I took this photo from atop the Washington Monument in October of 1989. At the time, it was to be the last public display of the AIDS Quilt because, as I was told, it had gotten too big and too expensive to transport and display.
The quilt began in San Fransisco around 1987 when a group of friends and family gathered to hang a panel of 40 quilts to commemorate 40 loved ones who had lost their lives to AIDS.
AIDS was still an illness predominantly associated with homosexuals and intravenous drug users. I spent a lot of time reading and was in art school so I knew first hand that it was no longer just impacting just those communities, it had begun to infiltrate the heterosexual populace. AND as a sexually active straight young man, I thought it would be prudent to be tested because the big take away from all my reading was “You just never know.”
Accordingly, I went get the test from my then doctor. This is almost verbatim the conversation:
ME: I’d like to be tested for AIDS.
ME: Whadda ya mean why?
DOCTOR: Well. are you gay?
DOCTOR: Have you ever slept with another man?
DOCTOR: Have you ever used intravenous drugs?
DOCTOR: Well, then you have nothing to worry about.
I was too stunned by his nonchalant arrogance that I couldn’t even channel my Irish temper. My particular disdain for doctors was not assuaged by this exchange.
Fortunately, the nurse who came in to draw the blood asked me if I still wanted the test. I said yes and she smiled and said “Don’t worry about it, we’ll take care of it.”
I guess this was the first Blanche DuBois “relying on the kindness of strangers” moment of my adult life.
Sometime in the early 80’s I became somewhat obsessed with the Vietnam War and began reading about it obsessively. I was simply fascinated and absorbed everything I could, music, film, books.
Even today, I still love the music of that era, one of the best books I have ever read is Matterhorn (a literary Apocalypse Now) and my memory of the fall of Saigon is emblazoned on my brain…I can still see the images clearly. And this was long before the 24 hour news cycle.
I have to admit the primary reason for my visit to D.C. that October was to see the Vietnam War Memorial.
Designed by Architect Maya Ying Lin it was completed in 1982 to commemorate the 58,195 people who lost their lives during the Vietnam war. Having only seen photos of it, I found it extremely powerful and was truly expecting my visit to be very powerful. And it was powerful.
Then, across the street, I noticed the quilt.
Nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced there. Where the Vietnam Memorial had light chatter and the sound of movement, the AIDS Quilt was silent except for the faint sound of crying and jackets wrinkling during hugs.
In order to move around on the quilt itself you had to remove your shoes. Almost everyone had and was walking about looking at the patches with a respectful silence that you might find in a church. That is except for the people who knew someone. As they knelt, sat and laid by the patch of the person they had known, there were whispers and there were tears. Watching someone caress the t-shirt worn by their loved one as they smiled with tears rolling down their cheek was unlike anything I had ever encountered.
And it was all so silent. I can best describe it by saying the display of the AIDS quilt I saw was filled with silent noise.
After walking away from the quilt I walked over to the Washington Monument and went up to the top. Once there I noticed you could see the quilt so I snapped a couple pictures for my still photography class. Later that week, I developed my roll of film but was disappointed at the quality of the photo’s I was printing in the dark room.
Some of the prints were in the rinse thing-a-ma-jiggy (long before digital photography) when my instructor, some photog magazine editor and generally the bane of my existence as we usually argued about something each class (the class was three hours long and started at 9am…on Fridays and I’m NOT a morning person…and I was 21, ’nuff said).
She saw that photo and asked me what it was. I told her and she pointed out what its strengths were and was generally impressed. She showed me a few tricks to increase the quality of the print so I could get a one that I could use for my final critique. I’ll save the critique story for another day.
I can’t be sure how many patches make up that quilt I saw in 1989, but I can tell you that the quilt now has 47,000 panels with more than 93,000 people.
I can tell you that the quilt grows by about one panel a day.
I can tell you the quilt weighs 54 tons.
I can tell you it was formally named a national treasure in 2005.
I can tell you it was shown in its entirety here in my photo from 1989, again in 1996 and then in 2012.
AIDS may have slipped from the headlines throughout the years, but it’s still here. And it still ruins lives. And it still kills.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1.2 million people are currently living with AIDS and that more than 600,000 people have lost their lives. It’s a truly tragic illness and, regardless of sexual preference, it’s probably a good idea to tested regularly until there is either a cure or you are in a long term monogamous relationship…whichever comes first.
Oh yea, my test results? Negative.