The other side

December 13, 1993|By Anna Quindlen

IN THE apartment a man and woman decorated a Christmas tree. They looped strands of lights around the branches, stood back to consider the effect, plugged them in so that colored stars danced in the darkness.

From across the street we could see them, two panes of glass and a swath of asphalt away. We mourned our friend while those two strangers went about a different ritual.

Last Monday would have been Jeff Schmalz's 40th birthday, and he had intended to spend it dining well, as was his wont, at Chanterelle. His memorial service was held at the restaurant instead.

His friends and colleagues remembered him as a superb reporter and editor. And they spoke of the extraordinary work he had done, these last few years, as a gay man with AIDS covering the epidemic for the New York Times.

As we sat facing the restaurant window, listening to one and then another speak of Jeff, the couple across the way decorated their tree, insensible to us and our grief yet seemingly close enough to touch, framed in a rectangle of yellow lamp light.

And it came to me that they were a symbol of all of us who have gone about our business, the straight-world parallel universe, devoid of passion and interest, that has left AIDS activism to the community of men decimated by disease.

"One day soon," Jeff wrote, "I will simply become one of the 90 people in America to die that day of AIDS."

That day was Nov. 6.

And one day soon you too will find yourself in the shadow of the plague, whose urgency has faded in this here-today-gone-tomorrow world. One day soon it will grip someone you know and love.

Here is the real domino theory: Gay man to gay man, bisexual man to straight woman, addict mother to newborn baby, they all fall down and someday it will come to you. The World Health Organization reports that 14 million are now infected and predicts 30 to 40 million as the millennium approaches.

"I suspect that for many of you tonight this is the first memorial service you have attended for someone who has died of AIDS," said Jeff's friend Adam Nagourney, a White House reporter for USA Today.

"I can assure you that for me and my gay brothers and sisters here tonight, it is one of many; the most painful, to be sure, but still one of many. I also assure all of you, straight or gay, that this will most certainly not be the last one you will attend.

"You should be frightened," he added. "You should be angered -- and, like Jeff, you should be driven to do something about it."

What? Anything, everything, and without the useless underpinning of Puritanism that has hobbled us the last 13 years. Yes, it is transmitted by sex. Yes, we take sexual risks. Will you care about any of that when your son is dying, or your sister? We know what needs to be done: clean-needle exchanges, AIDS education for adolescents, money, research, agitation, information, everything.

But, as much as that, we need to care. Politicians, the people who allocate money, can scent apathy as though it were carrion. Make no mistake: The straight world's psychic remove will color how soon there is a cure. And the gay men who fight the fight grow ill and die.

In a posthumously published cover story in The Times Magazine, Jeff wrote, "The world is moving on, uncaring, frustrated and bored, leaving by the roadside those of us who are infected and who can't help but wonder: Whatever happened to AIDS?"

The answer is that Jeff left it to the rest of us, male and female, straight and gay, all of us who understand that the point of being human is the effort to care passionately about other human beings.

The president spoke of Jeff in his speech on AIDS a week ago.

"He challenged us all with these words in the article," Bill Clinton said. "'I am dying. Why doesn't someone help us?'"

If you knew Jeff, if you knew how witty and sardonic he could be, how self-sufficient and confident, you would feel those plaintive words as the rebuke they ought to be.

But since you did not, I will only ask this: When it is your son's wasted face on the pillow, or your sister's, or your friend's -- because for some of you it will surely, surely come to that -- when they ask that question, what will you say? It is an important question. Will you have an answer?

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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