Death in the Air

An essential worker considers pandemic times.

Sean Estelle

Lay Guzman stands behind a partial protective plastic screen and wears a mask and gloves as she works as a cashier at the Presidente Supermarket on April 13, 2020 in Miami, Florida. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In 1990, as the AIDS pandemic ripped through the lives of queers and junkies and the social fabric of the deviants on the wrong end of Reaganism, a painter named David Wojnarowicz was making art that would sear into the imagination of a generation and ripple forward to become a symbol of what it meant to act up — as an individual and as part of an organization like the famous direct action group ACT UP; to face down deliberate annihilation and create artistic representations and language that could be picked up as a weapon to fight. One screenprint from 1990 — When I Put My Hands On Your Body”—contains text in a gaudy orange with evocations of physical intimacy and historical breadth laid over a picture of Native American remains at the Dickson Mounds burial site to create a feeling of how much trauma and violence lives just underneath the surface as we move through this plane of reality. 

January 18, 2020: At 8:30 a.m. I awake in a bus, shivering and surrounded by strangers. The intercom crackles to life and our lead tells us, Nobody panic, we’re definitely not going to tip sideways” as we all stare out the windows and feel the bus rock the wrong way. For a moment, I wonder if this Bernie Journey trip is worth bracing the freezing weather. Then I remind myself why I chose to come: to bring mass volunteer power to Davenport, Iowa for a final get-out-the-vote push. I’m two weeks out from being laid off at my seasonal minimum wage job at the local museum. I wanted some time to throw everything into this historic campaign before searching for the next job that would pay my bills. Sitting there, considering what it would mean if we won or if we lost, I thought about all the other times I had gotten on buses to knock on doors and talk to someone I didn’t know about why fighting together for a better world is the most important thing a person could choose to do. I thought about the warm feeling in the pit of my stomach that always came after just a few conversations — the feeling of solidarity. I had no idea how important the memory of that feeling would become in just two short months as a pandemic ripped through our worlds and everything unraveled.

When I put my hands on your body on your flesh I feel the history of that body. Not just the beginning of its forming in that distant lake but all the way beyond its ending.”

March 15, 2020: Panic in the eyes and short clipped sentences of everyone on the zoom call. Covid-19 cases are exploding everywhere across the United States and the 20-ish people in the meeting can feel the enormous weight of being the elected leaders and paid staff of the largest socialist organization in the United States. Now, two weeks later, markets are in free fall, viral videos of full hospitals in Italy are screaming danger, and politicians are yammering on the television about conspiracy theories and why masks are a breach of personal freedom. We spring into action because that’s the only thing we can do. We set a meeting for chapter leaders to develop emergency response plans together; we decide to start meeting daily to get emergency newsletters and hotlines off the ground; we put a call on the calendar for all Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) members to steel ourselves for the coming months. Later, when I facilitated the virtual call with 1,800 people, it felt like we might have what we need to keep each other safe, or maybe at least alive. Just two weeks ago, on Super Tuesday, we were packed like sardines at The Hideout, a Chicago bar that hosts DSA events, happy hours before the concerts and comedy shows that make all their money. As the vote totals started to roll in across the country, a small lineup of leaders prepared to speak, including me. How can I get people excited about the independent campaign work that DSA members across the country are doing to elect Sanders? How do I get the people in the room to commit to showing up for the local coalition work that is up and running? Should I acknowledge the other news that no one wants to discuss, about a virus that seems to be spreading quickly? How should I say thanks to the venue? And suddenly I was up there, looking out at a sea of comrades. 

I feel the warmth and texture and simultaneously I see the flesh unwrap from the layers of fat and disappear. I see the fat disappear from the muscle. I see the muscle disappearing from around the organs and detaching from the bones.”

July 2020: It feels unreal how bad and how normal things are simultaneously. The largest uprising in history has exploded with a new sense of militancy in the streets, a lot more broken bodies, an unclear amount of organization, and balancing between paying rent and staying safe from an unseeable virus filling the air. I’m still without a job and I’m having a hard time getting unemployment, but there’s a check with the president’s name in my bank account. I don’t feel safe going outside, because my housemate is asthmatic so I stay in even when the weather is nice and there’s more people participating in mass action than ever. Last month, when Mayor Lori Lightfoot raised the bridges and thousands of people were in the streets every night, I was at my partner’s house and watched a video of white thugs walking down the street in my neighborhood with baseball bats and setting up makeshift barricades to keep out the people who looked like protesters. I got a text from a friend saying their roommate had parked in Bridgeport and they were being hunted because they’re a butch in a keffiyeh. White men with crowbars and bats have been hunting people in that neighborhood since 1919. I sat stunned in my partner’s house while she took call after call from scared activists who had never planned a protest before but suddenly wanted to do a march through Chinatown where conservative small business owners were stockpiling guns because people on social media were talking about how a gang war is about to erupt on the southwest side. Then I’m in a group message with someone I’ve never met who thinks that the best possible solution is for a couple of white socialists who have lived in the neighborhood for a collective total of less than a decade to march right down the middle of the street and provoke a fight with these white supremacists with bats. How did this happen? How did this happen? But of course it would happen. The numbers of the dead continue to skyrocket, class warfare for Black lives is in the air and one phone call at a time will keep things going.

