least favorite memory #1

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so lately i’ve been doing a lot of reading about ACT-UP & the AIDS crisis in new york city in the 80’s/early 90’s. i was around new york in that time, but i was a child being raised in a white middle class heterosexual nuclear family in the burbs, so i was mostly sheltered from that whole brou-ha-ha.

but there was this one time. i was 12 or 13, i think, although i could have been a little younger or a little older. i think i was at that angsty teen stage, which started for me at 10. i was just beginning to realize how fucked the world is, doing a little reading, hanging out with rough ladies who’d already been through a lot. but this was the day i realized, 100%, just how fucked everything really was (and is).

we had some cousins visiting from out of town, the ones from san diego i think, and so we went to the city to do tourist-y stuff. we went to the FAO schwartz store, which, if you didn’t know, is this very opulent toy store in a wealthy part of town. lots of songs, lots of things with faces. normally something i would have enjoyed, even though i was a disgruntled teen.

but outside, on the sidewalk, there was this dude. he was sitting on the sidewalk with a cardboard sign saying that he had AIDS and needed something like 50 bucks to get to florida to see his family again before he died. he was about the age i am now, white, slightly artsy, probably gay although i wasn’t looking for that yet. he was sitting on the sidewalk but leaning forward on his hands. he was crying hysterically, so hard that he was turning red, saliva dripping from his mouth in long ropes. he was screaming, in this truly desperate scream that i’ve rarely heard: “NONE OF YOU PEOPLE GIVE A SHIT! I AM DYING, AND NONE OF YOU PEOPLE GIVE A SHIT! NONE OF YOU HAVE ANY HEARTS! I’M DYING AND YOU JUST WALK ON BY!!” i stood, transfixed, utterly horrified. i think i might have cried a little too, although very subtly (years of being abused left me a very subtle crier, because i didn’t want my abusers to have the satisfaction of seeing me cry). i was just shocked at this raw humanity in front of me, at how bad life could get. my parents noticed, and hustled me away.

my mom said, “just ignore him.”

my dad said, “these people, they just want ya money! he’s not going to florida, he just wants drugs.”

and so we went into fao schwartz, where a gigantic three-story clock sang a cheerful song, where families of all types flocked around gaily, where employees with high pitched voices wished us a nice day, where cute toys smiled at us from every shelf, where everyone was brightly lit and every color of the rainbow jumped out at us. people danced on the giant piano keys and played with acres of legos. and all i could think, the whole time, was, “every single person in here saw that man. every single one. and nobody cares. he’s right, we all have no heart. he’s right.” and every little bit of artificial happiness inside the store made it even worse. to this day, i can’t go into or walk by any FAO schwartz without my skin crawling (ironically, i still love cute things, perhaps to a nauseating degree).

i cried the whole time we were there. again, very subtly, so it just looked like i was being sullen and wiping my face a lot. maybe i found a bathroom and broke down, or maybe i just held it in the whole time, i don’t really remember. all the other kidz in our party frolicked and had fun. i was silent, arms crossed. that guy wasn’t there when we left, but i felt much better once we were back on the cold, gritty streets of manhattan. at least we weren’t being completely utterly lied to. my mom asked me, “everyone had so much fun, except for you. why do you always have to ruin everything?”

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