East 57th Street: The Beginning of the End

It was a crisp fall evening in New York City. The year 1986. I had, in the proverbial sense, arrived, and was living my childhood dream. After years of holding a vision through junior high, high school, and two years of Dutchess Community College, I had finally made my way to New York City as a transfer student at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

I was a theater major, and soon to be actor, singer, dancer, waiter. It was a very exciting time for me as a young artist. What better city could there be than New York to study live theater. Of course, there were other great theater cities in the world – like London – but I was a young American artist, so New York was the perfect destination for me to begin my artistic training.

The thought of being part of the rich theater scene at that time was intoxicating. There was “A Chorus Line,” “La Cage Aux Folles,” and “42nd Street” on Broadway. Off Broadway there was the avante garde La Mama Theater Club doing “The Gospel at Colonus,” which would launch the career of Morgan Freeman when it made its way to Broadway two years later. Playwright David Mamet was “born,” soon to be one of America’s great playwrights, and a cute little show called “Little Shop of Horrors” was playing at the Orpheum. Uptown there was Peter Martins and Jerome Robbins, two of the greatest choreographers of our time who had taken over the New York City Ballet after George Balanchine’s passing in 1983. They were both Co-Ballet Masters in Chief at that time. In the art world Warhol was legend, with Keith Harring plastering the most insanely beautiful graffiti art all over the city. By 1986 he had opened The Pop Show on West Broadway in Soho, where the public could now buy his work that was otherwise installed on public buildings and other public properties all over the city. Madonna released her third album “True Blue” which included “Papa Don’t Preach,” and “Open Your Heart.” Madonna was the sound track of our gay lives, well really all our lives, in New York City at that time.

My arrival in New York brought so many firsts for me including my very first all-male cocktail party. On that crisp fall evening in 1986, with the smell of smoked chestnuts in the air, I entered a distinguished doorman building on East 57th Street. This was an older prewar building. When we stepped off the elevator my friend David and I walked down a quiet, well-manicured hallway done up with crown moldings, mahogany wall tables and gilded sconces. I was not in Poughkeepsie anymore. I would later learn the cleanliness and caliber of hallways in Manhattan were a telltale sign of either care or neglect, moneyed folk or starving artist. This hallway was all money.

The door to the apartment home we were about to enter was inlaid with woodwork that had been artfully designed and crafted for both security and aesthetic. It would both welcome a CEO and keep out a burglar. But the true height of the art would be revealed behind this gilded door.

My friend David and I rang the bell. We had one more moment to primp our hairs and say good-bye to our innocence. When the door opened we were greeted briefly and ushered into a new world of Fabulous neither of us could have ever prepared for.

The apartment was filled with gay men from every part of the New York City art and business scene. Broadway performers, Wall Street brokers, and interior designers. It was a who’s who of the most creative gay minds of Manhattan, and it was this same group of men in the years to come who would all but disappear due to the devastating effects of AIDS, which was taking center stage in New York and acting as a most tragic common denominator among all these beautiful souls.

For us younger gay men at the time, new to the city, we would watch with a horrific and stunned disbelief as a whole generation of gay men was wiped out. We lost friends our age, but the vast majority was the generation just ahead of us – the boomers. We were Gen X’ers. It was the boomers who were devastated. Well, we were all devastated.

I’ll never forget a visit I had to the city some ten years later after moving to Los Angeles. It was the first time in many years I had been back to the city. I was walking with one of my college roommates Michael, and we commented on a very handsome “older” man, a daddy type, who walked by us. I looked at Michael and said, “That’s a hot older guy.” He said, “They’re back.” I said, “That’s wild.” And Michael said, “They’re us.” We stared at one another, both recognizing on a very deep level what this meant. We had weathered the AIDS storm and lived to the next stage of our lives, and now we were the age of the generation of gay men that had been taken. It was a sobering awareness, one that left us both silent for several blocks as we walked through this west side Chelsea neighborhood, an awareness that got etched in our consciousness, and one that had forever changed us. For me, I was grateful and nostalgic in a most heartfelt way. These men who passed were our brother, or “sisters” as some might say, our lovers, and they were other people’s sons, brothers, uncles, cousins, and best friends. Some were fathers. While it’s easy to think this significant loss of men was something that happened only to the gay community, it was so much bigger than that.

