San Bernardino, California, USA
October 23
Former Beatnik, former hippie, always bohemian and joyfully married and retired in San Bernardino, California.


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NOVEMBER 16, 2010 12:30PM

Love And Death In The Time Of AIDS, NYC 1980's

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silencephoto: Thomas McGovern from the 1999 publication Bearing Witness (to AIDS), a ten year photography project on the AIDS crisis. This book is available  from and and signed copies are available directly from the author at

 The dreariness of my working life came into sharp contrast with all the great things that were going on in my world in the early 80’s.  The rough spots in my relationship with my children during their teen years had been smoothed and we were all doing well together again.   The presence of Thomas in my life was the best thing that ever happened to me. 

Still and all, even with all of that, going to work everyday to string pearls for an unappreciative, stingy employer was becoming more and more difficult.  When I heard about a doctor who was working in the village near Washington Square who was looking for someone to manage his office I was immediately interested even though, or maybe because, I was told that he was working mainly with people with HIV/AIDS, the not very well understood but very scary new “gay plague or gay cancer or gay disease” as it was variously known.

I went to meet with Dr.X and learned that indeed, most of his patients were gay men who were showing symptoms of HIV infection.  Little was known at the time and there weren’t many options for those who tested positive.  It would be a difficult practice to be part of since an HIV diagnosis in those terrible early days amounted to a death sentence with little to be done about it.  There was a lot of stigma attached to the disease and that affected everyone working among this population as well.  Dr X warned about getting too personally involved with patients as this would only lead to heartbreak, as physical decline was a sure and difficult certainty.  I have to admit that I was a little wary of “catching” the disease myself since the science had not yet convincingly defined how HIV was contracted and there were some wild rumors being circulated.  Still I was intrigued and I knew that working with gay men would be a comfortable place for me.  I couldn’t have asked for a better location than Washington Square and the best part was that this job entailed only a four-day workweek with Thursdays off.  The hours on the working days were very long but having a weekday off was seductive and the pay that Dr.X, with whom I hit it off right away, was offering, was more than I had ever earned so it wasn’t a difficult decision to make.  I was hired and gave notice at the pearl place the next day.



 Gallery announcement card for the photography exhibition and book launch for Bearing Witness (to AIDS), at Art Resources Transfer, New York City, 1999.

I was really scared on the first days that I went to work for Dr. X and I was right to be apprehensive although I did not yet know what a complicated world I was entering.  I was still too young to have known very many people who had died and none of my contemporaries were in danger of demise.  I knew from my interview that the office was a mess and had been that way for some time so I understood that it would be up to me to get things going again, especially when it came to billing and collecting fees for which there had never been claims filed.  When I got there, it was far worse than I could have imagined.  Paperwork and billing were in total disarray after my predecessor had left several months before, and worse, there hadn’t ever been any system to contain the mess.  While I was attempting to organize some of the mayhem, the phone never stopped ringing and patients were coming in non- stop.  I had no way yet of assessing what constituted medical emergencies, urgencies or merely just questions that needed answering.  Fortunately, I had Ross, the medical assistant at my side and he made me feel slightly better when he told me that in spite of all I did not know, I was already helping enormously and that he would continue to work with me as best he could.  That was encouraging but Ross also was over-worked and always rushing to keep up.  I never ever worked as hard and as non-stop as I did those first few months.  Thomas started to make me a sandwich every day to take for lunch since I needed that hour when I turned the phones over to the answering machine to try to get some paper work done without interruptions. His lunches were so nice that I became the envy of my colleagues so he started making extra on order that I could share without going hungry. I soon learned the medical terminology I needed to call in scripts and file insurance claims, etc.  I developed a system for tracking claims so I could collect some money and pay our office bills, also long neglected.  From the patients themselves I learned about this scourge and from their families, lovers and caretakers I learned about the devastation that affected everyone who came into contact with AIDS.

