Can You Believe We Are Still Alive?


In my last blog, I spoke of the "gay family" I established in NYC back in the early '80s and how I had lost all but one to AIDS. Sadly, I lost my last remaining HIV-positive friend from those days when he died in a car crash this past May. His name was Mark Weins, aka Marcus, and we had been best of friends for the past 35 years speaking almost daily. He and I had outlived our close-knit group of gay friends that we considered family and would constantly wonder why we were the ones left alive.

I met Marcus in 1979, we were both still in college and he had come to visit a mutual friend in my hometown of Westhampton Beach. We were instant friends and remained so until the day he died. We both "came out" after graduating college and this as well as a whole host of common interests lead to a deep love and understanding that only became deeper when we both tested HIV positive in 1987. His family owned a restaurant in North Haven, Connecticut that he continued to work in after college but most of his free time was spent with me in New York City or with my family in Westhampton Beach. In 1985, after ending my first gay relationship, I got a wonderful roommate to share my New York apartment with. His name was Eric Pfieffer. Well, when Marcus met Eric, it was love at first sight!

We then double dated, traveled together; we went clubbing, beaching, tanning, skiing -- you name it, we did it! But it all came to a screeching halt when Eric was hospitalized for PCP pneumonia. We had all tested HIV positive about the same time and we all had the same reaction: Let's make the most of life because it was going to be a short one for us. Unbeknownst to us at the time was that we also shared another deadly disease for which there is no known cure: alcoholism/addiction. As the 80s were winding down, so was Eric and AIDS had taken its toll on him to the point where he had to quit his job in NYC and move back in with his Mom in San Francisco. Marcus, being the devoted partner, went along with the blessing of his family, leaving behind his family business and all his friends to care for Eric. And so began our bi-coastal friendship, which lasted until Eric was too sick to travel. In April of 1991, my brother Billy married his wife Leslie in Burlingame, CA, and we were all there and all looking fabulous! Shortly thereafter, Eric became increasingly sick and it was clear his days were numbered. Labor Day weekend or 1992, Eric called me to say he was in the hospital again but this time he wasn't getting out and he had to see me before he died. His call had woken me from a blackout induced by the AIDS death of our dentist and dear friend Russel Arendt. Russel had died the night the night before and it had been my night to stay with him. I didn't want to add insult to injury so I couldn't tell Eric that we had just lost yet another dear friend.

I flew out to San Fran the next day and walked into SF General Hospital to see a friend I could barely recognize. Eric weighed about 92 lbs, was covered in KS lesions, had lost all his hair and was on a ventilator. Although he had enormous difficulty getting the words out, what he had to say to me next would wind up saving my life. He motioned for Marcus and his mother to leave the room and then he proceeded to tell me that although he had been in and out of the hospital for the past two years, it had been the best two years of his life because he had found a program that had enabled him to stay sober and had also connected him with a Higher Power. Then he said: "Jimmy, you are an alcoholic and you need this program, and if you don't get the help you so desperately need, you will be the next person lying in a death bed and it will have nothing to do with the disease of AIDS and everything to do with the disease of alcoholism. Jimmy, you have to promise right here and now that no matter what happens, you with get the help you need." I made that promise and I was the last person Eric ever spoke to. The next day I called my parents and my boss at the time (Ron Plummer, who I was with when he died of AIDS in 1997) and told them I needed help. I went from San Francisco to Seafield Center outpatient, then finally inpatient on Oct. 5, 1992 and have been clean and sober ever since.

Looking back, I knew that part of the reason Eric said what he said was in the hopes that I would pass the message onto Marcus when he was ready to hear it. Over the many years to come, I would periodically ask Marcus if he wanted to know what Eric and I had discussed and he always said he'd let me know when he was ready to hear it; clearly he knew but sadly he was never ready.

When his family restaurant, The Rustic Oak, closed this past April after 40 years in business, Marcus went on disability (he had COPD as well as AIDS) and moved to Jacksonville, Florida, his college town, so that he could be near the beach and close to his dear friend Brooks Anne. Sadly, the loss of the restaurant as well as his declining health really took a toll on the psyche of one of the most optimistic people I ever knew. Marcus lost his life in a single-car crash on the night of May 21 in Palm Coast, FL, and I lost one of the best friends I ever had and my last living link to those early days in NYC when we lost so, so many. This will be the first Thanksgiving in 20+ years that my family has had without Marcus and it will be the first World AIDS Day that Marcus and I will not call each other and say: "Happy World AIDS Day brother, can you believe we are still alive!"

Read Jimmy's blog, A Long Night's Journey Into Day.