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May02

Living with HIV in New York - and the people you meet

Monday, 02 May 2016 Written by // Felix Garmendia Categories // Gay Men, Felix Garmendia, Lifestyle, Living with HIV, Opinion Pieces, Population Specific

Our prolific writer Felix Garmendia introduces some of the characters that intersect with his daily like – and what they mean to him

Living with HIV in New York - and the people you meet

Introduction

On our way home from the doctor, four years ago, when the issue of marriage equality in New York was still controversial, another New Yorker taught me a lesson. This pocket of Manhattan is a village of diversity. The area is known as Washington Heights and has been the home of a vibrant Jewish community since the 1930s. The area is also the home of more Dominicans than Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

It was a typical crisp autumn day, getting chillier as the sun was getting lower. My husband Denis and I know this neighborhood pretty well and we have noticed that the closer we are to Yeshiva University, it is not uncommon to see scholarly, older, Orthodox Jewish men in the “hood”. Because of the village-like atmosphere around here people on the streets often smile and nod, or even say “hello” to one another as our paths cross.

 When we were very close to our apartment building, an older man, with a white beard approached us on the sidewalk. He was dressed in black, from head to toe. It was clear to us that he was part of the orthodox Jewish faith.

As he stepped around us, I said “hello”, he responded with a smile and “hello”. We were headed in the same direction but because I’m in a wheelchair, I didn’t move as fast as a typical New York pedestrian. After he had gotten a few steps ahead of us, he stopped, turned around, smiled and asked me “Is he your brother?” We have been asked that question many times by a lot of people. I guess it is true that after living together for a long time, some couples start to look alike. I immediately answered the gentleman with a smile, “No, he is not my brother, he is my husband.” The gentleman heard me, turned around, and continued walking.

Frankly, I wasn’t too surprised by his response, knowing that many “Orthodox” folks (regardless of what religion) have a problem with same sex marriage. He took two or three steps, stopped again, turned to us SMILING broadly and said, “Oh, that’s wonderful! Mazel Tov!” He turned again and continued his journey. I must admit, I was not ready for that response. I never thought that a smile from a wheelchair bound man with an honest answer would change his mind. I sensed compassion on his face. I’m also sure he was raised with strict faith related rules against the possibility of gay marriage. I must admit gleefully that I was dead wrong. This man was confronted with a piece of information that made him keep on walking after my answer. Something made him think fast and decide to express kindness.

As he smiled, nodded, turned around and walked away, I realized yet another New Yorker has taught me a valuable lesson. There is hope for kindness and respect in this world, even if we are “different”.

The following stories are examples of my personal interactions with characters in my neighborhood. They are all snapshots of what it is like to live disabled in one of the most famous cities in the world.

New York is home and has been since the winter of 1988. It is here where I became the man I am today. Since my arrival to this city, I have been showered with kindness and understanding from day one. Now that I’m wheelchair bound, I really treasure New Yorker’s attitude towards the disabled. Thank you, New York, this adopted son is grateful for your understanding of people with life challenges.

*****

Bela 

This is why I can’t live anywhere else but New York City.

Today we went out to have hamburgers at a neighborhood restaurant. It was around 4pm when a Jewish Orthodox couple came into the restaurant. I have seen them around in the neighborhood. Her husband is wheelchair bound and appears to be totally disabled, unable to speak or feed himself. They are both elderly.  She is always wearing a babushka. She appears to struggle pushing her husband’s wheelchair. When they entered the restaurant, She said, “ hello” and Denis and I both answer, “ hello”. 

At one point, Denis decided to go to the bank and I stayed alone in the restaurant. After a few minutes, the old lady with the babushka, asked me if I spoke Spanish. I answer in Spanish, “yes”. She proceeded to ask me why I was in a wheelchair, I told her about my disability and she responded with a lot of compassion. Her Spanish was perfect, without ANY sign of an accent, so I asked her where did she learn Spanish. She told me that she was born in Mexico. Her parents had escaped Nazi Poland.

I became very interested in this lady so I asked her name. “My name is Bela, with one “L”, but when I came to America, they added the other “L”, changing it to, “Bella”.

Her husband’s food arrived and while she was lovingly feeding him, she continued to talk with me. She told me that when she was studying medicine in Mexico, she was bitten by a lab rat. The bite caused a kind of paralysis that put her in a wheelchair for a few years. After telling me that story, she told me, “ I know what it is to be wheelchair confined”.

Bela is amazing, her compassion, devotion and love for her husband, was a beautiful sight. He can’t talk but she knew exactly what he was asking when he grunted in his efforts to articulate words. She would placed her wrinkled hand over him and look at him with a tenderness that would melt an iceberg. I was very touched by this couple’s love, loyalty and devotion. 

Being a "NEW YORKER" continues to excite and fascinate me. I matured to true adulthood here in New York City. New York City made me the man I am. Hearing stories like Bella's confirm my undying love for this city I call home.

Where else in the world can you meet, during a casual lunch, a Mexican, Orthodox Jewish old lady with her wheelchair bound husband, whose parents escaped Poland during WW2? I loved meeting Bella, before she left, she told me, “ I see you guys all the time in the neighborhood, from now on, I will say hello”. 

Leaving the restaurant after her, I was full of hope for this world after witnessing a example of commitment and loyalty, just like the one my husband Denis has for me. Only in NYC can a gay, Latino, wheelchair bound man and his Irish husband from Long Island, meet an Orthodox Mexican lady with her wheelchair bound, German born, elderly frail husband and connect without judgments or prejudices. 