I see the organs gradually fade into transparency leaving the gleaming skeleton gleaming like ivory that slowly revolves until it becomes dust. I am consumed in the sense of your weight the way your flesh occupies momentary space the fullness of it beneath my palms.”

September 2020: I’m sitting on my front porch collapsed in a pool of exhaustion after a week of working double shifts three days in a row. I just hung up the phone on my partner after they asked if I’m deliberately trying to kill myself with this pace and level of risk, going from working a cash register, where I sell alcohol to people from the homeless encampment across the street and the college students down the road and the financiers commuting from the suburbs; then jumping on a train and a bus to arrive at the bakery, where I’m sweaty, out of breath and covered in disease, it feels like, so I can spend five hours unloading 30-pound boxes. I’m sucking on a CBD joint I wish was a cigarette and I’m reading my email with the notes of a meeting I missed, like every meeting over the last three weeks. I was gearing up to desensitize myself enough to make this a routine, but it’s not going to work. Something’s gotta give. The bakery job is union, which is far better than the alternative, and it’s closer even if it feels less safe, and the union rep just took her mask off and breathed on all of us during orientation, but I wouldn’t have to work a register and maybe an evening shift wouldn’t be too bad.

I am amazed at how perfectly your body fits to the curve of my hands. If I could attach our blood vessels so we could become each other I would. If I could attach our blood vessels in order to anchor you to the earth to this present time to me I would.”

November 26, 2020: It’s Thanksgiving. I’m eating a plate from the local mutual aid distribution center, having my first day off of work in a long time because the retail worker holiday meat grinder machine really just doesn’t let up. Five hour shifts of lifting 30-pound boxes and talking to angry customers, wondering how many of them are going home to hotspots and bringing back a virus every time they traipse into the store. Never thought that breathing strangers’ air would feel so dangerous. Three days ago I thought my neglectfulness had killed my housemate. I woke up after my night shift and endless DSA calls to her panicked voice saying that she had a fever and trouble breathing and needed to figure out how to get a Covid-19 test and suddenly all the time working in person and riding the train and the small risks I had been taking didn’t seem worth it with her life on the line. Luckily we had found a drive-through testing site in the suburbs that gave us the timing we needed for us to both get negative tests back but it really put things in perspective about just how impossible our situation was. As a messy queer with estranged blood family, it’s hard to be grateful today. Most of my friends and chosen family are either with blood family or homebound. So I take it upon myself to organize an orphans’ Friendsgiving Zoom and we play board games and laugh and drink too much to recreate the feeling but it isn’t quite the same. 

If I could open your body and slip up inside your skin and look out your eyes and forever have my lips fused with yours I would.”

January 6, 2021: It’s been a winter of sound and fury with a lame duck making threats about a rigged election. When I get off a call with a staff organizer about our Green New Deal campaign plans, I see the tweets rolling in about the unruly crowd storming the Capitol. My phone explodes with notifications, and we are trying to make contact with people on the ground across the country to see if state capitols are going to actually fall. I look around for signs of people getting riled up about the news in my immediate vicinity and I consider just how we arrived here, how we’re going to make it through this and how tired I am. I think about the chain of events set in motion in November when people gathered in Daley Plaza getting ready for a Stop the Steal action in the streets. The worst had not happened yet from the GOP but the big liberal NGO coalition had canceled actions all over the country. Chicago unions issued a general strike threat if there was a coup and DSA leadership sent an email saying IGNORE THE LIBERALS HIT THE STREETS — it felt important to be out. 

That November afternoon, flags are flying in the crisp cold air. I’m so happy to see people underneath their layers and their masks. As we pass Trump Tower, a chant starts to ripple: Fuck Trump! Fuck Biden, Too! They don’t give a fuck about you!” I snap a video of DSA cadre marching with the blazing lights in the background, post it online and spend the next week and a half responding to every single one of the thousands of retweets with a join DSA” link to boost the membership drive numbers that would bring 15,000 people into the organization in six weeks. Now, two months later, as electors certified election results and the Capitol police stood idly by until the riot crowd breached the inner sanctum and tweets started flying about the end of the USA, I wondered if we had been preparing people enough for this.

It makes me weep to feel the history of you of your flesh beneath my hands in a time of so much loss. It makes me weep to feel the movement of your flesh beneath my palms as you twist and turn over to one side to create a series of gestures to reach up around my neck to draw me nearer.”

