmark  same-sex marriage act  ? I guess I’m glad it happened, but at 72 years of age,  it’s not going to change my life. Paco will still pretend I don’t exist and my partner will have to struggle for health care coverage.

” It just gets better ” is a hopeful slogan circulating in the gay-inspired media. Maybe. I won’t be around that many more years to find out.

What I want should have happened years ago.

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THE WEEK THAT WAS…..

| June 16, 2011 | Comments (0)

 

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My week  was book-ended by opposites, opposing poles of  revelry and sadness.

On Sunday we headed for Fifth Avenue and the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade. A raucous affair and truth to be told, not an event that show-cased this particular group at its best. Ironic in that the full title of the parade is Puerto Rican Pride.

And interesting sociologically as another example of New York steeling itself for an occasion – and there are many of them these days in Gotham – where opposing cultures clash in the tight confines of the small island of Manhattan. In this case, the very affluent Upper East Side civilization in its Fifth Avenue condos facing down the surge of working-class Puerto Rican revelers who each year trample well-tended hedges, joyfully engage in public urination and generally let it all hang out, if that is not too apt a metaphor for myriad unruly activities accompanied by ear-splitting noisy horns and other racket. Ofcourse , there IS music and some pulsating, hip swinging sounds to be sure, but mainly pure noise.

The snooty denizens of Fifth Avenue have made their feelings about this parade known since its inception over a decade ago, erecting all sorts of barriers along the parade route aimed to protect their property from the various forms of vandalism that inevitably occur. These precautions may have the counter-effect of encouraging more mayhem. The fences, wires and partitions a la Berlin Wall, leave no doubt on the part of  parade participants about the degree of welcome being rolled out for them. Nada! in the welcome mat department. There is no doubt a reaction that says: OK, you wanna erect barriers ? Then we’ll give you something to erect barriers for !

The City of New York seems to have joined the Fifth Avenue snoots this year in a measure that seems incredible in its degree of over-precaution and unfriendliness to parade participants. During the whole afternoon most of Central Park was unnecessarily closed off to the public. Those areas that were open were circumscribed and heavily patrolled by police. Several years ago, intoxicated paraders had engaged in “wilding” that included attempted rape and assault on female park-goers. The crackdown in the park was designed to ensure that there wouldn’t be a repeat of this bestiality.

So it was sad going to a parade that was supposed to be a happy event, indeed a display of “pride” if its title was any indication of its purpose, and finding instead, all parties – Fifth Avenue richies, the City in the form of its police and the paraders –  all displaying various forms of angry, anti-social behavior. Surely, not the sign of a great civilization celebrating its culture of a Sunday.

With the Puerto  Rican parade behind me, so to speak, and I do mean BEHIND me since one parade participant shoved a sharply-pointed  stick bearing a Puerto Rican flag into my backside causing me considerable anal discomfort, I began my weekend in a comforting and uneventful fashion. But this tranquility was not to last.

On Wednesday I received a cell phone call from Bellevue Hospital. The voice was hardly intelligible, but I gathered after listening to several minutes of blurred speech that an Indonesian friend was in hospital and wanted me to visit him.

I had not been to Bellevue for nearly 20 years and could not recognize the place when I arrived at First Avenue and 27th Street. The forbidding old massive stone and iron gate facade reminiscent of Castle Dracula was gone, replaced by a high-tech glass entrance that gave the visitor more of an uplift, a feeling of entering a space-age airport, not a welfare hospital of last resort which is what Bellvue is, or was.

It turns out my friend, Bobby, had been in Bellevue for over a MONTH, immobilized with what appears to have been a stroke. Only 48 and the father of a four year-old daughter who was not allowed to visit him, his left side was mysteriously paralyzed. My friend was unable to tell me exactly what was wrong and not being next of kin, the hospital refused to divulge his medical condition to me. I later learned that he was undergoing therapy and  there was talk of his being released in a few weeks.

Throughout my hour-long visit, Bobby wore a crooked smile, crooked because the left side of  his face was frozen in paralysis. Next to his pillow was a Bible and a CD player. I borrowed the headset for a minute to hear what he was listening to and strains of rather mournful Christian choir music entered my ear.

His suite-mate, a Haitian man surrounded by his rather happily boisterous family, seemed to dominate the room. After exhausting what cheerful repartee I could muster, I said goodbye and turned back once to look at Bobby as I exited the door to the hallway. His head had slumped over and was crushing the small Charlie Brown soft toy I had brought him. Stitched on Charlie Brown’s face was a similarly crooked smile as though this version of the doll had also succumbed to a stroke.

