Longform

THE END OF THE LINE

part 1 of 2
A light snow was falling as Richard Games entered the Catholic church on Palm Sunday. He dipped his fingers in holy water and crossed himself. Near the front of the sanctuary he knelt and crossed himself again. Then he rose, moved to his seat and began to pray.

Bowing his gaunt head and clasping his hands, he asked for the strength to get through another day...another week. The virus he carries is so demanding that it is all he can do to get out of bed each morning. But someone needs to keep the prayer candles burning for those who live with AIDS--and those who have died from it.

For Vern, the first of the friends that he would usher into the next world. For his beloved Danny. For 112 friends and lovers whose faces and voices he'll never see and hear again...at least not on this side of the abyss.

And there surely are more casualties among the thousands of men he's had sex with over the past thirty years. Hardly a month passes that he doesn't hear of another acquaintance dying. He's afraid to call or send Christmas cards to out-of-town friends; he doesn't want to hear a mechanical voice tell him the line has been disconnected or have the card returned with a "no forwarding address" stamp. He'd rather not know. It saps his strength for his own fight.

Yet as he knelt and prayed, he knew that the cross he bears is to live longer than so many of his generation of gays. To bear witness to the past as a warning to the future.

The rituals are important, one of the chief reasons he converted to Catholicism four years ago. It is as if by ritual he can force the days to come and go, one following the next. Forever.

He doesn't mind that he performs these rituals in a church that considers the act of homosexuality a mortal sin. To him, this is no more a contradiction than the photographs of homosexual lovers that hang near the dozen crucifixes in his tiny apartment. At confession he asks the priests for forgiveness of his sins, but making love to other men is not one of them. That is between him and his God.

He is far more disturbed by the cruelty of a few parishioners who sometimes move when he sits down in their pew. Always one to speak his mind, he told the church secretary earlier in the week that he would be changing to a parish with more gays in the congregation. He would attend the church for the last time on Palm Sunday, he said, only so that he could say goodbye to Father Darrell Schaffer.

"It's not everyone, Ric," the secretary said. But the few were enough to make him feel unwelcome and that, too, saps the energy he needs to live.

Six months ago, after yet another friend died, he despaired. Calling Father Dan Bohte, the priest who'd confirmed him three months after Ric tested positive for HIV in March 1990, he begged for an explanation. "Why am I still alive?"

"That is not your question to ask," Father Bohte gently chided. "Just accept it. Maybe you still have something to do or say, and your task here is not yet complete."
Father Bohte was right. As a new member of Mayor Wellington Webb's HIV Resources Council, Ric uses what little energy he has challenging the bureaucracies that have sprung up around AIDS services. And he worries that the emphasis on safe sex is waning, particularly among young gays. He has seen them at the Denver bathhouses, eschewing safe sex for the passion of the moment. For some of them, the more than 200,000 Americans who have died from AIDS are mere statistics.

The young men remind Ric of himself and other members of the generation that led the gay revolution of the Seventies. In the pride of their youth, they, too, believed they were immortal. Now it is up to him, at 46, and to other survivors of that era to remember those who have gone before.

Waiting for mass to begin, Ric picked up the program for Holy Week. One of the day's readings from Isaiah seemed particularly appropriate. "My face I did not shield from buffets and spitting. The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced..."

At the altar, Father Schaffer prepared the bread and wine for the Eucharist. The congregation rose and moved to the aisles.

As Ric walked slowly toward the priest, he reminded himself not to cry, knowing that he would probably fail.

Ric was sixteen years old the first time he had sex. A businessman cruised him in an adult bookstore, and they wound up in a by-the-hour hotel room for the rest of the afternoon. At school in Wisconsin, he dated women and made love to several as he struggled to fit in, but he always preferred men. He dreamed of someday visiting San Francisco's Castro district, one of the few places in the mid-Sixties where being openly gay was accepted.

The Seventies ushered in a new era for homosexuals, particularly in big cities with large gay and lesbian populations, such as New York, Chicago and Denver. Not every homosexual came out of the closet, and many who did preferred to live quietly monogamous lives. But for thousands of young men, the shock troops of the gay rights movement, it was a time to test the boundaries of their freedom.

