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Saturday, March 26, 2011

My Letter from Elizabeth Taylor

I wrote Elizabeth Taylor in the mid-1980s when she was in Philadelphia with Richard Burton while touring with the play Private Lives. I wrote Liz a four page letter asking for an interview. I sent her an interview I did with Maureen McGovern. I received her response after the run of the play in Philadelphia (my letter arrived at the Bellevue too late). Elizabeth Taylor was an early supporter of HIV-AIDS activism.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

First a Scare, Then Some Compassionate Help--STAR column

Recently I had the opportunity to re-watch Jonathan Demme’s movie Philadelphia with Tom Hanks playing corporate lawyer Andrew Beckett who is fired from a big law firm because he has HIV-AIDS.

What struck me most about the film was the accuracy of what life was like for Philadelphians with HIV in the 1980s and early 90s. In the early 1980s, when the first cases of AIDS were reported by The New York Times, the medical community could not explain how AID was contracted. At that time people were afraid to kiss or hug one another. The situation was so bad some thought that you could catch HIV from shaking hands or sharing drinking glasses. Others thought that mosquitoes could carry the virus from one person to another.

As I listened to the movie’s theme song, “The Streets of Philadelphia,” (as sung by Bruce Springsteen) while taking in the film’s montage of city street life, I got to thinking about my walk up Lehigh Avenue a couple weeks ago. During my own gritty “montage” walk I passed panhandlers, shopkeepers with wares on the sidewalk, prostitutes under the El, and addicts looking to score.

Unlike Hanks’ character, I don’t have HIV- AIDS, but I did have a problem.

The day before, while helping a friend clean out bags of trash in an alleyway beside his house, I felt something prick my index finger. It took a second to realize what had happened: I had picked up a plastic bag containing an uncapped, used syringe. The stages of panic that then ensued—the blood draining from my head, the accelerated heart rate, and a feeling that my life could be about to change—were very pronounced indeed.

I ran inside my friend’s house, inserted my finger under warm tap water and kept it there for a long time while squeezing the small wound until the bleeding stopped. Then, as an extra measure, I applied massive doses of iodine. For years I’d read about hospital personnel getting pricked with dirty syringes, and in some of these stories the outcome was not good.

I was good and scared, and I had a right to be.

After a round of phone calls—during which a number of city public health officials expressed their sympathy and concern, a sentiment that instead of relaxing me only made me feel more fearful. It was as if they were saying, “How tragic. I hope you come out of this okay.” While they were only trying to be helpful, I took their comments to mean that I was dealing with a problem more serious than I knew.

It was strongly recommended that I get tested for both Hepatitis C and HIV. Because I don’t have health insurance, I was put in touch with Prevention Point at 166 W. Lehigh Avenue. Like most people, I’d always assumed that what Prevention Point did was distribute syringes to addicts in order to curb the spread of HIV.
Prevention Point was considered controversial when it was initiated in 1991 by then Mayor Edward Rendell. Some saw it as a “give-away” for addicts, a sort of pass to indulge their habit. But with AIDS sweeping the nation in the early Nineties, the Rendell administration saw an organized syringe exchange as an absolute necessity.

My first time look into the basement office of Prevention Point was an eye opener. Minutes after I walked in the door I was introduced to am counselor who then took me into a side room where I was given a blood test. The process was faster than any hospital emergency room, and the personnel much nicer, I was amazed at the organizational skills and the care that I observed.

. Yesterday I went back for my test results, and I was told that I was negative, although it was suggested that I undergo another test in a couple months. When I asked the counselor what would have happened if I had tested positive, she said that she would have made doctors appointments for me and saw that I received the correct care. In other words, I wouldn’t be sent away with a mere, “good-bye and good luck.”
Since its founding in 1991, Prevention Point has grown into a multi-health facility where one can get physical exams, Hepatitis A & B vaccinations, intense harm reduction counseling, and legal and medical referrals. And I have probably just touched the tip of the iceberg.

Thank you, Prevention Point!

Now I think I’m going to go back to my computer to listen to Springsteen’s Philadelphia.

Crossing the Line When it Comes to Public Anger; STAR column

It’s not unusual these days to witness public displays of anger (or PDA’s). Unlike public displays of affection (which range from the sentimental to the exhibitionistic), public temper tantrums are often embarrassing.

Recently I went into a Center City Wendy’s for a bite to eat, but no sooner did I give my order to the young cashier than a woman walked up to me from the far side of the restaurant and said, “You broke in front of the line. You took my place.” Her tone was gruff and challenging.

“I didn’t see you till just now,” I said.

“You broke in the line!” another woman shouted. I looked for the cashier who had waved me forward but suddenly she was conveniently out of sight. “I did not break the line,” I said defensively, feeling like a two year old. “Yes you did,” the first woman said, gearing up for a fight.

Sometimes it’s wise to take the high road and concede defeat rather than risk bodily harm or even death over a take-out baked potato. Still, I couldn’t fathom how anyone could delude themselves into thinking that I had somehow known they were first in line when in fact they were across the room talking to a friend. The cashier, of course, should have intervened since she was the one who waved me forward. In a situation like this, the cashier has all the power. Store managers, it seems, rarely train cashiers in line management techniques.

The psychology of waiting in line, according to Dr. Dick Larson of NPR’s ‘Talk of the Nation,’ “…can be boring and annoying, and it can even lead to queue rage.”

Like road rage, “queuing up” rage is alive and well in the City of Brotherly love, as evidenced by yet another “line” implosion I experienced about a week ago at the local Aramingo Avenue Wawa.

I had gone, as I do most mornings, to purchase a large Hazelnut coffee. On this particular day I headed for the shortest line, vaguely aware of a man in a bandana standing several feet away but with his back to the queue. Because he was equi-distant between two lines as well as a fair distance away, I assumed he was a) debating which line to join, or b) looking at someone or something in the store. It would have been clear to anyone that he was not ready to checkout.

But once my line started to move, the guy jumped behind me with his girlfriend, who seemed to appear from nowhere. He then began talking about rude people who break in front of people.

How could I not speak up? “I thought you were trying to decide which line to join because you were standing so far away,” I said.

My choice of words irked him, so instead of saying “Okay, buddy, no problem,” (at which point I would have given him my place); he simmered like hot volcanic ash. “No, no, no, you are a rude person.”

“You had your back to this line and you were standing way over there,” I said. “Aren’t you being nasty?”

“At least I’m not a girl,” he said loudly.

When Larry King called fellow TV journalist Anderson Cooper a “she,” he was making a joke. The guy in pirate drag, however, was dead serious. My dress that day was a corduroy jacket and tie, which may have some connection to a form of lesbian dress in Kentucky. The truth is, I looked more like a tweedy bookworm than a Barbie Doll although I did manage to run my hand over my chest to indicate its flatness (and non girlishness), before asking him, “What are you talking about?”

“You know,” he sneered, “The gay lifestyle!” His girlfriend, turning a scarlet red, kept her head lowered.

For many men these are fighting’ words. Think of all the barroom brawls, cracked mirrors, smashed egos and chairs; not to mention broken noses and fat lips that have resulted from this classic a Nethanderal challenge. I studied the pirate in disbelief, unsure of what to say other than “Better gay than stupid.” As it turned out, I said nothing, opting instead to switch to another line where I paid for my coffee and then put on my leather gloves, a maneuver that—amazingly—seemed to make him nervous, as if he was expecting me to pull out a revolver and start shooting.

Twenty minutes later, on the 15 trolley, I took comfort in the fact that if I ever had any doubts about my gender in the future, all I had to do was look at the ‘M’ on my Septa transpass.