"A decade seems much too short."
My friend Robert Rowell has been dead one year this month. He died of AIDS.
Among the few thing which brought him any enjoyment, Robert lived to see the Millenium dawn on January 1, 2000. He told me last New Year's Eve, as we enjoyed the meal delivered by God's Love We Deliver, that he was "relieved to have made it to an even year, so the dates underscoring my birth and death will read 1950-2000." You would have to know Robert to understand his priorities.
I met Robert about 10 years ago, shortly after he and countless others were diagnosed with HIV. I was among the new wave of young professional gay men who had just relocated to Chelsea. We were real pioneers back in those days. Having lived and worked in the city a few years already, I was recovering from a recent breakup, and not surprisingly cultivating a new set of friends.
"Spike, ewwwww," I remember proclaiming to my friend Matthew as he invited me out one night. "That place over by WESTSIDE HIGHWAY???? What would I do there and whom would I meet?" I admitted to myself that I had grown weary of Uncle Charlie's and had been looking for a new venue. "Well at least what's his name (the ex-) won't be there, so why not go?" So that night I dragged my friend Ron, an unwilling accomplice, with me all the way over to Spike. He was embarrassed when I told the taxi driver "Spike Bar please, 21st Street and 11th Avenue." Oh get over it!
We arrived on the derelict block, found the door to Spike and peeked in. Some old guy (OVER 30!) shoved behind me, grabbed my butt and pushed us in! Eureka! We were immediately impressed with the sheer number of men there, perhaps hundreds! I remember feeling odd in my preppy button down shirt and new CP Company trousers. I soon found Matthew standing by the bar with some of his friends. Among them were two tall handsome Marlboro Men clad in Leather Jackets, chaps, boots, and SUNGLASSES. One of the Marlboro Men made room at the bar and said "Hi, I'm Robert; Michael we have got do something about your drag!" Lesson 1: Drag is not just about sequins and Marilyn!
Aside from being drag-challenged, I felt very comfortable with Robert and his friends! They knew just about everyone in the place including the swarthy bartenders who comped us frequently. Robert was very handsome and very tall, he went to the gym faithfully and preferred to face the crowd as they formed a cruisy conga line endlessly circling the bar in search of Mr. Right Now! He and Bill (the other Marlboro Man) occasionally left to go outside where I dared not follow.
I was immediately welcomed and made part of their group. They weren't at all pretentious; coming from theatre backgrounds they didn't have a lot of money. Having been in New York since the early 70's, they knew everyone and always provided me the details on the various hot guys they new, recounting days gone by as some former sex partner passed by. "OH THAT ONE," Robert shouted one night, "I was in a foursome once and saw her take a dildo the size of my forearm . . . " Too much information for me! Lesson 2: These guys were very much about SEX!
The following Friday I was of course back at the Spike, and found Robert. "I see you got to work on that drag . . . Ohhh Bill, look at Michael's new cap!" I also had a new denim shirt and had taken steps to "age" it with some sandpaper as well as not washing it after several wearings that week!!! It was early when I got there and we chatted awhile, continuing to get to know each other. He was so very funny and could talk about almost any topic. I remember drinking into the evening and quoting from The Women, Auntie Mame, and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. My cinema soulmate!
Over the following years, many of my Friday and Saturday nights were spent with Robert at Spike, where we would chatter about various subjects including my career. I also developed confidence and a more suitable wardrobe. We formed a rare and lasting friendship outside the bar, and Robert often devised projects, offering his talents helping me decorate my apartment. Since he couldn't work, he generously took on projects for me, making curtains and recovering dining chairs. He also freelanced on theatre projects and worked on his quilts. He finished many quilts and lovingly gave them to his friends. By 1999 Robert was becoming very ill and eventually he couldn't quilt or do many of the things that he had enjoyed. The bar also became a fond memory.
In 1999 I made it a point to see Robert as often as I could, stopping over to see him on my way home from work at night and visiting him on weekends. Our nights no longer were spent in the bar, but instead sharing a meal, watching TV or just chatting about all our favorite subjects. He hated to ask for anything from anyone, but I helped him understand it was finally time to ask for help when he needed it. Robert was hospitalized a few times and shortly after New Year's Day 2000 he was gone.
During that last year while we were coping with Robert's failing health and dealing with the knowledge that soon I would lose my dear friend, another friend told me about Body Positive, an agency here in New York which provided peer-led counseling and other services to people living with or at risk of having HIV. Working with Body Positive has been a lasting tribute to my dear friend, and since September 1999 I have proudly served as Treasurer on the Board of Directors. There are many challenges to being the financial officer responsible for an agency which relies almost exclusively on governmental funding. These challenges of course pale in comparison to living with AIDS.
I take pride in having known Robert Rowell, although a decade seems much too short. HIV has been with us twice that long (officially) which is a somewhat daunting fact. It is my hope that in the coming year each of us will remain on the lookout for ways which we can be of service. Whether attending fund raisers, making a contribution of time or dollars, volunteering on the BP help line, sending in a donation to this magazine, or marching with us at Gay Pride, each of us can contribute in a meaningful way. Bringing a little light into the darkness experienced by an ailing friend is equally rewarding. Please keep informed and check our calendar from time to time, and look up some friends you may not have seen recently, as you never know when your next opportunity to contribute may arise.
Michael J. Christiano is treasurer of the board of Body Positive, Inc.
Back to the February 2001 Issue of Body Positive Magazine.
This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.