On August 9, 1987, Norman Rathweg died of AIDS.
Somewhere in the 1980s, gay bars — especially in the Village — were going out of business. Perhaps it was the dying clientele, perhaps it was part of the global growth of health-culture, but the bar was being replaced by the gym as the place to meet, to hook up, or both.
Norm and his partner, Louis, were catching this wave of change. They opened the Chelsea Gym at the corner of Eighth Avenue and 17th Street, the middle of the new gayborhood. The entrance was on 17th Street, lockers on the ground floor, showers and steam room downstairs, weights, machines and mirrors upstairs overlooking Eighth Avenue.
We came to the gyms to gain, lose, socialize or lurk. For some, it was a competition to look fabulous and ‘get’ whatever there was to be ‘gotten,’ especially if it meant themselves. The buff-bodies paid little attention to me. Or if they did I was oblivious. Like everyone else, with or without the virus, I battled my own feelings of inadequacy.
There was something else going on with these men and their bodies. Those pounds of muscle said to the world that this bad-ass body does not, cannot, will not have AIDS. That might happen to someone else, but not to me, not to this body.
And there was something deeper and even more subtle. These walls of muscle were built for protection, to keep others out and most painfully, to keep feelings from getting in. The intimacy that was nearly impossible in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, became deadly in the ’80s. Perhaps the paths are clearer now, but even so, but still its difficult to navigate physical and emotional intimacy.
For some, they are one in the same. Physical intimacy equals emotional intimacy. For others, sex cannot and should not coexist with emotion. Sex is, well, just sex. For most, the grey area remains unambiguously grey. What is true for one is not necessarily true for the other. What is true in one moment, may not be true in the next.
Maybe its easier now, and men are more successful at it. Writing on intimacy will take time and will likely make me very unpopular. Stay tuned.
In the end, having a great body is its own reward, the by-product of a healthy life-style, feeling alive, working out the frustrations of the day with iron plates or a stair-master and modulating those endorphins.
In any event, Norm and Louis were there, on the second floor overlooking the iron plates, the cables, machines and sweating bodies. Aside from the leather jackets and Harleys, they looked to me like any other men running a successful business. Had they been straight, they might have been in the Lions Club.
I found out much later that Norm was more than a successful businessman. Earlier in his career, he designed two of the most iconic holy grails of sex, drugs and Rock ’n Roll that brought gay men to New York in the first place.
In City Boy, Edmund White says this:
“Norm … ‘a part-time beau’ … designed the St. Mark’s Baths and ‘the Hindenburg of discos,’ The Saint. Seemingly a prototype of the muscular gay males who would come to rule Chelsea, he grew up a bookish nerd in Florida, where his invalid father ‘would lie in bed drinking and insulting his big, fearful, skulking son, calling him a creep and a faggot.’”
Who knew? I guess everyone knew, except me.
The last time I saw them, I was in line to board the ferry to Fire Island. They were resting from the 20-foot walk from the boat. I went to say hello.
Norm looked up. His face was blank and poorly shaven. He tried to speak but all that came out was a raspy groan. Louis smiled and did the talking.
In a moment, I was back in line to the ferry. Louis was helping Norm into a medical transport van.