No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds,
Thomas Hood 1844
Tamara sticks a needle in my arm and begins drawing four tubes of blood. I’m coming back to this hospital next week for a left knee replacement and there are a lot of tests that need to be done beforehand. Tamara speaks with an accent and I ask her if she’s from Russia. She says yes and I tell her I’ve just returned from Ukraine. We get into a discussion about gay rights in Ukraine vs. Russia. She thinks gays are much better off in Russia but I know it’s very repressive there. We’re starting to argue when I back off. Not good to bicker with someone who has a needle in your arm.
As I drive away from St. Mary’s hospital here in San Francisco, I remember that World AIDS Day is coming soon. I’ll be recuperating from surgery that day, hopefully reclining in front of a television under the influence of many opiates. If I were able to go somewhere to honor World AIDS Day this December 1st, where would I go? Since I’m so close to Golden Gate Park, I decide to drive over to the AIDS Memorial Grove. Would that be a place to stop and remember what we’ve lost and what we’ve accomplished?
I used to get lost on my way to the AIDS Grove in the vastness of the park; there were no clear signs back then. But now there’s a big one marking the spot: De Laveaga Dell AIDS Memorial Grove. I pull over, park, and head down the concrete walkway into the dell, smelling marijuana as I walk slowly along on my painful knees. The Grove is beautifully manicured. Everywhere I wander there are benches, tiled pathways, perfectly placed boulders, and everything, everything, has the name of a donor on it. GAP Foundation, Wells Fargo, Falcon Studios. The Grove is maintained by volunteers and I love that, especially since volunteers are the reason that the early AIDS response around the world was so effective.
The dell is mostly empty. As I look for a place to rest, a young couple comes down the path, asks me where the Japanese Tea Garden is. I tell them how to find it and then sit down on a bench. A handsome jogger, pushing a baby carriage in front of him, whizzes by. This bench has been donated by the family of a man dead of AIDS, a man about my age. As I imagine what it would be like to come here on World AIDS Day, I hear a loud buzzing sound and, when I look up, a huge bee comes flying directly into my face. I try to swat it away with my hands but instead it comes even closer. I can hear it next to my ear and I swing again, knocking it against my collar and then down into the back of my shirt. Instantly I feel an intense sting on my right shoulder blade. I jump up and starting hopping around, slapping my back with my notebook, doing a Charlie Chaplinesque dance in the middle of the AIDS Memorial Grove.
As I stand there, a helicopter flies overhead. An elderly fast-walker passes by, smiling at me. My shoulder blade is on fire. Am I getting short of breath? I try to remember the last time a bee stung me. Am I having an allergic reaction? Suddenly this perfectly manicured garden feels very empty. I decide to go back to my car. As I head up the walkway, a tennis balls comes bouncing down the hill and rolls across the path in front of me. I know there are tennis courts somewhere in the park, but not close to here. Perhaps someone has thrown a ball for their dog? As I wait to see if someone comes, I see another magnificent boulder with a plaque on it, this one remembering Ryan White. No one appears to fetch the ball. This beautiful garden is feeling like a lonely graveyard. I don’t think I’d want to come here on World AIDS Day. I get in my car and drive away.
I head across town to the Castro District. Here in San Francisco, many call the Castro Ground Zero for the AIDS epidemic. Maybe this is a more appropriate place for me to find a spot to commemorate World AIDS Day. My shoulder continues to throb as I pull up in front of the Castro Theatre; I can’t believe I found a place to park. I look up at the marquee to see what’s showing on December 1st. Perhaps I would’ve come here. But they’re going to be doing the Sing-along Sound of Music and I think no, that’s not where I’d want to be.
Around the corner from the theatre is the Holocaust Memorial. I remember when it was first commemorated. Perhaps that would be a more fitting place to remember World AIDS Day. The memorial consists of 15 marble columns installed on a very narrow piece of land between two busy streets. Each column ends with a pink triangle on top. A plaque states that the memorial is in remembrance of the LGBT victims of the Nazi regime. I talk to a man who’s picking up litter alongside side the memorial, but it’s hard to hear each other because of all the traffic noise. He says he’s a volunteer and that this little piece of land was procured by our mayor in the late 90s. He says it was all very political. I stand for a moment, imagining being here on World AIDS Day. A bus comes roaring by. And then another. It’s too noisy here for me, too congested. I move on.
I stand in the main intersection of this neighborhood, the corner of 18th and Castro Streets, and look at a spot that the residents here call Hibernia Beach. It isn't actually a beach though; it's just a street corner. It’s one of the largest open spaces in the area and has become a spontaneous meeting place and rallying point. It’s also been a spot where impromptu memorials have been created over the years. There’s a large window in the bank building at this corner, with a wide ledge running beneath it. It creates a natural altar of sorts. I’ve heard people call it the Castro’s Altar. I remember memorials here for Princess Di and Michael Jackson, and endless other tributes to friends and neighbors who have died over the years. Today an artist is trying to sell some of his paintings here. I suspect that there will be many candles here on December 1stt, photos, teddy bears, old obituaries. It doesn’t resonate with me though; I don’t think I’d come here.
I look out across the intersection and see the drug store on the other side of the street. I can remember when it was called the Star Pharmacy and suddenly, it comes to me, what I would do if I could be up and about this coming World AIDS Day.
I cross the street and stand in front of the pharmacy window. I pull a sheet of paper out of my notebook and tape it to the glass and then, with a thick marker, write the following words: “On these windows in the early 1980s Bobbi Campbell taped pictures of his KS lesions. He began HIV prevention.”
Bobbi was one of the very first people with AIDS to begin publicly speaking about the disease. He had terrible KS on his body and taped photographs of himself right here, on this very spot, as his own way to get the word out to gay men in the neighborhood. If I could be anywhere, this is where I would be on December 1st.
As I try to photograph my homemade sign, the wind keeps lifting the paper off the glass. I try again and again until a hand comes into view and holds the sign in place so I can snap the picture. I thank the man standing next to me. He’s about my age and asks what I’m doing. I tell him of my impending surgery and how I’m imagining where I would be on World AIDS Day if I could be out and about. He’s heard about Bobbi Campbell and has seen photographs of Bobbi’s original signs. I ask him where he would go, if he were going to commemorate December 1st. He looks across the street at Hibernia Beach, and then shakes his head. “I’d go to Ward 86,” he says, “and pay my respects there.” Ward 86 is one of the very first outpatient AIDS clinics in the world. He says that’s where he first found out he had AIDS and where he first started taking the medications that would eventually help him to survive to this very day.
His eyes are dark and his face is drawn. I can see that he has been through a lot. He looks at me, can see I’ve been through some difficult times as well. “On second thought,” he says, “I guess we don’t really need to go anywhere to acknowledge World AIDS Day. It’s everywhere around us.” He puts his hand on my arm. “It’s inside us, wherever we go.”
I drive home to the Mission District, thinking about what he’s said, knowing that he’s right. Everyday is World AIDS Day in a way, especially for those who have lost, who have fought, who have worked so hard to find ways to bring this tragedy to an end.
When I get home, I start to get out of my clothes and into my favorite bathrobe. When I unbutton my shirt, the body of the little bee that stung me in the AIDS Grove drops onto the floor. Before I can bend over and pick it up, our little black kitten Dewey comes running into the room and quickly gobbles it up. How quickly the source of my pain and anxiety from earlier in the day is gone.