How Does Your Garden Grow?
“While it is February one can taste the full joys of anticipation. Spring stands at the gate with her finger on the latch”
I watched the finale episode of the series “Pose” last night with a sadness and a joy that reverberated as equal notes on a symphony that has played out in my mind and soul for over forty years. The series, while a brief three seasons, managed to capture, condense, and catapult me, as a viewer, through decades of my own life. Astonishing, as it was about a culture; young, transgender, struggling street kids in NYC in the 80’s and 90’s who persevered and managed to carve out lives for themselves that even they could not see. It was a world I had no idea existed, no common ground upon which to stand, or to even look backwards at. The dizzyingly, joyful, tragic, world these young people tight-roped across is and was foreign territory to me; a white, gay, man, in the those same years in San Francisco; a place where it felt as if we could all, every stripe and shade, exist as one at that moment in time.
What we didn’t know.
I watched, enthralled, as these “Mothers” created their houses, homes for the throw-away kids who, like them, had washed up on the shores under the piers in lower Manhattan as 10, 11, and 12 year-olds, tossed from their own homes by parents too passionate about all the wrong things to look at their own children’s pain and confusion. Those children who, lacking ANY resources except for their nubile bodies, took to working tricks on the piers in order to simply eat. They slept where they could, grabbed any and all opportunities that put pennies in the pockets, and depended on the hookers, and the pimps, and the pros who had walked these paths before them and who now doled out advice, a burger, and cautionary tales on how to live and not die in the city.
And then came AIDS.
Who could have been more vulnerable than underage, undereducated, under fed, street workers? What programs were there that specifically targeted outreach for them the way the GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis) did for the more aware (affluent?) and politically connected of New York’s gay scene at the time? The dregs of the coffee pot are always the most bitter.
But these young men and women, these kids, formed a coalition of the uncounted and looked after themselves and each other in ways that aped the lives they had been denied by their own birthright. The strongest of them (older teens themselves) appointed themselves Mothers to those newly arrived fledglings, almost all trans kids, who felt who they really were but who didn’t/couldn’t see a way to live in, and out, with that feeling.
Those Mothers invented and then used the Ballroom culture, not just to win trophies, but to help instill a core of belonging; a place where their children could shine in the full expression of their flamboyance without judgement or ridicule. They also used them to raise much needed funds for the fledgling organizations that helped feed and house all of them in addition to, later on, helping with AIDS organizations as well.
This did not stop these kids from working the streets and the piers for money. None of the Mothers ever thought that it would. Part of the “no judgement” ethos was to simply assure all the kids that when they were done with a night’s work, they had a bed, a meal, bail; someone there for them in the most basic of ways; a family. And if the Mother had to do some street work herself? It was a price she shouldered to insure that her children knew the sacrifice it took, on all their parts, to keep the house together all the while promoting upward growth, education, and self-improvement as gauntlets to be raised and reached for.
During the finale, which rapidly but nicely wrapped up the ten-plus years that the series covered in three seasons, Blanca, one of the original Mothers of the House of Evangelista, showed the solid, real, progress that she had managed to rise up to meet. In the end, she became a nurse (mentored by our very own Sandra Bernhard) and was last seen shepherding AIDS patients into the new era of drug cocktails and on to lives none of them, herself included, could have foreseen at the beginning of their journey.
But it was a toss away line from Blanca that snapped my head up and made me not just pause but actually rethink decades of my life. It had to do with the hope that the cocktail had given to her about life, an uplifting of the weight of impending death that, all at once, allowed her to plant a garden knowing she would see it bloom in the spring.
The tears that welled up in me were from the simple yet profound realization that I have spent the last forty years denying myself my garden. As a country kid I lived for the garden; corn, tomatoes, flowers, azaleas, and lilacs. Arranging the beds in color and timing swaths of it for the best showings. Waiting for the snowdrops to peek out in late winter knowing that the rest were close on their heels.
Somewhere in the 80’s that stopped.
A creeping, debilitating, fear spread through my core and into every fiber in my body. Living in San Francisco everyone I know had the same terrified expression. The Bay Area Reporter (B.A.R.), San Francisco’s local, gay, paper, led the fight against AIDS and the obits began taking over the paper the way the disease was taking over the streets, and the men who now haunted them, with their fading presences,
“As San Francisco’s epidemic raged on into the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, its epicenter, became more subdued. People were focused on their T-cell count, the latest antiretroviral AIDS medications, staying healthy, and taking care of the sick and dying. Each week’s Bay Area Reporter contained twenty or thirty new obituaries. Many obits were brief; lives cut short in their twenties don’t have time to gather a lot of details. The ones for men in their thirties and forties were longer, listing accomplishments in business, government, and the arts. All that talent and energy, gone. All that promise, lost.” from Castro Community Benefit District.
Star Pharmacy, on the corner of 18th and Castro, began posting the B.A.R. obits in the windows facing Castro St. The trickle became a torrent, the pages overwhelmed the windows and, in turn, our fragile hold on our own lives. People you saw last week/month/yesterday were now shown smiling, the way you once knew them, just yesterday, but with their brief bios under their photos. Your soul contracted with a grief that came from knowing their deaths were portending your own. How soon would your face be looking back at whoever was left to read about your own too brief a life? How many of us wrote our own obituaries when we were 25? How long did it take you to throw yours away?
There is no one left now in my life who can bear witness to my survival back then.
What a shocking thing to realize. The last of my Castro era friends died many years ago now, still a relative youngster in his 50’s. And yet I have never gotten completely past my garden phobia; call it a tic, a quirk, what-have-you. I didn’t realize until Blanca spoke the words of her script that there were others who had my same oddity of existence. Others for whom a fear, so paralyzing, wells up in us the way AIDS can well up in our bodies at any moment without a constantly vigilant adherence to the regimen of pills we must take every day. It’s always there, that fear, only now we are older; older than anyone ever knew we would/could/should be.
How many spring gardens have I put aside giving in to this fear?
I live now in a community of folks, mostly men, who have lived my exact life. They are my age! We have survived our plague, the war on our very lives. We come from every corner of the globe and the country. We know each other…on sight. We recognize the slightly weary smile that sometimes flickers behind our eyes, trying to surface but the brilliance and clarity of the desert air subsumes even that if we only allow it. We forge new and better friendships than we ever thought we could have again. This time with a little more haste because time is growing short for us all, just as it was back then only the ailments that will take us down now are the same as everyone else in the world at our age.
I came to the desert the first time in 1986. I moved here.
It was not the life I thought I would have when I moved west, young man. I was sure of only one thing, I was dying, soon. I had a screaming need for isolation, solace, and a nothingness that was tangible, harsh, real. I brought my two cats and settled into an arid outpost where I envisioned I could desiccate away like a tribal elder; withered, tanned, weary from the battles of my life. No one was left to mourn my passing, my accomplishments were few and my time was shorter than longer so there was little left to do other than put my affairs in order.
There was certainly nothing to grow.
Growth inferred time. I had none.
Thirty years later, exactly, we moved back here to this desert of an oasis. Retirement meant a new life, albeit with the aches and pains and surprises that befall us all. We have so many new friends that we feel younger in many ways than we did when we were actually young. I tend my huge garden, unable to consider a patio anything, and now, every spring, I will think of Blanca and the latch she opened in my mind that will let me rejoice in the rebirth of my garden every year that I have left.
“We may think that we are nurturing our gardens but of course it’s our garden that is really nurturing us”