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Read an Excerpt from When We Rise by Cleve Jones (Exclusive)

cleve jones when we rise

That’s a dumb idea, no one’s gonna do that!” Dennis Peron took a deep hit on the fat joint that was being passed around his kitchen table on 17th Street and shook his head. “It’s too complicated, and what’s the point? And besides, nobody knows how to sew anymore.”

Brownie Mary exhaled a small cloud of smoke. “I can sew.” She’d already been arrested a couple times for her famous marijuana brownies but she still baked them and distributed them for free to the AIDS patients at San Francisco General Hospital. She and Peron, one of the most famous pot dealers in town, had both noticed that the weed calmed nausea and improved the appetite of patients who were very sick and dealing with the side effects of the harsh medications.

That was the reaction from pretty much everyone whenever I brought up my idea for a giant quilt bearing the names of people lost to AIDS. It was “too complicated.” For over a year everyone told me it was the stupidest idea they’d ever heard of.

Brownie Mary was working with the Shanti Project now, a support group for people dying from AIDS and other terminal conditions.

Ruth Brinker lived a few blocks away. One of her neighbors was ill and too weak to shop for groceries or prepare meals. Ruth decided to help him and began to organize volunteers to shop and cook for the man, but some of the volunteers went on vacation and he died alone. Ruth was horrified and began cooking in earnest and was providing free nutritious meals to a growing list of desperately ill and often abandoned patients. Her one-woman operation soon grew into a giant meal delivery service for AIDS patients.

Almost everyone was involved one way or another. Some signed up with the “buddy” programs to visit the homebound and accompany patients to their medical appointments. Others worked to find housing, provide medical referrals, or offer legal advice or counseling.

I called up Bob Stemple one morning. We had remained friends since that first night he picked me up on Polk Street and gave me food and money. He was working for the City Clinic now on the new HIV antibody test program. I’d volunteered for a study and knew that my blood had been tested for HIV. It was time to get the results.

Bob met me at the Village Deli Café Keith Rice wasn’t working that day and I was relieved, not wanting a witness if the news was bad. We ordered tuna on rye. Bob sipped his iced tea and asked me, “What do you think?”

I said, “I think I’ve got it.”

“You’re right.”

I didn’t realize how much hope I had harbored until I felt it drain away. Of course I was infected—how could I not be when so many of my friends and lovers had already died? Bob smiled gently and reached out to take my hand. I didn’t cry. Not there, not yet.

Dr. Conant saw me a few days later. “How much time do I have left?” I asked him.

He laughed, “Don’t be melodramatic, you’re not even sick yet.” But I knew it was a death sentence. I was 31 years old.


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