Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer

The Normal Heart

Filed By Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer | May 09, 2011 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: ACT UP, Brooklyn, Larry Kramer, New York theater, The Normal Heart

My boyfriend is not rich. He happens to have a good job at a fancy law firm, which means he makes a good salary, but it also means he has a lot of college loans to pay off. The_Normal_Heart.jpg(I was talking a year or two ago to J about something, I can't remember what - I was probably complaining about gentrification, I spend way too much of my life complaining about gentrification - but I said something to the effect that I hated rich people, and J reminded me that the word "rich" didn't mean much coming from me because everyone was rich compared to me.)

For about five years, until last fall, I lived on financial aid, the generosity of friends and family, and the occasional gig as a "volunteer" in clinical trials of new drugs. I bought my clothes at thrift stores, food from a CSA, health care from free and subsidized clinics for the poor, and for two of those years lived rent-free with friends (I wasn't, strictly speaking, mooching, but the story of why I didn't pay rent is not germane - at any rate, it was temporary).

And for a handful of years before that I lived on what J and I made as Y'all, selling records and books, performing. I should say that we lived on the cash flow Y'all generated, because Y'all never made any money, in fact it ate money like dogs eat pizza.

Having no money was occasionally frustrating, but in general I had a good life. I ate well, drank good beer, and was surrounded by good friends.

Things are different now. Like I said, my boyfriend is only rich in the sense that J pointed out, but, still, there's more money flying around here than I've seen in years. We go to the theater at least once a week. I've seen more Broadway shows in the last five months than I saw the whole 17 years I lived in New York the first time around.

I thought I might write about some of the shows I'm seeing, share with you my thoughts.

brian and karen.jpgWe saw Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart last weekend, the new Broadway production directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe and starring Joe Mantello and Ellen Barkin. We sat next to Maxine Wolfe, whose face I remembered from ACT UP meetings in the late eighties, but I had to Google her name. Most of the more prominent leaders of ACT UP and Queer Nation were, then, a sort of distant pantheon to me. I envied these people who devoted their lives to activism but I was more focused on my work, theater, and music. I went to weekly meetings, religiously, and to many actions and demonstrations. I was more of a foot soldier and proud of it.

I remember first seeing the Silence = Death t-shirts in the gay pride parade. 1985, was it? I have to admit that my first impressions of ACT UP were 1) how striking the graphic design was and 2) how sexy these boys were with their smart expressions and rolled-up jeans. My friends and I were cynical East Village boys. At that time, I didn't know anyone who was sick or who had died.

I did get to know one of those early ACT UP leaders, Mark Harrington, a bit, not in ACT UP but through a social connection. A good friend at the time was dating him. My friend and Mark came to a party at the apartment I shared in Fort Greene with my partner at the time. (That's my ex-partner with our dog Karen in Prospect Park around 1988 I think.)

Some time during the party one of our cats, a gray tabby named Sparky, ran out of the apartment and made his way to the back yard where he was attacked by the landlord's Rottweiler. The landlord's mother-in-law and another elderly Chinese woman, neither of whom spoke much English, lived below us in the first-floor apartment. The dog was there to protect these two women and was not socialized to interact with humans.

(I know it's hard, but you have to remember that downtown Brooklyn wasn't always as swanky as it is now - 20 years ago it was a very dicey neighborhood. A few months ago, I had a dinner meeting in Cobble Hill. I got to Brooklyn quite early, so I decided to visit my old block. The brownstone I lived in is directly behind the BAM Majestic Theater. There's a new high-rise across the street and my old house, like most of the neighborhood, has been completely renovated. When we moved in, in 1984, it was very dilapidated, which is why we could afford it. The rent for our floor-through was about $550. And by "floor-through" I mean there were holes in the floor that went straight down to the apartment below. Our cat once jumped behind our stove and landed on the kitchen counter of the Chinese ladies downstairs, scaring them half to death.

Sometimes I'm not sure what to do with the feeling that rushes over me, that what was once so vivid and important has been painted over, swept away. I stood there in front of the house and cried a little and felt absolutely ridiculous.)

We could see through the window that Sparky was badly injured but alive, looking up at us, his eyes flashing. The dog had gone off to a corner of the yard, but nobody wanted to go out there while he was still loose. We had to wait till the landlord's husband could drive in from who knows what suburb to wrangle the dog before we could get to the back yard. We waited, huddled at our back windows while our party guests quietly slipped out one by one, and watched Sparky die.

Mark and his boyfriend, our friend, stayed with us after everyone else was gone, while we sobbed at the window and then, later when the dog was sequestered, went downstairs to collect Sparky's body. They wandered the neighborhood with us trying to find some place to bury him. It was winter and bitter cold. The ground in Fort Greene Park was frozen solid. We ended up wrapping Sparky in black plastic bags, placing him carefully on top of a neighbor's garbage, saying goodbye, and leaving him there. I still wonder where his body ended up, if anyone found him there and had a scare. We couldn't think of anywhere else to leave him.

