The view from the bus on the helix, of the approach into the Lincoln Tunnel from New Jersey excited me, no matter how many times I saw it. Empire State Building and the Chrysler tower rose to a great height in Mid-Town, while downtown had the spectacular World Trade Centre Towers, with the other tall buildings in the Financial District. In the early morning the sun would be rising from the East casting strange shadows and light on the city. Most of my fellow commuters slept or read, and did not even look out of their windows. My fascination with the great city of New York continued and my friend Eddie, showed me the romantic side of its existence.
The walk from Port Authority down from the third floor to the bustling streets of Mid-Town Manhattan, was a hurried affair. Everyone wanted to get out in the streets to avoid the occasional bum, or pan handler, or drunk, who had slunk in to the crowds. The streets were flowing with traffic, as one walked pass the peep shows, and the XXX theaters that surrounded Times Square. From the Garment District, I would walk down a few blocks, and then cut across East on the Streets, after Macy’s. My office was on the third floor of an old brick building, which served as our back office and production center.
Wendy was always there before me heading her shift with her girls. They would laugh and joke amongst themselves, as while she was a hard taskmaster, she was still a good boss. We had become friends as she was half Indian, from the West Indies. They also ate whole wheat rotis as bread, but their dishes were spiced differently. She would surprise me sometimes with a homemade lunch, and I would eat the food at my desk, enjoying the strange flavors. She would talk about her Grandfather, who had come from a town in Bihar, India, to work in the sugar plantations. Her mother had brought her up and her siblings, as a school teacher and a husband, who was also a farmer.
Wendy now lived in Queens, and so did most of her girls. They would ride the Subway into Manhattan, and it was an easy commute with a short walk on both ends. She kind of looked down on me, because I had to travel into her city, from NJ. She admired our owner however, with her Apartment in Manhattan, and the week-end home in the Hamptons. Wendy and her husband, who worked in a Bodega near their home, had scraped up enough money, to put a down payment, on a 3 bedroom apartment. With their two kids, and a dog, and color TV, they were living the American Dream. Her two girls went to the Public School, and were becoming more American every year, in the way they dressed, and talked, and what they watched.
David was the one who would arrive next and would head into the room to gather his orders and papers, and then head of to his belt makers. Eddie would saunter in when he felt like it and you could hear the giggles of the girls, as he joked with them, even from my desk. My two junior accountants were very punctual and would become busy in their work upon their Arrival. Ralphi was from Cebu in the Philippines, and extremely intelligent and diligent, and carried a lot of the routine load, of following up on the accounts receivables. Sam the other one was married to a nurse, and he was quieter, and kept mostly to himself. Ralphi had recommended him, when we were extremely stressed, and the owner had finally agreed to add another person, on Lou’s recommendation. We were an efficient team, as we managed to keep the business back office going.
Towards mid-morning I would take a break and walk around to stretch my legs. If Eddie was around he too would see me walking and he too would take a break. We would go into his and David’s office and take a coffee break. Eddie would have collected the latest Fashion Trade Rags that the mailman dropped off, and would skim through them, while we drank. He would read aloud anything interesting, or share an article or picture for me to look at. His knowledge of people and events was incredible and he would tell me outlandish stories of his capers from the past night, after a particularly interesting show. He did not linger long as he was a workaholic, when it came to his ladies hair accessory creations.
Eddie had extended his range to other accessories, like fabric belts, and some I called jewelry, and he referred to as his dear baubles, for his darlings. He would painstakingly make the samples, using newer materials, and exotic imports. The girls would cry at him, when he made them too complex, and he learnt to bring simplicity, and elegance into his pieces, over time. He realized that not everyone was as he gifted with their fingers, as he was, or had the eye, he had for detail. Plus the rush of orders demanded speedy execution, and he was always rushing from work table, to work table, correcting and improving his creations. Then in the late afternoon he would rush off to the showroom, or his suppliers depending on our needs. The owner loved him and David was upset, that Eddie was now making even more money, than even him.
The fall from being the head Designer of the company, to second fiddle, did not really go down well with David, but even he was overawed by Eddie’s creativity, and resourcefulness. The man just had a natural tendency, to pick up on the latest trends, which would sell in the next season. His color selections were seldom off, for the Spring, or Holiday Season. His prints were vibrant, or very delicate, depending on the style, or age group, he was going after. The Junior Store buyers loved him, and he would flirt with them, and entertain them, at the latest happening places, in the city. He was loads of fun, and the young women would find him exotic, and ‘just marvelous dear,’ as he called it. The big black muscled man, with often a couple of young things, hanging from either arm, was a common sight at events. The women felt safer in numbers with him, and he was quite capable, of having fun with all of them.
