Sunday, September 22, 2013


I awoke frequently in the night, aware that rain was pelting my roof, but there was a greater consciousness that made sleep elusive. My mind thought of Stephen, of Don, of Farrell, of José. When the alarm finally sounded, I dared not snooze. I had a ferry to catch.

Before heading out, the dog needed his morning walk. He looked at me between piddles, seeming to beg me to turn back. Rain has never been his thing. Definitely not a water dog.

I knew as I sailed, then drove toward Vancouver that I could have stayed home. I could have tried to get a rebate on rest, maybe head into the work week with less pronounced bags under my eyes. Why slog things out in the rain? All my money had already been accepted online. No one would know the difference.

But I’d been absent for too long, perhaps as long as seventeen years. People had fought, even emerged victorious in the battle with AIDS, but I had lost my way. This AIDS Walk is intended to be a rebirth, a renewed commitment to causes far greater than my own hapless dating life. Thank goodness.

I’d like to think I have remained concerned and connected regarding the struggles and advances pertaining to AIDS. In truth, however, I had become complacent. Deeply sympathetic, indeed, whenever a news article surfaced online, excited to hear about people living HIV+ without ever progressing to the point of having AIDS, but I’d gotten consumed by a career that mattered, a writing passion and a couple of little dogs who lapped up every minute I gave them. Admittedly, AIDS lost its urgency.

There was a time when most of my sleepless nights were due to AIDS. I read Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On and raged over governments, religious institutions and medical providers that denied the crisis, hailed the epidemic as God’s wrath, underfunded research studies or got mired in political maneuvering. I feared intimacy as my mind twisted Silence = Death into Sex = Death. I consciously lost contact with an aunt after she ranted about me wasting my time volunteering with AIDS Project Los Angeles. I drew strength from my mother’s negativity, betting that I couldn’t handle being a buddy for persons with AIDS since I had a history of fainting over films in high school Biology and during standard hearing tests. There was a time when AIDS made me stronger. In fact, AIDS made me a better man.

Somehow I lost that within a year of moving from Los Angeles to Vancouver. The move left me underemployed and in debt, but it also threw my priorities out of whack. Having left my alcoholic ex back in La-la Land, I could now flit from tea dance to dance club to drag show with a new group of friends whose behavior I didn’t have to monitor or correct. I never became a wild boy, never went through a sowing-his-seeds stage, but I let frivolity take the forefront.

Things started to change this summer, first with a stop at the AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and further with an extended stay in L.A.—and my alcoholic ex’s disclosure that he was now HIV+. I recommitted myself. For starters, I pledged to participate in the Vancouver AIDS Walk.

So rain could not keep me away. Putting it aside for another year might push the issue away for good—actually for bad.

And so I parked my car and sloshed a half mile along the seawall toward the starting area. When I’d first participated in an AIDS Walk twenty-two years ago in Los Angeles and even during that first year in Vancouver, I’d always felt a rush as so many headed toward the start. This morning was radically different. I seemed to walk alone. There were a few other fools walking or running, but they had other agendas.

I am not the only one who grew complacent.

To be sure, the constant rain may have discouraged dozens, but weather cannot account for the light numbers roaming the muddy field encased by opportunistic food trucks and corporate sponsor tents. Where once I would have been guided to a short string of alphabetized letters wherein my last name fell, I was instead ushered to one volunteer who searched through a single alphabetized list of online registrants. Four pages of names. There are far more names on Vancouver’s AIDS Memorial wall.

There is complacency and then there is charitable competition, perhaps even donor burnout. On this day alone, Stanley Park was also the site of an Ismaili Walk and a cycling event for schizophrenia. As well, the downtown core played host to a First Nations Reconciliation Walk. When governments fall short in supporting the neediest citizens, competition for dollars becomes fierce and all the more vital.

Not sure what caused the magical firefly effect,
but I'd liketo think I did not walk alone.
It did not take long for the crowd to thin out as we began the walk. When I wasn’t navigating puddles and green globs of goose poop, I had plenty of time to honor the sweet dreamer that was Stephen, the fatherly orchid grower that was Don, the conservative tennis pal that was Farrell and the goofy, lovable José. All gone far too soon.

My shoes sounded a squishy, squeaky beat to my march. Water climbed the legs of my jeans, passing my knees and stopping just short of the pant pockets. Ducks splashing in puddles on a field provided further distraction. Around Stanley Park’s Lost Lagoon, I glanced at two plaques intended to educate the public about local wildlife and habitats. The first read. “Everyone needs a home”, the second, “To each their own”. Twenty years ago, these might have been the messages on placards carried by walkers.

I did not linger within the temporary tent town at walk’s end. Glancing in that direction, it seemed nobody did. I slogged back to the car, envious of a little boy in rain boots who gleefully jumped in the biggest puddle he could find. How is it that I have lived here nineteen years and never bought a pair of puddle stompers?

As I sat in the driver’s seat, door open, finally sheltered by the Granville Street Bridge overhead, I dumped water from my soggy Converse shoes and wringed even more from my socks. I drove barefoot with the heater on as eau de wet sock filled the car. All a temporary inconvenience.

Meanwhile, the daily struggles, setbacks and, yes, successes surrounding AIDS continue. I hope to have a better sense of things in the year to come. And I’ll be back for AIDS Walk 2014, rain or shine.

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