Readings — From the March 2012 issue
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From a speech given in December 2011, at the New School, in New York City. Dale Peck is a novelist and critic.
The first time I heard the word samizdat was at an ACT UP meeting. The term was applied to the vast stacks of photocopies that every member picked up on the way into the Monday-night meeting: treatment guidelines, drug studies, bureaucratic analyses, action plans, contact lists, and announcements of events ranging from performances and gallery openings to house parties and memorial services. This collection was never referred to as anything other than “the table” (even though it usually spread over two or three), a twelve- or eighteen-foot-long banquet of paper down both sides of which several hundred gay men and lesbians, nearly indistinguishable in their Doc Martens and Levi’s and sloganed T-shirts, bent their spiky or shaved heads and served themselves and one another with the ordered geniality of an Amish wedding. I was an intellectually pretentious but under-educated twenty-two-year-old who didn’t want to admit he was unfamiliar with a term that had the clear, clannish peal of jargon, the ignorance of which marked him out as neophyte or, worse, interloper. In fact I heard the word as “same-as-that,” which led me to think of it as an assertion of status: though these stapled stacks of paper, most written by people with no political background or scientific or journalistic training, lacked the credentials and durability of proper books, they were nevertheless the real library of AIDS, and the bound books that trickled out of traditional publishing houses were the table’s supplements rather than the other way around.
The most significant piece of sameasthat in my personal AIDS library, however, entered my life about nine months before I joined ACT UP. It was 1989 and I was in my last semester of college. I worked in a used-book store (ostensibly to save up for my impending move to the city, though in fact most of my salary went right back into the till), and at some point late that spring my boss brought in a cache of hundreds of opera records. The cases were faded and tattered and spotted with mold, the discs filthy but, beneath a layer of dust, nearly pristine. Their condition attested to a long period of heavy but respectful use and a second interval of less-than-benign neglect. Each record had to be taken from its sleeve and washed by hand, a delicate task and monotonous for a twenty-one-year-old who had zero interest in opera, and so I was as much relieved as intrigued when five wrinkled sheets of onionskin fell out of the somewhat gaudy Sixties-era case containing Bizet’s Carmen. The sheets were unruled and covered with florid and, as I thought, old-ladyish handwriting, still bright blue although the first page was dated 26 September 1965—in the European manner. “My dear Gino” was the only other thing I was able to make out before I put the letter aside and returned to the task at hand, and so I didn’t decipher it until later that evening, alone in my dorm room, my heart quickening as each successive sentence revealed a love story that seemed as melodramatic as an opera, as stark and doomed and unreal. Except this love, between a man named Gino and another named Jean-gabriel, was real, or at any rate it had been, twenty-three years earlier, and the next day I asked my boss—as nonchalantly as possible, and without mentioning the letter—whether he remembered the name of the person whose records he’d purchased the day before.
It was a time in my life when omens seemed to appear everywhere, conflicting, confusing, beguiling. When my boss gave me a copy of Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, there was no way he could have known I’d applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, still less that I’d receive my rejection letter, signed by Conroy, on the very day I finished his memoir (which I loved, by the way, and which made the rejection feel personal and portentous). Then there was the matter of sex. I’d waited a long time before coming out, not least because my adolescence coincided with the onset of the AIDS epidemic (I turned fourteen in 1981), and on the very day I finally allowed myself to have sex my watch stopped. This was the only watch I’d ever owned, the watch I’d bought when I came to college two and a half years earlier, the watch that signified my desire to be on time for my adult life, and its battery gave out while I was losing my virginity, at 12:03 a.m. And now there was this letter, which I wanted to see as a totem validating my sexuality and repudiating the augury of my stopped watch (which, incidentally, started working again when I slapped it against my palm, and ran for several more years). I didn’t know whether I wanted to meet Gino or to be Gino, only that I didn’t want my fate to be decided by a $30 Swatch.
