Poem 19 ±
April 19, 2017
As a junior in high school in Berkeley, I was asked to share a job at our local flower shop with a friend, after school and on weekends. She did not last long so I took over all the shifts myself. I found in the back workroom of that flower shop respite from the outside world, where Jack and John and I worked together listening to '80s pop, preparing roses, filling FTD orders from across the wire, manning the cash register on slow days and busy days, like valentine's day and mothers' day when the lines would snake around the block. They taught me how to do adult things, like sweep a floor properly, clean up the counter after oneself, count change, have a presentational customer face, which has served me very well, where you let the customer know he or she is right, and you smile, and active listen, and you have empathy -- I am sorry that your friend died; I hope your mom feels better; congratulations on your engagement! -- and listen to their flower-based questions -- are they looking for a sympathy bouquet? What is the best type of lilies to make up with? Are these gardenias from Hawaii? -- and have confidence in your answer, even when not quite sure (skills used often in healthcare in later years). Working at a flower shop is more like being a bartender than a retail clerk, because customers come back for the conversations not only the purchase.
John was funny and wry and dry and usually sarcastic but always kind; if he were cast in a 1980s sitcom he'd be the stereotypical gay uncle of the kid protagonist and always get the funny lines. Jack was more reserved, the owner, well respected it seemed through my teenage perception at least. They welcomed me in and never judged; they helped me forget the confusing things going on at home and general upset. When I'd leave the store people would comment that I'd be perfumed in flower and so I was; my clothes and skin would remain fragrant after every shift. When I was very low and ended up in a facility for troubled teens for a week they sent me the Cadillac of all bouquets and I was able to read between the lines of each of the flowers and I laughed; when I came back, they never mentioned anything they just hugged me and told me to get to work.
I came back from college one summer and heard through the grapevine that Jack had died of AIDS. I did not know he was sick, although I was old enough to have been aware of the early days, the first cases, GRID, the first deaths, Reagan. I never was able to confirm this to be the case, though I did go back to the store and no one was still there; I'd wish I'd kept in touch but went away to grow up, so didn't. This was back in the day before the Internet, when it would have been considered morbid to go to the library and look on the microfiche for someone's obituary.
In any event, because of Jack I ended up devoting my career to HIV research, 25+ years of working to end the epidemic. He never knew this of course. I think of him often.
Manya Magnus is an associate professor of epidemiology at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University in Washington, DC, where she studies novel approaches to HIV prevention and removal of structural barriers. Her books include Essentials of Infectious Disease Epidemiology (Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2007), Essential Readings in Infectious Disease Epidemiology (Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2008), Intermediate Epidemiology: Methods that Matter (Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2014), and (publishing as Manya DeLeon Miller) The Complete Fertility Organizer (Wiley, 1999).
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