That virgin night for me on East 57th street was the beginning of the end for many of those men. And for those of us who survived the AIDS crisis it was the beginning of a new world in which we learned love could equal death, friends can sometimes trump family, and never, ever can we take what we have, including our lives, for granted.

I truly believe this stunned many people of my generation, both gay and straight. And I was lucky. I could count on two hands the number of friends I lost during this time. This was minor compared with those individuals who saw large swathes of their world disappear. I remember hearing stories of 20 or 30 friends lost, and it became common to hear the phrase, “I just can’t go to another memorial service.”

As kids in college at the time, we did what we could. An AIDS benefit, participating in an Act-Up demonstration. For me it was such a dichotomy of trying to begin my young life while so many people were dying around me. We were so full of life, and yet colored with a rather gruesome reality of our city, our community of artists, and really all our lives at that time.

I know for myself, and this is a more recent discovery for me, I shut part of myself down and built a protective wall around my heart. Love was scary. Love could kill me. Today, this is a scare that has needed tending with loving compassion and awareness. Back then, it was a reality that we faced as young people with every step we took in the city. We lost acting teachers, choreographers, and men from every walk of life. People we worked with in restaurants died. Friends of friends. Fellow performers gone. All a devastating reality of life in New York City in the late eighties.

That beautifully decorated apartment on East 57th street is etched in my memory. It had fabric walls, something this boy from Poughkeepsie had never seen before. I was mesmerized. But what I remember most were the vibrant souls of the men at this gathering. They dressed with panache, all of them expressing their creativity in their beautifully tailored clothing. They were handsome men, well groomed, elegant even, the kind of man I would aspire to be. But what I remember most was how kind they were. These were men who talked to me, asked me my name, what I did. Maybe they knew I was new to the world of New York City’s gay life, or maybe they just recognized a young one of their kind and took mercy.

The one man I will never forget was a Broadway dancer, which was something I aspired to be at that time. He was Latino, very handsome, and he wore a burnt orange turtle neck for warmth. I remember his dark hair, skin, and eyes, and the fact that he seemed to have arrived in his life. He was where I wanted to be, to get to. Making a living doing his art. He encouraged me to pursue my dreams of performing. He shared a piece of his life experience with me. And then, he was gone.

Whenever I imagine this beautiful night, I see a slow motion time lapsed film where the room slowly empties out. One by one, the men at this party disappear from frame, each one flying up to the heavens.

His shoulders are the ones I stand on today. He, and this whole group of men, paved the way for my generation. They lived and loved courageously, and out loud. They were men throwing off the prejudice and repression of all that came before them in their early lives. They were unapologetic in this expression of loving. Many would be our greatest advocates during this time of crisis – Vito Russo, Paul Monette, and Larry Kramer to name just three, and from these men and their experiences would come our greatest healing.

So East 57th was, for me, the beginning of the end. But with each ending comes a new beginning. Even if it takes thirty years to start. Writing this book (this blog is an excerpt from a forthcoming book of mine) was my new start. Maybe I’m a late bloomer, but better late than never. Time takes time. And maybe, just maybe, the best is yet to come.

Barry Alden Clark has coached thousands of individuals in connecting more deeply with their hearts, their life purpose, and helped create a pathway for these folks to move forward in a direction more aligned with who they truly are. He & his creative partner Eliza Swords are currently delivering uplifting content on social media every Wednesday via “Best Day Ever with Barry and Eliza”, a Facebook and You-Tube phenomenon reaching thousands of people around the world. They are also inspiring love and joy through creating heartfelt and entertaining content via their production company Pure Honey Ink. Currently they have projects in development for social media, film, television and publishing. You can reach Barry at www.barryaldenclark.com.