Saturday Night: I had a friend at the end of the world

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THE BEST friend I ever had was Haoui, pronounced Howie, born in Brooklyn in 1952. By the time I met him in 1984 he was the First Doorman of Manhattan nightlife, a man of power and influence. He worked the portals of New York's most fashionable clubs. If Haoui didn't recognise you, either as a celebrity or highly evolved human being, you'd probably wait a while in pavement purgatory. That way, he reasoned, the tone of the night would be set fairly high. He called it 'dressing the room'.

His skill was in judging people. Another friend said his eyes must have seen 1,000 years, they were so heavy with wisdom. He could read anybody, and find the good in almost everybody. And since he was so rarely mistaken, I wore our friendship like an honour. Just sharing a joke with him made me feel smart. People gave him love and respect. He made swaggering pop stars wait in line. He was more than cool, he was God-like.

And we, his real friends (we numbered dozens, as opposed to the hundreds of acquaintances), we had instant access. The velvet ropes would part as, time and again, he beckoned us through the crowd and into the sexiest nightclubs in New York, back in those distant Eighties, when people still fantasised about such things. He gave us free drinks tickets, and we drank with Matt and Andy and Diane and Keith and thousands of fabulous nobodies.

But more than this, he would examine our dysfunctional lives and explain them to us, patiently. He counselled us when relationships fell apart. He gave us money when we were broke, so that we could stay in New York and try to make our dreams come true. Imagine having a friend like that. Then try to imagine how we felt when, this time two years ago, he told us he had decided to kill himself.

It wasn't that we thought he would never die. We already knew that gay men in New York lived in the shadow of doom. There was little point in discussing it, because talking to Haoui about his safety would have been like telling your parents the facts of life. But when it happened, the speed of it was astonishing.

We had all known since autumn 1990, when he telephoned with the results of his test. I had actually guessed that summer, from the lesion on his foot. But he was having holistic therapy and visualisation work, and his weight was holding up quite well. In February 1991 he stayed at my place and we sat up all night watching the Superbowl, eating ice cream and talking. He had a lesion across his cheek, but said he was fine. Despite the obvious, I wanted to believe him, so I did.

The last time I saw him was in May, just three months later. He had flown in from New York to attend a christening. At Victoria station he was sitting on a step. I barely recognised him. He seemed to have someone else's body. I said 'Haoui?' and instantly regretted that question. He turned. Only his eyes were recognisable; every other defining feature had been pared down to the brink of extinction. And in his eyes I saw something new, a look of incomprehension and fear. In the car I noticed how hot he was. I could smell it.

I went on holiday to Greece next day, leaving him on the sofa to rest. Some friends were coming round to take care of him. We agreed I would visit him in New York. When I returned, I phoned him and he said he was going to commit suicide.

How can you argue with someone who always knows best? He was losing control of his body. This, more than the pain of cancer or the sickness brought on by the drugs, was what decided him. He hated being helpless and wanted to die while he still had his mind. He had seen too many friends cling on until they sank into delirium, their lives and all their memories sucked into a bitter, futile rage. He said: 'I've had a beautiful life, Alix, and I don't want to forget it before I die.'

In death as in life, he gave his friends something special: the chance to say everything we wanted to say to him before he went. Most of us are shy children in the face of Death; we cannot bring ourselves to say hello. Haoui introduced us to Death, and made us look him in the eye.

We spoke on the phone every night. As he prepared for oblivion, I was frantic at the prospect of life without him. With only days left, I was still ringing him for advice. Like, sorry you're dying and all that, but we've had a fight - what should I do? In the end, he gathered his closest friends around him in his flat, they had a kind of party, smoked some grass and watched The Simpsons - his favourite television show - and talked about the good old days.

Then he swallowed the barbiturates, which had been bought from a street dealer. He said that in any civilised society you wouldn't have to act like a criminal in order to kill yourself.

I guess I wasn't ready to kiss Death on our first date, as it were. So I stayed at home and cried for a week. Just cried and cried, like a baby.

That was two years ago next weekend. So this time of year is a kind of observance for me. No matter where I am or what I'm doing, I will be thinking about him: Haoui, the best friend I ever had.

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