Tag Archives: New York

Holding Breath/Kindle Countdown Deal

The “Kindle Countdown” promotion for my book, Holding Breath: A Memoir of AIDS’ Wildfire Days, just started today (I swear I didn’t remember until this morning when the alarm I’d set for it on my phone a few weeks ago went off!). I’ve never done one of these before, so it should be interesting.

In any case, the ebook is usually $3.99. At the moment (2/15/2014) it’s 99 cents; the price goes up in increments over the next few days. If anyone is interested, here’s the link:



A Holiday Excerpt From Holding Breath: A Memoir of AIDS’ Wildfire Days

I have a shadow of a memory of going out with David to buy a Christmas tree one cold, overcast afternoon in December.  We’d been sitting in the apartment, spending a weekend day in the usual way, when I decided that we had to get a tree for the apartment, and that we had to get it right away.  David, always game for anything that would give him a chance to regain his bearings in a world in which simple little pleasures like holiday traditions were permitted and possible, followed me out the door and over to Essex, where we picked out the tree, and then helped me carry it back home.  It would have had to have been a fairly small one, but I would have insisted that it be real so that the apartment would smell like Christmas.  I seem to remember that David was too tired by the time we got home to help me decorate it with the cheap ornaments and lights that I’d bought in the discount stores on Delancey Street, and instead sat on the bed watching me do it with that happy, bemused little expression on his face as I hung ornaments and no doubt chattered on about Christmas.  It was important to me that he at least have a tree for Christmas.

I was obligated to spend Christmas Day with my family in Connecticut, as I did every year, but David and I did spend Christmas Eve together.  We’d spent the day on Suffolk Street, doing whatever it was that kept us happy and occupied back then.  In the evening we went to my mother’s apartment in Peter Cooper Village for dinner.  David was nervous; we all were.  He wanted to make a good impression.  It had been, I think, a long time since he’d made a good impression on anyone other than me.

When we arrived, my mother was watching a show about tuberculosis on T.V.  For a few minutes, we all just watched.  No one knew what to say, or had the sense to turn it off.  Other than that, the evening went fairly well.  My mother gave David a green button-down shirt as a Christmas gift.  (Years later, my mother told me that she’d worried about eating from the plates and using the utensils that David had used afterwards.  I was shocked to hear it, even thought that kind of thinking wasn’t at all unusual at that time.  Still, I was, and will always be grateful that she invited him to dinner that night.)

On New Year’s Eve I know that I was with him.  I remember the apartment being dim and vaguely festive, still scented with the pine-smell of the tree, lit either with candles or Christmas lights, or both.  Late that night I sat on the bed and tried to call one of my favorite clients, a very young gay man named Jon, who was blessed with the most loving, supportive family I’d encountered in my time working with people with AIDS.  His father answered, and told me that Jon was either sleeping or in the hospital–I don’t remember which.  Weeks later, I learned that Jon had actually died several weeks earlier.  His father didn’t want to upset me on New Year’s Eve.  The family had come to think of me as a friend, as Jon had.


An Excerpt From Holding Breath

Some recent comments about life on the street, and about homeless shelters, on what I consider perhaps the best and most important blog on WordPress, Dennis Cardiff’s “Gotta Find a Home” (http://gottafindahome.wordpress.com/ ), reminded me of a part of my own book, Holding Breath: A Memoir of AIDS’ Wildfire Days.  Since I haven’t posted any excerpts here in a long time, I thought I’d like to post that section here.

The section recounts a description–probably partially fictionalized where my memory of what David actually told me failed me, but, I think, accurate nevertheless–of a night David (the book’s hero) spent after leaving the hospital “against medical advice.” Here it is:

Swaying, he looked up toward First Avenue and then back down toward Tompkins Square Park.  He had to get inside somewhere and get some sleep so that he’d have the strength to get himself set up in the morning.  There was a shelter on 3rd Street, but even if he had a chance in hell of talking someone into letting him in this late he’d be up all night with cockroaches crawling on his face and crackheads and thieves roaming among the cots, looking for something they could sell or keep.  The hospital, he told me, had spoiled him for all of the things he could have put up with as a junkie.

