December 1, 2016 – I didn’t really plan to post this on World AIDS Day. It just turned out that way, but I can’t think of a more appropriate time for this story or a more appropriate tale for this day, because, of all these stories – these Profiles in Grace that will continue to emerge from my keyboard over the next weeks and months – none spans the globe or the gamut of human experience more widely than the story of Peter Frazer. And, it is truly a story of redemption as, in the end, he grasped his personal demons by the horns and, with the love of a friend, conquered them. But, let me start at the beginning…
[NOTE TO MY READERS: This is the third in this series, written to illuminate the wonderful lives led by my too-many friends who were simply stopped in their tracks by AIDS during the 80s and early 90s. If you missed it, I encourage you to read the full introduction to and rationale for this series at the beginning of the first of these profiles here: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2016/04/16/tbtgts1-randall-robbins-actor-teacher-leader-friend/ ]
How We Knew Each Other
Peter Frazer was my first real New York City neighbor.
In the last installment of this series, I told the story of George Falkenberry, my Alabama friend whose apartment provided the landing pad that made my entry into NYC in March of 1978 possible. Having arrived without any thought of where I might set up housekeeping – but with no doubt that it would happen – I set about asking every last person I met, regardless of the circumstances, if they knew of an apartment for rent (there being no computers or internet in those days), and I had only been at this for about two weeks when one night, while sipping on a Budweiser at the Wildwood bar just a couple of blocks from my temporary digs, I met an aspiring ballet dancer named Richard Karsten who allowed as how he did know of an apartment being vacated in his building that would soon be available.
I took the name and number of his landlady, and the next day had my first encounter with the memorable – nay, unforgettable – Renate Smulewicz, a fiery, red-headed Auschwitz survivor who, with her husband Jan Jacob (a brain surgeon), had used their reparations to invest in two Upper West Side brownstones. We took to each other instantly, and within minutes I had my first very own New York City home at 16 West 69th Street, only fifty yards from Central Park, for the grand sum of $285 per month. I moved in on May 15, 1978.
It was a lovely studio apartment (one big room with separate bath and kitchen) on the fifth-floor of an elegant but timeworn brownstone that had originally housed some well-to-do family of the Belle Epoque, but had long since been carved up into a dozen apartments of widely varying size. Though it was four floors up (counting the stoop) my apartment had two large, north-facing windows, a sliver-view of the park and retained much of its original character (especially after I was done wood-stripping and painting) with a mirrored Victorian mantle piece and matching oak shutters that folded out of sight into the window frames. It was perfect.
In those days, the Upper West Side was still seedy around the edges and just beginning to gentrify into the Yuppie enclave it became in the 80s, but the house I moved into had been very fine in its prime (The all-marble house across the street had been built by Enrico Caruso at the turn of the Century). Even the stairways still sported all of their original carved banisters and black-walnut paneling covered the walls, right up to the top floor. It was also the only house on the block that had managed to retain its wide, welcoming stoop, which became a favorite gathering place for many of us, in time.
Originally intended as servants’ quarters, the top floor included five residences: my studio plus four additional tiny rooms, rented individually, that shared a bathroom off the back hall. These “Single Room Occupancy” (SRO) rooms – for which Mrs. S charged $60 per month – were a vestige of the Great Depression, when they were as much as many people could afford, and those on my floor were occupied by four single men: Nicholas Skerchock, the iconoclastic long-time music transcriber for Andre Kostelanetz (I lived there for four years and saw him maybe five times, but we shared a wall, so I heard his banging for me to turn down the noise fairly often), two retired NYC policemen named McCollough and McCann who spent their days in a neighborhood pub and their nights in a stupor, and Peter, who, at 21, was seven years younger than I.
It took a couple of weeks of seeing each other around and about before we actually spoke. He had acquired the sullen demeanor of an abused puppy, so I gave him plenty of room, but eventually the opportunity presented itself, and we began to get to know each other a bit. I say “a bit” because, like Skerchock, he generally kept to himself, and I eventually learned why when he told me that he was a heroin addict and supported his habit by hanging out on East 53rd Street, the well-known place to go if you were in the business of picking up tricks. He also had a day job working for a placement agency as a temporary typist, so you might say he was a functional addict, but his sunken eyes and ghostly appearance were telling.
