Rock Me, Martha Stewart!- Rocky Ledge Bars! -184 eggs, 142 1/4 cups of sugar, 134 3/4 sticks of Butter, and 173 cups of flour used so far- 73 recipes to go!

February 7, 2011

Martha's Rocky Ledge Bars

André's Rocky Ledge Bars

My partner, Dan works for a high-end retailer that offers a coffee bar at their entrance. The tiny bar offers a dessert bar that is caked with just about every nut, chip, and dried fruit imaginable layered on top of a rich and buttery blondie. When Dan sampled the cookie Martha’s staff aptly named The Rocky Ledge Bar, he remarked that it was obviously that dessert bar’s evil twin.

Butter, brown sugar, eggs, flour, salt, white chocolate chips, butterscotch morsels, chocolate chips, caramel cubes, marshmallows and baking powder are combined to create a dessert bar so decadent that would make any dessert-lover blush.  These ingredients are combined to make the dough and then a generous portion of the chips and marshmallows are layered on top.

Honestly, I had difficulty finishing just one of these treats.

So, if you are looking for a decadently rich dessert with extra layers of decadence, look no further than the Rocky Ledge bar.

I’m going to write about a serious topic now, so get comfortable. It’s a topic that has been written about millions of times before and many readers are certainly tired of the stories associated with it. It’s unfortunate that the topic of AIDS has fallen out of fashion while it still claims hundreds of thousands of lives each year, not just in the realm of the third world nations but in our own backyards.

I was just coming to terms with my own sexual identity when Regan first mentioned the disease as a national concern. I felt betrayed. I had just gone through the mental turmoil and emotional anguish to muster up the courage to come out of the closet only to be told Congratulations. You’re now going to die.

I was terrified. I think it’s because I was so terrified, I survived. The thought of contracting the disease made me one nervous and abstinent gay boy. Before AIDS reared it’s ugly head, homosexuality was considered by most to be a mental defect, a crossing of the wires in otherwise normal men- normal men who chose to live their life traipsing between orgies and disco-infused bacchinales. They were drug addicts and lecherous beings who fixated on sex in public spaces and were morally degenerate. Luckily they kept their behavior hidden from public view, crowding dark alleys and abandoned piers far from the eyes of decent God-fearing people.

From what I can tell, before AIDS, gay men could live their lives free from responsibility, disconnected from main street U.S.A., and with few consequences. I always described these men in Disney terms. You had your Pinocchios and your Peter Pans.

Pinocchios lived their lives without strings. No attachments to anyone or anything. Deep down, though,  they wanted nothing more than to be real boys- real people accepted and loved for who they were. Most of society viewed them as oddities- freaks and degenerates – spectacle with no substance. They were cut off and therefore retreated to pleasure island to hide their longing for acceptance and to soothe their grief of isolation.

Peter Pans loved the freedom of a life without responsibility. They couldn’t adopt. They couldn’t serve in the military. In many cases they couldn’t live their lives openly and hold down a steady job, therefore they never had to grow up. They chose to live their life in Neverland surrounded by other lost boys.

AIDS changed all of that. It moved homosexuality from just beyond societies periphery to center stage. In the mid-eighties people began talking about homosexuality without whispering. It was in the newspapers, on the radio and on TV.

In the mystical imaginations of religious minds, the virus was unleashed as a scourge from heaven upon the worst class of sinner. Televangelist used the disease to lock their followers in closets of steel, not only fearing the loss of acceptance and love of family and friends, but now inviting the deadly wrath of God upon them. Money flowed into their churches from people convinced that God was handing out punishments.

Better pay him off before we get gout, diverticulitis or a lesbian daughter.

Blood poured out from under the doors of so many closets. So many upstanding men of righteous communities across the nation suddenly dropped dead from  “liver cancer” or “pneumonia.” Many of their wives soon followed.

AIDS inspired a new brand of hate, a total innovation of cruelty towards homosexuals. I remember the jokes.

What does GAY stand for? – Got AIDS Yet? (my cousins told me that one)

You can’t cremate them. They’re flaming already. (My aunt thought that one was hysterical)

I was attending college in NYC in 1987. I had taken a part time gig playing piano in a bar in Sheridan Square on Christopher Street just across from the Stonewall Inn. The piano bar was a popular hang-out for men of the community to enjoy a drink-or-seven, sing a few show tunes and meet the man of their dreams who always seemed to show up around 2 A.M. .

