East on St James

by Rick Beck

Chapter 8

Other Half

"Self-sustaining community. I think that's where we were when I left," Gary said. "Kind a grows on you."

"I attended an AIDS conference in Washington D. C. before Brenda died. It was all attorneys talking about lawsuits concerning the sick not being able to get good decent care," Dury said. "One needed to ask, why was that true in a country that had the best care in the world?

"Everything had changed by this time. The idea AIDS was a gay disease had been debunked. The preachers hardly missed a step declaring, 'God hates them too! It's drug addicts and prostitutes who have AIDS. The undesirables among us who deserve God's scorn.' How convenient, God hating the least among us."

"Instead of calling us names, maybe a little human kindness would work better," Keith said. "Aren't there rules about treating an infectious disease?"

"That's a bit deep for preachers and politicians," Gary said. "God was striking the heathens dead. Now that's something preachers and politicians can get their teeth into. Jesus said the way to heaven was by treating the sick and by feeding the poor. People today don't qualify for heaven. They'll show up at the pearly gates with a slice of pizza and their flat screen TV."

"That's very funny, Gary. I didn't know you knew Jesus," Dury said.

"Hey, buddy, you're in the south. We all know Jesus. I did go to Sunday school as a child. I learned about what Jesus said, and he had good writers."

"Brenda was a kind and gentle Christian woman, who never spoke ill of anyone. Her only flaw, she married a dishonest man."

"Hardly striking dead material. You ever seen someone dying of AIDS?" Keith asked. "It's not pretty. AIDS kept me away from gay places, not that there were all that many in most towns. For the first few years the policy was to watch us die. The U.S. did almost nothing. Rock Hudson went to France for treatment."

"I remember that. For such a handsome man, he sure went down hill fast," Gary said.

"He was wasting away," Keith said. "Sure sign of AIDS."

"Sad to see him like that. I heard people condemn him for never coming out. Well, few people I know ever came out," Gary said. "Rock Hudson let the world see him like that. He knew they'd find out soon enough that he had AIDS. The rumors had already started. He didn't want to deal with the inevitable questions. The man was sick."

"Let's just say it was okay to let them die because they didn't act the way preachers like people to act," Dury said. "What kind of religion believes that when people are sick you let them die? What God does such a thing? Sounds more like a witches brew of religion and politics to me."

"I thought you gave up on religion," Keith said.

"Being on the outs with God doesn't mean I don't know what's in the bible. The most significant words are the words of Jesus, but they're ignored by today's evangelicals, because his words don't match up with their fear based fund raising. Jesus would have sat with the AIDS patients and held their hands. He was about the least among us."

"Amen, brother," Gary said. "Religion ain't what it used to be in my grand pappy's day."

"AIDS is a disease. It doesn't matter who has it. The right thing to do is treat it until you find a cure," Keith said. "Even a tenth grade drop out knows that. If you aren't careful, a disease gets out of control and kills randomly. That was the risk they were taking when they refused to even say the word AIDS."

"It was GRID and then it was the gay plague. That didn't help," Dury said.

"Once they proved it was in the blood and semen, the government finally started funding studies of the disease," Keith said. "They had an epiphany. Anyone who had sex or had a blood transfusion could get it. Doing something was wise after ignoring it for years. Tens of thousands were dead in the U.S. by then."

"It wasn't quite that simple, Keith. With Senators like Jesse Helms, they still preferred to fund AIDS in Africa rather than any money going to gays in America. People like him were so full of hate they couldn't help themselves. In Africa there were six million heterosexuals with AIDS, a million AIDS orphans. Knowing that, they still didn't allow AIDS dollars to get near the people they hated right here."

"Only in America," Gary said. "Preachers and politicians are heartless."

"The Attorneys Conference on AIDS was mesmerized by Act Up. As we discussed how to get treatment for people with AIDS, people with AIDS came to make their case, demanding studies and treatment. They took the fight right to the lawmakers on Capitol Hill. It was amazing to watch.

