San Francisco as the epicenter of loss: Part 1

Keith  Haring, Untitled, 1983 The Political Line: Keith Haring, De Young Museum,  San Francisco, Ca.,  November 8, 2014- February 16, 2015
Keith Haring, Untitled, 1983
The Political Line: Keith Haring, De Young Museum, San Francisco, Ca.,
November 8, 2014- February 16, 2015

It was 1981 and I was at the underground MUNI Van Ness Station in San Francisco. The platform was sparsely occupied. Who knows where I was going. Public transportation was a part of my daily routine.

I had had my struggles in emerging from a very self-destructive lifestyle (to say the least) to one in which I was trying to stop using drugs and alcohol. My success at this endeavor was intermittent at the time but I was making an effort to change my course in life. This cost me friendships with people who I hung out with. I knew I would never stay clean if I continued to see them.

My friends defined me in my 20’s which, I think, is pretty much the case for most people. The loss of my party friends was a major loss for me as I began my recovery. A treatment program somewhat prepared me for this. I had no warning or preparation for the other overwhelming loss that was to take place in my social sphere.

It was not unusual in those days to run into someone you knew from the nightlife especially if you were taking a train to the Castro, the gay hub of San Francisco. I was standing on the platform when a familiar face came into view. My friend, Spider, approached. (At the time many people had odd nicknames that described their personality, some aspect of their appearance or how they made their living — Flamingo, Peaches, Rusty Nails.) He was the most drug-addled of all the people I knew. His name fit him well; he had a removed and sinister air about him and was at the center of a literal web of people in the gay drug scene.

He was, on this rare occasion, not under the influence of a drug. That struck me as strange in itself. He said he had been ill lately and chalked it up to a case of the flu. We had the most mundane of conversations. We caught up. I explained that I was trying to get out of the party scene and so had not been in touch or returned his calls. He seemed to understand. I watched as he ascended the MUNI stairs towards the street level. There was a fatalistic air about him that made me quite uneasy but I passed it off as a relic of our shared past.

Three days later I got the call. A mutual friend informed me that Spider had been admitted to the hospital and transferred to the intensive care unit. He had a severe pneumonia which was very difficult to diagnose; it turned out to be pneumocystis. He was intubated and in critical condition. While he could still speak he had asked that some friends be notified.

During this time a number of gay men had been getting deathly ill. No one really knew what was wrong; people were saying that it was the “gay plague”. Most people were misinformed and naive. Paranoia was the order of the day. Who might have it and how you got it were mysteries. AIDS was a diagnosis that was not even on the radar yet. We were still in unknown territory.

I called a physician friend who had treated both myself and Spider and we hurried over to Ralph K. Davies Hospital in the Castro. I was only 27 and had never been in the presence of anyone critically ill. We stood at the bedside in shock. Spider was unable to breathe on his own and was no longer conscious. We did our best to say goodbye. He died soon after our visit. It was very quick. In those early days there was not a lot they knew about prolonging life when you had the illness.

AIDS decimated the gay community in San Francisco from 1980 to 1995. Spider was the first friend I lost. He would be far from the last. My circle of friends became ever smaller as the noose tightened. Virtually all the gay men who I knew from the 70’s, save one, would be dead in a fifteen year span….

Why you should start a blog in retirement: Is there more to life than being entertained?


It seems that I often have too much to do with too little time to do it in. This is more the case for me now that I am not working and have more time than ever.

Paradoxically, when I was working more than 60 hours a week, I seemed to have time to do everything. It came down to the built-in efficiencies that I had to come up with out of necessity. This kept me functioning in the world-as-it-is but gave me precious little time to come up with ways to create the world-as-it-might-be. The pace of modern life only allowed me to keep my head above water.

Whether we retire when we want to or when our health or finances dictate that we have to, there is an adjustment period. Our first inclination is to establish a routine that gets us out of the house and among others. Initially this may be enough. But it is very easy to fall into what I call the “entertainment trap” after a while — TV, movies, celebrity gossip, gaming — distractions which can appear to be innocuous initially but which take us away from ourselves eventually. This ultimately is very unfulfilling. We take but do not give.

To get myself out of this trap I started blogging. I felt that my background in mental health might enable me to give people a little guidance on how to move forward in their lives. I had no idea how this effort might change me.

When you work in any field you become an expert. This is true whether you work as a clerk, a doctor, a social worker or a mechanic. You know the ins and outs of what you do and often you don’t think about it too much. Not many people remain engaged and interested in what they do for a living. Your work becomes routine. You put one foot in front of the other and make assumptions along the way based on past experience.

So when you suddenly are freed from the constraints of a job’s structure you are able to look back and see all the things you were too busy to mentally digest in your daily experience. You are given a fresh perspective.

What you did and how it formed you is valuable. What can keep you busy now is not the mundane details of maintaining yourself in the work and social order of things but, instead, giving others the opportunity to learn from you, especially younger people. In a culture in which values and mores are changing rapidly those who are just starting out need an anchor. You can provide it.

Blogging is a way to find out what you really know and what you may have done differently given more time to step away and gain perspective. Others can benefit from your experience. Now is the time to show the way.