The Masque of the Red Death -- 1992

Notes: This was originally written as an interpolated Review/Service piece -- perhaps a new form, I don't know. I generally create my manner to fit my matter. Due to "space limitations" the editor mysteriously decided to cut 200 words (which, thankfully, I was allowed to edit), and all Edgar Allan Poe references had to be excised -- a situation akin to reading MOBY DICK with the "fish" referents removed. Tough, when you consider how much research went into the EAP quotes, to find precisely the correct tone.

So much for craftsmanship! Sadly, this piece has dated well. Gary Shilts was an alumnus of the University of Oregon, here in Eugene, and died about a year ago, in San Francisco, of AIDS. Another rose to toss on the mountain of tragedy. Requiescat in pace. At the time of this writing, Santa Fe County had the third highest per capita incidence of AIDS cases in the U.S. (right behind San Francisco and New York City). I don't know how we're doing today. Updated statistics are certainly appreciated. From the Santa Fe SUN, 1992.

By Hart Williams 1992, 1996

"We had here around us all the ordinary means of summer amusement; and what with rambling in the woods, sketching, boating, fishing, bathing, music and books, we should have passed the time pleasantly enough, but for the fearful intelligence which reached us every morning from the populous city. Not a day elapsed which did not bring us news of the decease of some acquaintance. Then, as the fatality progressed, we learned to expect the daily loss of some friend .... To the substances of terror [my Host] was sufficiently alive, but of its shadows he had no apprehension."

-- Edgar Allen Poe, "The Sphinx"

  • Review: And The Band Played On -- Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, by Randy Shilts; Penguin, 640 pp., Trade Paperback, $12.95.

  • Report: Getting Your AIDS Test

You aren't frightened, and you ought to be. You ought to be frightened to death, but the spectre of a plague you have lived with has lost its interest for you. Well, since the problem has lost its fear for you, I urge you to read Shilts' book, and then I'll leave you in peace.

Here: let me make you feel less alone. In the March 1992 issue of DISCOVERY magazine, Dr. E.J. Nieburger, the Director of the Center for Dental AIDS Research in Waukegan, Illinois, writes blithely and speciously: "The good news is that the AIDS epidemic is almost over." The informed reader is thunderstruck. How can this boob write such an idiocy to the magazine, let alone be in a position of authority in AIDS research? Why, reasons, Dr. Nieburger, in the U.S. in 1990, 35,000 new cases of AIDS were discovered, and in 1991, only 39,000 new cases were diagnosed.

Only 39,000 new cases?

Bob Howard of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta responded to Nieburger with the weariness that Shilts chronicles: of the decade-long struggle by the CDC to make people take this POX, this PLAGUE, this EPIDEMIC seriously. "There are some one million Americans who are HIV positive. That means there are one million opportunities for transmission out there. So obviously this epidemic is not over."

"Santa Fe County Health Office, 605 Letrado, Santa Fe, 827-3560, testing Mondays 1-3:30 p.m., Thursdays 9:00-11:00 a.m. (anonymous HIV testing)"

-- local newspaper listing.


At 2 p.m. on February 6th, I entered the Santa Fe County Health Office. It's fairly easy to find: near Perez Pool and the locomotive in Alta Vista Park. I found the pile of slips marked "Please check what services you need today," and checked 'HIV (AIDS) Test.' Below, in caps, the slip says: "DO NOT WRITE YOUR NAME IF YOU ARE HERE FOR ONLY HIV (AIDS) TESTS OR TEST RESULTS."

Confidentiality is not merely assured, but is taken to great lengths. You are given a statistical survey sheet to fill out (no names, please). You are called by the last three digits on your survey sheet. This seemed to take about ten minutes. Certainly several people who came in for said testing seemed a bit nervous about it. They fidgeted, and looked around warily to see whether anyone noticed. No one did. Usually, having worked up their courage, they stride purposefully inside to the main desk, and announce: "Is this where I get the AIDS test?"

This act was repeated several times. Each time, the receptionist would point to the form. You need not even speak.