Rosie with Dr. J at the office, photo by Thomas McGovern from Bearing Witness (to AIDS)

There were no limits to my duties in this time and place except for those that actually had to do with medical treatment.  There were no precedents and consequently we waded in uncharted waters.  The three of us, Dr X, Ross and I made it all up as we went along.  GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis) was newly formed and already a very important resource and other groups were just getting formed but there were very few places to go to for help just yet.  Cabrini Medical Center, a Catholic hospital serving the area where Dr. X had admitting privileges, was one of the first to offer services to people with HIV disease and also provided the first hospice care that I know of so that is where our patients went for hospitalizations and end stage care.  During this time, even funeral homes were reluctant to deal with our dead.  Reardon’s on Fourteenth St. was the only one in lower Manhattan and gratefully we were able to refer families to a place where their dead would be respected and properly buried.  We were developing a reputation as one of the few places for HIV infected people to go to be treated with respect and dignity. There were of course several other doctors who were also seeing people with HIV infections and they were in high demand too but there weren’t nearly enough to handle this growing epidemic.  I started getting calls from people at the board of health asking if we could see indigent un-insured patients.  Being in a high rent neighborhood, most of our patients came from rather affluent backgrounds with good insurance, so we could accommodate some, but in the end, in order to stay afloat ourselves we had to be careful as well.  I struck a deal that we would see an uninsured patient for every one they sent our way who had insurance. The very and kind good Doctor X was fine with that as long as the bills got paid so he left it up to me.  Some people at the telephone company came to know me as the nag who begged for phone service to be resumed on humanitarian grounds when bills were unpaid.  I had no idea that could be done and I surprised myself by being successful at this most of the time.  Who knew one could haggle with Ma Bell ?

photo: Thomas McGovern from Bearing Witness (to AIDS)

Unbelievably, several of my gay friends started to avoid me for reasons I couldn’t at first fathom.  In the end, I understood that my very presence provoked all the anxiety and dread that this scourge engendered.  I, as well was terrified, having had my days of unprotected sex too. We weren’t even testing much in those early days since there was nothing to do about a positive result, and there was no cure. It took at least a devastating week for results to come in, a really awful week. We were asking everyone to assume that everyone else was positive and to be sure to only have safe sex.  That was the best we could hope for. In the end both Thomas and I were tested and gratefully, we were both negative. As for social services there weren’t many. GMHC of course had already begun to provide some much needed help and Act Up was just getting fired up, as was the wonderful “God’s Love, We Deliver”, and the People with AIDS Coalition (PWA Coalition) to name a few.

  coffinphoto: Thomas McGovern from Bearing Witness (to AIDS) 

God’s Love, We Deliver was true to its name.  I have never seen such grace in charity as theirs.  Each day they delivered elegantly served and nutritionally sound food to their clients.  When their computer records revealed a birthday, birthday cake and flowers came with the meal and if the recipient wanted to celebrate with a friend or caretaker, extra dinners were gladly provided.  That was true also for Christmas and Thanksgiving making it possible for a recipient to invite a friend to join them.  Food was lovingly prepared, arranged and presented in order to make the patient feel more human and normal, less forlorn and isolated as their disease progressed.  Volunteers with donated time and money did everything.

   Bushphoto: Thomas McGovern from Bearing Witness (to AIDS)

Needless to say, I was bringing my work home and Thomas became my solace at the end of the day.  Early on in my work with Dr. X, Thomas also had his “walk off his day job moment” when he had reached a point of no return, much as I had when I walked out of Ms. M’s establishment.  Thomas had been working the desk at the old Algonquin Hotel, which sounds like a pretty interesting job, but it was as hard and demanding as all such work is, with lots of long hours.  He would get called all the time to come in and work extra shifts, even to the point when one evening when we were there as guests with friends having drinks, he was approached and asked to work on the spot. Like many swell establishments, its public image didn’t do much for the people working there.  In any case, he did what he had to do and in rather short order was able to find reception work at a major photo archive. In time he was able to demonstrate his printing ability and went to work in their darkroom, honing his technical skills even further.  This day job at least was in his field.

