Tuesday, May 29, 2001


The epidemic meant loss of friends and family, derailed lives

Dave Ford, Chronicle Staff Writer, from the  SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE


To imagine  what it was like living in San Francisco at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, try this:

Invite 30 close friends over for a party. Get happy for a few hours. Then, in the span of 20 minutes, each of your guests should leave -- some without a goodbye, others with a long, sad parting -- until you are all alone. Turn out the light and sit in the dark and imagine you will never, ever see them again.

Now imagine yourself 10, 15, 20 years later and see if you're not surprised that your career and life paths appear, in retrospect, to be odd, patchwork affairs devoid of everything you thought would make life "normal."

And see if you don't occasionally feel an underlying ennui that you can only define as. . . blargh.

It is difficult to convey the sense of shock, grief and loss most of us felt back then. Do you know what it is like to lose half -- or all -- of your friendship circle before you're 30? To have fewer friends to share a history with and to grow old with? Did you hear about Johnny? Roger? Walter? Chris? Eric? Did you hear that Bobby's got it? Have you heard from Austin lately?

That's not bad enough? Add to it that your neighbors, your country, your society does not care about you. Does not care in one-syllable gestures: President Ronald Reagan failed to publicly mention the word "AIDS" until seven years into the epidemic.

Entire communities ostracized families with AIDS-afflicted kids. Some fathers shunned gay sons with AIDS; some mothers did, too. Those stories of emotional rejection only paled in their gruesomeness next to the more pressing grotesqueries of skeletal young men hobbling down Castro Street on canes or crying when they soiled themselves in hospice beds.

When your country abandons you, you have two choices: sink or circle the wagons. So there were great acts of local courage in those days. Friends brought sick friends meals, washed their sheets and mopped perspiring brows with cool cloths. Lovers stuck with sick lovers even when every cell screamed leave! Grass-roots organizations popped up to provide food, shelter, clothing and hope.

In the midst of deathly chaos, we learned to create a community of care, even as we knew we'd lose much of that community to the disease. It was kind of like building sand castles in the rain -- or on quicksand.

Things sank further when, after eight long and dreary years, Reagan morphed into Bush (the Elder) and the disease raged on and friends kept dying. All of us felt burned out. There was this sense of shell-shocked acquiescence to a world in which every promise, every hope and even perceived entitlement had gone so topsy-turvy that it seemed as if nothing would be right again.

Then, something unforeseen happened. Clinton was elected president. The zeitgeist changed. Gay characters started peeking out from behind television closet doors. Medicines that showed real promise in stalling the effects of HIV became available.

For those with HIV, those drugs meant the hope of a longer life, albeit one spent paying off that credit card the infected had maxed out when they figured they'd die before the bill came due. For those without HIV, like me, it meant. . . blargh.

That's right: blargh. It meant no more monsters to hold at bay, no more battles to fight, no more -- anything. There was a sense of the wind going out of the sails and stormy seas suddenly calming. I certainly wasn't the only former activist/journalist who, once the demon was felled if not destroyed, felt a decided sense of drift. It was as if this delayed life had suddenly become entrenched in delay. What, then, to do?

Answer: nothing, except to try to move on while remembering it would be foolish to forget where we'd been. Me -- now I'm a reporter at a metro newspaper that it sometimes seems as if it took me two decades to get to.

Would I have gotten here -- or anywhere on my career path -- sooner, had AIDS not derailed my world 20 years ago? Who knows? Things just did not go as we'd planned back in the 1980s.

But sometimes I turn out the light and sit in the dark and imagine what it'd be like to see Johnny and Roger and Walter and Chris and Eric and Bobby and Austin again. I sit there and get that familiar downward pull in my heart, and it's all I can do not to leap up and go for the light.