|Jul/Aug 2005 Salon|
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.
Carl Bisson was from Maine. He lived on West End Avenue, in a comfortable and cavernous apartment somewhere in the 90's. He was an Elder in the Church. A godly man. And a bit of a lech.
In some ways—in those days—mid 80's—in the days when AIDS hit the gay community like a stroke, leaving it hobbled and hamstrung—heartbroken and humbled, like a crippled horse—in some ways, Carl was a throw-back to the hungry old days of the blackmailers and nancy boys, a throwback to the days of forbidden bath houses and police raids. And in other ways, in those days, he was like a lonesome pilgrim—poor wayfaring stranger—returning traveller from a future most longed for, bringing tidings of a home where every tear is dried and every sorrow turned to dancing—and every turning terminated.
Carl showed up once to a Bible Study at the church absurd in his leathers. Though he was in his 50's, he was hopeful till the end that he would remain the mysterious stud, and that eventually all the beautiful boys would once and for all fall to their knees in adoration and astonished recognition like startled sparrows. He explained that after the Bible Study he had an appointment with love at a leather bar in the Village. We groaned and laughed when he waggled his dentures, suggesting that there were advantages for a man of his inclinations with no teeth.
I, of course, was shocked and scandalized. From where I came—and in fact, from where Carl came too, though many years and miles a part—from Michigan to Maine—one did not walk in transparency or affirm what must be denied in the face of decency and "folks just like us." Carl, in New York City, wasn't like any "us" I knew, but nonetheless, danced before the LORD like the light of candles on the Common Table on Communion Sundays when all God's children got courage.
When I was scared and out of my league, Carl took me under his wing and showed me how to visit the dying in hospitals—how to touch the AIDS lepers with such faith and gentleness that in the touch itself, there was nothing for all us poor bastards to do but behold the face of the Christ in the poor and be at peace.
Carl is dead now. I went to his funeral. And I miss him something fierce. I wish, now that I am again scared and out of my league, that he would take me to lunch at his favorite diner right there on Broadway, where they have the handsome waiters and a good monte cristo, and teach me to remember again what I've always known in the great illiterate silence of my salvation: We are loved. And that is enough.
After 9/11, in the city, there was the sudden revelation of ties that bind. It's not that those ties were forged in the FACT of the rubble, the FACT of the smell that for entire days of twenty four hours permeated our homes, our schoolyards, our bodegas—or the FACT of the empty places where there were once people we needed at dinner tables, in beds, in our hallways, our pews—or even the FACT of absence like windows left open on cold mornings and you are shivering beneath covers.
Rather, it was the sudden and giftlike REVELATION that in this great behemoth of a city—yessir, REVELATION, Truth revealed—that the FACT of the matter was that those ties had always been there.
Always been there.
There was an interval, immediately afterwards, of great tenderness. Rich and poor, brown and black, white and people of color. For entire days and then weeks, there was love and a gathering-in. Alongside the rage and the sorrow. Peaceable Kingdom. We huddled together and gave each other succour.
And then there was the President in a firehat, in our home, with a bullhorn, standing on a pile. He was saying something about hearing us.
And for a while, even then, there was the tenderness and the gathering-in. We took heart and gave a place for our need for revenge and retribution, a place where it didn't need to silence the revelation of ties that bind, ties that bind not only our city and our nation, but our world. Even then, Union Square clattered with Rainbow-clad Anarchists arguing with old-timey Archie Bunkers, only to culminate said arguments in impossible embraces and shared sobs.
Impossible, of course. But not that impossible.
And then there was Afghanistan.
And then there was Iraq.
We watched as other voices came and silenced those shared sobs—voices speaking hollow words and cheap grace—until New Yorkers turned to their stupors, and sat stunned and numbed and silent, as they nailed our cosmopolitan hope to a cross again—and required of us, those who are haunted by the Carpenter, sacrifices that were not sufficient to distract us from either the real and shocking screams of the Christ, or our own hardboiled skepticism.
And man! We were pissed!
When you got something. When you are called to notice. When you got something. Ain't it something how they can take the thing that makes you a symbol for something else, and so demean that something else, until you yourself become a symbol, a sign, a cipher that can be negotiated and tendered for debts you ain't never incurred?
All apologies. And forgive me. But fuck you, Mr. President. Did you ever once love those FALLEN HEROES, those JOE SIX PACKS and POOR PALOOKAS, those GOOD GUYS—who sometimes had feet of clay and lived and died with regrets—like a MENSCH—but who always did their duty—because that's what you do, you put one foot in front of the other and walk—and never ever once got a golden parachute in the free falling food chain come budget time—and did you ever know what it meant for them to be gone—we're talking gone—we're talking salt of the earth—did you ever love them more than your sense of theater?
Cuz, I mean, we all got a sense of theater. Mr. President. But that's no excuse.
Did you ever once know our city—the place where we actually live and move and have our being—the Catholic guilt and sense of duty—the con men and the d.t. freaks in OTBs—the Protestant compartmentalizing of stimulus and the old Sunday School parades through Brooklyn—(the kids will come if you give them ice cream!)—the revelation of corned beef at particular Jewish delis—and all that entails—the purity of Muslim moms adjusting the head scarves of daughters—the smell of garlic on the R train at Canal St.—or the sheer gravity and dignity of all those school girls on Broadway at 2:30 PM each and every spring, with their skirts rolled up and their backs arched, snapping gum and you remembering that every siren is somebody's daughter or sister? Did you ever just once know what it was like to be us? Just walking down the Avenue?
Our children smelled the explosions, sir.
But out here we live and die by ties that bind—and there is something obscene in the fact that you don't seem to know that. I mean. After the FACT.
What if you could note it all and let it pass you by, confident that every ship's got its port and every river leads home? What if you could just rest in your roots and let the wind bloweth where it listeth because every little soul must shine? Wouldn't that be enough?
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine. Grant them eternal rest, O Lord. And all us poor bastards. Me and Carl and Mr. Bush. Now and at the hour of our death. When we need it.