An excerpt from
By Timothy Anderson
This is an excerpt from a much larger essay of the same title published in 2011. I read this portion of Defensible Space in Santa Fe, NM as part of my graduation exercises associated with obtaining my Masters in Creative Non Fiction from Seattle Pacific University.
Defensible Space is based on true events and is dedicated to my longtime friend, Gert McMullen, fairy Godmother to The Names Project~The AIDS Quilt
It is also dedicated to the memory of Vincent “Steve” Abyeta whose art is featured above.
I sit inside the idling semi-truck, a long gleaming Peterbilt hood in front, twin, chromed-exhaust stacks behind. The doors on the trailer are already closed. The last, heavy, cardboard box of folded Name Project quilt panels already off loaded. The truck is parked near the junction of Market Street and Castro, hugging the curb. San Francisco traffic careens around me, without pause. I smell exhaust, and restaurants, and a hint of the sea.
Somehow, I must turn around eighty feet of truck. A load of Salinas Strawberries awaits pick up then I will run them north to Edmonton, Alberta. Northbound, I haul the gift of California’s nearly year round summer, renewing the weary culinary dreams of the still snowbound. Southbound I’ve just hauled death, symbolized by quilt panels.
Gert McMullinstands cued on the curb, her long blonde hair flat, her skin and bones, a study in emaciation at war with emancipation. I decide she looks part crazy, appearing more fitting as a stand-in, lead singer for a girl band. She fearlessly makes eye contact with me, waiting for my nod. I check my mirrors, looking behind the truck, and when a lull appears, I lift my head.
Reacting to my signal, she steps purposely off the curb, placing her fingers in her mouth, and whistles. The world stops. Everything is at attention. The noise, shrill, enforces interruption, pauses sidewalk café gossip, parking, ticket officers mid write up, and most importantly, south bound traffic. Blocking all three lanes of Market Street, traffic stops as my airbrakes release with a whoosh, and at the last minute, Gert steps back from my front bumper. I grab a gear, and all 40,000 lbs. of truck groans against the torque of 525 Cummins horsepower.
Gert parts traffic as if she’s Moses, standing within inches of the trailer, it begins to turn around her as if she’s a traffic pylon. Slowly pivoting, the truck catches blinding sunlight and initially blocks only one direction of Market Street. She tenses, as if awaiting a starting gun, and then, as if on signal, her prey in one direction trapped, she struts parallel with my trailer, to the other side of the arterial.
Now, facing off against three lanes of northbound traffic, her shrill whistling returns. Her pitch of God Awful mourning departing, repeats. The trailer groans, I “walk” a giant beast in place, turning all 80 feet on a dime, the rear axles spinning around in place as if doing an ice skater’s maneuver, and then, finally, rear axles conclude their pivot.
Gert faces off the motorists standing in the middle lane. Every driver and every pedestrian, on each opposing sidewalk, freeze. Like a magic barrier to mobility, her raised fist now commands all six lanes of arterial traffic. Appearing so thin a person could glance right through her, I see the impossibility of one woman standing against huge forces. I see love. I see it isn’t always pretty.
The quilt, that one brave candle, lights the darkness, like a miracle appearing just after everyone has given up. Marking the final home of dashed hopes, the Names Project Quilt is the way of reckless belief. The quilt stitches together names--taking the form of friends, strangers, and estranged shirt tail relations. Hand sewn, coffin sized panels now travel the nation, becoming historic, a place where the war began--this remembering, this bleeding fabric, rises up for those who stood down. When the quilt rolls into town, citizens weep in mass.
Gert works all day, every day, for the project. It consumes her. Facing and channeling grief, as if God called just her to dispatch the sorrow of the multitudes. Loss became her resume. She gathers fabric, becoming guardian of tens of thousands of lives. She is high saint among mourners, and she could not know then, back in the early days, how the pandemic would grow. If she’d known this museum of death would be her home, living under siege, that ten, then twenty, and even thirty years later, the quilt and her attachment to it would represent her legacy, her constant companion, I’ve wondered-- would she still have volunteered to walk this road?
