Thursday, March 14, 2013

Remembering Keith and Hanging at the Rawhide

From Colors of Leather

Funny , this time of year.   Sometimes, its full of the joy of springtime coming, of reawakening.  And with that memories of past springs of greetings and goodbyes.  Last spring, I greeted the springtime with a bike collision into the ground, crushing my clavicle. 

Seedbomb throw the day my clavicle went down before the Times Up! Pagen pageant ride.
I still came to the ride and then went to the hospital.
Photo by Minister Erik R. McGregor

Nine years ago this April, the activist world of New York lost Keith Cylar, legendary AIDS activist and leather man.   Keith and I used to hang out at the Rawhide bar in Chelsea in Manhattan.  An iconic levis and leather spot, notables such as Allan Bérubé (1946-2007) as well as clones and their fans used to build a scene there, with their own rites, rituals, and communities of pleasure.

Cylar in action. Photo by Housing Works

I had not been back since Cylar's death nine years priorThere had been plans to go.  Keith's old buddy Jay Blotcher and I planned to go in January before Spencer Cox's funeral, but I could not make it.  A few weeks later he could not make it.  And Jay posted a note to my facebook page.
"Bland affluence and rent hikes destroy another Chelsea landmark" with a link to story about the demise of the landmark. According to Vanishing New York:

Opened in 1979, the Rawhide is one of the last of a handful of old-school, unpretentious gay bars left in New York City. It is a survivor. But it won't be for long. The building that houses it on 8th and 21st in Chelsea was sold a couple of years ago and, according to our tipster with inside connections, the new landlord has jacked up the rent, nearly doubling it from $15,000 to $27,000 a month. The Rawhide's last day will be March 30.

A neighborhood bar at its most basic, spaces where people build , such as the Living Theater and the Broken Angel,  are pushed out of New York, while the rest of us are left to contend within a sea of identical details of  banks, chains, and Starbucks, remain, testaments to corporate comfort.  Who else can afford these kinds of rents.

 My friends romped into the Rawhide after a Halloween bike ride last fall.  Its part of what is rich and meaningful about living in New York.  This is a space where stories started.

Keegan, Barbara, and Judy.  Photo by Barbara's camera.

At least this was the case with Keith Cylar and I.  I first started going to the bar with him during marathon interview sessions for a chapter I was writing about Cylar, ACT UP, and Housing activism I was working on for our book From ACT UP to the WTO.  The result of these sessions was several long articles, as well as another snowball sample of interviews with his friends about their times with Keith, which turned into their own stories of friendships.  Most everyone involved with AIDS activism seemed to know or remember Keith fondly.

Entering the Rawhide, one crosses a dark threshold of curtains, walking past a pool table with a motorcycle hanging overhead much like the Eagle in San Francisco

Photo by Barbara Ross

I used to meet Cylar in the back of the bar to the right of the pool table, a spot where Black men, "the Black Congressional Caucus" used to converge.  There we'd drink vodka cranberries, tell lies, talk about aids, dance, commiserate, and revel in the night.

"Do you feel the relief?  The sense of relief now that Giuliani is gone?" he conveyed to me early in 2001, in the early days of Bloomberg's New York.

Cylar was looking forward to less of an era of battles, although the Bush years would not give him that.

On other nights, we talked about AIDS and our friends lost to it. 

And after Keith was gone, he would be another one of those memories, as someone we all reveled in knowing and valuing as a harm reductionist who loved leather, understood how to influence social policy, and used direct action to move this agenda forward.  He helped my friend Adrienne Maree Brown think about ways she could be a pleasure activist.  She wrote:

been years since i said it, but recently i have been feeling it is time again to shout it out: i am a pleasure activist.
what leaps to your mind when i say that?
yeah – it’s probably all of that.
for me this journey started back in the harm reduction world. i first heard the term from keith cylar, an incredible harm reductionist in ny who passed shortly after i got my start in the field. i was young and doing sex education, and i learned from good teachers in the harm reduction network that safe sex is actually more pleasurable than high risk sex in the long run – it allows you to get to have more sex.

The toilet at the Rawhide where a lot of things used to go on. 

Keith's influences were many.  And they were certainly on my mind the other night as we rode over meet my friend Michael Tikili.  An AIDS activist in Cylar's mold, Tikili was there to hang.
Several of the other peeps from Times Up! joined us.

Photo by Barbara Ross

 Looking at the back corner of the bar and empty stool, it was impossible not to think of Keith and the struggle, his struggle to live, support care and in innovative form of social work practice based in care and affect, reduction of harm and the acknowledgement of the need for pleasure.  It was impossible not to think of the other heroes and friends who've shuffled off in recent years.

Photo by Barbara Ross

"They are right here with us," Keegan noted, acknowledging the empty bar stool where Keith once sat.

But we also danced, talked.  Michael had to grab a train, wondering how I could make my way home on the bike.  Easy I told him. A few of us talked about dropping by the Rawhide again next week after the Times Up! Queer - I Want to Ride My Bicycle Ride on March 24th.

 A few hours later, I left, glancing up 8th ave, taking the site of the famous blurry exit, the first time I had ever left without hanging with Keith.  But I guess I was with him. He felt very alive.
And I was still looking forward to the ride home through the naked city from 8th Ave and 21st to Brooklyn.

Making my way through Washington Square, I nearly careened into a cop, just trying to make it  through the violent streets of our city. This is a tough town to ride.

Killed by automobile spray paint. 
A man is arrested during a protest against the shooting of Kimani Gray, March 13, 2013 in the East Flatbush neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York City. 16-year-old Kimani Gray was shot and killed by police on March 9, provoking protests and unrest in the neighborhood.
Press TV'

 A borough away in Flatbush, activists citywide were converging and screaming over the unjust death of of Kimani Gray, shot at the hands of police on Saturday, with days of protests, riots, and mass arrests to follow.

Riding through the night, I thought about Jay Moriarity, the iconic surfer who braved big waves and loved the risk of a thirty foot drop, only to succumb to the water in a free diving accident, communing with the thing he loved before being consumed in it, a part of it.
We all eventually will. 

Jay surfing and Freddie performing

I guess all of us could learn to live like Jay or Keith or Freddie, riding and swimming and dancing deep into the night, into the dark dark night.

Live Like Jay his friends remind us.

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