The New Yorker
Talk of the Town
Notes & Comment
1987 Oct 5
By Katy Butler
A FRIEND IN SAN FRANCISCO writes:
For the past two years, hardly a day has gone by here without at least two funerals for people who have died of AIDS. Most of these people have no graves or headstones; they are cremated, and their ashes are scattered over the mountains or in San Francisco Bay. Even those who are buried disappear—to the cemetery town of Colma, just to our south—because an old law forbids graveyards within the city limits. After the memorial service, the scattering of ashes, and the garage sale, there isn’t much left. So in a storefront in the Castro district Cleve Jones and some of his friends have collected two thousand patchwork pieces, each bearing the name of someone who has died of AIDS, and they’re sewing them into an enormous memorial quilt.
When I visited the storefront one recent morning, Jones—a serious-looking man in his early thirties who wears glasses and button-down shirts —was on the telephone in the back. Behind him, on a three-foot-by-six-foot rectangle of gold-and-silver lamé, “Liberace” was scrawled out in bold black script. Panels of similar size hung like bright banners from the walls and ceiling and from balcony railings above him; on each one was a name, painted in oil, silk-screened, appliquéd, spray-painted, cut out of felt, or tracked in glitter. Toward the front, where the light was better, a woman at a sewing machine finished hemming a panel and folded it, carefully keeping the name face down, “If I look at the names, I get sentimental,” she said. “So I don’t look, I just work.”
At a nearby table, a man wearing jeans and a checked shirt picked up a white ostrich boa and held it against lavender cotton. “There’s a million little things I could put on here,” said the man, whose name, I found out later, was Terry Berkley. “A baby bottle would fit—he helped raise two little girls. A cowboy hat would fit—he moved to Texas. Maybe a stencil of a Teddy bear—he was a Teddy-bear freak. And the feathers”—Terry Berkley looped the boa into the air— “because he had a wild side.”
When Cleve Jones hung up the phone, he told me that anywhere from fifty to eighty new panels are added to the collection every day: from mothers commemorating their sons or their sons’ friends; from sewing bees; from neighborhood people, who use the storefront’s sewing machines and fabric samples to make panels for lovers or friends. He picked up a manila folder full of letters and pointed to a panel near the front window. On bright patchwork squares it said “Reggie Hightower: Forever1’ in black felt letters and showed a black hand in the sign-language abbreviation for “I love you. “ Jones handed me the letter that had come with the banner. “I don’t have many ideas on how he should be remembered—perhaps a carving on the side of Stone Mountain here in Georgia,” Art Peterson, Jr., of Atlanta, wrote. “I feel it’s a shame that I can’t convey to others how great a life he lived, for he left no mark. The enclosed panel is composed of shirts that he wore, some his, some mine. They were hand-sewn by me with double thread, and double-sewn in places for strength and durability. Please display it in a prominent place.” Beside Reggie Hightower’s panel, Rock Hudson’s name shone out in sequins above a glistening rainbow. Next came a panel for Bob Greenwood, with his name embroidered in a field of planets and stars. A letter from a friend explained that Greenwood had worked as a systems programmer for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and had helped with the Voyager space mission. The friend apologized for having no photograph to send along. “A picture I can offer, is in the form of this quilt panel,” the letter went on. “Bob’s name is among his beloved stars.”
Some panels were as neatly and gaily sewn as heraldic flags, like Joel Rogers’ yellow plate and two red tomatoes on a purple field. Others seemed totemic, like Aaron Miller’s, on which a pair of red silk pajamas printed with herons was emblazoned; Aaron Miller had designed and sewn the pajamas before his death. On one wall, eight panels, stitched into a vast square, brought improbable people together; for instance, Russell Viera, a dress collector and hotel banquet captain, was remembered with a tucked and folded black taffeta evening gown sewn onto purple cotton, and next to his panel was one for Jan (Patat) Luxwolder, a Dutch restaurant owner famous for his potatoes, whose friends had sewn on foam-rubber French fries, a silk-screened map of Amsterdam, and a photograph of a handsome, healthy man leaning against a brick wall in the sun.
Jones, who told me he used to work as a lobbyist for the Friends Committee on Legislation, said he plans to display the gigantic quilt on the Capitol Mall during a gay-rights demonstration in mid-October; it will cover four-fifths of an acre. He conceived of the quilt two years ago, but nothing much came of it until this February, when he made one of the first panels —for Marvin Feldman, his best friend of fourteen years. As he led me to the farthest corner of the storefront to show me the panel, he described a visit he had made last October to Feldman and his parents in Providence, Rhode Island, two weeks before his friend died. Feldman had had AIDS for two years, and he was so thin that he reminded Jones of photographs of people in concentration camps. At night, Jones slept in a middle bedroom. On one side he could hear Marvin Feldman breathing; on the other he could hear Marvin’s parents, who had been brave and cheerful during the day, weeping and comforting each other. When Feldman went into a coma, Jones flew back to California and his job. He missed his friend’s funeral; he doesn’t go to funerals anymore. “Yet I needed a funeral for Marvin,” he said as we stood in front of the panel. “I didn’t handle his death very well. I kept dreaming about him, and for a while I felt that everyone else I cared about was going to die, too. Jones was “still in the doldrums” when he went into his back yard four months later with stencils, a piece of dark cloth, and cans of spray paint left over from old political campaigns. “It was part of a healing process,” he said. “I was there to think about Marvin, but not to cry— to make something tangible instead,” The panel showed Marvin Feldman’s name in white on a dark-gray background dotted with pink triangles that overlapped to form six-pointed stars. “Afterward, I had a real sense of resolution and completion,” Jones said. “I still miss Marvin, but I don’t think about him with the same sense of despair.”
©1987 Katy Butler. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reprinted without permission.