  wil 2



Willdead  The three images above are of AIDS activist and person with AIDS, Willie Sandoval from Bearing Witness (To AIDS) by Thomas McGovern

 Soon Thomas was so drawn into my working life that he felt he needed to document what was going on. He had just heard that one of his gay college roommates had died of AIDS and with that news the die was cast. This of course was a delicate area since there was so much fear and outrage over this disease and our commitment to the privacy of our patients was foremost.  There was however, Michael Angarola, (RIP), who was the first AIDS activist I ever met.  When I asked him if he would allow Thomas to make a portrait and have an interview with him he gladly accepted and became the first of hundreds of people with AIDS that Thomas was to document over the next ten years.  In exchange for the photo shoot and interview, Thomas always offered his subjects unlimited copies of his pictures and for many it would be the first, and last professional portrait they ever had taken and often those images became precious family treasures.  Even after all this time, he still on occasion hears from some of those families

 mAngaMichael Angarola, activist and person with AIDS

photo: Thomas McGovern from Bearing Witness (To AIDS)

  MA with aunts

 Michael Angarola, AIDS activist with his mother and aunts who fully supported his work.   photo: Rosycheeks

Now Thomas and I were both involved with this work and my colleagues became his too in a world grown both larger and smaller.  Even in his darkroom at the archive Thomas brought in a photographer friend of my son John who was already working as a volunteer cook at Bailey House, a residential facility for people with AIDS.  There was no separation among our friends and colleagues or our work or home. It was indeed a small and close community that was involved with the AIDS crisis in New York City in that time and most of us got to know of one another even if only by reputation.  In time we did hire some additional help and Dr. J and another assistant joined our practice to keep up with the tsunami of patients we were trying to see.  All of us who worked together started to bond in the way that families facing trying times tend to do.  For better or sometimes worse, we chose to be together much of the time, taking vacations, partying, attending funerals and demonstrations, and of course working long hours together in a common cause. 


blind Dr. J at Cabrini Medical Center making rounds. Photo: Thomas McGovern from Bearing Witness (to AIDS)

Seeing first hand the terrible consequences of not being lawfully married forced Thomas and I to consider taking that step.  We saw entire estates contested by families who had all but forgotten their gay sons or worse yet, were more upset at finding out that their sons were gay than that they were dying, until the time of their deaths when suddenly overcome with greed, they fought tooth and nail to strip long time partners of what was rightfully theirs.  The families always won and there was absolutely no legal recourse with which to contest these claims.  At times lovers and caregivers were forbidden entry to hospital rooms or prevented from carrying out the final wishes of their partners by legal entities.  Families who refused to enter those same hospital rooms for fear of being contaminated did not hesitate to enter into legal battles for profit, leaving partners and lovers not only bereft but often impoverished as well.

womenphoto: Thomas McGovern from Bearing Witness (To AIDS )


 On December 15, 1986 Thomas and I, with son John and his partner Elle as witnesses, were married at City Hall in Brooklyn a few blocks from our home.  It was a Thursday and my day off.


co-op  Thomas and Rosie, C0-Op City,  Bronx, New York


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Very interesting read--a timeline of of AIDs with a so-personal perspective. The pictures are fascinating--the perfect touch.
Oh Rosy, what a touching record of a very difficult time. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I saw the disease devastate the local gay community and I lost a very close friend in the late 1980's when there wasn't much that could be done. I'd forgotten how helpless we all felt during that time.

Yeah, I remember what it was like. The major motivating force behind the public fear was lack of information, and despite the attempts of some, too little was being collated and disseminated. Mix in the massive egos of some of the "top" researchers, and it was a recipe for disaster that STILL is going on.

I remember vividly interviewing the area medical officer of health with The Redhead back in the mid-80s. To say he knew little about AIDS would be an understatement -- and he was a fairly new med school grad who theoretically, at least, should have been on top of the latest information.

