Sitting next to me on the bus was a plump woman in a Santa hat, knitting something out of yellow yarn. A last-minute Christmas present perhaps, for someone who would unwrap it and say how beautiful it was, no matter what he actually thought. Out the window, Market Street was awash with package-laden shoppers. A Salvation Army matron clanged a hand-bell, street musicians played carols on everything from accordions to xylophones. The scene struck me as a sham—a Potemkin village trying to convey that everything was as it should be as we reached the end of 1982.
My eyes roamed over the other passengers being carried with me through San Francisco’s rush-hour traffic. One man, sitting a few rows back, was clearly an office worker-bee like me, someone who had spent the day toiling in a bank or insurance company or law firm. A white dress shirt to my blue; black wool pants to my gray; no tie for either of us, since ties were the insignia of our bosses. He gave me a look at once communicative and wary, which told me that he recognized me as a fellow gay man, a compatriot, but wasn’t ready to acknowledge the connection between us. I wanted to say to him: You hear it too, don’t you? The ominous bass note that’s started far down in the orchestra.
After getting off the bus at Fillmore, I approached an imposing gray Victorian building on one corner. In the gleam of the streetlights it had a ghostly look. “Fillmore Community Center,” read a sign above the front door.
In the dim entrance hall, dark patches on the walls showed where pictures had once hung. There was another patch above the landing of the staircase, this one in the shape of a crucifix. I followed signs up the stairs and along a gloomy corridor to the office of the Shanti Project.
In a room with an ornate marble fireplace, a young woman sat typing on an electric typewriter.
“Hi, my name is Steve Lenox,” I told her. “I have an appointment with Barry Griffith.”
She announced my arrival over the telephone, then asked me to take a seat, gesturing at a couch that looked as if it had come from a rummage sale.
I sat, gazing at the Shanti t-shirt pinned to the bulletin board opposite. Printed across its front were the words “AFFECTION, NOT REJECTION.”
The woman resumed her typing. I spent each day listening to a chamber orchestra of typewriters, including my own, but in that dead-quiet room the rat-a-tat put me on edge. To make her stop, at least for a moment, I asked, “What did this place used to be?”
“A convent,” she said. “Built in 1890 for the Sisters of Charity. The sisters sold the building to the city, which turned it into a community center and rented out space to some non-profits. Shanti was lucky: we got the Mother Superior’s rooms.”
She took a sip from her coffee mug. In the silence I could hear the voice of another woman on the phone, through a half-open door at the far end of the room: “What’s your date of birth, Michael?” Then, “October 9, 1956… Okay, and when were you diagnosed?”
My heart jumped. Nowadays, when a guy in his twenties living in San Francisco called Shanti, it was easy to guess what he’d been diagnosed with.
A few minutes later a tall, willowy man in his mid-thirties entered the room. He was dressed in sandals with yellow socks, apple-green drawstring pants, and a magenta sweatshirt. A gold earring glinted in one ear. “I’m Barry Griffith, Shanti’s director,” he said, smiling. “You must be Steve.”
He shook my hand with a weak grip, then led me down the hall to his office. On one wall hung a photograph of the sun setting into the ocean; on another was a calendar with a scantily clad Mr. December romping in the snow. Instead of sitting behind the desk, Barry dropped into one of the two armchairs by the window, curling a loosely jointed leg under himself. I sat more stiffly across from him in the other chair.
“As you know, Steve,” Barry began in a slow, drawling voice, “the purpose of Shanti is to provide peer counseling to people with life-threatening illnesses and their loved ones. Shanti is Sanskrit for ‘inner peace.’”
I nodded, as if I had wondered about the meaning of the word.
Looking over the application I’d sent in the week before, Barry read out bits of it, half to himself. “Twenty-five… Working as a legal secretary… Some college… Sexual orientation: gay… No prior counseling experience… Wants to take the special training in January to work with people with AIDS.” Smiling again, Barry raised his narrow, sleepy eyes to me. “What did you study in college, Steve?”
“Music. I was a performance major in piano.”
“Ah,” he said, as if he found this interesting—though he didn’t pursue the subject. “Tell me, why do you want to volunteer for Shanti?”
“I’d like to do something to help.”
“Yes?” he encouraged.
“I’m horrified by the AIDS epidemic—”
“But I think I wouldn’t feel so bad if I were working to make things better, not just standing on the sidelines. Ideally, I’d like to be one of the people in white coats who’ll find a cure—”
“So would all of us, I’m sure.”
“Still, I could at least spend time with some people with AIDS, try to help them with their problems.”
“Yes, of course,” Barry purred.
“I don’t have any counseling experience. I’m not a psychologist or anything like that.”
“Thank God! Those are the ones we have the most trouble with. Guys with AIDS don’t need fancy talk from people who’ve read Kübler-Ross about how death is a tunnel.”
