Tuesday, January 31, 2012

being tested

arly evening he sat at the bar in the Elephant Walk and the guy next to him starts the conversation with a question, ``Where is everybody?  I lived here seven years ago, in '79 and you couldn't get in this place it was so packed.  I moved up to Oregon, this is the first time I've been back.  Where'd everybody go?''
He knew what the guy meant and it wasn't just people that were gone, something else was gone as well, a palpable joy among the customers at that time, the feeling that this was the best party ever.  And it wasn't only gays in the Castro, back then the singles crowd, the breeders, had filled fern bars on Union St. and the Bermuda Triangle and the bars in North Beach.  A guy dressed as W. C. Fields would move through those places some nights, tails and top hat, little cane, white gloves and white spats over his shoes, looked exactly like Fields, smiling at the gals, ``Hello, my Little Chickadee,'' the accent perfect, it really was W.C. right there in the bar.  Story was he'd even had silicon injected into his nose to make it more bulbous.  Richard Brautigan in a North Beach bar chatting up two girls and when they didn't know who he was he ran over to City Lights and bought them copies of his books with his picture on the back.
Now even in those straight bars that insouciance and exuberance which had filtered over from the Castro was damped down.  How else could he answer the guy in the Elephant Walk, he looked down at his drink and muttered, ``Don't think about it too much.''
``I know that,'' the visitor replied, ``I know what you're saying, but still, it can't be that bad.''
In a way the visitor sitting in this quiet, half empty bar at the corner of Castro and 18th in 1986 was right, it wasn't that bad, at least for those who weren't living in the midst of it.  For those who were, it was much, much . . .

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etting tested, the new form of commitment.  Larry and Doug had their blood drawn two weeks before and now sat in the waiting room of the Health Center on 17th Street.  Each would be called individually by number into a small office room and each would close the door and be told the results of the test.  Many would exit that door into a much different world than the one from which they'd entered.
Lore was that if you came out quickly you were negative, the ones that stayed in the room were being counseled, told what they should do in the face of this new information.  There were stories that some people had worried for so long that they were actually relieved on learning they were positive, no more uncertaintly about how their future was written.
Larry was called first and Doug gave his hand a little squeeze.  Larry knew what kind of life he'd led, knew where he'd been and what he'd done and he thoroughly expected the worst.  Friends had actually remarked with playful black humor that they were amazed he was still alive.  Doug stared at the closed door in hopes there was a prize behind it.
Minutes passed and the door remained shut.  Five minutes became seven and Doug finally couldn't stand it, he went to the door, knocked lightly and opened it.  Larry was in the chair facing the desk sobbing and the counseler was standing bent next to him holding his shoulders.  Larry craned his face around, his checks glistened with tears and blubbered, ``I'm negative!  I'm negative!''
The counseler had been trained for grief, not elation, and was at a loss as to what to do.

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ou phoned to make an appointment, were given a date and time to show up and a six digit number, the only way you would be known.  The testing and the results were completely anonymous.
On blood draw day you went into a room where a nurse wearing rubber gloves would tie off your arm, slide a needle into the bulged vein and withdraw about ten cc of dark venous blood into a plastic tube which is capped, labeled with your number and placed in a rack with similar tubes of fresh blood.
You returned to the same place to hear the results.  The waiting room had chairs along the wall, old magazines, random people sitting apart, a few couples, male couples mostly, sometimes a female couple, no one really talking.  The impersonal feel of a place where humans only passed through, where no one belonged or had reason to linger.
The door to an office opened and two men left quickly and he heard the woman holding the door call his number.  She went back to her chair behind the desk as he entered, closed the door and sat down across from her.  She ran her finger down the list in front of her and then slid it across the page, looked up and said blandly, ``You're negative.''
There was a moment while the information settled in and then he spoke quietly, more to himself than to her, ``I guess that means I get to watch it all.''
Her face took on a quizzical expression,  I just gave you the best news of your life!  She had heard him but his words didn't register and then after a bit she realized what he'd meant.
``Yeah,'' she said as he rose to leave, ``yeah, there are times when I think that might even be worse.''


