America, April 2020

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Memories of the
previous plague:
Charlie

By Denny Meyer

My friend Charlie and I met in the early 1960s when we were about 14 or 15.  We were a part of a bunch of goofy suburban kids on Long Island who hung out, talked dirty, laughed our asses off, and were boringly well behaved most of the time.  One of the things the gang did regularly was to go to the stock car races on Saturday afternoons in Freeport (called Free-Pawt in the local 'Lawn Guylind' dialect).  The dirt track races were really 'demolition derbys' and that's what the crowds were there to see: old cars smashing into each other as spectacularly as possible.  No one cared who won the races.  We drank Coke, ate hot dogs and popcorn and enjoyed the hell out it, all for less than two dollars at most.

In the summer of 1964 the gang discovered a hole in the fence of the New York World's Fair and we began going there for free several times per week, having nothing better to do.  We rode in on the Long Island Rail Road from outer suburbia for free by sitting in the first car where the regular conductor got to know us and just winked and walked right past us, clicking his ticket-punch and mumbling, "tickets, tickets."  We spent the days wandering the exhibits that we knew by heart, knowing when and which exhibit gave out free hot dogs and Sprite for lunch, how to get past the lines for the most fun exhibits, and just goofing around good naturedly.

Being good suburban boys the one sacred thing we never missed was being home on time for our mother's home cooked dinners of meat loaf and mashed potatoes bathed in gravy.  So, every day at the fair at 4 PM it was time to leave to  go home.  But one fine afternoon Charlie and I announced that we were going to stay at the fair until after 9 PM to see the fireworks.  The rest of the gang, aghast, told us we were nuts to miss our dinnertime and left.

Charlie and I walked the fair through the evening breeze off Jamaica Bay much as Camille Saint-SaŽns and John Philip Sousa had at the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco.  Charlie began a long monologue about his life.  Halfway through I realized to my horror that he was coming out to me; something I had barely begun to accept about myself.  He went on and on and as dusk fell, he concluded, "So, I'm gay, do you want a blow job or are you going to punch me in the nose?"  (He wasn't really offering to do that, he was just being outrageously funny as he always was).  After a long pause, as the fireworks finally went off overhead, I said, "Charlie, you're not the only one."  It was the first time I'd ever come out to anyone, including myself.

Charlie and I remained friends till the day he died of AIDS decades later.  In the late 60s Charlie was living with his impoverished lover, at the time, in New York City where we both lived.  He phoned me and said he hadn't eaten in three days and wanted to borrow ten dollars from me.  In those days you could get a refrigerator full of groceries for ten bucks.  I met him in a subway station and handed him the money over the turnstyle to avoid leaving the system and having to pay another 20 cents for the return trip home.  "My check is in the mail," he told me.

Years passed, I traveled the world serving in the US Navy; Charlie met a musician who got a job playing with a state philharmonic orchestra in Copenhagen and Charlie went with him and became their public relations representative.  Life went on, we exchanged funny letters.  In his 40s he achieved his life long dream of becoming a New York City Subway motorman, proudly wearing his uniform replete with union badges.  In 1990 I visited him in New York as he lay dying of AIDS in a hospital.  I jokingly told him, "You still owe me ten dollars."  "Oh my Gosh!" He exclaimed and got out his wallet to pay me back nearly 30 years late.  I refused, of course, telling him I wanted to tell this story and say that he never did pay me back.

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