May 15, 2021: I’m sitting at home after a funeral for a friend, a pretty close friend, but one of those friends that dropped away so quickly during the pandemic, the kind of person who I had made memories with and had a few tagged pictures with but didn’t see too often. A week ago, I had been running in to work late as usual and I checked Twitter and Instagram like I do before every shift. I saw three different people say oh no not you not gone oh my god in a way that I knew immediately what had happened. An anvil dropped from that phone screen, went deep in my gut and dislodged my consciousness. I was floating above myself and I couldn’t come down. I started running through my tasks and then my manager saw the look of desperate grief in my eyes and I told her I just saw news that a friend committed suicide and she said oh honey go home. Now we’re all gathered here and the dog is letting everyone pet him. There’s an altar upstairs to your Black femme sex worker self and your body is in the chapel and this is the first time I’ve seen so many people in years: friends from the sex clubs and comrades I met locked arm-in-arm screaming at the cops at Black Lives Matter actions and the people I went to Six Flags with on your birthday. We’re all doing our best but hanging by a thread and there are so many people here who you touched in such a deep way. I remember one of the last parties we were at together, there was a queer spin the bottle party and we did one on the Fourth of July. I remember we shared a cigarette and kissed on the too-narrow metal stairs and felt so alive. Now you’re gone and so many more are gone and I didn’t even know if I could take off work to go to your funeral but I did and I’m so glad I did. Death is in the air, it has been for so long, but walking back three blocks from the funeral I realize again just how close it is, Covid-19 or otherwise. 

All these moments will be lost like tears in the rain.”

August 8, 2021: We just finished our convention and the ecosocialists I was whipping votes for all got elected. I’m singing Solidarity Forever and leaning on the table because I can’t believe it’s finally done. Later, when I’m asked to make a speech, I stand up on the chair and I look out and see comrades, many of whom I haven’t seen since before the lockdowns, and I’m at a loss for words. Tears start to leak out. I think about everything that we’ve all been through and everything that is yet to come. I want to be honest about how I feel. I want to ask if everyone else understands that the grief and pain of the last year and a half is only a drop in what we will see as the climate crisis continues to accelerate. I want to get people angry about how little has been delivered to us despite the change in power. I want to scream and yell and rage about how much I’ve seen myself and others break our bodies and spirits at the wheel in order to try and put up some kind of fight while hundreds of thousands of bodies pile up, until the morgues are out of space and the hospital beds are full. I want them to wonder about the people offscreen outside of our bubbles who don’t care about what Joe Manchin is stripping out of the federal reconciliation bill because they’re too busy spending an hour and a half each way commuting to a death trap to make 50 bucks a night and wonder where money for the phone bill will come from. But I don’t want to scare people. I don’t want to tell people about what it’s taken to succeed, what I put myself through for the sake of organization.

In two months I will walk in on my coworker in the freezer crying so hard she can’t breathe because she got some news from the doctor that’s bad, really bad. She unloads questions on me because she doesn’t want me asking questions about her, asking me how I break bad news to people. I tell her I don’t break that kind of news ever since my parents rejected me for who I love. She asks me whether it was crazy to want to live in a state with assisted euthanasia because that’s what she wanted when things got too bad and I say I don’t know the answer for that, that’s for you to decide, but what I do know is that you shouldn’t feel any guilt about walking out of this store right now and never coming back and the next night when she was supposed to work she wasn’t there and I hope to the god I don’t believe in that she took my advice. 

But none of that has happened yet, I’m still on the chair looking out at the people who just finished a three-day online convention and want words of encouragement about the historic role of the working class and the next steps to keep going. And I want to move people. I want power for us. I want us to win. More than anything I want us to win. So I lead people in a chant, step off the chair. And turn up the music.

When asked about When I Put My Hands On Your Body” in an interview conducted for an anthology book of artists with AIDS, David Wojnarowicz said: It’s about dealing with my own mortality, dealing with his mortality, dealing with living in an unconscious society, dealing with a whole range of things… It’s not just me and a lover, it’s me and my friends, the people I love, the people I feel great loss over in terms of them dying or coming so close to death. It’s an emotional state. It’s like wanting to give somebody something and in the end just pulling back and seeing time and history and everybody’s mortality. Not just the person I’m referring to in the text”. 

During the pandemic, an iconic image of Wojnarowicz went viral multiple times. In it, he’s facing away from the camera, and the viewer sees a picture of IF I DIE OF AIDS — FORGET BURIAL — JUST DROP MY BODY ON THE STEPS OF THE F.D.A.” He was there as part of a massive protest by ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, which targeted the Food and Drug Administration because of its murderous policies that did not invest time, money or resources into the proper research and medical experimentation necessary to combat AIDS until it was forced to by ACT UP and other organizations. A key decision-maker targeted by ACT UP at the time was Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the time, who later went on to become a chief medical advisor to the President as the Covid-19 pandemic exploded. Wojnarowicz died in 1992 of AIDS complications. His work was not perfect, it was politically messy, but he put his politics and his voice and his experience forward in such a way that it was crystal clear which side he stood on.* May we all learn from his lesson and be so brave in sharing what we have been through in this pandemic.

*For example, the background image of When I Put My Hands On Your Body” was of a Native American burial site that was being protested by Native American activists at the time and later shut down. Some have argued that Wojnarowicz’s superimposition of text of gay intimacy over skeletons of Native people was inappropriate at best. In 1989, Wojnarowicz said this in his audio journals about what he was trying to do: If I’m making a painting about the American West and I want to talk about the railroad bringing culture — white culture — across the country and exploiting or destroying Indian culture… I see that there’s a certain amount of information that is totally ignored in this country. That all this is built on blood.”

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