I didn't see The Normal Heart the first time around. Most theater, even off-Broadway, was out of my price range then. I don't remember if I had an opinion about it. I think at the time the only opinion I had about Larry Kramer was that he was our great undiluted hero, a man who spoke truth to power unlike anyone I had ever seen live in person. He took our breath away and still does. After the show last weekend, the audience was handed his latest missive. (I hear that at some performances, he's there handing them out in person.)

Here's the last third of it, with a link to the whole thing:

Please know that beginning with Ronald Reagan (who would not say the word "AIDS" publicly for seven years), every single president has said nothing and done nothing, or in the case of the current president, says the right things and then doesn't do them.

Please know that most medications for HIV/AIDS are inhumanly expensive and that government funding for the poor to obtain them is dwindling and often unavailable.

Please know that pharmaceutical companies are among the most evil and greedy nightmares ever loosed on humankind. What "research" they embark upon is calculated only toward finding newer drugs to keep us, just barely, from dying, but not to make us better or, god forbid, cured.

Please know that an awful lot of people have needlessly died and will continue to needlessly die because of any and all of the above.

Please know that the world has suffered at the very least some 75 million infections and 35 million deaths. When the action of the play that you have just seen begins, there were 41.

I have never seen such wrongs as this plague, in all its guises, represents, and continues to say about us all.

My view of Larry Kramer's legacy (because that's what this production is really all about, isn't it?) is more complicated now. I still see him as a hero of our time. The energy of his outrage spawned a movement that has changed our world for the better, no doubt about it.

But it's frustrating that his obstinacy, his monumental ego, and sheer unpleasantness often obliterate his message. One line in the letter strikes me as sadly funny: "Please know that all efforts at prevention and education continue their unending record of abject failure." No acknowledgment of the bitter irony, no trace of recognition that it is his own prescription, among others, that has failed. After all these years, he still doesn't seem to grasp the fact that screaming at men to stop having sex will never make men stop having sex.

This hagiographic, autobiographical play, at least as it is acted in this production, brings to life on stage everything that is great and awful about Larry Kramer. He's relentless, emotionally manipulative, inflexible, annoying as holy fuck, and at the end we think, "Thank god for Larry Kramer."

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Thank you for that last part. It was exactly that line in his missive that made me question his perspective. Hyperbole still makes me roll my eyes.

I enjoy your posts.

1. I do not think that Kramer's message is for gay men to cease all sex. I think that his message is safer sex and responsibility. It is true that he disliked the meth induced disco and anonymous bathhouse cultures that served to help spread AIDS like wildfire, decimating a generation of gay men before it was known how AIDS was spread.

2. You mention not knowing what to do with the body of your dead cat. FYI, almost everyplace (including NY) has an "animal control" or dead animal government phone number concerning the collection of dead animals.

I believe the cat narrative takes place in 1984.

Anyway, I agree that it's probably not Kramer's message, but I do fully agree with Steven's point that if Kramer is so willing to release statements that--as a matter of fact ("know that") and not just opinion--all health education efforts surrounding HIV/AIDS and all efforts to reduce its rates have "utterly failed", he should be just as willing to include himself and his continued efforts under that umbrella of utter failure.

He's either a hypocrite, hyperbolist, or utter failure, and all on his own terms.

Larry Kramer is a writer. Don't they get "poetic license?

Larry is also a polemicist.

If he had not spoken in such terms, and translated such words into "ACT UP" news making, irreverant and exagerated activities, the fight against AIDS would be years behind where it is today. Even the NY Times was asleep at the switch in the many early years of the epidemic, and the federal government (under Reagan, then Bush I, were Stone Age Cretins concerning anything that remotely had to do with gays. Can you imagine that the President of the USA waited 6 years into the worst epidemic of the last decades of the 20th century before even uttering the word "AIDS", and then only at the strong urging of Elizabeth Taylor?

Lesson, Larry Kramer has a big message, not always to be literally interpreted.

Yes, thanks for reining me in guys. I have a bad habit of hyperbole, which leads me to be unspecific. Kramer's message has not been that men should stop having sex but that they should stop being promiscuous and stop having unprotected sex outside of monogamous relationships.

And, may I ask who you are, luminum, that you know what year the cat story took place? :)

I agree that Kramer's hyperbole often makes it hard to take him seriously. I remember a long time ago he said something about queer theory "an enormous con job," as if a group of academics that couldn't fill a Denny's speaking in a language the waiter would never understand are the source of all oppression.

That doesn't mean there isn't any value to what he has to say, and I appreciate him more than a good deal of queer commentators out there.

And here's a Salon interview where he talks about how he looks for hook ups online;

I really want to see the show.

It's a wonderful production, Bil. Very moving.