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BOOKS 'Ghosts of St. Vincent's': A talk with Tom Eubanks
by Owen Keehnen
2017-06-21

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Tom Eubanks was born in Libertyville and always knew he was different growing up in Mundelein.

In 1985, at age 18, he headed to New York for school and had a solid taste of the New York club scene of the mid-late 1980s. When Eubanks discovered he was HIV-positive and had only two T-cells remaining, his life changed dramatically. Instead of living the life of a carefree young man in his early 20s, he was battling opportunistic infections and dealing with the devastating loss of those around him.

However, Eubanks' new book, Ghosts of St. Vincent's, is more than a compelling AIDS memoir. Eubanks' own diagnosis and lengthy stay on the AIDS ward ( seventh floor ) of St. Vincent's hospital provides a springboard for a deeper examination of illness, care, and unexpected recovery. Interspersed with Eubank's story are brief vignettes centered around the now demolished hospital since it opened in 1849 as a place for the treatment of immigrants and cholera victims. The result of this synthesis is a fascinating portrait of life and loss during the AIDS era and how the epidemic was a fitting chapter in the waning years of an iconic institution dedicated to saving lives for over 160 years.

Windy City Times: What gave you the idea of blending the history of St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village with your personal AIDS memoir?

Tom Eubanks: I went to NYU in 1985 at the age of 18, so I lived in Greenwich Village, on and off, for about 30 years. St. Vincent's Hospital was always there. Like the Jefferson Market Library or the Washington Arch, the hospital was a neighborhood touchstone, an institution full of history. Then, I got sick, and because of its proximity, I spent six months there.

It was a terrifying and arduous six months but I survived—mostly due to the incredible nursing staff, and one particular doctor, at St. Vincent's. When the hospital went bankrupt in 2010 and they started to tear it down, I decided that it needed to be memorialized somehow.

The stories about famous St. Vincent's patients came first. My personal story at the hospital was not central to the book until an early reader and high school friend [Wendy Zumpano, a Chicago-based artist] suggested it should be. That's when I decided to combine all the research I had done on the hospital with the journals I kept ( and Polaroids I took ) during my "stay" there.

WCT: St. Vincent's was crucial in the AIDS fight—handling one of the first cases in 1981, having New York City's first AIDS unit ( the seventh floor ) and, by 1986, having one-third of the beds in the hospital filled with AIDS patients. Given your time as a patient there, what about the seventh-floor/AIDS unit needs to be conveyed?

TE: The most important thing I learned on the seventh floor of St. Vincent's during the AIDS crisis was how amazing nurses are. Not so much doctors—except for the one who saved my life. The nurses were angels. This was before protease inhibitors and other anti-retroviral drugs. They couldn't really do anything for anybody and people were dying all over the place, but they did what they could. It was like wartime.

WCT: As mentioned, Ghosts of St. Vincent's also contains fascinating stories about the hospital's history—starting in 1849 as a place to battle cholera to TB to the modern epidemic of AIDS—and anecdotes about people who inhabited those rooms: Vito Russo, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Mapplethorpe, early gay rights activist Villa Miseria, Cardinal Spellman and even Ed Koch. What piece of St. Vincent's history was your favorite? Personally, I was so moved by the tale of Vito Russo sneaking away from his deathbed to see Postcards from the Edge.

TE: I call these "Lazarus stories" because each contains a story of how St. Vincent's brought someone back to life. They're all are drawn from actual history: from Edna St. Vincent Millay's uncle to Vito Russo last days on the seventh floor.

"Vito Goes to the Movies" and "Wagstaff's Ghost" and the story about Diego ( Villa Miseria ) were my way of telling stories about people who may have been brought back to life just temporarily. I wanted to put a little joy into tragic stories—just as there was joy and laughter during the plague. I also wanted to tell the history of St. Vincent's through these people and realized as I did that these people all had a great deal to do with my main story about the ever-changing city. I like them all the same, but Lazarus Redux was the first one I wrote, so I'm partial to it. I had a great time constructing the meeting between Ed Koch and Joey Ramone—my 1983 New York Fantasia—because it didn't happen. ( they were at St. Vincent's that year, but not at Christmas as far as I know. ) It was very surprising to learn that the Ramones were Koch fans.

WCT: So how did it feel seeing this piece of history, social and personal, demolished after 161 years to become condos?

TE: It was devastating, at first. Through the course of writing the book, I've come to terms with the ephemeral nature of New York and rest easy knowing that the people who live in the shell of the former hospital will be haunted by poltergeists. I also found it terribly ironic ( but very metaphorical to our country's current condition ) that a hospital founded to care for immigrants became pied-a-terres for the megarich.

WCT: When you were first diagnosed as positive and told you had two T-cells, your caseworker actually said you were, "certain to die a horrible death." Did you take that as fact at the time?

TE: At 23, 24 years old, I was still rebellious, so I raged against the diagnosis, became a contrarian, sought out Eastern medicine solutions, became a vegan, stopped partying and began exercising. In a weird way, the diagnosis saved me from a more destructive existence and an early death from other things.

WCT: The lack of acceptance with coming out to your family as gay and then as a PWA [person with AIDS] is also central to the book. What do you see as the core issue with all that?

TE: I grew up the youngest son in a large family in a judgmental society where appearance is everything. Being gay or being "sick" are things that generally don't look good to the neighbors.

WCT: You resurrect so much ugliness from that era—the AIDS jokes, the ignoring of the epidemic, the travel ban on those with HIV, William F. Buckley's idea to tattoo carriers of the virus, etc. What's the lesson to take away from all that?

TE: As bad as we think our current political or cultural climate is, there were times when it was far worse.

WCT: Ghosts of St. Vincent's also highlights the essential nature various social agencies played in your survival during the crisis—for medical assistance, rent assistance, etc. Would you care to elaborate?

TE: Reagan's administration was so AWOL during the AIDS Crisis that social agencies and groups like ACT-UP were invaluable. They filled the vacuum created by the devastation. I find it sad that the basic safety net that permitted so many people to survive—or die with some dignity and care—is being torn apart.

People don't realize how important a helping hand from the government can be, until they really need one—as many people who voted for the pumpkin clown are discovering.

WCT: You describe being HIV-positive as the new closet. Would you explain?

TE: I grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago, so I learned how to pass for straight. It's the same for being positive. There's such a stigma around it. Who wouldn't prefer to pretend they don't have it, that they're not "infected?" I think of AIDS every day when I take my handful of pills. When you appear healthy people assume you're healthy. I've had a number of people who read the book and said, I had no idea. They have stereotypical perceptions of long-term survivors.

WCT: What about the AIDS epidemic do you think is being lost to history? What about it would you like to pass on to generations who did not experience it?

TE: I urge everyone to follow @the_aids_memorial on Instagram. It's an amazing account run by a guy named Stuart, who prefers to remain anonymous. At the time, so many people were dying, we were numb. Like I said, it was like war. The AIDS Memorial uses social media to post photos of those who died with obituaries and tributes.

WCT: What have you learned about life from being on the brink of death for so long before becoming a modern day Lazarus with the HIV meds cocktail?

TE: Do what you want when you can—but not from a purely selfish perspective. We all need to make the world a better place and I do my part ( I volunteer, I protest, I support local businesses ), but I also try not to let time dictate my life choices.


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