“The only two things that are certain is death and taxes.”
Like many things that change when one is diagnosed with AIDS is the certainty that you are going to die. After I was diagnosed many years ago, I was introduced to the Names Project Aids Memorial Quilt. It is made up of thousands upon thousands of quilts sewn together with great love, care and meaning. I had seen the quilt displayed on television and read about it in books, but the gravity of this project does not really impact you until you walk into a display of the quilt in part or as a “whole event.”
It is important that you understand that the memorial quilt is to let the world know that all of these people gay or straight, male or female, child or adult all died as a result of the AIDS virus or associated problems that add to the misery. Some of the people who are represented by the quilt are those who contracted the disease from infected blood supply and were not necessarily infected by any action of their own. I am sure that you have seen “Stories from the Quilt” documentaries on television over the years.
I have a specific story that I want to tell you about my friends of the quilt and how they impacted my life. We first begin with Callie Fodor. He was a beautiful young man of my acquaintance in those first years. I knew him through friends who lived in the same area I did. At one period in my life, I was working in the travel agent field and I got a job in a certain office in Ft. Lauderdale. When I opened the desk drawer I found labels and stationery with Callie’s name on them, funny how we are all related by degrees of separation. I never knew he worked there. The story continues that that same year several panels of the quilt would be displayed at the Esplanade at the Broward Country Center for the Performing Arts, and my boss and I went to see the quilts. This was the first time I had seen Callie’s quilt. He is pictured on the cover of this book. I brought flowers with us and laid them on Callie’s quilt, at the same time a newspaper photographer took a picture of my gesture and it hit the paper the next day.
I lost many friends to AIDS in those years, people I worked with, entertainers I knew, boys I hung out with at clubs, and drag queens who welcomed me into the world of “all things gay.” While I worked at the STUD circa 1992-1995, many of the men who were employed there and many of our customers were sick. One of those men was named Dennis Johnson. He was the bar owners lover. Dennis was sick in a really bad way. It was excruciating to watch him come out at night he had some really bad nights in the end. I remember Dennis fondly because he and I went to see Patty Labelle at the James L. Knight center in Miami before he died. And let me tell you, if you’ve never been to see Patty, then I highly recommend that you do at least once in your life. It was the most fantastical event I have ever attended. We wore suit and tie, and when we parked the car, and walked into the center, I realized that this was going to be a HUGE event. All of the men were dressed to the nines, and I’ve never seen so many beautiful women decked out in their very best ball gowns, sequins and finery. We got lucky because a friend of mine got us seats in the third row center section. Dennis was just beside himself. When the concert began the Divine Patty Labelle came out on stage in a lime green dress with a HUGE red ribbon on her dress the crowd went wild. People were bringing flower baskets and bouquets up to her throughout the concert. The piano was covered by flowers not to mention the entire stage. At one point Patti came down off the stage and sat in our section and serenaded us, I think that was one of Dennis’s defining moments in his life. And I remember that I was part of that night. It is a memory that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
Every time I see Patti Labelle on television, take for example the last Nobel Peace Prize Concert that aired not long ago, she was singing, and I thought about that night in Miami. What an amazing life I have had, to have seen such greatness.
During my employment in Ft. Lauderdale, we raised thousands of dollars for Aids care and for Health link, the clinic that served the greater Ft. Lauderdale Aids population. Every drag performance as long as I lived was an opportunity to give to “the cause.”
Over the years following, after my diagnosis, I heard about many people who I knew had died from AIDS. This is not something that we talked about around the water cooler, or at the coffee shop. Once you were “initiated” into the “community” then you became privy to information and reports about people who had succumbed to the disease. I remember how sad it was to know that just years before I had been a certain bar or club and seen certain drag queens perform – lovely and full of life, had died. I never knew how many men were actually sick, prior to my diagnosis in 1994.
As they years passed by as I lived in Miami, I attended quilt displays and went to pride events and raised money for People With Aids coalition and many other charities. Hey I was now one of those charitable men. Many of my friends were involved with friends who had aids. We all have lost friends and family and everyone is somehow connected to someone with aids by some degree of separation. No one is immune to this truth.
