A med & grad student who used to work the line in LA, NYC, SF and Napa talking about the science of cooking and cooking with science. Harold McGee's On Food And Cooking - The Science and Lore of the Kitchen never satisfied my kitchen curiosity and more than one Chef grew exasperated with my asking "Why?" I'll try to stay on topic, but you may see a kvetch or two about the school & hospital.
My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.
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I was 3 years old. I didn't know what it meant, but I was 3. The next year, I'd be 4, and I would want an Atari 2600 for my birthday. But at that point in time, I was 3 and the world was going to change. I would later hear about how everything changed and the ensuing hard, uphill struggle to inform. To survive. But instead I was 3. Being filmed in the garage at my grandmother's house on my Uncle's old Betamax camcorder. Running around the small backyard in the Outer Sunset District.
I couldn't tell you what I was exactly doing on June 5, 1981. Like I said, I was 3. But, June 5 is a significant date for my hometown. My beloved city of San Francisco. I could have been on a road trip with my parents, aunts and uncles, down to Disneyland for all I can recall of the date. Or it could have been just another Friday. The summer fog would have rolled in, and I'd be on my way to Grandma's to sleep over. The early summer warmth being tempered and cooled by San Francisco's unique weather. Maybe we'd be on our way to the Drive-In theater in Pacifica. In the old red Charger. White hardtop. With the chromed wraparound bumper. The 440 that my dad would let me sit in his lap and steer on clear city streets.
You see, June 5, 1981 was the day that five cases of Pneumocystis pneumonia in gay men in Los Angeles was reported to the Centers for Disease Control (the "and Prevention" part didn't come until years later). For many, especially residents of SF and LA, it marks the start of the AIDS pandemic. The CDC didn't have a name for it back then. The pneumonia. The Kaposi's sarcoma. The insane number of opportunistic infections by common pathogens. Yeast and bacteria and viruses that a fully functioning immune system could suppress. Since the CDC had no name, the press dubbed it "GRID." Short for "Gay related immune deficiency." The CDC would later try to label this weird syndrome as 4H. 4H to stand for Homosexuals, Haitians, hemophiliacs and heroin drug users.
In San Francisco, the disease was called "Gay Cancer." Because of the KS lesions. Because no one wanted to use the term "GRID." Because "4H" was stupid. And sounded like something many of the openly gay men had fled their home states of Ohio and Oklahoma and Kansas and Texas and wherever for. No one knew where it came from. No one knew what caused it. All anyone knew was that it was spreading.
I would go to school and grow up a little more than 4 miles from what was "ground zero" for the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. 4 miles and it felt like 400. The Castro was never a regular stop for my family and I. Staunchly Catholic Filipinos just don't wander that way. But even as a kid, I'd hear things on playgrounds. I'd sometimes watch the news with my grandma or my mom or at my sitter's. And you would hear about the number of deaths. The number of new cases. The fear and paranoia of how it was spread.
The next year was 1982. That the numbers of non-homosexuals coming down with this strange disease was increasing rendered many the names GRID and 4H and Gay Cancer pointless. In July, the name "AIDS" was suggested. The press picked up on it and started using it. The name "AIDS" would be properly defined as "Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome" in September. In 1982, AIDS acquired a name, volunteer groups would start to spring up. I started kindergarten.
1983 would go down as a debacle in AIDS history. The CDC would issue a statement listing groups at risk - sexually promiscuous homosexual and bisexual men, Haitians, IV drug users, hemophiliacs, and those with many sexual partners1. They would offer nothing more than this and would throw the US into a panic. In New York City, AIDS patients were being evicted by landlords for fears of spreading the contagion to themselves and other tenants. In San Francisco, patrol officers would refuse to help bleeding gay men for fear of contracting the disease2. This would prompt City Hall to issue masks and gloves to patrol officers. Throughout the US, paramedics and firefighters protested administering CPR to known homosexuals and drug users. By the end of the year, more than 3000 Americans would be diagnosed with AIDS, and over a thousand had died. By the end of the year, I would be in 1st Grade.
There was a store near where I went to school. A Walgreens. I remember sneaking off after my uncle would drop me off to school in the mornings with some friends. We'd hit up Walgreens for a Jolt Cola or candy. I'd remember each morning we went, there was a group of men standing outside looking at papers posted to the outside of the store. It wasn't until years later that I'd learned what the men were looking at. It was a list that went out through most of San Francisco, posted on as many drug store walls and windows as possible. It was a list of people who were diagnosed with AIDS. It was information. And it was a warning. If you had contact with one of those men, you may have AIDS.