Within weeks of my arrival, Officer McCann died, and my new friend, Leath Nunn, took the empty room (Mrs. S gave him a free month’s rent if he would clean it out, which took several days of serious scrubbing). And, shortly after that, Peter moved out. He hadn’t even told me he was leaving – he was just gone one day – so there was no chance to exchange information, and I had no reason to think that I would ever see him again.
Until I did, nine years later.
It will be thirty years, this coming February, since Richard and I moved into the great apartment we still occupy today on 106th Street. We are just a hundred feet, or so, to the east of Broadway, and it was while walking up that busy boulevard only a few months after moving into the area, that I saw Peter again, though this Peter Frazer was a much improved version in every way.
I almost missed him as we passed each other on the sidewalk, but I realized who he was just a second later and turned. “Peter?” I barked to make sure it penetrated. He turned around to see who had called, but the man looking at me was transformed in every way from his earlier self. The eyes were bright green-blue, alive and sparkly, his cheeks rosy, his step had acquired a bounce, and, of all things, he was wearing medical scrubs with a stethoscope around his neck.
He turned around and looked at me, but having grown a beard by then so my homophobic bosses at Rolling Stone would take me more seriously, I looked considerably different than I had in ’78, so I said, “Tommy. It’s Tommy Wilson from Mrs. Smulewicz’s.” I knew that would work because nobody who met her could forget Mrs. S.
“Tommy!” it finally clicked in as a smile spread across his face. “How the hell are you?” He still had his soft Australian accent.
He was on his way to class, but we spoke long enough for him to tell me that he had recently finished his undergraduate degree and was studying to become an M.D. at Mt. Sinai. You could have felled me with a puff of air. From then on, I would see him from time to time walking his dog, and more often than not, he was accompanied by his, by then, live-in girlfriend, Diane. This was counter-intuitive, I suppose, but you truly never can tell about people, and they clearly delighted in each others company, so I was happy for them both.
In due time, Peter finished school and began to build a thriving practice as an internist. We continued to run into each other on the street, but after a few years passed, I began to notice the light fading in his eyes once again, his energies sagging, his complexion becoming pasty, but it never even occurred to me that he might have returned to his earlier habit. Tragically, by then, I recognized the all-too-familiar signs. He always smiled and said hello when we met, and he never complained or even mentioned it, but we both knew the unavoidable truth: he was dying of AIDS. I stopped seeing him on the sidewalk along about 1992. We never actually said goodbye, he simply disappeared from view.
Childhood and Family
Peter was born on the second day of January, 1957, to Helen and John Raymond Frazer of Oxfordshire, England, but his early years were unsettled. They lived about thirteen miles south of Oxford at 9 Ash Lane, Ambrosden, Bicester, but for whatever reason, John and Helen Frazer decided in mid-1959, when Peter was two-and-a-half, to pull up stakes and travel to the other side of the world.
And, so it was that, on June 9, 1959, the family – John, Helen, Raymond, Jr., (nine years older than his little brother), and Peter – departed Liverpool for Melbourne, Australia on the ship Fair Sky. On the passenger list, his father is described as a farm worker, but as you can see in the photo, the Frazers didn’t live on a farm. I believe he was a horse trainer, but I’m still trying to confirm that.
In any case, Australia was their new home and that was where Peter lived with his parents and where he presumably attended school, played with friends and did all the usual things we do as children growing up, until, that is, when he was fifteen and – like far too many of my friends in those early days – he was disowned by his parents and summarily kicked out of the house because his gay tendencies had began to show.
