The AIDS Quilt Doesn't Take Manhattan

Julie 'JD' Davids
Julie "JD" Davids

I slept poorly. I woke up feeling dizzy and didn't want to leave the house. I did anyway. I went to see the AIDS Quilt.

A month ago, I read Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz, Cynthia Carr's extensive and gripping biography of the artist and AIDS activist who died of AIDS in 1992.

As I was reading, part of me kept thinking that there could be a different ending. That maybe he would not die.

But, of course, he did. As did thousands around him, with the "downtown" community of queer and/or drug-using artists and lovers and families and neighbors decimated by the early years of the epidemic.

And then, time and again, their belongings were brought out to the street as trash, their surviving partners and friends were evicted from their apartments, and wealthier people we'd likely now call hipsters came in, paying ten times the rent.

You can almost see that neighborhood from the ferry to Governors Island, which is serving as host to a showing of the AIDS Quilt for two days this week as a part of the celebrity-dappled, motorcycle-powered Kiehl's LifeRide for amfAR. Almost, but not quite.

Governors Island sign

These days, lots of people visit Governors Island on the weekends. The round-trip ferry ride is two bucks, and takes 10 minutes from lower Manhattan. Despite being situated right between Manhattan and Brooklyn, fully within NYC limits, going to Governors Island is like taking a trip outside the city.

During the week, even on a beautiful day like today with its 9/11 blue sky, not so many come. The ferry had a smattering of tourists, interspersed with queers, mostly gay men, in ones and twos. One had a bag that said GOD HATES BAGS in hot pink letters. I really liked that.

Back in the day, we used to call the quilt the Death Tarp -- it served as a leading edge of our ACT UP disdain for what seemed like legitimated channels of marking the epidemic without naming those who were not taking action to end it, or whose actions exacerbated its harm and spread. But then I would see the quilt in person, and I'd find it undeniably powerful and acutely uncomfortable.

The last time I saw the AIDS Quilt in a showing of any real size was its final full showing -- on the Mall in Washington, D.C. -- where organizers vowed that it could never be fully displayed in its entirety again because it had become so large.

It was 1996, and protease inhibitors were just starting to be available. But they had yet to significantly shift the trajectory of the epidemic. I was one of the ACT UP members who organized a march from the quilt to the White House, where we threw the ashes of loved ones through the fence onto the White House lawn.

Today, as we exited the ferry, the tourists went to the left and to the right to mini golf, to bike rentals, to art. We few went to the left and then turned up a walkway, quickly accessing an interior lawn mostly out of view of the island's other attractions.

I knew it wasn't likely, but I'd imagined the quilt would pour over all available spaces, a surging presence that would somehow serve as an appropriate if symbolic substitute for the aging, let-it-never-get-out-of-control grief locked inside my body, right here above my stomach and below my heart. After all, the publicity did say it was to be the largest showing of the quilt in the city in over a decade.

It didn't. It was very ruly, with tidy paths, longitudes and latitudes well contained, with as much or more lawn uncovered as that which was quilt-covered.

It looked, um, small.

But of course it wasn't, because each panel -- coffin-sized, noted my colleague -- is a universe.

I walked around and looked and looked, and as always it was impossible to ignore its beauty and gut-punchingness. I took my well-worn path of trying to monitor and manage my feelings, this time leading with the guise of reportorial attentiveness, rather than activist anger. But plain and simple, I just felt so sad.

Volunteers and staff were laying out the final panels and testing the sound system, awaiting -- if not the masses -- the additional visitors who would come for the official amfAR/Kiehls-sponsored ceremony at 4:30 this afternoon.

Here's what I posted to Facebook today, after walking around the panels.

I'm here and it's so strange. It's very quiet, except for the many helicopters that pass over, and a few children in the playgrounds at the far end. The ceremony is at 4:30 and they are just finishing unfurling. The panels do not fill the big central lawn of the island, and none of the tourists from the ferry, as far as I can tell, had any reason to make their way over here. There's very few people here, and no presence of any local AIDS groups. It's, well, ghostly.

Last week, I finished Sarah Schulman's The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination. It's about a lot, but it centers around AIDS and New York City and capitalism and loss and injustice, with Schulman bearing witness to Wojnarowicz's neighborhood -- she is one of the few from that cohort who still lives there, in one of the city's very few surviving rent-controlled apartments.

In the Lambda Literary review of the book, Courtney Gillette notes:

The numbers, where apparent in these essays, knock her ideas home: "81,542 people have died of AIDS in New York City as of August, 16, 2008." Think about this: if between, say, 2000 and 2027, more than 80,000 of our community -- our friends, writers, artists, roommates, exes, lovers, teachers, neighbors, poets, activists, co-workers -- died, it would be unbearable. "These people," Schulman declares, "our friends, are rarely mentioned. Their absence is not computed and the meaning of their loss is not considered." This may be the haunting backbone of the entire book -- the long-term effect of this loss, and the horror of how it's been "pretended" away. In a searing comparison, Schulman points out that 2,752 people died in New York as victims of the 9/11 attacks, and they are remembered. "These human beings have been highly individuated. The recognition of their loss and suffering is a national ritual, and the consequences of their aborted potential are assessed annually in public." It illustrates how deep this country's hatred of LGBT people is that the death of AIDS victims are not similarly remembered or valued. "Not the AIDS quilt," Schulman writes, "now locked up storage somewhere ... Where is our permanent memorial?"

It's not on Governors Island, that's for sure.

Why was the quilt there, anyway, literally out of the way? Why not in the midst of New York City's well-travelled central areas, or one of the AIDS-decimated neighborhoods that have been repurposed for profit?

Would I have felt better if it had been there on a well-attended weekend? I don't know.

I'm still feeling sick and dizzy, and caught up in last night's bad dreams. And in this particular swirl of being not-fully-conscious, that same part of me that somehow thought the Wojnarowicz biography could have a different ending envisions this:

In the sky there's a beautiful, terrible rainbow (like the many many rainbows of the quilt panels themselves) rising up and connecting the Lower East Side and Governors Island, and it's made by the spirits of the dead coming to frolic and create and love and party and fight and fuck on the lawn above, around and below the quilt, extending to every corner and crevice of the island and overturning history and reality before heading back home to their bodies, their apartments and the world that now never can be because they are gone.

Julie "JD" Davids is the managing editor for and