This past Sunday was my first time attending Visual AIDS’ Last Address Tribute Walk, a yearly walking tour that honors artists lost to AIDS-related causes, as well as sites of cultural and activist AIDS-related histories, with a doorstop reading and red rose deposited at their former residences. This year’s event scattered across Times Square, staking out five sites marked by AIDS in the neighborhood: the last addresses of Reinaldo Arenas and Reza Abdoh on West 44th Street; the Capri Theatre on 8th Ave; Stella’s Bar on West 47th Street; and dance club Escuelita on West 39th Street.
I remember which stairwell to ascend at the 42nd Street subway stop. I’m familiar with this route because my first copy editing job was at Conde Nast back in the mid-aughts, when it was still in Times Square. I worked at Men’s Vogue, a thoroughly confusing imprint, that catered to some made-up heterosexual male reader with an interest in shoes made from rare alligator belly or the history of Nantucket Red. It was the first time I had ever met people with two last names aka White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs). I got hired because the copy chief, Kerry Fried, a grumpy lesbian who couldn’t eat legumes, was impressed with my colon usage. Neither Kerry nor Men’s Vogue made it to Conde’s next address, World Trade Center One, another site of the city’s desired future.
I scuttle down 42nd Street to the Empire AMC 25, which was once a Broadway theater named the Etlinge, becoming a burlesque theater during the Depression, then a movie theater called the Empire in 1942. At the beginning of the revitalization of Times Square in 1997, it was turned into a 25-screen multiplex. It was also located 168 feet east of its current location; the engineers stipulated that the entire theater, 7.4 million pounds, be picked up and moved down the street, which according to the New York Times, they thought was “no big deal.”
What a strange place for a Visual AIDS event. The movie theater lobby is apocalyptic: lost souls like me milling around looking for a real, live human rather than a kiosk. I go to ask an officious looking woman sitting at a black tableclothed table but as I get closer I see her American Girl and M&M store bags; she’s on her phone and just getting her shit together. I scale the almost infinite escalators until I finally find someone who can indeed confirm the event. The top floors are desolate and dirty, cold, smelling of popcorn and pee. I could be in Penn Station or a sort of expanded Starbucks or an AMC anywhere in the city — these liminal sites of abandoned/failed revitalization where people go to pee, send texts, charge their phones — that now stand in for “old New York.” I finally get to theater 22, which is packed on this rainy day, and snag a seat on the floor.
How did the “revitalization of Times Square” begin? On the screen, a wonderfully funny and sardonic Entertainment Weekly segment explains that it all started with Walt Disney. In 1995, the company was willing to take a risk on the area to the tune of 38 million dollars with its renovation of the hulking New Amsterdam theater, despite the fact that as “recently as four years ago there were 47 porn shops on 42nd Street.”
Rudy Giuliani explains further (as the audience hisses): “The fact is that prostitution is not part of New York, drug dealing … mugging are not part of New York … if those sex shops weren’t removed, you wouldn’t have Lion King in there, and you wouldn’t have Ragtime.” The audience groans.
“A sleazy Times Square has always been a part of New York,” a historian on the Entertainment Weekly segment counters, offering evidence of the 63 brothels known in the area in 1901. After the films, we move on to a live reading by Samuel Delaney from Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. Delaney reminds us: At the time of its writing gay men were only described in one of two ways in the press: “responsible gay men” or “irresponsible gay men.”
We walk in a loose though steadfast crowd down Eighth Avenue to Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas’s last address at 328 W. 44th St. The writer Jaime Manrique begins to talk about his dear friend on the doorstep, “What can I say about Reinaldo?” They met through their shared literary agent and became good friends; the only time Reinaldo yelled at him was when Jaime said to him: “You live here now you have to forget about Cuba!”; in his lifetime he had to practically give away his books; he hated New York, saying, “I left the hell of Cuba and came to hell of Manhattan”; he had scores of locks on his front door because he was scared Castro was after him.
The last time Jaime went to visit him he didn’t know it would be the last time. He told him he had finished his memoir, Before Night Falls, which he’d dictated into a recorder because he was too ill to write. When Jaime got home that night, his partner Bill Sullivan said, “Reinaldo is going to kill himself.” And in the next couple days, he did.
I walk with Ira Sachs, whose film Last Address inspired Visual AIDS Programs Director Alex Fialho to create the Tribute Walks. Ira and I talk about the task of having to describe a friend, a friendship, a life’s work, in twenty minutes, how it could never feel adequate and you would never know when to stop talking.
As we walk on Eighth Avenue to the next stop, Ira points out the site of the old Adonis theater between 50th and 51st, and says
a spectacular cinema that was a playground for gay men but was torn down and replaced with a giant skyscraper in the 1980s. You can see it there, the Worldwide Plaza. It reminds me of how my childhood swimming pool got buried and built over, how childhood gets buried, how we try to bury these places because they are places of shame.
Samuel Delaney now reads to us from his essay “On the Unspeakable: the Capri Theater, 1987” at the site of the old theater which is now a parking lot. With his Zabar’s bag in tow, Delaney explains his treatise on the trope of the unspeakable and the everyday, citing himself “a 45-year-old black, gay male who cruises the commercial porn theaters along Eighth Avenue and above 43rd Street in the mid and late 1980s,” as its peripatetic case study. We see what he saw: someone a row over “shaking in a masturbatory frenzy”; a cum shot as “shiny as snot from a November freeze”; and finally, “Hyperbole is the figure of the everyday. Euphemism is the figure of the unspeakable.” This last statement I have not been able to stop thinking about since.
I walk over to the third stop with artist Frederick Weston, who will give the next reading on the tour in homage to Stella’s — a long-shuttered hustler bar on 47th, where Weston worked and documented the swagger of the clientele: “a fabulous mix of high and low and the best drag queens you ever saw,” many of whom would die from AIDS. I’ve had the privilege to write about Fred Weston’s work (his solo show at Gordon Robichaux, where I work, is up till June 16) and so I know about his job at Stella’s and the art that he made out of it. “Night Blooming Flowers,” is a sampling of the collection of Polaroids with which Fred papered the coat check closet at Stella’s when he worked there.
He tells me that back when he worked in Times Square he was way “too much of a prude to walk down Eighth Avenue, where the ‘element,’ was so I would walk down Broadway instead.” I ask him if walking on Eighth feels in any way the same as it did back then and he says, yes. But I already knew that because I have felt this way the entire walk, felt the air around me become self-conscious and coy as its pasts are described.
In front of Stella’s, Fred recalls the bar as if it were an old friend, gesturing to it and talking about it with fondness and longing. He reads from a write-up of it by Bruce Benderson that mentioned Fred by name. He tells us that on 9/11, when he was looking for a place to go the only place that was open was Stella’s and his HIV Day Treatment Center. The gay bar as church: It never closes.
I think back to the screening at the Empire. One of the shorts was interview footage of the great Reza Abdoh, director and playwright of experimental theater that dealt with themes of pain, horror, sexuality and AIDS. Abdoh talked about the context of his work:
By understanding crime and destruction, it’s like a key to the culture; violence plays a very important part in American psyche, the murders, the wars, the way media presents crime, people are desperate for their lives to be enriched in some way. And that’s not just America, it’s everywhere.
Giuliani and Disney tried to erase Times Square’s past. But the past is still talking, and demanding that we puzzle over it: “Hyperbole is the figure of the everyday. Euphemism is the figure of the unspeakable.”