The Tornado Has Returned
Time Passes, But Often Pandemic Responses Remain the Same
by Hank Trout

The 1980s were one long violent tornado.

Those were the first words of mine to appear in A&U, the first line of my poem “Tornado,” published in the January 2016 issue, just five years ago. That poem was not only the first poem I had ever published, but also the first work of any kind that I had published since 1982. So I am deeply grateful to the folks at A&U for helping me find my voice, after a trauma-induced thirty-three-year writer’s block, and for giving me a megaphone to amplify that voice.

I had hoped to celebrate my five years (and counting) with the magazine—had hoped, with my husband Rick, to invite the publisher and his husband, the managing editor and his boyfriend, and a few friends here in San Francisco for a catered cocktail party (lots of vegan choices) to mark the occasion. But, like all the other hopes I had for 2020, that hope for a celebration got stomped into the dirt by the ever-growing deadly COVID-19 monster still rampaging across the country.

That’s an awfully small loss to lament, I admit, compared with the death and loss and dashed hopes this monster has inflicted on millions of people across the globe. As we start the new year, here in San Francisco we are entering our eleventh month of full or partial lockdown due to the pandemic. Currently: full-on lockdown. (As all of the country should do!) Thus far, since neither Rick nor anyone in my immediate circle of friends has contracted the coronavirus, the pandemic’s effects on me probably seem rather petty—a cancelled visit to Rick’s family; the cancelled celebration of our wedding anniversary in October; cancellation of all holiday celebrations, from Pride through my birthday—but I think they are emblematic of the kinds of disappointment and isolation this second pandemic has caused all of us.

Example: Many of my friends in the Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network, whose Zoom gatherings I attend as often as I can, have expressed a heightened sense of isolation during these eleven months. Having to meet virtually instead of at a coffee shop every weekend is one manifestation of our current isolation. Most of us have faithfully obeyed the shelter-in-place orders—personally, I’ve left our apartment no more than a dozen times in the last ten months, mostly for doctor’s or laboratory appointments. Except for my husband Rick and a couple of phlebotomists, no one has touched me since March 2020. This seemingly never-ending lack of human contact is not only aggravating, it is downright unhealthy. Zoom is no substitute for a warm comforting hug from your buddies.

Around World AIDS Day last month, thinking about my five-year tenure here at A&U, I reread “Tornado” and was struck by the parallels between the 1980s, the decade I wrote about in the poem, and the year 2020. The mounting death toll; the fear of contracting or spreading a deadly virus; the pain of watching helplessly as loved ones suffer and die; the insanity of deniers making containment of the virus much more difficult; the isolation and loneliness. In the 1980s, we thought we were walking through hellfire—here in California, in 2020 we did indeed live through the most hellish wildfires in California history, waking up a couple mornings to a bright orange sky straight out of Ray Bradbury. Just as we suffered through one incompetent administration after another as they bungled AIDS policy and response throughout the 1980s, so too in 2020 we suffered through the most incompetent, bigoted administration in U.S. history, led by a sociopathic narcissistic lunatic who stares into solar eclipses. The indifference, incompetence, and downright cruelty of the Reagan, Bush, and Trump administrations led to the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of our countrymen.

In 2020, the tornado returned with a deadly vengeance.

But a new year promises new beginnings, right? Maybe we can find glimmers of hope to hang on to in 2021—the effective COVID-19 vaccines; a new, sane administration; the return of California’s radiant blue skies. We can reasonably hope that we will soon be able to congregate, in person, with our friends and families and exchange those hugs we’ve all been missing. As the great tornado that was the 1980s and 90s began to wind down…

Once the lightning flickered out and the thunder rolled along,
once the wind huffed and puffed its way over the horizon,
we formed search parties and gathered our survivors from among the rubble.

We will need to gather our long-term survivors together again as soon as we can do so safely. We must recommit to taking care of each other, as we have done before, no matter what tornados might come roaring our way. I know we can, we will. We must.

Hank Trout, Senior Editor, 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 husband Rick Greathouse. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.