The bonds of brotherhood prove strong, even when tested by illness


September 04, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

It is pointless to feel sorry for Robert Goings, who is 29 and has leukemia, because Goings does not feel sorry for himself.

enjoy my life," he says, blinking brightly in the living room of a hospice for the dying on Eutaw Street. And thousands of Baltimoreans have enjoyed what Goings did with his life as well, although they don't know who he is or why he was important.

Professionally, Goings was in the movies, just as surely as a Dustin Hoffman, a Warren Beatty or a John Waters. They just happen to be a little bit better known, but no more valuable. Goings was the janitor at the Charles Theatre for 12 years until he became too ill to work last March. Incidentally, that's 12 years, 365 days a year. He did take one day off. But nobody can remember which year or why.

"The bathrooms were always spotless, your feet didn't stick to the floor and the place didn't smell," says Gary Lambert, 46, the Charles' long-time projectionist and Goings' friend and protector. was amazing. One of those people who's such a good person you just don't believe it."

"If everybody in this country had Robert's work ethic, we wouldn't have any problems," says Pat Moran, the Charles' artistic director. "It's really difficult when something like this happens to somebody as sweet and gentle and hard working as Robert."

To look at Goings today, you would not know what he has been through in the past months, how hard he's fought, how much pain he's endured, what secret bouts of hopelessness he's suffered as he skidded through elaborate chemotherapy programs, all ultimately unsuccessful.

"The worst kind of pain," says Lambert, who has seen a lot of it himself as he has worked in the AIDS community. "The kind of pain where you just scream."

But not today. Perhaps it is at the mercy of the drugs, but today Goings is alert and a little shy. But when he smiles it could be at any of a thousand daylight critic's screenings at the Chuck over the last decade. It's a a huge blast of glee, as if to say, "Isn't this great? We get to see movies in the daytime as part of our job?"

"I always liked that," he says. "Seeing those movies with the critics. It was great."

Goings has other memories, too.

"I liked going there and seeing the long lines and just walking by them and going in for free. That was great."

And he remembers a fabled night in Charles' history: October 31, 1986.

" 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show,' midnight screening," says Lambert in disgust. "Remember that, Robert? We had a nightmare. Somebody threw an egg at the screen. And the rice?"

"It was like a beach of rice," Goings says. "Two days to clean it up. I didn't think we'd ever see the end of that rice!"

Goings is also proud of the movies in which he appeared. Besides John Waters's "Hairspray" and "Cry Baby," he was also in "Her Alibi."

"I was cut out of 'Clara's Heart,' " he says, as if that's his only bitterness in life.

Now Goings spends his days upstairs in a cheery little bedroom, near a cheery banner (WE LOVE YOU ROBERT in huge, capital letters) signed by his visitors, including Waters and Moran, and David Levy, who leases and runs the theater. Or he goes downstairs to the living room, and works on jigsaw puzzles with the same infinite patience with which he once wiped down the mirrors and swept between the seats.

And he's not alone.

The only wonderful part of this story is that for all the things that Goings has had to go through, he has not but for a few seconds been by himself, from the moment that he collapsed in the Charles's projection booth that first night he felt ill back in February of 1991.

Lambert's been there, too.

Now if you ask Lambert why, he'll give you some fiddle-dee-dee about this or that, a modest disavowal of importance, and HTC quickly deflect the questions back onto Goings. But it wasn't a case of someone having to do it. In fact, no one had to do it, and Lambert did it anyhow.

"Oh, I don't know," says Lambert with some embarrassment, "I just decided that if he was not to be discarded because of how he talked and who he was, I'd have to get involved. Robert was just too good to throw away. That's all."

A white man, a black man, the pressure of a terrible disease, and between them, over the long months, they achieve something that politicians love to crow about.

Goings states it simply, without bombast.

"Gary's family," he says.

It's so curious: The movie industry creates gigantic and expensive fantasies of heroic action, all these godlike, beautiful men with their guns and their willingness to kill and die, and of course it's all a big fake.

Yet here in Baltimore, in a far precinct of the giant machine, here, in the shadows where nobody's watching and there are no retakes or special effects, two very quiet men face death each day with heroism of exactly the sort nobody ever makes movies about.

And when the visit is over, the two men share a brief embrace, gulp down the considerable sentiment they feel. Then Goings heads back upstairs and Lambert heads back to his other life, and each, for that day and in his own way, has loved his brother.


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