“But people tell me I’m a good listener.”
“And naturally that’s important in this work. A Shanti counselor is more like a friend than a therapist. Mainly we’re here for emotional support, but that can spill over into practical things, like getting someone’s prescription filled. The only definite no-no’s are getting high with a client and having sex with him.”
My mouth felt dry; I kept hoping Barry would offer me something to drink. He didn’t. Two gardenias floated in a bowl of water by the window, and I caught their sweet, slightly cloying scent. Soon I would begin to associate it with Barry.
He asked, “Do you think you’d have any trouble being around someone whose appearance has changed drastically because of his illness?”
I’d never seen a person with AIDS, as far as I knew, except in a few newspaper photographs. Monster-movie images flashed across my mind. “I don’t think so.”
Still smiling, Barry said, “Suppose your client had just been diagnosed and still looked healthy, and he told you he’d gone to the Roman Baths the night before and had sex with a lot of different men—what would you say to him?”
I remembered my own visit to the Roman Baths two weeks ago, the men with towels around their waists prowling through the dim corridors. I imagined, splashed across each towel, “I HAVE AIDS.”
“I’m not sure what I’d say,” I admitted.
To my surprise, Barry nodded, as if he found this answer acceptable. “You need to realize that your client may not be someone your own age or with the same background. He may not even be someone you like much at first. There’s a chance he won’t be grateful for what you’re doing. He may be angry, uncommunicative.”
“Yes, I understand.”
“Our counselors often get together with clients for meals in their homes. Would you feel comfortable eating food prepared by someone with AIDS?”
I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. “Is that a requirement?”
“Yes. You can’t be hesitant about it either. These guys experience enough of that fear from other people. Often they’re used to a very active sex life and lots of physical contact, and suddenly that’s been cut off. They may need someone to hold their hand or give them a hug.”
“I can see that.”
Barry asked more questions. Could I put in a minimum of six hours a week as a counselor? Would I be able to attend a counselor support group every Monday night? Was I willing to take on two clients at the same time? In each case, I answered yes.
“I hope I haven’t scared you off,” Barry said at last in his honeyed, leisurely voice. “I just think it’s a good idea for people to consider all the issues before taking the plunge.” He smiled even more broadly, the expression pushing his cheeks up and making his narrow eyes still narrower. The gardenia scent became especially strong, as if it had been squeezed out of him.
Then he stood up, and so did I. “Why don’t we leave things there for the moment and talk again after Christmas?” he said. “The next training isn’t until the second weekend in January, so you don’t need to make a quick decision.”
Another limp handshake, and I walked back along the dim hall and down the creaking staircase. Out on the street I let out a pent-up breath, which made a fleeting plume of mist in the cold night air.
Half an hour later I was toiling up Douglass, one of the streets that climbed the ridge between the Castro and Noe Valley. In typical San Francisco fashion, when the terrain became too steep for the street to keep going in a straight line, instead of loosening into twists and turns it simply broke off. Pedestrians could continue up the Douglass Street Steps, a long concrete stairway flanked by terraced gardens.
I lived in a small Art Deco building at the top of the steps, where Douglass Street resumed on flatter terrain. The building was sleek and white, with a few round, porthole-style windows. People likened it to a ship so often that I fought against the comparison. Yet, even inside my apartment, the similarity persisted. I felt tossed on high waves above the city, riding through the rough seas of wind and fog that often poured off Twin Peaks behind me.
My living room had a spectacular view to the east. When I’d been searching for somewhere new to live the previous fall, a great view was one thing I hadn’t put on my wish list, which was already long and included a hope that the place would be big enough to squeeze in a parlor grand piano. When we walked into this apartment and saw the huge swath of the city spread out below, my then-boyfriend had persuaded me to pay a hundred dollars a month more in rent than I’d intended. “You need to broaden your horizons,” he quipped.
This evening, I avoided the solitary diner’s refuge of watching television. Instead I looked out at the city, sitting beside the window in the dark with my plate of left-over Chinese food. In the distance I could see the sparkling lights of the East Bay Hills, and nearer the soaring, luminous high-rises downtown. Across a thick, black line of water, the Bay Bridge linked the two. White lamps dotted the bridge’s swags of cable; red ones topped its four towers.
I mulled over my visit to Shanti as I ate my ginger beef and Kung Pao chicken. Initially an article in one of the gay newspapers had gotten me interested in the organization. A guy with AIDS, interviewed for the article, said what a difference his counselor had made in his life; he called him a treasure. A photograph showed the two sitting across from each other, the man with AIDS talking, the counselor listening with an attentive expression. Both had their arms on the table, and their hands were close together, almost touching. The picture made me think: I want to do this. I’d be good at it.
