By Penny Arcade
As I am someone who lived through the cruelest years of the AIDS epidemic, younger people often ask me, “Was it like this? COVID-19? Like the AIDS epidemic, the early years?”
The short answer is no. Because AIDS was hands-on and COVID-19 is hands off. We took care of our dying friends, in the hospital and at home. We handled their dying and dead bodies. We gathered and wept, and held on to each other and raged against the injustice and inhumanity that was visited upon us.
What is similar between the AIDS epidemic and COVID-19 is twofold—the overflooded hospitals and the hospital understaffing. Except in the rare times a nurse, aid, or doctor was stuck with an infected needle, the medical staff was not at risk for contracting AIDS as they are with COVID-19. Also, as with AIDS, the doctors working with COVID patients do not know what they are dealing with. The learning curve with COVID, as with AIDS, has been steep.
We educated ourselves alongside the doctors. We also worked alongside the doctors, nurses, and aides taking care of our friends in the hospital, doing what the nurses and aides would not or could not do.
On Thursday, March 12, 2020, when lights went out on Broadway as all the theaters shut down their shows, I thought of the first Day Without Art created by the artist and art professionals’ coalition, Visual Aids. On December 1st, 1989, to draw attention to the suffering and loss in the arts community due to the continuing pandemic of AIDS, museums and performance spaces in New York closed for the night, went dark, in solidarity, to bring attention to the fearsome possibility of a world without art or artists as the art community, hard hit by the HIV virus, buckled under the attack of AIDS.
When I see people on the streets without masks, I feel so sad. NYC has always been a city with an innate sense of solidarity. In the more than 50 years that I have lived here, it has always pulled together in crisis. We last saw this in 2001 as the walls of our city were covered in flyers, the faces of people’s loved ones lost in the fires and collapse of the Twin Towers were everywhere. No one who experienced it will ever forget. We openly wept in the streets, all of us. It made no difference that it wasn’t our husband, wife, sister, brother, mother, father, fiancé, family member, or friend; we all lost everyone who was lost. We felt it—the searching for loved ones, the hopelessness, the grief. We now all know that wearing a mask is a way of protecting others. It also protects ourselves, to a degree, but most of all it is a symbol of solidarity, care, empathy and community.
In 1991 the members of Visual AIDS gathered in a ramshackle loft to try to come up with a symbol to show empathy for people with AIDS, but more so for the AIDS caregivers, many of whom were exhausted, bereft and grieving. We felt that if there was a symbol, not a brand but an iconic visual gesture that said “You are seen; we know what you are going through; we are on your side,” it could bring peace of mind and solace to many. This created the Red Ribbon.
There is a physical and metaphysical meaning to wearing a mask. We do not know who we pass in the street. We do not know their immunity, who they have lost, who they are grieving.
My neighborhood the LES/EV is filled with 20, 30, and 40- somethings without masks or practicing social distancing. These are the ones who haven’t fled home to the American suburbs, to their parents’ houses. They crowd the sidewalks in front of walk-up bars—yakking it up—their simple mating rituals largely unchanged in the face of the pandemic. For many of them it is a form of extended spring break. For others, it’s an escape from the routine of quarantine and lodging in place. I get it; the novel coronavirus is no longer novel. Many of these younger people have bought into the belief that they are not at risk, that only “old people get it” even though that is old news, disinformation—as everyone, from neo-natal to children to teens and people under 50, is affected, not only affected but can also die.
Joggers, maskless on the sidewalk, panting with spit spritzing from their mouths, run two feet from me. Yesterday, enraged by what I kept seeing—the lack of empathy and ethical consciousness, the inherent narcissism—I tried to stay even-keeled. But when a 30-something maskless female jogger in Lulu Lemon (all Gwyneth Paltrowed), tall, slender and blonde, passed me, ignoring social distance on the wide sidewalk, and chose to slide by less than eight inches from me I hissed, “You would look great on a ventilator.” Yes, I am her wake-up call. I was taught by the meanest queens in NYC.
Her shock is that of the shallow, rooted suburbanites who call NYC home now, but who do not muck in. They do not feel part of our city. They did not come here to be part of it all. They do not recognize community in anonymity, they only care for the people they know. They are confused and stunned by “tell it like it is” street realness. They have never interacted with a battle-scarred New Yorker like me.
They think I am rude. I think they are machines. They don’t understand that I don’t give a good goddamn about what they think of my manners, because I am concerned about their manner of behavior, not the manners that deliver it. This is not about shaming or cooler-than-thou ethical superiority. My life might very well depend on the 30-something jogger, and vice versa. As Lou Reed sang in There Is No Time: “This is no time to count your blessings, this is no time for private gain. This is the time to put up or shut up because this time won’t come again.”
Now is the time for all of us, despite, or in spite of, the politicalizing of COVID-19, to go beyond self-interest, to pull together, to, in the famous words of poet Allen Ginsburg, “Put our queer shoulder to the wheel.”
To be honest, I did not think I would live to see another plague.
Climate change notwithstanding, approaching age 70, I thought whatever was coming would happen after I died. My former patroness, who had been studying Mandarin and had developed friendships online in China, called me in mid-January. She was homeschooling her son and warned me the coronavirus was headed our way.