1984 would be a brief positive blip. A virus was believed to be responsible for AIDS. Later, this virus would prove to be the same as a virus isolated by a French team at the Pasteur Institute. Scientists and doctors were hopeful for a vaccine in a few short years, now that the virus had been isolated. It was a brief reprieve from the calamity and ignorance.
1985 is one of those years I'll never forget. Like I'd said, you couldn't escape AIDS. Not in this city. If you didn't have it, you knew someone who had it, or knew someone who knew someone. You watched the news. You read the papers. 1985 was the year of my first communion. There was a tradition at our school that the top students got to offer up special prayers. I wanted to offer up a special prayer to those with AIDS and who had died of AIDS. I was denied. When I pushed the matter, I was passed over. I still remember bits the argument with Monsignor (never call him Father) O'Malley. That shouldn't those people who suffer deserve our prayers? Weren't they deserving of kindness? Didn't Jesus say to love all? The stern priest with the gin blossom grew even more red and mottled. When I got home, I was yelled at by my mom, my grandmother and some of my aunts for angering a priest. No, not a priest. A Monsignor! I can still remember my grandmother's face as she yelled about offending a man so senior to any other priest in our church.
It wasn't until later in the year that I'd speak to someone who thought what I did was ok. Sister Catherine was my French teacher in GATE. She also taught music. A small woman who always smiled. She said that sometimes the right thing would make other people mad. That sometimes you had to make people mad to get them to do the right thing. I remember it confusing me back then. And maybe I'm not remembering her words exactly right, but I was in awe that someone thought I wanted to do the right thing.
In 1985 the world was introduced to Ryan White. AIDS took on a much different face. It was no longer singularly associated with shirtless and hirsute men in The Castro and West Village, or disturbingly gaunt figures in thin hospital gowns and covered in lesions. White had come down with pneumonia. And with a partial lung removal in 1984, he was diagnosed with AIDS. Most likely from contaminated Factor VIII, a blood product and clotting agent for hemophiliacs. Now AIDS took on the face of a boy in Middle America. He was branded a threat to his community. Parents lobbied hard to keep White from returning to school. Amidst hysteria, parents withdrew their children from schools to keep them out of contact with White. What students remained harassed him. He was forced to use disposable utensils at school, use segregated bathrooms and faucets. He was barred from gym class. Facing threats of violence, Ryan and his family would move to Cicero, Indiana. Where they would live until White's death in 19903.
It wasn't until 1987 that the President said a four letter word on television. It wasn't the f-word or the s-word or the g-word or any other word. See, President Regan had an amazing ability to take a tough stance with the Soviet Union. He was able to persuade the Soviets, and their head of state, to come to the table and discuss nuclear arms proliferation. He was so good, he had talked them into dismantling a portion of the arsenal. Both sides would. And he hoped his Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty would lead to further dismantling in the future. Until both sides had 0 nuclear warheads and 0 delivery vehicles. But he couldn't say "AIDS." Prior to this he had discussed the topic briefly, but he had never said the word aloud on national television.
1987 would bear witness to the birth of an incredibly painful memorial. The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Cleve Jones would make the first panel for a friend. Each subsequent panel, 3 feet by 6 feet, was made by friends and relatives of someone who had died of AIDS. Today the Names Project maintains the panels, and has a database of over 45,000 images. One panel inspired 45,000 others. And it keeps growing. You won't see as many new panels made as you once did, but people still do get together to make a new panel.
We would later move from San Francisco. And my family would move around the East Bay. In 1995, I would move to Los Angeles to start college life. My family would throw a small going away party. And with the help of my parents, I'd move into the dorms. Two weeks after starting school, I'd drive back up to San Francisco. In High School, I had a lot of "friends," but only a handful of friends. "Friends" were the people you talked to and chatted with in class or at lunch, saw at parties. But for me friends were the few people I knew had my back day in and day out, and I had theirs. It's a small distinction for me, but the people in the latter category were the ones who knew back then that I was bisexual.
