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A New York Story


           Andy Watson lived in a famous downtown Hotel and was dying of AIDS. A former fashion designer and rock star, he had been too sick to work and pay rent for the last five years. He had turned into a skeleton, eager to die in the dark, sophisticated apartment he had once shared with his long-gone partner. 
           The Hotel owner, in his mahogany office by the lobby, had been anxiously waiting for Andy to vacate his four-thousand-dollars-a-month home. He had sent endless eviction notices over the years but had so far failed in his attempts to remove the unwanted tenant. With the help of lawyers, advocates, and even a congresswoman, Andy had fought for - and so far, won - the right to die there, having assured the owner that this “cancer” would soon kill him.  
           But Andy’s time to die was running out. He had accumulated tens of thousands of dollars worth of rent arrears, and while his deadline to die had expired, he hadn’t. In fact, by the time I met him, he had stopped dying, and was slowly swimming against the current, struggling to come back to life while debating its very worth. 
           Andy and I first met on a hot August afternoon a few years ago. Just two months out of college and a week into my first job, I had been assigned as his new caseworker. I made my way through the smoky hotel lobby, into the narrow elevator, and down the long hallway, distracted by the strange paintings that covered the wall’s chipped paint. I knocked on Andy’s door and his home attendant, a thin, tall woman with a serious expression, opened it; without a word, she pointed to the bedroom. I walked through the living room, intimidated by the precious carpets, antique furniture and eccentric objects that occupied it. I made it to the bedroom and found Andy sitting up in a regal canopy bed, stroking the silky brown coat of a sleeping pit-bull lying next to him. I sat on a chair by the bedside table, and introduced myself to him. Through the smoke of his Dunhill he stared at me inquisitively. He had light eyes, a thin, ghostly-white face and long, unkempt hair. The room was dark, with black velvet curtains shutting out the afternoon light. 
           Andy was angry that his previous caseworker had left, and decided to interrogate me, looking for unforgivable flaws that would prove my predecessor’s superiority. He asked about my education and questioned my knowledge of philosophy, literature, religion, and art. He told me about his days as a fashion designer and was surprised to hear that I, too, liked to create eccentric clothing. Andy had no intention to discuss his housing situation; so we talked silks, furs and velvets, the tension between us slowly letting up until it was time for me to go. On my way out, Andy insisted that Maria, the home attendant, show me the precious objects that he owned. “Those are Fabergé eggs,” he yelled from the bedroom, and Maria pointed to the mantle. Next to the carefully painted ostrich eggs was an ivory box. “That’s Sean” he said; “and for the record, he’s not going anywhere.” 
           On my next visit Andy showed me the old Singer machine, which, he said, had allowed him to create hundreds of flamboyant outfits, back when he was a designer. We talked sewing machines for a while then he asked, aggressively: “Why on earth are you doing this awful job if you want to be a designer?” So I told him that I mostly wanted to be a doctor, and that I thought this line of work would help me in the future. He nodded and grew quiet. “I respect that,” he said. “I used to hate doctors but not any more.” Then he told me about Glenda Sanchez, the tireless HIV physician who had brought him back from the dead.
           Dr. Sanchez had seen her fair share of patients die of AIDS, but only after a long and determinate battle with the insidious Virus. When Andy became her patient and refused to start ARV therapy because he wanted to die, she resolved to change his mind. She started coming to the Hotel every week instead of seeing Andy at the clinic. She walked into the cozy dungeon that was his apartment and sat at his bedside, watching him chain-smoke and listening to his complaints, much like I was. He told her of the physical pain he was in, the unbearable tingling in his feet and hands, the nausea and diarrhea. But none of it compared to the emotional pain – the sense of loss that overwhelmed him, having watched his partner and friends die; the guilt he felt for being alive; the feeling of worthlessness from having lost a promising career; the shame from having lost his beautiful looks; the humiliation from having caught the Virus in the first place. 
           Day after day Dr. Sanchez somehow convinced Andy that life was worth living. She worked magic, and he agreed to start antiretrovirals. Then she left it up to the drugs to work their magic: Andy gained weight, his cough stopped, the rashes and excoriations on his skin faded. When I met him, he was still thin and pale, but had gone back to being creative, sassy and belligerent – qualities that he always said mirrored the City’s own, and made him, a native Californian, the quintessential New Yorker. But with this newfound energy, he grew increasingly restless – realizing that survival, especially in his ruthless adoptive city, might be more difficult than death. As letters threatening eviction piled into his mailbox, he knew that while he had won the right to die at the Hotel, he no longer had the right to live there. 
