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Exactly forty years ago this month, history records, the first victim of the pandemic—which as yet had no name—died in Copenhagen.

Three years after the Copenhagen man died, in the summer of 1983, I met Jim. He was only 38, but looked twice as old. His spinal curvature made him look far shorter than his 6-foot frame, he’d lost most of his hair and what was left was white, and the skin on his face was pallid and spotted. Where once he’d weighed 165 pounds, he was now down to below 100. He moved with the slow, grunting effort of a senior citizen—when he moved at all. Most of the time, debilitated by fatigue, he just lay in bed.

I’d been referred to Jim by my manager at Shanti Project, a wonderful young woman named Randi. I’d volunteered to work at Shanti a few months earlier. They’d put me through all the training: how to listen to dying people, how not to judge but be only supportive, how to keep accurate records. Then I was ready for my first client. When Jim answered the door at his Castro District apartment, I tried not to show my shock. We gradually got to know each other, as I washed his dishes, cleaned his toilet, shopped for his food, laundered his clothes and bedding, swept and vacuumed the floor, and occasionally drove him around the city, just so he could get outside a little. We didn’t talk much. There wasn’t much to say. He was easy to be around, and I hoped I was easy for him, too.

Once, after a month or so, he asked if he could ask me a big favor.

“It’s been six months since I held someone in my arms,” he began. The words were hard for him to say, I could tell, not just because speaking was physically challenging, but because Jim was a proud man, and didn’t want to ask for something as elemental as human affection. “Can we just hold each other in bed?”

He didn’t have to reassure me it wasn’t sexual. I knew that. This was a moment I’d been dreading. Shanti, which had access to the best medical information due to their contacts with the San Francisco Health Department and the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center, had reassured us that the disease could not be spread through casual contact. At least, they were pretty sure it couldn’t. But no one could guarantee it. This was in early 1983; the virus hadn’t even been identified yet.

What would you have done?

We lay there quietly, me in front, him in back, spooning. His shoulder blades were sharp as knives. Maybe twenty minutes went by. The absolute last thing I wanted to communicate to Jim, whom I’d grown quite fond of, was any fear on my part. So I monitored my body’s reactions closely. Still the beating heart. Don’t fidgit. That pain in the right shoulder—the one with the bad rotator cuff? Ignore it. Just…be.

I got the call from Randi a few months later. I was at work, on campus at San Francisco State University. Jim had died that morning. Randi went silent to let the news sink in. Then she said, “Do you think you want another client? You don’t have to. It’s okay if you don’t. This is hard on everyone.” I didn’t have to think about it at all. “Yes, I want another client.”

That’s the way it was in the early days of AIDS in San Francisco. Up against a disease nobody understood, a horrible disease that ate people up like carbolic acid, that led to appalling suffering and hideous death. Thinking back on it now, it all seems so long ago. AIDS barely kills anyone anymore in America; the new drugs work. AIDS is as manageable as, say, high blood pressure. Pop a pill or two, and forget about it.

But those of us who went through the nation’s last pandemic before COVID-19 will not forget. The Castro District, so ravaged thirty-five years ago, is once again healthy and thriving (or was, before the pandemic shut everything down). You’d never know it once looked like Auschwitz. Now there are young couples wheeling infants in designer baby carriages. It’s not just gay anymore but has re-become the family neighborhood it was 80 years ago, before it became the Gay Mecca. Gone is the storefront where the AIDS Quilt was produced. Gone is Harvey Milk’s camera shop. Gone is the Elephant Walk bar, where you could flirt with the cutest men in town. Still around, thankfully, is Cliff’s Variety, on the corner of 18th and Castro, where you can get everything from a Cuisinart to diaper pins.  Still around, too, is Shanti Project. L’chaim.

  1. Audrey H Webb says:

    How do I subscribe to your Blog.
    Thank you for the tribute to Milla.

  2. Dear Audrey, thanks for reading me. I don’t know how people can subscribe. But you can check it at I generally post every day.

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