Sunday, December 2, 2018

385. In the Shadow of Death: A Memorial

                        A Glance at Crumbling Coney

         I have been reading my deceased partner Bob’s diary entries, combining them with his files of correspondence and the photos in his photo albums, so as to create an archive of gay history dating from the 1950s to the present.  His perception and appreciation of meaningful details is notable, as seen in this excerpt from an entry of November 2, 1966, reporting an off-season visit to his beloved Coney Island, then well past the days of its glory.

       Yesterday was a beautiful, painful day.  The fog was thick and low at Coney Island.  Steeplechase Park stands in ruins, but splendid even to the end, with strands of lights falling from a gaping bony roof, pillars and statuary crumbling, the wreckers crunching to pulp the once-glorious installments and walls and railings.  A clown prop with outstretched arms was floating from a rope against the foggy sky and turning bravely in all directions as if to sustain the one final laugh, the one last attempt to convince whoever might see, that childhood must persist.  But it is finished.

This was written only for himself in his journal, with no expectation of its being read by others.  But the same attention to detail invested with feeling characterizes his two works of fiction, both set in Coney Island: The Coney Island Memoirs of Sebastian Strong and The Professor and Other Tales of Coney Island.  (For these works, see post #384.  For my books, see BROWDERBOOKS below.)

        In the Shadow of Death: A Memorial

         Dedicated in 2016, it’s an airy, odd-looking thing, neither building nor statue nor group of statues, just a bunch of triangles, plus benches and a sunken fountain.  A triangular roof tops three triangular white steel sides that leave plenty of open space for winter winds to sweep through, nor does it give much shade in summer.  A large plaque identifies it as the NYC AIDS MEMORIAL PARK IN ST. VINCENT’S TRIANGLE.  It honors the more than 100,000 New Yorkers – men, women, and children -- who died of AIDS, and their caregivers.  The triangular site once belonged to St. Vincent’s Hospital, the now-vanished institution (fiercely mourned by Villagers) that, overwhelmed by an influx of patients filling its beds and hallways, in 1984 opened the first AIDS ward in the city, and the second in the nation.  Back in the 1980s, when AIDS first surfaced, there were large gay male communities in the West Village and Chelsea, Chelsea being the neighborhood immediately north of West 14th Street, the northern boundary of the Village.  Just a block away from the Memorial, on West 13th Street, is the LGBT Community Center, where ACT-UP and other activist AIDS groups first organized.  And the Memorial continues to be the site of gatherings in support of the ongoing fight against AIDS.

File:NYC AIDS Memorial Park at St Vincent's Triangle 3.jpg

         The Memorial is, of course, a constant reminder of those grim times in the 1980s and 1990s when AIDS raged, seemingly unstoppable.  My partner Bob and I, being monogamous, didn’t have to worry about AIDS and never even got tested for it.  Our generation was for the most part beyond the years of sexual activity, but younger friends had their lives savagely disrupted.  I saw this when, in 1994, following surgery for colon cancer, I did volunteer work for the Whole Foods Project, a nonprofit advocating a plant-based diet in the fight against AIDS and cancer.  I have vivid memories of those years before a remedy for AIDS was discovered:

·      A necrology bulletin board in the Whole Foods Project center where deaths of former members were duly noted in alarming numbers.
·      A gay program on radio station WBAI whose staff dwindled over time, with the ailing survivors calling in to announce that they were “still hanging in there,” until they weren’t.
·      A friend’s remark, “It’s the feisty ones who survive,” meaning that those who threw out their medications --  notably AZT – and embraced a plant-based diet and healthy life style were the ones who survived.
·      A large contingent in the annual Gay Pride parade marching under a banner, FIGHTING FOR OUR LIVES.
·      Visiting a friend in the hospital diagnosed with pneumonia, a common but curable illness for AIDS patients, whose immune systems were compromised.
·      Frequent funerals of men involved in publishing, theater, and the arts, men supposedly in the prime of life, who almost always proved to be gay and victims of AIDS.
·      Stories of office coworkers who, learning that a colleague who just left had AIDS, sprayed the office with disinfectant – a useless and ludicrous gesture, in that AIDS was communicated only through an exchange of bodily fluids.
·      Seeing in a park a man slumped in a wheelchair, totally wasted, with a healthy young man attending him, the one in the wheelchair almost always a victim of AIDS.
·      The amazing camaraderie at the Whole Foods Project lunches, where AIDS and cancer survivors – teachers, artists, editors, writers, actors, students, and taxi drivers – exchanged useful information about treatments, physicians, and negotiating the city bureaucracy for assistance, all of us afflicted with, or survivors of, a life-threatening illness, but always cheerful and upbeat. 