There was a bandshell in the park, but by then Sam knew that he had to be inside somewhere, safe and unmolested so that he could really sleep.  It occurred to him that the subway station on Fourteenth and First was his best bet.  It would be warm and if anyone bothered him it would probably be a cop, giving him a wake-up call by beating a nightstick on the wall next to his head.  He could stretch out on one of the benches at the back of the station.  And if there was a problem he could just jump on the L train and ride all night.

First Avenue looked warmer and brighter, somehow, than Avenue A, so he went that way, stopping often, his arms crossed around him so that the chills wouldn’t split his chest open.  Passing NYU kids dressed up as bikers or junkies or punks, or young bankers downtown to drink and see the sights, all traveling in confused packs in and out of the little Polish-run bars and restaurants, he noticed that most ignored him or gave him a quick up-and-down look.

“Like I just crawled out of a manhole looking for money or drugs,” he put it.  It made him feel safer to know that they were more afraid of him than he was of them—that they couldn’t see his weakness.

By the time he made it to the subway entrance he thought that he might die before he got downstairs.  He was exhausted and sick to his stomach from shivering and not eating, and his chest felt like there was a fire inside.  His legs were numb, and as he hung on to the banister and put one foot after the other down the stairs it was as if he was walking on crooked stilts.

The air inside the station was so thick and hot that it seemed he could grab a handful of it.  There was no one down there except for a token-booth clerk, counting money.

This was the last obstacle.  Sam went to the window of the booth, trying to look as earnest and respectable as he could, and waited until the clerk had finished counting the wad of ones in her hand.  Eventually she looked up at him, expressionless.

“Hi,” he said.  She lifted her chin a little.  He smiled in his gentlest way (the eyes in the photograph, only a little more desperate, more calculating).  “I was wondering if you could help me.  I’m sick and I lost my wallet and I have to get across town or my wife is really going to worry.  Can you just let me through the gate and I promise…”

“You got to pay your fare,” said the clerk, clearly, with a rhythm she obviously used to say the same thing a hundred times a day.

“I just told you, I don’t have my…”

“I just told YOU, you got to pay your fare.”

“Look, please just give me a break.  I’m really sick.  I can’t walk any more.”

“Pay your fare.”  She went back to counting her money.

Sam felt that he might cry.  He’d been arrested once for jumping a turnstile, and he’d spent the night in a bullpen so crowded that he couldn’t sit down, and stinking so much of piss that he didn’t want to.  At the time, having been locked up once or twice before, he’d taken it pretty much in stride; that night he thought it might kill him. He started to walk back over to the stairs, just to sit, but someone was coming down.  It was a teenage girl.  He considered asking her for a token but he was afraid that the only thing that would come out would be a whine or a sob.  The girl went to the token booth.

“Fuck it,” Sam whispered to himself, and he turned and quickly ducked under one of the turnstiles to the other side.

Behind him he heard, “Pay your fare, sir,” but he ignored it and walked to a bench at the end of the platform.  The station smelled almost as bad as the bullpen but he didn’t care because he was going to sleep.  He cleared some pages of the Post off of the bench, took his shirt off and made a pillow out of it, and lay down.  He slept, as he put it, like a dead man.

There the memory ends, not with the image of Sam sitting across the table from me, reciting his story with the attention to detail of a man to whom nothing has happened in a long time, but with that last one, the picture that my mind supplied as illustration:  Sam, viewed from a point far up the subway platform, curled, oblivious and half-naked, mouth slightly open and hair clinging to his damp, smooth forehead, on the bench nearest to where the track goes dark and curves away. 


“Maadi Gedida”

The first relationship I got myself into after David passed away from AIDS in April of 1990 (in case you’re new to this blog, I wrote about my relationship with David in my book, Holding Breath: A Memoir of AIDS’ Wildfire Days) was with an Egyptian man I worked with at an AIDS agency in New York.  He was a very good man at heart, but unfortunately developed a serious addiction to something similar to crack.

Before things went too bad, however, I went with him to visit his family in a suburb of Cairo called New Maadi (we were both actually hoping that a good long stay with his Moslem family would help him with the drug problem).  We stayed two months, and I wrote this poem (as well as a long article which, if you’re interested, you can find by Googling something like, “Nancy Bevilaqua Malik Enti“–the latter basically meaning, “What’s the Matter With You?”).



At dusk from edges of cornerless desert came voices

of the farthest stars starting to recite, and dust

that held inbred wild dogs at bay, along with heavy heat,

all day, brushed back down through thick petals

and tentacles of oleander leaves to the ground.  The dogs

rose from patches of grass where they mated and slept

to follow us, yelping confused threats, through numberless streets.


