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My heart in San Francisco

By John-Manuel Andriote

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Tony Bennett sang about leaving his heart in San Francisco in his 1962 hit song. Many a '60s hippy happily heeded Scott McKenzie's invitation to "wear some flowers in your hair," pointing their VW bugs west in search of love-ins, whacked weed and the freedom simply to be.
By the time the Village People sang "Go West" in 1979, thousands of gay men already were singing along with the first track of the costumed ones' first album, Village People, "San Francisco (You've Got Me)." In fact, by 1980, an estimated 20 percent of the city's 335,000 registered voters were gay. It was a great time and place to be gay.
Then disaster struck.
While the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake caused massive destruction and killed 3,000 people, it's an understatement to call AIDS the largest natural disaster in San Francisco's history.
By the end of 2008, the epidemic had killed nearly 20,000 San Franciscans -- most of them gay men -- since the then-mysterious, deadly new disease was first reported in 1981.
Men who survive call them the "dark years," when the Bay Area Reporter, week after relentless week, ran page after page of obituaries of young gay men.
But then, in 1998, the picture began to change. "No Obits" read a famous headline in the BAR that year. Suddenly, combination therapy made it possible to live with HIV rather than die from AIDS. Today, more than 16,000 city residents are living with HIV infection.
From the beginning of the epidemic, San Francisco showed the world what "love thy neighbor" means. And gay people led the way. Volunteers staffed information hotlines. "Buddies" did the grocery shopping, cleaned house and offered companionship to homebound people with AIDS. Gay doctors and nurses provided nonjudgmental medical care to their frightened and ill brethren.
One day in 1995, when I was in San Francisco City Hall to do an interview for Victory Deferred, my history of how AIDS changed gay life in America, I stopped and read the quotation under a bronze bust of Mayor George Moscone -- who was assassinated in November 1978, along with city supervisor and gay hero Harvey Milk. It captured what it is that makes the city so unique.
The fallen mayor said, "San Francisco is an extraordinary city, because its people have learned to live together with one another, to respect each other and to work with each other for the future of their community. That's the strength and the beauty of this city -- and it's the reason why the citizens who live here are the luckiest people in the world."
I was back in San Francisco in April, 15 years later, doing interviews for a revised edition of Victory Deferred. I was startled to hear gay men say the sense of crisis has passed, that HIV has become "normal," a harsh fact of life but not what defines or necessarily ends it.
On a glorious Sunday afternoon, I hiked the four miles or so from the Haight Street end of Golden Gate Park all the way to the Pacific.
I smiled and videotaped the happy '60s-like happening in Elk Glen Meadow. Hundreds of young people danced and partied to the thumping techno and house beats rising to the blue sky (with the clouds of pot smoke) from the Dirty Bird dance party.
I made a point of visiting the National AIDS Memorial Grove, the seven-acre area dedicated to all whose lives have been affected or ended by AIDS.
Amid the lush eucalyptus, calla lilies and pine, I took a picture of a rounded stone at Dogwood Dell engraved with the words, "L'Chaim -- To Life." I think that's when I understood San Francisco's magic.
After incalculable loss and innumerable tears, life in this magical place is renewing itself -- just like the green growing things in the Grove.
How can you not love, and leave a big part of your heart in, San Francisco?


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