Their licentiousness was epitomized by the soaring popularity of gay bathhouses, a $100 million sex industry by the end of the decade in the United States and Canada. Customers were mostly white, well educated, upper-middle-class gays who had the money to travel and whose lifestyle often included coast-to-coast bathhouse parties with stopovers in Denver.

After college Ric moved to Grand Junction, where in 1973 he took a job in a local institution for the mentally retarded. He hated it that his clients were often treated as less than human--as a homosexual, he was all too familiar with that--and he soon earned a reputation as a vocal advocate for their rights.

When he discovered that his supervisor was beating clients with belts, he turned her in and was subsequently fired. But Ric fought for his job and was reinstated after a hearing where he was exonerated and his supervisor was issued a warning. His victory didn't ease Ric's testy relationship with some members of the staff.

It was a difficult time, both professionally and personally. While gays were pushing the boundaries in large urban areas, Ric had to explore his sexuality in Grand Junction's parks and truck stops, resenting the secrecy and guilt that went with these hurried trysts.

Then a lover told him about Denver's bathhouses. It was hard to believe there were places where men were encouraged to have sex with other men; Ric made up his mind to give them a try.

On a Friday night in 1974 Ric walked through the doors of Empire Tubs, on East Colfax. He asked the attendant at the front desk for a room and paid $6 for a twelve-hour pass. Once in his room, he removed his clothing, wrapped himself in a towel...and stayed put.

For half an hour he lay on the bed trying to summon the nerve to leave. Above the piped-in disco music, he could hear moans, groans and other sexual sounds coming through the thin walls. This is silly, he told himself. I paid the money. I should at least take a walk and see what's going on.

Once outside his room, he found himself in a maze of walls, rooms and male bodies. Everywhere he looked, everywhere he tried to walk, men were having sex. One on one. Two on one. Foursomes and more. Ric ended up staying for two days, happily paying for each additional twelve-hour period. He ate his meals from vending machines and plugged his ears with Kleenex when he needed to sleep.

He was hooked. He visited Denver's bathhouses whenever he got the chance--sometimes two or three times a month for several days at a time.

In 1980 he got a job at a state institution for the mentally retarded in Wheat Ridge and moved to Denver. It wasn't San Francisco, but the Queen City of the Plains had become a place where men could hold hands and kiss in public--daring the public to react.

Occasionally Ric cruised Cheesman Park and the malls. But he would also spend several nights a week and entire weekends in the bathhouses, tripping on LSD, experimenting with all the latest sexual crazes. There was the Empire, and the Zuni in northwest Denver. And he especially loved the Ballpark on Broadway, which had a thirty-foot waterfall that poured into an indoor swimming pool. In the Ballpark's tubs and beds, Ric could find sex any time of the day or night with men from all over the country--even the world--as the establishment's reputation grew.

Several times a year Ric made his own pilgrimages to the bathhouses in San Francisco or New York. Not even repeated doses of syphilis and gonorrhea slowed him down.

By the mid-Seventies the combination of multiple partners and coast-to-coast mobility had created an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases in the community of self-proclaimed "fast-lane" gays. Anal intercourse and rimming (oral/anal contact) led to gastrointestinal diseases. Active gay men had a 20 percent chance of contracting hepatitis B--passed through sexual contact or shared needles--within a year, and a virtual certainty of infection within five years. A survey conducted by Denver public-health officials in the late Seventies found that the average bathhouse patron had 2.7 sexual contacts a night and stood a 33 percent chance of leaving the establishment with syphilis or gonorrhea.

Gay physicians grew alarmed at the prospect of a truly dangerous disease insinuating itself in the bathhouse crowd, and they issued warnings at conferences in San Francisco and New York. But few members of the gay community were ready to listen.

The first time Ric was infected with a sexually transmitted disease, he didn't even know it. He was at the public-health clinic in Grand Junction for an ear problem when the doctor noticed a rash on his chest and hands: Ric had an advanced case of syphilis. The doctor left the examination room and sent in a public-health nurse, who was supposed to get the names of Ric's sexual partners in order to notify them of their possible infection.

"How many times have you had sex with another man in the past ninety days?" the young, red-faced nurse asked.