In the year 2000, my case worker Sonia was involved in the Aids movement and got me involved in the Quilt displays in Miami. That’s when it happened. I went to volunteer at the Bayside Market one afternoon to help with this display. Callie’s quilt was there, unbeknownst to me. That’s the day that I met Steven. We got to talk that day about our friendships with Callie before he died, and like I said we are all connected by some degree of separation, Steven was friends with Callie as well. It’s amazing how people come together because of similar or common friendships or experiences. Steven and I became an item after that. We dated for years, and remained friends, still to this day. I had just lived through another round of hell, and was on the mend, and a relationship was just something that I was not ready to have again. Steven was patient. He was kind and he loved me in all my flaws, illness and problematics. We worked many quilt displays after that together. Steven is still one of my greatest supporters. He walked with me, when nobody else would. He knew of my family history because we talked about it often. It sucks to be me sometimes. It’s funny because he always reminds me that he was not the man I eventually married. I think that bothered him. It is still good to know he’s still standing in my corner.
Steven and I worked a particular event in Ft. Lauderdale for one of the Pride celebrations and I distinctly remember seeing the landlord and his lover Jim that day at the Ft. Lauderdale Convention Center. I had now been living with aids for some 7 years now, I think; these were the men who took care of me, where I lived in those first 2 years that I was sick. And now I was looking at one of them sick as well, and I never knew that Aids had affected them directly. I never saw them again after that, but I am sure that there is one more quilt in the display from that family. It is truly an honour to stand amid the quilt display and it was and is for me an intensely emotional event as well. Because at last count I can tell you that there are at least 200 plus quilts of people I knew in my life who are represented there, and I am sure there are hundreds more of people I have known through media and television and reading who each are represented by a quilt in the display. Many people have more than one “Quilt,” because family and friends over time create these memorials to be added together in the entire National Quilt display.
To see the quilt and to know the sweat, pain and tears that went into hand crafting those individual quilts is just so overwhelming that I cannot understand just how a parent could walk away from a child knowing full well what they are facing. My best friend Ricky and I pulled a work sting at Royal Caribbean International circa 1991-1993. One of our friends named George died many years later and Ricky worked on George’s quilt for weeks. It is pictured on the reverse side of this book. The last time I saw the quilt it was in Miami at the Miami Beach Convention Center. The entire floor was covered by quilts, hundreds upon hundreds of quilts. I find it particularly interesting that everyone who worked at the Stud and most of our associated customers who frequented the club are all sewn together and displayed in the same quadrants; it is an eerie reminder of just how close in death those men are as they were in life.
I have often thought about what I would like to have on my quilt, but I have never had the courage to start working on mine just yet. It’s not something that I want lying around my house before I died. It is just too much for me to bear at this time.
This brings me to my next family grouping of vital importance, my relationship with Ricky and Rafael. We have been friends since Ricky and I met in 1991 when we interviewed to work for RCI, back in the day as the Sovereign Class vessels were being introduced to cruising. Ricky and I would frequent Uncle Charlie’s after work and that is where he met his husband. Ricky had not had his coming out experience yet, but from the day these 2 men met, they have been inseparable. I have watched them build the castle empire they now live in and I can truthfully say I remember the card table we used to eat on and the stacks of boxes that used to sit in the apartment and I also remember that huge brown sofa pit set we used to sit on forever and a day amen. When I got sick and moved to Miami in 1995, Ricky and Rafael were my saviours. They carted me to the hospital on numerous occasions and took care of me when I needed it. Ricky and Rafael have the biggest hearts in the world.
I have had my share of problems and I have created for them some grief and that, I know put a damper on our relationship. I took advantage of them at times and for those times I will forever ask their forgiveness. After my odyssey of bad choices and men different cities that I have lived in, they stood by me even when I overstepped and overstayed my welcome in their house. But all these years later we’ve kept a relationship going. And now that I live in Canada, we don’t talk as often as we did and I have not seen them in a few years since I left the U.S. I still call them whenever they cross my minds eye.
When I had my coming out party at the Parliament house after my 21st birthday, many entertainers became part of my every day life. Carmella Marcela Garcia, Jimmy Johnson, Toni Rose, Cheena Kelly, Dana Manchester and Ms. P and other assorted queens who have escaped my memory at the moment. But I digress. Dana Manchester would be the one constant figure that would follow me throughout my big gay life. She moved south and west, her family lived in Naples and she worked in Miami and wherever the work took her. I loved my drag queens. Over the years I had worked in many a DJ booth working lights and props for the best professional drag queens ever to grace the stage in Florida as well the Southeast United States. I was the “Ultimate drag queen light man.” I mastered the art of lighting the very best shows I had ever produced. From the Stud I moved to Club Ozone, where Dana would host drag competitions for the young “draglet at heart.” Amateur drag competitions were FIERCE in the Latin Community. Little boys in dresses would scratch each others eyes out and steal and rip each others dresses and it was some of the nastiest fighting I’ve ever seen on stage. But these boys were good; in fact some of them were fantastic. But once again I digress.
