Friday, August 15, 2014


When celebrities like Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall die, you have to brace yourself for a pious blitz of tributes to their unsung contributions of time and money to worthy causes.

It’s a little hard to take, partly because of the large helpings of treacle you have to choke down as you read the praise, but mainly because by and large the praise is deserved and prompts you to consider why you haven’t been doing more yourself.

Back in the early 90s I did a little volunteer work at an organization called Friends In Deed. It was a support group co-founded by film director Mike Nichols in response to the AIDS crisis.

By the time I was helping out at their SOHO center, deaths from the virus had swelled from a trickle in 1980 to a tidal wave. AIDS had claimed more than 30,000 lives in New York City alone, a figure that has more than tripled in the years since.

That eclipses the toll of the 911 attacks, which created an instant city-wide spasm of unity and empathy. The response to AIDS, by contrast, was a massive and willful attempt not to notice. 

People were literally dropping like flies. Family members, friends, colleagues were suddenly sick, then house-bound, then gone. Every day it seemed the Times obituary page was dominated by talented people who were only in their 30s or 40s.

Friends In Deed provided counseling and other services to traumatized survivors -- grieving and exhausted partners, caregivers and other gay men who were sure they were going to be next.

I thought some straight people ought to show up and let them know the rest of the city was horrified at what was happening to them.

Some of their stories were pretty awful. One devastated man described the last grisly, intimate months of his partner of more than a decade during which he fed him by hand, emptied his bedpans, changed his dressings, gave him his injections, witnessed his pain, endured his abuse, held his hand through the final hours and watched him die. 

Only then did the victim’s parents show up. They were furious to learn that their son had been gay, blamed the grieving caregiver for his death, kicked him out of the apartment, threatened harm if he tried to attend the funeral and ignored the express wishes of the deceased that his partner receive a share of his estate.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that a few in this embattled community began wondering aloud what I was doing there if I wasn’t gay and didn’t have any direct connection to one or more of the afflicted. I began to feel like a voyeur, so I peeled off.

But I was around long enough to attend a holiday fund-raising gala. During a Christmas champagne toast with one of the handful of friends I’d made at the center, I stepped backward and bumped into somebody behind me.

Turning to apologize, I found myself face to face with Lauren Bacall. She raised her glass and nodded. I did the same. I guess she was one of the organization’s angels. She certainly looked like one.