New York, it is a pleasure to be your adopted son. 

Mike the fireman 

When the stars and the planets aligned correctly 16 years ago, Denis, the man who would become my husband, and I moved to the northern Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. Shortly after we moved in, I remember meeting a beautiful young couple with two little girls. Her name is Maria Perez and his name is Mike Stein. Mike is one of "New York’s Bravest", a New York City firefighter. Mike's beautiful and charming wife, Maria is originally from Puerto Rico not far from where I grew up. We hit it off immediately.

It was always a pleasure running into Mike, Maria and the girls in "da hood". They are a beautiful family, not just physically, but in many other aspects as well. They are respectful and loving team and have always been wonderful friends and neighbors. The girls were quiet but never lacked a beautiful smile on their little doll faces.  For 16 years, Denis and I have watched the girls grow up. It's been like watching the birth of two sparkling, beautiful stars. They became two beautiful young ladies, very intelligent, articulate, educated and polite beauties inside and out. 

Recently, Denis and I decided to go out for a stroll around the neighborhood. On our way down to the lobby, when the elevator door opened, there was Mike and one of his beautiful daughters. Her name is Marina and she looked beautiful. I could see the beauty of both parents in her. We all shared the elevator on our way to the lobby. When we exited the elevator, I told Marina, “You are beautiful”. After I said that, my husband Denis said to me in a joking manner, “Felix! Did you just tell Mike that he is beautiful in front of his daughter?” Marina laughed. It was of course an inner joke between Denis and me.  We both think Mike is definitely a hunk. After I turned red as a tomato, I heard Mike say enthusiastically, “HEY, I'LL TAKE IT! Feels great that somebody notices!" We all laughed.

What a beautiful, refreshing answer that was. I was so pleased by his reaction to Denis’ joke that I looked at him and he gave me one of the most beautiful smiles I have ever seen on a human face. A smile full of inner peace, love, respect and overall, understanding of the fact that differences can make all of us appreciate each other in this journey we call life. 

Rita 

Went out today for the firs time after this looooong winter. Had a great time. Met a lady called Noelle with a precious baby that looked like “The Little Prince”. I’m not particularly fond of children anymore but Peter was precious.

Only in NYC you can walk down the street and minutes before you meet a precious child, you get to talk to a Dutch Holocaust survivor called Rita. She is 90, sharp as a tack, a bit deaf but full of life and smiles. She is a friend of Denis from his years working at the pharmacy. Every single day, you can see Rita walking around this “hood” with her little cart feeding the birds. I told her, “Rita, I think you are very nice”, after she told me that she was considered cranky by many in the neighborhood.

Denis told me her story, Rita was born in Holland to a Jewish family. She is a holocaust survivor, after going through the pain of watching her whole family murdered by the Nazis. Her husband died two years ago at 92 and her children rarely visit her. After telling all of this to Denis she openly shared with him that her holocaust experience made her lose all her faith and she is atheist. 

Rita left me today with these words, “Felix, always remember that, “what you shout into the forest, comes back to you”. Those words were said with a beautiful smile on a wrinkled face that was still full of life and beauty. 

Esperanza 

New York City is full of unique, colorful and wonderful characters, and my neighborhood is no exception. My neighborhood, in northern Manhattan is a Jewish, Polish and Dominican melting pot.

I have been fortunate enough to get to know “ Esperanza”. She is a Puerto Rican single mother in her sixties, rough, uneducated, very hard working. She is always running around cleaning houses, cooking for elderly people, taking care of children and she maintains the pulse of the “hood”. I'm happy to have had the opportunity to get to know her even more. Every time we share a Frozen Margarita, she let’s us know a bit more about herself.

Recently I found out that In her youth, she was a gang member. She never married, the love of her life died after 22 years together. She raised her 3 children by herself. She put two of her daughters through law school and now both are attorneys. Her son is currently in college. She calls us “papi”, and I have to confess that I totally love her! 

Esperanza is genuine, simple, honest, loving, compassionate and a lot of fun. She really brightens up my day! 

Yesterday’s topic was about the men in her life, After the death of her long time companion, Esperanza fell in love with another man. That relationship lasted for eight years.This is how she told the story ....

“Papi, that “m*ther fucker” after nine years together asked me to lend him $5,000 and he left that day to never be seen again, years went by, and I hit the lottery, so the” m*ther fucker” found out and called me asking to borrow $100. I told him, "sure!, come over........! When he showed up, I beat the “shit” out of him"! I was in tears laughing. This woman is indeed always a cure for an otherwise uneventful day! 

Since I've been sick, she is always asking me, what are my favorite Puerto Rican dishes. The next thing I know, she's at my door with a shipment of home made, delicious food. I can taste the love in her “Pasteles con arroz con gandules”, her “Empanadas” her “Carne mechada”... She is always telling my husband, “ Papi I’m going to bring Felix a surprise today”, and she would show up with another Puerto Rican delicacy that I haven’t had in 25 years! 

Yesterday, Esperanza shared with us this colorful fact. She used to work in a neighborhood brothel. She made it very clear that she wasn’t a prostitute. “I only serve drinks and welcome them papi; you know I use that money to help my grandchildren with their college in the future”. 

Some people look down on her in the “hood” but I believe in my heart that if there is a heaven she will be there before all of those who judge her so unfairly. 

After laughing for almost two hours we had to say goodbye, my heart was touched with a joy that I very rarely feel these days. I extended my arm and told her “ I love you!” and we walked away. Looking forward to see Esperanza again, she is by far my favorite character in the “hood". 

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