Dana and I worked together weekly for a number of years. She knew I was positive, I told her and she always had a kind word for me, she always performed my favourite music. I remember she would arrive at the club with a suitcase full of dresses and stacks of music and she would always ask me how the crowd was reacting on any given night and then she and I would choose her wardrobe for the night and specific music that might get the crowds on their feet. It all comes down to mood and the lighting.
We made quite the team. In the end of my run at Ozone, I knew that Dana was having some health problems, she shared with me her issues and we talked because I think she appreciated my input whenever she asked me. I really cared about her and I think she cared about many of us who were sick. I later was let go by the club and I moved on to better pastures. But I never forgot Dana. It would not be for another few years that we would cross paths once again. After my Odyssey and my return to Miami in 2000, I was at my friend Nick’s house and I was looking through one of the gay magazines that were published weekly for the community and I opened the book and paged through it, and I see Dana Manchester’s picture on one of the pages, and I read on and it had news of the funeral service for Dana Manchester, who had died from complications from Aids. Holy shit, I never knew, and she never told me. I guess she did not want me worrying about her, while I was taking care of me. I think of her every time I hear certain music or see certain performances on television.
You know how music is imprinted on our brains by certain people and specific events there are thousands of drag numbers imprinted in my brain. Two of the major memories that I have is the first performance I saw Dana do when we first met was a number by Patti Austin called “I can cook.” That was way back in 1989.
The other memory that I want to tell you about is the great Halloween show that we did at Ozone. First I have to set the scene. We had this incredible party crew who did decorating in all the clubs that I worked in. I knew the guys who owned the company. Anyways, Ron and Mine would come in and decorate everything and that year at Ozone they did a haunted mansion theme. The dance floor was deep and had 50 foot ceilings which were mirrored from above. Over the dance floor they actually hung a gigantic chandelier which “worked” and was wired into the DJ booth, which sat above the dance floor. The wire could be pulled so that the chandelier would move as I pulled it. It was amazing. So that year Dana came in and told me she was doing a vampire number to Celine Dion’s “It’s all coming back to me now.” That was, I have to say, the best light job I have ever done in my career. The show went off without a hitch and Dana had the best light she could have had with the system that was over the dance floor.
Lighting drag performances was a graduation from lighting the dance floor with music. When I was a young gay boy freshly diagnosed in the years of 1994 and 1995, almost the entire crew who worked there were HIV positive. One of the two DJ’s that made a difference in my career was DJ Farkle and DJ Billy Hallquist.
It was Billy that got me the gig at Club Ozone in Miami, so we worked together for years and years. He was one of the many incredible DJ’s I had the opportunity to work with over my illustrious career.
They both worked at the Stud back then. Farkle was a character because he was one of the men who taught me how to live with HIV. We called Farkle “Snow White” because for the longest time he had only (7) T-cells, hence the Snow White and the seven dwarves title. He taught me how to “play lights” to the music. I crafted that ability to the best of my ability. Farkle and I would work together many times in many different clubs after that. I got really good at playing “Lights.” When a light man plays lights to music and can hit a drop out with pin point precision and make a dance floor full of men and women scream and yell, that is the ultimate compliment.
I was really good. Artists like Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton were incredible challenges, but there again; I could hit the mark every time. I had my computers programmed with tons and tons of lighting programs. Really good light men got the best jobs in the best clubs. Alas, in the end friendships and loyalty ended my light man career in 2002.
I was working in a club on Lincoln Road for a while over 2001-2002. I loved that job but the owners were assholes. We weren’t making a lot of money and some of us thought that we could expand our careers and open our own club on the South end of the Island. So secretly, off hours we bought, renovated and planned to open a new club. Paradox was supposed to be the hottest club on the Island. We worked around the clock for weeks getting prepared for opening night; they hired a troupe to entertain at the opening night. Farkle and I were in the DJ booth that night and as we played the opening rift of music, in walked the owners of the bar we all were currently working for, and that was direct competition to open another club against the one you were working in, we all were fired that very minute from SCORE. I was banned from ever walking into that club ever again, though I did sneak in several times after that night. The night club business is a dog eat dog world.
It was through the vehicle of the nightclub that I had the opportunity to meet all these fantastic people who I talk about so reverently now, because they are all dead and I am still here writing this book for you to read, which led me to its title “Why me… and not them?”