Hi. My name’s Rob Garofalo. I’m from Parsippany, New Jersey.
I’ve led a pretty charmed life or a life of privilege and then, you know, at about the age of 39 or right before my 40th birthday, things just went horribly wrong. I had a cancer diagnosis. My partner and I of 10 years went through a really difficult breakup and divorce. I was pretty brutally, like, assaulted where I was pretty much left for dead in an alley, and as a result of that assault I sort of acquired HIV. And I just found myself in a really, really dark and horrible place.
I didn’t tell anyone, so I just sort of lived this life in sort of a self-imposed, like, isolation. The HIV, though, was clearly the one thing that really brought me to my knees. I mean, I’d spent my life as a physician caring for people that were living with HIV, mostly teenagers. And there was no irony to the fact that like I spent my entire life helping and teaching these young people that there was no shame in their diagnosis and have compassion for themselves and others, and yet it was exactly those elements that I couldn’t seem to afford myself, you know, at that time.
I, you know, had a period where I got involved with drugs and alcohol because I just didn’t care whether I lived or died. And I’m not ashamed of talking about that now but back then it was hard to talk about those things. People around me saw me destroying myself from within but they didn’t even know how to reach me here how to guide me.
I went home one Christmas. My family could tell that something was way, way off. I mean, way, way off. And I just remember that my mom, when she dropped me off at Newark Airport, you know, at that kiss and cry area, you know, she grabbed my arm as I was walking away from her. She looked at me and she said, “You can keep telling me that everything’s okay but I know it’s not. And one day, you’ll be able to tell me what it is and things will get better.” That was the most awful plane ride ever.
But when I got home that day, I was sitting in my bed, really not sure if I was gonna make it past another day. I don’t know what got into my head, but I was like, Maybe I should get a dog. I know it seemed the most irrational thought in the world. I mean, what would make me think I could take care of a dog? I couldn’t even take care of myself. And so I got on my computer and I Googled the the words “puppy Chicago” and up popped this ad about this Yorkie. And I’ll never forget that I contacted the breeder and she sent me this video and I saw him and I thought, I have to have that. I have to have that dog.
And I’ve never had a pet. I don’t even know how to take care of a dog. I mean, it was completely – it was not rational. But within like a day or two, like, I had rented a Zipcar, drove up to Gurnee with a friend of mine, and I was determined to, like, get this dog. And I remember that I got there and this woman, like, opened the door and she opened the pen where these puppies were and the one puppy, like, ran into my lap and I was fucking out of there within, like, maybe 5 minutes. I mean, there – I couldn’t write the check fast enough.
It was actually the day of, like, the Snowmageddon, which is now about 9 years ago. But I actually – like, my car got stuck on Lake Shore Drive because we couldn’t drive. And I had to walk the last bit home with this puppy, like, underneath my winter coat, you know, because I had to get him home, you know. And we spent the next 3 days because, you know, Chicago was shut down, in my condo, like, figuring each other out.
You know, before I got Fred, after that assault, like, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t – I couldn’t get through a night without waking up in the middle of the night with night terrors. Just – I would just wake up screaming. And it wasn’t like flipping a switch. It wasn’t like instantly, like, things started to get better. But, like, with him in the room, I didn’t feel alone, you know? With him, in my room, I felt comforted. Slowly, like, those night terrors went from every night to every other night and then maybe once a week and then maybe once a month. And I remember a couple times early on, I would wake up screaming and Fred would be scared and he would run underneath my bed. And I have a big king size bed, so I couldn’t reach him, like, with my arm. I would just sit there, like, laying on the bed – laying on the floor in the middle of the night, talking to him, like, tell – reassuring him that it was okay, that he could come out.
You know, and, like, that was my life. Here was this puppy. This, like, perfect little soul that – like, he didn’t care whether I’d cancer and it didn’t bother him that I’d been assaulted and it didn’t bother him that I had HIV. He just wanted me to be present, right, and wanted to be fed and walked and cared for and he wasn’t gonna take no for an answer.
After a, like, a year of having him, I felt like I wanted to give back to the world. I felt like I had my life back. I had my – my drug and alcohol use, I’d put to rest. I was doing better. I mean, I wouldn’t say was entirely resolved, but I mean, I had it – I had it in pretty good shape. And so I decided I would start this charity with my dog. I wanted to start this HIV-related charity that combined my personal life with my professional stuff. and so I started this charity called Fred Says. My dog is Fred. And it was designed to, like, raise money for young people that were affected by HIV. I started this charity with the idea of, like, get making him, like, this muse, like a social media presence that I would raise money for. Slowly but surely Fred had a social media presence and he had – I mean, he didn’t have 19,000,000 fans but he had 50,000. I don’t even think he knew I was pimping out for money half the time.
We did this – we made a calendar, A “Men of Fred” calendar once. We we held like a model search at Sidetrack, on of the local gay bars. I mean, we did kind of crazy shit. Men were holding Fred on a bar and we were, like, taking their picture. I mean, it was nuts. But it was fun you know, and we were giving back. Since like 2013, which is when we started the charity, to now, we’ve raised over $300,000 that we’ve given back to, like, to community agencies all across the United States.
I guess the one thing that’s also important to tell is that, like, you know, Fred wasn’t the panacea to everything that ailed me in my life. And it wasn’t a quick fix. Over the years, I struggled. Particularly with addiction and recovery. And so I have discovered that, like, Fred sometimes wasn’t enough, right, you know? Life is a journey and so I had to supplement Fred with good people, good things – for both him and myself. And so it’s just – the story is more complicated than you just adopt a dog and everything in your life gets better. Because it’s just not that easy.
I feel happy. You know, like, I have a great life with an amazing little bitchy dog that is cute as a button and sassy and all of it. I mean and I have support of friends and I still have my career. And so if you would have told me that, you know, 9,10 years ago when I was in that hopeless place, there’s no way I would have believed you.