Today is World AIDS Day. When I heard that this morning, I was transported back to the 80s. This happens nearly every year when this day comes around. Someone tells me about it, and I’m right back there on a train making my way to Baltimore from New York City.
I was in my early twenties just out of college, and on my way to visit a friend that had just moved to Maryland. I was sitting on the window seat. Next to me was a very well dressed man in his 50s. He introduced himself to me, right as the train began to pull away from Grand Station. I have forgotten his name, but in the years since I’ve always wished that I could remember it.
He said that he was on his way home to visit his parents. He hadn’t visited them in a long time. The way that he said it made me think that he wished they were close, but something had driven them apart. I remember asking how long he had lived in New York. “A lifetime,” was his response.
He asked me about my trip, about my friend, about what I was doing with my life. The conversation flowed, unlike any conversation I have ever had with a stranger. When I was younger I was very shy. The idea of just sitting around and chatting with a stranger would have filled me with dread. Yet, this man was very engaging. He made me feel at ease. I told him about my disappointment of having just graduated with a degree in engineering, and yet there were no jobs for engineers. I told him I was thinking of taking a job in an insurance company. I was afraid of getting stuck in career I never wanted.
He listened intently wanting to understand what was behind my words. He asked me about my expectations, “what do you want to do?” I talked about working for a great innovative company, or even better work for NASA. He agreed, that certainly an insurance company was not NASA, on the other hand how long was I going to sit around waiting for NASA to come knock on my door? I wasn’t sure how I could answer that. I hadn’t expected to have a problem getting my foot in the door are at least a defense contractor, which of course could be a great path to my goal.
I remember seeing him shake his head. “So you want to work for a company that makes weapons that kill people?” He didn’t say it in an accusatory way, just still trying to understand me. I became a bit defensive, having just spent a few days struggling with an application for a job at Aberdeen Proving Grounds. I told him that I loved math and science, and unfortunately this was the only real option for a Mechanical Engineer, at that time.
He stared at the back of the head of the person in front of him for a while, quietly. Softly, he said “you know Alex, you need to ask yourself a question, what will you do to get to your goal?” still staring ahead. I knew my answer to that. I didn’t want to be working at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds on ordinance, or biochemical weapons. I didn’t want to be designing ladders for jet fighters at Grumman, like one of my former classmates that had miraculously landed a precious new job. None of those things would be worth getting to NASA. I told him so.
“I’m guessing NASA is not where you are going to be, then.” Those words stung for a while, and just as that conversation ended another one began about something else. I’m sure it was something less important to me at the moment. Soon we were arriving to Philadelphia. Some people left the train and others got on. We continued our conversation.
A few miles outside of Philly, he began to tell me about moving to New York in the early 60s, when he was in his twenties. He didn’t get along with his family, and had no friends to speak of. New York was a new start. It was a place where he could be himself, or at least that is what he thought. It took a while but by the early 70s he was surrounded by a large group of friends, which became his real family. He spoke of a great group of people that scraped by in Manhattan, but always managed to save for great getaways to the Berkshires, Fire Island, or maybe Provincetown.
He knew that to get that wonderful life he had to give away his biological family. When they found out about what he “was doing in New York city,” they told him that he was going to hell. They told him that he was no longer their child, brother, or cousin. From time to time the ice would thaw a little and he would visit Baltimore. The freeze would come back quickly usually within a day or so, when someone decided to confront him about his terrible lifestyle that was “against God’s wishes.” He would leave quickly and go back to his New York family, where consolation was available easily.
I asked him if this trip was one of these thaws. He said that it was, but this time it was different. “I know that this is the last time I will be going back to Bal’more.” He said this very wistfully. He leaned over and softly said “I’m going home to say goodbye.” I wasn’t sure I understood. I asked what he meant.
“I have AIDS,” he said moving away from me. I thought I saw him wince. Maybe he waited for the face of panic, or confusion, or perhaps hate. I wasn’t sure how to respond. This was the first time I had knowingly been next to someone with AIDS. “I’m sorry,” I muttered. He smiled and moved closer again. I asked him about his prognosis. He said he had maybe months. I asked him if he was scared. He was only tired, he said. He had already lost his partner, and many of his New York family were also sick.
I grabbed his hand and held it. I wasn’t sure what if anything that would mean to him or me. It felt like the right thing to do. Just as quickly as we had moved from one subject to another we left this topic and moved on. I let go of his hand, and we continued being fast friends for a while.
As the conductor called for Baltimore, we began to gather out things. The train stopped and people got up at the same time, trying to get out. We waited a little bit for the train to clear out. We said goodbye to each other, clumsily. He opened his arms and offered me a hug. We hugged for a moment. He told me to stay out of trouble. I told him to take care.
I never interviewed with Aberdeen Proving Grounds, nor worked for a defense contractor. I found my dream career, but it was not in NASA, and it did start in insurance. I never forgot my few hours with this man. I don’t remember his name, but I will never forget him.