Joseph Caldwell’s memoir ‘In the Shadow of the Bridge’ revisits 1980s New York, AIDS epidemic

By : Ryan Williams-Jent
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New York was a different place in 1950, which is exactly why Joseph Caldwell loved it. The Milwaukee native, fresh from the Air Force and then 21, was finally ready to live openly as the young gay man he was. The city gave him that opportunity.

He found the home any New York-bound aspiring writer would want. It was an apartment “In the Shadow of the Bridge,” now the title of his memoir – which he saw published at age 91 this year.

Number Eight Hague St., long since demolished to connect the East Side Highway to the Brooklyn Bridge, was nestled so closely beside it that Caldwell could reach its gray stones from his bathroom window. It lacked central heating, but had a number of in-demand commodities: hot water, a stove and a cast-iron-enclosed fireplace, all for a whopping $24 a month.

“The rent is one thing that gives a measure to how the city has changed,” Caldwell says. “When I moved, New York was inexpensive. Every fall a wave of creative people came – painters, writers, composers – but they can’t afford it anymore. By the 70s something happened, all of a sudden rents began to go up.”

Caldwell says it changed New York’s character but he still calls the city home. “I can’t bad mouth it too much,” he muses. “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. It just seemed more vivid to me than it is now, but that could also be because I was young; a factor that has to be acknowledged.”

As vivid and as different from Wisconsin as New York was, there were limits to living openly. “You had to be very, very careful if people knew you were gay,” Caldwell explains. He likens his friendships to secret societies and notes that his sexual encounters were mostly meetings of chance.

One such encounter came nine years after his move – by way of the Brooklyn Bridge, no less – when he met Gale. “I could see coming toward me from the bridge’s Manhattan side a young man wearing chinos and a white shirt with long sleeves, and an unbuttoned collar,” he details the encounter. “I kept walking toward him. He kept walking toward me. A second or two before we passed each other, he abruptly shifted his gaze in my direction, connecting with my own reflexive glance.”

Theirs is a story of love and loss central to Caldwell’s memoir, officially described as “a celebration of the halcyon years of the 50s and 60s that led up to the AIDS epidemic, which changed the emotional landscape of the city forever.”

The memoir is broken into a distinctive beginning, middle and end, relating the duo’s decades-long love story through Caldwell’s intertwining triumphs and tragedies. After falling in love, “the bliss of their brief affair quickly fizzles and he is left in longing,” the synopsis reads.

“Little does Caldwell know that, years later, after he sees success as a writer, he will meet up with Gale again – this time under the shadow of the AIDS epidemic that has inspired Caldwell to become a caretaker for the dying,” it concludes. “In a twist of fate, the quixotic love that plagued Caldwell his entire life gives him one last chance at a relationship but in a completely unexpected and tragic way.”

By 1981, Caldwell was well on his way to becoming an acclaimed playwright and novelist. He had published his first novel, written for soap operas including “Dark Shadows” and was awarded The Rome Prize for Literature by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

He’d also tragically learned that “a gay cancer was going around, and that it was expected that five percent of those who had it would die.” The New York Times – which first reported the “rare cancer” that same year – later found that the AIDS epidemic would kill more than 100,000 New Yorkers during the 80s and 90s, nearly a quarter of AIDS-related deaths nationwide at that time.

A culture of open love and sex was replaced by unrelenting fear. “One of the really horrific parts was how people were abandoned by their families and by their friends,” Caldwell says. “It outed many people at the time and people were scorned.”

They were “dismissed, thrown out and told that we were not a part of the human family,” he continues. “That was very apparent during the epidemic. People shouldn’t forget what we went through.”

Caldwell, a devout Catholic who describes himself as “gay as a goose by God’s good grace,” turned to the church to help those most impacted. “I went to St. Vincent’s and became a volunteer in their program,” he says. “It meant a great deal to me.

“I didn’t want to sit around wringing my hands, weeping or even praying,” he says. “I wanted to do something and I was given the chance to do it.”

The church, demolished in 2013, served New Yorkers for more than 150 years. It treated incoming survivors of the Titanic and was later the primary hospital for those injured on Sept. 11. In the 80s, it became the first AIDS Ward on the East Coast.

In 1986, one third of St. Vincent’s 350 hospital beds were filled with patients living with AIDS. Caldwell and other volunteers utilized a “no demands, no expectations” mantra to help them. “You just did what they needed. Whatever their need was that was within your competence,” he explains.

It resulted in relationships with those in his care that he still cherishes today. “I will never forget them,” he says. “My gratitude for being given the chance to help will never diminish.”

Caldwell’s early days at St. Vincent’s would prepare him to revisit another relationship. He reconnected with Gale after 15 years apart, learning he had also contracted AIDS.

He would live with him until his dying breath. “It was a terrible thing,” Caldwell reflects on the epidemic. “Nobody got off easy. Nobody.”

Caldwell shares his account with readers now in hopes that they see humanity. “We’re always learning about what it means to be human,” he says, and “In the Shadow of the Bridge” is a fine example of exactly that.

“In The Shadow of the Bridge,” a memoir by Joseph Caldwell published by Delphinium Books, is available now wherever books are sold.

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