           As a brand new caseworker, I was beginning to learn that what seems to us “professionals” like a matter of life and death is, in the throngs of life in the country’s underbelly, just an item on a long list of rapidly approaching catastrophes. So it was that of all my clients with HIV, and even those with AIDS, few, if any, ever listed the Virus as being one of their immediate concerns. The farthest foreseeable future to most was next week, or at best next month, a timeframe during which the insidious Virus could accomplish little. A lost EBT card, a low welfare account balance, or running out of drugs, on the other hand, would be instant calamities. Therefore, thinking of the Virus, for most, would have been a virtually unimaginable luxury. Actual, immediate matters of life and death always took the foreground: food, shelter, childcare, benzos, cigarettes… 
           Andy was different because he didn’t just have the Virus; he had AIDS, and not just enough AIDS to get on the City’s special welfare rolls but enough AIDS to look like one of those heart-breaking pictures from the early Nineties. Because he had been so desperately sick, people had given him the luxury to think only about the Virus, and about his impending death. Surely his past success, irresistible charm, and white skin had helped his cause—with the result that others, moved by his struggles, had decided that his life would be taken care of—as long as it didn’t last too long. 
           But the drugs had changed everything, and while Dr. Sanchez had been the angel to save Andy’s body from immediate death, no one had thought about what would happen after his non-death. “I was ready to die.” He said. “But now that they saved me, they’re making it impossible for me to live.” 
           He was referring to his upcoming eviction. A final notice with a firm date had been sent and the marshal had been notified. This time, faced with the evidence of Andy’s miraculous recovery, his tireless advocates recognized that they had no arguments left in fighting for him: they had lost yet another New York housing battle. We were all left, lawyer, welfare worker, therapist, doctor, and I – scrambling to find Andy a new place to live in the next two months. 
           On my weekly visits to Andy’s, I attempted to brainstorm alternative housing arrangements with him. What if I elbowed to get him into one of those subsidized apartments for elderly or disabled artists? “Clearly you have no idea what you’re doing,” he said sharply. “They don’t accept dogs, and I am not leaving her” he said, stroking the flawless chocolate-colored coat of his pit-bull, Princesse. She was wearing a purple and red plaid velvet dog coat that he had recently designed and sewn for her. It had a zipper down the chest and a hood lined with a fur, which Andy insisted was real rabbit fur from one of his own coats that, he said, “I never get to wear anymore.” 
           Princesse was Andy’s faithful, nonjudgmental companion and had become his reason to live. Disappointed with the human race, he had found solace in the simplicity of canine affection, and had shifted his creative imagination towards dog, rather than human, fashion. “What if I opened up a store and sold these dog coats? I could make some money and slowly pay the rent arrears.” That sounded great. “But we have sixty days till the eviction, and you owe the man more than two hundred thousand dollars.” He looked down and went back to petting Princesse. He was doing better now, but was still a sick man. On a good day, he could sew a sophisticated dog coat in a few hours; but on a bad one, he was paralyzed by excruciating, burning pain in his hands and feet. “What if we found you a small place in Queens and you can start from there and come back to Manhattan when things get better?” I suggested. “I’m not going to a rat hole in Far Rockaway.” He said. “Where will I put all my stuff? I can’t have Princesse in some basement studio! Plus I’ll get killed! Have you even been there?” 
           From the adjacent kitchen I thought I could hear Maria, the home attendant, roll her eyes at him. She lived in Far Rockaway, and rode the subway for an hour every day to come cook and clean and take care of Andy. If she could live there, a single mother with a four-year old son, so could Andy, she thought (and later told me). But she knew as well as I did that rational arguments didn’t work with Andy, and that no one would convince him to take his Fabergé eggs, his Oriental carpets, and the ivory box with his lover’s ashes to a vermin-infested hole in Brownsville, East New York, or at best Washington Heights. Because we all knew the kind of place that welfare checks can pay for. 
           Maria was, like Andy, a victim of the City’s ruthlessness. She had come from the Dominican Republic years ago, looking for a better life, and had found herself struggling to survive among millions who had the same idea. Now she took care of those like Andy, sick people on disability, only slightly more desperate than she was. A welfare recipient herself, she collected two checks from the city every month: one with the miserable wages from caring for Andy, another with the cash assistance she still qualified for despite those few extra dollars. Maria had been caring for Andy almost two years, and they had grown fond of each other. They bickered like an old couple, and poked fun at each other’s flaws. Andy claimed that Maria had stolen precious items from him and that he would have to eventually kick her out, as he had done with numerous other home attendants. But he never did, because it wasn’t true, and because, despite the quarrels, she was his window to the city, his bridge to the outside world, which Andy had become too afraid to experience on his own.
