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12. The Epidemic


It was sometime in 1982 or maybe late 1981 that the gay bar rags began reporting on the new sickness. The Bay Area Reporter and the Sentinel were given away for free on top of cigarette machines in gay bars and in sidewalk newsstands; they were the connective tissue of the gay community, and did yeoman’s work in keeping the community informed of the epidemic, especially early, when the mainstream media were unaware of it.

We began reading about mysterious cancers and pneumonias that were hitting gay men in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. As the reports became more frequent, so did the seriousness of the disease, or diseases—nobody knew if it was one thing or a bunch of different, unrelated things. But one thing was for sure: gay men were dying. At first, the illnesses were called, for lack of anything better, Gay Cancer and Gay Pneumonia. Eventually, the authorities linked the two and dubbed the collective illnesses (which now had grown to include intestinal parasites and yeast infections) as GRID: gay-related immune deficiency.

The gay community in San Francisco—which included tens of thousands of men from across the Bay Area who came to the city for recreation—gradually became petrified. Men were dying in droves. Castro Street, just down the hill from where I lived, looked like Night of the Living Dead: men in their 30s, looking 75, hobbled on walkers and crutches, or were wheeled in chairs by caregivers. The Bay Area Reporter began publishing their weekly “death” page, required reading, with photos of dead men and obituaries. Soon, these appeared by the dozens and then by the score. The butcher’s bill was coming due. Who’d be next? was in the air. The sickness struck randomly; no one knew why; no one knew anything.

At SFSU, I’d changed my major from poetry (fun, but no possible career) to what I would eventually get my M.A. in: Educational Technology. I was working on-campus as secretary of the Film Department, which is where I met Marilyn, who has now been my best friend for forty years. One day—I think it was in 1983 or ‘84—I saw a purple spot on my right index finger. Purple spots were indicative of Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS), a killer skin cancer connected with GRID. It didn’t go away for weeks. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, rub my thumb on the spot and, yes, the scabby roughness was still there. Terrified, I told Marilyn. I was convinced I had Kaposi’s sarcoma.

At her suggestion—no, insistence—I made an appointment at the campus health clinic; Marilyn came with me. The doctor looked at my finger, frowned, looked again, and said she didn’t know what it was; she couldn’t rule out KS. She set me up with an appointment at the University of California at San Francisco’s dermatology department, the big leagues of GRID research.

I was sweating bullets the day Dr. Conant received me. He examined the finger, peered at the purple spot through a magnifying lens with a spotlight shining from a device on his forehead. Then he said, “Let me show you what your cancer is.” He took a scalpel and sliced it off and held it in his palm, a dead piece of purple skin. “Have you been in contact with photographic developing fluid?” No. But I was working in the Film Department, which was in the same building as the Photography Department, so who knew? “That’s what this is,” he said. “It stained your skin. It would have eventually gone away, as your skin cells replaced themselves. You don’t have Kaposi’s sarcoma.”

I mention this anecdote only to suggest the stress we San Francisco gay men felt that sorry season. By then, I was living with the only man I’ve ever been able to sustain a long-range relationship with. Eugene was seven years my senior, an affable guy with thick, curly salt-and-pepper hair and a ready laugh; he looked like the Marlboro Man in the cigarette commercials, which is to say: rugged and handsome. He was a sweet old soul (Maxine called him the nicest man in the world), who worked for the U.S. Postal Service’s Special Delivery unit. We’d met in a bar and gone back to my place where, as we lay in bed, he asked me to tell him a story. I made up something about a monkey king. Eugene later told me that’s when he fell in love with me. Ditto.

I’d also started volunteering for Shanti Project, a non-profit that trained men and women to serve AIDS patients, the new name for GRID. This was a very busy period in my life, 1983: I was going to grad school fulltime, working a fulltime job on-campus, trying to get to the gym four or five times a week, jogging seriously and competing in local races, and developing my relationship with Eugene, not to mention visiting all those wine shops. But someone had to do something for all these sick and dying gay men!

My first client was a guy named Jim. He was in bad shape: 6’2” in height, but probably under a hundred pounds, as the disease wasted him away to a skeleton. One day he said to me, “I haven’t put my arms around another human being in six months. Can we just lie down and…”? I was horrified. We didn’t know if AIDS could be casually contracted. Our managers at Shanti said they didn’t think so, based on expert information, but they couldn’t be sure. Now here was Jim.

We lay there on his bed for a long time, spooning, him in back, holding me tight; I could feel his bony ribs. A few weeks later, he died. My manager at Shanti called me with the news, and asked if I were ready for another client. Yes. His name was Gary Walsh. He was a highly visible gay man in San Francisco, friend of politicians, and on Shanti’s board of directors. The book “And The Band Played On,” by the late Randy Shilts, talks extensively about Gary. My manager said he could be difficult; he’d fired his previous volunteers, but she thought I could handle him. I could and did, washing his bedding that was soaked from night sweats, scrubbing the toilet, cleaning the dirty dishes, vacuuming and mopping. Gary wasn’t much of a talker; he wanted me to show up, do my chores while he lay in bed reading or watching T.V., and leave. After three or four months, Gary died.

