AIDS at 30: A Time Capsule

From author Bill Hayes on The New York Review of Books blog, a moving and heartbreaking reflection on the 30th anniversary of the first reported cases of AIDS.

photo by Paul Fusco/Magnum Photos
Joe is stricken with grief when visiting Bill. He cries into the bed sheet to keep Bill from seeing him. Hospice of Marin County, 1982, photo by Paul Fusco/Magnum Photos

“It is difficult now to call up the particular mood that prevailed in the AIDS epidemic’s early years. I am not talking about the first rumblings, when no one knew enough to be afraid, but further in. In those post-AZT, pre-ARV-drug days, there was very little one could do if infected. Primitive prophylaxes against certain diseases offered one’s best bet but certainly no guarantee that one wouldn’t die of Kaposi’s sarcoma or cytomegalovirus or pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. The idea of life without AIDS, much less of being alive in thirty years, was almost unimaginable. Which is why in the late eighties, coworkers and I at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation came up with an idea to get people—gay men, in particular—thinking about the future. We decided to create a time capsule. But it would not contain kitschy souvenirs—gadgets and record albums and the like. Instead, the AIDS Time Capsule would house answers to a simple question:

What message would you send to people 50 years from now about your experiences during the epidemic?

In June of 1990, we set up a booth at the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade. Crowds cheered marchers nearby on Market Street, yet the mood was somber within our humid vinyl tent. Whenever I looked up from our table, arrayed with pencils and paper, I saw a steady flow of men waiting patiently in a line that did not shorten until the parade ended and the fog rolled in. Single men, couples, and groups of friends, pumped-up, sun-burned, half-undressed, young men propped on canes and leather-daddies in wheelchairs: all waiting to send a note to the future.

I left the AIDS Foundation well over a dozen years ago, and I moved from San Francisco to New York two years back. I have no idea whether the AIDS Time Capsule has survived safely someplace; our idea of a “capsule” was a taped-up cardboard box. Fortunately, however, before we packed up the more than 500 messages, I made Xerox copies of a number of them. I have carried them with me since, a time capsule of a time capsule. On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of AIDS on June 5, I pulled them out for the first time in two decades and took a look at them.

Words sputtered from the first page in a tangled, cursive script:

This is one fucking hellish experience.
You are very lucky to be born after the plague is over.

The next was written in meticulously printed letters:

When you hear about an epidemic or even a little mention of something strange happening, act immediately. Don’t wait for authorities.

Another sheet was simply covered with tiny, pencil-drawn tears.

click here to read more of the piece on The New York TImes Review of Books blog.