My mom has always talked about Neil. The five-foot-four, gay Jewish man with red, wavy hair was a constant character in the glory days of my mother before I was born, before she met my father. He was a magnetic fixture of her beautiful and broke young life when she was living in Brookline, Massachusetts, studying respiratory therapy in school, when she had mice in her shithole apartment and accidentally broiled one while making scallops. When she was out every night with the love of her life, her high school sweetheart, Karl. The three of them—Neil, Karl, and my mother—would go out every weekend and dance at Boston’s then ebbing discos, buzzing with the tunes of the Gloria Gaynor, Grace Jones, and Lou Rawls and wafting with the smell of sweaty chemical-drenched polyester. The trifecta was so cool that they’d skip the line.
I was fascinated by third-wheel Neil when I heard the stories. He knew a version of my mother I never knew. I met Karl at my grandfather’s funeral in New Haven, Connecticut, about 12 years ago. He was unrecognizable; no longer a hot, tan guy (everyone thought he was Puerto Rican) with a pencil-thin porno mustache like his photos from the ’70s. He had transformed into some random dad with a paunch. But Neil was always an enigma. At the time we met, I had never even seen a picture of him. My mother would tell me how they’d both laugh and recoil at the open vaseline containers in the pharmacy aisles across the street from Boston’s Mass General, a hub for gay cruising back then. “I’ve tried to look him up,” she told me around eight months ago. “I’ve been searching for him since the internet came out. I think he is dead.” She told me she thought that Neil had maybe gotten swept up in New York’s AIDS crisis. “That’s just what happened,” she told me in the car one day. “You know, my hairdresser on Newbury Street died from it. He just kept getting thinner and thinner, sicker and sicker, until one day he just closed the shop.”
So where was Neil? His full name was Neil Malcolm Roberts. Sometimes when I searched for him, the results would show Malcolm Roberts, an Australian politician and climate-change denier. The most I really knew about Neil was that he was a photographer. What little existed online was a listing for his records in New Jersey and Kew Gardens. I signed up for one of those background checks in which you can pay $19.99 per month and unlock phone numbers. I called two, and they both were disconnected. I searched on Instagram, his name as the hashtag: A black-and-white picture showed up, a guy with a sailor cap and round glasses balanced on the back of his head. I contacted the user, who told me they had bought two of Neil’s prints from a flea market in Chelsea. Other than that there was really nothing. Neil’s online presence was almost nonexistent, except he did have one print online, of Duane Michals, another gay photographer (only a famous one). The trippy black-and-white picture shows a bald Michals, head like a gray orb, perched on a couch and holding a Polaroid of half of his face in front of half of his face. The print was on display at New York’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. I used my work email to reach out to the info email address listed, asking if Neil was still alive, could I get in touch with him? It was for a story, I told the contact. I left my name, my mother’s maiden name, and my number. At the time I didn’t want to write a story. I just wanted to meet Neil.
About a week later I received a call at work. It was Neil calling me from the library at Bryant Park, shocked that I had found him. He drawled out the end of his words like Nathan Lane in The Birdcage. He asked how my mother was. He asked how my father was. He had met my father briefly a few times before my mother fluttered away into the world of marriage. “Where would you like to meet?” I said. “I can meet you wherever you want. Maybe where you live?” According to Neil, where he lived “was complicated.” We agreed to meet at Fulton Center outside of Dunkin’ Donuts, a short walk away from my office in the monstrous Freedom Tower with its horrific sky-piercing spire.
Neil and I sat down at a nice sushi restaurant, a tradition that we would continue for months after, sometimes digging into noodles in Chinatown or in the Bowery for hot pot. He walked with a drag to his foot but still had all of his hair, this time cropped close to his skull. He had huge watery, light blue eyes and was heavy-lidded, almost as if he were in a perpetual state of sleepy stupor. He had a black messenger bag filled with papers and pamphlets with the pins NMR on the strap. According to my mother Neil would always have a camera around his neck. “It was like a necklace,” she said. “Or an appendage.” There was no camera this time. We spent the night catching up about my mother, about Karl, about me. Toward the end of dinner, he opened up his book of photos, a huge binder that he carries with him at all times. There were pages of photos of buff men, all taken from the ’90s to the early 2000s. Their muscles were bulging; hairless incredible hulks with flat abs and veins branching from their crotches into their lower stomachs. They posed in abandoned alleys on top of steaming sewer grates or against fences. This was a time when gay men were battling against the AIDS crisis, when bodies would wither away and, in the midst of everything, gym culture was booming. Men would hit the weights, bulking up to show that they were healthy.