Then Italy became the epicenter and the news from my family in Milan was dire. They were surrounded by death and dying, the hospitals were overwhelmed, and they were in lockdown. Hundreds of miles south of Milan, where most of my family lives in the rural village of Picerno in the remote mountainous region of Basilicata, with only seven cases of the coronavirus in the entire state, they too were in lockdown and not allowed to leave their houses.
On January 30th the World Health Organization announced that the novel coronavirus COVID-19 was a global problem; and on the same day, Trump tweeted that with five cases of coronavirus in the USA, COVID-19 was not a problem.
I started to wear gloves on the subway. The rest is history. You know it, I know it. My rage about the USA being so woefully unprepared for emergencies and crises, has long roots that go back to my youth at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. The PTSD I carried from that decade of death and dying was triggered again by the lack of preparedness for 9/11, when there were no masks for first responders and there was no plan.
My confidence and belief in America’s ability to respond to imminent threat was further shattered by the woefully slow response to Hurricane Katrina, as the world and I watched the
people of New Orleans, mostly poor people of color, abandoned by the federal government.
Then came Hurricane Sandy. Right in my backyard in New York City, people lost everything, and many in Far Rockaway, once again the poor and marginalized—mainly people of color—were left for months without electricity.
Then we watched the whole thing happen again in Puerto Rico, leading over and over again to the same question we asked during the plague years of AIDS: is no one in charge of public
health in this country? And the resounding answer has come with COVID-19. No! There is no one running the store.
Along with no testing, the means by which other hard-hit countries have controlled the spread of the virus, the weakness of OUR country is laid bare because of COVID-19. Who is hardest hit? As always, the poor, the undocumented, the homeless—all without access to health care, services, food.
With all that said, COVID-19 has been treacherous for me also. I have lost dear friends who died in vain because overwhelmed hospital services could not respond in time.
Yes, in 2020 there was a stark wake up call for the Americans who either chose or were forced to hear the truth—that our Glorious America responded to COVID-19 in NYC like a third world country would. Horrified, we learned that even middle class and wealthy New Yorkers were unable to receive proper treatment because there was not enough equipment. Horrified, we watched refrigerated trucks used as temporary morgues park around the city’s neighborhoods. There was only one photo, they dared not show a second, as mass graves were dug on Hart’s Island.
A rental van, unrefrigerated, filled with dead bodies, leaked effluence in front of an overflowing funeral home on a Harlem street. Was this the 21st century, many of us asked ourselves? New York, the economy, our lives, ground to a halt.
For performing artists, work evaporated overnight. Tours were cancelled. As someone who is their seventh decade and at risk of lung infection, our run at Pangea NY where we were developing my latest show, Notes from the Underground, put me at risk. But just as we announced the cancellation, Governor Cuomo closed all non-essential businesses and perhaps for the first time in our cultural history theater died.
I am an introvert; consequently, being locked in at home does not present the same kind of pressure it does to people who are extroverted by nature and need to interact with others in order to process their day-to-day experiences. Introverts like me process our feelings, thoughts and ideas interiorly and then express them outwardly.
My longtime collaborator Steve Zehentner is also an introvert. Perhaps that is why we get so much done, why we are so productive—apart and together. Our first thoughts were about our audience, a far-flung international community, and Pangea, the small unfunded restaurant and theater space that has become Creative Central to the downtown art scene—an intergenerational group of theater and music artists creating new work—and our devoted, local live audiences who, for decades, have midwifed my work as I develop it, live, improvisational, in front of them.
We were concerned about Pangea’s kitchen staff—the waiters, barmen, dishwashers. We immediately came up with the idea of going live, streaming to raise money for the Pangea staff and ourselves. We decided to seize the moment and create Penny Arcade Patreon, a donation-based site to upload my decades of work—all the plays, performances, readings, etc., as well as the Lower East Side Biography Project, our 20-year video project “Stemming the Tide of Cultural Amnesia” where we interview highly self-individuated people and then edit me out so the public can get an extraordinary one-on-one experience with remarkable people. From this platform we plan to present live events like readings from my developing memoir of my life lived in the downtown art scene, with all of the previously hidden aspects of my life that created me to become myself. It’s both a how-to and a how-not-to manual for living an authentic life! Simultaneously, we created online broadcasting in the form of LIVE FACEBOOK: first, once a week, but now, for several weeks, Thursdays and Sundays at 5:00 p.m. EST on Penny Arcade Superstar. I interview people who can bring something to our collective table. I entertain and express and offer my connection, and I offer what beauty and intellectual life mean and have meant to me. I am always busy, but since the pandemic began I am busier than ever. It makes sense. There is a crisis, and in a crisis the elders of a community are called on to contribute and to lead, if only by example.
My personal FB page is open to the public; it always has been. This is part of my long-exercised social practice, as an artist and as a member of a community that extends beyond my personal friends. I have done this through theater, pirate radio, and public access television. It is who and what I am. My relationship is with the public.
I need to contribute, and I need to connect. I do this by being an entertainer, and by doing a kind of cultural sociology, a cultural ministering. After all, theater has its roots in the sacred. People tune in from around the country and from around the world. COVID-19 has given a new meaning to globalization…perhaps one that can save globalization from itself!