Remembering Lee Joseph

Twelve year old Lee Joseph’s father beat him until his skin was black and blue from his hips to his ankles.  Lee ran away from home, was befriended by a gay male prostitute, and turned his first trick in Houston before his thirteenth birthday.

This was in 1978, four years before the Center for Disease Control would agree on an acronym for a terrifying new disease: AIDS.

Lee was diagnosed with AIDS in San Francisco in 1986.  I interviewed him in his final months, wrote an article about him that I didn’t sell.  Lee died before his twenty-second birthday.  You’ll understand why I named him as a co-dedicatee of Brothers of the Milky Way if you read the novel.

Lee’s obituary promised that I would one day publish an account of his life.  I cringed when I read this in 1987, but realize today that the obituary writer was more prescient than I knew.  My original article is now online at Transitophile, and that officially makes the promise true, doesn’t it?

I corrected my misspelling of Dilaudid, and would like to change “Mount Rinati” to something Google has heard of, but fear that I’d introduce inaccuracies by wielding an aggressive scalpel on the copy.  The article is as I wrote it in 1987.  I taped my interviews with Lee, and referred often to the tapes as I wrote.  When my memory disagrees with the article, I defer to the article.

Lee was the last of about a dozen gay male prostitutes I interviewed in San Francisco in 1986.  I had wanted to try my hand at non-fiction, and thought the hustlers on Polk Street were well worth writing about, given their suicidal willingness to ply their trade in the face of the AIDS epidemic.  My sister mentioned my interviews to her friend Rebecca, who volunteered for an AIDS nonprofit; Rebecca, in turn, provided contact information for Lee.  She described him as an “AIDS poster boy” — frank and forthright about his illness, and eager to share his story with others.

I called, set up a date, and piloted my old bus to San Francisco for what would be the first of many interviews.  Lee lived alone in a capacious Western Addition apartment furnished by the AIDS Foundation.  Past roommates had moved out or died; he had the place to himself.  We did most of our talking in the living room, seated formally on chairs to either side of the oriel windows.  He wore sweat pants to camouflage his gauntness, and kept the lights dim.

He looked a little like Andy Warhol.  I don’t think Warhol became a national celebrity until his thirties, but AIDS had taken a heavy toll on Lee’s appearance; the twenty year old I interviewed could have passed for thirty-five, even forty.  He was about twenty pounds skinnier than the lowest weight a stranger might attribute to natural variance, but the sweat pants camouflaged this effectively.  I don’t think passersby identified him immediately as an AIDS victim.  He might have had to deal with Kaposi’s Sarcoma at some point, but I don’t remember any visible lesions.

It might sound absurd to admit envy of a terminally ill twenty year old, but I envied Lee for his savoir faire.  I could watch him quietly take my measure as we spoke, and fine-tune his presentation of himself to match his changing estimate of my expectations.  He had been on his own since age twelve, and had depended for support on the mercurial tastes of much older tricks at an age when many teenage boys are still pedaling paper routes.  Before that, he had avoided the belt and blows of abusive parents.  Necessity had made him good at guessing the moods of the caregivers and clients who could pamper him, or beat him, or kill him.

I didn’t envy the curriculum, but did envy the skill.  He struck me as someone who could quickly fit in anywhere.

Lee spoke matter-of-factly about his suicide attempt and depression, as if he were recounting the breakdowns of a mutual acquaintance.  His voice broke occasionally, but he never cried in front of me.  I think this also jibed with the brutal etiquette acquired in his years with tricks and violent parents:  Nobody would want you around, if you made a fuss.  No matter what you were going through.  You kept it to yourself, if you wanted to keep your bed, and didn’t want to get hit.

He came closest to crying when he contemplated his life as a whole.  This was all?!  Was he supposed to have stayed home at age twelve and let his father keep beating him black and blue?  No one had imagined anything like AIDS, when he’d started hustling in the late seventies.  Was he supposed to have anticipated all that when he was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old?  And now he was twenty, and terminally ill.  This was all?!

* * * * *

I don’t remember the trip to help him move described on page 6.  I do remember another errand, when he asked for a ride to buy marijuana.  The supplier was a gay bar acquaintance willing to sell a couple of joints.

“If this stuff is shit, it’s your ass,” said the 112 pound Lee, as he handed over the bill.  The acquaintance blinked, like a prize fighter threatened by a kindergartner.

We spoke shortly after he moved into a new Shanti Project apartment near Dolores Park.  I wrote in the Brothers afterword of how uninterested real life seems to be in keeping non-thespians in character.  Lee could have given me a great close for my article by saying something poignant.  Instead he made a merry joke about gay porn actor Jeff Stryker.

Then he had to get off the phone, or I did.  I never talked to him again. He died a few months later.  Goodbye, Lee.  You deserved a better hand than you were dealt.  I hope there’s another life for you here, if you want it.

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