In that smaller group was one of my best friends. We'll call her M. Like Ryan White, M got AIDS from tainted Factor VIII. Unlike Ryan's school in Indiana, our school in the East Bay didn't segregate her from the general population. Other kids and their parents were wary of her. Even in the 90s. But, M wasn't given much trouble. And the kids that did say something to her usually met my fist or her brother's fist. I never did find out what one kid had said to her in our senior year that had her visibly shaking one warm April afternoon. But, it was enough for me to pick the kid up and toss him in a dumpster and close the lid. The dumpsters were probably filled with the castoffs from the cafeteria, and the cleaning in the kitchens, because the sweet-warm smell of garbage hit my nose several feet before I got there, the scrawny twerp trying hard to get away.
But I drove back 2 weeks after school started, because M was in the hospital with pneumonia. Her parents and siblings insisted, after a few days, that I head back down to LA. I didn't want to. I did. Eventually. Three days after I got back on campus, I got a message in my inbox to call M's sister. I remember my hands shaking when I dialed the number. And I held my breath. M's sister said that she was fine, and that she was discharged from the hospital. I was so relieved. It would take me a few more weeks, but eventually I'd settle into the groove of college life. With the occasional weekend trip back up to SF. There was studying. LAN parties involving Doom 2 and Rise of the Triad. Working in the backs of kitchens, doing prep work. Other parties.
The specter of AIDS didn't leave me in LA. It was too hard personally and environmentally. Phone calls to friends all over, we would eventually come back to the topic of M and how she was doing. Hooking up with boys and girls around LA. Growing up with the images of skeletal bodies with lesions, made the use of condoms an absolute must.
M died 3 years after I left for LA. Pneumonia, again. I snuck back to SF two days before M died. My mom didn’t like her, because she had AIDS. Always feared that if she touched something in our house, that it could then spread. I always tried to correct her point of view, but she was too stubborn. I guess we share that. I crashed with friends. To get in to see M, we had to wear those stupid paper gowns, gloves, masks, caps. The hospital room had that same acrid-sweet smell that all hospitals have. Disinfectant and something else. Something more organic. Sweat, lingered perfumes and colognes, the bedpans. I call it “hospital smell.” I still hate that damn smell. Even now that I find myself learning in one. Maybe you can’t actually smell any of that stuff, but for me it was real. For us it was real.
LA came and went. Work would take me from LA back to SF. A few months in New York City. And once more to San Francisco. The 90s would see a drop in new AIDS cases amongst gay and bisexual men. A drop owed largely to those images I grew up with. To memories of friends who had fallen and friends who were wasting away. The 90s would also give rise to new drugs and medications that could keep the progression from HIV+ to AIDS at bay for several years. The drugs had side effects. Liver failure. Anemia. Gynecomastia. Pancreatitis. All of these and more awaited in the wings for people who started drug therapy. First single prescriptions, then combinatorial prescriptions. The drop, while welcome, still meant there are new cases out there. And the decline would not last long.
This Sunday, June 5, marks 30 years of AIDS. Almost my entire lifetime, growing up in this amazing city, spent side by side with it. I wasn’t always aware of it. But it was always there. I don’t think you could have grown up in San Francisco or Los Angeles or any other major city in the US in the past 30 years, and not have grown up with it. 30 years where an unknown disease cropped up and terrorized cities, then the entire Nation and World. There isn’t as much terror. Not that I’ve seen. A disease I watched claim a very close friend, and few others, is not looked at in quite the same light. Maybe familiarity bred contempt. Maybe it’s just hubris of youth. Maybe we’re all just tired of it.
You see, I want an empty waiting room. I want to walk in and not see another familiar face. I don't want another volunteer rotation sour my day, because I had to stand there and listen while a Resident or Attending gives another 17 year old the news that they're HIV+. I don't want to be at the front, fixing another users error, while a regular patient and I chat about a local restaurant. And how he wishes he could finish off an entire culatello himself, but he's on a strict diet due to the high blood pressure from his HAART. I don't want to know that someone's a regular patient. And I'm tired of having those damned ribbons on my tennis bag, my laptop bag, my lapel. And I don't think I'm alone in this. I want an empty waiting room.
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This is beautiful.
Wow. Thank you so very much for sharing. Beautiful post.
I wonder if this is some of the reason I never wanted into medicine. I grew up just across the Bay, and minus the few months between my birthday and June, it's been with me my entire life. I don't remember hearing the count(s) on the news when I was little, but I know they were part of the news, part of life. I want an empty waiting room too.
Wonderful entry. You're right. For those of us who were kids in the 80s we've never known a time where AIDS was not part of our lexicon. I do hope we can conquer this disease soon. Thanks for sharing.
this is really too personal and heart waming to read. great story!