Ric hesitated. "Does that have to be accurate or can I approximate?"
The nurse seemed confused. "How about within two or three?"
"Um, well, then approximately 128," Ric answered. The nurse dropped her pen and rushed from the room.

Ric shrugged as she retreated. It wasn't like they were going to be able to notify his sexual partners, anyway. Most of them he didn't know by name. The anonymity of bathhouse sex was a big part of the attraction. Hell, the Ballpark had a "Glory Hole" room, with holes drilled into the walls so that a man couldn't see the person he was having sex with on the other side. Later, Ric joked with friends that he was a walking microbe factory. He settled into what had become a common practice for sexually promiscuous members of the gay community: blood tests every three months and a dose of penicillin when needed.

In 1980 Ric was diagnosed with hepatitis B, which left him feeling tired. He was warned that repeated exposure could lead to liver disease. Again he shrugged: Such was the price of freedom.

Ric didn't know it, but the party was already over. Two years earlier, three of his friends in San Francisco had come down with what a handful of doctors and researchers were calling "gay cancer." Within months the disease was identified as a syndrome that weakened the body's immune system, allowing the invasion of opportunistic infections such as Kaposi's sarcoma and pneumocystis carinii, the so-called gay cancer and gay pneumonia, as well as a dozen others. The disease rarely killed quickly, instead making small forays into the brain, the lungs and the bones and whittling away at life.

Soon Ric heard reports of other friends and former lovers succumbing in New York, Chicago, Key West and what seemed to be the entire West Coast. But no one could say with certainty what caused the disease or how one became infected.

In 1981 researchers with the Centers for Disease Control warned that the disease seemed to be following the same routes of infection as hepatitis B. That meant it was likely blood-borne and transmitted through sex and contaminated needles. Gay men who had been infected with hepatitis B were good candidates for this new terror, the CDC said.

By January 1982 the disease had a name: gay-related immune deficiency. A month later the CDC reported that 251 Americans had been diagnosed with GRID; 99 had died. In July the disease got a new name, to reflect the fact that it was no longer killing just gay men: acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS. The CDC reported 471 cases of AIDS and 184 deaths.

In Denver's bathhouses, AIDS was a frequent topic of discussion for Ric and his friends, but no one seemed to know quite what to do. The Ballpark had begun placing a large fishbowl filled with free condoms at the front desk, requesting that its customers practice "safe sex," maybe even use latex gloves for fisting. But the fishbowl remained full. Instead of trying to prevent the spread of the disease, bathhouse gays fixated on the rumor that the government had finally found a way to get rid of all the queers.

Ric was getting worried. Even if no one wanted to admit it, it had to be the sex. And by his estimate, he'd already screwed a few thousand men from a couple dozen cities and countries.

"What if we started using condoms?" Ric asked a group of friends one evening as they were discussing whether the CIA had planted some deadly bug in the New York City subway system--a bug that preyed on homosexuals and minorities.

"No one would want to have sex with you," one of the men laughed. Ric smiled. "Oh Gawd, no," he shrieked in his best drag-queen falsetto. "That would be worse than death."
Still, many of Ric's gay friends were dropping out of the fast lane and into monogamous relationships. And in the spring of 1983, Ric himself fell in love.

It was Thursday night at the Ballpark. Ric, who was there so often he'd become something of a one-man welcoming committee, spotted a new face in the crowd. Its owner stood apart from the festivities. Ric went over and asked why.

"I never get fucked," the man said sadly.
"Honey," Ric said, "in here, everybody gets fucked." And proceeded to prove his point.

The man was Ed, a 46-year-old accountant with a Denver firm who was new to the bathhouse scene. When he called Ric a week later, it was obvious that there was a greater connection between them than the sex.

In June Ric moved from his Capitol Hill apartment into Ed's place at the corner of Tenth and Logan, with its view of downtown and the Rockies. There the two men settled into the routines of a faithful couple--grocery shopping, movies, quiet nights at home reading. Driving home from work one night, Ric thought about how happy he was that someone would be waiting for him. He surprised himself by admitting that he could spend the rest of his life with Ed.

