Dale Peck: Same-As-That
Peck recounts discovering a lost letter, and the threads of history it provokes at Harper's Magazine.
The first time I heard the word samizdat was at an ACT UP meeting.
The term was applied to the vast stacks of photocopies that every member picked up on the way into the Monday-night meeting: treatment guidelines, drug studies, bureaucratic analyses, action plans, contact lists, and announcements of events ranging from performances and gallery openings to house parties and memorial services.
This collection was never referred to as anything other than “the table” (even though it usually spread over two or three), a twelve- or eighteen-foot-long banquet of paper down both sides of which several hundred gay men and lesbians, nearly indistinguishable in their Doc Martens and Levi’s and sloganed T-shirts, bent their spiky or shaved heads and served themselves and one another with the ordered geniality of an Amish wedding. I was an intellectually pretentious but under-educated twenty-two-year-old who didn’t want to admit he was unfamiliar with a term that had the clear, clannish peal of jargon, the ignorance of which marked him out as neophyte or, worse, interloper. In fact I heard the word as “same-as-that,” which led me to think of it as an assertion of status: though these stapled stacks of paper, most written by people with no political background or scientific or journalistic training, lacked the credentials and durability of proper books, they were nevertheless the real library of AIDS, and the bound books that trickled out of traditional publishing houses were the table’s supplements rather than the other way around.
The most significant piece of sameasthat in my personal AIDS library, however, entered my life about nine months before I joined ACT UP. It was 1989 and I was in my last semester of college. I worked in a used-book store (ostensibly to save up for my impending move to the city, though in fact most of my salary went right back into the till), and at some point late that spring my boss brought in a cache of hundreds of opera records. The cases were faded and tattered and spotted with mold, the discs filthy but, beneath a layer of dust, nearly pristine. Their condition attested to a long period of heavy but respectful use and a second interval of less-than-benign neglect. Each record had to be taken from its sleeve and washed by hand, a delicate task and monotonous for a twenty-one-year-old who had zero interest in opera, and so I was as much relieved as intrigued when five wrinkled sheets of onionskin fell out of the somewhat gaudy Sixties-era case containing Bizet’s Carmen. The sheets were unruled and covered with florid and, as I thought, old-ladyish handwriting, still bright blue although the first page was dated 26 September 1965—in the European manner. “My dear Gino” was the only other thing I was able to make out before I put the letter aside and returned to the task at hand, and so I didn’t decipher it until later that evening, alone in my dorm room, my heart quickening as each successive sentence revealed a love story that seemed as melodramatic as an opera, as stark and doomed and unreal. Except this love, between a man named Gino and another named Jean-gabriel, was real, or at any rate it had been, twenty-three years earlier, and the next day I asked my boss—as nonchalantly as possible, and without mentioning the letter—whether he remembered the name of the person whose records he’d purchased the day before.
It was a time in my life when omens seemed to appear everywhere, conflicting, confusing, beguiling. When my boss gave me a copy of Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, there was no way he could have known I’d applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, still less that I’d receive my rejection letter, signed by Conroy, on the very day I finished his memoir (which I loved, by the way, and which made the rejection feel personal and portentous). Then there was the matter of sex. I’d waited a long time before coming out, not least because my adolescence coincided with the onset of the AIDS epidemic (I turned fourteen in 1981), and on the very day I finally allowed myself to have sex my watch stopped. This was the only watch I’d ever owned, the watch I’d bought when I came to college two and a half years earlier, the watch that signified my desire to be on time for my adult life, and its battery gave out while I was losing my virginity, at 12:03 a.m. And now there was this letter, which I wanted to see as a totem validating my sexuality and repudiating the augury of my stopped watch (which, incidentally, started working again when I slapped it against my palm, and ran for several more years). I didn’t know whether I wanted to meet Gino or to be Gino, only that I didn’t want my fate to be decided by a $30 Swatch.
Image: Sung Kokko @ F-Stop Magazine
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