Rest in peace, Stewart, wherever you are

March 21, 2010 at 4:19 PM 9 comments


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If Stewart Kaisen* were alive, I would have found him by now. He’s not on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter, the twenty-first-century precincts for a networker and a lover of social fads. Back in the twentieth century, Stewart couldn’t slip under the radar if he tried. He had friends from high school, summer camp, his college dorm, Hillel, junior year abroad, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi transcendental meditation and the Rutgers Homophile League, and any of them could track him down. The fact that I cannot find my gregarious friend in cyberspace, including our university alumni directory, settles the matter for me. Stewart didn’t make it to the finish line.

Stewart was my closest friend freshman year. That was the year I was fresh off a chicken farm in southern New Jersey; the year I was set free from a rural high school world of football games and dating where I was conspicuous by my absence; the year where I walked away from the rigor of orthodox Jewish practice. I met Stewart at the Rutgers Hillel kosher dining hall, where many other club members were determined to lift the floorboards off the religious and cultural training we had received at home and Hebrew School. Most of us have engaged in this psychological rehabbing so that we can figure out what part of our indoctrination is worth keeping and what isn’t. Stewart and I went about our renovations with the picks and shovels of pop culture, joy and a little happy idiocy.

Helen Trumpeldor, the mutual friend who introduced me to Stewart, was willing to gut only some of that indoctrination. To wit, she refused to believe that Stewart was gay. She had known him since kindergarten and had fixed him in her mind as the sweet boy who had gone to Hebrew School, gotten a bar mitzvah and ate kosher food. He had never expressed an interest in boys before. How could a high school soccer star like Stewart Kaisen be a limp-wristed faggot?

If the truth be told, Helen didn’t exactly fit the ideal Hillel profile either. Her official boyfriend was a Catholic guy from Teaneck, New Jersey. Her unofficial boyfriends, culled from parties, bars and classes, numbered in the dozens. One of them was her roommate’s boyfriend. Helen said that no woman should consider getting married until she had slept with twenty men. By the end of freshman year, she could have been married twice over.

Helen had a theory about how Stewart turned homo. She thought it happened at a high school graduation party where she and Stewart unknowingly drank a cup of LSD-spiked punch. Ever since then, Stewart had played around with boys. The punch, of course, had had no effect on Helen’s sexuality. She hadn’t been able to say no to any boy since she turned sixteen.

Eat me

Speaking as an inveterate heterosexual, I understand why Helen wanted Stewart to be straight: He was a real credit to the male sex. Stewart was always up for an adventure. He was always ready to laugh at the overwrought message of a movie like Reefer Madness; always ready to drive down to the one of the Jersey beaches off Route 36. As for his temperament, I don’t remember him ever raising his voice. When he was upset, he let you know in the same way he might tell you your hair looked good that day or you just dropped your pencil. At eighteen Stewart knew that communication between friends could be as fraught with as much misunderstanding as communication between enemies, and he went about mending fences like a sage.

Don’t get me wrong. Stewart was no saint. In May of freshman year, the two of us went to the Rutgers ROTC building on the first day of a student occupation. Stewart saw a statue of an eagle that he wanted for his dorm room. He snatched it up and secreted it inside his jacket. Coincidentally, some Hillel people witnessed Stewart’s theft and tried to talk him out of it. Stewart adored the statue for its kitsch styling. Without rancor, he left with it.

It didn’t take him twenty-four hours to know that the Hillel couple was right and he was wrong. We went back to the occupied ROTC building and set the bronze buzzard back on its ledge where it belonged.

You see, Stewart had a soul. But what I loved best about him was the way he said, “Eat me!” every time he ran into me. Nobody ever said hi to me like that.

Marrying for the green card

Stewart spent junior year abroad at Hebrew University. He brought home a souvenir — a tall, thin gay man named Jean Marie.

Jean Marie was from France. He was thirty-three and he wanted to settle down with Stewart. Stewart had just turned twenty-one and he wasn’t interested. He had just discovered the best places in New Brunswick to cruise for men. One was on Hamilton Street near the elevated train tracks. By day the place of assignation was a nondescript retaining wall. By night the place was crawling with men in search of anonymous sexual encounters. Jean Marie didn’t want anonymous sexual encounters anymore, but he understood that Stewart was young and was thrilled by them. He said he would wait until Stewart outgrew the novelty.