"Attorneys knew the courage it took to get in lawmakers' faces under such circumstances. Didn't take them long to get attention either. They were dying and they weren't doing it quietly. They spent most of their time sitting on the floor of lawmakers' offices. It was even difficult to find cops who would drag them out and then more Act Up people went rushing in. The didn't intend to leave until they spoke to lawmakers. You could say they were dying to tell their stories.

"One of the other attorneys I met at the conference, Rod, told me that a third of the wealth of the gay population had been spent since AIDS appeared. Being naïve, I asked how that was?

"He said, 'It was the cost of a war on a disease no one cares about. We all have sick friends and lovers. There's no price I wouldn't pay to have one more day with my lover. Gay people may be hated, but we can love each other. That's what they hate. People who hate that much, can't possibly love any one.' His comments were enlightening. I learned a lot from being in Washington."

"I've never heard that," Keith said. "There was no mention of AIDS in North Carolina when I was growing up. After getting to Atlanta, where I knew other gay men, I found out about AIDS. It was a scary time. I met many men in Atlanta that lost friends and lovers to AIDS."

"Oh, man, that's so sad," Gary said. "I've got to remember to hug Fran when I get home. If I get home."

"If the most demonized group in the country can forget their petty arguing and fight a deadly disease, anything is possible. It didn't happen overnight but gradually gays were providing most services the sick needed. It's the model for what I see on St. James. I can see how it cost a lot of money and the idea gay men spent so much of their wealth providing services for the sick is impressive," Dury said. "It's what has been running through my mind."

"We're going to build the prototype community for people who want to be responsible for one another and live in harmony. The divisions and petty squabbles stops at the corner of Jackson and St. James. We're going to have a community that inspires love, brotherhood, and sharing.

"It's what I've been trying to put together in my mind since the three of us stood together at the end of St. James. That's my vision, gentlemen. The builder, the chef, and the lawyer will be at the center of it."

"Sign me up for anything to do with cooking," Keith said. "I'd love to have a place to cook and to feed people."

"That's a giant bite out of the apple," Gary said. "People will sign up just to eat Keith's food."

"Absolutely, it's why the three of us will be partners."

"Tell me what you want built and I'll build it," Gary said.

"I'm working on it. The size of the project will dictate the size of the kitchen or kitchens and we need to figure out how much we can take on to get the project started. We'll be able to serve everyone in a dining room or dining rooms. We'll have the ability to deliver meals to residents. We'll figure the logistics out as we go. Keith knows how to serve hundreds of people a few times a day. His knowledge will be what we rely on to set the whole thing up," Dury said.

"We'll create a cooperative that makes it difficult for any one to isolate themselves," Dury said. "The community will be interactive. People helping people in ways that will connect them to each other. Not everyone will be suited to such a community. Our interviewer who speaks to prospective residents will make it clear that a few hours week helping to keep the community running is how they get a reduction on rents paid. Those who won't be part of the cooperative will pay far high rents. We'll do this on a point system. One point per hour worked and we can assign whatever value to the points. They be worth enough to make it attractive to help in one capacity or another.

"We want to keep the rents low so that the people who will most benefit from such an environment can afford it. For people who are disabled or not able to contribute time to one task or another. We'll give them points for their disability and be able to keep their rents within reach."

"Sounds complicated," Keith said.

"No, it'll be very simple. It's a tool to keep out dead wood and discourage difficult people. We can't exclude them outright but we can make certain requirements part of residency. Then we're free to wave it the case of people who we want to take residency here," Dury said.

"There isn't much there," Gary said. "I mean to attract people."

"Yeah, but I've got you to solve that little problem. Most people we want to live in our community will respond well to being included the way we intend to include them. We want a community small enough for us to know each other."

"We can deliver meals to people who can't easily get to the dining room several times a day. We could create a dining room where people are comfortable, an enjoyable atmosphere. More than tables, chairs, silverware and China. Nice table clothes, divide it to create intimate. Like a nice restaurant," Keith said.

"Very nice picture you paint, Keith. You have the right idea. I like all that," Dury said.

` "I'd eat there," Gary said.

"You can eat here," Dury said.

"It's difficult cooking for just two of us," Keith said. "To make dining a pleasant experience takes more than good food."

