David Wojnarowicz, in his memoir Close to the Knives, which was published just one year before his death due to AIDS-related illnesses, devastatingly conveys the brutal truth of life as a gay man living in New York City during the AIDS epidemic. This time period and plague has long fascinated me; New York had represented an almost mystical place in my mind, a place where cultures collided and people of all walks of life could come to manifest their dreams, yet movies like How to Survive a Plague and plays like Angels in America and The Normal Heart soon showed me that, for certain communities, New York was a place of horror in the ’80s. A generation of young people was dying, and the government did not care about finding a cure. In the chapter “Living Close to the Knives,” Wojnarowicz painfully recounts the death of his friend Peter, including the frustration they felt from meeting with quack doctors, the slow deterioration of Peter’s body and mind, and the survivor’s guilt Wojnarowicz experienced while watching his peers fall. Instead of focusing on the bleak, however, I have chosen to analyze a passage from the end of the chapter in which Wojnarowicz discovers that a certain freedom comes with living on the “edge of mortality.”1
The passage begins with a revelation: “Before leaving the city to go someplace else for a long time, the city would suddenly change . . . Wonderful things tended to happen or reveal themselves in the days before departure.”2 This phenomenon, a nostalgia for something right before it must end, is common, yet Wojnarowicz is not just referring to leaving the city: He is referring to the release he experiences knowing he is so close to death. Wojnarowicz goes on to describe the “Other World” and the “World,” a kind of parallel universe he found himself in amidst the AIDS crisis, in which all of the comforts of everyday life suddenly disappeared. Wojnarowicz embraces the World and uses the imagery of water to let his audience in on the experience of living on borrowed time: “Where once I felt acutely alien, now it’s more like an immersion in a body of warm water and the water that surrounds me is air, is breathing, is life itself.”3 He is continuing on with life, experiencing the pleasant sensation of being surrounded by warm water, yet he is suffocated and unable to float. This seems to be a common theme in Wojnarowicz’s writing on AIDS; later on he describes being immersed once again, “The edge of death and dying is around everything like a warm halo of light sometimes dim sometimes irradiated.”4 The comparison to immersion reveals the all-encompassing toll of AIDS on the community. The activism, medical research, and care that was needed to try to end this crisis became a full-time job in which participation was mandatory if you wanted to keep yourself and your friends alive. Still, Wojnarowicz manages to write about the silver lining of this horrific period: Impending death gave him and his peers a mandate to create as much as possible in what time they had left. In fact, Wojnarowicz seems to have reached his peak when he knew he was writing on a fatal deadline: “Every painting or photograph or film I make, I make with the sense that it may be the last thing I do and so I try and pull everything in to the surface of that action. I work quickly now and feel there is no time for bullshit.”5 This urgency mirrors the attitude of the community as a whole, desperately working to find a cure, knowing no one else would. In the documentary Larry Kramer in Love and Anger, playwright and notable AIDS activist Larry Kramer says, “Those drugs are out there because of us. And that cannot be disputed in any history that is written.”6 In “Living Close to the Knives,” Wojnarowicz uses anecdotes and imagery to realistically summon up the experience of a New York in the ’80s where you had to fight for the right to live. As I begin my life in New York, I have decided to look back at my history learning about the AIDS crisis in hopes that, like Wojnarowicz, I can learn to take advantage of the time I have left.
New York City, for all of the changes it has experienced in the four hundred years since Dutch settlement, is still the same stretch of land. Skyscrapers have risen and factories have fallen, but geographically, New Yorkers are walking the same footsteps as the Dutch settlers of the 1600s, the Greenwich Village bohemians of the 1910s, and the avant-garde artists of the 1980s. As someone enamored with history, I did not experience these thrills growing up in Southern California. Besides the San Juan Mission (a place haunted with the brutal treatment of California’s indigenous people), the oldest buildings in my town were constructed in the 1970s. Stereotypical as it is, I felt a deep connection to Greta Gerwig’s 2017 film Lady Bird, which included lines I might as well have written myself (minus the snarky teenage attitude): “I hate California. I want to go to the East Coast. I want to go where culture is like New York . . . or at least Connecticut or New Hampshire where writers live in the woods.”7 New York, like the great cities of Europe, is a living landmark. There is history on every block, and I was just as captivated with photographs of Times Square in the 1920s as I was with more recent New York culture (I distinctly remember wanting to visit Bethesda Terrace in 2013 because it was the site of Blair and Chuck’s runaway wedding on Gossip Girl). Thus, when I first began to learn about the AIDS crisis my vision of New York City changed dramatically.
