I had a job writing what we scribes called “adult literature” — but the rest of the world calls pornography. The outfit was laughingly named Corporate Design and its office was located over a delicatessen in the East 30s. We writers – a ragtag bunch — arrived on Monday morning and were given a subject, i.e. incest in a suburban cul-de-sac or a teenage black dyke in Harlem. We would then sit down at a primitive computer and write the book in four days off the top of our heads — which were often impaired by the joints passed around the office, usually by the boss. There was no rewriting because our words went right onto a tape as 3-D dots — sort of like Braille — which was then put into a printing machine: presto, a book!
I left and came back to the porn factory a few times, and one time when I came back I heard that a new writer had just been hired. I can still remember the first moment I lay eyes on Steve Lott in front of the coffee machine — he was slight and shy, with enormous brown eyes, black hair, pale, almost pretty.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi,” he said in his soft voice, the one that made you lean forward so you wouldn’t miss a single word.
“You look about 13!”
He smiled his shy sweet smile. Steve was a kid, had just graduated from Princeton, where his thesis on the Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell had “broken new ground” in the words his professors, he was obsessed with Hitchcock, the Brontes, animals and sex, was always carrying around a dog-eared Trollope, at least one of his sneakers untied, cigarettes at hand. Steve was a true intellectual with a fierce restless mind — he was also soft-spoken, rebellious, ironic, funny and gentlemanly, with a strong moral streak. I quickly fell in love with him, it was impossible not to, I simply couldn’t get enough of his company.
Steve had grown up all over Asia and the Middle East – his father was headmaster of American schools abroad — and this nomadic, exotic and spoiled childhood gave him a precocity and sophistication. His “adult literature” was gothic, gorgeously written, dripping with atmosphere. Steve was madly neurotic — insecure and arrogant, slutty and romantic, he used to quote a line from Woody Allen’s Interiors, “I have all the neuroses of an artist but none of the talent.” I would assure him he did have the talent – and he proved me right.
I was writing plays that were getting done downtown at places like The Kitchen, LaMama, and Theater for the New York. I’d become pals with an actor/artist named Chris Tanner, who played Glit – a speed-crazed Tenderloin drag queen hooker – in my play Underbelly Blues. Chris was a California kid, generous and wholesome and sleazy, charismatic, with a well-developed and untamed id, a lot of drive, a true raconteur with a wild sense of humor and a keen eye for human foibles — pure fun, loves to have it, loves to create it for others. Soon after meeting Steve, I called Chris up and said, “I want you to meet this kid I work with, I think you might like him.”
Steve and Chris fell in love, Steve adored Chris’s unbridled id and Chris adored being adored, and was captivated like everyone else by Steve’s quirky brilliance. The two of them quickly moved in together.
That began a happy happy time — Chris and Steve’s apartment on East 3rd Street was always filled with downtown actors, musicians, artists, dragformers, and assorted hangers-on, it was a party just about every night. I wrote what I called, tongue deep in cheek, my Saugerties Trilogy, three plays inspired by the Hudson Valley/Catskills, where I had a cabin – Smoking Newports and Eating French Fries; Four-Leaf Clover Cabins; and Beverly’s Yard Sale. Steve directed the last two and boy did he have a gift. He would take each actor out to lunch, look at them with his infinite simpatico, and just listen. He confided in me that it was partly manipulation, saying with sly smile, “I just sit there and let them talk, nodding now and then.” But it was much more than that, he loved actors and knew how to build trust — it worked, the actors just gave themselves over to him. He also delved deep into the scripts, uncovering hidden depths in the plays that I had no idea were there (and probably aren’t).
Steve wrote two plays of his own, Charlotte in Wonderland and Macbeth in Hell — both were wildly inventive and original theatrical pastiches of the Brontes, Alice in Wonderland, Dostoyevsky, Hitchcock, lounge music, Shakespeare, with a touch of John Waters, and a lot of id-celebratory eroticism. They were produced at Theater for the New City and got terrific reviews.
Just as Steve was coming into his own, he got sick.