          The clock was ticking and Andy’s last sixty days at the Hotel were coming to an end. I now went to see him twice a week and spent the rest of my workweek desperately calling landlords around the city. “We don’t take dogs. We don’t accept programs. We don’t have any vacancies,” was the endless refrain. Every night at home I tried to picture how this story would end. Would Andy find a miraculous savior? Would there be a Dr. Sanchez to save not just his body but his life as it had long been? Perhaps that old, rich, man Andy had long ago had an affair with—who periodically emerged in our conversations—would suddenly send a check. Andy had written to him out of desperation. Perhaps the congresswoman I had once again written to would, this time, respond with a solution. Perhaps Andy would take his pills all at once one night, I feared, having decided that after all, death was easier than life. 
           One afternoon in November Andy demanded that I try on a fur coat he thought would look great on me. After all I liked fashion and should therefore appreciate fur coats, he said. I quickly reviewed the golden “boundary” rules of case management: 1. Do not give or take money or gifts to or from your client. 2. Do not give your cell phone number. 3. Do not invite clients to your home. Nothing about fur coats or other items of clothing. “OK, fine.” I said. From his bed he directed Maria towards the old suitcase in which the coat had been stored. She pulled it out and beat it to get the dust out. I put it on. I looked at myself in the mirror and felt ridiculous. It looked like something a Seventies rock star might wear. Maria chuckled. Andy demanded that I walk back to the bedroom so he could see. He burst out laughing and sentenced: “I’ve never seen a woman who doesn’t know how to wear a fur coat.” I blushed, but thankfully the room was too dark for him to see. I put the coat away and attempted to recompose my professional persona, wondering why I hadn’t been able to resist the lure of the fur coat in the first place. 
           In retrospect I’m glad I tried on that coat because it was our last laugh together, and it lightened the atmosphere shortly before Andy’s decade at the Hotel ended. That day he told me that a cousin had called from Ohio. He had written to her asking for help. She had replied saying that she had a spare bedroom, and would be willing to take him in. The plan was for him to ‘hire her’ as his home attendant so she would get paid to ‘care for’ her long-lost cousin. Apparently she also had been in a distressed situation, and this seemed like an ideal solution. 
           From that moment on events unfolded quickly. The welfare worker obtained a special grant to purchase Andy’s plane ticket to Ohio; a charitable organization paid for Princesse’s fare. In the blink of an eye everything was arranged for the pair to leave New York. After months of planning, speculation, and desperate attempts to find unlikely solutions, this resolution seemed unreal. And though it came just in time, a week before the eviction, it felt too quick and too radical for all of us advocates who had grown fond of Andy and his chocolate-colored pit-bull, because we did not want to see them go. 
           It seemed natural to me that after all my—albeit futile—efforts, I would be there on the morning of the eviction to see Andy and Princesse off. But Andy’s lawyer called the day before the eviction and said I better not come, because the less people there, the better. The landlord wanted to avoid potential scenes. It was four in the afternoon already and I rushed to say goodbye to Andy then. I don’t remember what we said but I think I stayed for a very short time and rushed out. Now it seems impossible how quickly it all ended, compared to the hours it took me to gain Andy’s trust, to impress him with my knowledge of philosophy and to bond with him over our shared love of old Singer machines. 
           Andy and Princesse left the next day. I asked the lawyer how the eviction went and she sparsely described an uneventful, anticlimactic ending to Andy’s life at the Hotel. I knew he made it out to Ohio just fine, because he had his cousin call me at the office and leave a message. “He wants me to say thank you for everything” her recorded voice said; “and he wants to have your address, so he can send you a present.” I called back and left a message saying I could not accept any presents, though I secretly wished he would send me the fur coat. I never heard from Andy or his cousin again. 
           While Andy settled into what I imagine as an unglamorous country home in the vast Midwestern plains, Maria was most likely sent to care for another sick patient the very next day after the eviction. I hope she found another Andy to keep her huffing and puffing and laughing through her monotonous days. And I hope Andy found another Maria to warm up his heart and soften the rough edges of his character.

           Andy’s is a New York story. The dark apartment with the Fabergé eggs, his slow agony with the Virus, the pit-bull, and the strong immigrant woman holding it all together – tell the story of a brutally beautiful City and the endless possibilities it offers for success, failure, and ultimate survival. Maria, Princesse and I have our own stories, and only in New York, within the walls of Andy’s smoky apartment, could they have come together and made sense. 
           Andy’s is also the story of a Virus that destroys and humiliates, and of a medical miracle that awed a generation and fooled us into thinking the problem had been solved. For those who wish to be healers, Andy’s message is that there is always more to be saved than just a body held hostage by viral particles; and that the heroism of people like Dr. Sanchez is usually not enough to save a life.  ■

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