As he entered the second-floor gallery at the New-York Historical Society on a hot summer afternoon, Florent Morellet paused, closely studying the timeline that started the museum's current exhibition, "AIDS in New York: The First Five Years." As he stood there, dressed boyishly in shorts and Converse sneakers, Mr. Morellet silently ticked off such time-defining moments as the initial meeting of the Gay Men's Health Crisis in 1982 and the Food and Drug Administration's approval of an antibody test to detect H.I.V. in 1985.
Soon, the memories started flooding back. Just not the kind you might expect.
The French-born Mr. Morellet remembered a call he got around 1983, about five years after he moved to New York and two years before he opened the legendary 24-hour restaurant Florent, in the meatpacking district. He remembered it being from the New York City Department of Health. "This woman very calmly said, 'Are you Florent Morellet?' " he said. An animated storyteller, Mr. Morellet recreated the conversation, one suspects not for the first time.
"I'm starting to sweat. AIDS. AIDS. AIDS. 'Someone has given us your contact information because of the possibility that you've been infected.' And I'm getting freaked out. 'What is it? Tell me!' 'It's syphilis.' And I go: 'Ahhhhh. It's just syphilis.' You laugh at yourself."
As he made his way through the exhibition, he briefly reflected on the pain of that time ("AIDS slowly crept into my consciousness") but also reveled in its pleasures, something the exhibition does not shy away from. It starts with the hedonistic days of newfound sexual freedom, displaying a 1978 advertisement in Blueboy magazine for a gay bathhouse. "I loved St. Marks Baths," Mr. Morellet exclaimed. "I loved it. It was a magic kingdom."
Mr. Morellet next zeroed in on a section on "Helping Friends to Die," including a 1983 photo of a man covered with the purple lesions of Kaposi's sarcoma at a birthday party, and he started to recall the loss of close friends and loved ones. "My best friend from college, we lived together, not lovers, but best girlfriends," he said, "and Daniel, who was my husband, whom I married in '88. He died in 1994."
Mr. Morellet waved off an expression of sympathy. "During the crisis, you are focusing, especially people like me who are problem solvers and want to take care of people, you know, your body is producing cocaine, morphine, you name it," he said.
The restaurant Florent contributed to the cause as the scene of numerous fund-raisers for organizations like Housing Works and God's Love We Deliver, and provided food for the stream of buses of protesters and lobbyists to Albany and Washington. "It was when the battles were pretty much over, and the therapies were working, when life became normal, that I really felt sorry for myself," Mr. Morellet said, perhaps mindful of turning 60 in a few days. "And you are not thinking that you are getting old. You aren't thinking of dying because the mere fact that you are living is beyond belief."
In 1983, an article by the playwright and activist Larry Kramer on the rising death toll, titled "1,112 and Counting," shared the cover of The New York Native with a photo of a young, handsome man seductively taking off his shirt. Mr. Morellet praised the gay press for its coverage of the crisis, adding, "You know, the gay community did not stop in its tracks of living and enjoying looking at a beautiful boy even as it is 1,112 and counting."
"Great Sex! Don't let AIDS stop it," said Mr. Morellet, reading from a 1984 poster on safe-sex practices, which showed two men in semi-dress in a locker room. "At this point, information is coming out. I remember that poster. It's adorable!"
A photo of the Anvil, a gay sex club, takes him back to when he discovered the meatpacking district, emerging from the club at 3 a.m. to find robust street life, inspiring him to open his restaurant nearby in 1985.
The restaurant has been closed since 2008. Mr. Morellet now focuses on cartography art, or fictional maps, exhibiting in New York and parts of Europe. While he worked on a successful drive to obtain landmark status for part of the area his restaurant was in, and currently serves on Community Board 2, he dreads the inevitable conversation about what has happened to the neighborhood. " 'Isn't it awful what they did to the meatpacking district?' " Mr. Morellet said. "And I say: 'No. I see thousands of people where it used to be only 100. I see thousands of new jobs that did not exist.' "
Mr. Morellet turned his attention back to the exhibition. Photos of antigay protesters in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral in 1984 are included in an area showing the fear and homophobia triggered by the disease. Mr. Morellet remembers his mother counseling him not to go public when he tested positive for H.I.V. in 1987. "You have a business — and by the '80s it was very famous — and you have a lot of employees and the reaction is going to be terrible," he recalled his mother telling him. "Please think about it. Don't make a rash decision."
A day later, Mr. Morellet started disclosing his H.I.V. status, and said he suffered no negative fallout, later famously updating his T-cell count on the blackboard of his restaurant along with the daily temperature and thought-provoking quotes. "Saying I was H.I.V. positive in 1987 was a piece of cake," he said.
Mr. Morellet paused at a panel of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which he viewed in Washington when it was displayed. "I cried so much," he said, recalling finding names of friends who died. Reading quietly aloud from the embroidered panel, Mr. Morellet said, "I came here today to ask that this nation with all its resources and compassion not let my epitaph read 'He died because of red tape.' "
At the end, he glanced at the announcement of Rock Hudson's death from AIDS in 1985. "Oh, yes, that was a great death," he said, recalling that news as a turning point in the AIDS movement. "When I say great death, you need a front-page death that goes into homes all over the country."