 Penniless and illegal immigrant that he was,  Bobby was smiling in his sleep. In his own pathetic way he seemed happier than the frowning, rich Fifth Avenue fat-cats whose displeasure had rained down  on Puerto Rico’s finest last Sunday during that strangest of parades.

There is another parade coming up later this month and it is also a parade about “pride”, the Gay Pride Parade. With the last week in the month anchored by Gay Pride, I wonder what the other bookend will be. I hope it is not sad or  connected to a hospital.

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BARE-BACKING :THE THRILL THAT KILLS – Unprotected Sex is Popular and Perilous

| June 9, 2011 | Comments (1)

 

Around  5 PM  the  place begins  to get crowded. People pace the busy corridors in a rush-hour crush similar to  peak-hour traffic  at Grand Central Station and the subway three blocks away. Only this is not a subway or a commuter  train station. It is a gay bath house  and business is just getting started for the evening.

When the eye adjusts to the dimly-lit hallway, a seemingly endless parade of towel-clad men can be seen pacing the corridors or simply standing, waiting. Glances are exchanged; couples pair off and move to private rooms, the steam bath or “resting areas.” If there is a bustle about the place and people seem to be in a hurry, it is because they are. Many of these bath house visitors are stealing a hour or two between office and home   and many of them are men who, before returning to their families for dinner, practice unprotected sex, known in the gay world as “bare-backing.”

As the 30th anniversary of the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic is observed, it is ironic that a “whatever” attitude seems to have taken hold in the gay community  where “raw”, unprotected sexual intercourse has become, if not the norm, a commonly practiced habit.

What has caused this dangerous recidivism that can only contribute to the continuation of a crisis that the public seems to have largely forgotten? Sadly, but predictably, AIDS is no longer “news”; the media has moved on to new topics. There are wars, natural disasters and scandals which pre-empt media coverage and public thirst for something new relegates  AIDS  to the backwater of  newsworthy topics. Continued coverage of AIDS has come to be viewed as “more of the same” and even boring. And as  AIDS has been forgotten , so has the vigilance that once surrounded this health crisis.

Although a  cure in the form of a vaccine  has yet to be found,  success in medical therapies for AIDS  has  also acted perversely to divorce the general public from the continuing reality of the AIDS threat. Up-beat  pharmaceutical  advertisements for anti-retroviral AIDS drugs give the illusion that they are a cure for the disease. In the common mind, AIDS seems to have slipped   into the category of TB, malaria and polio, diseases that are no longer  threatening.  A conversation was overheard recently between two seemingly educated young men where one re-assured the other that “AIDS is like diabetes; it can be dealt with.”

Even cosmetic companies have gotten on the bandwagon using AIDS to promote their products  in a cavalier, misleading way that borders on being unethical. Not long ago a Body Shop poster  featured the logo “Get LIPPY Prevent HIV.” Small print explained that some of the proceeds from the purchase of a pricey lip balm  – LIPPY –  would be donated by Body Shop to AIDS awareness and prevention activities. But to an impressionable customer –  especially a teenager – the unmistakable message was that the product LIPPY  would prevent AIDS.

Despite assurances that AIDS is everybody’s problem, the American public views AIDS as a “gay” disease and shrugs its shoulders about the risk since it is “their” problem. Indeed, because the gay community is the only group that speaks out about AIDS, it reinforces the general illusion that AIDS is a gay issue.

Preventive education is virtually non-existent, limited to farcical   gestures such as teen chastity pledges. Attempts in high schools  to demonstrate condom use has created an uproar forcing curtailment of most  programs leaving teenagers to “self educate” by  surfing online pornography which does not promote safe sex.

Making the practice of safe sex even more difficult, the availability of condoms is limited. They are sold mostly in drug stores  which usually close by  8PM. To purchase a condom in an all-night convenience store –  the only other place where they are readily available – the customer has to ask for them. Many potential users, especially young women, are reluctant to ask for condoms in front of other customers. Toilet dispensers in bars are about the only other outlet for prophylactics, but young people cannot legally enter a bar until they are 21 years old. Even if one wants to use a condom, they are often hard to find.

The United States has the highest sero-prevalence  (AIDS infection) rate  in the industrialized world, nearly  1% of the adult population, more than twice that of Canada and Europe, more comparable to infection rates in some developing countries. This is largely due to a lack of preventive efforts and to a complicated health system which has treated AIDS as a “pre-existing condition” disqualifying   many from  needed  insurance coverage, especially preventive public health measures.

As   the AIDS epidemic enters its fourth decade it is sad that progress in conquering this scourge has been so discouraging. It need not be this way.

