Lean On Me

Lean On Me
A trusted tool, an ugly reminder
by Hank Trout

It’s tiresome manipulating a cane in one hand and an umbrella in the other. It requires great dexterity and patience, especially when entering a cab or a bus, or navigating a revolving door—dexterity and patience I often find it difficult to muster!

Now that I’m no longer confined to a wheelchair, I’m relying on my cane more than I did during the previous year or so. We’ve had an unusually rainy, cold, dreary winter and spring here in San Francisco, weather that has seriously tested my cane-and-umbrella skills.

Using my cane alone is not much of a problem. Because I first started needing a cane after my headlong fall in 2004 (causing three herniated spinal discs and destroying the cartilage in my left knee) and have used one ever since, my cane is more like an extension of my right arm than an encumbrance. I’ve stopped forgetting and leaving it in public places—if pressed, I would confess that right after first getting the cane, I left it hanging on the back of the stall door in the men’s restroom at the Target store downtown. I’ve also stopped using it as a pointer. I think the last time I used the cane to guide someone’s attention to something was in the museum store at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, October 2012 (don’t ask).

Until I started using a cane myself in 2004, I hadn’t really noticed just how many of my fellow San Franciscans use one. Of course, during the 1980s and early 1990s here, when HIV raged uncontrolled, the sidewalks of Castro Street and Polk Street seemed to be crowded with cane users. During the Plague Years, one could see a healthy, good-looking 25-year-old friend out one weekend, bar-hopping South of Market or dancing till very late hours at the End-Up, and then see him a few weeks later, leaning precariously on a cane, slowly plodding down Castro Street. Often that same man would disappear from sight altogether just a couple weeks later. Walking canes were thus often warning signs, both useful tools and ugly reminders of just how much the virus could take away from us.

Once the “cocktails” of effective medications became available in 1996 and nearly all of us began taking one of them, canes became less prevalent in our neighborhoods. For many, the cocktail replaced a cane; for others, it prevented the need for one. As we got healthier as a community, fewer of us needed canes. Hundreds of canes, I’m sure, got relegated to closets for safekeeping, for possible later need, or contributed to Community Thrift or the Goodwill, or donated to one ASO or another for redistribution.

I’ve noticed, however, that as the gay population of San Francisco ages—some sixty percent of men living with HIV in San Francisco are fifty years old or older—canes are, shall we say, making a comeback. The canes in our closets are once again calling out, “Lean on me!” This time, however, the cause is aging, either with or without the virus. As the AIDS Generation enters its middle-to-late age, as we grow grayer, our legs are losing muscle mass. Some of us who used to take great joy in striding quickly up the many hills in this city are now having difficulty even climbing onto one of the light rail trains or buses. Hence, and for other reasons, the resurgence in the number of canes.

As I’ve written here before [“The View from Down Here,” A&U, July 2018], one of the first things I noticed about being in a wheelchair was how much friendlier and quicker-to-smile people are when you greet them from a wheelchair—99 times out of 100 they smiled, waved, and said “Hi!” Well, boy oh boy are things different when you’re walking with a cane! I’m still the same disabled elderly person out of the chair, but people’s response when I greet them when I’m out is much different. They revert to their closed-mouth frowning look of annoyance that someone dared to speak to them, and they pass without a word. I think it has to do with fear levels—seated in a wheelchair, I’m absolutely zero threat to anyone, but upright with a cane, even this crippled sixty-six-year-old is perceived, apparently, as a potential threat. I miss the friendliness I encountered in the wheelchair.

But not enough to make me want to return to it! The wheelchair is just so much more restricting, limiting the number of places I can go to and the number of things I can do. As inconvenient as it can be sometimes, the cane is actually very liberating.

Now, if it would just stop raining for a while!

Hank Trout, Editor at Large, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.