HIV/AIDS both derailed and defined my life.
-- Dr. Perry Halkitis, author of The AIDS Generation: Stories of Survival and Resilience
This one statement sums up the effect this disease had on my adult life.
My parents "outed" me as gay the summer of 1980 and they did it with a great deal of love, dignity and respect and they told me it was perfectly normal and nothing to be ashamed of! So I got to come out in a big way that summer in my hometown of Westhampton Beach, N.Y.
I was working as a waiter at the Club Pierre. The owners (Pierre and Jay) were gay, as were most of the waiters; and I was dating the hottest waiter of all, Frank Marino! As often happens, I immediately established a "gay family" that loved and supported me in much the same way my biological family did. Pierre and Jay quickly became our gay parents. We double-dated and spent vacations with them, including a visit to Cherry Grove, Fire Island, at the end of every season.
I also had a "gay older brother" named Greg Daly. Greg rented a beach house at Pond Point on Dune Road where I was an ocean lifeguard for 12 years. Greg was a handsome Harvard graduate who lived and worked in New York City and took me under his wing and, like Frank, became a member of my "gay" as well as my biological family. That summer Frank and I would spend our days off staying at Greg's Upper East Side apartment, looking for work and a place to live in Manhattan come fall. (Greg died of AIDS on August 7th of 1998, and remained my dear friend and older "gay brother" to the end.)
We found the apartment first, a tiny one-bedroom on 73rd and York that cost $291.55 a month! At that price we could pay the rent with summer savings until we got jobs. So the summer went by with work at the beach and the Club Pierre, and late nights out at the Club Marrakesh, Scarlet's and LeMans, the fabulous disco in Southampton.
LeMans had "employee night" every Wednesday and if you could show proof of Hampton employment to Donald Spencer, the hot and handsome bouncer at the door, you got in for free. We went almost every Wednesday night after work and were there for the final hurrah on the Wednesday following Labor Day of 1980. As was often the case in those days, the bouncer often made extra cash on the side by selling "party favors." So, when I followed Donald to his car that night, I wound up getting more than party favors. Donald and his identical twin gay brother Danny both worked at LeMans and were probably hired because they were the hottest, most popular gay men in the Hamptons at the time. (Both died of AIDS in the early '80s.) So when Donald put the moves on me that night in his car, even though I was dating Frank, I couldn't resist ...
Shortly after that we moved to NYC. My first memory of living in our new apartment was waking up in the middle of the night with fever and sweats and then running to the bathroom with diarrhea that was all blood and wouldn't stop! I woke Frank and we rushed to a nearby hospital where I was diagnosed with shigella, a disease that hits mostly the very young and very old as well as people with compromised immune systems. I believe I could have been exposed to HIV then, the summer of 1980.
Frank and I both got jobs in NYC. I worked as a media planner at Grey Advertising, and Frank worked as a bartender at Rounds, the infamous "hustler" bar on 53rd street. We also continued to work at the Club Pierre and spend a lot of time with our "gay parents" Pierre and Jay. Jay was the first person we knew to start getting sick on a regular basis. By the time he was finally diagnosed with AIDS in 1984, Frank and I had split up and I would spend nights in Queens at Pierre and Jay's apartment to give Pierre a break from taking care of Jay.
In the end Jay was so sick, he never left his bed. One night when I was there and Pierre had gone out, Jay begged me to carry him to the roof of the building and throw him off so I could end their suffering. Soon after that I was there with Pierre when Jay died. Men came with Hazmat-like suits and zipped Jay into a body bag to carry him out. Pierre eventually moved back to France and I saw him whenever he visited NYC up until he died of AIDS around 1994.
On one of my visits to see Frank at Rounds, he introduced me to an older man named Ron Plummer who was president of a small advertising agency. Ron was quite a character and we became fast friends and I eventually went to work for him in 1986. Once I started working for Ron, he immediately became like a "gay mother" to me. Like most gay men in those days, Ron had no children of his own, so I became like a son to him. I was working for Ron when I finally got tested in 1987 and went from a highly functional alcoholic to a completely out-of-control alcoholic.
Ron recognized my alcoholism but in his motherly way completely enabled me by covering for me at work until 1992 when he couldn't take it anymore. In May of 1992, five years after my HIV-positive diagnosis, Ron walked into my office at work and very calmly told me that he had made an appointment for me to see his doctor at noon that day. Later, the doctor's results revealed nothing good. Along with the HIV, I was told I had hepatitis B, chronic fatigue, a swollen liver and liver enzymes so high that he knew I drank a lot on a regular basis.
