Dying man on 'a mission of dignity'

DAN RODRICKS

November 28, 1992|By DAN RODRICKS

He answered the door and led the way to his Bolton Hil apartment, all the time apologizing for the way the furniture had been moved in preparation for a paint job. The place needed to be painted, you know. And it didn't seem to matter that Marquette Prioleau, six years HIV- positive, now has symptoms of full-blown AIDS. The apartment still gets painted.

And there are more speeches to make, more groups to face, more poems to write, more young people to educate. Life goes on. He even hosted a black-tie party last week marking his 37th birthday; his apartment is filled with the wilting roses left from it.

"It was a celebration of life," Prioleau says. "All my friends, people who have touched my life, were there." It was another red-letter day on a dying man's busy calendar.

Since he first learned he had AIDS in 1987, Prioleau has been trying to make up for wasted time. The personal reflection that was instant with the news that he had a fatal disease left him buried in should-have-dones and should-have-beens. There was so much he missed. He was bright, he was creative, he had been a teacher in the Baltimore public schools. But what kind of legacy had he built?

This is where the Marquette Prioleau story gets complicated. He says he has regrets about the life he led before 1987. He wasted a lot of time having a good time. He says he does not regret his sexuality or condemn the gay lifestyle, but he made the title piece of his self-published book a poem called, "The Glamour Is Gone."

In it, Prioleau describes a life of endless partying at gay bars as he and friends "bumped and grinded our way across the East Coast/from the Marquette in Atlanta to the Twelve in Boston/we skitted and flirted."

He speaks of "stepping high" and "praising many-a-men" in the endless search "to fulfill yet another lonely night."

"Our lifestyle surpassed being a masquerade," it goes. "We were so comfortable/that we unmasqued ourselves/just to be suddenly struck by that disease/they call the gay plague./Now many have slipped quietly into their closets, while others die in droves./It used to be a glamorous life/but not anymore."

In another poem, "Can You Forgive Me?" Prioleau refers to himself as "a drum major in a parade of fools, swaying, throwing caution to the wind." The poem is a response to those who wanted to blame Prioleau for contracting the disease. It concludes: "Now I'm born again/The rubble of my past still remains./I have forgiven myself now I wonder if you can."

Whatever the emotional conflicts, however complicated Marquette Prioleau's feelings, there is one thing he does not regret today -- coming out about his disease. It might be the most important thing he ever did in life.

"Nearly six years of living with AIDS has humbled my spirit," Prioleau says. "I know what is important. I seek salvation daily. I know when to cry. I understand living and I have learned how to die. . . . AIDS has not defeated me, but it has brought out the very best in me."

Prioleau (pronounced "pray-low") went public in a big way -- with the poetry readings, with an appearance in a video, with speeches in schools and before adult organizations. He has been invited to speak at several United Methodist churches, one in a rural Maryland town where his words had a profound effect on a woman whose husband had died of AIDS. She had never been able to tell anyone in the town or parish of the disease; stigma had deprived the couple of the embrace of friends. But it probably had spared them scorn, right?

Maybe so.

Yet, in his own experience, Prioleau says he has been "just overwhelmed" by the kindness of strangers. He has not experienced the ridicule and rejection he might have expected when he decided to go public with his AIDS. This is particularly encouraging for a determined, resilient man who describes his last crusade as a "mission of dignity" aimed at uniting people in support of the victims of this disease.

"I wait for someone who will understand me, who will knock on my closed doors," goes another poem in his book. "I wait for another invitation to life, for an unrequested kiss, a hug that I didn't beg for, a gift that is really a surprise, and all my flowers before I die."

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