In June 1981 that now famous one-column article appeared on the back page of the front section of the New York Times — it detailed the rare cancer of the blood vessels, Kaposi’s sarcoma, that was appearing in gay men in New York and San Francisco. I can still remember that morning and the jolt of fear that coursed through me as I read the paper. I’d spent time at the Mineshaft and the Anvil and the baths, I’d had bouts of herpes and gonorrhea, and had recently endured a series of really bad sore throats. Uh-oh.
I became an expert on the emerging epidemic, reading everything I could get my hands on, I knew all the early symptoms, had zero denial and was pretty sure that whatever was making people sick, I had. I checked my mouth every day for thrush, the white coating that was an early symptom, I felt my lymph nodes obsessively and I went to all sorts of ad-hoc meetings and groups. ACT-UP, which was founded about five years later, was thrilling because the fear was turned into anger and action, but most of the early meetings I went to were pictures of panic and heartbreak, filled with young men who had come to New York to make lives for themselves and were now facing a gruesome and unpredictable disease that killed you. All sorts of odd cures and treatments and diets were touted and tried — there was a short fad of drinking your own urine.
One night after seeing a movie at the 8th Street Playhouse, Steve and I were sitting on a stoop when he started to scratch his legs really hard, telling me he’d had several bouts of this intense itching lately. I knew this was an early symptom but I didn’t say anything. A few weeks later we took the bus up to Woodstock, my friend Louie was late to pick us up so we sat on a bench in the sun and within seconds large clear blisters appeared on Steve’s exposed forearms — they came up so quickly that it was almost like science fiction. I felt a terrible dread pass over me, and since there was no treatment yet, in fact HIV hadn’t been discovered, I saw no good reason to say anything. But I knew. And I felt hopeless, with a terrible sense of foreboding.
Whenever the disease came up Steve would get angry, he thought it was the sex police trying to keep people from having fun, to lay a big trip on gay people. After the incident on the Woodstock green, I gingerly said something to Chris, who, with his California optimism, answered, “Oh, I don’t think me or Steve or you will get it.”
As the months passed the fear on the streets grew palpable, you saw it in the faces, in the eyes, men rushing past, filled with a terrible unknowing. What was happening? Who would be next? Stories multiplied – the acquaintance dying up in some terrible city hospital in the Bronx, his family refusing to acknowledge him. Downtown director and writer Andy Rees – so talented and so handsome — got it and had to have an I.V. port inserted in his chest, he called me and said, “I wake up in the morning and for a minute I forget. Then I look down at my chest. It’s like being in a horror movie.” Someone asked me to foster parent a young man’s kitten and I went to pick it up, the man was a boy really, so young, his face a mask of fear as he handed over the little thing. An old friend, who I’d appeared in my first New York show with, came over to my apartment and started talking in a falsetto and couldn’t stop himself, his face contorted with panic and confusion. Popular downtown actor George Osterman came to see a reading of a play of mine at the Public, literally shaking with fear. It was a death sentence and they all had it.
I got into a protocol of 100 men at Roosevelt Hospital run by a warm and empathic young doctor named Michael Lange. He would see us every six months and take our blood — for the first couple of years no one in the study got sick, then people started to, one after another.