A few years ago, while shopping at the Post Falls, Idaho Wal*Mart, I stopped mid stride, startled by her familiar image peering at me from behind the glass protection of a newspaper vending machine. A headline from the Coeur D’Alene press featured beneath it a photograph of Gert. Still dangerously thin, her features aged and her hair falling haphazardly over her shoulders, the expression peering back at me seemed just as determined, although a bit more exhausted than my last sight of her. The story mentioned the Names Project’s relocation from San Francisco to Atlanta, yet Gert appeared still attached to the project, still following her children, all those quilt panels, into the next chapter of the never ending pandemic.
It is 4 a.m. Gert whirls around me, dancing as if she’s walking on air, lit by strobes, inspired at 134 beats per minute. Welcome to the Pleasure Dome. We dance, she among the few women allowed, surrounded by shirtless, starry eyed men. Dawn breaks outside but we remain sweaty in the darkness. The Pleasure Dome is in a forgotten part of town, a foreboding, converted warehouse south of Market reclaiming industrial blight.
My friend Jon is spinning, exalted in the DJ booth. Porn stars man the bars. Water flows from plastic bottles and I close my eyes as a surreal-colored disco light descends from the ceiling. The light is brilliant, and I welcome this artificial vision of heaven, spinning and rotating amongst us at the most human level. This, the Pleasure Dome, is our interpretation of the celestial, the multi-colored lights, our gay equivalent of the Holy Spirit. Only upon entering these spaces could light engulf us, transcending our soon to be decimated bodies, while blocking out the already gentrifying industrial reality outside. Gert flitters to my left. She appears and then she is gone, disappearing into a sea of men, all moving, even if only briefly in this moment, at the same heartbeat. I smell cloves. I smell sweat. For once, I can’t smell fear.
Gert reappears. A sea of flesh parts before her, and her long hair is suspended amongst artificial Technicolor-like-dust. Catching light, she’s backlit with abandon, and energized with the purpose-filled determinism of this briefest allowance of escapism. Gert raises my arms far above her head, then she bends backward, stretching us together, until we are both leaning over, I’m falling into her and she’s suspended beneath me, her eyes wild toward the unknown, and then again, as if by instinct, her entire frame is rising, challenging the night to end, daring dawn as she again releases me.
Just as she’s already released a thousand other loves, only to disappear. I lose sight of her, she’s already moving deeper into the immense warehouse dance floor. But in my mind, I still see her in that moment, grinning and laughing, daring to push away the infinity of death, disappearing behind perfect muscular, sweaty men, emerging a few songs later, now towing some gorgeous man behind her, already aware that he too will soon be lost to her. I see her. I see my friends. In that moment, we flee an ominous reality bearing down on us like a mountain range collapsing against a fragile plain. Thus it was in the beginning. But in that place, oh just for a moment, we could forget. We had the luxury of blindness to our future. We had yet to remember that time is fleeting, and that we must stitch together most of these names before the disease took us as well.
One stitch at a time, a quilt panel is held, sewn, folded, ironed, and released. At the termination of the display, panels are lifted in unison, and folded back into repose. Later Gert and her volunteer army will repair damaged panels. To create a story on fabric, in the shape of a coffin, allows no emotional distance. Touching all this sacred fabric, by hand, by its nature, violates every “personal and professional boundary”. Gert holds them all. Still.
At the quilt displays, we read the names of the dead. New panels are accepted. Teary-eyed lovers, siblings, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and strangers sheepishly step forward, holding their bundles in hand. Stitched in grief, and worried over.
Was the panel done the way he’d wanted it to be done? This satin, was it the right choice of fabric?
Does the Gold shine as much as she did?
Was that blue the right color? Because you know, he’d know if it wasn’t. Hadn’t he’d always known the right color?
Maybe, don’t you think, shouldn’t the piece of black leather harness, that ick part of his life, be left out?
Friends gathered. At the leather bar, the community center, and the county fairgrounds. Motorcyclists, warehouse loaders, and mechanics drink their Bud as they sew. Mothers drink tea. Needles appeared loaded with thread, maybe deciding to include the harness, after all. Also making the cut, the red hanky, worn on the active left side, finds a home attached to jean fabric. Maybe the explicit details aren’t too much because they will never be enough to bring him back.
