“Years of Living Precariously”. My monthly chronicle of the early years of the AIDS epidemic, in A&U Magazine. Part X 1985/86: “The Worried Well”. Working as a Counselor at the NYC Dept of Health AIDS Hotline, answering frantic calls from frantic citizens living in a city under siege; receiving my own test results for HTLV-III antibodies and a very low t-cell count.

(to read previous chapters, please type in “aumag” in search box, or click on:

https://aumag.org/category/columns/years-of-living-precariously/

“At home, at night, I would go through my little wooden box of cocktail napkins, matchbook covers, and scraps of paper, with scribblings of first names and phone numbers, and I would make lists of ‘who I did, what I did with them, how many times, and what level of risk.’”

Rock Hudson’s announcement changed the hotline from a periodically active business with a handful of phones to a non-stop barrage of frantic citizens, anxious and frightened, wanting information on mosquito bites, swimming pools and the sharing of eating utensils, apartments and make-up brushes.

Of course, there were also serious concerns: questions about kissing, oral sex, the blood supply, testing, mortality rate—questions to which we could only attempt an approximate answer, on information that was changing by the minute.

On the forms where we recorded the calls, there were columns in which we would log information, such as the gender of the caller, sexual orientation, referral made, etc. The most complicated category was the one labeled “Reason for Call.” Reasons included: “Member of high-risk category seeking information”, “Testing”, “Symptoms”. Many times, these categories overlapped.

In the category of “Risk Factor,” the overwhelming majority of the calls were what was categorized as “The Worried Well.” Those in low-risk categories at the time consisted mainly of white, non-IV drug-using heterosexuals, calling about casual contact.

Even though we received extensive counseling in handling our hotline calls, it didn’t take a degree in psychology to realize that behind every hysterical call about mosquitoes or swimming pools lurked a fearful secret about a clandestine affair, a drug-using past, a sexual orientation. Sometimes a call revealed deep fears of one’s ability to be a mother, or a lover, or a friend. The calls were a constant mix of the profoundly poignant and the absurdly irksome. Some examples from my journal, November 5, 1985:

• Woman calling saying she bought a fabulous apartment on Christopher Street and afraid of getting AIDS from a building that had “90% AIDS people.” She was afraid if the super bled in her apartment.

• An Hispanic woman saying she was “desperate.” This was a very personal call. Her husband (ex?) was dying from AIDS, in a coma. She felt betrayed that he had sex with other women. She was very religious. She was now extremely worried about giving AIDS to her children. She cried when I told her she could not give AIDS to her children through casual contact. She told me…I was the only one she could really talk to about this.

• Many men calling about prostitutes. When asked if he ever took in semen, one man said, “I’m a man, not a woman!”

• Woman with small bruise on her scalp. Her hairdresser had a cut on her finger. Could she get AIDS that way?

• Man who owns a live sex show in Times Square wants information to prove that sex with his wife on stage was safe and not a reason to close the show (!) Also wants assurance that lesbian sex was safe.

• A woman calling to say that she had red pimples on her face which went away when she ate some escarole in chicken broth, and that this was a cure for AIDS.

• A mother whose son is gay and living with her. It is against the religion and a moral issue. His sister won’t enter the house until he gets tested.

At home, at night, I would go through my little wooden box of cocktail napkins, matchbook covers, and scraps of paper, with scribblings of first names and phone numbers, and I would make lists of “who I did, what I did with them, how many times, and what level of risk.” In that way, I could fairly ascertain that all roads led to that fateful night in Honolulu.

I ran the scenario of that night over and over in my mind. I tried to remember every detail. I fashioned alternative endings. I attempted to recall his real name and his real cities of origin and destination. I envisioned the moment of impact. Was it really him? Could it have been another time, another place, another person? I thought of my immediate somatic reaction to the exposure.

I tried to forgive myself for my carelessness. I knew intellectually that a virus had not been identified at that point and that, even so, I had been practicing “safer sex” in 1982, before hardly anyone was even aware of the risks. I told myself I understood the reasons I had allowed myself to throw caution to the wind.

I reminded myself that the doctor said my illness could have been a “tropical disease”. Perhaps this wasn’t the virus, after all. It could have just been a coincidence that I became violently ill so soon after my encounter. Perhaps I made it out safely and now I had been given a chance to start fresh.

If I could just take back that one moment. That one moment frozen in time. I thought: if I could just take it back or change it or had said, “No.”

For years, I would blame myself for that one moment.

I think of the years between 1980 and 1985 as the most joyously innocent of my adult life. I was young, I was healthy, I was starting a career, I was having fun. For five glorious years, I felt free and happy and fairly bursting at the chance to leap into the world.
The door to that world began to slowly close with each death, with every Columbia interview, with the constant barrage of anxious and frightened callers to the Hotline. And then the door slammed shut after I received my own test result.

4/15/86—I have a very heavy heart tonight. My test results from Columbia came back yesterday. It’s much worse than I thought… I expected HTLV-3. But I did not expect the extent to which my immune system was weakened….217 t helper cells…


Bruce Ward is A&U’s Drama Editor, and he has been writing about the AIDS epidemic since its inception. His plays, Lazarus Syndrome and Decade: Life in the ’80s, have been produced throughout the U.S. Bruce was the original Director of the CDC National AIDS Hotline, and he was honored by POZ magazine as one of 2015’s POZ 100. You may follow him at: bdwardbos.wordpress.com.

About bdwardbos

Writer (plays, essays, memoir, blogs), actor (theater, film, TV), teacher, HIV/AIDS educator, cat whisperer
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