A soulful hunky actor from Nevada named Timo Butters showed me his Kaposi’s, it spread across his whole thigh. My dear friend Ken Ketwig got it and moved to San Francisco, I saw him out there, he lived in a group home, a dark depressing flat, he had an altar in his bedroom — Ken was both acerbic and cherubic, a writer, and he’d had no kin with religion. Noel Craig, a handsome actor I’d had an affair with when I was 16 – I’d picked him up on the AA train and brought him up to my family’s apartment at 101 Central Park West, where we made out in my room, he was playing Hamlet in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead on B’way – called me, we hadn’t spoken in twenty years, he boasted, “I’ve kept three cars in New York City” and then told me he was sick. Someone I’d met at the Mineshaft and gone home with called me from the hospital, he told me he had it and that I probably did too, he was kind of mean about it, but he’d been kind of mean when we tricked – I told him I wrote plays and he said, “That’s a nice hobby” – but when I said I was sorry he was sick he started weeping. Rich and worldly painter Vassiles Voglis, who had houses in NYC, Amagansett and Positano — and went wild with high-class hustlers after his much older lover died of cancer — held court in his loft, wrapped in a shawl, slowly shriveling (Vassiles was a great friend of Tennessee Williams and I spent a weekend hanging out with them in Amagansett, at one point Williams drawled, “I spend 3 grand a month keeping Rose in a home” and I said “She can live with me for half that” and he laughed). Sweet exuberant Manny Halpert, a podiatrist’s son from Queens who was a fellow writer at the porn factory, got it, he’d moved out to LA and gotten a terrific job in television, one day he sent me a letter up in Saugerties, I opened it outside by the mailbox and read: “My doctor says my blood work looks bad”, Manny came back to New York for a visit and told me that as he flew in he knew it would be the last time he saw the city, he went blind and moved in with his brother in Agora Hills, a kind man who took care of Manny and cried at his funeral out in Queens, said how wonderful it was that Manny had had so many lovers — what a beautiful thing for a straight man to say, he loved his brother.
There were memorial services every week it seemed, and hospital visits, and good deeds by the billions, the coming together was a wondrous thing to witness and gave some kind of meaning to the horror — those who weren’t sick were at a hospital, cooking a meal, taking care of a pet, going on doctor visits, nobody went through the disease alone, a sense of our strength, morality and kindness swept over the gay community.
We were taking care of our own, but we needed help in high places to pull the disease out of the darkness and push for a cure. It arrived in the form of Elizabeth Taylor, who stepped forward and said, “I am going to fight this disease every day of my life, for the rest of my life.” She put her money, her time, her heart and her soul where her mouth was, helping found AmFar, raising millions at benefits and auctions, going to meetings and hearings and just never ever ever shutting up, forcing people to listen and act. Steve devoured every bit of Liz news, because she brought strength and courage and light and hope. I love Elizabeth Taylor, every day of my life, for the rest of my life.
The New York Native ran a piece about a new treatment that had been developed in Israel and supposedly worked, it involved mixing lecithin kernels with water, freezing the mixture into ice cubes, and then eating them. I ran to the heath food store and bought a big jar of the kernels, the owner said he’d been selling a lot of it, the lecithin ice cubes tasted terrible but I choked them down for several months.
Then one evening Dr. Lange held a large informational meeting up at St. Luke’s Hospital behind Columbia University — the hall was packed, socialite and activist Judy Peabody was there on Vito Russo’s arm – and after the meeting I found Dr. Lange and told him about the lecithin I was taking and he said, “Why are you taking anything? You’re HIV negative.”
My relief was so overpowering I went into a kind of shock, my boyfriend and I went out to dinner, I just sat there numb, mute, exhilarated, so light I felt like I was levitating.
Steve developed an anal fistula and was treated at Doctor’s Hospital, where I was born, I forget what his next symptoms were but he was diagnosed with AIDS and found a doctor at Beth Israel named Brian Saltzman. Brian is an only-in-New-York character, an elegant adorable clotheshorse, social powerhouse, great doctor and one of my heroes. He moved mountains for Steve — when Steve had a reaction to some drug and all his skin burned off from the inside out, within hours Brian had this bed filled with undulating hot sand transported from a burn unit somewhere uptown, it was one of only a few such beds in the whole city. We could reach Brian whenever and he always knew about the most up-to-date treatment, plus he was great fun, always ready to laugh — but underneath Brian’s wit, glamour and joie de vivre is one brave kick-ass doctor.
One day I walked into Steve’s hospital room and Brian was sitting on the couch next to the bed, his hand resting lightly on Steve’s arm — the mood was somber. “We’re having a serious talk,” Brian said. I sat down. Brian explained Steve’s end-of-life options to him. Steve listened, eyes wide, frightened. When Brian was finished, Steve said he wanted to be kept alive by any means necessary. That was such a sad delicate important talk, and Brian handled it with such grace.