There is endless footage of AIDS activism in the city and around the country in the 1980s. In the 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague, shot after shot of archival footage shows gaunt humans, skeletons of their former selves, marching through the streets of New York City pleading for the government to help them. As a semi-frequent visitor of New York, these images were harrowing. I could not comprehend how this city, a place I dreamed about my entire childhood, could be the global epicenter of one of the most horrifying medical mysteries in modern history. I was even more shocked to learn that one of the most affected areas (and the home of the ACT UP organization) was in Greenwich Village, the home of New York University. My parents, lifelong Californians who perhaps did not know about other schools in the area, had taught me that NYU was THE school to be at in the city. We took a tour of NYU’s campus when I was eleven (perhaps too early to be thinking about college), and I was hooked. I fantasized about strolls through Washington Square Park, poetry readings in West Village cafés, and field trips to the Met. However, these documentaries showed a side of New York that I desperately wished did not exist. The streets were for hot dog carts and tourists, audience members rushing to Broadway shows, and athletes jogging through Central Park, not nineteen year olds dying slowly from a disease that has no explanation.
As a new full-time resident of New York City, these images are even more disturbing. I sit on the train and imagine the scene in The Normal Heart (2014) in which Felix, a character suffering from AIDS, rides the subway home while trying to ignore the stares of fellow passengers who are seemingly disgusted by someone so sickly sitting so close to them. I walk down Christopher Street and pause in front of the Stonewall Inn, imagining the euphoria felt by the LGBTQ+ community after the Stonewall riots of 1969 ushered in the gay rights movement just two decades before an entire generation of queer people would be nearly wiped out. Sometimes I am able to disassociate myself from these pictures in my head, but I find myself remembering that this history is just 30 years in the past. I am living, for all intents and purposes, in the same New York as those young men and women who died for having sex. They took the same trains, ate at the same restaurants, and probably looked at New York City with the same awe that I do. Surely some of them were NYU students or at least NYU alumni. And they must have been so scared.
One image in particular combines my childhood visions of Manhattan, my experience learning about the AIDS crisis, and my current life in New York City. In How To Survive a Plague, one of the central figures is Bob Rafsky, an activist and father who eventually succumbed to AIDS-related complications. In the film, there is a shot of him walking hand-in-hand with his young daughter past the Martin Beck Theatre. When I first saw this moment, I was completely taken aback. As a self-proclaimed theater nerd, I spent a significant amount of my childhood reading up on musical-theater history, sometimes procrastinating by seeing how many of the forty-one Broadway theaters I could name off the top of my head (I usually got to forty-one). The Martin Beck Theatre (renamed the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in 2003) is about as historic as they come. It housed On the Town in 1945, Bye Bye Birdie in 1960, and Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods in 1987.8 My voice teacher had been in How to Succeed in Business there in 2012. I saw Rofsky walking past the theatre with his daughter on a sunny day and I imagined all of the strolls my Dad and I had taken through the theatre district thirty years later on our trips to New York. I was lucky to grow up in a sheltered suburban community in the early 2000s; I had the medical resources to protect myself from disease and loving parents to protect me from the horrors of the outside world. But as I watched that footage of Rofsky I realized that no one is safe. Even New York City, a mystical land of cosmopolitan culture and sparkling skyscrapers could not prevent the downfall of its people.
Just a few weeks ago, I was with a friend on the way to a show when I looked up and realized I was walking past the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. I paused. After taking in my surroundings, I was surprised to find that I was filled not with sorrow, but with hope. The current resident of the Al Hirschfeld is Kinky Boots, a splashy musical that celebrates drag queens and acceptance of the LGBT community. I thought about how proud the activists of the ’80s would be to know that such a queer show has been so widely acclaimed and successful, recently reaching its fifth year on Broadway. I realized that even through New York City has not changed geographically, it is worlds away from the city that it was in the 1980s. Gay marriage is legal, the streets are cleaner, and, with treatment, HIV/AIDS is no longer a death sentence.
What Wojnarowicz portrays so brilliantly in “Living Close to the Knives” is that AIDS was not just a disease but a wake-up call. None of us know when or how we will die, whether it be from old age or autoimmune disorder. Therefore, we must take advantage of those aspects of life that are under our control. We must make art and spend time with our friends and family. We mustn’t dwell on the sad. New York City is constantly changing, growing, evolving, and I intend to create my own history here while remembering the stories of those who lived and died on these city blocks in the years before me.
- David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives, (Canongate Canons, 2017), 119.
- Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives, 117.
- Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives, 118.
- Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives, 119.
- Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives, 118.
- Larry Kramer in Love and Anger, directed by Jean Carlomusto (New York, NY: HBO Documentaries, 2015.
- Lady Bird, directed by Greta Gerwig (New York, NY: A24, 2017).
- League, The Broadway. “IBDB.com.” IBDB: Internet Broadway Database, www.ibdb.com/theatre/al-hirschfeld-theatre-1262.