Image credit: VPL #982, Philip Timms, 1902, Carnegie Library and City Hall
There used to be a mummy inside the Carnegie. John doesn’t know where it went, just that there was one when he was little. The Carnegies gave a bunch of money everywhere to build museums, he said. I thought this was a library. Apparently it was city hall. This section where we’re standing looks like two different buildings joined together. I don’t know how old John is. I’m guessing he’s in his sixties. He sounds younger, but he looks older. All he says is that he’s been HIV positive for over thirty years, had Hep B for about forty, and there used to be a mummy inside the Carnegie when he was a boy.
I wait for him in the lounge, watching the tables of old men playing Chinese chess. I haven’t played in years. I haven’t seen anyone play in years. I can’t help but think of my father. He’s the only opponent I’ve never been able to beat. The one losing is devouring a pastry inside of a plastic bag. He is not paying attention to the trap by the pawns.
There are rooms upon rooms and I pass by a gymnasium and a library. I wander upstairs in case he’s waiting for me in the cafe. Every table is full and I realize I don’t know what John looks like. Everyone in the Carnegie looks vastly different in appearance. No one stands out and everyone fits in. We only spoke briefly on the phone. He wants to screen a film for their annual dinner and a movie the week after World AIDS Day. I’m also screening a film for World AIDS Day/Day With(out) Art. So let’s meet at the Carnegie. Everyone knows the Carnegie.
I’ve walked by this corner of Main and Hastings numerous times, but I’ve never looked up. How did I miss this massive historical building? There’s not many left in this city. This is possibly the busiest block in the city and one of the busiest buildings. John and I find each other and he gives me a quick tour around. There’s a band rehearsing in the theatre where the screening will take place in December. The line up is out the door, he says, moving his arm down the long corridor. He’s rigged up a dinner from Kent’s Kitchen and there’s door prizes and cake at the end. He says he puts some tough women at the door to make sure people stay for the movie and not just the food. That’s tried and true logistics right there.
We’ll be showing United in Anger: A History of ACT UP. I’m already bringing it in that week over at Denman Cinema. John Cameron asks me if I’ve talked to John Kosenchenko? The spelling may not be right. He was one of the first ACT UP members in Vancouver. If you want to know more, go talk to Charles at the auction place. He and his partner ran the first hospice just down on Abbott at the old Lotus Hotel. I should also go talk to May, who’s 84. She’s seen it all. She was working as a nurse in the early days of the crisis. John writes down seven names for me. Lanna MacDonald is the first name he writes down. John’s name was on another list I got from Brian. So many people died, that there’s really only a few names left from that time. That time was less than twenty years ago. John’s boisterous voice drops and dries when he talks about the history. There’s one history on record, he says, but that version leaves out all of the insanity.
There’s a scent of post-traumatic stress disorder in most survivors of the AIDS crisis. Sarah Schulman is one of the most lucid voices of that era in America. Someone described how you could have shouted every line from her latest book. Maybe someone should.
John speaks about that time. About coming out in Richmond at the same time as coming out as positive. Friends were dying every day. All you could do was sit around and wait your turn. He wanted the world to know, or maybe he wanted to live in a world that knew. You have to put a face to the story, he says. He does a bit of stand up comedy for me. AIDS humour, he calls it. I tell him about the ACT UP Oral History Project online. Someone shouts his name and we finish the meeting in the courtyard. He’s moving his needle exchange today. It’s been around long before Insite. I have never been to The Washington. I shake his hand again and walk up to Gore. A massive sight seeing bus stops me momentarily from crossing the street.