Walking with Ghosts
by Ted Kerr
The meatrack is a small forest tucked behind the beach and sand dunes of Fire Island. It bridges the gay and queer summer communities of The Pines and Cherry Grove. It is where people go to meet, have sex and make art. It is a place where dry bones breathe.
The first time I went through the meatrack I followed the sunburned neck of pioneering contemporary artist AA Bronson. I was working as his assistant; accompanying him and artist Ryan Brewer as they scouted locations for an art project they were doing involving rituals, and the use of a long black, Victorian Comme Des Garcons skirt AA had recently acquired.
As I kept on eye on AA’s long white luminescent beard, I struggled to take in everything. I had been hearing about Fire Island my whole gay life – the adventures of Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, and Christopher Isherwood, as well as how, according to Larry Kramer, the island and it’s hedonistic vibe was the sign of the gay man’s demise. It was heady to be walking on the shifting ground, moved by the intense weight of emotions washing over me. As soon as I stepped into the rack I felt very unalone.
Ryan followed close behind me. Every time I held back bamboo branches from hitting his face, he acknowledged me with a kind smile, his warm Michigan accent clear without having to utter a word. He was wearing a black rock band t-shirt he had cut into a tank top. The tougher us gay boys look, the sweeter we actually are. I could tell he was nervous. Regardless of our stated purpose, to be in the meatrack was an admission of liking sex, to wanting it. Growing up in the shadow of the AIDS crisis, HIV in our midst, being open about our desires can be an arresting experience. While the openness of Fire Island can buffer the fear – in Ryan’s eyes I could feel my own sense of being overwhelmed.
AA has been coming to Fire Island for almost two decades, the first time back when he was a part of General Idea, the three-man art collective he started with Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal. Starting in the 1960′s they worked as a unit to free themselves as they said, “from the tyranny of individual genius.” They created portraits that poked fun at patriarchy, put on beauty pageants that never occurred, turned AIDS into wallpaper and published FILE, a collaboratively created art magazine.
When Felix and Jorge were diagnosed with HIV in the early 90′s, General Idea moved back to Toronto from New York. aa learned how to care for the dying and stayed with them in the apartment they shared. Since their passing in 1994 aa has been learning what it means to be without them. He has amassed a diverse network of friends, students, collaborators, and huggable lovers who offer and look to him for guidance, inspiration, love, and friendship.
As we toured around aa regaled us with tales of the magical forest’s history (which is what he calls the meatrack, also known as Judy Garland Memorial Park); A rock band played once, someone held exercise classes last summer, many pornos and music videos have been shot over the years, celebrities have enjoyed anonymous encounters and countless people have bumped into old friends, made new friends, and experienced their bodies in new ways for the first time. As aa spoke I could hear the crash of the nearby ocean and the erotic rustling of bodies never too far away.
Sex is not something separate on Fire Island; it is the breeze that blows through everything. The longer one spends in the meatrack, the more it becomes a series of inviting staging grounds connected by well worn paths, and less like a frustrating maze. Throughout, black plastic garbage bags hang from trees – the heavier they are with empties and condoms – the busier the spot. Garbage acts like a recommendation “I’ve been here and I liked it”.
Walking, my feet raising the sand, I thought about how many men had given their semen to this earth. The ground beneath our feet soaked by the queer spirit – AIDS, lust, frustration, and love. While walking we crossed a rich green marsh, planks of driftwood covered the wet earth. A small metal plaque with a dedication was affixed to one of the planks, reading something like “Steven Smith, 1948-1994, To The Best Cocksucker Around.”
On the other side of the marsh is a cul-de-sac of sorts – an outdoor den where half walls of shrubs enclosed the space. A big blue sky creating a dome overhead. Nestled in the corner the day we were there was a white lawn chair. It emanated an erotic charge – the rolled back eyes of men in ecstasy could be felt just by looking at the cheap white frame; sitting down could stun you into orgasm. Nearby a heaving garbage bag pulled down on a branch. aa brought us here knowing it was the perfect spot for the art collaboration. Ryan agreed. They stood planning as the sun started to drop below the trees.
That night over dinner at his place aa asked us our ages, he having just turned 65. “32” I said, “in my 20s” Ryan offered. There was silence. At first I didn’t get what aa was after. The three of us just sat there, taking in each other’s red flesh. Then he said it, “ interesting to see who is not here.” The gulf between us filled up the room. We were quiet for a while, thinking about all the men who died for sex.
A week later the three of us got up early, soon after the summer sunrise, and made our way to the cul-de-sac in the forest. Ryan propped up a hand held mirror in the branches of a fallen tree. From the white chair, aa switched from film to video and back again, capturing Ryan as he covered his skull with thick black make-up. He stopped filming to help Ryan put on the skirt we hung next the garbage bag. By mid morning Ryan was twirling, whirling dervish style through the meatrack, the black skirt kicking up sand, aa with a hawk’s focus, guiding, and leading him on. With every move, the story changed. I stood and watched. Ghosts were everywhere.