Rich, me and Philip with our friend Jane in front of Tip Top Cafe in Brockton — mid-1980s
The COVID-19 crisis has turned much of America, but especially New York City, into a scared, furtive, grim place, and that conjures up memories of that other virus-fueled trauma — AIDS. Unlike COVID-19, which has mostly (but not exclusively) targeted the elderly, AIDS was particularly ruthless with people in the prime of their lives. Over 700,000 Americans have died of AIDS, including my childhood friend Rich Martel, who died 30 years ago this month on June 12, 1990.
We had grown up together in the working class city of Brockton, MA, best friends since first grade in the Ellis Brett elementary school, where he was known as “Richie.” We were both skinny kids with buzz cuts who shared an interest in politics, history, and geography. During our various sleepovers, he had introduced me to Superman, Batman, and the “Man From Uncle,” and we spent many hours on our bikes exploring our city’s distant neighborhoods.
He was remarkably creative, with a natural talent for drawing. When the visiting art teacher came to our elementary school she would smile benignly at our crayon and fingerpaint efforts until she came to Rich’s desk, at which point she’d go “Whoa, what’s this?” and spirit his work away to a city-wide art competition that he’d inevitably win. He kept at it too, producing artwork in high school and college. All his friends ended up with silkscreens, drawings, and paintings on their walls. My own most treasured works of art are a series of three photographs of Hollywood actresses, taken with a Polaroid camera, blown up and framed. They hang in my dining room and every day I think how lucky I am to have these beautiful pieces in my house. (And thanks to his friends Amy and Eileen Morgenweck, who gave me the two portraits they inherited, so I could bring them together again.)
Rich was smart too, which came out both in his academics and also in a thirst to launch imaginative projects, such as “Rich Richie’s Almanac,” a neighborhood newspaper he created in the sixth grade. In junior high school he was placed in the advanced program for gifted students and in high school he was elected President of the National Honor Society. He was even accepted at Harvard but chose to go to Bowdoin instead because at Harvard they’d only admitted him as a commuting student. His intelligence also manifested itself in humor. He was one of the funniest people I knew, not only as a great story-teller but also as a trenchant observer of other people’s foilbles.
I was also struck by his kindness and sympathy for underdogs. In high school he’d be the one to dance with the fat girl that the rest of us averted our eyes to, and when he snuck our friend Carol into his bedroom one night, it was because she had been kicked out of the house by her father and had no place else to stay.
Rich and I shared another best friend from Ellis Brett — Philip Tasho — and we all remained friends until he died. We ate lunch together every day in the West Junior High School cafeteria and when we graduated from Brockton High, the three of us spent a week at my grandmother’s cottage on Nantucket, exploring the island, trying to cook our own meals, and playing Risk. After this we all went off to different colleges and then moved to different cities, managing to keep the friendship alive in those pre-Internet days with the occasional long distance phone call, holiday trips back to Brockton, and overnight visits. And we’d both deliver eulogies at his memorial service back in Massachusetts (which was not allowed to occur in his home parish in Brockton because he’d died of AIDS).
Rich and Philip on Nantucket senior year, the day our friends Jane, Pat and Merri came over for the day
In the 1980s, Philip and I were both working in Washington and Rich was in Manhattan. Sometimes he’d come down to see us and sometimes we’d drive up to stay with him. He took us to New York nightclubs, trendy restaurants, and arty movies, but my fondest memory is of the time the time we were riding the downtown subway and somehow we all ended up singing The Fifth Dimension’s cheesy song “The Worst Thing That Could Happen to Me.” We were oblivious to the other passengers and drunk on irony, nostalgia, and shared memories. And when we got back to his apartment we just tumbled into Rich’s king-size bed — with a history of childhood sleepovers, we had no hang-ups about who slept where.
A few years before this, he had told me he was gay. The surprise from this conversation wasn’t the orientation but the fact that he was actually interested in sex, because this was a subject that had never come up in any conversation over the previous 20 years. He’d had a few chaste girlfriends in high school — relationships that lacked any sexual spark — and because he didn’t mention girls at all in college, I had just assumed he was asexual. I have since learned not to make assumptions about other’s people’s sex lives.
Rich, Philip and me outside Ellis Brett, our elementary school about 20 years after we graduated
But his sexuality wasn’t the most interesting thing about his life in New York. He was working at BBDO, which was one of the big advertising agencies. The “Mad Men” days were over, but it was still a glamorous and exciting career, filled with celebrities, location shoots, high-pressured pitches, and internal politics. He and his partner Al managed the Diet Pepsi and G.E. accounts, and if you were watching television in the 1980s you’d recognize his stylish, funny, and sophisticated work. (When he died the agency compiled his work into a highlight reel, which appears below).
In would be inaccurate to say that Rich made a life for himself in New York. In truth, he made a life for himself in Brockton, expanded it when he went to Bowdoin, and expanded it even further when he moved to New York. He suffered no angst, lived no drama. Life was good and always had been. He had a huge appetite for friends and his day-to-day existence was one extended stream of people who had been meaningful to him over the years. In the fifth grade we once made a series of lists, ranking our favorite TV shows, movies, and comic books. One of our lists was “best friends.” I had put him and Philip as tied for number one, but his list had TEN kids tied as his best friend. The same was true as an adult; there were probably a dozen of us who considered Rich as one of our best friends. And he was generous to us all. He wouldn’t just lend you a book or record album that had piqued his enthusiasm — he’d BUY it for you. His apartment was a veritable hostel for friends, cousins, college acquaintances, and others who wanted a free place to crash in New York. And he’d be sure to take them on a tour of his favorite haunts.
