Read the rest of Dottie's story on i live here:SF.
Don't forget to update your bookmarks!
While I am a native Californian, born in West Covina and raised in Covina until we moved to Florida when I was 10, I never considered myself a Californian until I moved to San Francisco.
And apart from a brief hiatus in Washington DC (2 years, ten months and 30 days, but who counted?) I have lived in San Francisco for just about half my life.
What first brought me back to California, specifically to Hayward in 1985, was a one-year domestic Peace Corps-like program sponsored by the University of Notre Dame (where I had just graduated from) that had me teaching in a predominately black Catholic elementary school in West Oakland.
By June 1988, I was finally living in San Francisco.
I first became involved in HIV/AIDS work before I ever knew anyone who was infected or who had died. My first involvement was in 1985 through the Shanti Project as an emotional/practical support volunteer. Interestingly enough, while I was an undergrad at Notre Dame, I was a teaching assistant in the Biology lab for two and ½ years (a required course for pre-med students). The lab lecture both semesters of my senior year that I taught was about this new and emerging threat, AIDS.
Once in the Bay Area, AIDS became much more profoundly personal and real. One could not help but note that the Bay Area was hard hit by the epidemic. One could ignore it, certainly, but it took effort to make-believe it was not real.
Then October 1985 came around. And my world changed.
While in a demonstration in San Francisco regarding the US involvement in El Salvador (I was doing a little volunteer work with the Sanctuary Movement when not teaching), we were walking through UN Plaza towards the Federal Building when I encountered something that would forever change my perspective and politics and soul -- the ARC/AIDS Vigil.
In late October 1985, a group of homeless and nearly homeless gay men who had AIDS and ARC chained themselves to the doors of one of the buildings in UN Plaza in protest to the inaction of the US government in the face of the AIDS epidemic. It was the second act of civil disobedience ever in the history of the epidemic, the first having transpired a few months earlier with a gay man chaining himself to the doors of one of the federal buildings in similar protest only exception being that the first man was arrested while the men who set up the ARC/AIDS Vigil were not.
As our contingent of protesters marched through UN Plaza, past the Vigil, one of the men who was part of the group there stood up and cheered us on, clapping in solidarity. To reach across that divide by such a simple gesture, I was blown away.
By 1988 I was actively involved in AIDS, not only professionally, but as an activist, an advocate, but also as a person living with HIV disease. (BTW, I have now lived with HIV for 23 years of my life.)
Fast forward to December 1995 to my last official function in San Francisco before I moved to Washington DC. As Health Commissioner and executive director of Mobilization Against AIDS (the organization that had sponsored the men who created the ARC/AIDS Vigil back in 1985), I was invited to help christen the South Portal of the AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park.
What was once an eyesore in the park was now a beautiful living memorial to those who had died of AIDS.
Returning to SF in late 1998 was the best thing I ever did for myself. I wish I could say that my last eleven years home have been smooth sailing but in fact, just the opposite – I spent several of the past years sick or recovering.
The past decade has been one of dealing with very personal losses as well as my own decline in health (although now my health is stable and pretty darn good I’d say). I retired from AIDS work in 2001, swearing that I had put in my time and was tired and needed to take care of myself.
Through a friend, I was coaxed out of retirement to join the Board of Directors of the now National AIDS Memorial Grove (President Clinton signing the Congressional resolution deeming the Grove to be one of the 44 National such memorials in 1996).
Like other parts of my life, the Grove now brings me full circle. Just as I say that when I am in San Francisco I am alive, the same holds true for the Grove.
What the Grove embodies is that inexplicable but unmistakable reason why I live in San Francisco. When I am in the Grove I am alive.
I know the City has flaws and challenges and its own problems, but this City has more of one thing than any other city I have ever been to – heroes.
San Francisco is a terribly fortunate city – terribly because of the tremendous loss that we have experienced as a city because of AIDS and yet fortunate because we as a city have been lucky enough to have had an entire city decide to be heroic, from the beginning of the epidemic and even until now. Heroism in the face of the AIDS epidemic often is to be found in the ordinary.
At its core, San Francisco is defined by its response to AIDS and that response, that legacy is pretty astonishing -- at its core the legacy of MY San Francisco is one of ordinary people rising to an extraordinary challenge solely because of concern and compassion for their neighbor, lover, friend, family member, co-worker, child.
An extraordinary city brimming with extraordinary people who just believe themselves to be doing nothing out of the ordinary – that is my San Francisco.
There are moments that never fade with time. You can call them up in an instant over years, over decades, and their colors remain as brilliant as ever.
It has been ten years now since our big yellow moving truck lumbered out of the Waldo Tunnel and I caught my breath as the bright towers of the Golden Gate Bridge shot into view. That was the moment I came home for the first time.
I grew up in one of those wholesome towns in the Midwest, surrounded by a vast green ocean of cornfields. Despite a storybook childhood replete with fuzzy puppies and devoted parents, I hit puberty feeling like there might be something profoundly wrong with me.
I almost fit in, but not quite. Something was always off. I was never on the same page, the same boat, the same planet as the rest of my classmates, my friends or my fellow 4-H’ers.
By the time I reached my early twenties, I was living near Chicago, writing copy for an ad agency, spending my weekends as a black-clad club kid and penning maudlin poetry about my inability to find happiness.
Happiness isn’t a place, according to conventional wisdom. But I never was one for conventions.
I don’t know why I didn’t think of leaving Illinois sooner. Perhaps I was waiting for some kind of permission, some indisputable sign. It came in 1998 in the form of a guy named Bruce. We weren’t yet married when he pulled out a map of the United States, spread it open on the table and said, “If you could move anywhere in the country, where would you go?”
It took me about two seconds to say, “San Francisco.”
I had never been to the city, but I had heard the stories. I read the books. And as soon as I said it, I knew it was right.
Two years later, I sat weeping and astonished in the front seat of a moving truck as we rolled across the bridge, the fog reaching out to welcome us.
I can’t imagine myself anyplace else. This is where I belong, here in this beautiful city of misfits.
This city is more than famous landmarks and steep hills. It’s more than eclectic architecture and summer fog. It’s more than hippies and beatniks and liberals and homeless. It’s more than a muse, more than a melting pot. There is something inexpressible about this city, something virtually magical.
In San Francisco, you are allowed to be whoever you really are. This city will give you the chance to find yourself and the inspiration to make that self a better person.
From that very first day to this, I am constantly overcome with miniature love epiphanies as I wander around San Francisco streets. Topping Twin Peaks to see the whole bay stretched out before me like a promise. Watching the fog creep up Judah Street like a damp, benevolent cat. Running through Golden Gate Park in the early morning as the light begins to glimmer through the green. Feeling the salt coat my face as the waves throw themselves again and again onto the sand at Ocean Beach.
Every time it happens is new. No matter how many times I’ve seen it before, I fall in love all over again.
And so I’ve built a life here, at land’s end. I’ve discovered who I am. I’ve learned to be happy. I’ve come home.