Spencer Cox, an ACT UP veteran who founded a think tank called the Medius Institute for Gay Men’s Health, suggests that anybody who lived through the worst of the AIDS crisis has lasting trauma and tends to suffer elevated levels of drug problems, starting later in life. “These aren’t people who were ticking time bombs to begin with and then skidded off the road. They’re our best and brightest. I can’t tell you how many terrific, smart, hardworking, amazing people I know hit middle age and just lost it,” he says.
As Torres stood sleeping before Judge Gibbons, court clerks thumbed through paperwork frantically. Finally, the judge spoke, and Torres lifted his head. “I see there is an open bench warrant,” Judge Gibbons said finally. It turned out Torres had missed a court date on unrelated charges, one involving an alleged assault on a neighbor in his old Chelsea apartment and another alleging drug possession. Unbeknownst to him, a warrant for his arrest had been issued in October.
His attorney, Barry Agulnick, protested to the judge. “He believed that that case had been dismissed. Why would he skip?”
“The problem could be,” Gibbons interrupted, “that due to a drug habit, he’s amassing cases so fast he cannot keep track of them.”
He ordered Torres—“or Dr. Torres, if you indeed are a doctor”—held on $5,000 bail. It was a sum that Torres couldn’t produce. So he was handcuffed and led to the Tombs, where he would spend the next week.
“He’s hit the bottom,” said Agulnick. “Some guys catch a break every once in a while. With Torres, it’s never.”
The next week, Agulnick quit the case; he hadn’t been paid in months.
AIDS wasn’t yet on the horizon when Gabriel Torres set his sights on medicine. The oldest son of a sugarcane farmhand from Ponce, in southern Puerto Rico, Torres was lured to NYU in 1976 with a large financial-aid package to become the first member of his family to earn a degree. He went to Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons as a National Health Service Corps scholar, which requires young doctors to spend a number of years working with underserved populations in exchange for full tuition. Diabetes and nephrology were in his plans, not infectious diseases.
That changed in 1983, the year he arrived at St. Vincent’s to participate in a training rotation. As a gay man, he’d heard about the new scourge. But he was too deep in his books to notice the burgeoning human toll. By that point, over 1,000 people had died of what would come to be called AIDS, yet it was still possible to live in New York and be unaware that the city was the new pandemic’s epicenter.
Torres’s eyes were opened when he entered the intensive-care unit on one of his first rounds. Young gay men occupied eight of the nine beds. Breathing tubes animated their lungs, which were wracked by Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, a previously rare affliction that the Centers for Disease Control was monitoring as part of a mysterious new outbreak. Kneeling next to one of the beds, the frantic mother of a comatose Venezuelan patient was screaming at the boyfriend she’d just learned her son had, while banging her forehead against the floor.
Throughout the hospital were other signs of the coming plague. The emergency room swelled with patients for whom there were no treatments, Torres said, with opportunistic infections so rare they didn’t appear in modern textbooks. “All around the hospital,” Torres says, “you saw Kaposi’s sarcoma and vascular dermatosis, a growth that turns your skin violaceous—it looks like you have grapes growing out of your skin, pendulous grapes; I mean your body is covered entirely with it.”
One man came in with a strange complaint: He looked and felt perfectly healthy, except that his ears were filled with the sound of a helicopter rotor—a symptom, it turned out, of AIDS-related cryptococcal meningitis, which produced intense pressure on his spinal fluids. “We thought he was malingering, but he was dead in a week,” he says. “I still remember his name.”
At the time, some city hospitals were refusing AIDS patients, shipping them instead to larger teaching facilities. Those that did accept patients often embraced draconian isolation policies. Back then I was working at the New York Native, the city’s gay newspaper, fielding calls from people stranded in hospital rooms where no doctors visited them and food trays were left outside the door—patients who were too weak to leave their own beds were sometimes left in their own waste. No hospital received more bitter complaints for more years than St. Vincent’s. “It was so completely insulting that this was happening in the Village, in the epicenter of gay life and the epidemic,” says Jim Hubbard, the co-founder of the ACT UP Oral History Project. “People would stream out of the ACT UP meeting and go and demonstrate at the hospital right then, because it was so awful.”