The following is something written by my neighbor's son, Jon Cavaluzzo, which he put on his Facebook page and gave me permission to post here, regarding World AIDS Day. His generosity and open-minded spirit, as well as the obvious hole in his soul could still be felt yesterday when I visited. His description of his home town is accurate. His descriptions of uptown and downtown New York City are also quite accurate.

Reposting from a year ago; for my New York peeps, with all the love from my broken heart:

Village Cigars

December 1, 2012 at 9:28pm

When I was 15, my brother Marc had a tiny apartment on Jones Street. I used to visit and walk around the neighborhood, gawking at the celebration of eccentricity. The West Village, particularly that little part of it near the Stonewall Inn, was jumpin' in the mid-70's. I was a pimply, hetero teen, from a lily-white equestrian suburb where people rode through town in jodhpurs and red jackets and played polo on the weekends, and the West Village was Babylon. I was a middle-class kid from an upper-class town, with too many siblings and too many vowels in my name. In New York, all demographics were moot.

The riot at the Stonewall just 6 years earlier had kicked off the gay rights movement in New York. I marveled at the fierce decadence, pride, and defiance that permeated the streets and shops. I moved through this charged atmosphere in a protective bubble. I was like Tarzan of the Apes, except that I was surrounded by Clones and Fashion queens. The epicenter of the neighborhood was a miniscule tobacco shop on the corner of 7th and Christopher called Village Cigars.

A few years later, Marc moved a few blocks uptown to Chelsea, and worked at a nightclub on Varick Street, which was what 7th Ave was called below Houston. I earned my keep by doing "renovations" on the apartment, which entailed painting and crude carpentry, and deploying cases of foaming roach spray. The Punk/New Wave aesthetic was the order of the day, and our ratty, tenement railroad-flat, became an ongoing experiment in emulating Blade Runner, Road Warrior, and Liquid Sky. We'd make regular junkets to Canal Street to obtain Krylon spatter-paint and industrial-sized rolls of rubber matting and plastic. There was a glorious, electric, squalor that seethed with potential creative energy, erupting out of the decay. The entire city between Chelsea and Tribeca was held together with black paint, wheat-paste posters, and graffiti. We kept Vampire hours, sleeping the mornings away. Marc had lots of cash and an incredible eye for haute couture. He would grab a wad of bills and we would strike off, hunting for bargains in the world of high fashion. I was the beneficiary of his capricious tastes, and I would often walk out of the apartment decked out in thousands of dollars of sartorial splendor. We went to the hippest clubs in town, and because Marc was in the industry, we could go straight to the VIP rooms. As the club scene exploded, the glamor of the nightlife nullified the horror of waking up in a vermin-infested slum in the meat-packing district.

My oldest brother, Chris, lived on the Upper East Side on 79th between 1st and York. On the rare occasions that I made it that far uptown, it always seemed like a vestige of a bygone era; ad executives and stock brokers living in a clean, rectilinear, and elegant city designed by Mies Van der Rohe. I preferred the adolescent anarchy of downtown, as did Chris; he simply had the good sense not to actually live there.

In 1981, I entered the conservatory program at Rutgers, which is about an hour outside the city. We shared our faculty with Julliard and independent studios in Manhattan, so I often commuted into the city for classes. As fine art students, my schoolmates and I were poor, idealistic, and naive about our position in society and our power as "artists". In spite of that youthful romanticism, there was an undeniable vitality in the downtown art scene. We would take the train into the city and shop at Canal Street Jeans, and then head up the Village to buy clove cigarettes and snuff at Village Cigars. Insofar as art schools are not exactly bastions of butch, at least half of my companions were gay, and the bohemian ethos of Greenwich Village was perfectly suited to their burgeoning expression of sexual identity.

It was around this time that the first presages of something insidious appeared. A mysterious illness was creeping through the gay community. Over the next four years that I was in school, this became the AIDS epidemic. After graduation I moved back to the greater metropolitan area, living in Hoboken and Jersey City, and taking the Tube under the river each day to pursue my career. Marc and his friend Mayo had opened a restaurant on Bleecker Street. For the better part of a decade I worked at the Paris Commune, tending bar, maitre d'-ing and doing whatever needed to be done in the upkeep of the restaurant. Marc knew by this time that he was HIV positive, but no one knew what that portended. My actor friends and I depended on the largesse of Marcus and Mayo, working brunches between gigs. The staff of the Commune was like the Island of Misfit Toys, a motley collection of former and current substance abusers; irascible and irreverent individuals united by lives of outcast status, artistic aspirations, and ultimately, love. On many holidays, we would close the restaurant to the public, and have our own party, taking in all the refugees whose families had forsaken them. We were an extended family.

My brother Matt worked in the city as well, and there were days when I would, just by chance, see all of my brothers in a single day. I can't express the comfort and strength that those random encounters gave me. My best friend Roger, also worked at the Commune, and so I felt like I had a degree of insulation against the overwhelming enormity of the city, and the often corrosive exigencies of subsistence.

By the late 80's, people in my immediate circle began to die. It seemed like every week, someone whom we had seen hale and hearty a month before would come into the restaurant looking skeletal and covered with Kaposi's lesions. In 1987, I read an article in the New York Times about projected mortality rates among HIV+ individuals, and realized that Marc was going to die, soon.

Roger and I had begun working with a composer named Jonathan Larson. Jonathan was trying to complete a futuristic rock musical called "Superbia!" about an alienated and angry young man, trying to find love in the superficial, media-obsessed metropolis of 'In City.' Roger played the angry would-be hipster, and I played Stud Star, the leading luminary. Jonathan's close friend Victoria Leacock had a life-long friend whom she loved like a brother, named Gordon, who was also a composer. At this time, Gordon was in the throws of full-blown AIDS. Jonathan had also learned that his closest friend Matthew was HIV positive. One day while Roger and I were at Jon's funky old brownstone apartment in SOHO working on another show, Jonathan said that Playwright's Horizons had put him in touch with a man named Billy Aronson who wanted to write an adaptation of La Boheme set in the East Village. He asked us to work on it, and we agreed. A few weeks later we met at the apartment again to start hammering out the arrangements for the first three songs of the show. Jonathan said "I've decided to call it RENT" Late in '89, we recorded those first three songs: RENT, I Should Tell You, and my solo, Santa Fe. The AIDS epidemic became the leitmotif of the show, as well as a celebration of hope and love, battered but not defeated.

Shortly thereafter, Roger left to go on tour with a Broadway show, and I went to Florida to work at MGM. During this time, Marcus had begun to get thin and weak. I left my contract early in the fall, and returned to New York to be with him. He died on November 7th, 1990. Within a few years, nearly all of the people I had known from the West Village were dead. My brother Chris died on December 29th 1999.

Today is World AIDS Day, and I salute the memory of all those who have fallen.

*Update: Sadly, Jon Cavalluzo passed away on February 2, 2016, one day prior to my husband's death.

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