June 3, 2011
On June 5, 1981, when the CDC report on mysterious cases of young gay men dying of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia in Los Angeles came out I was a very busy student in my senior year of college. I had begun college in 1977 with the intention of being an English major; however, I found out soon I was rubbish at writing literary critiques. A woman I met at lunch one day told me that Actuarial Science graduates made loads of money so I switched my major to mathematics. I finished courses sufficient to take the first two Actuarial Science tests; but in May 1981 I realized the Veteran's Administration War Orphans benefits I was receiving due to my dad's 100% disability suffered in Viet Nam were due to run out before I could complete the coursework necessary to take the next eight Actuarial Science exams. I needed to have a job by March 1982 when my VA benefits ran out, so I switched my major to Business with a concentration in Accounting. To graduate, I needed to take four courses per quarter in the coming summer, fall and winter quarters. I was consequently swamped with course work that June.
I have always been an early riser. I love the freshness of the world in the morning and I like listening to National Public Radio during my breakfast. As clear as a bell 30 years later, I remember an announcer and commentator discussing the previous day's CDC report. My partner and I were going to a dinner party that Saturday evening; and, it was at that party that I first talked about what would become the AIDS Crisis. Everyone except me though it was nothing to worry about; but the NPR spot had convinced me the mysterious outbreak of PCP in LA was serious.
As the dinner party broke up, we began to talk about which bar would be hot that night. I asked if no one was concerned about catching the mysterious plague I had talked about during dinner. I shall never forget a good friend, a doctor, said, "No, I'll just take some antibiotics in the morning." He died of AIDS in 1991.
The Party was still raging in June 1981. The discos were jammed. Sweaty dancers were snorting cocaine in the bathrooms and poppers on the dance floor. Truly, "Love was in the air." The straight people had discovered that the gay discos were the best, at least in Atlanta where I lived, and the gays and the straights meshed into a seamless whole on the dance floor. Outside the disco, the economy was in a recession and unemployment was near 8%, but inside the music was hot; the men and women were sexy; and, everyone knew we would end the night by making love.
It took a while for the party to stop. In September 1984, when I was diagnosed with HIV, the discos were still jammed. In December 1984, I experienced my first AIDS death. My grandfather clock stopped at the precise moment of his death. Over the years since, I have lost many friends and acquaintances to AIDS. Just how many people my partner and I knew who had died of AIDS was brought home to us when we returned to Atlanta in 2005 after an absence of 18 years. Not one gay man we knew from our Atlanta days was left alive. The lesbian friends we visited on that trip to Atlanta had survived to bear witness to the carnage.
A generation has come and gone since June 1981. There are very few of us left who were HIV positive in the early days of the AIDS Crisis, who can remember the fear that, like an incoming fog, slowly crept into our lives as the Crisis deepened. Or, the sense of an urgent hunger for life that led my partner and I in 1986 to buy an inn just north of Atlanta, a friend to move to Key West, or another friend to rise from his hospital bed pulling the IV needles from his arms as he did to take a trip he had dreamt of all his life. Not many people can remember the intense grief we felt as we attended funeral after funeral, nor can many people recall attending the lavish funerals dying gay men had planned from their hospital beds. After the funerals, we met in the apartments and houses of our dead friends and decided how to dispose of their effects. I have to this day an inkwell on my desk that belonged to the first person I knew who died of AIDS and stopped my grandfather clock.
For me, I have mixed emotions of joy, guilt and remorse at surviving. Joy that I lived to experience the wonder of life, guilt that I survived when so many wonderful people died, and remorse that I have few people from my Salad Days to share my older years.
I used to say aloud the names of the AIDS dead I knew during the prayers for the deceased in church. The list is long and I could hear the congregation start to shuffle as I said the names. Now, I say them silently. As I say their names, I see them with my mind's eye as the happy, carefree youth I knew "Dancin' the night away."