Eventually, not even the acres of fields surrounding the nation’s Capital Mall can contain our display of lives taken from us too soon. Presidents Regan and Bush I will fly over the display but they will not land among us. Twenty years later, Washington DC will represent one of the most infected cities on the planet.
My friend Lane and I are traveling 90 miles round trip, from Pend Oreille County to Sandpoint, Idaho, and as we drive through the night to see the movie Milk, I gaze up at stars. I remember the night of Harvey Milk’s assassination. I lay in my bed, violating lights out and curfew, the AM radio antennae propped against the window. I dare and strong arm the signal to come in clear, listening to the shock of radio newscasters, reaching me in Nowhereville, Oregon, via the longshot clear channel radio signal of San Francisco’s KGO.
I still remember static-filled accounts of the riots that follow, the candlelit marches, and just years after that, the seemingly immediate onslaught of AIDS. Cleve Jones, the founder of the Names Project, was among Milk’s best friend. Still-living, he becomes a historical icon. His early activism inspires a supporting character in the film based on the life of Harvey Milk.
The film will win Oscars, but as Lane and I enter the theater, surrounded by liberal heterosexuals in a former brothel town’s historic Panida Theater, patrons move over a couple seats to give us room. Or maybe to give them distance from us, the assurance afforded by defensible space. I remember being the only two guys sitting together. I remember the curious looks.
I’ve met Cleve Jones, I’ve shaken his hand and stood beside him at beer busts to fund the Names Project, held at a Leather Bar, the San Francisco Eagle. I will volunteer rides in my truck to raise money. Lesbian’s want to know about the engine. Men gaze longingly toward the sleeper. Nearly everyone at that fundraiser is now dead. The San Francisco Eagle is now closed. Even then, many from those beer busts already knew they were dying.
Tonight, I will remember, as the credits roll at the end of the movie, that gays have always known more tragedy than elation. That we’ve had too much worry and not enough time to live and that at the same time, we’ve lived too much life, with not enough worry. Both contradictions remain my reality.
My friend Steve volunteers at the Names Project. He is already sick. I stand beside him looking at art he’s created to publicize the first showing of the Quilt in Washington DC. I am 21 years old, almost 22. He is my mentor, and in my hands, I hold the poster sized image he’s created for that first display on the Capital Mall. This moment, the Names Project’s Quilt’s unveiling on the National Mall, becomes a starting point of American Dialogue. We are already several years into the epidemic. President Regan is oblivious. He does not acknowledge this moment; among historians his lack of attention standing out as the darkest domestic stain on an infamous presidency.
The print I hold, Steve’s art, features six determined subjects, sitting in a half circle. Each of these diverse quilters is portrayed with intensity. A long haired woman sits beside a grandmother and seated on the opposite side, a man in a button down shirt lifts his needle. They sew quilt panels together and even then the Quilt is portrayed falling out, uncontained over the Capital Lawn.
Steve’s art is his looking glass. In each of his subject’s expression, I see love, sadness, loss and hope. In my friendship with Steve, I feel all of these things as well.
A reproduction of his art, one I’m sure he stole from the project’s sales inventory, still hangs in my hall. He had so little money, an artist so broke he resorts to thievery; stealing his own work.
“Driver, can I see your log book?”
A good-looking, blonde, Oregon DOT officer is standing at the edge of the Kalamath Falls, Oregon scale platform. Shining a flashlight into my eyes and peering up at me, the officer steps up onto the cat walk above my fuel tank. Behind me, the refrigerated unit roars, and the tractor engine fan kicks on. I can barely hear him.
I grab my clip board, my log book attached to it and just as I pass it over the window of the truck, handing it to the officer, I realize I’ve filled out the wrong dates. Even worse, I’ve failed to show the required “pre-trip inspection”. The final gut wrenching revelation? By the look of my comic book, and the previous date, I have perfected time travel. I stand guilty of being here two days in the future.
The officer holds the flashlight over the paper work and looks up at me quizzically. “Driver, do you realize that…”
I interrupt, already visualizing the massive fine and log book ticket about to bear my name and driver’s license number. My heart sinks further, as I realize that even if I’d left that morning, logging today’s actual date, there’s no way that I could depart Bellingham and made it to K Falls, legally, in one day. Not only can Officer Robert Redford cite me for falsification of logbook, he can also write me for speeding.