Thursday, January 12, 2012


ednesday evening before Thanksgiving Cindy came up out of the Muni station at Castro and Market to catch the bus home from work and found the plaza full of young men milling about.  Small groups huddled together trying to light candles that protruded through the bottom of paper cups and random people held small whiteboard signs on sticks as if it was a political rally.  She asked what was going on and was told this was the annual candlelight march for Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk who had been slain on this date in 1978.  Seven years ago.
''And the signs?''  The number of AIDS deaths in San Francisco, a disease that was all but unknown when everyone in America sat down three turkey dinners before, had passed one thousand and people here had written the name of someone they knew who had died.  Most of the dead had lived within a few blocks of this intersection and tonight those people would be carried in the march to the Civic Center.  Cindy got a blank board and put Roger's name on it and then wandered around in the light mist with her sign at a casual right shoulder arms.
She'd met Roger a bit over two years before when an old friend excitedly introduced her to his new lover.  Early thirties, tall, trim, big grin, dark hair and moustache, David could not believe how fortunate he was, or, as he confided to Cindy when Roger went to the kitchen, that anything bad could come of Roger having just been diagnosed with this gay disease everyone seemed to be talking about.
"I mean, just look at him!" David exclaimed.
Cindy froze, this slow dread filling her as she stared at the friend sitting there so happy.  David made light of too many things, once joked with a gleeful reminisce that the gay VD clinic was the best pickup joint in town because whoever you met there wouldn't have gonorrhea that night at least.  Sure Roger looked fine but nobody knew, that was the scariest part, absolutely no one knew anything.  Except that young gay men were dying in very strange ways.  There was the feeling that day-to-day reality was slowly dissolving, taking the quality of a dark and claustrophobic dream.  A party was winding down, the record player is skipping and most guests have coupled up and departed while your trapped in the almost deserted room with someone very, very creepy.
A young man had just walked out of the room and AIDS had moved into her life.

A few months later, in August, 1983, David told Cindy how Roger had gone to Washington, DC with the San Francisco contingent to lobby Congress for funding.  Roger was chosen to be one of the three that testified before a House Government Operations subcommittee about the disease.  Three young men in suits and ties stood with their right hand raised, solemnly swore, and then sat.  Each told his story in turn and answered questions from the officials.  They still had faith in the American system they'd all grown up under.
David's biggest thrill, ``Roger got his name in the paper!''
Cindy found the newspaper article and read the quote from Roger: ``I came here today in the hope that my epitaph would not read that I died of red tape.''
Two months later Roger helped organize an AIDS vigil in the Castro where the names of people in the Bay Area known to have died of the disease were read.  The small crowd gathered there heard one-hundred and eighteen names that Saturday night.  Across town in the bathhouses people were burning the safe sex posters and pamphlets given out by the Health Department, ranting about the self-loathing and latent internalized homophobia of those gays pushing for closure of these establishments.  They had not moved all this way to be confronted with the same middle-class morality they came here to escape.
The following year, as Roger's health deteriorated and the frequency of his medical appointments increased Cindy began helping care for him.  In just a few months he dropped twenty pounds, one of the first to engage in what would become a San Francisco tradition for gay men: punching another notch to tighten the belt. 

he cab honked and she ran down the stairs from the second floor apartment and told the driver they'd be right out.  She left the rear passenger side door open and went back in building.  Roger was at the top of the stairs with a cane. ``Go on back,'' he called down, ``I don't need any help.''  She waited by the cab and then went to the door and looked up.  Roger was only halfway down the staircase.  ``I'm fine!  Just need a little time.''
When his turn was called at General she walked him to the exam room and then returned to the waiting area.  A little old lady in a chair along a facing wall smiled at her and asked, ``Is that your husband?'' and continued, not waiting for confirmation, ``You've got to start feeding him better young lady.  He's awfully skinny.''
Roger signed a waiver allowing his colonoscopy to be videotaped.  Sarcoma lesions on the interior colon wall might be worthy of a journal article and the information may be of help to surgeons who would be seeing things like this in the future.  Roger eventually became weary of the whole routine, the hope and optimism he'd had a year before had essentially evaporated.  Cindy was next to him on the hospital bed as support to sit up so the doctor could examine him.  He did a quick scan of Roger's mouth with a little flashlight and casually mentioned, ``Got a bit of KS in there.''  She was watching this from an angle, ``Those don't look like lesions, they look like holes.''
The doctor brought the flashlight back up.  ``You're right, those are holes.''  Some fungus had found a nice warm, moist place grow without an immune system to disturb it and was feeding on the roof of Roger's palate.
Around this time Roger decided he'd had enough, he was tired of being poked and prodded, he just wanted to be in his home.

he gray mist muted the colors of the shop lights along Castro Street.  At some point, as if an hourglass had reversed, people began slowly flowing away down Market, the candlelights separating and stretching into a ragged wavering line.  Others would fall in behind, each seemed to know his place.  Later, in the darkness at the Civic Center, after the speeches and impromptu memorials and the sobs from grown men they would put the placards with the names in a patchwork up on the wall of the Federal Building.
Just before Cindy was swept into the stream one more young man came over and looked at the name she carried.  Things had changed so much in just two years.  ``I was in the group with Roger in Washington in 1983,'' he said, ``All the rest are dead.  I didn't think anybody remembered us.''

Monday, January 9, 2012

mala leche

For a decade or more there was a KFC at the corner of Valencia St. and Hill St. near 22nd.  Within a few months of its opening a hand-lettered sign on white butcher paper went up on the window announcing that rice and refried beans had been added as menu options along side the corn, mashed potatoes and cole slaw.  Valencia Street was still part of the Mission then and during the day you would see people that lived and worked in the neighborhood and in the night hear some great Latin jazz at the intimate club Bajones next door to the KFC.
Through the 1980s Valencia Street had a number of women's establishments, the Artemis Cafe at 23rd, Old Wives' Tales bookstore, Amelia's bar near 17th but so dispersed along the six block strip that the area did not have the cohesive feel as a lesbian district that the Castro had for gay men.  One by one these places closed as the gals moved south across Army St. to Cortland Avenue on Bernal hill.
The last night of Amelia's in November, 1991 there was a line of women down the block, saying things like, ``How can you close, this is such an important part of our community?''  To which the answer was, ``We were open every night of the week, where were you?''  Rikki Streicher remodeled the space into the Elbo Room with the prescience to target a mixed clientele.
That block was dominated by the shuttered Pepsi bottling plant across the street.  Surrounded by a chain link fence at night it gave the stretch a dark, forlorn look, a place to pass through quickly.  The gang members probably thought the Elbo Room was a gay bar when they sent the initiate in to verify that he had the guts to be one of them.  The guy slid through the door into the crowd, walked to the rear and then returned, picking up speed as he neared the front and he savagely pumped a knife into the back of the person who sat nearest the exit.  That person should have died instantly but his girlfriend had her hand inside his jacket caressing the base of his neck.  The blade went through her hand before entering him and that distance kept the tip from puncturing his heart.  At the ER the doctors said he'd probably heal completely while she'd never have use of her hand again.
The area perked up when the Mission Police Station moved to that lot and soon valet parking was available at a restaurant down the block, so that some locals ranted, ``Valet parking on Valencia Street—it's time to leave!''  The Kentucky Fried Chicken began getting complaints about the odor, about drug dealers hanging out in the parking lot and eventually was picketed by a vegetarian group protesting the torture of chickens.
Someone told a story of how in the early 1970s they'd sat across the aisle from Colonel Sanders on a plane flight.  He was their travelling ambassador, the little eccentric in white suit, white hair, white goatee, string tie and he never once broke character, he was The Kentucky Colonel.  His southern drawl was so infectious you almost wanted to join in, ``Why K'unnell Suh, Ah Do Dee'clare.''  He was able to deflect any question or topic change that might evince an opinion but they tried, they asked, ``Colonel, what do you think of these hippies?''  He looked over at them across that short space with his impish smile, ``Dey eats chicken don't dey?''
When the KFC finally closed the owners put a small sign by the doorway thanking their customers for the support all those years and wishing them well in their futures.  The owners didn't have to put that sign, it was just a little courtesy from people who had interacted with those in the neighborhood.
A bit later other signs began being plastered on the plate glass of the empty store front, mostly election posters but also one large graphic of some hens flocked together and the words "Mala Leche" underneath.  Implication being that the person who did it was a hip, politically savvy Mission District artist who speaks for everyone: We don't want you here, Colonel.
Apparently the meaning of ``Mala Leche'' was lost on those the artist wanted most to impress (it translates literally to "bad milk" or "soured milk" and colloquially to "tough shit") because the sign was soon replaced by a similar graphic but now with the words "Bad Chicken" in English underneath.  Across the street a restaurant had opened that serves "white folks" Mexican food, a bit overpriced, not quite authentic—tofu enchiladas, things like that.  On weekends there is always a gaggle of young people waiting outside and they could be the people outside a restaurant in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn or 6th St in Austin or around Astor Place near NYU, that generic post-campus suburban look.
At the KFC, the now gone Mission District KFC, because its customers used a different criteria for how their food dollar was spent, the only people you ever saw eating there were blacks and Hispanics.