San Francisco as the epicenter of loss: Part II

Untitled (Burning Skull), 1987. Keith Haring: The Politcal Line.  deYoung Museum, San Francisco. 2015.
Untitled (Burning Skull), 1987. Keith Haring: The Politcal Line.
deYoung Museum, San Francisco. 2015.

For those of us who weren’t ill, AIDS gave us a new and better reason to live.

The 80’s were a time of death and resurrection in San Francisco. Those of us who had survived the nihilism of the late 70’s felt lucky to be alive. We had to either get wise quickly or be carried away with the rising tide of illness. The recovery movement in San Francisco was born.

It’s easy to forget but half the city seemed to get clean and sober in the 80’s. It became clear to many of us that using drugs and alcohol clouded our judgement and facilitated our indulgence in activities that could compromise our health and our lives. We had to wake up quickly.

And we did.

Alcoholics Anonymous was never so popular, particularly in the LGBT community. During most of the 80’s the clean and sober contingent of the Gay Day Parade was overwhelmingly the largest. It was usually placed at the end of the parade so that onlookers became participants, marching into the end-of-the-parade festivities at the Civic Center as part of the fold. Just as, in the 70’s, you were a nobody if you didn’t indulge in substances, in the 80’s you were on the fringes if you did.

Most of our friends who found out they were HIV positive, if they wanted to preserve what was left of their health, stopped or severely limited their use. And, for the rest of us, getting high was incompatible with helping our friends who were ill. Narcissism had given way to altruism.

We also learned to appreciate life. We were still young and, as we saw many of our friends dying, we experienced what older people do when their age cohort begins to succumb. This has a profound effect on you. You really understand that life is finite. You get on with things. Your mundane concerns seem, well…..mundane. It occurs to you that you might want to do something meaningful with your life.

This period of time truly shaped our lives. Several of us became therapists and social workers, other friends became nurses. All of us, no matter what profession, volunteered and fund-raised.

My best friend, Dannie, was still alive and well. We continued to plan trips and travel together. And then one day on a trip to Vancouver Island by ferry he turned and said to me, “Kathleen, I’m HIV positive”.

This was 1989 and became the closing salvo of the decade for Dannie and me. It had taken awhile but now he was in the bullseye of the epidemic. The skeletal figures, oxygen tanks, experimental treatments and hospices would no longer be one circle removed.

Dannie’s health would deteriorate in slow motion in a few short years….

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