In 1988, I moved to New York City myself. By then Rich had a handsome committed boyfriend named Chris Hill, a great apartment on the Upper West Side, a thriving career and a solid group group of fun and loyal friends (like something out of, well, “Friends”) who had survived New York City together. He found my first apartment and when I moved in discovered a big “Welcome to New York” basket that was filled with New York City tour guides, street and subway maps, local food delicacies from Zabars, hand towels and other Upper West Side treats.
He was immediately enamored with my girlfriend Meg, who fit the mold of his other female friends in New York — smart, unpretentious, opinionated, low-maintenance, and most important of all, “normal.” She was taken with him too, noting how handsome he was. What? Rich Martel handsome? But when I looked at him with fresh eyes, I noticed that he’d been working out, had a nice haircut, had grown into his face and was no longer the gawky kid I’d grown up with. Since he got along so well with Meg, he was the only one I confided to when I was thinking about proposing — not because I needed his advice but because I needed his enthusiasm to give me the courage.
If you lived in Manhattan in the 1980s you thought about AIDS all the time. Even if you were monogamous and weren’t worried about catching it yourself, the death toll among the most creative people in the city was staggering and there was almost certainly someone who you DID worry about. So of course I was concerned about Rich, but didn’t have the nerve to ask him directly how much danger he was in. He and Chris seemed to be in great health, so maybe they were the lucky ones who wouldn’t catch it.
But all of a sudden he began to lose weight. I also started to notice the occasional purple blotch on his arms, which I feared might be Kaposi Sarcoma, the tell-tale sign of a severely compromised immune system. But since he didn’t say anything I assumed things were still OK. Then one Sunday night in late August, three weeks before my wedding, he cancelled our plans to go to the movies and asked me to bring him some soup because he was too sick to make dinner. When he opened the door he looked so terrible that I finally asked what the problem was. In a way he seemed relieved to finally be telling me the truth. Yes, he did have AIDS and had had it for three-and-a-half years. He’d been taking AZT, but the benefits were wearing off. The disease was pretty advanced and Chris, who actually looked healthier, was even sicker than he was. In fact, Chris was so sick that he wouldn’t be able to come to the wedding. But he made me promise not to tell anyone, especially Meg, because he didn’t want to spoil our celebration.
The night before I got married, Rich, Philip and my college friend Jim came over to the parents’ house for dinner with my parents, sister and grandmother. That was my bachelor party. He looked scarily gaunt and in a little pain but he held his own in the conversation. And he played his part the next day, reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians during the ceremony. When it was over, he even drove us to the Boston so we could catch a plane for our honeymoon.
Philip, Rich and me at my wedding, with our high school friend Pat and her future wife Kathi
After this things spiraled down fast. The Martels were a close and amazingly supportive family so Rich’s sister Lisa quit her job and moved into Rich and Chris’s apartment to take care of them, make sure they got fed and went to the doctor. Chris died the next February. Despite his grief and illness Rich soldiered on at work, even flying to Budapest to film one last GE commercial. That Easter, Lisa and Rich came to our apartment for the holiday dinner and Lisa told one hilarious story after another to distract us from our gloom. On the end of May he took Lisa and his brother Billy to Paris so they could see France for the first time. On the night he returned he called and asked me to bring over some grape juice and when Meg and I arrived we found him curled up in a ball on his bed, shivering from a fever. A week later he went into the hospital, and a week after that he died. These were the days when visitors were required to leave at a prescribed time but Lisa had fiercely insisted on staying with him the night before he died, and she was there in his final moments.
Through it all Rich was stoic, blaming no one and refusing to rail aganst the universe. At his densely packed funeral even the priest marveled at his courage and wondered whether he, himself, despite being a man of God, could also be so calm in the face of death. Rich had asked me to be one of his eulogists and I emphasized his humor, telling the story of how, when he asked me to speak at his funeral I had said he couldn’t die yet because he needed to live long enough to find out who killed Laura Palmer. His response — “I’m pretty sure they have ‘Twin Peaks’ in heaven … and maybe even in Hell,” brought down the house, which was only appropriate because telling a funny story was one of his greatest pleasures.
It was also in that eulogy (which you can read, along with a second remembrance for he memorial service, here: Martel eulogies) that I uttered the immortal line “He especially loved politics and history — I’m so glad he lived to see the fall of both the Berlin Wall and Donald Trump.” So there’s that.
When Rich died at age 36 I consoled myself that he’d had a good life. He’d had a fulfilling career, had found mature love with Chris, and had died in the embrace of a loving family. It was only with the passage of time that I realized how much he’d been cheated of. He never met his nephews and nieces, whom he would have adored, or had the chance to reach his full professional potential. He missed decades of love, the entire “Seinfeld” series, the reboot of “Twin Peaks,” Barack Obama, the second half of the career of Martin Scorsese, and the rebirth of New York City.
Rich wsn’t the last AIDS victim. Not by a long shot. His former boyfriend Rick Wiley died. My dentist, another of his ex-boyfriends, died. Each death was a separate and unique tragedy but for his friends and especially for his family, Rich’s death was a loss that created an unfillable hole in our lives. Three decades later he still appears in my dreams and every glance at the art on my walls recalls the loss. At least once a month something happens in the world that causes Meg and me to say to each other — out loud — Rich would have loved (or hated) this. We are particuarly grieved that he never met our son and his talented, artistic friends, who remind us so much of him.
If there’s the tiniest sliver of a silver lining from Rich’s death it’s the solace of knowing that death itself is not completely the end. Thirty years later his memory is as vividly alive to everyone who knew him now as it was then. Would that the same could be said for all of us after we’re gone.