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A Journal of the Plague Years Revisited

Updated: Apr 5, 2023

In 1992, approximately twenty-eight years ago I published my first collection of poems named after Defoe’s account of London’s Black Plague. Those poems were an expression of my own sense of horror and tragedy confronting the AIDS epidemic in New York City. I knew no other way to address that sorrow than by the medium of writing about it and poetry seemed the necessary form, a condensed, quickened language of grim imagery, powerful suppressed emotions, and dispatches from the front lines. I was in health care, a young student, a physical therapist, propelled into Bellevue Hospital’s wards to learn by doing. My first encounter with an AIDS patient was a terribly handsome young man who had slipped into a coma, hooked to a ventilator, he lay in thin patient gown, isolated in a bed in a positive pressure room, a glass enclosed box with high-tech monitors beeping away. I was to do range of motion. Told to gown and glove, affix a mask, booties over my street shoes, I was pushed inside, the automatic doors swishing apart like sick bay doors on Star Trek and closing eerily behind. I have written of this moment before, the fear that seized me, the layer of sweat on my forehead, the quick beating of my heart, for I had up to then heard a great deal about the strange new Gay Cancer, the strange spreading disease that was felling young New York gay men in accelerating numbers. So little was known like how did one catch it. Ever since I was doing my volunteer work in the Baptist Hospital at my hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia about four years before and while in the line of the cafeteria, spotted a news story as I perused the New York Times about a mysterious gay disease, I dreaded this very moment. In fact, it had dissuaded me from even considering returning to New York City and accepting my place at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Medicine in the Physical Therapy Masters of Science Program. I wanted nothing more than to go to Duke University or even to the State College in Richmond to enter a BS Program, in order to escape New York, a city where I had spent five years pursuing a dancing career in the mid-seventies.

But fate drove me back to the City I both loved and feared. And so I was finally confronting the moment I feared most, confronting my own mortality, my exposure to the potentially lethal disease. The next two decades made me well-versed in the cruelty of AIDS. It defined my whole generation. The activism, the politically charged readings, a literature of searing rage and protest, tragedy after tragedy, and also the dangerous search for love. As a young man I felt robbed of my youth, of that physical tenderness and early discovery of intimacy, the pleasures and power of sex and companionship without the danger of touch. In short, I was compelled to distance myself socially, to withdraw and live in paralyzing fear—would I catch it? Was one kiss too much? What constituted body fluids—innocuous as a bead of sweat, a tear from a late-night confession, the rejection of a man I had started to love because he revealed he was infected. Did I want to live through another cycle of love and commitment only to find it lead to death?

And then there was the smoldering anger of betrayal, of a Federal Government that would not even acknowledge the disease, downplay its growing numbers of fatalities, offer no help, no real assistance, refuse to mobilize the best health care system in the world, a military equipped to handle disasters; and to see a general populace, communities of religious faiths, castigate and hurl their epithets, their moral pronouncements of holier-than-thou, their smug pronouncements of sin and depravity, evil, and mortal sin, hell and damnation. Not only was there the stress and exhaustion and unthinkable grief of seeing your friends die, but there was no proof that anyone cared. A sister would suggest AIDS camps of quarantine were perhaps the only solution, “leper” colonies of old modernized to hold every gay man; and those strange fearful looks, the anger of drinking from the same cup, the Russian Roulette of sipping from a shared straw, bathroom towels accidently touched, toilet seats and close hugs, and endless parade of suspicions and fears, personal rules about space, toothbrushes in the same hole or cup; combs or brushes, even the washing of clothes. “Social Distancing” was nothing new back then. It was a way of life and it was not as democratic, for if you were gay or Haitian or a Hemophiliac your presence was shunned. There were no comparisons to “Pearl Harbor” or “9/11,” “9/11” hadn’t even come and “Pearl Harbor” was a “national” catastrophe, an affront to every American; AIDS however was the judgement of God, a best kept silent mark of immorality, bestiality, perversity—them. And only disgust I could find and that subtle social dance around the truth every gay man was required to do, every mother and father, every mortician, pastor, or obit writer; “died of pneumonia,” “died of a heart attack,” “died of natural causes.”

I find myself now faced at the age of 66 with another pandemic, another crisis sweeping my city. Much life has passed by in those intervening years. The specter of AIDS I thought had faded, relegated to a deeply personal part of me that few would see or understand. Friends I have who now are positive, I barely consider as being sick, vulnerable to a series of opportunistic infections. The irony that they are now “managed” by meds like diabetics (a frequent prediction wielded back then by advance-thinking scientists and doctors) is not lost on me. And those I know who miraculously survived from the eighties by some incalculable and unknown reason: a genetic immunity of sorts; a naturally occurring robust immune system; a matter of catching a different strain of HIV; or having avoided constant re-infection; I see now day after day, sharing in their own amazement that they are still here, still on this earth, having outlived lovers, friends, confidants, and partners.

