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New Year 1980: Remembering AIDS

I moved to NYC in September of 1979 with the artist Patricia Kelly. My first job was at the Empire Diner, the evening shift as a sous chef and I got off at eleven. The cook who worked the night shift asked me if I would cover for her so she could party New Year’s Eve and I said yes.

An hour before midnight, almost 1980, the Empire Diner was dead—not a soul was in the place but for the staff. One of the waiters, a blond fellow who was also a photographer—what he wanted to be—and a nurse—he worked a couple shifts at Saint Vincent’s as well as his Empire Diner gig, had brought hashish brownies that he had baked and everybody—the cooks, the dish washer, the wait staff, and the bartenders—shared with him. Why not? The place was dead.

By one a.m. the Empire Diner had filled up—snap your fingers—just like that. The place was packed. Just as the hashish brownies—you may snap your fingers again—were beginning to kick in.

We never recovered from the initial rush and we were tripping our asses off. For me it was like mescaline, not as intense as acid, but spacey enough—you know, flashes of light and changes of color. Bartenders screwed up orders, waiters and waitresses forgot where they were, and the cooks and the dishwasher in the kitchen, as the dish washer began to help the cooks with the orders, were completely befuddled as check after check backed up, every second like a minute, every minute like an hour and every hour like hell while customers waiting in the freezing cold outside in a line made their way toward 23rd Street getting longer.

My only real memory was trying to make a BLT, a project that seemed endless out of all of the endless jobs up there on those checks, everything in slow motion like a bad dream where you want to go faster, but you can’t—Just the managing of the putting on of the lettuce, the tomato sliced in a huge moment of time—Where’s the toast?—Waiting for the bacon—We hadn’t prepped enough!

My assistant was Brian Butterick, who would go on to form the band 3 Teens Kill 4 with David Wojnarowicz. At some point Brian just started to scream and throw plates at the wall practicing for the vocals and the floor show he would do later on. At one point a bartender came into the kitchen and took me out to look at the dining room. A table of customers waiting for the food had passed out—all of them sprawled, hands arms all over each other.

Come morning, the shift over, the crowd gone, I sat at the bar and had what the bartender liked to make me, a vodka on the rocks with fresh pepper ground over it. The blond waiter who’d brought the brownies was having a drink too, and so was the bartender—We were all fried. Then out of the small talk of happiness, glad that it was over, the blond waiter spoke in quiet spooky non sequiturs: “Something is happening,” he said. “Men are getting sick and I am afraid it is going to spread. It is going to be awful,” he said. That was the first time I heard of AIDS although it hadn’t been said and I—way too tired at the time—didn’t pay much mind to it then.

It may have added, however, to the foreboding I felt when I, beat and dreary, took a cab home that morning. Reagan—something I never thought could happen—was going to be president. But little did I know that the new decade, and the whole decade after it, was going to be full of death, distant deaths and the constant death of friends—At one moment of grief the hair on my own head would fall out (and grow back again grayer than it had been), but for some reason I was going to live—Just lucky I guess.


A Painting to Replace the British Monument in Buenos-Aires. 1984. David Wojnarowicz.


Untitled. 1976. Joe Brainard.


Peach. 1978. Ching Ho Cheng.


Patricia Kelly and me. Chelsea Hotel. Photo by Ching Ho Cheng. 1980.


Untitled. 1983. Keith Haring.

One Comment

  1. Cherie

    sad and beautiful

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