“Officer, I can explain…”
“Park your truck. In front of the scale. I want to see your permit book, your bill of lading, and, of course, your driver’s license.” He smiles. A model quality, giant, evil, handsome-as-hell, you are so mine, love ya mean it and hey, you didn’t need those next three paychecks anyway!
I’ve just made his day.
I park, assemble the paperwork, and walk back toward the scale house, site of my pending execution. I can’t believe I’m such a dumb ass.
Should I tell him? About the call that I’d always dreaded? The one that had finally come? That my best friend Steve is dying, and that I gave up my vacation, to grab any load I could, and that I’d not slept in 36 hours, but that if I didn’t hustle, Steve would be gone before I made it to the Gay Bay?
I open the door. The officer sits alone at his desk. Thankfully, no other drivers are in the scale house. I hand him my driver’s license.
“So it’s Tim, huh?”
“You know you’re five hundred pounds over on your driver axles?”
My heart quits.
I’d just fueled at Mollies Truckstop sitting not 500 feet north of where I’m now detained. I began to calculate how long it will take to burn off enough fuel to be legal again. Eight pounds per gallon times six miles per gallon…
The officer hands me back the bill of lading: McDonald’s muffin dough from Bellingham, bound for Stockton. “And according to this…”
“I know.” I interrupt him again. “Officer, I know. I can’t legally be here, even if I had the right day on my log book. But I can explain, I have an emergency. I’m…”
He still has my license. My permit book. He’s looking at me, leaning over the counter, his pen in his hand, a partially filled out citation awaits his completion. “Go on…”
“I know you’ve probably heard it all. But I swear I’m telling the truth. My best friend is dying, in San Francisco, of AIDS. I got the call early this morning, and I’m just trying to get there. To say goodbye. I don’t know how long he’s got.”
I’ve just outted myself. I’m sure of it. I feel sick. I’m very much aware that Steve is failing. I am about to have multiple, high-dollar citations, and that long after tonight, I will still have to cross this same scale, several times a week. My life is going to be hell. Marked by a badge happy feast of citations. This scale will stand as a unique memorial to Steve Abeyta and the crashing of my MVR.
The officer watches me, pen suspended, my license held against the top of the stainless steel
citation clipboard. The same citation book that remains propped open by his other hand.
“I believe you. No driver would admit to a story like yours.”
He begins to write on the citation. “Tell you what. I’m in a generous mood. Here’s what we’ll do. I am going to write one and only one citation up with the wrong infraction number. All you have to do is request a court date and contest the ticket. It’ll be thrown out.”
He points to the place where on the infraction is listed the address of the court. “You’ll have to come down here for a hearing, but that way it’ll stay off your license and it won’t cost you anything. I could cite you for numerous violations.” He makes eye contact. “But I won’t.” I decide I could marry this man of the law.
He pauses still holding my gaze. I fill in the silence with the weakest “Oh Kayyyy…”, kicking myself for sounding like such a dork.
“There’s a catch.”
“You’re going to bed. I want your butt parked at the rest area south of town. For a full eight, you got that?”
“I’m not telling you when I shutting this scale down, but when I do, it would be best for your sake, that if I get a hankering, say to patrol south of here, your lights out, getting shut eye in that pickle park. We do understand each other, right?”
I nod again, salivating over my license, which he still holds. Firmly.
“A full eight hours. I’d hate to call CHP or the Shasta Scale on you because I come bearing warm coffee and you’re awol.”
He hands my license back to me, and quickly finishes the one and only citation. “Now get out of here.”
I take my license and the citation from him. As I turn to open the door, he adds, “And, Tim…I’m sorry about your friend. Tough times are these.”
Steve dies. I barely make it to San Francisco in time to lay with him, holding his decimated body in my arms. The Quilt is displayed once more on the Mall without him.
It is now too big to be displayed, anywhere, in its entirety.
Gert stands in the doorway of The Names Project. We stand beside her watching the animation of the Castro.
A man approaches wearing a plaid shirt and a dirty green baseball hat. The hat proclaims “Nothing runs like a Deere”.