I finally told Ron why I was so sick and missing so much work, but still was not ready to deal with the alcoholism. He suggested I take a vacation which is how I wound up in Puerto Rico on Memorial Day Weekend of 1992. And it took coming to in a crack house there, with the dead body of a young Puerto Rican man next to me who had overdosed the night before, for me to come to the conclusion that I had a drug problem. I swore off illicit drugs that day and started drinking round the clock! (Ron died of AIDS in 1996 but lived to see me get sober, as well as attend my commitment ceremony to Orlando Martino in 1995.)
By the summer of 1992 my gay family had expanded to include my former roommate Eric Pfeiffer and his boyfriend Marcus (also HIV positive and still alive and a member of my gay family); my dentist Russell Arendt; my BFF Tim Hennessey (aka Cousin Pearl) and my mother's hairdresser Edward Urbanelli. Those days, I couldn't imagine a gay family being complete without a dentist and a hairdresser!
These men played a huge part in saving my life that summer. Russell, a gorgeous and successful dentist, had developed AIDS; and I was one of a dozen or so men on his care team and the only one who drank. I thought it strange that none of the other men on his care team wanted to go out drinking after our weekly meetings. But it was Eddie, the hairdresser to all the best blondes of the Hamptons, who spelled it out to me very clearly one day. He took me to the Dune Road summer house of Alison Gertz and introduced me to a young woman who was dying of AIDS and had gone so public with her diagnosis that she had become a media sensation as a "woman with AIDS." Soon after being diagnosed she not only went public in a big way but began speaking at high schools all over the tri-state area with her simple message: " If I can get AIDS, anyone can." (After she died of AIDS in 1992, her friends formed Love Heals: The Alison Gertz Foundation for AIDS Education, for which I am a speaker to this day.)
When we left, Eddie turned to me and said: "Isn't it amazing what she's done with the knowledge of her disease; and look what you've done with that knowledge. You're nothing but a drunk!" Wow, did those words hurt coming from one of my gay family members. (Eddie died of AIDS the following year.) I knew he spoke the truth but truly felt I couldn't stop.
Toward the end of August of 1992, I was with Russell the night that beautiful man finally succumbed to AIDS. I got so drunk that night I had to call in sick to work the next day -- which is why I was home when Eric called. Eric called to say he was in San Francisco General and would not be getting out, and he had to see me before he died. So, within 48 hours, I was walking into SF General Hospital to see yet another young man who looked like he was 90 years old.
Eric very quickly proceeded to, what we call in the rooms of AA, "12-step me" with his simple statement: "Jimmy, you are an alcoholic and you need help. If you don't get sober, you will be the next person lying on a deathbed and it will have nothing to do with AIDS and everything to do with the disease of alcoholism."
After a lot of tears and bargaining on my part, I finally promised Eric that no matter what happened, I would get the help I needed. That night, with me asleep in the room, Eric died. The next day I kept that promise, and called both my parents and my boss Ron Plummer to say I needed help. I left SF and went to outpatient care at Seafield Center in Westhampton Beach. I eventually got the help I truly needed when I entered their inpatient program on October 5, 1992. I have been clean and sober ever since.
Thankfully, I was sober and present to witness the deaths of members of my gay family like Ron and Eddie, as well as my "husband" Orlando Martino, who I was with when he died on August 25, 2002, at the age of 40, in Cabrini Hospital, NYC.
So, on World AIDS Day of 2013, I would like to honor the members of my "gay family" that I lost to AIDS: Jay and Pierre; Greg and his partner Philippe; Russell; Eric; Eddie; Ron; and Orlando. These men showed me how to be fabulous as a gay man; but they also showed me how to live with this disease, and how to die with grace and dignity.
I may have lost most of my gay family to this disease, but I have to thank my biological family -- Fay and Jim; Barbara; Tommy; Billy and Nancy -- for giving me the love and support I needed to get through all of this.
And I did live happily ever after when I married Brian Mott on August 1, 2012. Brian is also a longtime survivor, as well as my rock and best friend!
This World AIDS Day I will have the honor of speaking at: "A Special Event in Observance of World AIDS Day 2013" taking place at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, N.Y., on Thursday, Dec. 5, at 5 p.m. The event will also introduce Dr. Perry Halkitis, author of The AIDS Generation: Stories of Survival and Resilience. Through interviews conducted by the author, the book narrates the stories of 15 gay men who have survived since the early days of the epidemic. My husband Brian Mott and I had the great honor of being two of those 15 gay men interviewed for the book.
Jimmy Mack works full time, volunteers as an emergency medical technician, and speaks to youth about HIV/AIDS through Love Heals: The Alison Gertz Foundation for AIDS Education. He lives in Southampton, N.Y.
Read Jimmy's blog, A Long Night's Journey Into Day.