Sunday, July 14, 2013


Last time I visited San Francisco, I did what all gay men do: I cruised thousands and thousands of shapes, sizes and colors. Of pumpkins. I’m not using a euphemism. I’m really talking pumpkins.

That’s what I get when I stay with my one San Fran friend, a straight married woman. It was October 2008 and she wanted to photograph the uncarved gourds at the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival which is a far bigger draw than you might imagine. If it had been in Cleveland or Pittsburgh or Boise, the folksy festival might have been a big hit with me. But gay men don’t fly to San Francisco for pumpkin postcards.

Five years later, I needed to do something different. I chose to visit during the week when my friend would be working during the day (and when certain veggies are still in the early stages of the growing season).

After wishing her a great day at work, I got in the car and departed suburbia with Google Map directions to take me to Castro Street.

Of course, Castro isn’t exactly a hopping place at 10 a.m. on a Thursday. Like my friend, most people are at work—or sleeping off a wild Wednesday night. (Vacation or not, I don’t think I’d have much in common with the wild weekday set anyway.) My dog Hoover and I walked along the Castro, peeked in all the closed clubs, oohed over all the rainbow flags—Look at all the colors!—and then got back in the car to marvel at the roadway ups and downs while I fretted over all the stop signs impractically positioned in the middle of steep inclines. Surely car insurance costs more in Frisco.

We headed for my second Google Map destination: Golden Gate Park. This would be a place my dog could truly enjoy. (In truth, those rainbow flags did not impress him at all. Perhaps dogs really are color blind.) The destination on this visit to the park was the National AIDS Memorial Grove. I am ashamed to admit that AIDS has fallen off my radar in recent years and I am willing to bet this is a trend amongst gay men and the general public. We’ve become complacent. People traded in their red ribbons for yellow rubber bracelets—at least until a certain someone had a sit-down with Oprah.

Medical and charitable causes are competing more than ever for the same dollars. There are runs, walks, bike rides, dinners and auctions every weekend for one charity or another. The donors are suffering too, partly due to the economy and partly due to Bleeding Heart Burnout. With everyone from grocery store clerks to sign-toting girls’ baseball team members asking for donations, it has gotten easy to say no. I don’t even put my head down or feel a pang of guilt.

But AIDS shouldn’t be lumped in with all the other causes, not for someone like me who came out during the height of the AIDS crisis and whose participation in the L.A. AIDS Walk made him The Gay One in his law school class. (There were others, of course, but I was the outed one at ultra-conservative Pepperdine University.)

It was both a relief and a disappointment to visit the AIDS memorial without anyone else around. Indeed, I had the opportunity for quiet contemplation, reflecting on how AIDS served as a death sentence for so many proud, defiant people who dutifully took their AZT and dealt with the side effects of diarrhea, nausea and unhealthy looking tans while continuing to face extreme weight loss, blotched skin and an increasing dependence of canes, walkers and wheelchairs. In the early ‘90s, we all knew who had AIDS; people could only conceal it a month or two at most.

Undisturbed, I read the inscriptions on every rock and honored the named and the nameless. I remembered my friends who were part of my AIDS Project Los Angeles Buddy group, My first love arose directly from the AIDS crisis as he was a coordinator of APLA’s Buddy Program and my facilitator pulled the two of us on the dance floor in a matchmaking gesture at a volunteer appreciation event. I recalled the AIDS quilt, watching the documentary (the Oscar-winning “Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt” narrated by Dustin Hoffman and featuring a haunting score by Bobby McFerrin) and seeing a part of it on exhibit. More than anything, I remembered Stephen and Don, the two men I connected with, at first solely because of their AIDS status since I was assigned as their Buddy. Stephen, in particular, remains a strong part of my life twenty-one years after his death.

Rocks form Dry Creek, a representation of what we
lost due to AIDS. 
Reflection ultimately turned to tears and I sat on one of the dedicated benches to weep as my dog looked on, perplexed, licking my leg in comfort.

Here’s where the disappointment came in. It saddened me even more to realize no one interrupted my thoughts. Granted this was a working day for most, but Golden Gate Park is a tourist draw which attracts 13 million people per year. On a mild summer day, how could I possibly have this section of the park all to myself?

Meandering through the grove, I ultimately came upon a clearing, an open field area bordered by unused handball courts. I sought out a restroom
and then tried to stroll back through the grove. Due to my complete lack of direction, I couldn’t find the grove again. The dog was content to amble aimlessly as I attempted to walk back in toward the start of the memorial. I wound up far off the mark, but signs ultimately guided me back to the car. I stopped once more at the entrance of the memorial, this time disturbed as a horde of tourists on Segway PTs gathered to listen to a guide explain the memorial. Finally, some recognition. The Segway tour felt tacky but no more so than hooking up with a grocery chain to peddle your cause.

Even though it was only early afternoon, I headed back for suburbia. I was done being a gay tourist for the day, not on account of getting lost. No, I’ve become blasé about that sort of predicament. But I’d broken another form of blasé and felt more empowered because of it.

Turns out daytime San Francisco isn’t much different from daytime Cleveland, Pittsburgh or Boise. Still my dog is well walked and I am thankful I found the car. And no pumpkins! My vacation standards are getting lower all the time. Still, San Francisco does have the AIDS Memorial Grove and that makes all the difference. It is what I needed, so much more than an overpriced glass of ice with a dash of Dewar’s, even more than a cheap ogling from a well-dressed octogenarian.

I’ll end this post with a dedication to Stephen and a quote inscribed on a stone wall at the grove:

May we all remember our lives are not measured by the number of years and days we exist
but by what we accomplish while we do live and the good we may render our fellow man. 
             –Henry Wells

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