My friend Rob taps me on the shoulder, and points me toward him. “Tim, check it out. Fish. Out of Water.
The man is clearly lost. He keeps looking up at building numbers and turning, as if he’s a sort of misguided human weather vane. He does not return the eye contact of the parade of men on the street who seek his. Soon enough he is standing at our door, still looking up, verifying the numbers, and looking down at a scrawled address. He seeks out a person in charge, and lucks out, as Gert corrals him. The farmer thrusts a haphazardly folded fabric into her somewhat unexpected arms. She ushers him in, and his eyes dart frantically, surveying the stacks and stacks of Quilt panels. The posters. The books. The VCR tapes chronicling the project’s history. Steve’s art.
The volunteers sorting through the chaos are too busy to notice his awkwardness. The man sees my Peterbilt baseball hat, looks surprised. I wave, sheepishly.
He speaks quietly, but at first only to Gert. His face is reddened from the sun, and he still has a toothpick dangling out one corner of his mouth. It moves up and down as he speaks. Gert waves me in close, as the man falters. He’s a father. Hails from a dot on a mid-western atlas, and grows grain. He points at the bundle Gert holds, explaining that he’s presenting us this quilt panel. He’d sewn it alone, late at night from a lone, bulb-lit, barn-housed work bench.
“Don’t know how right that stitch is.” He points at the middle of the fabric. “I’m no sewer.”
Gert smiles. “It’s fine.”
“He was a good kid, my son. Good with the other kids. Good with the animals. Maybe not so good with a wrench, but he had try.” The man swallows. Composes. “Don’t know how or when he got it, this . . .”
The man fights for words, standing alone amongst all these strangers. I feel his embarrassment lost in the lobby of a big city, fancy place, a place he never thought he’d be standing in. “I’m not sure if it’s good enough. But I had to…you know, for him. My boy.”
Gert places the quilt down and begins to unfold it. The man won’t look. He faces away, anywhere but at the panel. He speaks again. “I almost came to Kansas City, when you were there, but too many people know me in that town.”
He and I again make eye contact. Sizing me up, curious and surprised at a guy like me--my presence, here. Me dressed almost as if I could be jumping out of a Kansas grain truck, running into the Quik Fuel for a cold one in his home town, dumping a load of wheat at the elevator.
He’s still talking, “I’d first heard ‘bout the quilt on a radio station I sometimes get out of Denver. But I didn’t think I could go through with it, didn’t know what to put on...”
The quilt panel is beautiful. Our eyes water. The man, very quickly, looks at his creation. Then he looks away.
“I did this between my pay job and farming. His momma had left us before…so I sewed in Wintertime, after shifts at the grain elevator, after harvest slowed up, so I think it’s mostly finished. I think it’s him. He’s my only kid. Always will be."
Gert is now refolding the panel. No one says anything, and the street noise outside is smothered by the man’s grief.
“I loved him. Didn’t deserve this. But, I guess, no one does.”
The farmer doesn’t stay long. He tells me he needs to get back home, before he’s missed by his neighbors. He tells me to stop in sometime, that he’ll buy me coffee. He says he needed to make this last trip with his son. That they’d always talked of California, imagining a place of sun and warmth and beauty. “I just never thought I would see it alone. Especailly not cuz of this.”
I meet single mothers, devastated at losing their brightest star. I meet widowed wives, their spouse already gone, their time also now short. Sometimes husbands and wives arrive bearing their own panels, created by one for the other, in preparation for what both know lies ahead. Sometimes siblings arrive, acknowledging a death the rest of the family will not.
“He didn’t die of no cancer. Wasn’t like that. Was that other thing that took him. Mama wouldn’t tell no one. She wouldn’t take him to no doctor ‘cause she knew before he did. The night sweats, that’s what it was. She knew.”
Some people bring finished quilt panels and stay on to volunteer themselves. Most of the volunteers will themselves die. By volunteering with the quilt, their service eases their own transition or erases a few transgressions they’ve committed.
Some of my friends will make their own panels. Convinced no one else will.
Others drop off their contributions and never return. Volunteers sometimes die without anyone, estranged and rejected by every member of their family.