Good for you, good for those committed health care professionals, and good for Thomas.
Wow. You were in the front lines at the very beginning of the AIDS crisis. What were you doing in Co-Op City?
Rosy: I am somewhat wordless. I say somewhat, because here I am writing. You are a person who has definitely left their mark on many lives, in many ways, many times over. Everything I am trying to tell you here is not coming out as I would like it to. I just want to thank you for being the person that you are, and sharing your experiences here with us, especially this piece of your life. It is without a doubt one of the most important insights I have read from that time. I lived in that time and I know it.
I'm so glad that you wrote about this as I recall you mentioning working with AIDS. This is an incredible story and the details of being on the front lines bring it home.I'm hoping you may tell more of these stories. Thomas' works adds another layer to your writing that is incredible as well.
Excellent blog.. totally in awe.
Rated with hugs
Excellent post, rosycheeks. I was dealing with the AIDS scourge in San Francisco during those same years as a manager in a major corporation whose employees included a large number of gay men. Some day I will also right about that experience. Thank you.

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You have a whole book here.

Heck, you have whole Books in your lifetime.

Thanks for reminding us.
To never forget.
Beautiful post, incredible memorial and remembrance of a very tragic time...xox
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This was a very worthwhile read; thank you for all you have done and sharing it in a post as this. ~R
Thank you. Your support and good words are much appreciated.

Indeed, helplessness was the prevailing mood in those dark days. Thanks for being here now and for your comments.

Boanerges Redux:
Thank you so very much.

My parents moved to CO-OP City when it was first opened and my father had just retired from the Post Office. It was quite beautiful there then. Last I saw of it it was a filthy and dangerous mess with urine soaked hallways and broken elevators. We were just visiting.

Thank you Sheila, as always your praise means a lot to me.

There is much more on the subject to come. I thank you for being here with me now and hope you will join me for the rest.

Linda Seccaspina:
Right back at you Linda........

Welcome to my life and blog. I would love to read about your San Francisco experience during these times and I do hope you'll come back and join me in this continuing saga.
FusunA: It is both my passion and my pleasure to be able to share these tales from a very dark period. Thank you for reading and commenting.
You're telling this story very eloquently. I've seen all the pictures before but loved seeing them again.
Thank you my good daughter. I know you were there and where your heart was then and now.
touchingly written and so rated
I am enjoying your series immensely Rosie. What an incredible journey you have made and how well you tell it. I love your style of writing, it is very warm and I feel I could easily have coffee with you and chat over the small details over these last posts. I look forward to more. Excellent choice for EP.
Jonathan Wolfman: As always your parise means a great deal to me so.....thanks.

rita shibr: That is such a nice compliment. It's good to be liked for being oneself as well as for writing. I guess it sometimes comes to the same ting but in any's to a virtual cup of coffee for now with thanks.
Rosy, you are certainly bearing witness here, beautifully. And love amid the sadness is a happy thing. Await more, as usual.
This touches many nerves for me and others I see.

As a former sex worker who somehow escaped infections of all types in the 70's I remember the various misinformation that was out by the time I moved from the Bay Area to LA. Your story is full of good, both yours and others. Even in the midst of all the bad you both witnessed, you and Thomas found happiness. Thanks for the ending of this chapter...though I know the heartbreaks go on.

A very moving post. I lost many friends in the 1980's.
Rated with appreciation.
Huge work here. On many levels. Thanks for the continuing chronicle.
Rated with the utmost respect and thanks.
Such a touching history! We lost so many good friends. The insult after the injury is that families reject a family member simply because of homophobia. How truly sad.
Another great post that really gives a sense of time and place and what was going down. You really were on the frontlines and touched a lot of lives when it was most needed. And, again, Thomas' photos are great.
I am really happy that we were able to touch base here and I appreciate your comments very much.

Lea Lane:
There is so much more Lea. Thank you for reading these words that are so close to my heart still.

Buffy W:
We did dodge some bad bullets and yes, the heartbreak continues but as with most things, there were some comical and even joyous moments that I can't wait to tell you about.