After Leaving Home
Where do you go when you’re a bright, talented, good-l00king fifteen-year old who suddenly finds himself cut off and homeless in Melbourne? Though I have done my best to contact his brother Raymond, I have not been able to reach him, so I am woefully short of information about the early years of Peter’s wanderings. What is clear, however, is Peter’s determination to get as far away from home as he could in both miles and mentality; to find a place where he could both be true to himself and fulfill his destiny. Diane told me that he landed in New York when he was sixteen, so he clearly wasted no time getting here, and, once he arrived, I’m sure he found the city more than welcoming for a bright blonde charmer with an Australian accent. And, I suppose it’s no real surprise, extrapolating further down the predictable path he was traveling, that by the time I met him at age twenty-one, some of the bloom had faded from the rose. Five years of uninhibited frolic can take their toll.
But the real story here – the tale worth telling – is what happened in those years between ’79 and ’87, and that was a story I didn’t know until I started trying to put the pieces together for this profile. All I knew was that he was a lost, lonely pony when we met, but by the time we became reacquainted, he had utterly transformed himself into a bright, energetic doctor with patients and a purpose. It was a mystery that had puzzled me for years, so I went digging for answers.
And, what I found was an old, old story, but one that never fails: the redemptive power of the love of one person for another. The astonishing transformation of Peter could only have happened with the help of a determined, loving helpmate who was willing to do the hard work, to forgive and forget and forge a future made of stouter stuff. And, in Peter’s case, it turns out that it was his friend Diane – the one I so often saw walking with him in our neighborhood – who rose to the occasion; who cared enough to see the potential pushed down so deep within him, and found a way to get it out.
The story begins in December of 1980, only a few months after Peter left Mrs. S’s. The temporary typing agency had sent him on assignment to the offices of McGraw-Hill, the textbook people, where, as fate would have it, a young and equally eager Diane Harriford had also been placed, and they met by chance over lunch one day in the company cafeteria. Something must have clicked, because, in the days and weeks ahead, they became close friends, but since Peter’s formal education had come to an abrupt halt when he left Melbourne, while Diane was already a college graduate and working on her first advanced degree, the disparity in their backgrounds severely limited their common vocabulary. And so it was that, as their relationship seemed headed into uncharted territory for both of them, Diane said to Peter, “Look, if you really want to hang out with me, you’ve got to get some education.”
I can’t really say, but that may have been the first time in his life that anyone had actually known him well enough, and cared enough, to insist that there was more to him than met the eye, and who was willing to help him realize the potential that she saw and that he must have known, all along, was buried deep within. After all, his inner voice had moved him halfway around the planet in search of personal fulfillment. Here, for the first time in his life I imagine, was someone who actually loved him him for his mind as well as his body and who wanted him to rise up to meet his possibilities. He must have realized that with Diane’s help and encouragement, he might just have a chance, and so it was that the very next month, in January of 1981, Peter enrolled in two college classes at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus, one in science and one in literature. He aced them both.
Encouraged, and with Diane’s promise to help support them with her teaching while he pursued his education, he enrolled full time the very next semester, and sailed through to his degree with straight “A”s and a perennial spot on the Dean’s List. Following graduation, he moved right on to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, and, at long last – after nearly a decade of study and work, all the while supported by Diane – Peter was graduated as a fully-fledged medical doctor in 1989. He was also diagnosed, that very day, with full-blown AIDS.
He must have known for some time that he was HIV positive, and one can only wonder how much that condition had played a part in his determination to become a doctor. Perhaps he had hopes of helping in the development of treatments for AIDS, or even a cure, but if so, his hopes would never be realized.
I cannot even imagine how devastating Peter’s news was to Diane. After nearly ten years together, almost all of it spent with Peter in pursuit of his education while Diane took teaching gigs to pay the rent, her dreams of a future in which each of them would prove a bulwark to the other, were dashed and, even worse, there was no one, no place, no easy target for the anger and pain and frustration she must have felt. I have the greatest sympathy for what she must have gone through, and for the endless months of suffering as she stood by his side until the end of his life.
