A little civility can seem like a lot of luxury

December 17, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

SOMETIMES the slightest civility feels like a luxury. Richard Frye steps into an early-morning wind that shivers the bones. But he knows he can go back inside for warmth and counts this a blessing. There's an apartment at the top of the stairs where he can sleep, instead of the back seat of a car where he says he lived for two years.

He spends most of his time in the apartment. Frye, 52, doesn't work anymore. He's struggling with AIDS, though it isn't AIDS that keeps him out of work. He says he couldn't find simple civility on the job. He says years of gay-baiting by fellow workers drove him from a couple of Howard County positions, drove him into clinical depression and drove him into isolation.

Now, he says, "I'm sitting here waiting to die. I've got nothing to live for. I fall on the floor sometimes, I feel so lonely. When you destroy a man emotionally - well, I don't want to live anymore."

Again, it's not the physical sickness. He's pretty stable now and has regained 30 pounds after a 70-pound loss. It's the piling-up of so many problems that have contributed to an illness of the spirit, a manner that seems constantly poised on the edge of a sob.

"I've known him for three or four years," says Pastor Richard H. Goodlin at St. Stephen Lutheran Church near Wilkens Avenue. "He's a straightforward, honest man who's been devastated by people who outed him. My parishioners? They think of him as someone who's friendly and prays with them."

The other morning, Frye walks from his small third-floor walk-up to a weathered Oldsmobile - "my second home," he says wryly - with a "Jesus" sticker on its side. He pulls out a loose-leaf binder thick with legal papers, with letters to and from attorneys and doctors and with old newspaper clippings.

They describe a troubled work history: seven years at municipal positions where, Frye says, co-workers taunted him. The taunts cannot be repeated here. They were mean-spirited and juvenile, and make you wonder about the human conscience. The taunts were reported to supervisors and then faded away.

Now Frye pulls out more files from a large stack on a living room table. There's a letter from his psychologist, Edward Dworkin, to Howard County's Department of Personnel, describing "over five years of sexual harassment" leading to post-traumatic stress disorder. It issues a plea that the county "must find ways to give this man relief." A letter from Dr. Bruce Conger describes Frye's "chronic depression."

When Frye finally withdrew from work a couple of years ago, the government agreed to small disability payments that are his only source of income.

But other files from Frye's thick stack of papers attest to a life previously well-lived: his interpreting and counseling work for the Maryland School for the Deaf; a career at Social Security that he gave up to work full time caring for his dying stepparents; and his amateur paleontology work that once drew attention from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

In fact, Frye's Catonsville apartment - "Martha Stewart living on a Goodwill budget," he calls it - is decorated in an eclectic mix: modern charm and encased prehistoric fossils. There's a baby dinosaur skeleton from China, dinosaur eggs from Mongolia, the skull of a baby saber-toothed tiger.

"The only friends I have left," says Frye.

He is given to such dramatic statements. He says he has buried "about 20 friends" who have suffered through AIDS. And he has buried four parents: his natural parents and the stepparents who adopted him at age 11 and raised him on a farm near Ellicott City.

Married for five years when he was "trying to do the right thing" and divorced at 26, he later lived for 10 years with another man, named Jesse. "If I could have, I would have married him," Frye says. He says his family thought they were just roommates. But Jesse went off on a brief sexual fling, contracted HIV and gave it to Frye, and soon after left town, Frye says.

"I thought I had the flu," he says. "Then I started having night sweats. My joints ached. My doctor gave me the news. I went home and sat under a tree and cried until it got dark. Jesse had left two weeks earlier."

Jesse left behind more than an infected Frye. There was also a large financial debt. Frye paid some of the bills by selling off part of his fossil collection. It wasn't enough. He lived for a while with his dying stepparents - until, he says, someone from work informed them that their stepson was gay and suffering from AIDS.

At that point, says Frye, he moved into his car. His credit was a wreck. Sometimes he slept in the car, and sometimes in a lavatory at work. For several years, says Pastor Goodlin, his parishioners have helped feed Frye.

"When I met him, he was down to half a jar of peanut butter," says Goodlin, "I said, `First thing, we've got to get you some food.' But there's still this emotional devastation that's happened. We like to think of ourselves as enlightened and tolerant. But there's a lot of judgmentalism and a lot of fear of anyone with AIDS. We demonstrate our true faith through compassion, and not through judgment."

So, on a chilly morning, Frye sits in his apartment. He counts it a blessing. He says his health - AIDS notwithstanding - has improved since he stopped working and stopped hearing the taunts of co-workers. Sometimes the simplest absence of pain feels like a luxury.

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