"Put flowers on the tables and good silverware," Gary said. "Nothing worse than eating with plastic knives and forks."

"Isn't that the truth," Keith said.

"I love it," Dury said. "I didn't know you were so creative, Gary," Dury said.

"I love having flowers on the table."

"We'll have gardens, Gary. That'll be something residents can help with," Dury said.

"Vegetable gardens too. That way our veggies are fresh," Keith said excited. "We'll need help in the kitchen and they'll pick vegetables out of the garden for meals each day."

"Those things would never have crossed my minds. You both have good ideas," Dury said. Eating should be pleasant," Dury said. "I've recently rediscovered how enjoyable eating can be."

"I'll arrange the common areas with moveable partisians," Gary said. "It offers versatility, like setting up a private dinning room by merely moving a few panels into place. We can do the same with rooms we use for meetings or game rooms. There need to be places people can get together for the fun of it."

"Another idea I'd not have considered. We have the right team. I can see the ideas beginning to flow. Before we decide on anything, we'll get together and have a give and take session so we consider out best ideas."

"My friends, the ones they ran out of the St. James Apartments, have AIDS. They're gay. I think what you've described would come as a blessing to them," Keith said. "Being included is the way it usually is. That's why so many gays keep to themselves. Interact with people who aren't LGBT would be a nice change for most of them."

"We'll give them first choice of the apartments," Dury said. "We'll give them back their old unit if they want. Seems to me they'll make the best residents. They accustomed to helping each other. We'll recruit medical staff so the constant back and forth to the doctors can be reduced for them as well as for any one dealing with health issues. By offering some medical care, we can make people's lives easier. We can always give doctors and nurses a unit if they work in the clinic we'll build inside of one of the buildings."

"We'll make it so enticing to nurses and doctors, they'll want to pay us to work here. I think that's very important. Good food, healthcare, exercise and opportunities to contribute to the running of the place."

"It won't be resort living but it will be comfortable living. The shops will provide the little extras people need. They'll require a small investment of time from capable residents, which keeps them active and involved in the community."

"That's a big bite all at one time, my friend," Gary said. "Does have a certain charm. People volunteering in the shops will meet other residents and make friends that way. Later they can meet over coffee or a hand of cards."

"Another aspect I hadn't considered. It's all distressed property, sitting mostly vacant," Dury said. "I'll need to plan a general approach so we buy the entire complex without it looking like we are buying the entire complex. As soon as someone else senses that, they will hold out for more money. We've got to take our time to plan our moves until we own the entire St. James complex."

"You sound very sure of yourself, Dury," Gary said. "I like that, but we need to own it before I can build it. I can go down there considering what we've talked about and draw plans that will give us some idea of what it is going to look like."

"That's the spirit," Dury said. "We will own the complex and when the final pieces fall in place, you'll be ready to get your crew together and go to work."

"We'll need money," Gary said. "The crew is no problem. I know the men who I can depend on. The labor won't come cheap but we'll be able to work with building suppliers if they know we're going to be good customers."

"We're going to develop a totally self-sustaining community for people who often don't get much more than it takes to survive. We're going to do something they say can't be done. We're going to do it because it's the right thing to do. We're going to do it because we are three uniquely qualified people who can do anything we decide to do. "

"Tell me when to start cooking," Keith said. "I'll need a stove."

"When Gary puts together his plans, you'll go to show him where you want the gardens and what part of which building where you want the kitchen and restaurant/dining room."

"We'll need to meet to talk a couple of times a week. May as well make it over dinner," Dury said.

"Suits me fine. I don't know how I'll explain it to Fran, but I'll think of something," Gary said.

"I can do a meal as many times a week as you like, Dury."

"I'm the one that has most of the work to do at the moment. Once I know who owns what and I set up a way to make offers to the shop owners, we'll be on our way. I won't have any trouble raising money if we don't get too extravagant.

"Me and you and Keith," Dury said. "We're going to make it happen. We're equal partners. It's not a money making deal. It's an opportunity to do some good. Put something back for what we've been blessed with. If it succeeds, I imagine the concept could be used anywhere there are vacant buildings that can be rehabilitated, but the true value in what we build will be in the people who set out on this journey with us."

