Sliding Through My Hands

Holding it together for the sake of the child. 1984
Holding it together for the sake of the child. 1984

After 1968 closed, Jim moved out and we didn’t see much of each other for five years. We made a couple attempts at reconciliation, like when Marilyn was in town, but we didn’t really speak. Then in 1985 he called and told me he had AIDS. It was not a time for holding grudges, I became part of his life again.

I knew his temper and feistiness would play to his advantage. Dr. Conant, who was my doctor before the crisis began who became a leading AIDS expert, told me the ones who seemed to fare best were those filled with piss and vinegar.

Jim’s therapist advised him to join a support group which he resented. At one meeting he sauntered in 20 minutes late with an open can of Bud. In her best touchy feely tone the leader said, “now Jim, I think you know what you’re doing could be considered an act of hostility.”

Over those five years we were apart Jim had hung out mostly with the leather crowd south of Market. He had a string of affairs including one with the author Randy Shilts. I’m guessing the competitiveness over writing must have lead to some interesting resolution in the bedroom. He felt Randy was wasting his talent on his newspaper column and once asked him,  “so you’re content just writing ad copy for Macy’s?”

Circle of the Serpent
Circle of the Serpent

One Saturday night during our estrangement we ran into each other at Febe’s on Folsom Street. It was the oldest leather bar in the City and Jim’s favorite hangout. I was feeling the Cape Cods I’d had at the Stud a couple doors down and started running off at the mouth about how Aretha’s elaborate stylizations were ruining her music. Jim was laughing very hard, either because what I said was funny or because he was nervous and I was embarrassing him in front of his friends. That attempted reconciliation didn’t go very far.

The artist Chuck Arnett was one of the co-owners of Febe’s and had done several murals south of Market. He had befriended Jim and his artwork inspired him to write a play, Circle of the Serpent. It concerned a motley group of gay men whose disperate lives intersected in a dive bar. Kind of an Edward Albee version of Cheers. This time Jim was content just to be the playwright and left the production and direction to others. It was staged upstairs at the Ambush and it had a much better result than 1968.

As Jim’s energy continued to fade, it surprised me what he could accomplish with only two or three good hours a day. Besides writing the play, he maintained an extensive journal, and moved himself to three different apartments before finally ending up in one of those “Day of the Locust” U-shaped buildings in Oakland.

Chuck Arnett mural at the Tool Box. Photograph by Mike Kelley 1975
Chuck Arnett mural at the Tool Box. Photograph by Mike Kelley 1975

I went to see him at Kaiser when he had a bout of pneumocystis. As I watched him struggle to breathe I wondered if my visits did any good and if his other friends ever came to see him.

I’d only been there ten minutes when he was getting drowsy. I decided to make it a short stay. His back was to the door so he couldn’t see people entering or leaving. I tiptoed out, got to the door when he bolted upright and yelled “Chris!” He thought he was alone. I sat back down and waited until the meds knocked him out.

No one took better care of their own or raised more money than the leather community in response to AIDS. But there remained a segment obsessed with sex and drugs. If you were not available meat you were not of much use. I got the feeling that’s who Jim hung out with since I never met any of those friends.

***

The Story of Jim

 

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