I was in regular psychotherapy sessions at that time—your garden-variety neurotic, “the worried well”–and my therapist, on learning of my schedule and knowing my anxieties, said I had to drop something. I was seriously over-extended; I was giving myself 11 minutes to drive across town (and getting a lot of speeding tickets in the bargain). We went through the possibilities of what to jettison. I felt bad that it ended up being Shanti, but I was burned out, and besides, Shanti was flooded with new volunteers, so it wasn’t as if they depended on me.

My major at SFSU now was Educational Technology, a brand-new department created to figure out how the Apple 11e computer, which Apple generously made available to colleges, could or should be used. It was a powerful device, obviously, and the professors in the mathematics department wanted their students to learn how to program it. But all the other university departments wanted in on this potential game changer, including the School of Education, so they invented this “educational technology” department and hired a bright young guy to determine what the hell it meant and what sorts of jobs future School of Education graduates might expect to land.

For my day job, I had gone from the Film Department to the Career Center, a campus backwater remarkable for the savagery of its internal politics. I was the director’s secretary, and he turned over a lot of the daily work to me, including the mail, so that, when a want ad came in for us to post on our Career Bulletin Board, I was the one who opened the envelope. A small college just across the bay, in Oakland, was looking for a Career Center director. I knew everything about running a career center. I gave good interview. I got the job.

My new employer was California College of Arts & Crafts (now California College of the Arts), in North Oakland, a few miles down College Avenue from U.C. Berkeley. The college president assigned me a top priority: to develop an internship program, so that the students could find work opportunities, related to their majors, that would lead to successful careers. Art school grads were notorious for struggling economically; this was threatening CCAC’s enrollments. The president wanted to be able to assure potential tuition-paying parents that the college had a Career Center that would prepare their children for high-paying jobs.

My immediate boss was a savvy old bureaucrat named Randall, the Dean of Student Services, which included the Career Center. Randall was a thoroughly cynical man who’d negotiated the rapids and shoals of academic politics for decades. He was a survivor who just wanted to avoid trouble. He wanted me to succeed, he said, but warned how difficult my challenge was. “None of the deans wants an internship program. And the deans run this place.”

“Then why did the president tell me to start an internship program?”

Randall looked at me kindly. I was so naïve. He didn’t say it, but I could read it in his eyes. “Because they’ll need a scapegoat.” I went about the business of developing internships. Most employers were happy to see me. “What took CCAC so long?” was the general reaction. Then I was summarily summoned to meet separately with the three academic deans: fine arts, graphic design and architecture. They had learned of my activities and were not happy. They were not (they said) training their students at the highest levels of artistic excellence, in order for them to waste their skills at menial jobs with mediocre companies.

For example, one of the hardest populations to find jobs for were the painters. You go to art school for four years to learn how to paint, and then maybe another two years to get your MFA. You graduate $75,000 in debt, and then you can’t find a job. I saw many people in their 30s and 40s who’d graduated with MFAs. One woman, a painter about 45 years old, came in to see me and said she was tired of being a waitress, sleeping on a futon in a rented room in someone’s apartment. She wanted, she said, to make $75,000 a year; would I please tell her how? I could not. Employers didn’t care about someone who paints pretty pictures. Ronald Reagan’s America wanted hard-nosed MBAs.

So I went to the biggest outdoor billboard company in the Bay Area. The famous Pop artist James Rosenquist had paid the bills by painting billboards; so, I thought, can CCAC students. The billboard company was thrilled to hire interns from so prestigious an art school. But when the fine arts dean found out, he was furious. Michaelangelo hadn’t worked for a goddamned billboard company!

The graphic design and architecture deans reacted the same way. I had offended the gods; I had to go. The administration offered up the scapegoat for the slaughter. My replacement was a meek young woman who just wanted to keep her job. She killed the internship program.

Getting fired was a blow to my pride. Landing my first professional job had been a big deal. What was I supposed to tell people? It was humiliating. More importantly, how would I pay the bills, including my new mortgage? I had always told my students that they should not take a job simply for money. You’re going to be working for the next 30, 40 years, I’d say. Studies show that a huge majority of Americans hate their jobs. Do you want to be one of them? Find out what you love, and then figure out how to make a living doing it.

Now that I was on the job market, I decided to take my own advice. There were only two things I loved: writing—my old standby—and wine. By 1987 I had self-educated myself to the equivalent of wine graduate school through reading, through my interviews in wine shops, through traveling and tasting in wine country and by joining the old Les Amis du Vin consumer group, whose San Francisco chapter asked me to head it at precisely the same time my psychotherapist was telling me to drop things.

I put the two together: wine and writing. Wine = writing. Wine writing. Wine writer! I knew what that was. My favorite magazine in the world was Wine Spectator, which was published in San Francisco. I knew the columnists by name. Could I be a wine writer?

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