AIDS had ravished this neighborhood which had been predominately gay-occupied since the late 1800s. Rental signs hung in almost every window. One drunken patron said that looking for an apartment in the West Village was like shopping for a casket. Each sign served as an irreverent tombstone. Those left in the neighborhood were shells of their former, funny selves. The endless funerals and bedside vigils had taken their toll. Many were ill and waiting. Biding their time with sharing memories and drinking heavily.

One early Sunday morning I finished my set and began to walk to the N train that would take me to my Upper East Side neighborhood. I crossed through Sheridan Square Park, a tiny triangle of benches surrounded by a wrought iron gate. On one of the benches, just below a dim street light sat a couple of young men in their early thirties. They had a bottle of champagne and two glasses. They asked me to join them in a toast. They were both sharing a large crocheted blanket to protect themselves from the frosty November night air. They both laughed through blood-red teary eyes and handed me one of the glasses.  The more sober of the two raised the bottle and shouted in a painful cracking voice- “Here’s to the end, folks. It’s been a nice run but now it’s time to pay the piper.”

These two men, these two lovers  shared how they visited Saint Vincent’s earlier that day and were told they had AIDS. I saw their faces. They didn’t have much time left. I knew the signs. They looked like so many of the faces that hovered above mugs of beer in the dim lights around my piano: gaunt, drawn cheeks, protruding jaws, blotchy skin, white gums, foamy tongues, and sad eyes that floated inside a detailed skull. Their faces shared a sad expression, one of longing for peace and rest.

I drank the champagne and gave them each a hug and told them to go home and get some rest.

Two days later, there was an article in the New York Post. Two gentlemen having recently been diagnosed with AIDS jumped from atop their eight-floor walk-up in the West Village. They had a bottle of champagne with them. I don’t know if it was the same two gentlemen. I resigned my part-time job playing piano at that bar after reading the article. I couldn’t walk past that bench again. I didn’t want to know. I simply didn’t think I could handle it.

I left New York shortly after that sad semester  choosing to finish out my college education in Saint Louis, MO.

In the middle of my third semester of enrollment in the conservatory for Ultra-Serious Actors I was diagnosed  as being HIV positive.

The irony of the diagnosis lies in the fact that I was, in actuality, not. It wasn’t that I was misdiagnosed. I would’ve had to have had the proper blood processed at a reputable lab for that to happen. I was the unfortunate victim of an innocent nurse’s flubbed paperwork. This innocent mistake, however,  caused a string of events that sent my world crashing down around me.

It started with a simple request to my doctor. I wanted to be tested for HIV. He, in turn asked the nurse to take my blood and order the test. She did. Not having ordered one of these before, she ended up checking a box on my supposedly confidential medical record marked HIV. Two days later I was asked to come to the counseling office on campus where one of the school counselors was waiting with a representative from the Missouri Health Department. I entered the tiny office and they closed the door and told me to take a seat.

“André, I hate to tell you this, but you have tested positive for HIV.”- the counselor said coldly and professionally.

She then went on to tell me that I would have to answer a series of questions from the representative. The counselor left the room and the questions began- personal, horrible questions. My mind was darting. I thought of the couple on the bench in New York.

“How many sexual partners have you had in the past five years?”

I thought of all of those sad eyes starting at me from across the piano.

“What are their names? Addresses, too, if you have them?”

I thought of my friend, Michael who died only months before, less than a year after his diagnosis.

“What sexual behaviors did you engage in with each one?”

My voice shook and I answered each question as best I could. I had only been with four male sexual partners at that point in my life. Oh, My God! One of them infected me but which one? What if I infected one of them? I began to weep. The representative donned a pair of latex gloves and passed me a tissue. She then asked to take my blood to confirm my diagnosis.

I agreed.

Once the sample was taken, she gave me her card and told me her office would be in touch. As she left the room, the counselor entered and sat down, the large desk keeping her at a safe distance from me, the infected. She had my file open and thumbed through the pages.

