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….