East on St James

by Rick Beck

Chapter 19

Interview

"I'm George," the well-dressed distinguished looking gentleman said, as he stood at the open door of Lisa's office.

"Welcome to Pleasant Valley, George. I'm Lisa and I'm here to answer your questions and ask a few to make sure we place you in a unit where you'll have people with some of your interests around you. Should you decide to come live with us, we want you to be happy. How did you hear about us?"

"Tom Tom told me when his apartment was being remodeled, after they changed hands. I've lived close to him since I met my lover. It's only been a year or two since he moved out of Charleston. We stayed in contact the whole time."

"I live just below Tom Tom in the apartments. Is that where you want to be placed. We keep several apartments available for gay men. It's a nice group over there. We all get along."

"Let's talk before I pick a unit. I don't need to live on top of my friends. It looks like a fairly compact settlement. I walked here from the apartments. I saw the lake, the gardens, and there were people out walking. That's nice."

"It's a people friendly community," Lisa said. "We have activities and there are shops you passed before you got to the apartments. A person could come here to live and never leave. We have doctors, nurses, meals are cooked by Chef Keith. There's a nice dining room or if you don't feel like coming down, we will deliver a meal to your unit."

"Sounds heavenly," George said.

"Then I didn't think I'd ever want to give up our house. We lived there for twenty-five years, but it's time for a change. The city moves too fast. I feel out of place. I've been hearing nice things about Pleasant Valley. I came to see if you live up to your billing."

"So there will be two of you. We do have some two bedrooms in the building where Tom Tom lives?"

"No, I lost Thompson during the crisis. He hung on a good long time. I did my best to take care of him. I've been alone for some years now," George said in a pained voice. "When you find love, it isn't easy to replace. Sex, not so much. Before Thompson anyone would do. After him, no one would. Several of my friends have moved to Pleasant Valley recently. You're tempting all the gay old men out of Charleston, but like I said, it's changed."

"We hope what we offer is a more carefree life. We try to take care of the headaches so you can enjoy what Pleasant Valley has to offer."

"I've come take a look for myself at a time when I'm ready to scale my life down and to be closer to my friends. I don't know what I'll do with all the junk. I've accumulated over the years. I do not look forward to sorting it all out."

"We have a company of veterans who do our moving, if you don't have someone in mind. Several live here and they'll go through what you don't want and see that it gets to appropriate organizations to help others. They can do as much or as little as is convenient for you," Lisa said.

"By the way, Tom Tom has told me about Lisa and her concern for the HIV+ men here. Because you were making sure he got hot meals on a regular basis, I didn't need to make so many trips out here. I try not to drive more than necessary. I don't think I'm very good at it any longer."

"We have transportation. Our vets are helpful in that respect as well. We keep two small buses ready to take you to where you need to go. I lived in the apartments before it changed hands. I did my best to look after the men there. It was a nice distraction. My mother was ill and I moved back to care for her. Visiting and doing errands for the men kept me sane over those years."

"They speak highly of you, so it speaks well of Pleasant Valley that they recognize talent when they see it."

"I do my best to care for everyone who comes to live in Pleasant Valley. Most gay men choose the Pleasant Valley Apartments. We still have some fine apartments in that building. In the last few weeks we've had a gay couple move in to this building. They wanted to be in the center of things. Each individual has his own needs and his own taste."

"Our units in PV1 and PV2 are smaller and they don't have kitchens, although they have a space for preparing snacks. frozen dinners. And there's space for a hot plate. Food comes with whatever unit you take. With Chef Keith cooking, even the people who don't think they'll eat in the dining room end up taking some meals there. Many seniors like eating out and our dining room is set up to make it feel like dining out..

"As I mentioned, we will deliver meals. There's an auxiliary kitchen where the laundry room used to be. We have a cleaners and laundry among the shops. Volunteers will pick up your laundry and return it if you need that service. What we haven't thought of, the residents suggest.

"We encourage residents to interact as much as possible. We try to tailor our services to the needs of each resident and as new residents move in, we find ourselves expanding activities to meet their needs."

"I like socializing over a meal. Now that I think about it, I'd want to be in Tom Tom's building. He was so sick last year, I was worried about losing him too. That's when I first thought of moving here. He recovered and now he's so tickled to live here he's got me excited about moving. I hate moving."

"Don't we all. I know Tom Tom well," Lisa said. "I tried to take care of him when he was sick. It wasn't a good time as I recall. All the boys who were still here were sick. They were afraid of being evicted if they went to the hospital. The old owner was a vile man."

"Yes, I recall conversations with him. I tried to get him to come and stay with me." George said. "I remember your name too. You're the 'soup lady.' We'd be on the phone and he'd say, 'Got to go, George. My soup's here. It was nice to know he was eating and someone was looking in on him. There was a time not so long ago, when gay men were very much cast out on their own. I did what I could after I lost Thompson, but those were dark times. I'm glad that's behind us."