On the counter, there are two wicker baskets filled with condoms containing Nonoxyl-9 (Lifestyles brand). "Take all you want," the receptionist says, "They're free."

My number was called and I was ushered back into Robert Parkins' office. Bob was polite and reassuring. "What makes you think you might have been exposed?" he asks.

"I don't," I reply. "I'm just being prudent."

Bob smiles.

Author/reporter Shilts has woven together the tapestry of the AIDS epidemic from the Bicentennial parties in New York City in 1976 to AIDS' "sudden" public acceptance with the announcement of Rock Hudson's AIDS in July 1985.

It is a chronicle of venality, selfishness, denial and scientific egotism putting itself above human lives. It is The Andromeda Strain with an unhappy ending, and it is all true.

Sometime in the mid-Seventies a virus appeared in the United States. Patients appeared in hospitals with impossible infections. A man died of a parasitic infection only seen in sheep. But everyone dragged their feet. "No problem," said the blood banks. Said the National Institutes of Health (with their $billion-a-year budget). Said the Gay community leaders. And people died. A few at first. Later, scores. Then hundreds. Then thousands. Then tens and hundreds of thousands became infected.

"More than anything else, [Dr. Michael Gottleib] did not want to seem embarrassed. That, he knew, was what had been the problem all along with this infernal epidemic: It was about sex, and it was about homosexuals. Taken altogether, it had simply embarrassed people -- the politicians, the reporters, the scientists. AIDS had embarrassed everyone, he knew, and tens of thousands of Americans would die because of that. It was time for people to stop being embarrassed, Gottleib decided, if our society was ever to beat this horrible enemy." (p. 582)

On March 19, 1982, the Centers for Disease Control reported 285 cases of AIDS in 17 states. As of October 1, 1991, that figure had reached 185,512 cases in all 50 states. AIDS has jumped into the mainstream of American life, and when Earvin "Magic" Johnson was diagnosed as HIV-positive, a NEW YORK TIMES sportswriter still had the temerity to smirkingly imply that this implied Magic to be a 'fag.'

AIDS is a disease, generally transmitted sexually, and has taken nuns and priests as well as orgiasts. There exists the certainty that it will dog our lives well into the next century, even were a vaccine or "cure" found tomorrow. And there is little hope of that last.

Let me make this crystal clear: AIDS is a frighteningly lethal virus, and once in place, it takes an average of 5.5 years to incubate. It is an astonishingly horrifying way to die -- you are gang-raped by every infection in your environment. You lungs fill with protozoa, your flesh with sores. You waste and sweat, and all they can do is try to put out the little fires. AZT can delay the onset, but little else.

But, FIRST AND FOREMOST, it is a DISEASE. And disease knows no sexual preference, nor political position, nor religious catechism. It just likes to kill. There is nothing political in that. [NB, 1996: Mr. Buchanan and the Oregon Citizens Alliance, please take note.]

After a short, non-EMBARRASSING interview, I was led into a nurse's office, and a test tube of my blood taken. I was given a numbered card, and a two-week appointment for my results. Results are ONLY given in person, for purposes of confidentiality.

Two weeks later, I returned. Planned Parenthood health worker Lee Salsburg tells me that "we get 100 to 150 people a week" in four HIV testing clinics. There is also a small catch with your AIDS test: Testing negative only means that you were clean for the period PRIOR to six months ago. If I want to be absolutely positive, I need to practice safe sex and return in six months.*
[NB, 1996: This was because the test STILL much used tests for HIV antibodies, not HIV. And it takes several months for the antibodies to show up in testable quantities.]

The results are negative. For the moment I am safe. [NB, 1996: I had a happy 6 mos. of celibacy at that point, and so didn't need to come back]. But there are a million Americans out there who are infected, and they can look like anything (the incidence of AIDS in the Gay community has actually dropped off dramatically*)[*NB, 1996: Sadly, this may be turning around.] It is the girl next door I need to worry about.

Or, I can be embarrassed. And quite probably die.

"And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all."

-- Edgar Allan Poe, "The Masque of the Red Death"

Read And The Band Played On if you haven't; reread it if you haven't recently. And get tested.



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