"Keith has money hidden somewhere?" Gary asked.

"I hate to tell you guys, but I'm busted," Keith said. "I don't even own the clothes on my back. Dury gave me these."

"You took me to St. James. You'll be a major part of what makes the St. James Project go. The idea came from what you and Lisa told me about the place. Without you, I'd never have seen St. James. It's like pieces falling into place."

"I like the sound of it," Keith said. "I'll do what's needed. I find it quite exciting. Being able to cook again, I never expected this kind of opportunity."

"Me too. Will Keith still cook for us when we meet like this?" Gary asked.

"You point me at the stove and tell me what you want, I'll cook," Keith said.

"Now a good story to tell Fran to explain my absences," Gary said.

They laughed over his devious approach.

"Let's finish this meal first. We can finish talking over drinks," Gary said. "My wife has given me the night off. I told her I'd be late, or did I say early? I can't remember. She expects me when she sees me on nights like these. Wait until I tell her, it took God six days to create the universe, we came up with our own little universe over dinner."

"We'll have drinks and conversation in the living room," Dury said. "We haven't got anything but ideas. Once I formulate a plan to secure the property, we'll begin to put the ideas into practice. St. James will be a very pleasant place."

"If he ever fires you, Keith, I'll pick up your option," Gary said, finishing with his potatoes and going to work on the lamb. "This is great and I don't think I like lamb, Keith."

"A little garlic and sea salt and it gives it a surprisingly mellow flavor," Keith said.

"One thing though, we can't tell my wife you're the cook. She still thinks she's the cook. You and I will know the truth. No sense in ruffling her feathers."

Dury and Keith laughed at Gary's happy go luck approach.

"Dury did tell you I'm gay?" Keith said, thinking Gary should know if they were in a partnership together..

"No, he didn't mention that," Gary said.

"No, I'm not in the habit of giving up intimate details about my friends," Dury said.

"We definitely won't tell Fran that," Gary said.

They all laughed.

"Spending more time with Dury is something she's been after me to do for ages. Spending time with Dury so I can eat Keith's cooking would not go over well at my house. I don't think Fran has ever seen me as a man who strays."

"Fran is quite a lovely woman, Keith. Don't let Gary give you the wrong idea. They've stuck it out through thick and thin and those were lean times when we met. I'd never seen a man so defeated as you, Gary."

"And you made it all better, Mr. Lane. You were smooth and cool. I wasn't sure you knew how desperate I was, but you knew your stuff. You set up my former partner's attorney and he walked right into the trap. I didn't just get my business back, I got a hefty settlement to boot."

"And I got a handsome payment for my time and effort. It came out exactly where it should have, Gary. I didn't do anything but practice basic law. You're partner had a fool for a lawyer and you had a fool for a partner."

"That's not what I call him," Gary said.

The three men retired to the living room with drinks. Keith drank milk. Each had a reason to be grateful for the other. Gary was grateful to Dury for getting him his life back. Keith admired Dury because he shared what he had with him and all Keith had to do is what he loved doing, cook. Dury had a wonderful house and for the first time since his wife died, home cooked meals that he looked forward to when dinner time arrived.

Now the idea was in development. They would be partners in perfecting the plan. Dury was sure they had what it took to create a great place to live at a modest price. Each man was stimulated by the conversation. They'd be in it together as equals.

Dury's role would launch the project. He'd get the ball rolling. If they could acquire the complete St. James complex, they'd be in business. The trick was to do it careful enough, and fast enough, that no one suspected the properties on St. James were valuable, because someone had plans for it.

Gary could build almost anything. He'd started of hauling bricks before laying bricks. He worked with carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and he could do it all without a hitch. He was good with his hands and creating something that hadn't been done before appealed to him.

Keith had done everything in a kitchen, including dishes. The first job as a cook was on a wing and a prayer, but he learned more working for Henrietta than anywhere he worked. Keith could make an old shoe taste like a fine fillet. He knew how to season, cook, and present food, and the place Dury described had him feeling more alive than he'd felt in years.

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