Thursday, December 13, 2012

first meeting

E ARLY EVENING IN MAY, so pleasant one could almost forget how chilly summer would soon be, so quiet one would almost forget how vibrant these streets once were.  Two young men walked down 18th on their way to the Women's Building.  Approaching Moby Dick's one realized, ``We got time for a drink.''
A friend sat at the nearly empty bar and they went over.  ``We're getting a group together to make a quilt to memorialize AIDS victims,'' partially unfolding a cloth bundle he carried and holding it out, ``Why don't you come with us?''
``A what?''
``Each one of these will depict someone who's died, then we'll sew them all together into a quilt.''  A pause, ``And take it to Washington, D.C. this October.''
How do you explain something that had never been done before?
The guy looked at the cloth and then back to his drink and shook his head, ``Well good luck, hope you're not wasting your time.''

flyer had caught Cindy's eye as she waited for the bus over the hill after work, the chill of winter still in the air.  There are flyers on poles all around the Castro Muni station, why did she pause to read this one?  It announced a meeting to make a memorial for the people who had died of AIDS, cloth quilt panels with the name and some details of the person's life, each to be three feet by six feet.  The flier gave a date six weeks away, a time, a place–the Women's Building on 18th.  She mouthed the words to herself, memorizing them.
She borrowed a sewing machine, set it up in the living room of her apartment and began.  By May she had two of these cloth panels finished, one for Roger, his name in large pink and black angular funhouse letters and another for a coworker with whom she'd watch morning reruns of the ``I Love Lucy'' show, sitting together on his bed on their days off giggling and bouncing.  As she hunched over the machine she would smile, something she'd almost forgotten how to do, hearing an exasperated Desi exclaim, ``Lu-ooo-cy!''  The panel showed the show's opening logo, a large heart with the ``I Love'' in cursive letters but Lucy  replaced by David.
As the May meeting date approached she began to worry about things, how maybe hundreds of people would bring panels and they would all be fabulous (this was, after all, the Castro) and how hers might just get lost in the mix.  She wrote her name and address on both so that after they were taken to DC she might be able to get them back, they had become Roger and David for her.

he Women's Building began life as one of those ``sound body, sound mind'' exercise clubs, this one built by the local German community after the 1906 earthquake; at four stories it was taller and bulkier than other buildings on the street and seemed to dominate its block.  In 1935 the Sons and Daughters of Norway purchased the building, renamed it Dovre Hall and converted the gymnasium into an auditorium.
There had been a substantial number of Scandanavians living in Eureka Valley and even with the gay gentrification of the 1970s one could still run across that only in San Francisco catholic school mix of a half Mexican, half Norwegian who grew up there.  Or still be entertained by an eighty year old Norwegian play accordian on a weekday afternoon at the du Nord downstairs from the Swedish American Hall a few blocks away.
A women's group bought the building in 1978 and gave it the current name but allowed a small bar with a separate entrance to remain at one corner.  The Dovre Club was run by an Irishman so that most people thought the word Dovre had something to do with the Emerald Isle unaware that it was a mountain range in Norway.
The bar became hangout both for the remnants of the Mission Irish and for a new group that sought the asylum of the city's sanctuary policy.  Over the doorway a sign, ``Let's drink to the final defeat of the British army in Northern Ireland.''  Money donated at the bar would find its way across the Atlantic to the IRA.  After the 1983 Maze Prison break four of the inmates made their way to the Bay Area and late in the evening you might hear about some of how, Pogues on the jukebox, MacGowan's Jameson and cigarette rasp the perfect background to the story of how three guys drove from Frisco to Mexico to smuggle one of those escapees into the US.
He had taken the commercial Aeroflot Moscow flight that refuels in Shannon on its way to Havana.  From Cuba into Mexico and Tijuana where the three picked him up.  Just another trio Americans with hang-overs coming back from a weekend of frolic South of the Border, Riley could best hide his Paddy accent so he drove them through the customs toll booth.
The guard holds Riley's fake license and uses one of the old tricks, ``Oh, you're from San Francisco,'' he says real affable like he knows the City well, a faraway look as if fond memories are returning.  ``Where'd you go to high school?''
Riley has a sudden panic, in the UK tube stations the Wanted posters with the face of the guy they have under a blanket in the trunk read: ``IRA Terrorist.''  Looking up through the car window, hot wind on his shoulder, the guard's face now with an intent stare, no more smile, Riley remembers the locals back at the Dovre, standing at the bar, how they'd bitch, brag about school days at,  ``S.I.'' he says quickly, ``Went to S.I.,  Saint Ignatius.''
The guard returns the card and waves them on.