Amazing as Brian was, it was Chris who led the charge — he was a fighter for his Steve, this was life and death stuff, and woe be to anyone who got in his way — he bullied and badgered and screamed and hollered and cajoled and charmed and threatened for the best, fastest care, he went to every doctor’s appointment, fed and clothed and diapered Steve, surrounded him with a sea of love and caring. Chris’s whole life was Steve. Their apartment became even more of a hotbed of creativity, filled with friends and food and love, all love all the time. Because Steve was just this lovable little guy. To know him was to love him.
Steve loved to take long baths, he would sit on his shins in the tub, the bath tray in front of him holding his Trollope, his cigarettes, a joint, a pen and notebook, some caramels, and four or five of us would be in there with him, sitting on the floor, the toilet, a footstool, people coming and going, just hanging out for hours and hours with naked Steve, his body dotted with lesions, holding court with his warm smile and kind words and pithy observations, ever the gentleman, always eager to hear what everyone else was up to. One night, the filmmaker William Comstock filmed Steve in the tub, and the result is the extraordinary and heartbreaking Soup of the Evening.
Steve had some interesting reactions to his mortality. He became obsessed with breeding mice, he named each one — with three names, quite grand — and kept meticulous bloodlines, as if he was breeding thoroughbreds. Mice breed quickly and soon one cage multiplied to twenty, finally there were just too many and it became dicey medically to have them around. He reluctantly agreed to give them up, and Steve, Chris and I made trip after trip to the beautiful old walled boneyard on 3rd Street between First and Second Avenues, knelt down by the iron gate, and released shoeboxes filled with mice. I don’t suppose many lasted long in that cat-and-rat playground, but maybe some did, maybe there are mice there today who can trace their lineage back to the House of Lott.
Steve’s folks were around a lot, they were lovely people who adored their son, but they had met as Baptist missionaries in Asia and were unprepared for the disease — his Mom called it “the AIDS” — for New York, for Steve’s bohemian friends, and for losing a child so young. But they were brave and stalwart, Steve’s Dad just adored him, would tell me stories of young Steve, of his imaginary friend, who he insisted was real, and how Steve loved nothing more than to sit in a window seat and read all day long, his friend by his side.
Steve spent the last couple of months of his life in a private room at Beth Israel that had a foldout couch. Chris slept there and I relieved him every third night — it was a little like sleeping on an airplane, the low lights and low hum, the not-comfortable bed, the sense of being suspended. Steve had a morphine pump, it went into his stomach, I forget if he controlled it or if it released a set dose every couple of hours — in any case, he became obsessed with the pump. One night Steve’s voice woke me up at around 3 a.m., I assumed he needed something, but he was sitting up in bed frantically making one phone call after another to his doctors, reaching answering services and voice mails, leaving desperate messages, convinced that his pump wasn’t working — he was so agitated, bathed in the ghostly gray light, really hysterical, it broke my heart, calling and calling and calling. Finally I said, “I’m sure someone will be here any minute.” Steve whirled on me and cried, “Don’t you understand, Sebastian, I’m fighting, I’M FIGHTING FOR MY LIFE!!”
Then the fight went out of him, slowly, and he slumped down on the pillows and started to whimper.
Steve’s memorial was a little weird, it was held at Theater for the New City and because Steve’s folks were religious we wanted to find a pastor to say a few words — but we had no idea where to look. We finally found – in the Yellow Pages — this boozy flea-bitten old freak who specialized in eulogizing prisoners and other ne’er-do-wells, he didn’t know Steve from Adam and he stood up and talked about how even sinners and lowlifes were entitled to God’s grace. It was all wrong, but right in a way — Steve would have gotten such a kick out of it.
I think of Steve less often these days, but when I do think of him it’s more acute. I wonder what he would be like today if he’d lived. During his last months he wrote extraordinary poems in the middle of the night — I guess at that hour it’s just you and death. About a decade after he died, Chris produced a show at LaMama, Ravaged by Romance, that was based on Steve’s death poems, a collage of poetry and song, gothic and glamorous, featuring a bevy of downtown stars, a theremin player, an opera singer, and a dying boy.
Steve’s been gone for 23 years now. Once or twice a year Chris and I talk about him, we share a history and shorthand so we don’t need to say much, just his name and a few random remembrances — and then we let the silences between us be filled with Steve.