         As a Whole Foods Project volunteer, I sometimes received letters or phone calls from an AIDS patient living in some remote area, who had heard of us while watching a TV interview with Richard, our founder.  What was he to do, with no AIDS group in his locale, and no health food store?  I always sent him a bundle of information on a whole-foods approach to illness – the only information he could get.  (This was before the Internet.)  This was all I could do, but it was a start.

         And what, by the way, was meant by the term “whole foods”?  Food not tampered with, not “improved” with additives, food with all its nutrients intact.  Whole grains, not “refined” ones.  Vegetables and fruit from organic farms, free from pesticides and preservatives.  Food without sucrose, that white, refined sugar on the counter or table of restaurants throughout the country – a food so questionable that some don’t even label it a food.  Memorable was the day when, at a Whole Foods Project luncheon, I heard two members separately quote their doctor as saying, “Cancer loves sugar” – a comment lodged in my mind ever since.  And it might just as easily have been, “AIDS loves sugar.”

         Awareness of AIDS pursued Bob and me even to our idyllic vacation retreat in Maine, Monhegan Island, where we found our usual cabin curtainless, and Barbara, the friend who rented to us, explained why.  In the previous summer a man of about 30 named Steven had come to the island, had a look at the cabin, rented it for a month, left the island, and returned with his ailing friend, Eric, who was exhausted by the boat trip from the mainland.  Deposited in the cabin, Eric looked wasted, and immediately it was whispered in town, “There’s someone with AIDS on the island!”  Fortunately, it never went beyond that.  Helped by his friend, Eric managed a walk to Lobster Cove and back – not a long distance – but he could do no more.  Most of the time the two of them just sat out in the yard and enjoyed the weather and the island.  Though the word “AIDS “ was never uttered, Eric was clearly deteriorating and finally had to leave the island for care on the mainland.  He died in a local hospital within a day or so.  Steven returned to the island and cleaned the cabin thoroughly, even to the point of removing the curtains and bagging them for disposal.  Obviously, he was determined to leave no trace of AIDS behind.  He had wanted his dying friend to spend his last days on this beautiful island, but the time they had there was short.

         AIDS came in the wake of the Gay Pride movement of the 60’s and 70’s, and the time of the new sexual freedom.  It was so ravaging that one is tempted to see in this unprecedented “gay plague” a ruthless return to the norm (whatever that might be), a grim judgment wreaked upon revelers by God or nature or karma.  After poppers and hard drugs and endless boozing and cruising and sex with multiple partners – after this orgy of liberation – came the ghastly reckoning, the reminder that “anything goes” has its consequences, that nothing in this life comes free.

Coming next:  Must We All Be Whores?  The Woes of Self-Promotion.


All books are available online as indicated, or from the author.

1.  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015).  Winner of the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  All about anything and everything New York: alcoholics, abortionists, greenmarkets, Occupy Wall Street, the Gay Pride Parade, my mugging in Central Park, peyote visions, and an artist who made art of a blackened human toe.  

If you love the city (or hate it), this may be the book for you.  An award winner, it sold well at BookCon 2017 and 2018, and at the Brooklyn Book Festival 2018.


"If you want wonderful inside tales about New York, this is the book for you.  Cliff Browder has a way with his writing that makes the city I lived in for 40 plus years come alive in a new and delightful way. A refreshing view on NYC that will not disappoint."  Five-star Amazon customer review by Bill L.