He didn't get to. They were making love one night in October when Ed suddenly tensed and stopped breathing. Panicked, Ric slapped his lover repeatedly, screaming his name. He couldn't remember to dial 911 but called his boss, who called for the ambulance.

It arrived too late. Ed had suffered a massive heart attack and died on the way to the hospital, leaving behind a mother, a sister, two sons from a previous marriage and his grieving lover. In a way, though, Ed was lucky. He wouldn't have to witness the tragedy that was about to strike the men he loved.

On November 21, 1983, the Centers for Disease Control reported 2,803 cases of AIDS in America; 1,146 people had died. But there was only one death that had meaning to Ric: Ed's. He was consumed with grief and cried for days. After burying Ed in Michigan, Ric returned to Denver and moved into a smaller apartment in the same building. He liked the building and had many friends there, but it was too much to walk into the apartment he'd shared with Ed, knowing that he wouldn't be there.

When he finally emerged from his cocoon, it was to lose himself in LSD and the bodies of strangers at the Ballpark. He would trip for days at a time; lovers came and went in a swirl of faces and voices.

Meanwhile, AIDS cases were starting to add up in Denver. Ric would hardly have noticed--except that bathhouse attendants were falling ill or simply disappearing. It took the death of one such worker to bring Ric back from one grief, only to replace it with one even more devastating.

Vern, an attendant at Empire Tubs since Ric began coming to Denver, was rumored to have the disease. He was an older man, the sort of guy who liked his booze and sex whenever his shift was over.

One evening someone overheard Vern at the symphony telling a friend that he had pneumocystis carinii. Confronted by other friends later, he denied having HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. But he continued to waste away, losing more than thirty pounds in a few months.

Over breakfast at a downtown restaurant one morning, the subject of Vern's health became the focus of conversation. Someone argued that Vern would have told them if he had AIDS. After all, many of them had known him as a lover.

But Ric knew that even in the tight-knit gay community, AIDS meant ostracism and a lonely wait for an ugly death. "No, he wouldn't," Ric told the group. "He's afraid that we'd be the kind of people who would leave him if we knew."

The gathering grew uncomfortably quiet. It was hard to acknowledge such a sad truth, but Ric was right. The question loomed large: If the time came, who was going to be there for them?

One day Vern disappeared. Ric and his friends frantically searched the bathhouses, the parks, the gay bars. When Vern showed up two weeks later, he told them he'd driven to Idaho intending to stay but had returned to Denver in order to die with friends.

"I didn't want you to see me like this," Vern told Ric. "I wanted you to remember me the way I was."
"This is part of you, too," Ric said, putting his arm around his friend's shoulders and promising to stick with him to the end.

It came quickly. For the last nine days of his life Vern was able to breathe only with the aid of a ventilator as the pneumocystis bacteria filled his lungs, suffocating him. It was obvious to Ric that fighting the disease was only prolonging the older man's agony.

"I'm going to miss you, Vern," Ric told his friend as the ventilator clicked mechanically in the background. "But it's okay to let go." The two men hugged and cried. Vern died that night.

As he wept alone in his bed, Ric now had a face, a voice, a memory to attach to the growing list of AIDS victims. It made the disease much more terrifying.

When the CDC released its newest statistics in April 1984, Vern's death was included in the tally: a total of 4,177 cases of AIDS, 1,807 of them fatal. That same month U.S. Department of Health Secretary Margaret Heckler made it official: AIDS was a blood-borne virus that could be transmitted through sex.

By then the Colorado AIDS Project was already two years old. Founded in 1982 by Julian Rush, a former minister who was ousted by his congregation when he announced he was gay, CAP had become a national leader in providing services to people living with HIV. But even as CAP worked to serve and educate the gay community, many of its members ignored the message.

Despite the horrors of AIDS, Ric and his friends clung desperately to their lifestyle. They decided that reduced exposure would keep them safe. So they still went to the bathhouses--just not as often. They still had sex with strangers--just not as many. They still refused to wear condoms. And they still were dying.

They circled the wagons and withdrew into groups of "fuck buddies," believing there was safety in smaller numbers. The deaths didn't stop. It wasn't until 1985, shortly after the Ballpark closed, that Ric Games began using condoms and refusing to have sex with anyone who didn't.

But it was too late.

end of part 1

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