He died of AIDS! my boss told me brightly, then blushed and dropped his eyes. He’d seen the obituary in the Times, he remembered, and somehow this didn’t surprise me: the fact that Gino was dead, I mean, not that he’d merited a Times obituary. The condition of his records, for one thing, and the fact that they were opera, which I associated with death (not with funerals per se, but with death scenes in movies, with murder and mourning and revenge), and then, too, forty-four-year-old gay men were dying in legions in 1989. It was something Italian, my boss told me now. Gianni, no, Gino, that was it! Gino . . . Gino . . . ? But he couldn’t remember the last name. He looked for the paper, but it was gone. The only other thing he remembered was that Gino had been in a Warhol movie in the Sixties and later had something to do with music. As it turned out, these were clues enough, though I didn’t realize it for another five years—five years during which I moved to the city and joined ACT UP to end the AIDS crisis and left ACT UP to start my writing career.
The signs continued to appear, the most significant of which occurred when the magazine I was working for went out of business and I ran into an ex-boyfriend who offered me the ticket to San Francisco that he’d bought for his new boyfriend (the boyfriend he’d dumped me for), who’d just dumped him. It was a trip I couldn’t have taken if I’d had a job, and while I was away my agent got a call from Farrar, Straus and Giroux about my first novel, despite the fact that she’d pulled the unfinished manuscript out of circulation several months earlier, after more than twenty rejections. My editor’s assistant turned out to be a huge Warhol fan, which prompted me to mention the letter I’d found—to mention the date and the name Gino and the fact that he’d been in one of Warhol’s films—and without pausing she said, “Gino Piserchio.” Are you sure? I asked. I think he did some music too. This only strengthened her conviction: Gino Piserchio was the boy on the bed with Edie Sedgwick in Warhol’s Beauty #2, she told me, and, later, the composer of the music for Ciao! Manhattan, which, like Carmen, and like Bizet’s own life, and Piserchio’s, was yet another story of early death—in this case, of Sedgwick herself, whose obituary appears at the end of the film. As a final confirmation we looked up the date of Gino’s death: March 22, 1989.
Of Jean-gabriel’s identity I remain ignorant, although I have to confess I’ve never searched for it very hard. His letter is beautiful and sad and beseeching and even a little creepy, but it is also a failure, at least in its intended sense. I’m forty-four now (the same age Gino was when he died); I’ve outgrown my youthful resistance to opera. And Gino was a musician, and an educated one at that: he went to Mannes College of Music, and he’s considered one of the first to fully exploit the Moog synthesizer. What I mean is, Jean-gabriel’s isn’t a letter that a music connoisseur would keep in a copy of Carmen if its suit had been successful. Carmen is the girl who says, When will I love you? I don’t know. Maybe never, maybe tomorrow. She’s a liberated girl: works in a factory, smokes, slashes the face of Manuelita to end a fight that she—Carmen—started, then flirts with her guard until he lets her out of jail. When Don José is imprisoned for allowing Carmen to escape she takes pity on him, even thinks she’s falling in love with him. She asks him to turn his back on his duty and join her as a gypsy, a vagabond, an outlaw. Circumstances throw them together for a while but Carmen quickly grows bored: Don José is, clearly, a good citizen, but Carmen is a free spirit—or, as she puts it in the opera’s most famous aria: Love is a gypsy’s child. It has never known the law. Soon enough Carmen throws Don José over for the bullfighter Escamillo and, in the grip of a madness that only spurned love and a full orchestra can whip up, Don José stabs Carmen rather than relinquish her to another man. It is I who has killed her, he confesses to the crowd. Ah, Carmen, my adored Carmen! The opera’s last lines have eerie—icky—resonance with something Chuck Wein says at one point in Beauty #2, when Edie jostles Gino and he chokes on his drink: “Nice Gino. Don’t let Gino die. Sweet Gino. We’re not going to let him die.” “He won’t!” Edie protests, a little petulant, a little forlorn, her upper-class consonants crisp despite the amount of alcohol she’s consumed. “He won’t?” Chuck prompts, and Edie shakes her head, looks at Gino. “You won’t want to die,” she says, her consonants still crisp, her vowels round and full as embroidered bolsters, but the words themselves not quite making sense, and Gino lays a hand on her naked calf in a gesture that could mean, well, anything, or nothing at all.