he night of the meeting she took the two panels and hung them side-by-side on the wood fence in front of her apartment building so that a friend could make a photograph.  She wasn't certain she'd ever see them again.  This was the first time any sections of what would become the Quilt were ever displayed together.
After being photographed she took them back into her apartment, paused to look at each one more time and then carefully folded the two panels.
The auditorium in the Women's building seemed so large when she entered with her package, imagine what it would take to fill up a space like this.  A folding table was mid-room where two men sat facing the long wall.  The first to arrive had placed themselves along the wall directly across from the table, as others came in they had sat next to the previous person so that the line stretched away from table in one direction only.  The eight young guys seated along the wall when she got there turned to stare at the lanky blond, sheepish, still in her workday makeup.  She sat at the folding chair at the end and after a bit it became apparent no one else was coming.
The two at the table displayed the cloth panel they had brought and one told of their hope to have hundreds of these produced and stitched together for the gay rights March on Washington come October.  The silent prayer was that if the rest of the country could see the enormity of what was obvious every day in the Castro it might ignite a groundswell demand for the government to mobilize its resources.  Six years into the epidemic and all they'd produced was AZT.  And a lot of obituaries.
Then they asked if anyone had brought a panel.  After no one answered Cindy replied and went over to the table.  She held Roger open and told how he had already been in DC, in 1983, testifying in front of Congress about the disease.  Then she showed them David, explaining the Lucy part and humming a snippit of the theme song.  She and another coworker had visited David in his hospital room the week before Halloween, pulling clusters of orange and black helium balloons they tied to the bedrails.  The ward was quiet, essentially deserted even though this highest of gay holidays approached.  David lay in the bed smiling at the thoughtfulness and thanked them but added, ``Did you need to bring the black?''
They talked about work, catching him up on the gossip, trying to make him feel a part of the world outside, telling how some woman had stood across the counter and just talked, ``You know the type, she wasn't going to buy anything but just wouldn't shut up, she must of talked to me for half an hour.''
David had propped himself up now and his face got a far-away look as he listened.  When she finished he said, so quietly they almost didn't hear, ``I wish someone would talk to me for half an hour.''
Before the meeting adjourned a clipboard was passed down the row and everyone wrote their name and address for further contact, hers went on last, just below a guy named Jack who had been sitting last until she arrived.  When she got home the apartment seemed more empty than usual, the sewing machine had little use now and would need to be returned, the living room floor needed to be cleaned of the squiggles of thread, end pieces of cloth and scattered shirt pins.  But tomorrow.

ull night now as the two men walked back to the Castro, the darkness greater than just an absence of light, the quiet was murmurs from the thousands who had crowded here just five years before.  They stopped in Moby Dick's again, the friend was still at the bar and he swiveled on the barstool, ``So how'd your sewing bee go?''
``Nice crowd, maybe a dozen or so.  It wasn't a sewing bee, it was an organizational meeting to make a memorial quilt for AIDS victims.''
``So how did your little quilting bee organizational meeting go?  Did anybody bring sections for it?''
``Two.  Some strange blond woman brought two quilt panels.''
``A woman brought quilt?''   The guy on the barstool chuckled before turning back to his drink, ``A woman—now you guys are really going to have to do this thing.''