Riding Shotgun: Lost Time, Lost Lives

A quarter century of AIDS; 25 million deaths. What now?

Everything about this column is late. It should have been written three months ago, but I let time slip away. Isn’t that just the goddamnedest thing to lose? Time? Easy to misplace, impossible to get back. And, at least as far as the focus of this column is concerned, time is the least of the things we’ve lost.

We’ve had AIDS now for 25 years. Ain’t that a bitch? This is a season for tragic anniversaries: one year ago Katrina hit; five years ago four planes changed course and changed the course of a country. But 25 years … We kinda took a pass on that one. Most of the world, save a few enclaves of scientists and those who read the newsmagazines, let it go by.

Maybe if the date — June 5, 1981 — were marked by something more spectacular than a government report. And what a tiny little thing to report: five gay men in California are sick. Not exactly news to set the world on fire, but that’s what started it. Oh, the disease had been around for decades — hell, maybe centuries. But that was what started it for this country and for (I use this term loosely) the civilized world.

Last spring, shortly before the June 5 anniversary, I was at a press conference where Dr. Tony Fauci talked about that CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from 25 years ago. He had been working at NIH for nearly a decade, studying immune response and suppression, when across his desk came this little report documenting five men in L.A. with Pneumocystis pneumonia. He didn’t think too much of it. It sat on his desk for a little less than a month, until July 4 when a second report landed on top of the first: more gay men in California with Pneumocystis, this time accompanied by Kaposi’s sarcoma.

Over the next few months, one of the smartest men at NIH — a researcher who could choose any field and essentially write his ticket to scientific fame — changed the course of his career. He decided to focus on this strange disease, then called GRID (gay-related immune deficiency), that was affecting a tiny, marginalized portion of the population. His colleagues and his mentors told him he was destroying his career. They told him it would lead nowhere. He did it anyway.

It’s 25 years later, and he’s been director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases for 22 of them. He’s raised the funding for AIDS research from virtually nonexistent to $2.9 billion. He’s dedicated his life to what he was told would be a nothing disease that really didn’t affect anybody. I wonder if he would have made the same choice if somebody told him that 25 years later AIDS would be ravaging the world worse than ever. And, now that the future scientists and researchers and clinicians of the world see just how tenacious a monster AIDS is, I wonder if they’ll make the same choice Fauci did. With hope for an actual cure diminishing, and with more and more emphasis placed on life-prolonging treatment, will AIDS attract the science’s next generation of superstars?

But I’m diverging from the point. The topic this month is about loss. What have we lost in the last 25 years? We’ve lost 25 million people worldwide, but what does that mean? Numbers are just numbers, no matter how big they get.

We’ll, we lost Arthur Ashe and Ryan White. We lost Isaac Asimov and Freddie Mercury. And those are just the ones we know about. Maybe we lost another Einstein or another Shakespeare. Sure, maybe we lost a Hitler or an Amin, but I’ve never been a glass-half-full thinker.

We lost 10 million mothers, a million babies, a million toddlers who were just learning to walk — killed before they could utter their first words.

And we might have lost focus.

At the beginning of the Reagan era, the greatest fear of those fighting the disease was that nobody was paying attention because it wasn’t a blip on anyone’s radar. Now, it’s almost the opposite: the fear is that people are no longer paying attention because AIDS has become just another part of the global landscape, like world hunger or malaria or war. It’s become such a permanent facet of the human condition that its ravages are accepted as … acceptable.

Or maybe not. Maybe we just need a change in perspective, to reacquire our focus. And there are people willing to provide us with one.

A few years ago Nikkole Salter and Danai Gurira were graduate acting students at NYU working on a final theatrical project. Rehearsal space was limited, and collaboration was encouraged. They were both women, both black, and both looking to create pieces dealing with AIDS as it has affected their respective cultures, Salter focusing on Los Angeles, Gurira on Zimbabwe. So, they began sharing. Their creations merged into the play “In The Continuum,” which focuses on two characters: one a Los Angeles teenager, HIV-positive and pregnant by her boyfriend, the other a middle-class woman from Zimbabwe, also pregnant and HIV-positive, but with a husband and a young son. Salter and Gurira portray the two women, as well as the characters they meet in their journey of dealing with the disease and the social stigma that goes with it.

Black women as protagonists on the stage are few and far, far between. Works dealing with HIV in America’s black community are even rarer. And those concerning HIV in Africa, especially from the woman’s perspective, are … Well, this is pretty much the first one. That “In The Continuum” does all of these things and still manages to be a supremely moving, funny, and tragic piece of theater is a minor miracle.

The play does not preach; it does not proselytize — it merely provides a new perspective. Salter and Gurira say they just hope their play makes audiences think about those characters in a new light. Because otherwise it’s unlikely these people would be thought of at all. That makes the choices of artists like Salter and Gurira as important today as those of scientists like Fauci 25 years ago.

The good news is that the work of Fauci and scientists like him is cumulative; it’s built up over the years, one discovery and achievement on top of the other. The same for art; first came “Angels in America,” now “In The Continuum.” What next?

The bad news? Deaths are cumulative too. And time isn’t. It just slips through our fingers.

Article © 2006 by Steve Spotswood