Thursday, April 26, 2007


I had always assumed that Tom died on his birthday, but I was wrong about this. He died a few days before his 48th birthday in 1987. He died during a hot humid New York City August after several months of being in a coma from complications from AIDS and several months of fighting the system for letting him have the right to die in a dignified way. The last conversation I had with him was at the end of June on a Sunday. It was Gay Pride Sunday but I did not take part in the festivities this year. I had spent the day at my brother’s house in Queens and at the cemetery where my father’s tombstone was unveiled. In the Jewish religion, an unveiling of the tombstone is held one year after the death, and it was on this hot Sunday in June that we held the ceremony. I was terribly worried about Tom as he was going downhill very fast, and my mother could tell that I was not altogether there, in my brother’s living room in Rosedale Queens, but somewhere else. “You’re worried about Tom aren’t you,” she asked. I shook my head in the up and down yes motion and soon after I took my leave to go back to Manhattan. The train ride back to the city on the Long Island Railroad was hot as hell as the air conditioning wasn’t working and the trip took hours, as the damn train kept breaking down, and we had to get off the train we were on and get on another one, not once but twice. I was a wreck when I finally got back to my loft. Just after dousing my face with cold water, the phone rang, and it was Tom. He wanted to see if I could come over that night, but I begged off, and told him why. I was just so exhausted from the day with my family and the sorrow there. I would be over tomorrow. He understood, but I felt bad about not going over to his apartment, but my body just simply said no. Early the next morning I received a frantic call from Andy a friend of Tom’s who told me that he had found him on the floor that morning, and he was unable to talk. I got myself together quickly, made some calls to a few of his other close friends and made my way over to his tenement apartment on the lower eastside. It was a horrible sight that I found. Tom was unable to talk or move much and this was the start of our terrible time. I knew this was bad, really the end. For many months I had watched my friend fall apart slowly at first and then faster. My feelings were so mixed up, I had great sadness but also anger at Tom for not taking better care, for not protecting himself, for his casual attitude to AIDS. “If I get it I get it” he had said to me several times. I was appalled but there was nothing I could really do. I had myself to take care of and happily I had tested negative for the AIDS virus the several times that I had taken the test. How I had gotten away with this I will never know, but I thanked whatever God was watching over me. Tom was not so lucky. He was constantly having terrible bouts with herpes, and his doctor just was not responding to him the way he should have. “Why don’t you go to my doctor Tom? I really like him a lot and I think he could be of some help.” “Oh Ira Joel he would say, why fix the windshield, when the motor is gone.” He was having terrible night sweats, and horrible bouts of diaria and several times he had bowel movements in the street. He was humiliated, and I would burst out crying after hanging up the phone after his telling me of these awful things. During that late winter and early spring I would get over to his apartment as often as I could climbing the 6 flights of stairs, to get his laundry together for us to do at the neighborhood launderette. I knew he was sick when the usually too proud to accept anyone’s help Tom didn’t give me any arguments in helping him. One day I asked him if he wanted me to do some vacuuming around the apartment, “Only if you do it in the nude Ira Joel.” “I wish I could Tom, but you know how shy I am."

We would sit in his small living room, drinking his good coffee with me trying to be lively and positive when deep inside I was heartbroken. On that hot June Monday after gay pride day and after the tombstone of my father was unveiled, I made my way to his apartment. His friends would now have to take total control of the situation. Although he still had family, including his mother they were far off in Minnesota, and too old to be much help. On that hot Monday I met Pedro Jose who was a close friend of mine and Tom’s and whom Tom had worked for at his bookstore over the years and we discussed what should be done? Calls were made including one to Tom’s close friend Hugo, a poet who lived in his building and was as we found out Tom’s executor. I had never much cared for Hugo. He was a mediocre poet one of those East Village Others who would do readings at Smokey coffee houses around the village and sometimes get his stuff published in some of those obscure poetry magazines that flourished in the late 60’s and early 70’s. His thing was to write one line of poetry a day in his lined notebooks, and he had 100’s of them that filled up his bookcases. I met him years before I knew Tom. M and me were at a performance of The Living Theater and Hugo came over to say hello to M. “I can’t stand that man” M said after Hugo left, “ and he’s a lousy poet to boot.” Needless to say I was quite surprised to see him years later at a dinner party that Tom threw and to learn that he lived downstairs from Tom and was one of his best friends. I found him to be entirely self centered and full of himself. He was a gay man for most of his life, but when he was around 50 he decided that he no longer wanted to be gay, and had married a very sweet woman named Marion who came from Mississippi. Although I wished them both luck and happiness I was a little bothered by his switch. Was he really straight now, or was he one of those men who lead double lives. They were not in New York that week, but visiting Marion’s family down south, so we placed a call there. “But we’re on vacation he told me” “So what you must come back immediately we need you here, Tom is in a bad way.” Hugo did not want to give up his vacation time, and tried to get us to agree to letting them finish out the week but me and Pedro Jose would have none of it.” “Listen Hugo, Pedro Jose told him you get your ass back up here pronto.” We would have to take turns sleeping at Tom’s apartment to make sure he got through the night ok. This was going to be very tough for me, as I didn’t do so well sleeping in other places but I grit my teeth and spent a sleepless night in his tiny spare room with no air conditioning and no fan, just the hot air to keep me company along with his tiny black and white TV. I hardly slept a wink, and in between watching “Wolfen” on the tube I would constantly check up on Tom to make sure that he hadn’t rolled off the bed. Luckily or so we thought Tom had written up a living will which said that no extreme measures should be used to keep him alive if his quality of life went downhill. He was one of the first to make this sort of will, and it was not as common as it is today. Later on this will would be the cause of most of our problems in trying to take care of Tom.

To Be Continued.


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