“This is very serious.” – she said.

“I know the semester isn’t over yet, but perhaps you’ll consider taking this time off. I can see about freezing your transcript until you are well enough to return to school or possibly transfer.”

I shook my head. Where could I go? Home? My parents wouldn’t be able to deal with this. I wanted to go to my dorm room and sleep. When I woke up this would all be a terrible dream. This can’t be happening.

The rest of the conversation with the counselor is a blur. I think I lost my ability to hear or comprehend what was being said, having given in to a wave of grief and fear. I remember the long walk back to my dorm room. I remember thinking about death. How does one make arrangements? How does one tell friends? Family? I was in acting school, dammit. How does one exit gracefully?

I slept for the next five days. I didn’t eat. I didn’t leave my room. I just sobbed and slept.

When I finally emerged from my dark den of self pity, I made the short trip down the stairs to my mailbox. It was filled. One of the letters was from the doctor who ordered the initial test. It contained my lab results. I read, knowing what they would say. I glanced at the list of tests run and the results.

Wait a minute. Hold on. I was in perfect health. Next to the box marked HIV was the abbreviation, neg. . I grabbed the note and ran to the counselor’s office. I showed her the note. She crinkled her brow and placed a phone call to the Health Department. After several frustrating transfers she was finally able to speak to someone who had actual information. My lab results had come back to the Health Department. They were negative as well and they were in the process of informing me. I was overjoyed. So was the counselor. I wept again but this time with relief. A few days later, the doctor’s office called and apologized profusely for the screw-up in the paperwork and assured me the matter was resolved.

I’ll never forget what the counselor told me as I left her office that day.

“I hope this was a wake-up call to you, André. Maybe it’s time to reconsider some of the choices you’ve made.”

I gave her my best Fuck-You-Face and slammed the door on my way out of her office.

After the semester ended I went to a tiny playhouse in Nebraska to perform with a Summer Stock Troupe. A representative drove over sixty miles to ambush me right before a matinee. Missouri records had shown that I had traveled over the State border while carrying HIV. The show was held for over 30 minutes while I explained the events of the months before to her with the entire cast and crew as witnesses to my embarrassment. She was not convinced I was being honest. She watched the show and afterwards she and I sat in the dressing room and I answered the same series of uncomfortable questions the Missouri representative asked. I had a name to add to my list of sexual partners. One of the guys in the cast and I had been having a fling. He and I both had to submit to a blood test that night. He was not out of the closet and, because of his profound embarrassment, never spoke to me again that entire uncomfortable Summer.

AIDS is a greedy thief. Before it steals your life it steals so much more.

I lived with this disease for five days and it shook me to my core.

I have so much respect and admiration for people who have lived for years with this virus. No matter how hard the virus tries to tear at their courage and their dignity, these people stand their ground. They have strength that few of us, hopefully, will never know.

AIDS has had a profound impact.

It’s changed all of us. You. Me. The world.

Peter Pans and Pinocchios are few and far between. They’ve grown up. They’ve become real.

AIDS is no longer a scourge limited to the gay community. It’s reached further and wider than any of us could have ever thought possible. The faces are no longer the ones that stared back from across the piano. They’re black, white, male, female, young, old, rich, poor, gay and straight.

Like I said, it’s a thief. Thieves don’t discriminate. They just take.

If you would like to make a change in these brave people’s lives, please contribute to my AIDS Walk fund here.

If there is an AIDS Walk event or other AIDS charity in your community, please contribute, participate, or volunteer.

4 Responses to “Rock Me, Martha Stewart!- Rocky Ledge Bars! -184 eggs, 142 1/4 cups of sugar, 134 3/4 sticks of Butter, and 173 cups of flour used so far- 73 recipes to go!”

  1. molly Says:

    I love you, Andre’. Your courage and honesty inspire me more than you’ll ever know.

  2. Jenny German Says:

    Andre’- I have been a fan and avid supporter of yours since I read your first column. Now I will have to gush and tell you that I love you and am in awe of your honesty and character . I wish you were in my family.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tommy Salami, mike white. mike white said: RT @tommysalami: A damn heartbreaking story of what it was like to be gay in the '80s, the not fun part. by my frie … […]

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