Headlights jolted over rocks we tossed to distance

the dogs and passed into hills that butted up in vague

perfect pairs in the night-blind eye of the mind.

From downtown Cairo, Helwan, Old Maadi, muezzin

competed to call day’s last prayer through amplifiers

mounted on mosques, a music that sounded like mourning

but was not.  Trees bent over balconies and shook

with black birds, hundreds, returning, and flowers fell.


Women, talking, talking, took laundry, instrument

of love, off lines, eating peanuts, dropping shells that fell

like ashes to the floors of the balconies, and crickets told

their angry stories to the stars.  Inside, light brightened

in proportion to the darkening outside, fluorescent

in most rooms, incandescent in the white room where the old man

prayed, moribund, mummied up in muslin, speaking

to his beads.  Inside we were quiet, and fed him

honey and halewah on bread and tea, and smoked

away from where his paper lungs would feel it.


Heads were pulled off pink shrimp picked from the market

in old Cairo, pomegranates split and bled into glasses

of water and sugar, and leaves that smelled like skunk were plucked

and soaked in broth and everything was eaten, nothing

wasted.  After would be milk and sweet green oranges bought

from fellaheen next to their fires in Maadi,

where European streets still rolled with fruit and smelled

of flapping fish and henna, tobacco, sorrel, saffron.

If there was water we would heat it with propane and bathe,

dreaming in steam and leaking gas, and save the rest for day.



Nowhere to be alone except in sleep, and sleep

sometimes came slowly, a litter of languages

in rooms behind the door, the window whisked with light


from distant desert cities, foreign moon, planets

crushed together in an unfamiliar field of black.

Mosquitoes that could find me in the dark by scent


of blood disturbed the drape of air around the bed,

methodical, tasting hidden wine I’d had.

Dreams were islands, slim as rafts and color


of smoke, slipping up the Nile like ghosts.

Homesick, strange, I dreamt my dreams

in English, luxuriating, understood.



Another Poem–“The Monkey Tree”

Thanks to Tom Murphy, my English teacher at Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh (I keep meaning to get in touch with him to thank him), I started writing poetry when I was about sixteen or seventeen.  Then I went off to Reed College as an English major, and as a senior wrote a creative thesis (with the wonderful Lisa Steinman as my advisor) composed of twelve sonnets.  After that I went to New York and studied under Galway Kinnell and others in the graduate Creative Writing/Poetry program at NYU (unfortunately, I was apparently too preoccupied with my hipster lifestyle in lower Manhattan to write my thesis, and therefore never actually got my degree).

Like just about any poet, I always wanted to see my poems in print, either in literary journals (a few of which published some of my work) or as a book.  I’d kind of given up on the latter ever happening, but that was before the advent of indie publishing.  So I’ve been kind of amazed to find myself, all these years later, putting together a manuscript of my poems from about 1983 to the present (I don’t seem to have my high school poems any more, but I have a feeling that most of them probably shouldn’t see the light of day anyway, as they would definitely be labeled “juvenalia”).  It will take me at least a few months to put it all together and include some new poems that I’ve been working on (seeing some of the previous posts here), but I’m getting kind of excited about it.

Anyway, every so often I’ll be posting some of the poems here, although this blog is still primarily dedicated to my first book, Holding Breath: A Memoir of AIDS’ Wildfire Days.  Here’s one:

(An entry in my journal from June of 1985 notes that I wrote the following poem after meeting and having a conversation with “the most amazing man” at the Lutz Tavern in Portland the night before.  I remember neither the man nor the conversation, but the entry tells me that this is one of the few, if not the only, poems that I’d ever written in less than an hour.)


“All the pennies in my pocket dropped

unnoticed through a seam I never found.

I never spent a single one.  Tonight

I can remember everything: the salmon

stabbed with a stick and stolen, all its flesh

unwasted, sweet; the perfect curve and glare

of balls turned off their course on an uneven

table; the sticky bitterness of every beer

I ever drank.  Sometimes I wish I had

more schooling.  Once I met another boy,

brilliant in hard science.  No one knew him

so I took him to the monkey tree, black

and aching and arthritic, rooted

in dead water.  We shinnied down into the swamp

and ran like beasts on fire through the fog.

