This past Sunday I participated in the Los Angeles AIDS walk. Along the route was a wall where red ribbon stickers were available to write a loved one’s name. My husband, Maurice, asked if I wanted to stop and put up a sticker in honor of Eric. I told him no.
His name was Eric, but my ex-boyfriend, Mike, and I usually referred to him as the street urchin. We never knew where he came from or where he went, but almost every night we’d see him at Club 7722. Mike was a DJ there, so I spent many hours drinking while waiting for his gig to end. I’d spend most of my night in the DJ booth, or at the bar talking with the owner, but occasionally I’d step out on the back patio, which is where you’d find Eric hanging out looking for someone to hook up with for the night. It didn’t take long to figure out that was how he kept a roof over his head. We heard rumors he would hustle on Santa Monica Blvd.
Eric usually had a small audience on the patio that he entertained. He’d flirt with almost anyone to get a free drink, or some white powder up his nose. He was in his twenties, charming and good looking. His olive skin and infectious smile made him popular, but somehow he was broken. Occasionally, he’d pull down his pants and show off his goods to get attention. Sadly, he seemed to believe that all his worth was what he had between his legs.
One day Eric vanished. We were curious, but no one knew him well enough to know where he’d gone. Mike and I assumed he was in jail. We were right. He returned one night and told us he was jailed for hustling and said he had nowhere to go. I don’t know what possessed us, but we told him he could crash on our couch. Eric climbed in the car with garbage bags full of clothes. He also had a couple of garbage bags full of stuffed animals. I don’t know where he usually kept them, but they were his prized possessions. Two weeks later Eric and all his stuff was gone. I wouldn’t see him for another three years.
One day, with a year’s sobriety, I walked into one of my regular A.A. meetings. I found my seat and felt a finger tap on my shoulder. It was Eric. He asked if I was willing to stay after the meeting and talk. Being a fellow alcoholic and happy he was sober, I stayed. He told me long stories of his hustling, and jail time. He was happy to be sober and said he wanted to die sober. He had cancer due to complications from AIDS and asked me if I’d be with him at the hospital the next day. I said yes.
Eric’s stay in the hospital lasted a couple of weeks. Because he had a low T-cell count and because he also had hepatitis, his room was quarantined. The nurses let me to stay with him anyway. I slept nearly every night on a cot in his room, going home only occasionally to wash clothes. Not once did he complain about having AIDS. The only time he brought it up was one day when he said, “This is what happens when you hustle for a living.”
When Eric was released, he lived in a luxury high-rise apartment building off the Sunset Strip. He was sleeping on a mattress on the floor in a very old man’s apartment. I had no idea what the situation was and never asked. All I knew was he wasn’t happy there. He could barely walk so I came over regularly and helped him walk around the block and down to the Strip. A couple weeks later he was back in the hospital and I was on the cot again.
His T-cells dropped to dangerous levels. During these stays I got to know Eric in a different light. As I said, he was charming, but there was more to him. He told me about his family back east, he loved to brag to the nurses about his large stuffed animal collection and we had a lot of laughs. Though he was not supposed to leave his room, or smoke, I would wheel him down to the hospitals designated smoking areas where he would chat with any other patient there. I think only one of the nurses ever became upset. The rest, like me, felt that there was no point in keeping the man cooped up in his final days. Eric loved photography so I’d push him around the complex looking for flowers and interesting architecture. Interesting people too. It didn’t matter if it was an area off limits or not, if he wanted to see something, we went there.
As usual, after work, I went to the hospital one day and Eric had exciting news. He’d been approved to participate in a study for a new AIDS treatment. The only problem was his T-cells were too low, but if they increased, he could take part. Two weeks later he was approved. It was our last happy moment together. The very next day we were told he had brain cancer.
I missed Eric more each day as he quickly slipped away. He was only lucid enough to talk for brief moments. One day I got the dreaded call at work. He died. The nurses arranged to keep him in his room until I arrived to collect my things and have a chance to say goodbye. Out of character for me, I sat on his bed and talked to him for about five minutes. It seems silly now, but was important then. I guess it was closure. I’m grateful the nurses thought of me enough to wait.
What I learned from my time with Eric, was not to be so judgmental. Yes, he was a street urchin, but he was much more than that. He was a jokester, a photographer, an optimist. He had many flaws, but was still a human being deserving of respect and dignity. I learned to not judge a persons insides based on their outsides. He was my friend.
So why did I say no to posting a sticker in Eric’s honor at the AIDS Walk on Sunday? Because it was unnecessary. Eric is where he will always be – in my heart.