It was one of those dark, depressed days, in 1989, in the late afternoon, right at the beginning of my shift, when I picked up a radio call at the SF General emergency entrance. I was waiting for a minute, when out shuffled a tiny, elderly man, wizened and bent over, still wearing his hospital gown with a bathrobe hanging off his emaciated frame. His slippered feet slowly scuffed along the pavement. In one hand he clutched a brown paper bag, while his other hand attempted to hold his robe closed. I ran over, took the bag, put my arm around his waist and helped him get to the back seat of the cab. I handed him the paper bag, closed the door, sprinted around the cab, and got in the driver’s seat. So I’m thinking, “OK, this is weird. I got an old, homeless, sick guy. He does look intriguing. Wonder what his story is. Let’s just hope he has Paratransits.” With every movement he made, there came a gasp of breath and a hoarse moan of pain from somewhere deep inside.
“Hello… my name is… Steve,” came the voice from the back seat. He paused, and as I turned back to look at him, we made eye contact. In a shaky thin voice that couldn’t hide his mischievousness, he exclaimed, “Oh good… a lesbian driver!” His words emerged haltingly, he seemed to be struggling to breathe. “Honey… I need you… to drive me home. Just get me… out of here… quick, I am running away!”
As soon as he spoke the first few words, I realized he was not old at all. He was a young man. A young gay man. I also realized he had AIDS.
“I’m dying, honey. Now I have a brain tumor… they say… will kill me… in the next 48 hours. I’m supposed… to have… surgery tomorrow, but I… refuse!” He looked over his shoulder as if some sadistic nurse might be chasing us and
croaked urgently, “OK, head for Twin Peaks… Burnett and Upper Market… C’mon, GO!”
As I pulled out of the hospital parking lot, he exhaled, “No more. I just wanna… go home… to die.”
In a hushed, laborious, but hurried outpouring of words, Steve told me his current situation. We were in a race to get to his house before his family, who were driving out from Nebraska. Steve was from a conservative Christian family in the rural Midwest. When he was 16, his father found out he was gay, threw him out of the house, and declared him dead. Steve made his way to San Francisco like so many other castaway gay youth, including me. That was 15 years ago, and they hadn’t spoken since. He had become sick two years ago, in and out of hospitals, undergoing undignified procedures and treatments which only made him feel sicker. But in the last few weeks, Steve had made up his mind, he was ready to die. He’d written a letter to his father. He told his father he had AIDS, he was dying, and that he forgave him.
“So… can you believe… my father calls me… and tells me…he’s so sorry. He wants to see me. He’s driving out here… with my little brother.” Steve figured that it took 24 hours non-stop driving to get to SF, and they had left yesterday, so they should be getting here sometime around 6:00. He was most insistent that we get home before them.
I crossed Potrero Avenue, and we set off down 23rd Street, heading west. As we traveled through the Mission District, Steve turned to watch as rows of rickety, working-class Victorian stick houses, corner liquor stores, laundromats, and produce markets rolled past the window. I could hear his breath rattling around in the back seat.
Steve seemed to want to talk, although it was obviously painful for him. I kept an eye on him in the rearview mirror. Between shallow, raw, and rasping breaths, he told me his story. He had been a “sissy boy” as far back as he could remember.
“…I got bullied… by all the kids. And then my father… found out… I guess… he thought… kicking my ass … would turn me straight.” He chuckled hoarsely, and we made eye contact.
I bobbed my head up and down, “Yup, my father did the same to me.”
“Doesn’t work… does it?” he said, and we smiled grimly at each other in the mirror, and shook our heads in unison. “Nope.”
We crossed South Van Ness, Mission Street, then Valencia.
Steve leaned forward, and whispered, “Hey, honey… do me a favor… I want to see… a couple things. I think… we have time. Turn right… on Guerrero, ok? I’ll tell you… where to go.”
As we approached 21st Street, Steve tapped the seat.
“Slow down, ok… it’s past 21st… on the right… that place… on the corner… of Liberty. Ooh, that is the… most… fabulous… rose garden… in the city.”
Steve then had me turn left onto 20th Street. I slowed down as we crossed Dolores Street. In the mirror I could see him looking out at the magnificence of Dolores Park and the city spread out below. His chest rumbled as he sighed. I could never resist that view either. We pulled up at the stop sign at the corner of Church to look back at the city for just a few seconds longer. A car behind us honked. I yelled out the window at them to shut the fuck up. Steve laughed, “Ooh, I love you… honey.”
We made our way through Noe Valley and up towards Twin Peaks, finally pulling up in front of his address on Burnett Ave. He gasped and cried out, “Oh
no!” I could see that the father and little brother were already there waiting for us, their truck in the driveway. Father was wearing a cowboy hat which he took off when he saw us. Little Brother, a huge beefcake of a man, rushed to the cab and threw the door open. Steve fell quietly, weakly into his arms.
“Here,” Steve told me, in a quivering voice, “you can… have these… honey. I won’t need them… anymore.” He tossed the paper bag onto the front seat and a large rubber banded bundle of Paratransit vouchers tumbled out, easily a couple hundred dollars. As Father stood watching, wiping his eyes, Little Brother lifted Steve out of the cab. I looked at Little Brother, and our tear-filled eyes met. He mouthed out the words Thank You and, holding his brother tenderly in his strong arms, carried him up the stairs and into his home.
I drove away from the house but had to pull over on Portola, the road blurring through my tears. I sat in the cab and cried for what seemed like a long time. When I could see clearly again, I looked down the hill at Castro Street, which had filled with people milling around and hundreds of sparkling dots of light. It was the AIDS Memorial Candlelight March. I drove down there, parked the cab, and joined the march. Someone gave me a candle. I started crying again, thinking about Steve, and let myself go. There were many tears in the crowd, and I sensed an arm around my shoulder. We started walking down Market Street. It was dark, but I wasn’t alone.
© Armen Sirani, 2019