"To read No Place for Normal: New York is to enter into Cliff Browder’s rich and engaging sixty years of adult life in New York. Yes, he delves back before his time – from the city’s origins to the 19th Century that Ms. Trollope and Mr. Dickens encounter to robber barons and slums that marked highs and lows of the earlier Twentieth Century. But Browder has lived such an engaged and curious life that he can’t help but cross paths with every layer and period of society. There is something Whitmanesque in his outlook."  Five-star Amazon customer review by Michael P. Hartnett.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

2.  Bill Hope: His Story (Anaphora Literary Press, 2017), the second novel in the Metropolis series.  New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder.  Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a persistent and undying hope.

For readers who like historical fiction and a fast-moving story.


"A real yarn of a story about a lovable pickpocket who gets into trouble and has a great adventure.  A must read."  Five-star Amazon customer review by nicole w brown.

"This was a fun book.  The main character seemed like a cross between Huck Finn and a Charles Dickens character.  I would recommend this."  Four-star LibraryThing review by stephvin.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

3.  Dark Knowledge (Anaphora Literary Press, 2018), the third novel in the Metropolis series.  Adult and young adult.  A fast-moving historical novel about New York City and the slave trade, with the sights and sounds and smells of the waterfront. 

New York City, late 1860s.  When young Chris Harmony learns that members of his family may have been involved in the illegal pre-Civil War slave trade, he is appalled.  Determined to learn the truth, he begins an investigation that takes him into a dingy waterfront saloon, musty old maritime records that yield startling secrets, and elegant brownstone parlors that may have been furnished by the trade.  Since those once involved dread exposure, he meets denials and evasions, then threats, and a key witness is murdered.  What price must Chris pay to learn the painful truth and proclaim it?


"A lively and entertaining tale.  The writing styles, plot, pace and character development were excellent."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by BridgitDavis.

"At first the plot ... seemed a bit contrived, but I was soon swept up in the tale."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by snash.

"I am glad that I have read this book as it goes into great detail and the presentation is amazing.  The Author obviously knows his stuff."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by Moiser20.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

4.  The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series, tells the story of a respectably raised young man who chooses to become a male prostitute in late 1860s New York and falls in love with his most difficult client.

What was the gay scene like in nineteenth-century New York?   Gay romance, but women have read it and reviewed it.  (The cover illustration doesn't hurt.)


"At times amusing, gritty, heartfelt and a little sexy -- this would make a great summer read."  Four-star Amazon customer review by BobW.

"Really more of a fantasy of a 19th century gay life than any kind of historical representation of the same."  Three-star Goodreads review by Rachel.

"The detail Browder brings to this glimpse into history is only equaled by his writing of credible and interesting characters.  Highly recommended."  Five-star Goodreads review by Nan Hawthorne.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

5.  Fascinating New Yorkers: Power Freaks, Mobsters, liberated Women, Creators, Queers and Crazies (Black Rose Writing, 2018).  A collection of posts from this blog.  Short biographical sketches of people, some remembered and some forgotten, who lived or died in New York.  All kinds of wild stuff, plus some stuff that isn't quite wild but fascinating.  New York is a mecca for hustlers of every kind, some likable and some horrible, but they are never boring.

Fascinating NYers eimage.jpg


"Fascinating New Yorkers by Clifford Browder was like sitting down with a dear friend and catching up on the latest gossip and stories. Written with a flair to keep the reader turning the pages, I couldn't stop reading it and thinking about the subjects of each New Yorker. I love NYC and this book just added to the list of reasons why, a must read for those who love NYC and the people who have lived there." Five-star NetGalley review by Patty Ramirez, librarian.

"Unputdownable."  Five-star review by Dipali Sen, retired librarian.

"I felt like I was gossiping with a friend when reading this, as the author wrote about New Yorkers who are unique in one way or another. I am hoping for another book featuring more New Yorkers, as I couldn't put this down and read it in one sitting!" Five-star NetGalley review by Cristie Underwood. 

©   2018   Clifford Browder   

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