To the editor:
In early May, I got a message from a friend telling me an old, but very special, boyfriend from the 1980s had finally succumbed to AIDS at his home in San Diego, after an almost three decades long fight against HIV Disease.
I met Jan in the winter of 1981. I was living in Laguna Beach, Calif., trying to figure out how I could be both gay and a guy who liked to surf.
Jan, who grew up in La Jolla, taught me that you could not only surf and be gay, you could actually be a better surfer than many of the straight guys in the water.
Jan could carve up a wave like few others.
After I left Laguna, Jan came east for several summers. We spent those summers in the funky guest house of a wealthy friend whose cottage overlooked Perkins Cove in Ogunquit.
They were fun, crazy, and wonderfully romantic times.
But in the midst of all that “fun and frivolity,” as my late grandmother used to say, some very dark clouds were gathering all around us.
In the summer of 1983, four friends from our Ogunquit circle of “beach chair boys” fell ill and died horrific deaths.
One Sunday that summer, there was a front-page story in the New York Times about the AIDS epidemic. The story included pictures of police officers in hazmat suits arresting protesters at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.
A current events and political junkie even then, I held up the paper to show my beach buddies, and said, “Pack your bags for camp, boys. They will be coming for us soon enough.”
Without missing a beat, my friend Peter, who was then the best pastry chef in Ogunquit, chimed in, “But not to worry. The decor in the camps will be to die for, and the food will be divine.”
We all laughed, but we did so wondering who might get sick next, and whether or not all of us, because we were gay, might not wind up in quarantine camps as the still mysterious AIDS epidemic claimed more and more lives.
June marks the 38th “anniversary” of the first reports of a mysterious and deadly condition spreading rapidly among gay men in Orange County, California.
People forget, or perhaps never knew, that Laguna Beach, California, was initially identified as ground zero of the “GRIDS” epidemic.
I remember that all too well. I was working as a cocktail waiter at an oceanfront gay bar called the Boom Boom Room by night, surfing by day, and following Jan around like a lovesick puppy the rest of the time.
My roommate Mark came home from work one night complaining of not feeling well.
Rather unsympathetically, I told him to stop whining, take some aspirin, and go to bed.
The next day he woke up with a fever and chills. We both assumed it was “just the flu.”
I went surfing with Jan, came home to shower, and went to work.
I didn’t even stop to check on Mark in his room.
The next morning, I was awakened by Mark’s extremely labored breathing and gut-wrenching cough.
When I went into his room, he was drenched in sweat and could barely breathe.
I called Jan. He took one look at Mark and said, “We need to get him to the hospital “.
We got Mark into the car and drove to the hospital in Newport Beach.
Not only could Mark barely breathe, he could barely walk.
We entered the ER and the first question we were asked was, “Does he have health insurance?”
He did not, of course, and it quickly became clear what kind of care he was going to receive.
Mark died 36 hours later, on a gurney, still in the ER. He had drowned in his own lung fluids from an extremely rare form of pneumonia known as pneumocystis carinii. He had just turned 23.
Jan and I soon learned several other guys in Laguna were either sick with, or had already died from, pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, PCP for short.
The AIDS epidemic was underway in Laguna Beach months before it became visible in either San Francisco, Los Angeles or New York City.
Jan and I parted ways in 1986. He, the born-and-bred Southern Californian, and me, the dyed-in-the-wool coastal New Englander, just couldn’t agree on which coast should be home. But we stayed in touch for 30 years.
News of Jan’s passing not only left me sad, it left me to think about having survived those dark times unscathed, physically anyway. It left me thinking about how those 15 dark years, when the domestic AIDS epidemic was at its peak, shaped the lives of an entire generation of gay men, and how those years fundamentally changed the course of history — of the gay community, the nation, and, indeed, the world.
This June, 38 years after the Centers for Disease Control first investigated and documented a new and deadly illness in the then-sleepy seaside town of Laguna Beach, there is renewed talk that a real end to the HIV epidemic might be in sight.
But with all that talk, with all that hope and optimism, I still find myself thinking about those I knew who died far too young.
I find myself wondering what the piano concerto Stephen would have written had he lived might sound like. I find myself imagining the dance number David would have choreographed — if only.
I think about Billy, whose dream of competing on the U.S. Olympic swim team was dashed when Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions emerged on his torso.
Those were, indeed, sad and scary times. I, in fact, always thought those years would be the scariest of my life — but I was wrong.
With an unstable sociopath in charge of our country’s nuclear weapons arsenal, and with the severity and escalating pace of climate change becoming clearer by the day, these days, at least for me, are far more scary than even the darkest days of the domestic AIDS epidemic were back in the 1980s.
This June, as we mark the 38th “anniversary” of the dawn of the AIDS epidemic and celebrate gay pride, I can only wonder what the world will look like in another 38 years.
And, oddly enough, I am relieved I won’t be around to see it.