That same year he killed himself.

If you come down there with me

I’ll take you to the monkey tree.”

Maybe This Will Help (Me)

Having read another infuriating post today on the pigeon website I mentioned in a few posts a few days ago (this time about someone who found yet another lost racing pigeon, and was advised to “withhold food for a day”, take him ten miles away, and then release him to try–on a very empty stomach, and apparently with hundreds of miles to travel–to find his way home again), I have been struggling with myself to just leave it alone this time.  Clearly I’m not going to change anyone’s views on the subject, and I’m just too thin-skinned to take the abuse I got the last time again (clearly the “best defense is a good offense” rule is useful when one is trying to defend the indefensible).

So, instead, I’m going to post an article I wrote years ago about animal abuse here.  It was originally published in the now-defunct ASPCA Animal Watch, and subsequently in Big Apple Parent.  It’s not about pigeon-racing or “dove release”, but perhaps it touches on the same kind of thinking to some extent.  Posting it here will be the internet equivalent of sitting on my hands or biting my tongue to keep myself out of trouble.  (And yes, this blog IS about my book, Holding Breath: A Memoir of AIDS’ Wildfire Days, and I do seem to be posting quite a few off-topic posts these days.  On the other hand, there is a thread running through the posts, I think, that binds them together.  As I’ve always been sickened by arrogance and ignorance about, and cruelty toward, the homeless, people with AIDS, people with substance abuse problems, etc., I am also sickened by the arrogant sense that as human beings we have “dominion” over other creatures, and therefore have the right to subject them to suffering and death for profit, entertainment, or just because we can.  Either way, to put it bluntly, it’s bullshit.)

Thank you for your continued patience with my self-righteous rants.  I will get back to my regularly scheduled posts about the book anon.

Here’s the article, which is entitled “Teach Your Children”:



In Holding Breath: A Memoir of AIDS’ Wildfire Days, there are six poems that I wrote about David in the mid 1990’s.  They were, I believe, the first poems I’d written in several years, and I don’t think I wrote very many, if any, other ones until just a few months ago.

Although I attended NYU’s M.A. program in Creative Writing/Poetry (typically for me at the time, I never actually wrote the thesis), and used to run around Manhattan wearing black and doing poetry readings, and aspired greatly for many years to becoming a “famous poet” (and of course it would be pointless to be anything but a hard-living, tragic one), I always secretly felt that I was a bit of a fraud–there was very little poetry that I actually liked, and I tended to prefer fiction (and photography, and painting).  But people seemed to like what I wrote, and I’ve always been a sucker for compliments, so for a long time I kept at it.

I composed my first poem in Provincetown, Massachusetts when I was about six or seven. I remember that my mother and I were playing Scrabble on the beach when the inspiration hit me.  It went like this:


Cape Cod is the place to be.

It is the place for me.

I like it because we go fishing there, 

but I hate the smell of the sea air.

OK–I did get somewhat better at it as the years went by.  The poem, as I recall, led to my first experience of censorship.  I brought it in that fall to my first-grade class.  The teacher seemed to like it a great deal, and she wrote it out for the rest of the class to see on a big easel at the front of the room.  However, she insisted on changing the word “hate” to “can’t stand.”  I believe that I was at least slightly outraged.  It totally blew the meticulously worked-out meter, for one thing.

Since publishing (finally) Holding Breath, I’ve been a little at a loss as to what to do with myself creatively. With some encouragement from my new friend David Biddle (who, like me, attended Reed College, and who is the author of the astonishingly creative and possibly life-changing–particularly for music-lovers–novel, Beyond the Will of God: A Jill Simpson Mystery), I wrote two new poems a couple of months ago.  I will probably post them here soon, but in the meantime I thought I’d send y’all to another blog of mine in which at one point a few years ago I managed to post many of the poems I’d written up until that point (there’s also the text of a letter I wrote to President Obama about needle-exchange funding; it seemed to be in keeping with the themes of some of the poems).  Some of the poems from Holding Breath are included.  Here’s the link:


I’ll be interested in hearing how you think they compare to the “Cape Cod” poem. 🙂

David Biddle’s book, Beyond the Will of God: A Jill Simpson Mystery, is available here:


My memoir, Holding Breath: A Memoir of AIDS’ Wildfire Days, is available here:


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