Neil had met some of these men as go-go dancers in the local clubs. “I’d wrap my business card in a dollar and slip it into their G-string,” he told me. “Or I’d go onto bigmuscle.com.” Bigmuscle.com still exists as a hookup site in a lo-fi, Y2K-era setup. The men are brolic and oiled. Sometimes there are just thumbnails of body parts, like a smooth ass or a bicep. It’s like looking at beautiful, horny Roman statues from around the world. Neil used them as models. One of his favorite images is a photo of a guy named Ric Powell who he met on bigmuscle.com; the photo shows a muscular black man making a fist with a chainmail oyster shucking glove. “I spent a lot of money on that glove,” says Neil. “That photo won the gold medal from Graphis.”
Neil was born in western Massachusetts. He had a brother from whom he is now estranged. Neil knew he was attracted to men at a young age, specifically after watching an episode of Flash Gordon starring a young, square-jawed Steve Holland. “I was gay Jewish kid in Springfield, Mass—one of the very few,” Neil said. “It shocked my parents. I came out just after 1970. I would go over to friends’ houses on a Friday night, and we’d have a friend who was about 10 years older than us. Auntie Ralph is what we’d call him. That was his nickname. He would drive us to the backroom bars in the Meatpacking District. I was 17. I wasn’t even legal, but neither were those bars. We’d stay at a room at the YMCA for $10 a night.”
Neil had long been interested in photography and ended up taking a course as an elective in junior college back in Springfield. He had dreamed of studying it and moving to New York City. Instead he headed to college in Boston for two years at the New England School of Photography, where he later met his roommate Karl and then my mother. “I had a great time. I took lots of pictures, passed my courses.” My mother describes him as obsessed with the likes of “[Francesco] Scavullo, Deborah Turbeville, and Diane Arbus, who photographed freaks.” Neil loved to photograph people not smiling. After graduating Neil got a job as a toll collector on the Mass Turnpike for four years. “Then I said to myself, I’m better than this,” he said. “Yes, it is financially secure. I can retire in 20 years. But I knew I was better than that.”
Eventually Neil applied to the photography department at the Fashion Institute of Technology and got in. He moved into the top floor of the YMCA, where there was a dorm room open (“the last one,” he told me). He arrived in New York City in the summer of 1981, around a month after the New York Times published a tiny article on July 3 on Page A20, titled “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” The article talks about the early panic of the AIDS epidemic and its spread in gay hubs like San Francisco and New York City. There was talk about the appearance among homosexual men of cases of Kaposi’s sarcoma, a rare skin cancer that rears itself in spots and lesions that typically only affected older men of Jewish or Mediterranean descent. “When I moved here, people would ask, ‘Did you hear about this gay cancer thing?’ ” Neil told me over dinner. “These gay men are starting to die off, and no one knows why. They finally started tracing that it was from unsafe sex. They determined it as a virus that lived in the blood, and men were getting screwed without condoms. Those were the ones who were dying first.” Whenever Neil tells me these stories, which is often, he knocks on the table and tells me: “Thank God I’m negative.” Neil will go through his photos and point out who is dead but replace the word dead with a clicking noise in the back of his throat. The motion reminds me of my father, who will go through the obituaries every week in the local newspaper and point out the names that he recognizes.
