When I found a message on Facebook from Steve Lewis about the funeral for Fred Rothbell-Mista, I was STUNNED. I knew that Fred had the HIV virus, but he had been living with it for so long, I just assumed he could go on forever. Well, as they say, “The word ASSUME makes an ASS of U and ME.” It also made ME feel very very sad. I didn’t even know Fred had been in the hospital, let alone that he had entered a hospice. That’s the problem with knowing someone for decades: You tend to take their presence in your life for granted. Longtime friends have a tendency to float in and out of one’s life. You might not see each other for YEARS, but, when you do come together, you just carry on the conversation without any guilt trips. Those are true friends.
And, Fred was a true friend, even though neither of us had ever been to each other ‘s homes or gone to the movies together or chatted on the phone late at night about nothing in particular. We were both Club People and that’s where our relationship began and ended. Some of us call such relationships “Disco Friends”, but that’s usually a rather demeaning term. I would never demean Fred. I liked him too much. There wasn’t a mean bone in his body and there wasn’t a false note to his being. And he was pretty damned hilarious. It was just that, outside of nightlife, he and I led different lives, though we shared many of the same longtime friends.
I hadn’t even seen much of Fred since he opened up his short-lived Apocalypse Lounge on the lower east side a few years ago. It was a cute little place with lots of little rooms that were painted in the brightest colors. He was so proud of the place. However, it appeared to struggle to find enough regulars to keep the place going. The problem with reaching a “certain age” is that, even though you have a huge circle of friends and acquaintances acquired from years of socializing and working after-dark in popular gin joints, a majority of those old pals finally reach a point where the only reason to go out anymore is to get paid or laid. The rest are either dead or have moved to another earthly locale or are just over it (“it” being going to bars/nightclubs/trendy restaurants).
I think I went to Apocalypse Lounge once. I attended opening night and had a blast. There were tons of old friends, most of whom I had not seen in years, but had always liked. Like I said, you can feel close with those you aren’t physically close to. I’ve always believed that Manhattan was a refuge for loners who liked to be around a lot of people. It also helps that all of those people I’ve formed the tightest bonds with have not one drop of neediness. It’s so tiresome to have to constantly assure people you care, just like it’s so all-consuming to have others measure your feelings towards them by how often you phone or whether you remember their birthdays or their children’s birthdays (let alone ages!). I don’t consider such niceties as the true measure of ones feelings. They are merely scripted behavior that one is supposed to follow in order to convey that those feelings exist. Maybe if I had remained in Michigan I would be more mindful of following such mindless rigid rules. Then again, that’s probably why I never felt at home back home. And neither did nearly everyone who was to become my friend once I landed in the Valhalla of Downtown.
Thank goodness for Facebook because it really helped to get the word out to those far away who loved Fred. The response to what I wrote about Fred’s demise in my “what are you doing now” bit was over-whelming. I can only imagine what feedback Steve Lewis and Stephen Saban were getting since they were the major bearers of the news. It spoke to the love so many felt for Fred.
How many were able to come in, I do not know. I went to the funeral, but I was unable to attend the nighttime get-together at his favorite restaurant on 23rd St. My husband and I had already made plans for that Sunday night and my husband had never known Fred. Therefore, I paid my respects by going to the service.
The service was beautiful. The rabbi spoke eloquently and one of Fred’s nephews spoke for the family. He was great. I had no idea that Fred had become an uncle at SIX YEARS OLD. Hilarious. My first husband had been in a similar situation because he was the youngest child of a second marriage. He had half-brothers and sisters who were the age of my PARENTS and nephews and nieces who were older than he was. But, he was never really close with any of them. In Fred’s case, it appears that he was very close with his family. His nieces and nephews, as well as his grandnieces and grandnephews, quite obviously adored him. It seems he was the playful sort, down on all fours & preferring to hang with all the kids rather than the adults in his family. Reminds me of Musto (believe it or not). Musty was always the horsy, with all the little ones hanging off of him & going for rides. Personally, I’ve always preferred the Auntie Mame role. Thankfully, my little ones have embraced that because I’m not one for piggyback rides.
In the chapel of the funeral home hung a large poster of Fred as his alter-ego Rocco Primavera. Rocco looked exactly as you would think someone named that would look: Pompadour, chains, unbuttoned shirt. Fred had been hilarious as Rocco. There was a board below on which various snapshots hung. I think they were of Fred as a youngster, but I never got to look because I screeched in after the rabbi had started and quickly took a seat on a couch next to recent widow Colleen Weinstein. “We have to stop meeting like this.” Colleen cracked wisely in my ear. It was her husband Arthur’s funeral that had been my last…or was it Musto’s father, Ciro’s? I’m such a cow I can’t even remember. That’s another bit of fallout from being an old bat: Short term memory loss.
What struck me was how small the coffin seemed. Fred wasn’t a giant and he had shocked me quite a bit when I last saw him because he had looked so sunken and frail. His nephew said that it seemed as if, suddenly, Fred’s body had just given in to the disease. I know so many who have been lucky enough to have lived for so long with that terrible plague that had once been such a swift death sentence, it seemed like a third of my phone book was routinely wiped out every three months. Over the last decade, due to the potent drug cocktails more readily available, those who were once condemned not only lived full lives and looked great, but thrived. That’s why Fred’s death and Don Monroe’s, a few years ago, were such a shock. We’ve all been spoiled, not only by obvious results, but also by blind hope.
When the reaper comes a’callin’, some believe it’s over when it’s over or you keep coming back until whatever is supposed to be resolved is resolved or that there is that heaven/hell/purgatory situation or the virgins or whatever. The problem is that once you know the answer…
Anyway, I certainly hope that unless there’s nothing…which is fine with me… there’s another option: One where neither the pious nor the evildoers nor unbaptised babies nor virgins are floating around. Just a place where you can get a great glass of wine, the lobster and caviar are plentiful, the music is never played out, the banquettes are cushy and the characters are colorful. And if Fred is hosting the VIP room (where EVERYONE is welcomed – except for stockbrokers, entourages and narcissistic jackasses) or Rocco pops up every so often to gift us with some heartfelt cheese, well THAT would certainly have made the wait worth it.
You were a good one, Fred Rothbell-Mista. I hope you have found peace (kina hora).