When I talk about my downtown life as a kid, people ask how old I am. Growing up in New York City in the 70s was more like being an urchin of the 30s than a silver spoon of the 80s. I'm more likely to share recollections with a 70-year old—playing stoop, jumping off the piers—than to wax fondly upon the boy bands, cocaine, and angular sports cars of Ronald Reagan's second term.
At 7 or 8, I ran around the city on my own—torn jeans and army cap—and I wasn't unusual. We were wild, when wildness in New York City was still a refuge for freedom. The city was different. There were still neighborhoods, and people were—has the phrase fallen out of usage?—responsible citizens.
It wasn't all niceness. There was the constant street talk, the "Let me see your wallet," the hustling and jostling for position on the sidewalk, physically, mentally, financially. It was a tough city. If you said yes at every corner, you'd be buying fireworks four times a mile. And if the fireworks guys didn't ask everyone, they'd never sell anything. In the West Village, where I went to school (PS41) and where most of my friends lived, there were offers and inquiries; the grown men in the Meat Market. The West Village was a live gay emancipation, a surge of repressed sexual energy, not all positive, and our frail sexual identities, pre-teen, answered with ignorance.
One kid, from his window on the fourth floor, shot at gay men with his bb gun. Sometimes he'd target men who were just walking by, and sometimes in the evening, he'd target the couples—across the highway—making out, or doing more than that, on the pier. On his walk home from school, he'd shout "AIDS" to thwart their advances. I was with him, later, with other laughing 13 year olds, when he went on the offensive with this tactic: walking up behind gay men and shouting out the death warrant, unprovoked.
This would have been around 1981 or 82, way before anyone knew how much we would have to regret. My mother was still in the throes of her art star years, and her friends, many of them now cultural history—Keith Haring, Jean Michel Basquiat, David Wojnarowicz—were artists and people way more than they were club-goers and hedonists, even if our reactionary culture prefers to remember differently. Recently, as we talked about how these men would drop by her studio, my mother said to me, "they were just really nice guys," which is unexpectedly banal, but true. My brother and I—he's eight years younger than me—would be hanging around in the studio when they visited, and they were warm, gift-bearing uncles. T-shirts, CDs, records. Stuff, cool stuff. The "dark side," which my mother also says was there—Haring with his boys scene and Wojnarowicz with his hustler past—but my brother and I never saw it.
Looking back on this time, well before a societal acceptance or even tolerance of gay marriage and same-sex parents, I wonder if these young men weren't starving for some of that normal family stuff the rest of us take for granted. They would walk into the studio smiling, and my brother and I would share with them our latest discoveries: Glen Baxter, paint ball guns, or "No Anchovies Please" by the J. Giles band.
Tommy Jones and Joe Fawbush were the most stable couple I knew. They made perfect sense. They were adoring of each other, loved the same people, and had the same commitment to the arts. I first met Joe as someone who was working for Brooke Alexander, my mother's art dealer. The Alexanders were the counterpoint couple: rich, white, and Hamptons cookie-cut with a razor. Joe would move on to open his own gallery, and my mother probably should have gone with him right from the start, but she was loyal to Brooke. She might have shown with Joe anyway, eventually, if Joe, like everyone else, hadn't gotten sick.
Tommy was by the loft all the time; on his Tribeca rounds. But Joe came by too, sometimes with Tommy and sometimes on his own. Maybe around 1984, my brother and I embarked upon the assembly of a close-out rowing machine purchased by my mother. It was a hellacious task, and totally self-imposed. The thing had sat in a corner of the loft for four or five months. Joe wandered in, I believe it was a Saturday morning, and he was dressed casually, not his usual suit. He plunked down with us on the paint-splotched floor—my mother went back to whatever artist thing she was doing—and he joined the undertaking. The rowing machine. With my kids, I have this experience all the time—dad assembles—but I don't remember it being a common part of childhood in Tribeca. Tommy arrived about an hour into the fabrication, and about an hour after that, the four of us had finished.
I don't know when Joe contracted HIV, but I heard and overheard and gleaned the updates on his health. In 1993 or 94, shortly after I graduated from college, I saw him walking toward me on Grand Street, just outside his gallery. I was a full-fledged young man by then, no longer a kid, or even a teen. He was smiling at me broadly, and he looked great. He'd always been a bit heavy, twenty pounds or so of softness, and from a distance I would have guessed he'd taken up running. When I was closer, though, I saw the lesions on his neck. It was the first time I'd wanted to hug someone who had AIDS. That was the last time I saw him.
In 2013, Cynthia Carr came out with her biography of David Wojnarowicz. The biography was full of the old East Village, the old Tribeca, things I 'd experienced. But I had an emotional response that was separate from who I was as I came of age. When I think about Ronald Reagan or Ed Koch, I wonder why we don't remember them first for their denial of the AIDS crisis. However tremendously stupid and monstrous, their efforts to obstruct funding to AIDS research and treatment cost the lives of, seemingly, a whole generation. My mother's friends, my father's friends, my future mentors, and role models. The art world, as if a pale shadow of personal loss, retracted, and shrank from its own daring.
I'm not in touch with many of my childhood cronies. I try to picture them and I see us sitting in a line on the rear fender of a bus, riding off into adulthood. A few of them got in trouble here and there: the bully was in jail, I don't know if he's out. But most of the old city ragamuffins have turned respectable: a television producer; a commercial director; a photographer/ documentary journalist; a painter; a political consultant; a set designer; a writer/ professor. Of the seven I just named, six have kids, and it's not easy to reconcile the teens they were—heartless laughter and curbside taunts—with the people I see on Facebook; the grown men, the fathers with their tassled hair and shining children. These men, they look into the cameras of their computers, they lie in the grass, their sons and daughters clambering all over them. Their smiles are worn to felt, and the shouters of terminal diseases have receded into historical regret. We keep a tighter hold on our children; nobody's kids are running around by themselves. And we keep a tighter hold on our society. It's almost inconceivable that we were so recently otherwise, that just a few years ago we were so overt with our repressions, so vocal with our hostilities.
John Reed is the author of A Still Small Voice, The Whole, Snowball's Chance, All The World's A Grave: A New Play By William Shakespeare, and Tales of Woe. He currently teaches in The New School's creative writing program.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]