I N the Workshop the machines drum round the clock now as the deadline for DC approaches, the sounds rise and fall in overlapping waves as eight people hunch over the tables and sew. They had made a promise that quilt panels received by the deadline would make it to Washington. No matter what hour people are pulling cloth under a pulsing needle, talking or concentrating or singing mindlessly. At three a.m. all the shops on the commercial strip outside are dark, the sidewalks and streets empty, stools are upended on the bar tops awaiting the swamper. At the wide intersection where Market and Castro intersect the bank of stoplights appear abandoned as they rotate through a purposeless cycle. In the distance downtown San Francisco dims away to smudges under the fog cover of August but from in here light pours out the glass front wall, music pounds, people move and laugh, in here there is life.
The deadline date was arbitrary, they just assumed that giving themselves a one month lead they'd have time to get panels received by mid-September sewn into the quilt to be part of the March for Lesbian and Gay Rights. They didn't know. In early August they barely had one hundred, were hoping for 1000 and and the idle comment was made that it would hardly be noticed on that enormous length of grass mall that stretches from Capital Hill to the Washington Monument.
The Neiman Marcus at Union Square let them display quilt in its main windows, by 1987 the store had already lost too many young employees to the epidemic. Some days a few volunteers would trek down from the workshop just to watch how people responded, none of it had ever been publicly shown and they'd never even seen it outside of the workshop. Cafe Flore hosted a small opening which generated some local interest but not what they'd hoped. The whole quilt, the panels sewn into 12x12s, could at this time fit in the bed of a small pickup and was stacked in a closet space at the rear of the workshop. Some afternoons Cindy would go back there and lay on it for a short nap. But volunteers showed up, each day someone new found the workshop, they'd stand just inside the doorway with that distant stare of one who had cared for a lover alone in those last months as that person decayed and now has nowhere else in life to go. They want to help, they're willing to do anything for however many years or weeks or days they themselves have left. This space would become their home, the people here their family, loss is a great unifier.
Still, packages would arrive postmarked from out in the hinterlands and someone on their way to the workshop would check most afternoons at the Castro branch Post Office on 18th. The parcels would be hand carried the few blocks to Market Street. Throbbing machine sounds trail off as people stop sewing and gather to watch them opened. ``Kansas, this one's from Kansas!'' marveling that anyone in Kansas or Ohio or Georgia had even heard about their effort.
Each new panel would be unfolded and held out for view and the accompanying letters read aloud. The people became real, a name, a little something about their life, about how they had touched other humans. Letters would explain why various design elements were chosen—why a bag of foam rubber french fries (his restaurant in Amsterdam had been famous for them) or why dozens of brightly colored birds strung alone wires (his favorite hobby) or why a yellow rose (he'd arranged for one to be sent to each of his coworkers upon his death). Letters described talents of the individual, letters were written by siblings, sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, letters were from coworkers, neighbors, too many letters told of the enormous suffering at the end and most gave a date of birth and death so that simple math told how young they were when they died.
One letter, after describing the final days, ended simply, ''At last there was peace.''
These were the people, the ones whose names were on these bolts of cloth, that they'd promised to carry to DC.
nitially the work load seemed manageable with the small group they had, with almost two months until the march people could do their day jobs and still find time to put in a few hours at a machine stitching eight panels together into twelve foot by twelve foot sections and handing them off to volunteers who would fold and pin long strips of heavy canvas around the perimeter. This edging would be sewn on and the 12-by-12 would get a number and the names and panel maker data would be filed. This gave a master list so that anyone wanting to see a specific panel could find it. During the day other volunteers would pound metal sail grommets into the edging so that on the mall four 12x12s could be mated and layed flat between a walkway allowing 32 panels to be viewed at a time.
They'd given little thought to a procedure to open it for display or even how it would transported across America, they had enough to do just sewing. If no other option appeared they'd rent a large truck or put it on a train or form a car caravan.
Jack had come up with the idea of folding the corners of four mated 12x12s to the middle and then repeating from the resulting corners until they had flat bundles about four feet square. These could then be packed for transportation and the process reversed as an opening ceremony. Once they figured out how to get it to Washington, DC.
They had planned to have the full quilt sewn by the Castro Street Fair, the first Sunday in October, and use the fair as draw for help in getting 7000 pounds of cloth itemized and folded and boxed. And then packed onto a rented truck or put on a train or carried in a car caravan. Or something.
uilt that had not made the deadline was hung as a backdrop to the stage of the Fair, it was behind Buck Naked and the Bare Bottom Boys when they played their set that Sunday. Singer/ guitarist Buck, his drummer brother and another guitarist had recently moved from Omaha, they felt that in quirky San Francisco they might find an audience for their Cramps-style rockabilly, that ``Teenage Pussy from Outer Space'' and ``Bend Over Baby and Let Me Drive'' might find an audience, unaware that this quirky San Francisco had been dying for about five years.
In 1992 Buck was a bartender at the Paradise Lounge (he arrived in SF too late to have ever been in FeBe's) and he'd walk his dog in the Panhandle by his apartment in the wee hours after closing the club. This eight block tree filled stretch bordered by high Victorians was a City Parks Department designated pigeon-feeding area where tourists find quaint photo-ops and where the Health Department fined the neighbors because their yards and homes and drives and sidewalks are covered in pigeon shit. Typical San Francisco, one department says come feed our pigeons, another makes money off residents because of it. Seems that a little Pigeon Man would bring ten-gallon pails of seed and toss it to the now enormous flocks that waited daily. He would threaten to shoot people and dogs if they bothered his birds. He was out there at 3 a.m. when Buck's dog took out after some so Pigeon Man shot and killed Buck.
iracle of miracles, through friends, the kindness of strangers, the Flying Tigers air freight service would ship the whole thing to DC and back for free. Only everything had to be packed and ready a week earlier than they had allocated for. As if they didn't have enough to do. Now with one less week to sew than scheduled things became even more hectic.
Those already working overtime put in overtime, Cindy and Evelyn and others used day job vacation time, young men on disability who should have been pampering their immune system stayed all night, the quilt had to be sewn and packed and gone now before the upcoming Castro Street Fair.
They had hoped to have at least 1000 panels to take to DC but with three weeks until the deadline had received only about 400. Most were single panels sent in by individuals but gay groups in some cities organized sewing events and collected them to mail all at once, they wanted to keep their friends as long as possible. Houston did that and sent 240 as a batch, waiting until the very last.
The Monday of that deadline week, swamped with work now, with unsewn panels piled and waiting by each machine someone walked from the workshop to the P.O. like always to ask if there was any mail. He stood by the little metering scale as the postal worker looked up and said, ``Lemme check.'' The postal worker turned to the doorway that lead to the sorting room and called, ``Any packages for the Names Project?'' Another worker came to the opening and peered out, ``Yes I do believe we have some packages here for the Names Project.'' He then looked straight at the guy at the counter and grinned real big, ``You didn't by any chance happen to bring with you a very large truck?''
n the workshop the machines drum round the clock now as the deadline for DC approaches. They had made a promise.