16 May 2002

The Man Who Came Out Too Late

The Man Who Came Out Too Late

Équipe -Pose ta question!-

I met Jerry six years ago at a dinner party thrown by a friend of mine who was suffering from HIV/AIDS. The friend wanted to introduce our small social circle to his “AIDS buddy”—that is, a trained volunteer who performs occasional shopping, cooking and other assistance for a person with AIDS. Jerry was the buddy.

At the time Jerry was 44, barely a year out of the closet but long since out of an unhappy marriage. He lived in a working class section of Philadelphia in a rented room not far from the subway. During that first meeting he spoke a great deal about the joys of his life: his handsome 19-year-old son and his infant granddaughter.

Jerry’s mother was his only relative who knew he was gay. Everyone else, including his son and his daughter-in-law, knew him as a mostly loving, hard-working AA member who had pulled himself out of the gutter. Many of Jerry’s gutter years were spent managing a Philadelphia bar that resembled a Wild West saloon knee-deep in beer-bottle fights.

For Jerry, Center City Philadelphia represented sexual freedom, liberal attitudes and abundant numbers of gay people.

When he moved into the heart of the city, Jerry became a whirlwind of apartment-decorating enthusiasm: He bought tabletop doilies, lace curtains, new furniture and chrome picture frames for snapshots of his son and granddaughter. For weeks our little Saturday night dinner group (of which Jerry was now a part) watched as his apartment assumed a personality of its own. When he was finally able to host his first dinner party, Jerry went to the limit with his mother’s Irish meat loaf, hand-whipped mashed potatoes, cole slaw, homemade bread and a mammoth German chocolate cake.

“Gee Jerry, this is beautiful,” we exclaimed, and we meant it.

Since I didn’t share Jerry’s taste in apartment décor—Jerry’s apartment resembled an old lady’s more than an urban gay man’s—I’d often bite my tongue when he’d show us a new line of tacky knick-knacks from K-Mart or Spain’s. In Jerry’s apartment, every table had a starched white lace doily; there were bows and ribbons arranged around certain select pieces, as well as sentimental pictures of Jesus and Mary.

On the other hand, I admired Jerry’s floors—as meticulously waxed as a church floor. And his rooms had a starchy smell, reminding me of the way white sheets billowed in the breeze in those 1960s Tide commercials.

Jerry’s future looked bright, despite one cloud on his horizon: His son, a U.S. Marine, kept asking him what kind of woman he was dating.

As Jerry became a regular group member, personality differences surfaced, especially concerning religion (Jerry was a devout Catholic). Then there were the photos of his son, which sometimes prompted a barrage of bawdy questions like, “How does it feel to have such a hunky son?” or “Were you ever attracted to him?” These always set Jerry’s nerves on edge. What we intended as harmless banter, he took seriously.

Jerry’s annoyance at such comments probably had more to do with his anxiety over how his son and daughter-in-law would accept him when he came out of the closet. But until that moment came, Jerry was content to enjoy life and live one day at a time. And life was fine until the appearance of the lawn chair.

He’d put the chair on the outside steps of his apartment house in order to watch the scene in his neighborhood—automobiles circling the block in search of hustlers, hustlers walking the area in search of automobiles or pedestrians. In time, some of the hustlers would stop by Jerry’s lawn chair to chat, ask for spare change, a sandwich, or a fast shower.

To be sure, confirmed urban dwellers rarely put suburban-style patio chairs on their front steps. When I think of a lawn chair I think of Love Boat cruises through the Mediterranean, not the hustler scene in Jerry’s neighborhood. Yet after 20 years in a working class neighborhood, central Philadelphia was the Love Boat for Jerry. That’s probably why he wore those big Jackie O sunglasses as he sat there day after day.

As much as I liked Jerry, the sight of him sitting on the chair unnerved me. “What are you looking for? Who are you gloating at?” I joked with him once.

Jerry told me he was enjoying the air. Eventually he admitted that he bought the lawn chair because, when he used to sit on the steps, the cops would pull up and asked if he lived there. He was tired of showing his ID, he said. Since a chair implied a residence, he could sit there all day and talk to a hundred hustlers and be OK.

Some time after he bought the chair, Jerry resumed his drinking. On Saturday nights, he was careful to sip only iced tea, diet Coke or non-alcoholic beer—but once our gatherings were over, he went for the harder stuff.

That he paid for hustlers, he freely acknowledged in his own way; that he procured them while he was drunk—so drunk that the line between safe and unsafe sex became a blur—he never really said. How many of them he had is hard to say, but my guess is there were many—so many that some came back and broke his front window, while others returned to steal his air conditioner. One even stole the lawn chair. After this, Jerry seemed to break loose at the seams, drinking all the time and escaping into the drunken frenzy he’d known in his old neighborhood.

From then it was all downhill. He lost his job, and the person with AIDS he cared for so thoughtfully was forced to find another buddy.

Hope surfaced briefly in the form of an invitation from Jerry’s son and daughter-in-law to spend a few weeks with them in Hawaii. Jerry looked forward to this trip, but he was also apprehensive. His gum-cracking, mostly foul-mouthed daughter-in-law occasionally prattled about “faggots,” so Jerry wasn’t sure what lay in store for him on Honolulu’s beaches.

Later, when he returned from Hawaii, Jerry said he’d told them both the truth. They were OK about it, he said, although he felt something “funny from them, something tense and distant.”

When Jerry bought a new chair, he seemed to be back on the deck of the Love Boat again, big Jackie O sunglasses shielding him from painful reality, a soft drink by his side. But temptation loomed.

In one fell swoop he was off the wagon and threatening to kill himself. During one of his binges he managed to further alienate the hustlers: Now they were coming around to his first floor window and harassing him. He had to move.

Jerry found a better apartment and a new job, but he had gone too far off the wagon and was irretrievably hooked. He checked in for a month or two at a highly-regarded suburban detox center. For a time he was OK. Then he tested HIV-positive,

His friends blamed his HIV status on the hustlers, on his having come out so late in life, on Center City Philadelphia, on the tension surrounding his son, on his religious guilt; we even blamed it on the lawn chair. But in the end, we weren’t quite sure who or what to blame when, in early 1999, Jerry swallowed every pill in his apartment and killed himself.

To this day, whenever I see a lawn chair, I think of light weight structures teetering on the edge of collapse.