A MEMORY CIRCLE FOR THE LOBBY
Theodore (ted) Kerr, facilitator of The Lobby Is Always Here event
CONTENT WARNING: DEATH, SUICIDE
A year after my friend Bryn Kelly died, a handful of us gathered around an audio recorder in the basement of a library to talk about her. We called it a memory circle with the goal to create a multi voiced oral history of someone we loved and admired, and who as a ground breaking writer, advice columnist, psychic, performer, and activist, we knew would be of interest to people in the future.
Because we wanted a recording with limited background noise we turned off the fans and air condition. But it was summer. And it was hot. Maybe this is why the event never really gelled. We sat on tiny chairs in a room used for after school workshops, and sweated as we listened to each other. We never really moved beyond an awkward politeness. We didn’t build off each other, even if the transcript includes phrases like, “getting back to what was said earlier...”
As the facilitator, I could feel people’s urge to share, and reluctance. Talking about it a month later with a friend, she said, “Bryn would have hated it. We spent 2 hours talking about how smart she was. None of us mentioned that she was hot!”
This insight bothered me. I felt like I let Bryn down. But it eventually hit me: Bryn was dead. Obviously I knew that, but I don’t think I fully understood how profoundly true it was until I realized she couldn’t have hated the event. She was gone.
I am thinking about Bryn a lot in the week after hosting what we might call a memory circle for the lobby, a near mythical space that for 22 years was the gateway to the world of Whitman Walker, and is now home to The Corner.
Preparing for the event, I assumed I would toggle between the zoom and analog guests, doing short fact finding interviews, laced with emotion, putting together a physical inventory of the lobby, along with an archive of related memories. I thought I might work with a visual artist in the following weeks to construct something like a map of what was shared. But a coherent layout of the space never emerged. In part because the lobby had gone through so many renovations and it was hard to keep track of which version of the space people were talking about; also, through zoom it was hard for people to understand the orientation of the room; and maybe most intensely, no one was invested in contributing to a physical recreation. People wanted to gather, and be invited to offer anecdotes, remark how times have changed, and fulfill their duty as witnesses to the ongoing AIDS crisis.
As someone working at the intersection of art, AIDS, and activism in the US and Canada for the last 20 years, I was happy to oblige. I got my start as a volunteer at an AIDS Service Organization in the years after life saving medication was released, changing the terrain of our work. AIDS went back from being a public concern, to a private issue. Communicating my breadth of experience was needed, participants deserve to know that they are being guided by someone with a sense of direction when it comes to emotional fault lines and an ability to walk with them along the edges.
My task was made easy by the people who showed up. There were about 10 of us for most of the night, and everyone but me was a current or former employee. A laptop was set up in the center of the gallery, attached to speakers and an overhead projector. We could all see and hear each other. On the wall beamed the boxed-in faces of the folks joining via zoom from home or off-site offices. The rest of us sat in chairs 6 ft apart with our masks on in a semi circle around the projection, with one of us at the computer, and someone else holding a phone, zooming into the call to provide multiple points of view, and a sense of movement. As we began chatting, sunlight was coming through the windows of The Corner, and the rooms of the people on zoom. By the time we wrapped up, night had settled. I could feel the streetlights from the faraway suburbs, and see them coming through the windows of the gallery.
At first, easy conversation was made. People were happy to talk about how busy the lobby was, how long it would take to traverse the space because of all the conversations one could have, and all the bodies there were to navigate. We heard stories of the cornucopia of LGBT and AIDS literature available in the vestibule, and how in some cases people would have to be kicked out of the lobby for causing a scene. We also heard about waiting rooms in other clinics and how mismatched their art was to the needs of the people being served. But all of these stories hovered just above specifics. When pressed for details, the group would form a protective barrier and defer or quickly move on. Not only did no one want to remember what the floor of the lobby was like, or where exactly the rat fell out of the ceiling, or spend too much time talking about the frosted windows or the fabric chairs: no one really could bring themselves to provide too much detail about the people who waited in the lobby. This, to me, was not out of a lack of care, but rather, an abundance of care over the years. So many people passed through, and so many people died. For witnesses to the pandemic, being asked to recall even one person too closely in a group setting, can open a floodgate to everyone we have lost. Processing death is not necessarily made easier with other people, even in a memory circle. Sometimes it just means more feelings to navigate.
Here is the thing, our friend Bryn was beautiful. Dolly Parton style, with Elizabeth Taylor eyes. She dressed to accentuate her cleavage and the sensual smoothness of her skin. She made us all blush, and feel seen. In the end, she took her own life, and it took our breath away. We were not surprised, but it stung nonetheless. She had tried before. It is not easy being a woman with a southern accent in the north. It is not easy being a trans woman living with HIV. It’s not easy being the smartest person in the room when no one has any expectations of you beyond looking pretty. It is not easy growing up without money, and never getting on the other side of economic stability.
A friend of Bryn’s made a quilt soon after she died that read, “Suicide AIDS Related Death,” with AIDS crossed out. Up until 2020, it was the leading cause of death among my friends with HIV. This year it is COVID-19 and old age. As anyone who works in this field knows, medical breakthroughs have saved thousands of lives, yet suffering and death persists.
I think the reason why we had a hard time talking about Bryn’s life at the memory circle was because we were still processing her death. Thinking about the Lobby, maybe it was a cruel thing to do, to ask people to remember a space, so populated with loss. For me, the event was about capturing an archive of a place while it was still fresh in people’s memories. But maybe that was never needed.
When I came up with the title: The Lobby Is Always Here, I didn’t think I was being cute, or romantic. I thought I was declaring what could be true. But I was wrong. Just like my friend is no longer here, the lobby is gone. What we do with that knowledge is up to you. I am happy to be your witness.
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT BRYN KELLY, VIST BRYN KELLY MEMORY CIRCLE, HOSTED BY THE NEW YORK CITY TRANS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT