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.''