There is never a dull moment when Oswaldo Gomez is around.
Take one Saturday in April at Coney Island, for instance. Gomez, 66, danced to electronic music and flaunted his getup for groups of wide-eyed tourists at the Astroland Pavilion.
He wore silver shoes; a pink ruffled prom dress, rainbow-colored sequined jacket and tattered blue cape; neon bangles and turquoise rings; and a police cap decorated with green feathers, a gold Chinese ornament, small Irish flag; and his parrot, Rosita, who was perched atop his head. His bushy beard was red, orange and yellow, like a flame, and he combed it with a white plastic fork he pulled from his purse. It matched the splotches of color on the ears and paws of his miniature poodle, Carino.
Gomez always wears ball gowns made of sequins and lace, dyes his beard florescent colors, and travels everywhere with his pets, which he carts around in a baby carriage. He refers to himself as Ms. Colombia, a tribute to his namesake country. Others refer to him as Jennifer Lopez’s Grandmother, La Paisa, Luz Clarita, Christopher Columbus’s Grandmother, The Queen of Queens, Monica Lewinsky or Michelle Obama.
Gomez travels to tourist destinations across New York City where he always makes a scene, and Coney Island was no exception. He gallivanted around the pavilion for two hours, stopping often to add layers of clothing, feed his pets and pose for photos. He arbitrarily charged some onlookers $1 for his picture.
“I think his costume is crazy,” said tourist Sandra Maldonavo, after she paid up. She laughed at him and shook her head as she walked away.
On first glance, it is easy to dismiss Gomez as nothing more than a sideshow performer, one-man circus or even as certifiably insane. But there is a method to his madness, and it’s saner than most bewildered passersby could even imagine.
Gomez has AIDS. And his colorful persona helps him cope with the disease.
“People think I’m crazy, but they don’t know what happened to me,” he said. “This is my strategy to stay alive.”
Gomez was diagnosed 22 years ago during a routine checkup. Doctors told him it was full blown AIDS, not even HIV, which is the precursor to AIDS.
He was in complete shock when he received the diagnosis because he had no symptoms — no fatigue, no weight loss, no fever, no lesions.
“I was destroyed, completely,” he said. “I never expected it even though I’m gay and (was) promiscuous.”
Gomez suspects he contracted the disease while studying abroad in Spain, a time when he took many sexual partners. While he had the support of his family, his mother was quick to assume he acquired AIDS because of his lifestyle.
He recalled his mother telling him, “God don’t like you because you are gay. That’s why you get the disease. If you were normal, you would never get the disease.”
Knowledge about effective AIDS treatment was limited in 1988. Gomez’s doctors prescribed AZT, the drug used to fight HIV, but told him death was inevitable. They gave him a year to live.
Gomez went numb. For weeks he stewed in misery, asking God, “Why me?”
After processing his diagnosis he decided he should enjoy what little time he had left. So he put on a costume.
“And I’ve been doing this for 22 years,” he said.
Gomez admits it is not easy all the time. He takes more than 20 medicines a day to suppress the disease and combat other ailments he has developed as a result of his weak immune system. He has osteoporosis, arthritis, neuropathy, diabetes and now he’s losing his eyesight. He makes trips to various doctors every two weeks.
Over the past two decades, Gomez has watched dozens of friends die from AIDS, and has attended more than 75 memorial services. Health providers say it is rare for AIDS patients to live more than 25 years with the disease.
Although he knows his days are numbered, Gomez refuses to give into depression. His outrageous outfits keep his spirits up and act as a distraction from reality. He is engaged in a game of mind control with the disease, and right now, he’s winning. If he sheds his costumes, he gives up control and the disease takes the upper hand.
“My personality is so strong and my mind is so powerful,” Gomez said. “Without my mind, I think I wouldn’t survive.”
AIDS organizations say positivity and self-expression are two key ingredients in keeping infected patients healthy. Many groups provide creative outlets for clients to cope with the disease. AIDS Service Center NYC in Manhattan offers weekly creative-writing workshops where clients are encouraged to write poetry. Their work is often published in the organization’s magazine, Situations.