Such charitable convictions are more easily touted than lived, and Jean Marie practically had a breakdown every time Stewart made it with a new stranger. Stewart thought Jean Marie should just go back to France or Israel, but he didn’t have the heart to tell him. In fact, he was willing to help the old guy stay in the United States. He knew a gay woman who, for a couple grand, might marry Jean Marie and secure him a green card. I sat in on the negotiations between Stewart and Jean Marie and a gay woman named Lisa. The main fly in the ointment was Lisa’s lover. She thought this scheme was insane on two counts: Legally binding your life to a virtual stranger would have unintended consequences impossible to fix; and marriage, despite being off limits to gay people, was an institution worthy of respect. She herself longed for it.

Barrel-chested, buff, tight belted blue jeans

How did I manage to lose touch with somebody who cheered me up whenever I got depressed, which in college could be every day? I don’t remember why Stewart and I stopped seeing each other after graduation. I suspect I was so freaked out about finding a job and an apartment that I wore Stewart down. He disappeared from my life.

I ran into him about eight years after graduation on the #1 IRT platform at 96th Street. Except for losing most of his hair, he looked unchanged: Barrel-chested, buff, tight belted blue jeans. He hugged me, but something was different. For one, he didn’t say, “Eat me.” He did take my number and called later the same day.

In some ways, I was unchanged too. I still had long blonde hair and a tendency to waste time on fools. This time I had just gotten dumped, by a guy from Hillel, actually, and all I wanted was to cry on Stewart’s shoulder. Stewart asked for my address. He wanted to send me and everyone he had ever cared for a Passover card. Jews typically don’t send cards at Passover, but because Stewart and I had dismantled so many of the Jewish mores we had learned from our families, I didn’t wonder what he was up to.

Taking life seriously

The Intelius record I found for Stewart Kaisen lists his last three addresses. The first was his childhood home in Teaneck. The second was an apartment he rented after college in Chelsea. The third was a lovely co-op on Clark Street in Brooklyn. I called the telephone number listed for that address and got an answering machine message for a defunct magic act company.

I don’t need to see a death record to know that Stewart couldn’t have survived the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. In that last conversation, Stewart confessed that he regretted having wasted so much time cruising men. He wished he had taken life more seriously, maybe getting a Master’s Degree in Social Work earlier than he did and working with aging Holocaust survivors.

What could it mean that he regretted putting himself in harm’s way for no good reason? What could it mean that he regretted not having a true companion? If I hadn’t been so absorbed by my own unhappiness at the time, I would have heard Stewart telling me he had AIDS. But at twenty-nine, the concept of regret hadn’t sunk in yet. I didn’t understand why Stewart suddenly had to sound like an adult.

Growing old with Stewart Kaisen

I have come to the point where I miss not being able to spend time with somebody who knew me as an eighteen-year-old girl, and who visited me on a chicken farm that feels more and more like a figment of my imagination. I miss seeing the only person I ever threw a frisbee with; ever listened to a lecture on transcendental meditation with; ever smoked my first joint with in front of that Irish tavern on George Street; ever went to a Lauro Nyro concert with when she showed up so high she needed help getting on and off the stage.

I wish I could tell somebody that I now look at the world as if I’m a visitor from an undiscovered tribe in the fourth dimension, and that I no longer grok the music, slang, books and movies making noise all around me. If Stewart were here, he would tell me he feels like that too sometimes. And he would know the cure for what ails me.

He would tell me to meet him at the Longacre Theatre to see La Cage Aux Folles — “You know you love Kelsey Grammer, Barbara! “– and after that we’d find a cafe in the Village where the hummus is as good as the stuff he ate in Israel when he was twenty. After that — “Oh, come on, we’re already dressed! I know a great salsa club.” I would take the time off from Bookpod and my writing projects and spend a heavenly evening with him. Swishing around together on the dance floor, I would shout over the salsa, “I always wondered who I was going to grow old with, and now I know. It’s you, Stewart Kaisen. It’s you!”

* All names in this blog post have been fictionalized.

Wordle

Going beyond Google to find a lost friend [The New York Times]

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Entry filed under: college, Judaism, Love, New York City. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

El hombre carismático de Un Paso Adelante Gimme that old time religion

9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Shana  |  March 21, 2010 at 5:15 PM

    A beautiful and moving tribute. I feel now as though ‘d known him too. And I definitely know a bit more about the lost years of that young girl fresh off a Jersey chicken farm!

    Reply
    • 2. modestine  |  March 21, 2010 at 5:22 PM

      When you’re really young, you think you’re going to meet lots and lots of wonderful people. You don’t realize that some are truly gems — and you ought to hold onto them because there’s nobody like them. You would have adored “Stewart” too, niecelet. Thanks for reading — and see you soon!