Sometimes when I got off from work, and he would drag me off, when it wasn’t Fashion Night, or he had some other appointment. His current boyfriend would often join up with us, at the latest haunt and he would transform himself into his night creature mode. He would transform from being the Giant ladies hair accessory designer, into a lover with no restraints. Then the true talk would start of the Jazz bars, and comedy shows, or the next major music band, which was playing in Madison Square Gardens. He would hang out with famous actors from Broadway, and once even a Ballet Dancer from the Met. Each one seemed more creative and talented than the last, and it was a merry go round, that I could not keep count of. Yet each creature was even more exotic, and no wonder Eddie loved them so much.
Then one day Eddie retched all over the bushes, on the side of Bryant Park, in the back of the NY Public Library, after an event. I was there with him, and looked around at the old Baroque, and Gothic buildings, and then stared at the sleekly flowing glass tower, that surrounded the park. I had never seen Eddie throw up, no matter how much he drank, or inhaled substances. His friend gathered him up in his arms, as Eddie felt he was suddenly dizzy, and he guided him, to a nearby bench. He sat him down carefully and put his arms around his broad shoulders, and sat there, waiting for him, to catch his breath. He then went and got a water bottle for Eddie. I sat there holding Eddie’s hand not knowing what to do, as I stared down, at his long artistic fingers against mine. When his friend returned he drank some water slowly. He then gargled and spat some out, as if his mouth tasted foul and then dry heaved, but nothing came out.
Eventually he got his bearings again and looked around, and his lover smiled at him hopefully. Eddie gave a twisted smile back, and passed his hand over his head, as if he was still dizzy, and not really sure of what was going on. I looked at my watch and noticed I was running late, and would have to rush off for my bus down 41st Street soon. Luckily Bryant Park was not far from Port Authority, and I stayed for another ten minutes, as Eddies friend softly spoke to him. They looked so much in love. The light from the Street lights and the shadows of the Park, made their silhouette look like two lovers, out for the evening, enjoying companionship, on a Park Bench. It was the quintessential city scene, which must be enacted out everywhere, that people were free. Seeing everything returning to normal, I took my leave of Eddie, and he blew me his usual kiss, and I heard him joke, as I walked away “Beware those peep shows darling, and those beautiful whores, on the corner of Eighth.”
He thought he was suffering from the flu when he had thrown up, as he had a fever and headache for a few days and did not come into work and the work tables seemed empty without him. Months passed without incident, but Eddie seemed to be losing his bulk and getting gaunt. Summer came and the owner went off to the Hamptons, and Eddie was not as busy and I saw less of him. He would come in occasionally to ensure the girls, did not need his help, and work on the pieces, for the next season. David told me that he thought Eddie was not his usual self, some months later. He said that they were not hanging out as much later into night, when the cooler fall nights came along. The fashion season started and this used to be Eddie’s favorite time, to hang out, and he would be the life of the party wherever he went. Now he would often leave early on some nights, claiming he had things to do, but David knew he just appeared very tired and exhausted.
Months later in January only David was in his office, and Eddie’s desk was empty. I presumed he was also away on a much needed break. I got into my routine and was swamped with the work that was waiting for me to catch up on. It was a week later and I heard Eddie’s voice and the girls giggling at work one afternoon. I was busy in something for our Bank, and silently smiled to myself, and decided to go and meet him once I finished. In an hour I finished my report and headed off and found that Eddie was not with the girls anymore, and they were busy on their routine. I went to David’s office and thought I saw the back of a stranger sitting at Eddie’s desk, and thought it may be one of his friends waiting for him to return.
He was smaller than Eddie, although he seemed to have a similar build and hairstyle. Then he turned around, and I realized that it was no one other than Eddie himself. He had lost a lot of weight, and was looking very gaunt. He smiled when he saw me and the same old booming voice spoke up “Darling, where have you been? I have been missing you terribly, and am so happy to see you. David is no fun anymore and it is good to see you and is that a new tan that you have got? You are looking great so the time off was good for you.”
I walked in and took his proffered hand, and felt the familiar artistic fingers, but the handshake, was not as firm as before. His bulk seemed to have shrunk much more than the last time I had seen him. He had on a long sleeve shirt and it looked strange on him as he normally wore tight fitting fashion Ts, to show off his great body and arms. I looked into the eyes of my friend and they were the same, all full of life and mischief. Then he turned away and pointed to the article he was reading, “Look at my darling wearing my latest creation, in Aspen, at the ski slopes.” He said pointing to a famous model, photographed on the snow white slopes looking very glamorous in the latest colors, of Eddie’s design.
Even to my untrained eye the piece looked beautiful and intricately made. Eddie spoke up again, “My new line is doing fabulously, and the beautiful people just love it. Wendy says the girls can’t keep up with the demand, and she has started farming work out for her girls, to work at home, with additional help.” We had started the piece work last year, as we were losing too much business, with our constrained capacity. Eddie had ranted and raved that the quality of work will go down, without his direct input, and supervision. Our owner had agreed with me, that we had to do this to increase volumes. I also found it easier to control costs, as I could reduce the per piece cost, for the new contractors. Plus we had run out of space and the owner was not ready to sign another long time lease which could prove to be expensive fixed cost, if trends changed and our business went down.