Neil kicked off his career shooting for local newspapers, like the gay magazine Christopher Street and the New York Native, a biweekly gay newspaper. He also photographed lots of famous people within the gay community. There is, of course, Duane Michals, who spoke at the Strand back in March; Arthur Tress, the surrealist photographer (both images of Michals and Tress are in the Leslie-Lohman Museum’s newest book Queer Holdings); and George Stavrinos, the illustrator known for his work with Fendi and for Bergdorf Goodman. Neil also photographed a lot of everyday people in the community: a young black couple, dressed in low-slung jeans and embracing, looking far past the aperture. A guy’s butt with a bandana stuffed in his back pocket, the code for sexual preference. “Red was popular back then, it meant dominant sexually,” Neil told me later when we met at the Leslie-Lohman Museum to go through his prints. “Yellow meant you were into urine. And green meant you were into money!”
These few prints are what is left of Neil’s work that we know of. It was chucked in the early 2000s when Neil was evicted from his apartment in New Jersey. Neil had worked several jobs at photography companies, including with the bearded Hasidim at B&H. When he was let go from there, he became a bike messenger. But even before his troubles with maintaining a job, he had housing issues that started in the late ’90s and had bounced around the city, enduring its skyrocketing rents with a rotation of roommates. He had moved from the Bronx to Kew Gardens in Queens, and to New Jersey. “Everybody moved away. I was alone, and I couldn’t afford the rent. About three days before I was going to be evicted, I found a place on Seaman Avenue and Cumming Street,” said Neil, laughing at the mention of Seaman and Cumming. “Then I lived with Arnie and Bryan, who is now dead of AIDS.” He met a bodybuilder who later by chance needed a roommate. “The rent was a little bit high, but I said I’ll have to do it because I have nowhere else to go. I moved there for three and a half years until 2000. In 2000 I moved to Jersey City. That was the nicest apartment I moved into. I was there for six years, and then I got evicted.” His landlord locked up the apartment and sold his belongings, including the majority of his archive to an auctioneer. Now Neil sleeps on the E train. Sometimes the J train. Really it is whatever train goes the furthest without any interruptions. He has been living like this for four years. He has his local meals in various places around the city. He looks like your everyday straphanger: clean, simply dressed, and a little tired. You wouldn’t even notice him in a crowd.
During June, Pride Month, many within the LGBTQ+ community are buoyant and proud. There is practically a queer party every weekend. Clothing companies stamp rainbows on almost everything. The happy ROYGBIV has been commodified down to the packaging of a minty bottle of Listerine mouthwash. There is also the 50-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which were actually started largely by trans women of color, some of them homeless. But when I talk to Neil and look at his photographs, there is a disconnect. Times have changed, and in many ways they left him behind. Many of his friends died years ago in the AIDS crisis or have moved away. “The new thing is androgyny!” he will cheekily quip, somewhat cluelessly. Neil hasn’t taken a picture in years; he had to sell his photography equipment.
There are no statistics currently on how many elder gay homeless people there are in New York or the United States. According to Sydney Kopp-Richardson, director of the National LGBT Elder Housing Initiative, those numbers are almost impossible to count. Many do not enter shelters because of safety issues or a perceived lack of safety. Many in the older baby boomer gay community who have survived the AIDS epidemic lead a lonely existence. “People don’t think of LGBTQ elders as having children or biological children,” says Kopp-Richardson. ”Again, that can exacerbate that feeling of isolation—as you age you lose the people around you and you don’t have anyone close to take care of you. That isn’t the case for more heteronormative families. There is the legacy of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and although people are living and thriving and it is a different diagnosis these days, many of these people have experienced incredible loss of their entire communities and chosen families when they might have experienced biological family rejection. The lack of familiar support compared to straight or cisgender counterparts can impact increased compounded isolation for elders with things like HIV or other repressions.”
Neil is kind of like Peter Pan, floating around during late nights at the Strand, biding time and tucked away on the basement floor. Or at the library, hunched over a computer, probably emailing me. Though we’ve only been friends for a little while, I feel like I’ve known him my whole life, almost as if I’ve taken on his history with my mother, who has finally reconnected with him after more than 30 years. Earlier this month I arrived to our latest dinner date while I was on the phone with her. I shoved my cell into Neil’s hand. “Talk to her!” I said. They caught up for a bit, like it was yesterday. She doesn’t know what is going on with him. My mother wants to catch up with her old friend, visit him, and see his photographs. It’s been awhile. She asks me: “So where is Neil living these days?”
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