“When you feel better about yourself, you take better care of yourself,” said ASC Executive Director Sharen Duke.
According to Duke, the better patients take care of themselves, the longer they live. Duke says organizations across New York City are now faced with an aging population of AIDS patients, many of whom are older than 50. She says 30 percent of ASC clients have lived with HIV/AIDS for at least 20 years.
She says medical advancements have helped people keep their T-cell count up, which is essential to maintaining a healthy immune system. She says patients are able to do this by taking fewer medications than in the past, which makes treatment more manageable day to day.
Even after three decades, the AIDS epidemic is still growing, especially among young gay men in their 20s, and women. According to the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, New York City remains the epicenter of the AIDS crisis. It has the highest HIV/AIDS case rate in the country, more than Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami and Washington, D.C. combined.
More than 1 million people who live in the city are infected with HIV. Even though the disease affects so many New Yorkers, Duke says there is still a stigma associated with it.
“It goes along with homophobia,” she said. “There is a perception that people with AIDS deserve what they get.”
Gomez does not let AIDS or his sexuality define him. Instead, he wants to be known for his ubiquity in New York City.
He has carved out a piece of local fame by having marched in every New York City parade including Manhattan’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, which doesn’t allow gay participation. This year he dodged police every five or 10 blocks, hopped the barricade, and danced up the parade route next to proud bagpipers and freckled schoolgirls.
“And every five, ten blocks they threw me out,” he said. “You see my personality? I don’t care.”
He calls 311 every night for an accurate schedule of the next day’s events, a method effective at keeping him in the limelight at locations across the city. When the events calendar is lean, he ventures to his favorite locations — Prospect Park, Central Park and Jacob Riis Park — to dance with the usual drummers, roller skaters and beach bums.
Gomez often visits three or four tourist attractions in one day. He is always in a hurry, charging up and down the streets he so easily makes his own. He is rarely at his Elmhurst, Queens, home. When he does return after his daily escapades, it is usually well past what people would characterize as a normal bedtime. And when his sister and 98-year-old father urge him to slow down and rest, he refuses.
“I do in one day what most people do in a week,” he said.
It is his attempt to make the most of the life he has left.
Everywhere he goes, someone recognizes him. Three teenage girls greeted him with, “Hello Ms. Colombia!” when they saw him on the Coney Island boardwalk. They stopped him and insisted on a photo. They giggled when Gomez put his parrot on one’s head and Carino in another’s arms.
Gomez has a habit of making strangers smile, and those who know him well say his mission is to make other people happy.
“He livens up everybody’s life,” said Minerva Figueroa, a friend for more than 30 years. “I’ve never seen him angry or upset. You have those negative people that give him a hard time, but he brightens everybody’s day.”
But once in a while, Gomez runs into people who disapprove of his colorful antics.
He says those familiar with his professional background are stunned and embarrassed by his behavior. Gomez was a lawyer in Colombia and earned a master’s degree in art from New York University. He was pursuing his Ph.D. in Spanish literature when he was diagnosed with AIDS.
“People ask me, ‘If you are so educated, why do you (dress like) this?’ ” he said. “It’s my attitude, my life choice, my decision.”
On Fifth Avenue in Manhattan recently, a woman rolled her eyes and clutched her young children’s hands as Gomez barreled past her with the baby carriage. The sideways look didn’t bother him, though. He makes a point to channel all negativity and express positivity instead. He grinned at the woman and swished his skirt back and forth like a 5-year-old girl showing off her party dress.
“Mamacita,” he crooned, “I don’t bother you; you don’t bother me.”
When each day is done and the costumes come off, the crowds disappear and the distractions are gone, Gomez is left in solitude. During these times, Gomez said, he fights the urge to think about the future.
“There is no tomorrow,” he said. “I live day by day. And I enjoy my days like it’s the last day of my life.”