Yesterday was World AIDS Day, a commemoration that always puts me in mind of the summer of 1983, when it was impossible not to see young men die. This was in the West Village, where my girlfriend had a sublet, and I spent much of July and August trying (not) to write a novel I would never finish, although it would take almost a decade for me to realize that. What did I know? Time, I thought, was on my side.
And yet, just beyond the vestibule of her Charles Street walk-up, time appeared to have become compressed. On Christopher Street, on Seventh Avenue, in front of Village Cigars or St. Vincent’s, men my age were growing weak and frail before my eyes.
AIDS was everywhere that summer: on the streets, in the gaze of the afflicted and in the fear mongering of the news. Like Ebola, I think now, but worse — both because it was happening right outside the doorstep and also because the official response was so hateful, distant, with neither empathy nor shame.
Joyce Brabner’s “Second Avenue Caper: When Goodfellas, Divas, and Dealers Plotted Against the Plague” (Hill and Wang: 150 pp., $22) brings back that era in all its horror, telling the story of a small group of activists who used the proceeds from a pot-dealing operation to buy and distribute early-generation AIDS drugs. That these drugs were later proved to be ineffective is one of the ironies of the narrative, if we can even use such a word.
More to the point, Brabner, along with illustrator Mark Zingarelli, evokes the guerrilla status of these early activists, the street-level aspect of their work. Her protagonist, a nurse named Raymond, gets involved when he helps care “for the 24th known case of a mysterious new illness” — ground zero, as it were.
Brabner has made a career creating comics with a social conscience, both on her own and with her late husband Harvey Pekar, with whom she collaborated on the graphic memoir “Our Cancer Year.” Her work is noticeably less lapidary than Pekar’s was, which can be both a blessing and a curse.
On the one hand, this means no real interiority, a kind of lightness to the narrative, although it is full of sadness, silence, death. On the other, it allows her to tell Raymond’s story directly, keeping him at the center of the book. Through his recollections, we revisit the 1980s: AMFAR, ACT-UP, AZT. We’re brought face-to-face (literally, since this is a graphic work) with those who died and those who survived.
Most moving perhaps is Raymond’s friend Michael, “crippled by grief” for his dead lover Hector, “eating very little … sitting alone, not talking staring at the ceiling … wasting away.” This is the human face of AIDS, rendered by Zingarelli in matter-of-fact black-and-white.
“Today,” Raymond says late in the book, “most Americans AIDS patients have access to whatever drugs work best. … That gives them a chance to survive.”
It also makes it imperative to remember that things once were different — and, in many countries, still are. This is the idea behind World AIDS day, to make sure the legacy, activism, continues, for the 34 million who have HIV and the 35 million who have died. In “Second Avenue Caper,” Brabner and Zingarelli bring back some of those names and faces, reminding us that heroes are everywhere.