Jean-gabriel says in his first paragraph that he’s responding to a letter Gino wrote him after two years of silence, and one can’t help but wonder what made Gino reach out after all that time to a man he’d met only once. It’s 1965, remember: Beauty #2 has just come out, and Edie Sedgwick has been declared Girl of the Year. Twenty-one-year-old Gino must have basked in the glow she and Andy and the other Superstars gave off, must have felt like one himself. (Edie: “But then you said he wasn’t Beauty No. 1.” Chuck: “Nobody said he wasn’t Beauty No. 1. But that’s true, now that you say it.”) But he is beautiful. Everyone, men and women, wants him, and more than a few get him, but through them all he remembers the French boy he fled two years before and, in a fit of guilt or hubris or, who knows, genuine romance, Gino decides to write him. What happened by the time Jean-gabriel’s answer came back? Another man, maybe (Chuck: “The new is better. That’s what we live for. The new”), or maybe a woman—Piserchio married heiress Gillian Spreckels Fuller in 1972, then divorced her. At any rate, whatever impulse prompted Gino to write didn’t survive long enough for him to answer Jean-gabriel.
But the urgency of the Frenchman’s letter obviously triggered something in its recipient, nostalgia maybe, a curiosity about what might have been, a desire to be worthy of the kind of love it offered, and eventually the letter took up permanent residence in the sleeve of Carmen. I imagine Gino pulling it out every once in a while, intentionally at first, then accidentally, when he reaches for the record and the thin, folded pages fall into his hands. I imagine him reading it while Escamillo and Don José and Carmen herself sing of a love that, because it has been recorded, can never die but, because its object is dead, can never be consummated. When Gino does this he is nineteen again, twenty, twenty-one, in my head and in his. His fifteen minutes are still on the clock. His life isn’t ticking away from him. And isn’t that what art does? Transforms you, in your eyes, and in the eyes of the people who look upon you? Locates you at the beginning of a journey filled with possibility rather than at the end of the road? “I wonder if you are ready to build something ‘marvelous’ with a boy who did not forget you,” Jean-gabriel asks toward the end of his letter, and I wonder if Gino heard this question as Don José’s half-crazed For the last time, demon, will you follow me? or as Escamillo’s more self-possessed farewell as he heads for the bullring: And whoever loves me will come there. Or had time and age and illness distilled the experience into the aria:
Love is a rebellious birdthat nothing can tame.And you call him in vain,if it suits him not to come….The bird you hoped to catchbeat its wings and flew away.Love stays away; you wait and wait;when least expected, there it is!All around you, swift, swift,it comes, goes, then it returns.You think you hold it fast, it flees;you think you’re free, it holds you fast.Oh, love! Love! Love! Love!
My dear Gino,
What a wonderful surprise! You cannot imagine how much you made me happy receiving your very long letter. Not too long, of course. I was feeling 2 years younger and happy. Thanks, thank you very much. Go on. I am always astonished with your letters: I cannot understand how a so young boy like you is able to write down so lovely and intelligent letters.
And the wonderful snapshots! I appreciate very much that you took care to go to the post office and to put into an envelope so nice pictures. I looked at them a lot of times and I have to tell you which were my thoughts:
The first one is that I want to see you again as soon as possible. I was hesitating to fly to this N.Y. this summer but I had no real purpose without seeing you. Nothing could enjoy me more than to take you in my arms. I would like only to be sure that it’s the same for you as it could be. I am a little bit afraid to be so excited to meet you again when I think of the short period during which we were together. I remember quite well that I cried a lot when you left me at the station on my last week-end in the Big City. Do you? And I had difficulty to forgive you to have left me alone but you explained to me the reasons.