As Peter’s condition worsened, his brother Raymond did fly over from Australia to assess the situation and do what he could do to help, though it seems his primary objective was to get Peter to agree to go back home to Melbourne, where he might spend his last days in the very home that had ejected him twenty years earlier. I’m pretty sure that Peter would rather have eaten nails than make that trip, and ultimately, when it became clear that Peter wasn’t going anywhere, that he was determined to remain with Diane, in New York, until the end, Raymond returned home alone. Peter died on May 28th, 1994.
Getting a handle on just how successful Peter might have become had he lived, how many lives he might have saved, how many positive ripples might have circled out from him as he contributed to the good in the world, is impossible. But we humans have a way of choosing for our friends – and especially our partners – those whom we believe to be our intellectual equals; whose perceptions and internal realities jibe with our own, and I believe we can extrapolate at least to some degree just what Peter might have gone on to accomplish from the success enjoyed in the years since he died by his faithful and generous partner, Diane, who has accomplished a great deal.
To illustrate, I found this telling biography accompanying an article in the International Journal of the Humanities she authored with a colleague following Hurricane Katrina:
“Diane Harriford is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of Women’s Studies at Vassar College. For the last twenty years, she has been teaching sociology, Women’s Studies, and African American Studies while engaging in various social movements. In the 1970s, she was an assistant to Bella Abzug, a member of the US House of Representatives from New York. Diane also worked closely with the Coalition of Labor Union Women. Currently, Diane is involved in the National Women’s Studies Association and the Black Radical Congress. Diane has spoken widely on women and slavery in the 19th century, on Black women and sexuality, and Black women in the academy. Most recently she has spoken in Brazil on the rise of Black conservatives in the United States and on Hurricane
Katrina in Tunisia.”
Like Diane, Peter had the chops, as jazz people say, to play his own tune, a beautiful tune reflecting realities forged in the fires of life lived hard, but tempered, at last, by the love of others, and had he not been so rudely and roughly brought down, there is no telling just how many contributions he might have made to the betterment of us all. He was a bright, clever, intrepid and determined man of charm and grace, and the world is a poorer place for his loss.
When he died, there was a tiny paid death notice in the New York Times stating that Diane and his brother Raymond would be announcing the time of his memorial service. And, in due time, it was held in the beautiful, soaring Cathedral of St. John the Divine, right up the street from where he lived and loved and practiced his medicine. And, it is entirely appropriate and just, it seems to me, that the priest who officiated at the service of my friend Peter – former addict and street hustler turned loving partner and gentle healer – was none other than the fabled Bishop of New York, The Right Reverend Paul Moore.
There is no panel for Peter in the AIDS quilt, but there should be. And while these Profiles in Grace are written to illuminate the lives of those we lost rather than to document their deaths, there was another article published after Peter died – a touching and painful-to-read piece about the last years of his life – that was dedicated to his memory by its author, Professor Carolyn Ellis of the University of South Florida. If you would like to read it, you can find at this link: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/240761189_Speaking_of_Dying_An_Ethnographic_Short_Story .
I was able to speak with Diane about all this only once, back in the summer, and she was very up front about the pain of it all, and how difficult it is, even now, to talk about Peter and their time together. Nevertheless, when I suggested glossing over some of Peter’s earlier difficulties, she was quite clear that I should tell his story accurately, warts and all. “It’s already out there,” she told me, “I wrote the story myself and published it some years ago, so please feel free to tell it like it was. It’s no good to anyone if you don’t tell the truth.”
And so I have. Peter Frazer, if there were a dean’s list for life, you would surely be near the top. We hardly knew ye, my friend, and you are truly Gone Too Soon.
First and foremost, I have to acknowledge Diane Harriford for her help in making this profile possible. I am also indebted to Professor Carolyn Ellis of the University of South Florida for helping me connect the dots, to the delightful and extremely helpful Patrice M. Kane at the Walsh Family Library of the Fordham University Rose Hill Campus for sending me the yearbook photo and a copy of the death notice, and Google Streetview for both the photo of the house in Ambrosden as well as Mrs. Smulewicz’s house on West 69th Street. Thank you all.
© 2016 by George Thomas Wilson, all rights reserved