Episode 26 “Ghosts of St Vincents”: with Tom Eubanks.
Founded in 1849 to care for indigent immigrants in Greenwich Village, St. Vincent’s Hospital was sold in 2010 to create multi-million-dollar homes. In its 161 years of existence, the legendary institution treated survivors of the Titanic, tended to victims of both World Trade Center attacks, and served as Ground Zero of the AIDS Crisis.
With honesty, humor, and flights of historical fancy, GHOSTS OF ST. VINCENT’S tells the hospital’s story through the eyes of a man who spent a winter on its 7th floor AIDS ward and who survived just in time for the drug “cocktail” that saved so many lives, but which also witnessed the deaths of over a thousand people subsequently buried on Hart Island.
St. Vincents Hospital
by Michael LeFlem
Guitar runs soared, drums beat wildly and the bass thumped as the colorful lights played across the arena. In a flashy, glam-rock outfit, he pranced across the stage with his signature strut, belting out the verse to one of his band’s iconic tracks, “Don’t Stop Me Now”:
Yeah, I’m a rocket ship on my way to Mars
On a collision course
I am a satellite, I’m out of control
I am a sex machine ready to reload
Like an atom bomb about to
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, explode.
Adored by millions the world over and highly regarded by fellow musicians, Freddie Mercury, the legendary front man of Queen, spoke highly of New York’s gay club scene and can be seen in an iconic photo proudly wearing a Mineshaft tank top and a police officer’s cap.
This bar, in particular, was notorious for its open sexual policies and its BDSM-friendly staff, which encouraged and facilitated these activities in its various dark rooms and recessed nooks. The same staff carefully screened patrons who seemed too uptight or squeamish, or who might be undercover cops. It was eventually shut down in 1985, technically for a liquor license violation, but in reality, the mayor of New York at the time felt the Mineshaft was radically accelerating the AIDS epidemic in the city. Though he never publicly admitted he was gay, it was likely from this very environment that Mercury contracted and later died from AIDS.
As biographer Mark Langthorne noted: I would like to think that by now Freddie would have come out of the closet. The world has changed so much. He was a recording artist in the ’70s and ’80s, two decades when the level of homophobia is difficult for anyone born after 1980 to fully comprehend. In particular, Britain and the USA were scary places for gay people, and the onset of AIDS gave license to the religious fulminators and right-wing zealots.
While limited, successful treatments exist for those suffering from the virus today, but in the mid-1980s, if doctors were slowly beginning to comprehend the nuances of the disease, they were still blind as to how to lessen or end its powerful punch and its potential to spread through normal human proximity.
A New York Times feature lamented in 1987, “As their days dwindle, these are things AIDS patients say they want most: cool sheets; a hand to hold; a promise that they will not have to bear too great a suffering, and that they will not have to die alone,”
Unfortunately, many primary care providers and mortuaries avoided and denied physical contact with living or dead AIDS patients, and few hospitals would admit verified cases of people stricken with AIDS for fear of contaminating their wards. Embalmers wouldn’t touch their corpses. In many cases, those dying were essentially abandoned and left to fend for themselves, spending their last agonizing months in offbeat clinics, at home in sick beds or in one of the handful of hospitals that would provide care, like New York’s St. Vincent’s Hospital.
St. Vincent’s opened in 1984 and featured the first AIDS ward on the East Coast. By 1986, a third of its hospital beds were occupied by AIDS patients. It was at rare places like this hospital that small expressions of hope, however futile, were seen in the form of a visit, or in simply being treated with human dignity. Many parents were ashamed of their sons’ lifestyles and viewed AIDS as an unfortunate but inevitable end to what they viewed as deviant behavior, and many refused to see their sick children or acknowledge their conditions.
Robert Ruggiero, a funeral home owner in The Bronx, was among the first to accept and embalm AIDS victims. He recalled, “The parents would say, ‘It’s not our problem—just do what you have to do. These families were so disheartened by the lifestyle their son was [sic] living. Some said, ‘Just cremate him and mail us the ashes.’’
Andrew Boynton, a visitor at St. Vincent’s, recalled: If Arthur was asleep, I’d sit and wait till he opened his eyes, just watching him breathe, holding the food or juice I’d brought him. Often, only a few minutes would go by before he woke, and he’d ask me about what had gone on in rehearsal that day (we danced in the same company). Sometimes we’d talk about what was happening to him—why he was there, what his treatment was, when he could leave.
Despite cultural fears and aversion to discussing the issue—Ronald Reagan didn’t even use the word AIDS until 1987—people, like Boynton, chose to step up and address it. In a colorful instance, New Yorker Eric Sawyer created an alter ego, Harmony Moore, a roller-skating fairy godmother, and would skate around the city, paying those stricken by AIDs a visit. As Sawyer noted in a recent interview, “It made us happy to be able to show these wonderful people that someone cared for them, that they weren’t pariahs and that we loved them even if their families did not.”
For most, if not all of these early AIDS victims, death was all but assured. There were no reliable or effective preventative treatments to hamper HIV from turning into AIDS, and treatments would not become available until many years later. However, it was not just lack of access to quality, end-oflife care that victims were forced to endure—it wasn’t until they passed away that their untold stories surfaced. Only miles away, a desolate rocky shore awaited—its untold dead mutely beckoning their new companions to join them in solemn repose. It was, Hart Island.
“New York City’s Hart Island: A Cemetery of Strangers”