Just moments ago, we needed no words to converse, to understand each other. We were free. Now beneath this cooling moon, our only witness peering above the Ansley Mall parking lot we were struggling for the right words to capture what cannot be framed. I was talking about how grateful I was to have a place where I could get a drink and dance to the music of my younger days. James nodded his head in rapid intervals, signaling his hearty agreement.
“I have not been going out like this in a long time, man,” the sexy dancer noted. “I’m seeing guys I haven’t seen in years.” We talked about how grateful we were to see those who we might not even know, just to discover they are still around.
“It’s like getting another chance. That’s it. We’re getting a second time around.” James threw his hands up annoyed with himself for not having reached his conclusion sooner.
But his timing could not have better fit the moment. That year, I was 51 and he was at 49, closing in on that grand landmark. We had seen a lot of life unfold through our lives and the lives, deaths and stories of those around us.
Like so many black gay men of a certain age, I am HIV-positive. The vanities of middle age are trumped by the humbling appreciation of our survival. While we still may wish for our long gone youth as many do, we are compensated by the gift of growing older. A HIV diagnosis in those days was a death letter, one that foreclosed on all the entitlements of youth itself, longevity, health and the promise of all we thought would make us happy.
First there were the fuzzy clouds lining the insides of my mouth. Then the walnut sized lump below my left ear and the other, smaller lumps, like hard green peas along my armpit and groin.
“I had a friend who had those symptoms and he died,” a colleague dropped upon me. There was no evidence in 1985 to back up the possibility of survival. I held onto the implausible, the belief that I could make it without the knowledge to inform a method.
“You need to see a doctor,” the colleague said as if he had said something useful. There was nothing to do but wait. And pray. Throughout the rest of the ’80s, my 20s, I grew more concerned with looking sick than becoming sick. Not sick like thrush and swollen lymph glands, but sick like dark blotches, noticeable weight loss, and the AZT hair (kinky hair straightened by the effects of HIV meds).
I was afraid of acquiring “the look.” I saw how they looked and how I looked at those with signs more visible than mine. While I was self-conscious about the node on my neck while out at work or on the D train, in the club, my anxieties reached a heart gripping pitch.
In that court of queer society, we judged, valued and accepted or rejected each other largely based on appearance. If a potential suitor’s gaze lingered along the left side of my face, my nerves were shaken. I would strategically exit the Better Days dance floor before Tee Scott’s exit music cued those exposing lights.
Once back home, I would “check the mirror for signs, irregularities, tell tale signs,” as Adodi Muse signified in the poem “It Begins,” assuring myself that the lump doesn’t look that bad. In public, I passed as literally undetectable while those who bore telltale signs also bore the stares of judgmental onlookers. In the bedroom, I rarely disclosed, and usually but not always used condoms.
In 1992, after six months of dating, my partner Lenny and I left New York City to start a new life in Atlanta. I was at my AID Atlanta office in 1994 when I got Dr. Braude’s call explaining the cause of my chronic diarrhea, an opportunistic infection. It was official, I had AIDS.
But I also had a job with health insurance and extra benefits like HIV-positive co-workers and volunteers who modeled courage. I had a committed partner. My doctor was one of the best HIV practitioners in the city. I had family with and without blood ties who looked after me. I had all I needed to get by. I still enjoyed the club, but my connection to it changed. I had a man so I did not need sexual attention, but I still loved to dance.
New memories were made in the halls of The Palace, Traxx and the legendary Loretta’s. Loretta’s manager was a Morehouse graduate named Maurice. Maurice’s immaculate style, crisp bow ties and gentlemen’s charm offered a warm welcome at the entrance. Inside those doors, to the syncopated thump of “Percolator” Tim Brickhouse would vogue with a Pepsi can effortlessly balanced aloft his head.
Tim was a soft spoken man I met at Brothers Back2Back, a poz support group for Black gay men. But on that fabled black and white tile floor, Tim displayed the regal grace of a modern-day Nefertiti. A few blocks downtown on Luckie Street, Traxx featured two spacious floors and a stage where anyone’s star could shine. Owners Phillip Boone and David Hampton supported AIDS organizations with fundraisers and dedicated space for condom display tables.
While the ’90s brought unprecedented public HIV awareness, the most significant turning point was the arrival of protease inhibitors which brought renewed life leases for thousands. Yet this advent did not come in time to save Maurice or Tim. Others like my friend Egypt distrusted all antiretroviral therapy. The last time we danced together at Ear Wax, Egypt lip synched Phyllis Hyman’s “You Know How to Love Me” and pointed directly to me. He knew that no matter how he chose to handle his disease, I would be there for him to the end and I was. It was at the club where we got updates about our brothers who had fallen and those who would bounce in and out of circulation.
Defining constants and changes carved my path throughout the following decade. By 2010, my father had died and my mother’s health collapsed. Fourteen months later, she followed. I joined a grief support group and a gym. My friends gave me permission to cry without warning at Sunday brunch or Bulldogs. The club once known as Colors was now Mixx and their 3rd Saturday parties featuring DJ Ron Pullman provided supplemental therapy.
Ron would spin classics like Lolleata Holloway’s thunderous “Love Sensation” that harkened my NYC days, Better Days and the Paradise Garage. For the first time in a very long time, I became at 51, a regular at a club. When a young man from AID Atlanta’s Evolution Project dismissed Mixx as “nothing but AARP up in there,” he was warned, “careful now, you know Mr. Washington goes there.”
While smell may be the sense that most deeply encodes memory, our minds fuse music, the songs which are essentially stories, with our experiences to craft evocative narratives. When I hear these songs, my stories are retold, and often improvised with new subtexts and riffs, like jazz. These odes deliver pathways through which I can exult my past and my present in the company of the living as we “get life” together.
Most of these men I rarely see outside the club, men like “Clay” who has claimed me as his dance partner, “Corky” whose cheerleader energy ignites the floor, or the iconic Baton Bob wielding his scepter. There, I will see men like James who shared a small revelation that August evening and that comforts me. I expect to hear Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” and Diana Ross’ “The Boss.” I live for this ritual which ensures me connection, consistency, intimacy and joy.
Like many Black gay men, I see the club as the place most analogous to “church” albeit freed of the constraints of dogma. Its space is charged with erotic expression, spiritual ecstasy and sexual passion, where we may stand firm and covered on common ground.
Men like me and James are survivors of the generation hardest hit by the plague, contemporaries of the white witnesses whose stories are privileged and centralized in We Were Here and Longtime Companion. Our very presence, the sash in our sashay, the moves we cannot quite make anymore but we reach for anyway, all give thanks as we defy the odds of being here. When we dance, we shout “Here we are.” We give testimony without words. We live to tell.
Craig Washington is a writer, community organizer and a co-founder of the Bayard Rustin-Audre Lorde Breakfast.