The second one is that you look nearly the same. I say nearly, because you look taller and thinner. The surprising difference is your long hair! To any one you are still very good-looking and the most important thing is that I find the same nice boy when I have the great pleasure to see you again. I love your pictures and if you have other ones don’t hesitate to send me them. I’ll keep them very carefully. I am laughing a little bit about your long hair. Don’t consider that as a criticism but I prefer you with shorter hair. You have probably to do it for your magazine snapshots. Last week I said to one of my young accountants: “Do you want really to be one of the Beatles.” He blushed and promised to go to the hair-dresser, but he did not. May I confess that I have longer hair but still shorter than the young beautifuls in Paris?
The third thought provoked by your beautiful face is that I am pleased you are a little bit older. As you have written it you have thought of the problems of life, of love, of your way of living, of the purpose you have to follow. When I met you I was convinced after a few days that you could not arrest your attention on one person: Jean-gabriel, but that it was necessary for you, at your age, to know other boys, the gay life and all the aspects of the way of living in the world and it was painful for me. You did and I cannot criticize you. I regretted it but I had not the right to do it. You had to compare between them a lot of things, a lot of persons and only after you could stabilize yourself. This moment can happen when you are 20, 30, or 40, even more. It depends on persons. Have you now enough elements of comparison and do you know now partly what want? I hope so and I hope you have the desire to live a quieter life, a more interesting life, more attractive and that I could have a place in this life. You have to tell me frankly which one. What is the use to meet a lot of boys, to scatter his love, to kill his capacity of love finally? You have to choice your way: you have a lot of abilities: don’t spoil your life! Build something nice and great. And for that love is necessary, real love and not a lot of affairs. But with whom would you like to try? You’re more confident now because what you wrote about love and your “neurotic needs” is very well deliberated and true. Believe me, a French boy, at your age, could not analyze a problem in such an intelligent way. And I like intelligent persons. You say that you don’t live only for the “immediate satisfaction of your neurotic needs,” that it has taken for you two years to learn it. Wonderful, wonderful, but be prudent before swearing: “I’ll never drink of this water.”
The last but not least thought is about us. After such a nice and intelligent letter, I discovered great changes in you, in the good direction. I wonder if you are ready to come back 2 years sooner and to build something “marvelous” with a boy who did not forget you. I am afraid because it’s nearly impossible. At 3,000 miles, it’s, maybe, madness, but why could we not be mad? With you, it can be only lovely. I feel that there is a very good occasion of showing what we are able to do: our letters. Both of us we have to prove that we want to be more than ordinary friends and one of the conditions is to keep, until we meet each other, a very close contact. I make a proposal, a reasonable one, I feel. We have to swear to send a letter once every two weeks. At least. I think that 2 letters a month, it’s not too much. I am ready to swear it, if you do it and this vow should be valid until we meet. Don’t do again what we did two years before. There is no question of language.
A second condition is that
you we must tell always the truth. We must not hide anything. And to begin, I’ll tell you that I had a lover until September 10th. It was short because he wanted to see me seldom because of his family. He was 23 years old. And there was a question of money: He asked me for a lot and I did not know if he was interested about me or about my wallet. It lasted 3 months. But he had a lot of difficulties: no job, no flat. But could we accept that somebody has sex for interest?
Are you in New Jersey for a long time? It’s much better to be away from N.Y. temptations.
I understand that you could come to Europe. Tell me as soon as possible which are your plans. Is it necessary to write that you are invited at my place? I’ll get a new car next month, a convertable one, and we could do together some nice trip through Europe.
I have more to say about your music, about your job as a model. It will be for the next letter.
My dear Gino, I seldom wrote a long letter with such a pleasure. Be good. Write soon.