But again, that deep sense of political betrayal, of American arch conservatism, think tanks of elitism and corporatized autocracy, joined to religious fundamentalism, Ann Rand theories, seek to dismantle the role of a strong central government. Instead as Reagan did back then and now Trump and his dictatorial Republicans are doing now, there is this constant facetious, self-serving, sense of unbridled capitalism, Darwinian survival-of-the-rich—entrepreneurial-focused only and socially biased by race, gender, and sexual preference that runs rampant. What was the same then is the same now: total unempathetic indifference. Trump’s excruciatingly slow response, his self-professed ignorance and “make-it-up-as-we-go” populistic message, as with Reagan and his Moral Majority and his conservative cronies, is incapable of pragmatic thinking. He’s tethered only by the thinnest thread to everyday reality, instead as with Reagan is a merchant of lies, of slick entertaining subjectivities, that seek by repetition and flashy false assertions, to suck the oxygen out of the very air. By exhausting the media, by denigrating the press, by the concerted effort to promote ignorance, mediocrity, rabid emotionalism and all the baser instincts in the common man; he undermines all human aspiration and self-improvement, all desire for advancement, for gaining self-knowledge, the hard work of obtaining Kurt Goldstein’s self-actualization. It is a fool’s way to gaining power—not the true power of intellect, persuasion, and ingenuity harnessed to humanistic foresight creativity and empathy—but the brute power of the bully, of mere coarse bluster appealing to the basest of emotions: jealousy, revenge, hate and totalitarian conformity.

So now, where am I? New York City, April 2020. An empty city. A lonely West Side. Self-isolating in my one-bedroom. A refrigerator and pantry closet stacked with food items. The comforts of not needing to go out. Retired, without children, a husband independently-minded, sheltering inside. It is a privilege I share with some guilt.

The majority of the dying are persons-of-color now. Elmhurst Hospital in Queens is a working-person’s nightmare, the final stop on the spiraling way down, economic ruin, broken health with all the chronic poor person’s disease—diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, history of smoking, alcohol abuse, obesity—we know the long list, we’ve heard of the despair and disparity for years now. We’ve looked the other way. And then looked back. We’ve worried and yet worried and retreated, into our interior worlds. We were a society of solipsism. By race we drifted apart, we signed off on the agreement, the one to accept an invisible apartheid once again. The Clinton and Obama years which tried to profess a détente, to legislate equanimity both economic, social, political and educational by way of affirmative action showed some early promise. But what we missed was the whole damaged system, that patchwork machine of American exceptionalism, of American meritocracy that for years we tinkered with, propped up, painted in bright colors or welded in iron-fixed assumptions, rules and rigid thinking.

AIDS tore apart American society. I saw it firsthand in the eighties and the nineties. The patriarchy of health care, its hidden moral framework, its bias, its bulky inflexibility to change; its strong aversion to socialism, democratic socialism, became more apparent. Gay men and lesbians, queers of all stripes, had to take their defense into their own hands. New York City as well. Needle exchange programs, widespread testing, outreach clinics, rules of strict tolerance for people of all walks of life, illegals and legal, the breaking down of all taboos, social myths. We were all forced to join together for better or for worse. Drug trials were speeded up, bureaucracy was made more humancentric in its policies, flexible, done more from a place of mercy. Drug prices and health care prices were forced to bend to public need and not corporate greed. Lesbians joined with gay men and gay men with lesbians. Straight people were forced to confront their mortality as well, their fear, and their homophobia. The Arts and whole industries were battered and wiped out. Generations of writers, and artists and thinkers died. The bonds of mentorship were broken. But it was not totally as beautiful or transformative as I suggest. It took a Larry Kramer, an Act Up, Trans leaders such as Sylvia Rivera, a whole spectrum of Americans and American life to regain just a little bit dignity and freedom; to re-define democracy, re-vivify its tenets, its ideals.

Perhaps now as the dying seems to level off in New York City, but as the surging infection curves and death tolls seem to roll across the nation to other hot spots, to New Orleans, Detroit, or to LA, as we did back then with the tailspin of AIDS and its juggernaut to and anti-viral “cure”, we need to anticipate the “new normal” is coming. Everything will be changed. Whether it is a change for good or change for the worse remains in our hands.

by Walter Holland, copyright, February 26, 2021, All Rights Reserved

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