I am very sorry for your losses but thank you for reading my post and helping me to honor our dead.
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Rosy, this was stunning....I recall the early days, so many friends sick, lost to this horrible disease. Many abandoned by family who were too afraid or superstitous to cope. Sour times indeed.
RosyMama: Another EP for you. I'm glad. You tell a tragic story but many will read it and be inspired, so some good will come from all the tragedy.
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Fascinating article Rosy. Commendable that you didn't succumb to the panic of the day. It was really shameful how people got stigmatized from that disease and the inaction of Reagan at the top set the standard for many. Thanks for this post.
I remember those days too. As a lesbian, I did my part with protests and activism but was not on the front lines as you were. As a community back then, there was a siege mentality and many GL people felt like most straight people just didn't care, that we were the only ones who would take care of our own. Thank G-d for people like you who not only cared, but made such a huge difference. Rated.
Even with the new retro viral treatments, AIDS is still a death sentence.
Also, it should remember that no insurance policy will cover all the treatment for aids and at some point the victim ends up on public funds. This has been a dire illness and financial problem for our country. Most countries simply do not treat the illness. They presume it to be a self inflicted illness.
I lost 3/4 of the people I loved most in this world to AIDS.

We have as yet no way to gauge what was lost. Future history will point to a giant black hole in space and time into which most of a generation vanished. I led what I thought was quite an active sex life as a gay man but apprently i was a lot more cautious than I had imagined as at 63 I remain HIV- negative.

My rage and sorrow are boundless.

Read Larry Kramer and Richard Berkowitz for the skinny on what happened -- and the massive indifference of the Reagan sdministration to the deaths of of thousands of people because they were gay.

I would also reccomend you Google "Legionnaire's Disease" for a point of contrast.
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I too was married at the Brooklyn Municipal Building. And I too remember the dark days of AIDS deaths.
Jeanette DeMain:
Your comment and rating is much appreciated and I hope you will return to my blog now and again. Thank you.

madhuri: Yes, homophobia born of ignorance as well as arrogance.

Various Artists: This subject was and remains very close to my heart. Thank you forhanging in with me.
Poppi Iceland:
Sour, sad, tragic and still not much ignorance remains.

Let's hope my dear.

Abrawang: Welcome to my site and thank you for you rkind comments.

Liz G:
I know you ar eright. Most straight people didn't care at all. It was a real "mitzvah" to be given the opportunity to make a small impact but the fight is not yet over and ignorance still rules the day.

David Price: Indeed ! The fight continues.......
David Ehrenstein:
I am so sorry for your losses and I still mourn for my own. Both Reagan and Bush were unspeakably cold and heartless to the suffering going on around them......and the fight goes on. Thank you for commenting.

Leon Freilich: Seems we both have good and bad things in common. Thanks for commenting.
It is not that simple about Reagan. For the curious:

Ronald Reagan on AIDS: The real record

Also, unless I missed it, it is worthy to note the huge amount spent by the GW Bush administration on AIDS in Africa. (Facts are facts.)

An awful disease indeed. God bless those who work to help the victims.
You may have left Brooklyn too soon. By the way I got married on a Friday, after work. Just missed you.
Rosy--this chapter in your life simply grabbed me and held me. You've stirred up my memories of this era: the new and frightening cloud descending over life in our city, our neighborhood, our friends. To be monogamous and married (as I was at this time) did not make me immune from the palpable fear, the empathy for those who were at risk. I admire you greatly and in a strange way am envious that you were able to not only knit together your family, work, and friends to live through this, but also to improve lives and make such a difference, you and Thomas both. It is bonding at its best, both creatively and from a humanitarian viewpoint. (r)
It was fun to get married there wasn't it ? The day we went there were lots of people in full wedding regalia with bridal attendants and all. Still there was that sign over the water fountain saying "please do not spit in fountain" . Classy..

Dirndl Skirt: So good to have your comments on my posts and I thank you for them. I have always felt that I was given a great gift when I found myself in that place and in that time. Not everyone is afforded the opportunity to be effective for good that they can see. I can't begin to explain how good it felt to provide the little comforts that make adifference to people who really needed the help. In the end I was sure I had gotten much more than I had ever given and I think that Thomas feels the same way.