The Aids Epidemic 1985 and The Job That Made Me Face Death

SF Aids Foundation It wasn’t the sweat labor, working as a janitor for a local newspaper, on my hands and knees peeling pieces of glued copy paper from a wretched Berber carpet, scrubbing toilets, or removing the stale, dank food in the fridge on Sundays only to serve that “cuisine” to the homeless couple living on the roach infested couch in the back alley behind the building. And it wasn’t the preposterous gig delivering balloons, in an embarrassing clown suit, to couples in restaurants during my high school years.

The Darkest of Ages Before the Internet Circa 1985

Those were memorable, and completely humbling, jobs but not the types of jobs that make a mark on your life. No those were the type of jobs that reminded you that education is a good thing! The most impactful job I ever experienced? Territory Sales Representative for Moore Business Forms. Moore was my first job out of college in 1985, paying the kingly sum of $19,200 per year, and it was most certainly a crash course in life.

The setting, a simpler caveman like time of dark ages sales tactics and pressure, was a simple crash course in survival of the fittest. My job was to cold call door-to-door (15 times per day) to businesses in the San Francisco produce district, including Hunters Point and 3rd Street, all the way to Candlestick Park. No cell phone, no laptop, little communication. The level of rejection was epic and the dangers, sometimes imminent when gunshots would ring out on a lazy Friday afternoon deep into the Point, kept you on your toes.

A. . . B. . . C. . . Always Be Closing, Always Be Closing!

Many a Monday morning we endured a Glengarry Glen Ross style sales meeting where pressure was exerted, jobs were sometimes threatened, and laughter was a scarce commodity. In the end, we would huddle up for a pep talk that would somehow take the edge off the ass-chewing we had just received. Gender was not a shield as male as well as female reps were “called on the carpet” in front of their peers to “explain themselves” aka what the hell happened out there last week?

None of this would impact me as greatly as an assignment I was handed 3 months into my job on a manic Friday in the middle of summer. My assignment was to go out to a new account, for which I was being given the chance to manage, meet the principal and make a good impression. The business: The San Francisco AIDS Foundation in the heart of the Castro district.

My Life Was About to Change But I Didn’t Know It Yet

I had vaguely heard of AIDS but I was completely unaware of the magnitude of the epidemic that was about to slam into our country ferociously killing friends, family, and neighbors alike. Instead I was nervous, having been unabashedly ripped and teased by my colleagues, about heading into the Castro the preeminent gay neighborhood in America. And me  a straight kid with little experience or knowledge of what it meant to be gay. All we knew, and I am talking about the collection of friends and colleagues, was the paranoid stereotypes.

The life altering impact of my visit began as I opened the door and was greeted with the gaunt frailty and far-away stares of catastrophically sick men appearing more like Auschwitz victims than citizen of a vibrant growing San Francisco. The sight of open puss oozing sores, both dark and large, were visible on many of the men who were seated in the waiting room. The receptionist, seeing my innocence and shocked reaction, quickly ushered me into a separate room to wait on the office manager who would be my contact.

My contact greeted me with a kind smile and handshake of reassurance. He told me he greatly appreciated me visiting and he related how difficult it had been to get other vendors to service the account let alone visit their clinic. Prior to entering the building, I had experienced the first catcall I had ever received – by a man. It both scared me and acted as a reminder – I never catcalled a woman in my life. I thanked my new customer and assured him I would be visiting once a month to check on their printing needs.

I visited the AIDS Foundation offices throughout 1986. And each visit was a reminder of how lucky I was, the devastation I was seeing first hand, and the maturation process I was undergoing.

Today, having lost two friends to the AIDS virus, one gay man and one straight man, I look back on that job with Moore and rejoice in the lessons I learned, cringe at the abuse I endured, and marveled at the relationships I made.

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