"Times have changed. It's one of my best features, caring, and I love cooking fresh soup. The boys liked it when I did. I make a huge pot that lasts a couple of days. My mother was still alive then and the idea of soup appealed to her as well. It became part of my routine a couple of times a week.

"There weren't as many of us then. Now the apartments are filling up and the food here is so good, they don't ask for my soup as often as they once did. Of course I'm over here most days taking applications and placing people. So I see the boys in the dining room. They've really started to look good. I think they're happier."

"I'll be looking forward to a sample. I'm ready to move if the accommodations are satisfactory. I've already begun packing. If you'll write down the number so I can call to have my things moved, that'll help."

"I can talk to them and I'll have them call you with details we can't arrange today. They have friends who do moving for a living and they rent one of their truck and furnish the labor. They're efficient and inexpensive. The truck is the big expense. They get ten dollars an hour a piece. There are two or three, depending on your needs. Most moves are completed the same day. If you have things you want disposed of, we have people who will help with that. What we can offer in one of our shops we take."

"If I go into one of the shops, I might see things from a past life?"

"Yes, you may and if you want it back, you need only to ask."

"Heavens No. I need to uncomplicate my life. You make it all so easy."

"No point in delaying. I'm ready to move," George said with certainty. "Tom Tom said once I talked to you, I'd be ready. He was right. I'm sold."

"You sound like a man who knows what he wants," Lisa said.

"I have friends around Charleston. Same circumstances as mine. We're alone. We can't live with anyone else. Too set in our ways. We got to know each other while our lovers were dying. Hell of a thing to say. We enjoy eating together. We go out together. I'd like to think they'd be able to get into the building with me. It's not mandatory, but that would get them to move faster," George said. "They sent me to scout the premises. I brought the idea of moving up. If they can all get into the apartments, it'll speed things us. It's not a deal breaker."

"I keep units open in the apartments for that reason," Lisa said.

"When I was a boy, I'd whine and yell every time I saw something I wanted. My parents had a unique way of dealing with that. They said "No."

"I don't know what happens to us when we grow up. I never bought much as a young man. No money, but every time I see something I like, I buy it now. That's crazy. You know, I've got clothes I've never worn. I like them though. I just outgrew them before I got around to wearing them. That's when you know it's time to move to a place too small to collect stuff. It's time to unclutter my life."

"It's the national past time, George. After 9/11, the president said, 'Go shopping.' How insane was that? But it's what we did. All of us. We haven't stopped shopping since."

"Pretty insane. I'm sure it wasn't an order. I see kids now and they have everything. TV's, phones, computers, stereos, and too many clothes to fit in their closet. I had a transistor radio and I got one pair of shoes every two years and two new shirts and two new pairs of pants at the beginning of each school year. How in the world can anyone afford to give every child everything they ask for? I think 'No' was a better response," George said thoughtfully. "I'm sorry. I've never had a child of my own. I was a child, as hard as that may be to believe."

"It's the way it's done today, George. The two words on everyone's lips, 'Charge it.'" Lisa said with a smile.

"I suppose. In any event, whatever it is, I caught it. I'm looking forward to the cure. I'm having Goodwill in to collect the stuff that has my house overflowing with junk. It's perfectly good junk. Hardly used, but a nuisance none-the-less when it is time to move."

"I can see we're going to get along, George. I like you already. You sound like a practical man."

"Thank you, Lisa. That's a nice thing to say. Since we'll be neighbors, I look forward to getting to know you."

"I might make a suggestion to you. We've got ten available units in the PV Apartments. Probably enough for your friends. There are a few one and two bedrooms. Before we go over to the apartments, I want you to see the units here in PV1. They're a bit more compact but the floor plan makes the most of the space. The interiors are all new. It's just a suggestion so you can describe what we have available to your friends. If you think that might help."

"From what I've seen so far, it's not only pleasant but lovely. I can't imagine they won't like it. Looking at the new units is an excellent idea. We want to be close but it's all quite compact. Even if we weren't in the same building, we'd be a five minute walk away from each other. We're further from each other now."

"There's a small extra charge for each bedrooms. The basic rent per resident is seven hundred dollars a month. The Pleasant Valley Foundation subsidizes anyone who can't afford that much. Some seniors and veterans on fixed incomes need a little help. We do what we can on an individual bases. If you want to live here, and we like you, we'll make it happen," Lisa said.

"Each resident is entitled to meals and the use of the facilities without restriction or charge. First come first serve when reserving a room for meetings or social gatherings. We're still adding activities according to the desires of the residents as they move to Pleasant Valley.

