I accepted a position as office manager of Bailey House in 1992. After two years of working at a legal service company with the responsibility of filing certificates of incorporations, amendments, mergers and UCC-1 financing statements with the Secretaries of State of all fifty states, the District of Columbia and most major U.S. territories, I was tired. Working with the disenfranchised was a career step in the right emotional direction.
My annual salary was a modest $29,000 while working in the corporate world. The charity paid more. They offered four weeks vacation and $35,000. AIDS was still a death sentence. It was a time before breakthrough drugs like AZT starting saving lives. Men who once had bodies like Greek gods were turning into skeletons from the disease. It was still a very scary time to be a gay man, and practicing what seemed like sinful sex. My community was in jeopardy. It was still horribly frightening when people got sick back then. I wanted to do something in life that could perhaps save me from such a tragic fate. I thought that eventually I was going to die from wasting syndrome too, so I took the job as a step on the path of mystical illumination.
Some people who lived at Bailey House went out in a matter of days, others seemed to last for years, but in the end, it was always the same: dementia, pealing skin, horrible coughing, blood pouring out of their eyes… Bailey House is a residence for such people– those who society seemed to forget. The place stands to this day– catering to homeless with AIDS and HIV.
Those in the grips of the disease called the place their home. To me, it was a job with purpose. The building was once a hotel with a disco on the first floor. I worked in an office that was once the coat check. Gay men who partied there could meet a lover on the dance floor and rent a room right up stairs. Times changed and the dancing stopped when the fatal kiss was placed on the cheeks of the homosexual community. Some residents who lived in the converted disco were once wealthy fashion designers and artists who spent every dime they had trying to get the best treatment possible. They ran off to Mexico for specialized treatments with hocus-pocus herbal remedies like Compound Q and spent their life savings on the hopes of a cure. With no money left to live on, Bailey House was the only comfortable answer. Others who lived there were poor black folks, people like Ray, a woman in her fifties who got the disease from a husband who poked needles in his arms.
Taking a job at Bailey House seemed like the right thing to do. Virtues seemed worth following in life back then. The suits and ties were cumbersome. I had to make a break from CT Corporation– the legal service company. My boss, Marie Graneri, was getting on my nerves anyway. I wanted out of that place despite a recent promotion to Technical Service Specialist there.
I was not on speaking terms with my boss, Mrs. Graneri. Marie was a pretty, bleached- blonde Italian, Long Island woman. She looked exactly like Madonna in her Holiday days. She was married to a guy named Mike. Marie gave me my first real taste of New York attitude one day at work after finding out that I was gay. I wanted out of that place fast.
Marie hired me two weeks after I got out of the Army. Perhaps she thought I was cute and that’s why I got the job as her administrative assistant. I don’t know. The fact is, I got the job and she had no right to turn into a nasty bitch when she learned from our co-worker, Jerry Spychala, that I was gay. Jerry ran into my lover Anthony and me at the gay bar Uncle Charlie’s in the West Village. We were having drinks with my cousin, Stephen and Jerry showed up at the bar…
“I knew it. I fucking knew it. Give me a hug, girl”
Yuck. Such a faggot, I thought. Ewww.
The next day Marie wouldn’t speak to me. She huffed and puffed over stacks of mail from Kelly, Drye and Warren and Webster & Sheffied. I knew that very instant that Jerry told her.
“Why did you accept that photograph of my sister?” Marie asked. Marie tried to hook me up with her sister. We worked right next to each other in cubicles for eight hours every day. Those conversations creep up…
“So, do you have a girlfriend.”
“Not yet,” I would reply, keeping her at bay.
“My sister is traveling from Long Island on the railroad today. She’s coming in to see where I work. Would you like to take her to lunch?”
“Sure,” I said. What harm is there in accepting an invitation to a corporate lunch break? What’s wrong with meeting someone new, a potential firend, I asked myself….play along… play along… you don’t want people finding out…I took her to lunch, as Marie suggested.
“What did you think?” Marie asked when I returned from my extended two hour lunch break.
“She was nice.”
“Do you think she was pretty?”
Moments later, Marie reached over the cubical and shoved a picture of her sister into my hands and wallet. I didn’t know how to stop her. I never wanted to tell my boss that I was gay and had a lover, but she shoved that photograph of her pretty sister with huge hair into my workplace hands.
I tried my best not to mingle with gay co-workers like Jerry Spychala, but he worked in the Good Standing Certificate department and ordered those precious corporate documents from the Secretary of State of Delaware indicating that a company was up to date on all its taxes. I had no choice but to interact with Jerry every day at work.
“You’re new here, right?”
“Where are you from?”
“Did you go to college?”
“No, I just got out of the Army.”
“Oh, that’s fierce. Hi, I’m Jerry and I’m gay. What’s your name?”
I was terrified.
Marie dealt heavily with his department too. Water cooler conversations were everywhere in the 90’s, before the internet. Jerry was CT Corporation’s social butterfly. Office gossip was all we had to live for then, and Jerry spread it like a mass e-mail to the company’s ALL distribution list.
It was a horrifying experience knowing that Jerry would gossip with Marie and tell her about where he saw me. He knew all about the date I had with Marie’s sister. Everyone in the office did. I was in the closet. I didn’t want to be out at work. Stephen and Anthony bought me at least six drinks at Uncle Charlie’s, shortly after Jerry left the bar that night. They reminded me that we live in New York City and it’s not such a big deal to be openly gay at work here.
I had no choice but to take that job at Bailey House, just to get away from the drama of Marie at CT Corporation. Going to work for the charity was like a calling that those in the ministry sometimes follow– a life of good intentions– wanting to help others. Hoping there is more to life than just this.
I was a volunteer there for four years. On Saturday nights, when I didn’t have to get up early to go to work the next day with Marie Granerie, I traveled from Jersey City on the Path Train to the Christopher Street stop. I walked to the end of Christopher Street, along the Westside Highway, to do my part inside the converted hotel which now stands as a hospice along the Hudson River.
I went there with my lover and his best friend, John Landesmen. We were officially trained volunteers of Bailey House. We had graduated from mere envelope stuffers for fund-raisers to full-fledged volunteers who coordinated movie night on Saturday Nights. The job was relatively painless. We would set- up a movie projector in the top floor dining area and we popped popcorn. On our way to Bailey House, we went to the video store on Bleeker Street to rent the newest releases. The people who lived there looked forward to seeing us. Our company seemed more important than the movies. Their conversations often overtook the dialogue in the movies being shown. I rarely had time to watch. They needed someone to listen to their stories– of life– when they were healthy. They wanted people to believe with them and listen to hopes of possible cures on the horizon. I popped the popcorn. John and Anthony set up the projectors. All three of us listened to them.
Being in a monogamous gay relationship took courage. There were so many temptations in New York for gay men, even those in committed relationships. Anthony didn’t like to go clubbing or to the bars that often. The gay world in New York is seedy– lots of drugs, lots of crazy sex, and other things that can end the life of young men before their time. Anthony talked me into volunteering there to keep us out of trouble. It was the right thing to do. It got us out of the house. Besides, Anthony’s best friend John, a straight, Jewish man volunteered there and talked us into becoming volunteers.
John also convinced me that I should leave CT Corporation when I told him the story of Marie Graneri. He was so upset that straight people still act that way.
“Why not go to work at Bailey House,” John suggested one Saturday evening as we were leaving Bailey House. There was a job posting on the elevator–
“Position Available— Office Manager— $35k”