In the article Barry had been quoted as saying that Shanti could barely keep up with the demand for counselors. I’d expected him to welcome me with open arms. Instead, our talk had seemed like a job interview. I’d had to make a case for his hiring me, and only now did I let myself think about whether I really wanted the position. Wouldn’t I find it depressing, dealing with people who were very ill, probably dying? And did I want to put myself in a situation where I’d constantly be reminded of AIDS?
I gazed through the window, imagining the answers to these questions materializing out there in the darkened city, the moonless sky.
The view took on the look of an intricate board game. I placed a finger on the cold glass to mark the location of Union Square, lost behind a welter of buildings. The few blocks around it had been the heart of the city for me as a kid, driving down from Napa with my parents. We’d seen plays at the Geary Theatre, shopped at the City of Paris.
Moving my finger a few inches down, I reached a grittier area five or six blocks away, near the Greyhound Terminal, where at sixteen I’d arrived on a bus to spend a day by myself in San Francisco for the first time. A guy had picked me up on Market Street soon afterward, and another first had been added—unintended by my parents, hoped for by me—that of having sex with a man.
I traced the wide corridor of Market Street where it slashed across town, distance reducing its traffic to beads of light on invisible strings. Below it my finger reached the neon sign for the Castro Theatre. Vertical, banner-like, it spelled out CASTRO in big red letters, serving as a signpost for the whole neighborhood.
I hadn’t even known it existed when I was younger. In fact, I heard about it only in the last few months of 1978, right before I dropped out of college and ran off to live in San Francisco. I ventured there on the same day that I moved into my cheap Nob Hill studio. Polk Street, the old gay zone, was an outpost of the Tenderloin and connected us with hookers and junkies. Stepping off a streetcar in the Castro, I found what looked like the Main Street of a small American town: low, unpretentious wooden buildings, dignified banks on a couple of corners, a flamboyant movie theater. Yes, it was like Main Street, except that it was full of men who felt free to kiss and hold hands.
That first day a bearded man in white face and a nun’s habit zoomed past me down Castro Street on a motorcycle, his skirts flapping in the wind. Another man wheeled a friend playfully along the sidewalk in a shopping cart. In Starr Pharmacy I passed a husky guy in construction-worker gear, the pristine condition of his yellow hard-hat the only tip-off that this was a costume and not the real thing. His plaid shirt was partly open, and I circled around so I could have another look, eager to know just how many buttons were undone. I was laughing at myself, unable to believe I was doing this, yet looking forward to doing much more in the future.
Amid the street theater I noticed many new fashions I would soon adopt myself: my long hair cut short, a messy beard traded for a trim mustache, my pseudo-hippie clothes abandoned in favor of highly polished versions of the boy-next-door’s. I didn’t try to meet anyone that first day; there didn’t seem to be any hurry. In those days, I assumed Castro Street and its pleasures would remain available to me forever.
“Deadly New Pandemic Terrorizes the World!”
While headlines like this from the last year and a half scare me, they aren’t completely new, not for a gay man of my generation whose life was profoundly marked by the scourge of AIDS—the other pandemic in recent history. We had Ronald Reagan as President at the start of one, Trump at the beginning of the other, governmental misinformation and bungling during both. My novel Toward the Flame is an attempt to bring the AIDS pandemic to life both for readers who experienced it and for those who did not.
The story starts in the early 1980s, before a cause for the disease was known, before a test existed, when the only thing we knew for sure about AIDS was that it was terrifying. San Francisco warped in those years from a playground for gay men to a battlefield as the pandemic took hold.
Desperate to make sense of his rapidly changing world, Steve Lenox becomes a peer counselor for two men with the mysterious new disease. The first is middle-aged Joseph, who seeks escape from his diagnosis in alcohol and the dream world of old Hollywood movies. Steve’s other client, young and feisty Rick, meets the challenges of his illness head on. He experiments with alternative treatments, lands a job with the AIDS Foundation, and skirmishes with the public hospital where he’s a patient.
Steve must grapple with hard questions in dealing with these two men. How much does he wish to share in other people’s suffering? What limits will he set in his efforts to help them? Joseph and Rick never meet, yet their stories intertwine, with Steve as the crucial link.
The lives of these three men are shown against the backdrop of San Francisco at that time: Halloween on Castro Street, a square-dance class, bars, bathhouses. Then, when the “casual contact” scare ignites in the summer of 1983, AIDS is transformed from a concern mainly of gay men to front-page news that rivets the attention of the country and the world.
Gary Pedler lives in San Francisco, CA. His publishing credits include the middle-grade novel Amy McDougall; Master Matchmaker (Fitzroy Books, 2021, praised by Seattle Book Review as “a fun page-turner”); the adult novella Gaydonia (Adelaide Books, 2020, an Indie Book Awards finalist); and the travel memoir Couchsurfing: The Musical (Adelaide Books, 2019, “a highly enjoyable voyage” according to Rainbow Reviews).
Embark, Issue 15, October 2021