World AIDS Day 2020: Resilience and Impact

Richard, Ed, Robert, Jimmy, Frank, Stuart, John, Fred, Louis, David, Michael, Vince, Steve, Gary, Jeff, Wade… A few of my friends and lovers whose lives were cut short during emergence of the AIDS pandemic.

My generation experienced death quickly and in great numbers in the early years of the virus. I was coming-of-age and coming-out during the late 1970s, less than an hour’s drive from a city which experienced the highest number of infections in the country.

HIV would accelerate during the 1980s, peaking in 1995. By then, I’d lost almost everyone I cared about and loved.

Ed was hospitalized before anyone knew what the disease was, when it was being referred to as GRID (gay-related immune deficiency). He was my first teenage crush and I cried for weeks when he was moved from his home in Stockton, California to a hospital in San Francisco; becoming a patient in what would become known as the country’s first AIDS ward. His wife too would die, leaving their children orphans.

Bob was a millionaire with a big heart, who provided this high school dropout with a place to stay and help with a job. Blond-haired, blue-eyed, with a gorgeous smile and the looks of an aging surfer, he was sincere in his advice and direction. I felt safe with him, and I knew he genuinely cared about me.

Jimmy was a typical college frat boy and all the men loved him. I forever cherish our late-night secret friendship.

Frank. I was a hustler on Polk Street when we met. My first exposure to the leather subculture South of Market. By day, he was a well-known chef at Cordon Bleu, by night, a master in bars and private clubs that defined the S&M scene.

Stu was an outdoorsman, masculine, who showed me that not all gay men were effeminate. Burly but athletic, he enjoyed hiking and camping. I can still hear him say, “Get on a Greyhound and spend time with me in Lake Tahoe.”

John and I were both married when we met, left our wives, moved-in together and threw away our fake hetero and bisexual lives. John was a pharmacist who grew psychedelic mushrooms in our kitchen. I spent my first Christmas in the Castro with him. Unfortunately, I was too young and stupid to realize the value of our relationship.

Fred. It took us awhile before realizing we were better friends than lovers. I can still visualize him roller skating midtown Sacramento, Walkman strapped to his waist, listening to his favorite Olivia Newton-John.

Louis and I were tight, like brothers. Louis was as gay as we come (i.e. flamboyant), but he was street-smart and grew up around inner-city gangs. We loved to hang out in downtown Oaktown (i.e. Oakland), at funky dives like Sounding Board, with gang-bangers on the down-low. Oh, the stories… Once, while at Der Weinerschnitzel, a cashier called Louis a faggot. Fearless queen that he was, Louis jumped over the counter and beat the crap out of the employee, but landed in county jail!

David was a Puerto Rican lowrider with a classic Impala, which he trusted me enough with to drive. I’d pile all my buddies in that vehicle and we’d party in either Oaktown or San Francisco.

Michael, the son of a law enforcement officer. Like Louis, he too could not stay out of trouble. But like most white boys with a father behind a badge, he managed to avoid jail-time. Michael didn’t stop partying until crashing his car late one night in downtown Sacramento. He sobered-up and got clean, but it was too late, he was already sick. Michael’s way out was suicide.

Vince, Michael and I were a trio always found late in the bars and clubs in downtown Sacra-tomato. We raised hell at Wreck Room, Faces, Buffalo Club, Western, The Merc, Steamworks, Club Baths…

Steve. A tortured graffiti artist, straight most of the time, gay some of the time. When our affair ended, Steve ran away to New York City and became an AIDS activist, distributing clean needles to street junkies before eventually returning and disappearing in Sac.

Gary broke my heart and all our friends hated him for it.

Jeff and I struggled to maintain a relationship once he revealed his diagnosis. We were both divorced and had children, but our pasts were much different. He’d grown-up around the KKK. When Jeff was in high school, he woke one night to his father holding a gun to his head, whispering “No son of mine is going to be a faggot.” When I met Jeff’s father, his racist first words to me (while pulling a knife from his pocket) were, “See this? This is my n***** sticker!”

Wade was the last to die, less than a decade ago. There were others. Jamie before Wade. Both were long-term survivors.

Otherwise known as Unicorn, Jamie’s biggest joy came from being the coat-check guy at one of the leather bars in San Francisco. He wore a kilt, with a devil (or piggy) tail underneath! And maybe a Star Fleet Academy windbreaker I gave the Trekkie one Christmas.

I did not include any last names to avoid conflict with their families. Some were or still might feel ashamed about sexuality, or AIDS. In more than one obit, the family lists an opportunistic infection (or collateral disease) as cause of death, rather than AIDS.

While HIV may have erased their lives, my memories it has not, and I sometimes wonder why (and how) I am still here. Perhaps to tell our stories. My life and their lives comprise the final book in my memoir trilogy work-in-progress.

An excerpt:

A few of my classmates told me their parents forbade them from being my friend, including neighborhood boys I had grown up with, like my best friend who lived across the street. Ironic, considering (closeted but obviously gay) Dick, would later leave our small town for San Francisco, working at the most-popular store on Polk Street, Headlines.

He shunned me outside the Oakland Coliseum Arena once, after a Diana Ross concert in 1983. Despite being only feet from each other, on the platform waiting for the Bay Area Rapid Transit, he didn’t say hello, smile or even acknowledge me.

Instead, he threw his mother’s shade. Like most women during the Seventies, she didn’t approve of sissies, much less her son being one. When I learned he was working on one of the gayest streets in the world, I knew he’d escaped her ignorance and prejudice.

While indoors, he punched keys on a register, selling rainbow flags and beads; outside, I hustled the street corners and alleyways. Unfortunately, my boyhood friend became the second person I knew to die during the emerging AIDS pandemic.

We’d grown-up together. I kept his secret of spying on the married man next door, at night, from a window. Dick’s second-floor bedroom overlooked his neighbor below. He’d spy on the husband’s naked body, and told me what a grown man looked like, hairy. We were curious fourteen-year-olds.

Sometimes, I would stay overnight with my friend. His father, a firefighter, would tickle my feet while we watched television. However, Dick’s mother did not approve of me staying overnight, or being in their home, or sleeping with her son.