Tuesday, November 30, 2010

As I Recall . . .

North River Arrivals and Departures

Michael Henderson  Manhattan Diary, 1987

I took the train from Dallas to New York a few times. I would check my trunk at Union Station in Dallas and ride in a seat to Chicago where I would change trains and get a slumberette. The slumberette was a tiny room on the train with a bed a sink a toilet and a chair all made of stainless steel and engineered to fold up into the wall and disappear so the room was filled completely by either the chair, the bed, or the toilet and sink. By day, it wasn’t much bigger than a chair by the window, at night you could get in bed with your face against the window, sleep to the rhythm of the wheels on the rails and wake up in New York, feeling pretty good.

The first time I took the trip I stayed in New York for 6 years. It was 1986 and the city was plagued by AIDS. A lot of the people I met when I first got to New York would be dead before I even realized they were sick. It was not a great environment for me to come out as a gay man in. The gay community was filled with fear and death and the rest of the world seemed to be full of fear and hatred. Not everyone, of course, but some of my best friends tried to talk me out of it. They thought it was a bad idea, like it was a choice I was making and they tried to convince me how foolish it was, how it would ruin my life.
I spent a lot of time alone the first couple of years I was in New York. Without much money, I used to entertain myself with long walks through the city and reading the New York Times in my little loft on Canal Street. I loved the way the newspaper looked. There were no color images in it in then. On Sundays, along with the weather maps, on Sundays they would print a chart called “Sky Watch” that depicted the locations of the stars. I used these as subject matter in drawings I did to mark time. I would save the maps and charts and draw them over and over. And then I started drawing pictures of articles in the paper.

Michael Henderson
From the New York Times, 1988 (detail)

I met Joe toward the end of that stay. It seems like it was not too long after I came out. I was walking home one night and we passed each other on the sidewalk then we both turned around and came back to meet one another. He was the first guy I would call my boyfriend. We both had bikes and rode all over the city. Joe was a location scout in the film industry and showed me a lot places in New York I hadn’t seen. He told me about Williamsburg and gave me several tours of the neighborhood.
I found out Joe had AIDS after we had been together for a few days. He cried when he told me. I panicked and simultaneously came down with a horrible cold and knew I had caught the virus. That turned out not to be the case. The big struggle for me was deciding whether or not I wanted to be in a relationship with someone who was going to be sick. Whether or not I would let myself fall in love with someone who was going to die. I did. Joe and I had a wonderful summer. He made me feel comfortable in the gay community, brought me out and showed me around. And then, on Labor Day at Wigstock, Joe dumped me.

Instead of dying on me, he left me while he was still healthy. I was unprepared for that. He showed me a lot of things before he left me, though. Wigstock being only one of them.  That fall, I moved to Williamsburg and got a bigger, cheaper, nicer loft. I stayed friends with Joe but didn’t see him much after that. After a couple of years, I left New York to return to Texas and live in a house that had belonged to my grandparents.

A year later I took the train back to New York to teach for a semester at Princeton. I called Joe and wanted to see him, but he said no, he didn’t want me to see him. He was staying with someone who was caring for him. I told him I really wanted to see him and he said he would come to visit me, but it never happened.

That June was the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. I stayed in New York for the celebration and marched up 5th avenue with ACT UP in the “alternative” parade that went past St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The official parade was rerouted up Broadway to avoid the church. I remember the sea of people, stretching down the avenue both directions as far as I could see, and the signs of protest and the many many people carrying giant pictures of the ones they loved who were gone, who we would never see again.

Michael Henderson
Still from A March in June, 1994

There used to be a section in the New York Times called North River Arrivals and Departures.  It listed the passenger ships docking on the Hudson with times and destinations. Apparently, the Hudson was called the North River in colonial times. I liked to read those old articles. I like the anachronism of the whole thing and I like the way they looked.