Wednesday, July 26, 2006

If it flies, it dies

Not many people are lucky enough to be able to call an employer a friend. But for a brief span of years, I was one of those lucky few.
For almost four years, I worked for two guys who owned a small specialty car dealership. They would buy used cars at auction, or from private parties, renovate the cars and resell them.
The 'two guys' had been friends from early childhood. The business principal, Bill, inherited the business from his father. Bill's partner Shawn had been close to the family, indeed lived with the family during his formative years. Shawn, a nice looking man is straight. Bill, a tall, thin blonde, was gay.
At any given time, there would be 50 plus vehicles on the property of the business. In addition to buying and reselling cars, the business also did mechanical, body and upholstery work on vehicles sent to them by outside sources. The portion of the business facilitating repairs was relatively new, but all of the sources for vehicles were associates of Bill's father who died in 1994.
The town in which Bill and Shawn lived and did business was a very small town; actually an agricultural area at least 40 minutes from the city. Everyone there knew each other and each others business. Bill spent most of his adult life trying to keep his sexuality private. At that, for the most part, he was successful.
During the time I worked with Bill and Shawn, I dealt with a number of issues pertaining to employment, including corresponding with the state about terminations and the reasons for same. Mostly, people would lose their jobs for insubordination or driving without a valid drivers license. But one instance particularly stands out in my memory.
Two new men had been hired to work as yard crew. Most of the other staff knew each other well, and most also knew that Bill was gay, but too, they did not care. They all treated Bill like he was a kid that needed protecting. And until Bill admitted to you that he was gay, it was never mentioned. It simply did not matter to those of us who cared about him.
When the two new men started working, immediately they began a campaign of hateful, discriminatory behavior. They would meanly mimic what they thought gay guys would act like; they patted each others butts and minced their walks, they spoke, when they could be heard, in lisps. They also said some pretty ugly things about homosexuality. They also were lousy workers and within a few weeks of being hired, they were fired.
It was my job to respond to the state when they applied for unemployment. And respond I did. I charged them with sexual harassment, and inappropriate behavior in the work place. I thought these charges were enough to keep them from collecting unemployment from a business that they only worked at for perhaps 15 days. I was surprised to find that the charges I made were ignored by the state and they were granted unemployment benefits based on time they had worked within that calendar year. It was my first experience with how the local governments deal with shitty behavior on the job.

I resigned from my position with the company when a family tragedy led my husband and I to the decision to sell our home and move. But I, as well as my husband, remained friends with Bill and Shawn.
Shortly after my resignation, Bill moved from the state he had lived in, to Arizona.
And on a subsequent visit and dinner at our home, he revealed to my husband and I that he didn't think he would live much longer as he was suffering from AIDS.
I am not sure when I first figured it out. I knew that Bill was sick before he came to tell us. I could tell from his appearance and his reluctance to come back to the place where he had lived. I had always known he was gay, although he never told me outright. But our conversations were not typical of a boss and administrator, nor of a man and woman who happened to be friends. We talked about interior design, color, of music and dance, Elvis (Bill loved Elvis' music), about so and so and how cute his butt was. It wasn't necessary for Bill to tell me he was gay, not that it mattered. Bill was Bill and that was good enough for me.

Bill knew that I was a bird watcher and he would tease me all of the time about wanting to shoot the hawks and owls that came on the property and pooped on his cars. He used to tell me: "If it flies, it dies". I would act offended and freaked that he would shoot birds, and he would act like the rifleman ... it was a silly game, but it was our game.

Once Bill moved to Arizona, we saw less and less of him. I would hear from Shawn about Bill's health, about how he refused to take his medications because they made him ill. I would hear about the friends he was making in Arizona, how they were kind of nasty, not of high caliber. Slowly Bill stopped staying in touch and refused to answer his phone, mail or respond to cheesecakes sent to him for birthdays (Bill loved cheesecakes).
When questioned, Shawn thought that it was the people that Bill was associating with that caused him to withdraw. I countered that Bills behavior was similar to drug users; he didn't seem interested in his old life, or friends. He just wanted to stay with the crowd he was running with. Shawn vehemently denied that Bill would be using drugs. Even when confronted with druggie behavior, he believed that it was people, not drugs, that was driving Bill to act as he did.

In December of 2005, Shawn called me to tell me he was in Arizona with Bill, who was in the hospital, in a coma. Shawn said that Bill was dying of AIDS, but that he had caught something called Valley Fever which was a result of his use of Meth, his compromised immune system and his life in hot and dusty Arizona. According to Shawn, Bill had been using meth for 18 months or so which he was getting from his associates in Arizona. Shawn was shocked that Bill was using drugs - previously Bill condemned drug use. He had to be convinced by his medical team to use Marinol for his appetite and anxiety - that is how opposed Bill was to drug use.

I, on the other hand was not surprised at Bill's use of drugs. His depression over aging, about losing his teeth, his hair, too much weight all caused him sorrow. We had briefly talked about the cruelty of the gay community when it came to appearances and ageism.
On December 6th Bill died due to complications of AIDS, valley fever, heart failure and coma. He left behind no lovers to speak for him, little family to stand for him. His life, which could have held promise and perhaps educated others to the pain and lonliness he suffered, seemed to be wasted.
A young man, a lovely man, who never believed he would live past 30, who died just after his 40th birthday, whose wings carried him around this country and the world.
Yes, Bill seemed to prophesy his own saying: "If it flies, it dies".
Bill flew, he laughed, he partied, he danced and he gave endlessly to anyone who asked. Yet the gift he could've given, which had no monetary value, he withheld.
Bill did not love himself, could not admit to the world who and what he was.
For those of us, his friends, that he left to mourn him, we will always see him soar.

3 comments:

Brad said...

Jody,

This post has been featured in the 2nd edition of the International Carnival of the Pozitivities at AIDS Combat Zone. Be sure to check it out, and please consider supporting the carnival by posting a link to it in your blog. Thank you!

-Brad

Ron Hudson said...

Hey Sweetheart,

I thought I had already posted a comment. I guess I emailed you one instead. Thank you for sharing Bill's story with the world. Truth may not always be lovely to behold, but it has power. His story is powerful. I am very happy to have your friendship and participation meld into a single entity here.

Much love.

Ron

richard kearns said...

jody--

i have thought about bill's story, which you very lovingly recount. i want to add what must be a public health policy dimension to it.

if bill had access to "assisted care" living geared for hivers and pwas in the state where he lived, he might have had a better chance at being happy and less likely to turn to street drugs for his life pains. not a hostel. a place that takes care of meals, laundry and cleaning. bill might have continued working part time, and in that situation, his productivity would have been an important consideration in "quality of life" issues. his isolation in arizona, i imagine, was a move back "home" to an environment he found hostile and something he might have moved out of state to escape to begin with. he must have been living with unexpressable issues of stigma.

there is a big population bump of hivers who will be in bill's shoes in the next ten years. we need assisted care living facilities for these persons based on something other than the "road kill" model of care.

thank you for your story.

richard kearns