( Image – Creative Commons Attribution)

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YES, VIRGINIA ! There Are Still Real People Who Do Real Things !

| June 3, 2011 | Comments (0)

 

When I was a kid  half-a-century and more ago, the busy main street a block from our house was full of tradesmen’s shops.  There was no supermarket and nobody had ever heard of malls.There was the butcher in whose window hung lines of sausages, rows of plump, freshly plucked chickens and mounds of rosy red hamburger. Sometime my Grandmother would send me over to him to get marrow bones for her soup. His showcase was lined with juicy pork chops dressed with sprigs of parsley and decorated with little frills of cut-out white paper. There were usually large birds – turkeys and ducks – laid out for festive occasions.  Everything was fresh; no frozen stuff in that shop.

Next door was the shoemaker whose huge blackened hands were always busy at a machine,  stitching, cutting and polishing. My shoes would visit him every few months for a re-soling. I only stopped wearing my oxfords when my feet got too big for the Size 4 that I wore when I was 9 years old.

What I could no longer wear because I was growing too tall and gangly, we passed on to relatives or gave to the local church. Today people turn their noses up at used hand-me-downs.  A few years back, when I retired and no longer needed office clothes, I tried to give my suits , jackets, shirts and ties  away and was told that people would feel insulted if they were pro-offered used clothing. “Vintage” does not exist in my neighborhood ! 

Further down the block were the tailor shop and the baker’s. I remember my Mother had an evening dress made by the seamstress in the tailor shop. It took weeks to finish and  was a thing of beauty,  mint green crepe with lots of sequins. I think she wore it once and then it hung in the closet for the next 30 years until she passed away. But a thing of beauty had actually  been created and made on our street by ordinary, real people ! 

Today my neighborhood has a Main Street that bears no resemblance to the place of my youth when stores housed business that really made things. Gone is the cobbler’s shop; today when your shoes wear down a bit, you don’t have them repaired, you throw them away. Who ever heard of re-soling  pair of $200 sneakers?  The tailor and the German butcher are also casualties to “progress”. They closed  a few years after the trolleys stopped running.

The old movie palace on Main Street has been transformed into a supermarket. But there are still traces of its ancient grandeur. Recently on a shopping trip, I made a wrong turn by the cat food aisle and found myself in a cavernous storeroom which had been the cinema’s main theater. The soaring arches and gilded columns were still in place as was the vaulted ceiling with its celestial frescoes, all looking down on cartons of toilet tissue and hundreds of mops. Sic transit gloria.

As I pass the store fronts on my way to the train, I see a nail salon, a cell phone store, a pizza parlor, a tax preparer’s sign and a “department store” that advertises itself as the Plaza 99-Cent Emporium. Nearly all of the items  for sale – I saw nothing for 99 cents – are made in China and are imminently disposable. I did find a coconut-scented vaseline made in India which I use for dry skin  therapy during the winter months.

The coconut odor in that unguent is outrageously exotic reminding me of Hindu temples. One temple in particular comes to mind, the Rat Temple outside of New Delhi which is dedicated to that noble little animal. At feeding time huge vats of milk are offered to the temple’s rat population. Thousands of the creatures come for a meal. I remember going there with a sophisticated European woman who told me she had seen everything and that nothing could surprise her. When we entered the temple and she saw the multitude of tiny diners silently lapping away in contented unison, she fled the place screaming. Never say you’ve seen it all till you’ve been to the Rat Temple!

This past Memorial Day I visited the countryside north of New York City and was taken back to a seemingly simpler time and place. My host, a spry 90 year-old farmer living in a 250 year-old clapboard house surrounded by picturesque fields, reminisced as we drove to some of the old villages in his county. As we skirted  newly planted acres of hay and vegetables being worked by laborers, he recalled perilous, U-boat infested voyages he had taken in 1940  in the North Atlantic as a merchant seaman ferrying supplies to Britain as part of Roosevelt’s Lend Lease program.

Later we talked to a  farmer on his tractor, spent a pleasant half-hour with a visiting electrician and had dinner with my friend’s nephew, a carpenter. He described an archeological dig he had participated in as part of a government-mandated project to assure that ancient, buried remains would not be disturbed by modern construction works. Living in the city it is easy to forget that there are still people who actually do useful things. We hear too much about networking, Wall Street  wheeling-dealing, PR and focus groups. What does all that mean and add up to anyway? What are those people really doing ?

After a morning planting seedlings in my friend’s vegetable garden, I began to feel a bit liberated from the urban bubble where everything seems to come from “somewhere” but precisely where we city dwellers don’t know or seem to care. While out-sourcing is a reality of the modern international economic order, we must take care that our minds are not similarly transported to distant,  unspecified realms leaving us anchorless and drifting, urban robots and zombies feeding at fast food troughs.

A trip to the country every now and then should be obligatory therapy for all us city dwellers. And if you’re really motivated, a visit to the Rat Temple might not be a bad idea !

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