By Michael Cook
As I passed by City Hall earlier this month and saw the rainbow flag flying, I couldn’t help but reminisce about the night almost twenty five years ago when, on December, 1, 1991, about one hundred people gathered at the foot of the steps that overlook Warren Street for what became the first of several annual candle light vigils to commemorate World AIDS Day.
My late roommate, the Gloucester born and raised John Barnes, had been a driving force behind the first World AIDS Day candlelight vigil but, sadly, was unable to attend. He was hospitalized with pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, one of the many potentially lethal opportunistic infections that so often took the lives of people whose immune systems were compromised by their underlying HIV infection.
That first vigil Johnnie had such a hand in getting started spread to other towns the next year, from Lynn and Salem, and Lawrence to Newburyport, as other communities followed Gloucester’s lead in directly addressing a painful issue so many communities would have preferred to ignore.
John recovered from that bout of PCP, but by late spring it became clear his time was running short so we, his family and friends, prepared to make good on our promise that he would die in his room at 51 Fort Square overlooking his beloved Gloucester Harbor.
Johnnie was too weak to participate in that year’s AIDS Walk in Boston, so I and our neighbor, a young boy of eight who considered John one of his “bestest friends”, walked together on John’s behalf. That little boy sported a tee shirt his mom had custom made for him that had an image of Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer from “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” on the front. Mickey apparently was both Johnnie and the little boy’s favorite Disney character. On the back, the boy had his mom print, “John is my best friend. John has AIDS. I hate AIDS. But I love John ’til the end of time”.
I still have a picture of that little boy, who is now a 33-year-old, six foot, four inch, 250 plus pound galoot, riding on my shoulders because, as eight year olds are wont to be at the end of a six mile walk, he was too tired to cross the finish line on his own power
On July, 3, our upstairs neighbor and “sister in the fight”, who just happened to be the nurse coordinator of the VNA’s AIDS home care program, insisted I take a break and spend some time on the Boulevard to watch the Horribles Parade. I ran into colleagues from NUVA and, as we were chatting, this overwhelming urge to get home came over me. I finally hit the steps at 51 and threw open the entry way door. Our “sister in the fight”, and VNA angel, greeted me by saying simply, “He’s gone.”
We made the necessary phone calls, but the funeral home informed us they couldn’t get “down the Fort” for a couple of hours because of the Horribles Parade. The minutes ticked away. The little boy’s mother and her husband came over just as the hearse was arriving. We all said our good byes. Just as the hearse pulled away from the house, this huge burst of purple fireworks (purple was Johnnie’s favorite color), lit up the sky over the Fort. The little boy’s mother looked at me and said, “You know, he planned this.”
Over the next few months, Gloucester lost several other leaders in the local fight against AIDS, most notably the very wise and gentle Sam Berman, one of the original founders of the North Shore AIDS Health Project. Those were sad and mournful days, but there was also a spirit afoot in the city among those of us impacted by the epidemic that, despite the deaths and sadness, lifted our spirits.
The fundraisers at the old Grange Gourmet’s upstairs theater became events we all looked forward to because, despite the pain, illness, and deaths, they provided an opportunity to celebrate life, the community of Gloucester, and the leadership role it had taken in the state’s fight against the epidemic in some of its darkest days.
As I passed City Hall earlier in the month and saw the rainbow flag flying, I realized that spirit is still very much alive here in Fish City. Nothing exemplifies that reality more than the city’s courageous and compassionate response to the prescription opiate/heroin epidemic that is taking as many young lives today across the country as the AIDS epidemic did a quarter century ago.
I also realized that June should not just be recognized as “Gay Pride Month”. It also ought to be known as “Gloucester Pride Month” because, when all is said and done, this wonderful, sometimes frustrating, but always interesting city by the sea has an awful lot to be proud of – an awful lot.
Mike Cook is a long time liberal and gay rights activist who saw the uniqueness of Gloucester from the first moment he drove over the bridge during his move from Cambridge to Cape Ann in 1991 to run NUVA’s AIDS education and services programs.