      Reply
  • 3. Mirel  |  March 22, 2010 at 9:31 AM

    Very poignant story of our youth. I hope that somehow, you are not correct, and the “Stewart” is still on this earth. But I suspect you are right.

    Reply
  • 4. Urban Renaissance  |  March 22, 2010 at 10:20 PM

    I know quite a few gay men who were gay long before the 80s, wo are alive today, and who therefore must somehow have survived the AiDS epidemic. And there are many twenty-nine-year-olds who all of a sudden realize that they regret many of their earlier choices. It is not necessarily a sign of impending illness or death. So I too hope that Stewart is alive.

    It seems almost unbelievable, but not everyone is on the internet. I don’t have a Facebook account under my real name, and if I weren’t for my particular field, I doubt I’d have a web page. Some people really dislike the brash voyeurism of the internet, and they do what they can to hide from its tentacles.

    But no longer having any public records, which is what I think must be the case if intelius can longer find you? That, I agree, is worrisome. Surely there would be a record of it somewhere if Stewart had renewed his driver’s license. Then again, aren’t death records public? So if indeed he is dead, wouldn’t intelius know about it?

    I guess I just hope that intelius is powered by really bad, really inefficient software, and that Stewart is smarter than it is, and refuses to be sucked into the web.

    Reply
    • 5. modestine  |  March 22, 2010 at 11:35 PM

      What makes me doubt that Stewart survived the ‘eighties is the number of men he slept with — this at the height of the epidemic. I guess there’s a chance that he might still be alive …

      Intelius charges $40 for a death record. It used to charge $8. I have a feeling that so many people are looking up old friends and requesting death records that Intelius upped the price.

      Reply
      • 6. Urban Renaissance  |  March 25, 2010 at 5:01 AM

        I typed “What was the life expectancy of a gay man in the 1980s?” into Google, and came up with the following link http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/homosexuality/ho0075.html , which cites an epidemiological study. The news is depressing: the probability of a gay man of 20 living to 65 was only 32% back in the late 80s. But studies are often severely flawed, and certainly, the site I posted has its own agenda for discouraging homosexuality.

        On the other hand, that statistic, combined with the fact that you can’t find him, is not encouraging.

        The New York Times has an interesting article today about searching for long-lost friends, at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/25/technology/personaltech/25basics.html?8dpc . Of particular interest regarding death certificates is the following:
        [quote]
        If you can’t find any current information about an individual there may be a simple reason: he or she may be dead.

        To find out if that’s the case, several sites including Rootsweb.com and Tributes.com offer free access to the Social Security Death Index, a listing of more than 85 million deaths in the United States. Legacy.com also adds a database of published obituaries from hundreds of American newspapers.
        [quote]

      • 7. modestine  |  March 25, 2010 at 7:48 AM

        Wow, “Urban,” thank you for looking into the life expectancy of gay men in the 1980s. Another impressionistic factor that leads me to the conclusion that Stewart had the disease is something I didn’t write about in my blog post: In the 1980s, I was a computer typesetter at a magazine consortium called Physicians World Communications. We typesetters used to set copy about young men with AIDS — and they were all men in their twenties. One after another young, talented guy in the “flower of is youth” succumbed to the disease, for which, of course, there was no treatment at the time. The highly active antiretroviral therapy cocktail didn’t come about until the mid-1990s — but I doubt Stewart was around anymore. I would love to get the pictures that went along with the PW articles out of my head. I don’t think I ever saw a more horrible looking disease. (I added the NYT link to my blog post.)

  • 8. Sarah  |  March 23, 2010 at 5:24 PM

    This is a really beautiful story! Thank you for sharing. There are some people that are part of our lives, even if just for a few years, that truly are a part of us forever.

    I recently used Intelius to track down an old grade school friend. If there is someone out there that this story makes you think of. Don’t hesitate, search for them today! I’m so glad I did. There site is: https://www.intelius.com

    Reply
  • 9. Pesha  |  March 24, 2010 at 5:42 PM

    I never went to my college reunions because I stayed in touch with the people I wanted to see and didn’t feel a need to bother with the rest. But over the past year I also had that longing to talk with people who knew me when I was 18, so I reconnected with two college pals who knew me when. There was an instant connection, a fabulous comfort level, and no self-consciousness. These were people who knew me when I was young and mostly stupid…thank goodness they’re still around to reminisce with. Have you ever tried contacting the alumni office about “Stewart”? Someone once found me like that.

    Reply

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