NYC 1983. Underground.

NYC Subway, 1983 or so


My coworker asked if I had ever been through anything “like this” before. The answer was instant. Yes: AIDS in 1983. I spoke with a friend after Mass tonight and he agreed. AIDS in the early 80s was exactly like this.

In the early 80s (nearly until the end of the 80s, actually) we didn’t know what was causing it. HIV was a theory (a good one… and the right one it turns out) put forward in 1984 but even as late as 87 or 88, I remember a sizable portion of the gay community being quite vocal about multiple causes. One newspaper editor was quite convinced that the syndrome itself was caused by a combined one-two punch of Swine Flu complicated by rampant drug use. I remember a headline in his paper where a certain country had recently admitted to having AIDS patients. The secondary headline was “You know what else they have there? A lot of sick pigs.” We didn’t know – or didn’t want to admit – that this was your basic STD; albeit deadly.

A close friend was first diagnosed with AIDS in the spring of 1983 and was in St Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan, they used to seal the doors with plastic sheets and make you wear masks, gloves, and gowns to visit AIDS patients. A wise mutual friend took me to see Mills in the hospital. We put on all the things and sidled through the plastic sheeting and then the nurse who was helping us ran back to the safety of her desk. We took off our plastic protections and kissed Mills on the forehead hello. In those days the journey from diagnosis to death was 1-2 years. Mills Omaly died in 1984.

Here’s a good sentence about 1981: By the end of the year, 121 of the individuals with the disease (of 270 reported cases) had died. It was 100% fatal in those days. For diagnosis, we had to rely on 3 marker diseases: Kaposi’s Sarcoma (a type of skin cancer), Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), or a type of Lymphoma (another cancer). If you had one of these three things and you were a gay man, then you had AIDS. The issue is by the time you got to one of these three diseases, your AIDS was already quite advanced, and you’re about to die. We didn’t know this until later. So in 1983… someone would see the “wine-dark kiss of death” on their skin (Angels in America) and folks would run away. People would avoid them on the street. Families would disown them. Preachers would call it God’s Wrath. And since it was “only” gays, people treated them as a part of the populace that could be sacrificed. And then they would die, alone and isolated.

Even after the CDC ruled out casual contact as a possible vector of transmission a straight roomie once worried that he could get AIDS by sharing a smoke with me. But that was not just an issue of prejudice. This thing was so alien, even gays just didn’t know. People who thought that “gay” was a genetic thing suddenly wondered if AIDS was related to the “gay gene.” what if this was all programmed to collapse?

And even when we started talking about Safe Sex – which is to say use condoms, etc – I was in meetings where grown, intelligent people were like “Codswallop! I don’t need a condom, it’s not like anyone getting a baby here.” We didn’t want to admit it was your basic STD, albeit deadly, because that meant there was really only one way to stop it. That required everyone to play along, everyone needs to stop doing whatever they want. Bathhouses closed. Sex clubs closed. Back rooms in bars closed. And still, people were screaming about their personal freedom.

It was so freaking scary. I’m crying now. For friends I lost. For panic I felt. For questions I had that no one could answer. I was constantly checking lymph nodes, odd blotches, and using this breath thing where you made a ball float in a tube marked with calibrations. I don’t know what it was, anymore: it had something to do with lung capacity and pneumonia. Had I ever had sex with someone who had had sex with someone who had had sex with someone who had AIDS? Thinking these things then is probably why I’m alive now: but it took a whole lot out of me.

That’s where we are now, at least in my book, except the time is telescoped now. Instead of two years, we can be dead in two weeks. People are screaming about freedom, still, but casual contact can be – actually – deadly. A few weeks ago, we did not know what we know now. Italy hadn’t happened a few weeks ago.

People are in denial: talking about Population Density in China like they’re still in Grade School trying to imagine “One Billion People.” Early on in the current crisis I heard about virus spread as an issue of Population Density in China, and how can we keep “them” from coming here. We’ll be safe in the US. Then I realized that population density in SF, NYC, etc. is higher than in China. In fact, in NYC, the only Borough with a similar density to central Wuhan is Staten Island. The others have a per-mile density several times greater than central Wuhan. SF is 15K more populous per square mile than central Wuhan. DC is higher. LA is higher. Rome and Napoli are way less dense than those US cities… so… brace yourselves.

And some people still think a portion of the population is purely sacrificial. It’s only the elderly (which I’ve heard too damn much). It’s only Chinese. It’s only travelers. It’s only the poor.

Yes, I’ve been here before.

This was a series I didn’t expect to write.
NYC 1983. Underground
NYC 1985. The Doomed
NYC 1987. Mad as Hell
1997: Like PrEP for Covid

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He is almost 59. He feeds the homeless as a parochial almoner and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He is learning modern Israeli Hebrew and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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