We chatted for some time catching up on the recent shows, which Eddie had attended while I was away. I tried not to stare as he looked so strange, as I was used to his overpowering presence and now he seemed to have lost, some of his mojo. Besides the gauntness he seemed to have slumped as he did not appear as big as he used to be. As I left to get back to my desk, I saw Eddie out of the side of my eye, pull his sleeve up and rub a purple bruise on his left arm. Even his extraordinarily muscular arms, seemed to have lost bulk. I quickly looked away and walked off to my desk, deeply troubled about the changes, I saw in my friend.
The next day I caught David before he went off on his rounds. Eddie was still not in as was usual and I wanted to talk to David about what was happening to Eddie. David hung out with Eddie much more than me, and I thought he could explain the changes I was seeing. David explained that Eddie was seeing doctors for the past few months, as he continued to lose weight, and nobody could really explain what was wrong with him. He had been admitted to a Hospital for further checks and investigation and the specialists were stumped. All they would say was that something seemed to be wrong with his auto immune system as his body seemed to be suffering symptoms that normally would go away with anti-biotics, or other medicine. In Eddie’s case nothing seemed to work, and his condition continued to worsen.
David further informed me that at first Eddie had withdrawn to himself, and just stayed in bed and relaxed, hoping that all his troubles, would go away with time. He ate healthy, gave up smoking and his other vices and tried to get back in shape. Then one day another friend had visited with David and shared a motivational book and music tapes with Eddie. It appeared to make a difference, as a gaunt Eddie had shown up at work the following week. The girls were shocked to see him looking so gaunt, but had soon realized that he was still the same person, who joked with them, and showed them amazing things. They learnt to ignore his physical appearance, and just treat him like before.
David and I, visited Eddie in the hospital. He lay there on the white sheets, with flowers from his friends, spread around him. In his military gown, he lay on the bed with an IV sticking out of his arm to the medicine’s being dispensed into him. David had told me that they had diagnosed Eddie with an Auto Immune disease and there was no cure for it. The decrease had come from Sub-Saharan Africa and was spreading fast all over the world, especially in urban areas or transit points. India and USA were reporting sporadic incidents of the disease also, and the numbers were spreading. Nobody knew what was causing it and it may be viral, but it was becoming associated with Gay, or Bi-Sexual men. Poor Eddie could have caught the disease from any one of his beautiful partners. The exotic life also led to a great exposure to many different partners and Eddie had no idea as to who gave it to him. The tragic part that Eddie told us from his bead as lively in his head as ever. It was strange to hear the same voice and mannerisms come from his bed. It looked like life had taken everything from him that he had physically built of himself.
This great towering large muscled man who had been my friend, looked so frail and shrunken. The nurses had a hard time inserting an IV to find a vein, from what had been beautifully muscled arms and legs. He beckoned to me and joked, “What darling you did not bring any flowers? Look what Freddy sent me – what a fabulous bouquet.” Referring to Freddy Mercury and I looked carefully, and there was a short poem, on a personal note, on his side table. It was from Freddy, lying on his side table, along with many other letters, and cards. He sadly informed us, that a lot of his fabulous friends, had died, or also had the same disease. It was the scourge of his artistic friends, he told me.
David was more regular than me, in visiting Eddie, as he was far stronger, than me and was a true Eddie friend. Their friendship was as deep, as it came; even though they had nothing in common, in their backgrounds. Life and human tragedy, had made them, soul mates, in NYC. I had nothing more to say to Eddie, as his life source, had been my main source of life also, it seemed. The talk of my family, and my economic concerns, on how well my peers with similar backgrounds from elite Indian Universities, were doing, meant nothing to Eddie. He would listen to me talk, about my children, and cousins, but beyond that, I had nothing to say. All my thoughts had also shrunk with Eddie and all my educations, could not share another joke, with Eddie. How could this fantastic man, in the prime of his life, the ultimate ladies’ hair accessory designer become this man, lying in a hospital gown? How do you talk about the future, to your friend who has none?
Farrokh Bulsara was born in Sep 1946, in Stone Town, Zanzibar; to Indian Parsee, parents. For some time he studied in Indian boarding schools, modelled after the British system, led to an interest, in the writing and performance of music. . The revolution in Zanzibar, which later became part of Tanzania, drove the family out, to England. There he transformed himself into the lead singer of Queen, due to his love of music. Freddy Mercury became one of the best performers in modern music and their concerts were legendary. His creations and his songs topped the charts for many years, and he spent the last part of his life collaborating with some of the other greats of the age. He died in Nov 1991 aged just 45, at the height of his career. He admitted to a friend on the day before he died, that he had AIDS. That was the first time I learnt, about this dreaded new disease to which we went on to lose, some of the brightest people, in our generation.