Members of the project arrange for their memorials, pass a hat to pay the costs, and will later gather in a coffee shop or bar, and because this is a ritual now, sewing boxes emerge. They take up familiar needles, beautiful threads, and model in real time Steve’s first poster.
This is how we clean our bodies, this is how we bury our dead. This is how we mourn, holed in the back booths of bars, bowling alleys, and other dives.
I learn, after repeated attempts, that stitching a stranger’s life together is not so easily accomplished. At times, just a name flows across the panel. Other times, beautiful, colored links emerge, portraying a life shortchanged. I become skilled at marking what I know, the high points of a stranger’s life, by visualizing a quilt panel. How I’d do it--if I only knew how.
I will start a panel for Steve. Once, twice, three times. I buy the fabric, and a woman at Fabricland offers to help, but because I can’t face the depth of his passing, I will never call her.
Fabric unravels, frays, and fades. The panel remains unfinished, haunting me. It has remained this way now over two decades.
At times, some quilters find it difficult to let go of a panel, realizing this just as they enter the Names Project headquarters, that their work now represents a final link to a last shared moment. They are flighty before us, nervously looking around the lobby, the permanence of the street at their back, and suddenly racked by sobs, they ask for additional time. A Kleenex. Or the return of the panel itself. Taking the fabric back.
In the beginning my dispatcher keeps routing me back to San Francisco. The Dyke is my shepherd, she Lays me over in the gay bay, tells me there is no freight. She always knew. About the other freight I carried. I find parking for my big truck in the old industrial neighborhoods, the already gentrifying South of Market District, I come farther and farther out of the closet.
I am too young to be so shell shocked. I am out of the closet but wishing back in it. My beautiful friends dance while they are dying, as if out of a movie scene on the deck of the Titantic. Even as the ship, our lives, begins to list, and even as reports of horror and grief rise from decks below, I don’t yet see the full-on terror--just replace the four string quartet with a synthesizer and 140 beats per minute; replace the luxury of tuxedoes with sweat, fog machines and laser lightshows. My friends dance until they can’t and then the braver of them return to these, our midnight palaces, sometimes in their wheel chairs, sometimes covered in KS Lesions, and sometimes, they return carried by survivors, in a casket.
My roommate will die while I’m on the road. He dies alone. He never tells me he is sick.
I have never finished his panel either.
A woman enters the Names Project building. She seems lost.
Gert approaches her, “Can I help you?”
The woman holds out home baked cookies. Looking over Gert’s shoulder, at first, I don’t really know what I am looking at.
“I thought you might use these for a fund raiser. Each cookie is an exact replica of a quilt panel. You could sell ‘em, at the showings.”
Turning away, I don’t want to see whatever comes next.
“Oh wow. Thank you. That is so thoughtful!” Gert’s voice rises behind me, above the traffic outside. “Did you make these yourself?”
I lift quilt panel filled boxes into my “refer” trailer, a big refrigeration unit, looking like a metal tumor, looms on the front of the trailer. It is 1991. The boxes of fabric weigh more than some of my recently departed friends. My trailer is capable of keeping hundreds of bodies cool in a natural disaster. But in this disaster, all the bodies I carry need no cooling.
It is a cold December night, after the showing wraps up and the exhibition halls clear. The coldness of the Seattle Washington State Convention Center matches the sterility inside my trailer. Closing the trailer doors, I stand on the ICC bar. I spit on my fingers. I began to write in the stainless steel doors, against the grime, the dirt, until the stainless steel that my hand traces, is mirrored in shine. My face and the city lights reflect behind me. In big bold letters, the doors of my Semi Trailer spell it all out, messy and dirty, but yet shiny and beautiful.
“Remember their Names. The Names Project. Silence Equals Death. This trip is for you, Steve.”
And then I am off, into the night. My CB radio is my constant back up vocalist. Joining the army of trucks rolling southbound for California, I put the gear shift into the last big hole and hit the hammer lane.
All I receive in feedback, via CB channel 17 is a few “10-4’s” to break the silence.
In the summer of 2012, in conjunction with the return of the International Conference on AIDS to the United States, the full Names Project Quilt returned to Washington DC. During late July, over 47,000 Quilt Panels saw daylight on the National Mall and throughout Washington DC. We still remember their names.