"The dining room is our biggest meeting room. It can be opened up to accommodate everyone who lives here, but we mostly divide it into more intimate spaces for a nicer dining experience with your friends. The floor plans on each floor are set up to allow to change the floor plan for the special needs of a resident. It is not one size fits all at Pleasant Valley.

"We have walking paths, gardens, and we grow some of our own food next to the flower gardens behind this building. The space at PV is meant to be used. There is no dead space, except for the area beyond PV3, which is ready to open. Once we've seen how PV3 is filling up, we'll begin construction on PV4."

"I've always had a desire to garden," George said. "Never had the time. I have nothing but time now. Maybe I'll try my hand at it. I was quite the botanist in college. I'd have made it my field if there had been any money in it."

"You've come to the right place. The residents do the gardening. The one time we have no trouble getting enough help, picking time. Everyone loves seeing the finished product. Something quite invigorating about picking something that appears on your plate that evening. I spend some of my time gardening. We are beginning to grow more vegetables than the residents can eat, but the idea was to grow as much as we can in the space we've provided for growing food."

"Now you have my mouth watering. I'll have to stop for a snack on my way back to Charleston," George admitted.

"No you won't. By the time we finish in here, Keith will have coffee cake and other delights to hold us over until lunch. We'll stop there and you might get to meet Keith. He's pretty busy in the mornings, but he likes to talk to the residents. He gets a lot of family recipes that way. He's an artist with food. You'd never guess how shy he is otherwise. Food preparation is his element."

"I'm going to weigh a ton," George said. "I love to eat."

"We have walking paths that go for several miles. Almost everyone takes advantage of them for the exact reason you'll want to try them out. It helps burn off the coffee cake, but then you have soups and salads and a half dozen entrees to choose from each meal."

"Two tons," George said. "Do you have a crane here. I'll need none to get in and out of my building."

Lisa laughed. George smiled, feeling the pleasantness around him.

"It sounds lovely," George said. "Money isn't a problem for most of us. We made good livings before the bottom fell out of the economy. We take care of each other and seven hundred isn't nearly enough. What you offer here is worth far more, but who am I to argue. We'll be able to add value to Pleasant Valley."

"We aren't about making money. It's a foundation dedicated to furnishing pleasant living for people who may not have always had it so pleasant. There is a financial requirement that makes you a member of the foundation, which gives you one vote. Ten percent of your net worth."

"Veterans and seniors aren't necessarily where the money is," George said.

"No, they aren't. Ten percent is not a lot to ask and so you have people with a little more putting up more. If within a year you decide this isn't the place for you, that ten percent is refundable and you aren't obligated for anything but the monthly fee for living here."

"That still isn't a lot and I've heard no complaints about it," George said.

"The foundation is responsible to keep Pleasant Valley going and pay all the fees and taxes. The initial construction was paid for by the three officers of the foundation. They are the ones who came up with the idea and developed it. What residents are paying for is upkeep and food with a small amount for their unit. The entire idea developed out of a chance meeting between our chef, Keith, and the lawyer, Dury, It was either buy a restaurant where Keith could be the chef or build a new concept community. You can guess which idea worked out and the third partner, Gary, a contractor, came into the picture.

"Luckily they included me when it came to approving the residents. It's a nice place to work and to live," Lisa said. "I was facing eviction a year ago."

"They couldn't have made a more charming choice. I knew I wanted to live here five minutes after I met you," George said. "My friends and I are comfortable financially and we've pledged help to one another should someone's money run out. That would be a medical problem. Medical bills can take their toll. We will not end up being a drain on the foundation," George said. We only have each other now and we are a loyal lot."

"We do have medical staff on call and a doctor is available to see patients every day. He does make house calls. We ask for a medical history on each resident for the medical staff only. That way treatment is made easier when it's necessary. An AIDS specialist has hours three days a week. He has a residence here. Because there were HIV+ men living in the apartments, Dury went out of his way to secure the services of someone familiar in the treatment of AIDS. Dr. Atwood is retired, but not ready to quit practicing medicine. You'll like him."

"I'll pass the word along and you might want to hold the spaces in the apartment building. I don't know if they'd move here if they weren't assured of being in friendly environs. We are past the point of wanting to be somewhere we aren't wanted, Lisa," George emphasized.

"I know the last few years have brought incredible changes, changes none of us would have predicted even five years ago, but the thirty years before that we were told we weren't wanted here. There were cheers when gay men were dying. Our lovers were dying, our friends, and few people cared."

"I lived through it, George. I wasn't very active when the AIDS crisis began. When I saw so many men dying, and societies willingness to let them die, I joined the cause. The apartments are almost all gay, except for me and an elderly woman the boys help care for. From what you just said, the apartments are the place for you. I'll put a hold on the rest of them, until your friends make up your mind. We were like family over there before the apartments changed hands."

