Sinking at the Traffic Light
One Moment in San Francisco—A Multitude of Lives Remembered
by Harry Breaux
While stopped for the red light at Oak Street as I was coming down Baker, I sank into my seat. That was the feeling. Sank, like a rock in the ocean. There was a shift in the air and a shift in the texture of the instant. It was as though the energy that funds me had a dip in current. A feeling the power dimmed in me like at home when PG&E is forced to execute some drastic, momentary power drop automatically and unannounced.
There was no loss of consciousness or awareness or attendance to my driving, but all of sudden, all around me felt sad and fluid. It was as though the earth’s spinning had stopped for an ever-so-momentary instant and I was suspended in space. Somehow inside my immediate world, I was suddenly submerged in a dark, blue light and I felt grief and loss differently than I had before. The emptiness of it became more sensory and present.
I was missing them deeply, more deeply than before. I was missing those energetic, courageous men who had accompanied me on adventures during the PRIDE-filled days of yore, way back in the “gay freedom ‘70s.”
I missed Jimmy for his vision. His dreams fed the excitement.
I missed Tim for his laughter and friendship. His laugh was infectious.
I missed Dan for his gentleness and abundant generosity.
I missed Steve for his kind, glowing spirit.
I missed so many others, too. Those I knew and those I didn’t.
I missed all those persons named on the AIDS Memorial Quilt; men, women and children of all ages and colors and nationalities.
But mostly I missed the ones I knew and explored young life and freedom with.
There in the car, having just gotten off work, waiting for that light to change, I noticed a missing aliveness in my body. Unlike the many times I had been in this neighborhood in the past, I wasn’t on the way to a kitchen full of friends this time. Friends gathering and preparing to go out for any number of possible evening entertainments. The loneliness was palpable and warm. I remembered them and felt as though I was being flushed with the same loving and generous joie de vivre I felt in their physical presence so many times. Was there an essence of them still dangling wistfully just over there behind that tree or over there by that statue or right here? Or was this all just the phantom of love, once in the flesh and now no longer so?
It still comes as a surprise, when a thought so sensory pops up from the past, when the clearest picture appears of those who were closest and now lost to AIDS. The sadness of the memory was balanced by the warm joy of feeling them around once again even as phantoms. It was also true I wouldn’t be sitting with them in the kitchen ever again. Neither would they.
There’s so much made about having lived, having survived, and for some, even thrived. Many of us identify with the phrase “long-term survivor” and “suffering from AIDS Survivor Syndrome.” Tonight, in this little moment at the red light, though, it felt more like “AIDS Twilight Zone.”
Without our tribe and essentially ignored by AIDS conferences as several of us reflect on in The San Francisco Principles, we find ourselves as though sat in a corner, scrambling to keep afloat and find the big chunk of hope we lost along the way. Defying the stigma, we seem to bounce our cries for help against a void. We have been lacking services appropriate to our needs again. We have become test subjects, guinea pigs, studied by researchers as the first to live with HIV, and in many cases with a co-diagnosis of AIDS. We are significantly insignificant.
Tonight, though, there was a moment of deep quiet as the recognition that no matter how desperately I tried, those friends and I would never be communing again. I could feel the sadness of that realization course through my cells. Perhaps they tapped my shoulder to remind me how important it is we treasure those we do have as we continue to honor the memory of those no longer here.
Sometimes looking back on some of my past shenanigans, it’s a miracle I survived being alive even before HIV invaded my immune system providing the seed for the later AIDS diagnosis. Inattention, naiveté and missteps have dotted my life’s highway along with some true close calls.
Continuing, “staying interested” as John Huston said, staying present with the pain and the “lost-ness” while choosing, moment by moment, to focus on the living present is what gets me through. Through the times when other people, places, thoughts and feelings sadly and powerfully rise up from the well of history and into my momentary awareness.
For now, I’ll continue on in the power of joyful hopefulness and love integrated with difficult depression and sorrow. I’ll continue on and so will many others.
Harry has been enjoying some leisure years in San Francisco while working part-time at a gym and tinkering with the many writing projects awaiting more development. Staying alive through forty years of HIV has given a different meaning to surviving or more simply, being. Staying interested is the most challenging of pursuits. If life is actually a chimera, it’s one to not be too ready to stir from. As a child, a dream was to live life as an exploration. It seems it still is.