And then there were the funerals.
You can’t talk about working in San Francisco in the early ’80s without relating what it was like to witness the emergence and devastating results of AIDS.
As I’ve told you, my first major gig in San Francisco was at Neiman-Marcus’ Rotunda restaurant on Union Square. When first hired, I was the “tea-time” and Saturday night pianist. This placed me in the company of the largely male gay wait-staff six days out of the week.
In case your history books haven’t painted a complete enough picture, San Francisco in 1983, when I was first hired, had (and continues to have) a large gay population, centered around the Castro district. Sexual mores at the time—gay or straight—were very liberal. Certainly there were STDs, but for the most part, a quick jab with a hypodermic and the wisdom to lay off for a week or so set things right. (As it turns out HPV, though seemingly nothing more than a scattering of warts, had far-reaching consequences.) The notion of “safe sex” simply didn’t exist outside measures taken to avoid pregnancy.
Pregnancy was the least of my coworkers’ worries. By and large these were young men in their 20s who’d finally been let off the leash. Many of them had a rough time growing up—being openly gay just about anywhere in the U.S. was not a formula for happiness. Escaping the disapproval of their communities (and, in too many cases, their families) and being allowed—even encouraged—to be comfortably gay was a vast relief for many of them.
In reaction, some of them behaved like kids in a candy store. Promiscuous, beautiful, celebratory, and with the unflagging energy to get up and do it all again. It wasn't my lifestyle but I understood what it was to be young and frisky. And so we got along. Between sets it wasn’t unusual for J.P or Keith or Tom to tease me with toned-down tales of the weekend’s exploits. (Because, yes, there were times when I’d respond with “That I don’t really need to hear about, thanks.” And they’d smile and start in again.)
Then came the reports of “gay cancer.” It wasn’t anyone you knew or anything in particular an M.D. could define. It just seemed that some gay men were getting sick and dying in a matter of weeks after showing signs of illness. It manifested itself in a couple of ways—through Kaposi’s sarcoma (which left the patient covered in lesions) and pneumocystis pneumonia, a fungus-run-amok in the lungs for those with impaired immune systems.
The boys continued to carry on—after all, they were young, healthy, and, like all young people, immortal. Surely they weren’t at risk. But as more cases cropped up, the concern started to show.
It became real when Phil got it.
Imagine a man about five-foot-four who wouldn’t look out of place selling vegetable marrows in a French open-air market. Phil had that kind of friendly swarthiness, accented with a moustache. High voice and shy demeanor, Phil was a likable, gentle guy. He wasn’t showy, didn’t talk much about his life outside the restaurant, and seemed happy in whatever he did.
The first lesion appear on his nose. He’d flick at it every so often and say it was nothing. He'd have a doctor look at it. Over time, more lesions appeared across his face and, presumably, elsewhere. And then he disappeared.
Phil’s disappearance was due to spending his days in doctors’ offices and hospitals. I’d hear reports of his ups and mostly-downs from the other guys. The outlook wasn’t good.
Charlie was next to fall. He was a bartender—tall, gregarious, a slight Freddy Mercury look to him. He liked the way I played and routinely told me so, occasionally making requests. He too started with the lesions.
By this time a bit more was known about the disease and it had been named—AIDS. It was definitely sexually transmitted and we learned that you couldn’t catch it without direct blood contact. Those who moved from carrying it to the “full blown” stage tended to decline rapidly—over the course of a few months. There was no reprieve, no question. If you had it, you were done for.
Charlie chose to keep working. For awhile he remained behind the bar, lesions and all. Some regulars understood and quietly checked on his progress. Others left and never returned. Eventually, Charlie’s appearance and condition changed to the point where he chose to work out of the public eye.
And then he just stopped coming to work.
Phil, in the meantime, returned to visit. He was covered with lesions, walked with a cane, and had the vitality of a man three-and-a-half times his age. He remained soft-spoken and gentle but he was badly broken. He made his rounds, a smile for everyone, and then, tiring, someone helped him home. He died two weeks later. J.P. had moved in to help and was with him at the end.
Eventually it became routine. Too many of the people I’d been accustomed to seeing throughout the week—joked with, shared meals with, become friends with—vanished. Some gradually fell ill and left. Others, like Tom who constantly had one imagined ailment or another even before this started, professed to not feeling well and, two days later, just up and died.
Charlie’s was my first funeral. His friends at work told me that he’d died the night before. Saying how much Charlie enjoyed my music, they asked if I’d play at the gathering they held for him. Of course I would.
I needn’t go through the many similar services I played in the succeeding months and years. Each had its way of honoring the young man who’d passed. While they weren’t cookie-cutter, there were often common themes and settings.
For the most part, I saw no family. Some had additional family services held "back home" where the cause of death was routinely vague. For others, this was it and there was no blushing about what killed their friend. This was their new family. Their new community. A gathering at ground zero.
Some who attended were healthy, others not. And while nearly everyone felt at risk, I saw no victims. Of course it was wearying and depressing. A generation of young men was being wiped off the earth for what? Being gay? Fuck that. Care for the people who need it. Remember your friends and lovers. Make the time you have left matter. Carry on.
In 1986 I left the job. By that time, nearly everyone I’d worked with was gone. There was no cure for AIDS, but the general, medical, and—most importantly—gay communities had a far greater understanding of the disease and the steps necessary to move forward to make AIDS livable rather than a death sentence.
San Francisco comported itself admirably. It grappled with a terrible problem and did so largely without victimizing those who most suffered. I’m proud of my then-city. I’m proud of (and miss) the friends I’ve lost.