"I'm willing to put the past behind me, but after you've watched your lover and friends die, and there's no one there to help, it's not something you forget. The younger generation is great. They treat us like we're just other people. No one cares who we love but the haters. The people who orchestrated the dying haven't gone anywhere. They're still spewing their hate. It simply isn't all you hear now. It was all we heard in the midst of the crisis. We're a little long in the teeth for another protracted fight for our rights. We'd like to live out our lives among friends and at peace with the people around us."

"That fits in with our purpose for creating Pleasant Valley. Keith calls PV 'The best place in the world to live.' It's the people who make it that way. I don't think hatred or vindictiveness would survive here for long. I can't guarantee there will be no friction. Where there are people there will be some disagreeableness, but we don't intend to allow it to fester," Lisa said. "I'm here to make sure miserable people don't bring their misery here."

"Yes, I can tell you're not merely trying to fill units. I've also got two lesbian couples who are interested in my report. They'll want new units if they like what they hear. They don't mind us so much, but would never agree to moving into a building with so many gay men. They know us too well to fall for that."

"You're making my job easy," Lisa said. "I'm at your service for whatever you need. Here's my card and if any of your friends want to see the apartments for themselves, all they need to do is call. If you have questions about the foundation, I'll get you in touch with Dury."

"Who is it you subsidize most often, if you don't mind me asking?" George asked with concern. "That'll be a question I'm asked?"

"Wounded warriors often haven't had an opportunity to put away much money. Two of the men in the apartments qualified for a reduced rent. Most of our residents are surprisingly secure,," Lisa said.

"We like to think we'll be here for people who haven't always gotten an even break. We bend over backwards to make everyone feel welcome. Whatever that takes, including giving a unit to someone we want to live here. You might be happy to hear that our seniors and our wounded warriors get along wonderfully. It's been an unexpected bonus. Most vets want to live near our other vets, and as with our gay residents, we do all we can to see that they're happy."

"That's a nice thing. I served in Vietnam. I was in a support role. I worked in supply and never heard a shot fired in anger, but I hated Vietnam. I did see what it did to the children they sent over there to die for America. Not my favorite time," George said. "I made it home but I never forgot the boys who didn't."

"'War is hell,' a civil war figure said. I believe him," Lisa said.

"Gen William Tecumseh Sherman, I believe," George said. "He did all within his power to see that it was hell."

"We do the best we can to provide a good place to live for everyone here," Lisa said.

"A good policy, Lisa. I've been alone for a long time. All of my close friends have been too. It's how we became friends in the first place. We kept our nice homes, our good jobs, but the lovers we came home to, or who came home to us, died. We were all scared into celibacy then. We had no sexual interest in each other. That removed a lot of tension and we've been friends for a long time.

"We've talked about moving somewhere nice together, so we could stay close and be comfortable. That's all we want. To stay close and be comfortable. It's a big step when you make a life altering move. We've fought a war no one should be forced to fight and we're tired. We want to live and die at peace."

Lisa could feel George's sincerity. He was concerned about moving and she understood. It was a complicated event.

"You'll find peace here. We provide as many opportunities as we can for meeting and interacting with a variety of people and activities. It's up to each resident to find his own comfort level. I'm here to make recommendations and to see that you can make the most of what we offer."

"We shall overcome," George said. "I overcame being the queer boy. I overcame losing my lover to the plague, and I shall overcome old age… until it overcomes me. Then I shall storm the gates of heaven."

Lisa laughed.

"Times they are a changing," Lisa retorted. "There is a lot to be thankful for these days. The progress of the LGBT people comes as quite a surprise. I didn't think it would change so fast but I'm glad it did. It is a new day and you and your friends are welcome in Pleasant Valley."

"Thank you, dear Lisa. It is indeed a new world. It's nice to be where we're made to feel welcome," George said.

"My friends who want to come out to Pleasant Valley with me, we went on with our lives. It was a habit, a routine. It was the easiest thing to do. Keep up the routine. Don't dwell on being left alone by the men we were going to grow old with. We became friends and it became easier as time went on. Time is helpful that way."

George sat forward on his chair and seemed to be looking at something on the floor beside Lisa's desk. It was a sad George making his confession to the past. He looked very old just then.

"We all may not come right away, but most of us are ready to make the move. We like the idea of living in the same building, visiting each other, taking care of one another when we get sick. It's what we want now. We've been talking about this for years. As long as we stay well, we'll keep this place jumping," George said, recovering his smile.

"I'm here every morning at eight. I live in the building where you'll be. Just knock on my door or ring me up if you need anything," Lisa said.

"We can go get some coffee and then I'll take you upstairs to see one of the units," Lisa said, standing up and going for the door.

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